England put full stop on a unique Six Nations


It took 273 days from start to finish to crown the 2020 Six Nations champions. England’s name eventually sits next door to this year’s championship, but the story of how we got to this bizarre, prolonged completion will unlikely never be repeated.

This was rugby’s Super Saturday, with Ireland, France and England all gunning for the title. While it didn’t have the same drama as the 2015 sprint, it provided valuable escapism. Yet it was still a jarring experience watching this fine tournament played out in front of empty stands, at a time where the sport is paddling like mad to keep itself afloat.

The day started with Scotland winning at Wales in a match short on quality, but packed full of physicality. England headed into Saturday knowing they needed a bonus point win to keep their title hopes ticking over and eventually they got that against a resilient Italy in Rome, with centurion Ben Youngs grabbing two.

Then all eyes were then on Paris and the potential title-decider between France and Ireland. France won 35-27, but not by the required margin needed to usurp England, so by 11:00 P.M. local time over in Rome it was Eddie Jones’ side celebrating the never-ending championship in their hotel.

It’s been a long time between games. The final round of the Six Nations was meant to be back on March. 14, nearly eight months ago. How long ago, it seems, since the opening round where France beat England in Paris, Wales smashed Italy and Ireland overcame Scotland. Back then Finn Russell was still in exile, Manu Tuilagi was fit and Wales debutant Shane Lewis-Hughes was on the outside looking in. And now on Halloween, this is still Wayne Pivac, Andy Farrell, Franco Smith and Fabien Galthie’s first Six Nations in charge of their respective countries, despite being in the job 11 months.

Saturday’s matches were bigger than the Six Nations — it was a sign of sporting defiance by the players while offering welcome escapism as COVID-19 shuts Europe down again.

“We would like to make people happy for a period of time that maybe takes away some of the pain of society at the moment,” Eddie Jones said earlier in the week. Amen to that. Even without fans — sport’s lifeblood — the day still provided a worthy distraction but the build-up was different, and without usual hype and hysteria that comes with the final weekend of the Six Nations.

Following last weekend’s rumbling Round four win for Ireland over Italy, the finale was played out against a state of societal limbo — similar to how we left it: normality on pause. Wales is completely shut down, bar journeys for essential groceries; in Scotland they’re in lockdown. In Italy, they are navigating a fresh 6:00 P.M curfew and just as England were walking back to their changing rooms having won, the UK Prime Minister addressed the nation back home to announce a fresh lockdown.

In France, the final match of the Six Nations kicked off as Paris went into curfew, while in Ireland, supporters watched from their living rooms prohibited from moving more than five kilometres away from home with everything shut except essential shops. The world has changed since the tournament started, but the familiarity of watching the Six Nations was as comforting as it was thrilling, all while the sport still struggles to find its feet in this part of the world.

Rugby has been hit hard by the pandemic. In its current state, it’s a jumbled mess with domestic seasons lacking any synergy, with self-interest at an all-time high and the national game is still king in spite of the system, rather than because of it.

As France prepared to face Ireland in Paris, the 2020-21 Top 14 was bumbling along. The 2019-20 Gallagher Premiership has only just finished, while the PRO14 edition was never completed, but the new season has now started. Confused? You bet.

It’s to the players’ eternal credit that they managed to play a trio of matches of such attacking variety and enjoyment but still it didn’t feel quite right. It was a jarring experience, especially when the sport offered a glimpse of normality earlier on Saturday.

As Europe awoke to a drizzly, grey Saturday, the Wallabies and All Blacks played out their Bledisloe Cup clash in front of supporters in Sydney. It gave the Northern Hemisphere a glimpse of the past, and reminders of mismanagement from governmental decision-makers in this part of the world but equally something to grasp in hope: thrilling, attacking rugby, blending with supporters’ shrieks and groans.

Rugby in this part of the world still teeters on a financial precipice; for so long clubs in England were living beyond their means, gambling on unsecured income. Meanwhile, in the corridors of Premiership Rugby, private interest still reverberates to hinder the last bastion of what makes rugby unique: the British & Irish Lions. It was another traditional side of the sport that reduced it to ridicule last week.

