Six Nations took the long road to finish as predicted

The Six Nations panned out as most observers predicted.

France was first, Ireland second, followed by England, Scotland, Wales, then Italy.

Yet, on the final day on Saturday, Ireland led the championship for about three hours, England and Scotland were in danger of dropping in the standings, and Wales could have finished third.

France won the championship, and a Grand Slam to boot, for the first time in 12 years.

Italy took the wooden spoon for a seventh straight year, but beat defending champion Wales in injury time for its first win in seven years and 37 matches, and first win in Wales ever.

The Associated Press reviews the championship.

FRANCE

W Italy 37-10

W Ireland 30-24

W Scotland 36-17

W Wales 13-9

W England 25-13

The last try of a superb campaign was fittingly scored by France’s best player, inspirational scrumhalf Antoine Dupont. In fact, all three try-scorers against England symbolized something. Veteran center Gael Fickou represented the link between France’s mediocre past and vivid present. Flanker Francois Cros typified how the rampaging forwards were sometimes more dangerous than their slick backs. The title was huge for France. It ended 12 years without a trophy — France’s longest drought since the 1950s — and marked key progression. After finishing runner-up the last two years, Les Tricolores felt they had to win. Their confidence is soaring after beating New Zealand, Ireland and England at home this season. Their success and style is drawing fans back, too. Dupont is the fulcrum of a side which is averaging nearly 30 points per game since Fabien Galthie took over. Fullback Melvyn Jaminet has come from nowhere to one of the most accurate penalty kickers in world rugby, and another one of Galthie’s hunches, Cameron Woki, has transformed from a flanker into a lineout-dominating lock. The bench has trust and impact thanks to a depth in French rugby stemming from winning the under-20 world titles in 2018 and 2019. Notable this season has been the speed of their transition play. Dupont, already lethal around the fringes, can turn a match from inside his own half and its no surprise to find the likes of prop Cyril Baille and hooker Peato Mauvaka in support. France is almost the complete package. The only obvious downside is a tendency toward a lack of discipline and giving away cheap penalties. But you can bet Galthie’s working on it.

Next test: vs. Japan, Toyota, July 2

IRELAND

W Wales 29-7

L France 30-24

W Italy 57-6

W England 32-15

W Scotland 26-5

Ireland led the Six Nations on the opening day and the final day. Only for a few hours each time, though. France won their decisive early showdown in Paris, jumping to 22-7 after 44 minutes, leading 27-24 after 73, and winning 30-24 after a sixth penalty kick. Ireland was shaded in the breakdowns in the first half and reverted to old attacking habits as they gave France too big a lead. The lessons were learned. The Irish finished with three successive maximum-point wins, including a record score at Twickenham. They delivered a Triple Crown at home and a record 24 tries. Captain Jonathan Sexton, even at 36 still the best flyhalf in the British and Irish Lions catchment, signed on to the Rugby World Cup next year in France. Their only two losses in the last 13 tests have been to France, by a total of eight points. The under-20s added to the good vibes with a junior grand slam. At various times, the seniors managed without Sexton, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, and James Lowe, but they struggled in the scrum without loosehead prop Andrew Porter and hooker Ronan Kelleher, both out injured for the last two rounds. England and Scotland squeezed 10 penalties out of Ireland’s scrum, and tighthead Tadhg Furlong’s world-best reputation was dented. Even if some refereeing calls were debatable, the Irish scrum was suddenly perceived to be inferior and duly punished.

Next test: vs. New Zealand, Auckland, July 9

ENGLAND

L Scotland 20-17

W Italy 33-0

W Wales 23-19

L Ireland 32-15

L France 25-13

When Eddie Jones survived the sack following an inquest into England’s dreadful Six Nations campaign of 2021, the Rugby Football Union pledged to keep the Australian under the regular review of a group of unnamed “external rugby experts.” So what will they have made of Jones in this year’s championship? Well, England finished third instead of fifth this time. So that’s an improvement, right? Wrong. Three defeats from five games matched the team’s record from the 2021 Six Nations, an undoubted failure for a nation with more resources than any of its rivals led by the highest-paid coach in the world. OK, the Round 1 loss to Scotland could easily have gone the other way, only for a madcap last 15 minutes. The Round 4 loss to Ireland saw England play with 14 players for 78 minutes. And losing to eventual Grand Slam champion France in Round 5 is nothing to be ashamed of. Yet, look deeper and there were some obvious problems. A lack of a clear attacking plan. Inconsistent and muddled selection. No off-the-cuff thinking. Concerns over the intensity of Jones’ training methods. Jones called for patience and a show of faith in his post-championship debrief, saying his young players — like Freddie Steward, Harry Randall and Joe Marchant — will gain consistency the more they play. Eighteen months, he said, is enough time to get a team in transition in good enough shape for a successful Rugby World Cup. It feels, though, that giving Jones a new contract after the 2019 World Cup might have been a mistake. It’s unlikely that England will be among the favorites in France next year, with New Zealand, the host nation, South Africa and Ireland better-placed to prosper. And the blame for that ultimately lands at the door of Jones. Still, he will stay in his job after the RFU gave him its full support in a post-championship statement on Sunday.

