Competitive nature of Six Nations cannot be matched

Super Saturday turned out to be a perfect reflection of the 2018 Six Nations Championship as a whole '“ compelling but not classic.

In the end the most straightforward match was the most eagerly anticipated as Ireland cantered to only a third Grand Slam in their history, drawing level with Scotland, and underlining their position as this year’s undisputed best team in the competition with a memorable win at Twickenham.

The other two games were down- to-the-wire dogfights which underlined the competitiveness of a competition which remains the highlight of the annual rugby calendar.

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No other tournament, not even the World Cup, comes close to an event drenched in more than a century of tradition and infused with further centuries of international rivalries.

Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate winning the Grand Slam. Picture: PA.
Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate winning the Grand Slam. Picture: PA.

Since the Five Nations became Six it has also been a competition to absorb new traditions in the 19 stagings since Italy’s entry, with the Super Saturday back-to-back triple-header feast to end the tournament being one. For the second year running the title had been secured in round four, but the Irish Grand Slam quest kept interest high.

You just wish the organisers would take the hint from the name and recognise that, when it comes to Six Nations games, Saturdays are indeed super, Sunday afternoons and Friday nights not so much. Next year, thankfully, all of Scotland’s games will be on the day which feels most suited to these occasions.

Another “new tradition” since 2000 has been the Rome trip, which has become one of the most popular away weekends with visiting fans. And so it was that thousands of Scots descended on the Eternal City as yet again the Italy-Scotland game kicked off the day in what we chippily might perceive to be the lunchtime also-rans slot.

The hope is that Gregor Townsend’s swashbuckling, though still vulnerable, side are moving towards more box-office credentials – the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham will be the closing game next year.

Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate winning the Grand Slam. Picture: PA.

That cause wasn’t helped by a stuttering, skin-of-the-teeth win over an Italy side yet to make the great leap forward. They slipped to a third successive whitewash but salvaged a bit of pride. Those who believe Italy offer something worth having in the tournament, and lovers of that Rome trip, will always welcome signs of life in the Azzurri but it is a tad irritating that it always seems to come against Scotland.

As for Scotland, Townsend has spelled out in no uncertain terms that the job is to close the gap with champions Ireland before they meet in Yokohama for their opening pool match at next year’s World Cup. Were Scotland to lose that they could face a must-win closing clash with hosts Japan.

For England it has been a chastening year and a classic example of how quickly the wheels can come off the most seemingly invincible chariots when teams work you out.

The inquest will rumble on for some time south of the Border, with player management the big issue. Coach Eddie Jones seemed to have an inkling of what lay ahead back at the Six Nations launch in January, when he said: “Ireland have got a centrally contracted system, their players are in great nick, three of their provinces have done well in the European competition. England have all these injuries, we don’t have a central contract system. How can we compete?”

Bonus points are another “new tradition” which appear to be here to stay, but the anticipated try bonanza has failed to appear. Most often it has been the losing bonus point which has had more of a bearing, with teams battling to get one and leaders determined to prevent them.

In the end, the table would have been the same under the old two points for a win system. Sometimes old traditions are worth keeping.