By Rory Morrow, Editor in Chief
The eagerly anticipated Super Saturday of Six Nations action delivered in style. Drama was dosed out from angst to amazement, and in the case of Italy’s oh-so unexpected victory, sheer unbridled delirium. And so, they should go delira. Victories for Italy in the Six Nations had been non-existent the past seven years, Saturday’s success their first in the competition since beating Scotland away in 2015. The grim sequence of 36 consecutive defeats ends. Whilst Wales were below par, an accurate summary of their tournament, Italy celebrating “as though we had won the World Cup”, according to their Head Coach Kieran Crowley was as unexpected as it was joyous.
Celebrations were also held in Dublin and Paris, Ireland not perfect but bursting with encouragement in the breakthroughs of a young squad. Hugo Keenan and Jamison Gibson-Park, both try scorers in an imperfect but satisfying Twickenham triumph last week. Les Blues, meanwhile, like Italy, ended a lengthy drought of their own. The grand slam success, France’s first Six Nations Title since their own grand slam in 2010. After all, if you are going to win a first title in twelve years, you may as well with gloss and a sprinkling of pizazz. As has been their manner throughout this year, it was secured simultaneously in style and mature game-management. Whilst not solely attributable, it is undoubtable the appointment of defence coach Shane Edwards has helped France tighten up at key moments. One such came when England, having started the second half like a wounded dragon breathing fire, and scoring through Freddie Steward, were themselves pushed back. In previous years, Steward’s try (taking it to a one score game at 18-13) would have been the beginning of a French unravelling. Not this time. France composed and went again, Antoine Dupont, rugby’s best chess player (always a move ahead) was on the support shoulder of Gregory Alldritt and burst through flimsy tackles for the score which restored the Slam’s security blanket and sent the Stade de France into raptures.
For all the flair, France in recent times have still been vulnerable to slack discipline, an absence of in-game leadership and individual idiocy. Two years ago, and marginally ahead at Murrayfield in 2020, the fourth leg of a grand slam bid, Tighthead Prop Mohamed Haouas threw a punch at Jamie Ritchie and was red carded. In the frenzy, buoyant Scottish atmosphere, France fell apart. That Haouas’s own offence occurred from argy-bargy handbags epitomised the ill-discipline. Tremendously talented, magnifique in attack but still, like an unbalanced Jenga tower, incredibly brittle. Now though, where there was once a soft underbelly there is steely resilience. 8 of the 23-man squad that day, including sinner Haouas, featured in this flawless campaign. Gael Fickou oozed class with oomph in his tackling. Edwards has helped patch up the set-pieces. Solid scrummaging and lineouts give France’s flair the foundation to be fleet on foot and run amok as they scored 17 tries over five matches, more than England and Wales (8 apiece) combined. It helps that placekicker Melvyn Jaminet, has been so accurate with the boot, efficiently converting possession into points. With 54, he was behind only Marcus Smith in points scored and provides a hugely reliable asset for France.
As a Mexican Wave and torchlit trophy lift, provided stirring cinematographic scenery, Clive Woodward lambasted Eddie Jones following another lacklustre tournament. The valiant loser’s tagline after an incredible 14-man showing against Ireland was stripped entirely away. Fifth last year. Fourth this. Four wins in ten Six Nations matches, two of which came against Italy. Eddie Jones was appointed in November 2015 after a dismally underwhelming (although at the time, hilarious to everybody else) home World Cup calamity under Stuart Lancaster. Seven years, one rugby World Cup final and 3 Six Nations titles (including a grand slam in 2016) later, with the 2023 World Cup looming on the horizon, has Jones overstayed his tenure? His promise that England would “rip into” France ironically backfired as England fell behind early to scores from Fickou and Francois Cros. England were again gutsy but again left chasing the game, never afforded the luxury of having the lead. Whilst a mark of good teams is coming from behind to win, arguably great teams rarely catapult themselves into that awkward position to start off. Likewise, when against Ireland, France took an early lead and never relinquished control. This was a performance with both the talent and maturity of a world class team. Coming in the carnival cauldron of noisy, euphoric supporters was the cherry on Les Blues cake.
Elsewhere, in the face of a frenetically flawed Scotland, Ireland claimed the Triple Crown, sealed courtesy of their 28-5 win. Although error-ridden and fortunate for Keenan’s try-saving tackle to prevent a Stuart Hogg score, Ireland scored with ruthless efficiency. Scotland, by contrast, had seven visits to the Irish 22 and yielded only a single try. Further disharmony may fester given Hogg, the maverick fly-half Finn Russell and others broke squad rules after winning in Rome. Having started so combatively, Scotland’s season ends in beleaguered, weary, and disgruntled fashion. Ireland, comfortably the second-best team with resounding home wins, an outclassed defeat in Paris and a nervy, disjointed but ultimately bonus-point success at Twickenham. Italy shall also reflect fondly on their last two matches, Andrea Capuozzo’s dazzling two tries and a thrilling assist most definitely constituting a starring cameo of two impactful substitute appearances.
France’s success leaves aesthetics and purists pleasured in equal dosages, the trademarks of a well-rounded team. Like a Swiss knife effortlessly carving opposition apart, the French blade was by far, the most effective. Ireland, under Andy Farrell, will reflect on progression made and the history books shall look fractionally more fondly now upon Italy. Whilst the other nations flailed in mediocrity and indiscipline, a stunning Six Nations of atmospheric audiences and thrilling almost-comebacks like the Weasley twins frantically attempting to run up the down elevator. The thrills and wonderful drama do however make clear who, right now, is in considerably better shape for France 2023 than others.