Well what a weekend. 221 points (a championship record) were scored over the final three games of the 2015 RBS 6 Nations, as Ireland held off opposition from England, Wales and France to record back-to-back titles – their first since Jack Kyle helped his side achieve this feat in 1948-9. With the World Cup now only 6 months away, could the Irish be challenging the world’s best in the knockout rounds?
That Friday night in Cardiff where things kicked off back in February seems a long time ago now. That night, a 21-14 victory for the English against their Welsh counterparts set up what was expected to be a tournament of tremendous importance thanks to a home World Cup for England, in September. Talking points from this game varied from a re-emergence of the concussion debate along with James Haskell’s inability to score a try after running into the post…
The next day, pre-tournament favourites Ireland took a lacklustre victory over Italy 26-3 in poor weather conditions whilst Scotland, a team showing so much improvement in 2014’s Autumn Test Series, went down 15-8 to the French after giving away 14 penalties. With the Welsh next up for Scotland at BT Murrayfield, discipline would have to improve to avoid punishment from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny.
The start of round 2 saw a repeat of last season’s title showdown with the French travelling up to Dublin to face one of their pool members in the World Cup. With Ireland following the All Blacks’ approach of effective kicking as a tactic, Johnny Sexton’s boot held off the French as Ireland ground out an 18-11 win. An hour later in London, Jonathan Joseph produced a man of the match performance with two superb tries to down Italy 47-17.
Sunday saw attention switch to Edinburgh and more specifically, referee Glen Jackson. After a controversial (at the time) yellow card handed out to stand-off Finn Russell (later upgraded to a red with a 2 week ban), Scotland looked to be back in the game as Russell returned to kick a conversion to Jim Hamilton’s try with 4 seconds remaining on the clock. With the law book saying that it was the time when the foot connected with the ball mattering, it looked as though there was time for one last play. Jackson disagreed and blew full time, much to the anger and confusion of the Scottish crowd.
2 weeks later, surely Scotland could move on? It seemed so against the Italians as Mark Bennett crossed early for his first international try, but then poor decision making (including a missed touch kick by Pete Horne) gave the Italians a fighting chance. In the final minute, referee George Clancy (who advised Jackson 2 weeks before that time was up) gave Sergio Parisse and his side a penalty try, allowing Italy to steal a 22-19 win. Next up, Wales took on France in Paris with a superb performance from Dan Bigger allowing the Welsh to win 20-13, moving them up to 3rd in the title race.
The final day of round 3 saw what was expected to be the title-decider: Ireland v England at the Aviva Stadium. The winner of this would be on course for a Grand Slam and the Triple Crown. Sexton was vital once more with 5 kicks, although it was Conor Murray’s inch-perfect chip for Robbie Henshaw’s try which eventually allowed the Irish to hold off a late English surge. Final score: Ireland 19-9 England.
The penultimate week of the 6 Nations now loomed upon us. All but Scotland could still take the title some way or another, although Ireland had a chance to all but guarantee back-to-back titles, if they could beat Wales at the Millennium Stadium. No mean feat, but England did it 5 weeks previously… With Halfpenny scoring 12 points in as many minutes, Ireland had to do the chasing. What then followed was a monumental 36 phase effort to score, but alas Wales’ defence held strong and they took the win 23-16.
England were next up to play wooden-spoon destined Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match and despite leading 12-10 at half time, Scotland let slip their grasp of the infamous trophy, Jack Nowell’s late try confirming a 25-13 victory leaving Scotland stuck at the bottom of the pile. With France knocking down Italy 29-0 in Paris a day later, 4 teams now went into the final day with the possibility of winning on the cards.
Dubbed “Super Saturday” by promoters, tries were expected as ultimately it would be points difference that would offer an outright winner. Wales were first up in Rome in the early kick off and at half time, their slender 14-13 lead suggested that it was soon about to become a 2 horse race. But whatever Warren Gatland said to his side at half time seemed to work and a George North hat-trick within 10 minutes helped Wales to win 60-21. Ireland now had had to win by at least 20 for a chance at the title.
With a large number of Irish fans packing into an unusually sunny BT Murrayfield, Scotland would be looking to spoil the party and more importantly, move themselves off the bottom of the table. But it took just 4 mintes for 101 cap veteran Paul O’Connell to crash over from short range to get the scoreboard ticking. Finn Russell crossed for Scotland and Stuart Hogg had a try disallowed after dropping the ball over the line, but Sean O’Brian’s brace of tries gave Ireland a 30 point margin of victory (40-10). However, would Sexton rue his 2 missed penalties?
And so we came to the final game of the final day. England needed to win by 26 points against an inconsistent French side still looking to discover their true form. Ben Youngs gave England a lead with just 90 seconds gone but then two French tries came, the latter (scored by Fijian-born Nakaitaci, needing confirmation from the TMO after he came dangerously close to the dead-ball line after attempting to get under the posts. But it was given).
The second half came and quick tries for Billy Vunipola and George Ford put the English in a good position but the French refused to give up. The closest England got to closing the gap on Ireland was 8 points before James Haskell was sin-binned for tripping up a player. When he came back, only 10 minutes remained. The gap was 13 points but England refused to give up. Jack Nowell crossed for his second try with around 5 minutes remaining and Ford’s conversion reduced the deficit to 6. However, a penalty given away with the clock going red meant that France were in possession despite England being just 5 metres away from the try line after a rolling maul failed to get over the line. France, however, decided to run the ball for a few phases, but Jules Plisson eventually had sense to kick the ball out. Final score at Twickenham: England 55-35 France.
On a day that will go down in rugby folklore as one of the best ever witnessed, it was Ireland who emerged back out onto a spot-lit BT Murrayfield to lift this year’s 6 Nations trophy. Will any of the home nations be able to challenge the southern hemisphere giants in September? Well I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…
IMAGE: © Ruairidh Campbell.
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