So my predictions weren’t off the wall this year. I had the top two, England and Ireland, the wrong way round. I got Wales 3rd and France 4th right and Italy/ Scotland the wrong way ( I thought Italy would beat Scotland – and it was only a last minute drop goal that reversed the result).
With my Irish heritage I always tell myself that Ireland are my second team. But their supporters hate England so much – they are not unique in that matter! – that I find it quite hard to stick to that. Nonetheless, I’ve got to say that Ireland were impressive in this Six Nations and deserved the win against France, by 22 to 20, even though the French got a try at the end which some adjudicators might have given. (I thought the decision to disallow it for a forward pass was correct). I’m less sure about the final scrum, where some refs might have given the French a penalty, as Ireland pulled down the scrum. It would have been a simple kick and France would have been 23-22 winners. Would have, could have, should have... the sporting perennials.
The French game was, of course, Brian O’Driscoll’s last test. The last of 133, with 46 tries scored. A magnificent achievement, truly one of the great rugby players. A centre with huge strength matched with delicate skills. But at the same time a player you’d always see at the heart of the breakdown, playing like a wing forward. I daresay he could have been a brilliant hooker too. A rugby genius.
So, Ireland were champions on points scored vs points conceded. They and England were equal on 8 points, both having won 4 and lost 1. If the table was decided, as in the football World Cup, on the head to head, England would have been champions, having beaten Ireland 13-10. (See my Sportsthoughts 95 for a report on that). But the rules are the rules. England beat Italy 52-11 in Rome on the last day. They had chances for more, and a bit of lazy play allowed the Italians to score an intercept try. But you cannot knock a 52-11 win in Rome. Italy have become very tough to beat in recent years. England’s 7 try performance can only be regarded as exceptional.
England missed out on the championship, then, but it has been a very satisfying tournament. The team has gelled, the youngsters have come through, it is looking very good for the future. Everywhere you look there is encouragement. The forwards have been outstanding. The second row, Courtney Laws and Joe Launchbury, have taken the plaudits for their power, precision and athleticism. Absolutely immense. Flankers Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood have also ruled the breakdown and made the links to the backs; Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan have been brutally incisive No 8s, and the front row of Marler, Hartley and Wilson have done a fine job. And the subs have done the business when they have come on – except for Tom Youngs’ throwing at the lineout (although even that has got better in the later games).
The backs have been a revelation. Danny Care has been buzzing as first choice scrum half; Owen Farrell has been supreme at fly half (although he does still get a bit arsey at times); Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have been superbly complementary, running great lines and both fantastic in defence; the young wingers Jonny May and Jack Nowell have shown a lot of promise; and then there has been Mike Brown. Full back, Quins boy, he has been the player of the tournament. Bringing his Quins form of the last four years to the international level now. Always breaking the first tackle as he marauds forward, always catching the high ball under pressure, always putting in the crucial tackles. And now scoring tries – four in the tournament. As a Quins fan I have so enjoyed seeing him make the full back position his own, against some tough competition from Alex Goode and Ben Foden. Both excellent players themselves. England are very well served in this area.
And well served in every position now. The strength of the Premier League is beginning to show in the national team.
What does it mean for the World Cup in 2015? Who knows? England are in the Group of Death with Australia and Wales. It will take some seriously good performances to get out of that. But I think England might be favourites to do so now.
But well done Ireland. Worthy Six Nations champions.
(Photos from Google Images).