CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: Alun Wyn Jones of Wales and Jonathan Davies of Wales lift the Six Nations and Triple Crown Trophy to celebrate winning the Six Nations with there team mates after the Guinness Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at Principality Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

This is why the 2019 Six Nations is the world’s premier rugby tournament. The drama and the unexpected just kept on happening.

Exceeding the pre-Championship predictions, it was ‘all hail Sir Alun Wyn Jones’ as an imperious Wales team marched towards the third Grand Slam for head coach Warren Gatland.

Yet, by comparison, it all seemed so mundane at halftime between England and Scotland. Wales’ Grand Slam was safe and [convincingly] secured. England were apparently purring over Scotland at 31-8. And then…… chaos – the likes that fans have never seen before.

….That second half!

The second half at Twickenham must go down as one of the most extraordinary halves of rugby ever seen. Consider the venue, the opponents and the scoreline at halftime.

England 31-0 after 29 minutes, and playing almost godlike rugby. Then in thought, word and deed Scotland arose like Lazarus. They so nearly pulled off the greatest victory in test match rugby.

Last Word on Rugby tries to dissect a thrilling Super Saturday, on the last weekend of the 2019 Six Nations.

Italy v France: so close, yet so far

Beginning on the continent, it was agonising watching the last 15 minutes of the Italy v France game at the Stadio Olimpico. Italy had the game in the bag. Italy were camped on France’s line, and France were defending desperately.

Damian Penaud who is poorly utilised on the wing, produced a ‘hand of god’ moment. It was a brilliant tackle that dislodged the ball from Marco Zanon, who was diving over the line in triumph. Poor Zanon will not want to look at that moment again.

Penaud might have been the one shining light in another poor display by a French team who are grossly underperforming. Italy should have won that game with something to spare. Conor O’Shea deserves much sympathy, as he is clearly doing everything he can to take Italy forward.

22 successive losses now hang ‘like a noose around Italy’s head’ and relegation will keep the 2019 Six Nations partner honest.

As for France….. they have jewels in the making. Led by Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, there are diamonds amongst the rough times for Les Bleus.

If you add Thomas Ramos, Romaine Ntamack, Demba Bamba into the mix, there is some serious talent there. Those players desperately need the experienced heads to guide them in the cauldron of a test match.

In reality, Jacques Brunel has no idea what his preferred starting XV. The mass changes every match is quite frankly ridiculous. On this evidence, they have little chance of going far in Japan. However, such is the unpredictability of French rugby, you just never know?

Mighty Wales can conquer the world

They routed a poor Irish team at the Principality Stadium, to canter to an impressive third Grand Slam. We all thought that Ireland would make this match much closer. What played out was an 80-minute Welsh party, once the Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray factor were nullified. In fact, you could go so far as to say ‘Ireland did not fire a shot’.

Wales rightly deserve all the plaudits that come their way.

Alun Wyn Jones was again immense as captain and he is now truly among the greats of the game – past and present. Three Grand Slams is a record on its own, but his 2019 leadership record is remarkable.

Hadleigh Parkes stepped up massively against the Scots and again against Ireland. His muscular centre partnership with Jonathan Davies will be crucial to World Cup success. Wales will only get better as they have strength in depth across the squad and they are genuine World Cup contenders.

If there is a criticism, it is their attacking game. Their 2019 campaign was built on a suffocating defensive game and outlasting the opposition. To beat the best of the Southern Hemisphere though, Wales have to better utilise the abilities of Josh Adams, Liam Williams and others who can add to the side’s attack.

Faltering Ireland must regroup, and do it quickly

It was a case of ‘how the mighty have fallen’ when it came to Ireland. That near-perfect performance from England in Dublin in round one, damn near knocked the stuffing out of Ireland …..and they couldn’t recover.

So much falls on the impressive shoulders of their two star half-backs; Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton. Observers have grown used to their enduring excellence but, they were below their usual standards in this whole campaign. If Sexton and Murray do not fire then Ireland’s game suddenly looks ordinary.

2019 Six Nations
CARDIFF, WALES – MARCH 16: Johnny Sexton of Ireland looks dejected during the Guinness Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at Principality Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

It wasn’t just Sexton and Murray either – Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander were also below their best. Robbie Henshaw’s return is important for Joe Schmidt, who has much work to do over the summer.

It will be interesting to see how the Irish provinces go in European Heineken Champions Cup competition, and whether they can lift Irish rugby up again…..and do it quickly.

Scotland have to be more consistent

Scotland salvaged their disappointing 2019 Six Nations’ campaign with that stunning comeback at Twickenham. They have had to contend with a horrible injury list, that included Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones. Even with those injuries though, Scotland have been disappointing this year.

Gregor Townsend seems unsure on what Scotland’s game plan should be. This was highlighted by Finn Russell arguing with Townsend on Scotland’s faltering kicking game. Then, Ali Price and Finn Russell turned it around, and ‘ran the show’ against England. After that success, they should be the World Cup half-backs.

For Scotland they have to be more consistent.

A huge win is normally followed up by a limp defeat – change that mindset, and more positive results might follow.

England’s mentality a Major Character Flaw

It is hard to know where to start with England. Some of their rugby in this year’s 2019 Six Nations championship has been sensational. Dublin was a promise of so much more. That was a near perfect performance from a team who looked cohesive, powerful and dangerous.

The brain fades though, especially in their second halves (namely Wales and Scotland) are of considerable concern for Eddie Jones. The events that unfolded against Scotland was almost freakish.

  • Leadership found wanting

England could not adapt and the leaders did not step up or step in to guide the team into calmer waters. The criticism goes back on Owen Farrell and Eddie Jones to try and fix this. Psychologically teams now know that if they can stay in the fight for long enough then England will tire and panic. Having looked so supremely fit and well conditioned in Dublin, England were the team who looked tired at the final whistle (not Wales, Eddie).

  • Jones has a tough call to make

The call on whether Dylan Hartley comes back to captain England and allow for Owen Farrell to concentrate on his fly-half role. That is also tough on Jamie George, who is improving as England’s first choice hooker.

If England are to contend, let alone prevail in Japan, then their defence has to improve from what fans saw against Scotland. There were glaring missed tackles that resulted in four of Scotland’s tries. Basic errors, like charge-downs and the ball being ripped away in contact, are causes for concern. Those elements of the game can only naturally be improved upon, which will be of some solace to the England management.

  • England can still be Contenders

It cannot be underestimated on how important it will be to have Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje in England’s starting XV, when they are fit. They provide experience, clout, and cohesiveness that was so evident against Ireland and France. England are very close to knowing their line-up which we could not have said this time 12 months ago.

There is one player who must be in England’s 22 match-day squad and that is Joe Cokanasiga. He is the x-factor that can still make England contenders at the World Cup.

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This year’s competition has given fans plenty to think about. And Last Word on Rugby have found the last two months to be fascinating.

Congratulations Wales and to Warren Gatland. A 14-match winning run is a testament to the sides talent and progress – the All Blacks et al, beware. The Rugby World Cup is going to be a real battleground.

 

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