There have been a good many Welsh teams more exhilarating to watch than Warren Gatland’s Grand Slam winning side, but very few that might lay a claim to being as effective. Wales reminded us that there is more than one way to win a match. Their game was built on the leadership of Alun Wyn Jones, a hard-working and efficient front five, a voracious and skilful back-row, a pair of centres who offered rock-solid defence in midfield, a full-back who swallowed up opposition kicks and reliable goal-kicking. Then they had a try-scoring wing in Josh Adams and what every winner of a Grand Slam needs: a generous slice of luck, with regard to injuries and opposition blunders.
England’s tournament was weird – perhaps they’re a weird team. They were outstanding in Dublin on the tournament’s opening day. They demolished France and looked like worldbeaters for the first half-hour of the Calcutta Cup. They had Wales in their grip and then let the match drift away from them. They scored brilliant tries (and conceded others to Scotland). They also had a tendency to give away stupid penalties. If they don’t seem good at thinking on their feet, this may be because coach Eddie Jones is too prescriptive and their captain, Owen Farrell, too dominating to take advice from team-mates. Despite his moments of rash aggression and dubiously legal tackling, Farrell is a very fine player, but I don’t think stand-off is his best position at international level. The Ford-Farrell 10-12 partnership seems to offer more.
Ireland’s decline was unexpected and puzzling. It seemed as if they never recovered from that loss to England. They did win at Murrayfield, but it was a scratchy win in a match when Scotland, disrupted by the injury to Stuart Hogg, failed to take try-scoring opportunities and made too many bad decisions in both attack and defence. They beat France and Italy easily, but their performance in Cardiff was sadly lacking in energy, imagination and self-belief. Accustomed to receiving a regular supply of quick clean ball, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton often looked rattled, unable to cope with finding themselves on the back foot, not the front.
France, dreadful at Twickenham, had a good day in Paris against Scotland who lacked not only Finn Russell but lustre. Then, after relapsing against Ireland in Dublin, France escaped Rome with a narrow win thanks to last-minute interventions by their young wing Damian Penaud, with a bit of help from still younger Romain Ntamack.There are glimmerings of hope for France, but they badly need a bit more pace up front and – strange to say –a bit more devil there too. Yet coach Jacques Brunel made at least a gesture towards consistency in selection, and – who knows? – free from club demands and with time in camp before the World Cup, France may once again have as good a chance in Japan as any other northern hemisphere team.
And what of Italy, without a win in the tournament for four years now, a sad record that has many muttering about relegation. (Happily for Italy, they did play the chief, indeed only, candidate for promotion – Georgia – back in the autumn, and won comfortably.) Conor O’Shea has Italy playing some very good and often attractive rugby, scoring good tries, but still losing. Perhaps it will all work out in time – it’s encouraging that Benetton Treviso are going well in the Guinness Pro14; yet one wonders if the national side might not have a better chance of stealing a game if they played with less ambition and concentrated more on defence and being hard to beat. What might Italy be like if Warren Gatland moved there? Meanwhile this may have been the great Sergio Parisse’s last Six Nations. If so he will go as a man who has won more Man of the Match awards on a losing side than anyone else, and as, in my opinion at least, the greatest No 8 to have played in the tournament since the Five Nations became Six.
For Scotland it has been a tournament of might-have-beens, disappointing therefore and even gloomy, though the gloom was dispersed by that astonishing second half at Twickenham orchestrated by Finn Russell, fractured cheekbone and all. If we played like that all the time, we’d be top of the world; if we played again as we did in the first half-hour, full houses at Murrayfield would soon be rare. No visiting national team, not even the greatest of New Zealand ones, has ever scored six tries at Twickenham before, and I guess we’ve had a run of six matches there without scoring as many tries as we did last Saturday.Wonderfully crazy. I should add only that my brother-in-law, himself a hooker half a century ago, has reproved me for not drawing sufficient attention to the Edinburgh pack’s ability to subdue the England one. So here it is: Edinburgh beats England up front.