Next test: vs. Australia, Brisbane, July 9

SCOTLAND

W England 20-17

L Wales 20-17

L France 36-17

W Italy 33-22

L Ireland 26-5

Scotland took a step back, maybe even two, in the championship. The team had a milestone-filled tournament a year ago and edged Australia in the autumn. That momentum persuaded the Scots to talk of a serious title run with eight British Lions aboard, two Lions coaches, and having England and France at a Murrayfield re-stocked with fans for the first time in two years. But the tilt was as good as over in the second round after they lost to an under-strength Wales in Cardiff. The coup de grace was delivered at home in round three by France, crushingly so. Scotland was fourth in 2020 and fourth in 2021. But they were much better fourths than this year’s. Beating England in the opener at Murrayfield disguised what looked more like England blowing it with a late red card. Scotland’s attack floundered — 11 tries compared to 18 a year ago. Backline stars Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Ali Price were off the boil. Russell was sin-binned against Wales to end their challenge, showed apathy during a France counterattack, and was dropped to the reserves against Ireland. Hogg blew two key moments; spilled a pass against France while trailing 12-10, and ignored a four-on-one against Ireland while trailing 14-5. The impression they were not on their game was underlined when all three were caught breaking team rules before the final round. The defense was no better, conceding 30 more points and five more tries, and the team was the most penalized. The pack toiled, notably Pierre Schoeman, Hamish Watson — who still hasn’t missed a tackle since 2019 — and new find Rory Darge. But back-rower Jamie Ritchie, out injured after round one, and wing Duhan van der Merwe, suspended after round three, were missed.

Next test: vs. Argentina, San Salvador, July 2

WALES

L Ireland 29-7

W Scotland 20-17

L England 23-19

L France 13-9

L Italy 22-21

Wales and everyone else knew before the championship that it wasn’t going to retain the title. The injury list was too long and distinguished: Captain Alun Wyn Jones, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Taulupe Faletau, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate and Josh Navidi represented 800-plus sidelined caps. Their absence was magnified when some returned. Faletau, back for round three, was phenomenal. Navidi, into round four, was great. Jones, out for 20 weeks, became available for the last round but unlike Faletau and Navidi, he didn’t have a warmup club game. For his 150th Wales cap, Jones wasn’t up to par. Neither was the team’s campaign. Coach Wayne Pivac had to revamp the team much earlier than he expected and, without a lot of veteran savvy, Wales was penalized heavily, looser in defense, and far less creative. Tries dropped from 20 a year ago to eight. As they learned how to combine on the go, the Welsh had enough passion for an over-confident Scotland but not quite enough luck for England and France, who were both fortunate. England’s only try (to three) came from a Wales lineout overthrow. And Wales blew a winning try against France when Faletau’s pass to Jonathan Davies was spilled. The emotional toll of almost upsetting the eventual champion French in a less than full Principality Stadium played out against Italy. Expected to overwhelm the Italians, a Wales side with seven Lions was flat and complacent, and paid the price. Wales’ tournament record under Pivac is fifth, champion, fifth. The only way is up.

Next test: vs. South Africa, Pretoria, July 2

ITALY

L France 37-10

L England 33-0

L Ireland 57-6

L Scotland 33-22

W Wales 22-21

Italy got out of the championship what it wanted going in: Credibility. Beating Wales in the last minute of the last match in, of all places, previously untouchable Cardiff to end the seven-year losing streak was a shocking bonus. New coach Kieran Crowley, with the benefit of five relatively successful seasons at Benetton, got his Benetton-heavy side to buy into his ideas. First, Italy improved its defense and discipline from the 2021 horror show. Even with an extra away game, and facing Ireland mostly with 13 men, Italy conceded 11 points less on average. The Azzurri didn’t score in the second half of their first three matches, but their attitude was good; they played hard to the end. They still missed the most tackles — average 26 per game — but captain Michele Lamaro and center Juan Ignacio Brex were tackle demons. As for discipline, they were the least penalized team. Their set-pieces were reliable with a front row beginning to restore its reputation, and they had more turnovers than Wales and Ireland, led by rookie No. 8 Toa Halafihi. On the back of beating Uruguay last November — its first win anywhere in more than two years — Italy rediscovered in Cardiff on Saturday how to stay with a major team and prevail. With a platform up front, a backline with less caps than Wales captain Dan Biggar excited. Montanna Ioane lit up with every touch and Ange Capuozzo, after missing the first three games injured, showed why Toulouse got him next season from second-division Grenoble. Capuozzo declined the player of the match medal from Wales’ Josh Adams on Saturday. He’s good enough to win his own. More talent is coming: The under-20s beat (and blanked) England for the first time and finished above Wales and Scotland. The Azzurri aren’t going to win the next Six Nations but they’re heading in the right direction to no longer be the tournament doormat. The Six Nations issued a statement last month after reported rumors of South Africa replacing Italy in 2025, to say Italy wasn’t going anywhere. And it has a summer tour of Georgia and Romania to prove it again.

Next test: vs. Georgia, Tbilisi, July

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