Italy 23 – Scotland 20
England 33 – Ireland 10
Wales 29 – France 12
A Welsh Grand Slam. A new English star is born. The Italians make their new coach shed a tear.
It was quite an end to the 2008 Six Nations and arguably three of the best rugby matches in this year’s tournament.
The Italians claimed a last-minute win they just about deserved – a 20-20 draw with Scotland would probably have been the fairer result – and was spartan reward for a season where they pushed Ireland and England close but always looked likely to win the Wooden Spoon.
England spluttered at the start of their final match against Ireland, conceding 10 points in as many minutes, but then something clicked and they took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored 33 unanswered points. Maybe the “click” was provided by Danny Cipriani, possibly it was the realisation by the squad that they had badly underperformed this year, but England has a new golden boy to swoon over and a barely deserved second place in the final table.
For France and the new coach, Marc “Tinkerman” Lievremont, the 2008 season goes down as the “what might have been” Six Nations. A lot of chopping and changing saw the French somehow manage to reach the final game still in contention for the title, if not the Grand Slam, but the failure to inject consistency was the side’s downfall.
The French huffed, puffed and stayed in contention against Wales, but the home side are reborn this year and ran away with a win, the championship and the Grand Slam.
It was fitting that Shane Williams popped up to take the Welsh try scoring record he equalled in the Triple Crown win over Ireland last week. Ickle Shane has lit up every match with his running and try-scoring heroics.
But it was arguably even more appropriate that the final try went to man of the match Martyn Williams – coaxed out of a premature retirement by Warren Gatland, the Nugget excelled in defence, linked brilliantly in attack and produced the killer blow with a moment of individual cheek and awareness.
The performance of Cipriani ensures that the national media will focus as much on the latest English revival (sic) than the Welsh triumph, but this tournament has thrown up plenty of other talking points – where can Scotland go next; will Eddie O’Sullivan manage to hold on to his job as Irish coach; can Nick Mallet build on a solitary victory to mount a consistent challenge?
Others can debate those questions and dwell on Cipriani and England’s future, I’ll concentrate on the positives of this 6N and they’re all Welsh (what do you expect from a Cardiff boy?).
Wales deserved to win the title and the Grand Slam, of that there can be little argument. The quality of the entire tournament might not have been great, but Wales made the most progress from round 1 to round 5 and at times played some of the most complete rugby.
This was particularly true in the final two matches. Against Ireland they exerted almost total control on the match and the closeness of the final score failed to tell the story of their overall dominance.
Against France they eventually romped to a 17-point winning margin. As a Welsh rugby fan you get used to riding the roller-coaster of emotions and not being confident of success until the final whistle has sounded, no matter how many points ahead of the opposition your team is.
Yet, on Saturday, despite being 9-9 against France and reduced to 14 men for 10 minutes after Gavin Henson’s sin-binning, I was utterly confident of victory. Rather, I was completely confident in the players’ ability to pull away and secure victory.
It was so much different in 2005, when Wales secured another unlikely Grand Slam. There was a large dose of good fortune in that season and there was always a huge element of doubt in every single match.
We were right to have that doubt. The Grand Slam winners of 2005 looked like no-hopers over subsequent seasons.
This time around, there is a genuine sense that solid foundations have been laid. This Welsh team is happy to take the plaudits, but will be the first to admit there is still a lot of hard work to do – not least because they have still failed to produce a full 80-minute performance.
Against England it was the last 30 minutes that turned the match on its head and saw Wales take an unexpected, but ultimately deserved win. Against Scotland there was another 30-35 minutes of high quality rugby sandwiched between a much more hesitant and plodding display.
Italy saw the Welsh run away with the second half and produce the type of rugby they and the coaching team expected and demanded. Against the Irish the quality and control was evident for 50-60 minutes and in the final match, against France, Wales produced another 60-minute display.
There is plenty of room for improvement and the talent to achieve it and from this Welsh fan’s point of view that is far more enjoyable and important than the Grand Slam.
All six nations have a long road ahead of them after a 2008 tournament that brought more headaches than cheers, but at this point in time Wales looked the best equipped to move forward quickly and successfully.