Six Nations final weekend: Revenge of the Celtic fringe

Lewis Thomas 20 March 2018
Image Credit: Conor Lawless

It was Super Saturday. It was going to be the title decider. England and Ireland, matched throughout the Championship, were going to collide at Twickenham in the match to end all matches. England would get a third title, and Eddie Jones would bask in the adoration of his supporters.

What I just wrote is how many England fans saw last weekend unfolding. It is also about as accurate a reflection of the truth as the idea that the Russian election was free and fair. Saturday was a great day, with three great matches – it also marked the end of a Six Nations which can only be described as “Revenge of the Celtic fringe.”

Scotland and Italy started proceedings in the morning, with a brisk set-to in Rome. With a top-half finish in the Scots’ sights, and the Italian desire for a point, both sides had a lot riding on the match. And they didn’t disappoint. The Scots continued to make the handling errors which had characterised their play in Dublin, letting the Italians notch a few points up on the scoreboard. By the end of the First Half, Italy led 17-5.

Scottish sphincters clenched. Then, in the dying moments of the half, Barclay crabbed out of a maul to score and make it 17-12.

The second forty began with an Italian siege, ending in a 24-12 scoreline. Then Maitland scored – the Scots narrowed the gap. Those of us watching at home inched forwards in our seats, and the guy sitting next to me in the queue for a haircut started to wonder if I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, as I gibbered quietly over the radio commentary. Then, in his first try of the tournament, Hogg scored in the 70th minute – 10 minutes to go, and Scotland had a two point lead.

Then Italy got a penalty. Sphincters clenched tighter. The awful thought flashed through Scottish minds – was this divine payback for beating England? Had the team sold their souls for the Calcutta Cup, to be repaid with a loss to Italy? Five minutes to go – 27-26.

In the barbershop, the man glanced nervously at the ball of anguish next to him. Then, with one minute to go, Scotland got a penalty. Laidlaw stepped into the gap. The crowd chattered. The announcer told them to be quiet, just as Laidlaw was taking the kick.

The boot connected. The ball flew. A moment stretched out into eternity. In living rooms throughout Scotland, family members got ready to dial 999 in case of any heart attacks.

It went through the posts. 29-27. Scotland had pulled it out of the fire, and snatched the win. Scotland got their top half finish, and Italy got their losing bonus point, along with a match which proved that, while often derided, the Azzuri can still put up an excellent team. Under O’Shea, they are improving at a rate of knots.

So – Scotland had won, and I was glad. But the big match was yet to come – England versus Ireland. Ireland were chasing the Grand Slam (on St Patrick’s Day, no less), and England were confronting the possibility of finishing fifth – things were tense. In The Times that morning, most of the correspondents predicted an England win – the home advantage would show, and the men in White would fight like a cornered tiger to salvage something from a pretty dismal tournament.

If they fought like a tiger, it was one of those drugged up, mangy ones that kids from Chelsea pose with on their gap years. Ireland scored three tries from Ringrose, Stander, and Stockdale, with Sexton and Carbery converting all three. Murray slotted a Penalty to add some diversity to the scoreline. Bar a double from Daly and a final last gasp effort from Johnny May, the English lacked the ability to respond.

English failings in this match developed those seen in the Calcutta Cup. Ireland were clinical – they covered the basics, and kept their heads. At the breakdown, England were outclassed. In the kicking, Owen Farrell was devastatingly accurate, as usual. The only problem was that he was accurate in sending the ball to some ill-defined point in the stands, rather than slotting it between the posts. England proved unable to take chances and unable to capitalise on any Irish weakness. And they paid the price.

Ireland won, and sealed the Grand Slam. England went away to lick their wounds. But the day wasn’t over – Wales faced France to end the tournament. Liam Williams scored an early try, before Halfpenny took three penalties to give the men in red a 14 point lead at the interval. They resisted French pressure in the second half to make it a squeaky 14-13 win. This put the Welsh into second place and the French into fourth.

The English ended a day from hell in fifth place.

This Six Nations was the Revenge of the Celts. Scotland have reasserted themselves in the tournament, with Gregor Townsend turning the team from wooden spoon contenders into a slick outfit, set to improve in future seasons. Wales arrived at second, with strength in depth and consistently good play showing that, after a lull of a couple of years, they are firmly back on form. Gatland will need to use the summer tour to Argentina to develop new players, and build on Wales’s already formidable depth. For Ireland, this was the annus mirabilis – from the moment Sexton scored that drop goal in Paris, the men in green were riding high, and they have shown themselves to be a team with depth, style, and dogged consistency throughout the tournament. They may not have any “best in the world” players (although Best and Sexton come close), but this is made up for by a clinical style, a desire to win, and a team spirit which makes them all but unstoppable. The Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day was a just reward, and a testament both to the talent in the Irish team and Joe Schmidt’s ability as a coach.

Before I get to the other three nations, a word on coaches – Schmidt may just be the best in the world at the moment, and the Irish Union will be pushed to find a successor to match him. That said, if they want a coach who can continue to weld a team together, and run the clinical method that served Ireland so well this year, they could do a lot worse than lure Mark McCall from Saracens. The RFU in England would also do well to find a new coach for the national side – Jones failed to deliver this year, and his style is wearing thin.

For France and Italy, they did themselves proud. France’s defeat of England was a sight to behold, and Italy ran Scotland so close that they can no longer be seen as merely filler in the tournament. Both sides are on the up, and France seem to be moving away from the ludicrous inconsistency of previous years. Under Jacques Brunel, the side still has flaws, but its development looks promising.

I may be a Scotland and Wales fan, but this is an English paper at an English university, so I’ll finish by talking about England. They had an appalling tournament. Losses to France, Ireland, and Scotland showed up an embarrassing lack of depth in the side, and victory over Wales was only secured courtesy of a refereeing decision later found to be invalid. The English have been rumbled – they have lost some of their sheen, and a penchant for creatively foul play acquired under Jones does them no favours. Fifth place will hopefully shock England into a change of habit – more considered play, respect for their opponents (from their coach, at least), and a realisation that they are nowhere near as good as they thought they were.

A Welsh resurgence, an English wake up call, a Scottish miracle, an Irish masterpiece – call it what you will. This year’s Six Nations was a cracker of a tournament. Roll on 2019.