This weekend saw the fifth and last round of games in this year's 6 Nations rugby tournament, with Ireland and France in the running to win the championship.
For France, if they were to win, they would be retaining the title they won last year, with Ireland coming second. However, to so do, they would need both to beat Wales in Paris and hope that Ireland to slip up at home to England. Ireland beat France in the head-to-head in round two of this year's tournament, played in Dublin.
Before Ireland's match against fourth-placed England, there were two other matches earlier in the day.
Scotland - Italy
The lunchtime kick-off saw Scotland at home to bottom-placed Italy. Scotland were without two of their most influential players, full-back Stuart Hogg (out injured) and out-half Finn Russell (on the bench). They had started the tournament strongly, beating both England and Wales, both then lost away to France and at home to Ireland, whom they will meet in the same group at the Rugby World Cup in France in the autumn. So they were looking to finish their tournament on a high. Meanwhile, Italy, who had had a very encouraging 2020 and some notable scalps, were propping up the table after a disappointing performance and subsequent loss last weekend at home to Wales, whom Italy has beaten in Cardiff in 2022. They were also still missing injured exciting full-back Capuzzo, replaced by Tommaso Allan.
Referee Andrew Gardner blew his whistle for the match to start, with Scotland in their changed strip of purple. The visitors had a chance to go ahead on three minutes, but Allan's penalty kick sailed wide of the posts. But he made no mistake on seven minutes to put Italy ahead 0-3. On their first foray into Italy's half, Scotland passed the ball out wide to van der Merwe who acrobatically touched down in the corner for the games's opening try. 5-3. Just a couple of minutes later, Italy regained the lead with a second penalty. Scotland brought play back to Italy's 22 but could not breach Italy's defence; they did however benefit for a reverse penalty. After a few minutes of intense pressure from Scottish attacks, Italy were down to fourteen men for ten minutes; as Italy had to call on a replacement prop to he able to form a scrum, they also had to sacrifice a back for the next play. Scotland crossed the try-line for the second time in the game with Kinghorn converting his own try, to send Scotland 12-6 ahead with nine minutes left of the first half to play. But they could not extend their lead before Italy were back up to fifteen men, despite a frantic finish to the half. HT Scotland 12, Italy 6.
In the second half, Kinghorn got his second try of the game on 45 minutes, and converted it himself to extend Scotland's lead. But Italy were not finished; after a period of sustained pressure, Garbisi kicked behind the Scottish defence for Allan to touch down in the corner for Italy's first try of the game. He missed the conversion so the gap was eight points with sixteen minutes left to play. A couple of minutes the gap was down to just five points as Garbisi scored a penalty. The game started to open up with a great Italian break down the right wing, followed by an Ally Price interception to being the ball back into Italy's 22, then turnovers by both teams. With just a couple of minutes left on the clock, Italy pressured Scotland's line but knocked on. From the resulting scrum, Scotland spread the ball wide for van der Merwe to sprint up the touchline and pass inside to Kinghorn to score his third try, and Scotland's fourth, to secure the win, but one which really flattered the home side; until a matter of seconds beforehand, it felt that Italy would get their second try and win the game, but it was not to be. FT Scotland 26, Italy 14.
France - Wales
France had to win this game to put pressure on Ireland in the day's last game. As reigning champions and Rugby World Cup hosts in the autumn, all the pressure was on France. But Wales, with just one win (against Italy) in this year's tournament, were struggling under the returned Warren Gatland, with off-field issues clouding performances on the field: could they salvage something from this 6 Nations and end on a high?
In the first half, Wales started strongly and drove at the home team, with George North touching down on eight minutes for the game's opening try. Dan Biggar converted to see Wales lead 0-7. Within two minutes, Ntamack broke through the Welsh defence, with Penaud finishing off the move with a try in the corner. Ramos converted to tie the scores 7-7. Wales responded by bringing the ball back up into France's half, but they were expending a lot of energy in trying to breach the home defence. Ramos landed a couple of penalties for France to eke out a six-point lead. With seven minutes left of the first half, France scored their second try when the spread the ball wide for Danty to touch down in the corner. Ramos' conversion went over off the post for France to lead 20-7. France were turning on the style and upping the skill levels... HT France 20, Wales 7.