Rugby is anchored on history and its “values”, but that sometimes serves as its downfall. Eddie Jones was bang on the money when he said the sport looked a “laughing stock” after their match against the Barbarians was called off after 13 players broke COVID-19 protocol.

Few things rile society more than individuals believing they are above rules, and Jones was correct when he said such a shambles would not have happened at the top level of other sports like golf or tennis. Rugby is having to grow up, but it is still in an identity crisis.

The sport wants to welcome new fans. It needs them to keep the game afloat. But it’s still far too complicated for its own good. Without touching the ridiculously convoluted laws of the game, the permutations heading into Super Saturday were complex enough for those new to the sport.

The bonus point system and the various outcomes for who could end up winning the tournament ran to 647 words on the official Six Nations website. Surely this must be simplified? With many of the pubs shut, it serves to the imagination the bemusement in living rooms around Europe as new supporters, keen to witness this fine tournament at a strange time of the year, tried to work out who was going to end up lifting the trophy. In the end it was Owen Farrell, on this day when history was made by three fine servants to the game.

It is a woeful injustice the Parc y Scarlets’ stands stood empty as Alun Wyn Jones broke Richie McCaw’s cap record. Having spent time with him in the past, you know he’d have hated all the attention as he led Wales out against Scotland on his 150th appearance. He’s as selfless a man you’ll meet, forever aware of those around him and any personal battles they may be facing.

But even he found the unpredictable wind in Wales hard to navigate, and will look back on this performance with little fondness. Scotland won 14-10 in a game where blustery conditions negated set pieces and meant it was an error-strewn Test but could prove to be a key victory for Gregor Townsend’s side.

They are evolving nicely and it was great to see Russell back — until he went off injured — while Wales are now on a five-match losing streak. They need to address their attacking game but it will be remembered for Alun Wyn Jones’ history-making achievement and also marked Lewis-Hughes’ debut, someone tipped for a spot in Welsh rugby immortality, but it was a game robbed of quality attacking play. Welsh indiscipline and Scotland’s management saw the visitors home, but it was hardly a match to kickstart Super Saturday.

Next up was Italy-England in Rome, a Test where Ben Youngs became just the second England player to hit 100 caps. He led England out in front of the vast emptiness of the Stadio Olimpico. If there’s one benefit to playing without crowds – and it’s just about the only one – it offers coaches and us media the chance to hear on-field communication with great clarity. That’s why Youngs is a centurion and why Jones unwaveringly backs him as England’s starting No.9 — he’s forever talking, gesturing and moving forward.

England knew they needed to pick up the four-try bonus point and run up a hefty score to keep their championship charge going, but they ended up winning 34-5 with Youngs grabbing a brace. Italy were dogged, physical, troublesome and packed with character, with fly-half Paolo Garbisi outstanding. England were struggling to gel in the first half but had too much for the Azzurri and then had to wait to see how events in Paris panned out before they knew where they’d finish in the standings.

Ireland knew they had to win by six in Paris (with a try) to knock England off top spot. Their towering loose-head Cian Healy was also reaching his 100th cap. And like his Lions comrade, he too opened the scoring. Ireland found it tough to break down this new-look France team; one built on flair, ballast and arguably the world’s most thrilling scrum-half in Antoine Dupont.

They are building something very special under Galthie and but for Mohamed Haouas’ ill-judged punch against Scotland and subsequent red card, they probably would have ended up with a deserved Grand Slam. For Ireland, Robbie Henshaw’s try was remarkable but their tournament plays into the competition-wide experience of this being one where teams found their feet, learnt a lot and managed to get through it.

It came down to bonus points and mathematics; a fitting end to a competition that’s been spread out over a year which has been so hard to compute and disentangle. England will celebrate long into the night — in their secure bubble — but France and Ireland will ponder where they fell short. And all the while the sport resembles a swan: calm on the surface, madly paddling underneath. England have won their first Six Nations since 2017 but the sport as a whole must learn lessons from the past turbulent 10 months.

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