Twickenham witnesses the cold efficiency of Irish
And so the 2018 Six Nations passes into the history books and there will be two notable features when analysing the final table: Ireland won only their third ever Grand Slam and England succumbed to their worst ever finish in the present format. This was all confirmed on a freezing last day at Twickenham, when Ireland raced into an unassailable half-time lead to leave the English reeling and give the travelling fans plenty of cause to sing Fields of Athenry, filling the stadium with noise like it was in Dublin.
It started ominously, when Johnny Sexton sent a bomb onto the try line, which Anthony Watson spilled (a hint of a grab at his arm whilst still in the air?) and Gary Ringrose pounced onto the loose ball for the first try. Matters got worse soon after, when Bundee Aki was put through a gap by the majestic Tadgh Furlong and the centre found CJ Stander inside to crash in against the base of the post. It was 14-zip and Irish dominance was the theme. Ireland got away with one when Aki shoulder charged the head of England’s best player, Elliot Daly, only to get off with a penalty. England did manage to pull a try back before the interval, with Owen Farrell grubbering through for Daly, but they couldn’t hold out – Jacob Stockdale scored yet another wonderful solo effort with the last play.
The second half played out in similar fashion. The hosts started to get a foothold after Connor Murray had extended the lead with a penalty, but by the time England genuinely threated, it was again too little, too late. Daly went over for a second and Johnny May scored in the very last moment, but even that couldn’t put a gloss on England’s first home defeat under Jones, nor take away the shine of an Irish Grand Slam.
Were England better than the last couple of weeks? Yes, marginally. Were they anywhere near the level required to seriously compete with the best team in the Northern Hemisphere? Definitely not. Ireland were ruthless and efficient, clinical in a way that England had been not 4 months ago. How quickly the sport world changes. Ireland have worked their way to this level and have a sustainable model for the success. Now it is time for England to prove that they can do the same and that this dire tournament has been just a randomly placed speedhump in the middle of the M1.
Italy edged in thriller, Wales hold on
Scotland found a new way to win, whilst Italy discovered a fresh method of losing in what was, bizarrely, probably the best game of the 2018 tournament. Not many people had the Azzurri down to do anything against a Scotland side in desperate need of an away victory, but they dominated the vast majority of the game before losing out 29-27 at the death. The hosts managed to get everything they have shown in patches to click when they led 24-12 with 20 minutes to go, courtesy of a couple of Tomasso Allen tries and one for Matteo Minozzi (a wildcard for player of the tournament?). Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg then looked to have rescued it for the Scots until Allen slotted a penalty with minutes to go. Then, disaster. A Scotland maul was pulled down and the radar that is Greig Laidlaw slotted the resulting penalty. Scotland had finally won when playing poorly away, whilst Italy had proven everything they have the potential to do, yet still lost.
Unfortunately, the very last game turned out to be a damp squib. Wales needed victory to assure second place, whilst France had the possibility of doing the same if they won. The hosts were woefully under par, but managed to hold on with the 14 points they had amassed in the first half, resisting the one-dimensional French barrage. A Maxime Machenaud penalty in the second half was not enough for France as they went down 14-13.
What happened elsewhere?
In the women’s tournament, the Red Roses finished second to Grand Slam winning France by beating Ireland 33-11. The French beat Wales, whilst Italy defeated Scotland.
France edged England to the U20s title, with the former hammering Wales and the later beating Ireland, but not by enough points. Italy also beat the Scots.
Edinburgh kept the pressure on in the Pro14 with a vital win over fellow contenders Munster. Meanwhile, Cardiff were victors over Benetton 31-25.
Toulouse claimed a vital win over Montpellier, whilst Racind edged the Parisian derby and La Rochelle edged Lyon.
Lions were tested by Sunwolves at home, eventually overcoming them 40-38. Waratahs brought the Rebels back down to earth and Highlanders won the battle of the South Island.
Hero of the week
It would be remiss of me not to give it to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland this week. They have been full value for their Grand Slam and to win it in Twickenham was extra special. However, I would like to add Tomasso Allen as co-winner of the award this week. He was sensational in defeat to Scotland and (I know he’s been on the scene a while, but) he has been one of a three or four real finds for Italy this year and probably the second best fly-half in the Six Nations.
Villain of the week
Francois Trinh-Duc. What was he thinking? An outrageous flap at the ball that gifted Liam Williams a try, a forward pass in his own half (when France needed field position) that was as needless as sunglasses indoors and a horrible miss from in front of the posts that would have won his side the game and assured second place. A disastrous day at the office.
Try of the week
In a game of little flair, there was one moment of magic in Gael Fickou’s try. A break down the left and quick recycling of the ball saw the centre flying through. If France can get it together and attack like that, whilst defending as they have been, they may be contenders once more.
What do England do now?
How would you rate each side’s tournament? What are the next steps?
Who were the players of the tournament?
What would constitute progress for each team next year?
by Joe Large