Saturday 21 October 2017

Six Nations stands on its own merits after day of days

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THIS YEAR is supposed to be framed around the World Cup, but on Saturday the Six Nations stood on its own merits.

The day guaranteed overtime for those charged with keeping the tournament's record books up to date, as the three matches produced try after try, momentum shifts aplenty and more storylines than anyone will be able to recall.

From Wales' explosion in the second-half in Rome, to the 14-point swing that cost them dear; Luciano Orquera's touchline conversion, Stuart Hogg's disallowed try, Johnny Sexton and Ian Madigan's missed kicks, Jamie Heaslip's tackle, James Haskell's trip and Vincent Debaty, an enormous loosehead prop normally used for impact, popping up on a Fijian winger's shoulder at the end of a length-of-the-field break and handing off a back to score after 60 minutes.

Yoann Huget enjoyed it so much, he tapped the final penalty to offer England one last moment of hope until Rory Kockott saw sense and brought the most magical and bizarre day of rugby to an end.

When the dust settled and the ticker-tape rained down, Ireland stood alone as champions again, their 30-point win over Scotland just enough to get them over the line on points difference.

Midway through the campaign, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen called for rule changes after watching 160 minutes of what he saw as overly defensive Six Nations rugby, but he couldn't have any complaints yesterday.

On this side of the equator, we can be especially sensitive to the perceptions and opinions of the trend-setters, but yesterday was an advertisement for northern hemisphere rugby.

Joe Schmidt is long enough in this part of the world to appreciate its quirks. "I think they come over here and have a brief look at a window of rugby, and it might not be a great day.

"I've coached plenty of Super Rugby myself and at times they can be turgid affairs, and sometimes they can be heart-stopping affairs, and expansive, brilliant rugby to watch," he said. "But things do tend to go up and down, and I think that we'll just keep working away with what we believe is a fantastic championship.

"With the home nations and Italy and France, I think it's so tough to win. I mean, eight weeks ago, you look at the road ahead and you go 'oh wow.'

"We hadn't won in Italy the last time, and we'd only just snuck the result the time before that," he said. "We'd snuck a result against France the year before and they were going to be tough, and then England toppled us last year and they were high flying after they got the away win in Cardiff. You're looking at it and you're thinking 'ooh, that's a tough game, that's a tough game'.

"They're all just very tough games and I think just talking to Greig Laidlaw and Vern (Cotter) after the game, they were disappointed just because Scotland had been incredibly competitive in every game they played. They were 13-10 up at half-time last week against England in Twickenham so we did maybe get a little bit of a rub of the green in being able to get that differential we got."

His captain has played in plenty of these renewals and couldn't remember anything like it. The professional in him, however, was more than happy with the silverware no matter how it was delivered.

"Look, I think this is my 13th Championship and any time you win one is incredible, I don't care what way we play," Paul O'Connell said. "To win a Championship is a an amazing achievement.

"England produced the performance of the tournament (against France) and that will give them a lot of confidence going into the World Cup, I thought they were incredible.

Incredible

"They threw caution to the wind, took a lot of quick taps, quick lineouts and showed incredible fitness. I thought France were unbelievable as well and scored some great tries.

"It was a great advertisement for the Six Nations, you know? If only we had so much to play for every weekend it would be unbelievable. I think it already is an unbelievable tournament, but this weekend has been brilliant for it."

The only game Schmidt could equate it to was the 2011 Heineken Cup final, when, led by Johnny Sexton, his Leinster team came back from the dead to beat Northampton Saints at the Millennium Stadium.

The staggered final day format has its critics, but it is a quirk that the Six Nations should embrace given the excitement it creates.

"It is the system that it is but I speak for all the players, they love the championship," Schmidt said during the first of two press conferences on Saturday - the first taking place as the England game was ongoing.

"We left the hotel to go to the Captain's Run yesterday and there was a massive amount of support at the hotel - today there was massive amount of support on the route we took and it felt like a home game.

"People get excited about the Championship, the Super Saturday that we've got. I know people who set aside time for the three games today with various amount of beverages and I wish I was with them, but at the same time I wouldn't swap with anyone."

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