In the second half, France started as they finished the first, with Atonio going over for their third try after just three minutes, with Ramos converting. France now led by 20 points: the question now was how big would the final score be? Just four minutes later, France sliced open the Welsh defence again, with Gael Fickou touching down and Ramon converting. Wales managed to salvage some pride when they breached the French defence and Roberts touching down, with Biggar converting, to reduce the deficit again to 20 points. On 66 minutes, Wales got another try back, this time substitute Williams going over. 34-21. With ten minutes left, the match seemed to be evolving more into a Rugby World Cup warm-up game than a competitive 6 Nations fixture. With probably their last sustained attack of the fame, Penaud touched down in the corner; Ramos' successful conversion ensured France would finish with more than 40 points on the board. In the final play of the game, Dyer broke a tackle and raced down his wing for the last score of the day; that is, apart from Halfpenny's successful conversion. FT France 41, Wales 28; both teams secured a bonus point for having scored four tries each.
Ireland - England
With France now topping the table with 20 points compared to Ireland's 19, Ireland still had a positive points difference. As a result, all they needed was a losing bonus point against England to win the tournament. But this was not what Ireland were after: their goal was the Grand Slam; while they had won this ultimate goal on previous occasions, they had never done so in Dublin. And England's was to restore some pride after last week's drubbing by France at Twickenham.
Jaco Peyper, the referee, got the first half underway: England tested the Irish defence with a series of up-and-under kicks, but the home side was equal to the test. England, however, were winning the battle of the turnovers. Owen Farrell opened the scoring for England with a penalty on seven minutes. Three minutes later Ireland threatened England's line but could not get over the try line. On fifteen minutes, Farrell doubled England's lead with a second penalty. Ireland responded with a Keenan break but England's defence then held firm. On eighteen minutes, Sexton opened Ireland's scoring with a penalty; in doing so, he became the highest scorer in 6 Nations history. On 32 minutes, Dan Sheehan broke through on an inside ball for the game's first try. With Sexton's conversion, Ireland led 10-6. Just before half-time, England lost their full-back, Freddie Steward, to a red card for dangerous play. From the resulting penalty, Ireland threatened England's line, but could not get over for a score. HT Ireland 10, England 6.
In the second half, there was nothing between the teams and Ireland could not make count their numerical advantage. It was Farrell who got the first score of the first half, on 51 minutes to reduce the deficit to a single point. Ten minutes later, Henshaw went over for Ireland's second try, combining with Bundee Aki who fed him the pass. With Sexton's conversion, Ireland led by eight points with sixteen minutes left on the clock. Just three minutes later, Sheehan crossed for his second try of the game to extend Ireland's lead. Surely the Grand Slam was theirs now? Ten minutes left with a lead of fifteen points... Then England hit back with a try of their own following a maul that they drove over the Irish line, Jamie George touching down with Farrell converting. Among a crowd of substitutions, Sexton limped off to a standing ovation. Six minutes remaining, Ireland leading by eight points. England then went down to thirteen men for the last few minutes when Willis was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle. Ireland's replacement hooker, Rob Herring, then stretched over for Ireland's fourth try, and a bonus point. Ross Byrne was on for Sexton but missed the conversion. The referee blew for full time. Ireland won the match, the Triple Crown, the 6 Nations tournament and the Grand Slam. FT Ireland 29, England 16.
The final table saw Ireland at the top with a mammoth 27 points from their five games, with second-placed France on 20 and third-placed Scotland on 15. Those three teams must be pleased with their final positions; however, England (10), Wales (6) and Italy (1) must all be very disappointed.
England are trying to rebuild under Steve Borthwick after Eddie Jones' contract was terminated shortly before the 6 Nations. Wales has also replaced their coach, bringing back Warren Gatland who had overseen so much success for them in his previous stint there; however, the off-field issues within the Welsh union have surely contributed. And Italy, despite their new-found confidence and great results last year, will surely rue some of the chances that they had this season, not least in the last match against Scotland when they could/should have won if they had been more clinical at the end.
In the top half of the table, Scotland won three games and should be relatively happy with that; however, this autumn they will be in the same Rugby World Cup group as both South Africa and Ireland and they will need to beat at least on of those sides to progress to the knock-out stages. Scotland normally rise to the occasion of Rugby World Cups, but this might be too big a challenge... France, ranked #2 in the world and reigning 6 Nations champions, lost just to Ireland and scored the most tries and most points. They did not seem to be at their best at times during the tournament, but they will have learnt and must still be (among the) favourites to lift the Rugby World Cup in October. Ireland, basking in the glory of being Grand Slam winners, have also retained their world #1 ranking. While not always playing to their best, it is noticeable that they conceded the least number of points (72) and the least number of tries (six, which is half of the second-best), showing that their defence was crucial in their tournament win. One of Ireland's weaknesses in the past has been their inconsistency: in this tournament they have found ways to win in the face of adversity. If coach Andy Farrell can keep the squad together and fighting for each other, then Ireland should be a force to be reckoned with at the Rugby World Cup in the autumn.