Six Nations: The Wash-up from the final round

International
AFP
by AFP

Wales were hailed Sunday for the energy, drive and belief that powered them to the Six Nations Grand Slam, legendary fly-half Barry John saying the World Cup could not come around quick enough.

The Welsh thumped Ireland 25-7 at Cardiff's Principality Stadium on Saturday to follow victories over France (24-19), Italy (26-15), England (21-13) and Scotland (18-11).

It was also a 14th consecutive win, based around an iron-clad, swarming defence and an ever-strengthening squad coach Warren Gatland has forged around talismanic captain Alun Wyn Jones.

"You can see the camaraderie that Gatland and Alun Wyn have built so superbly," ex-Wales and British and Irish Lions icon John said in his Wales on Sunday column.

"It's resulted in the Grand Slam. Bring on the World Cup."

Wales, John continued, "are getting more and more confident and need fear nobody out in Japan", where the World Cup runs from September 20 until November 2.

Former Welsh and Lions prop Graham Price said Wales were thriving on the winning momentum that has seen them rise to second in World Rugby standings.

"Get to the World Cup and anything can happen!" Price said, with Wales drawn in Pool D along with Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.

"I am optimistic we are gong to do well at the World Cup and, if we were to face the All Blacks, the later the better."

Sam Warburton, who was named Welsh skipper at the age of 22 by Gatland and led Wales to their 2012 Grand Slam, hailed the "fairytale finish" for his former coach, who steps down from his job after the World Cup.

 "It will be the most rewarding of his three Grand Slams because it is almost a fairytale to do this in his final Six Nations campaign," Warburton said in the Sunday Times.

To do it in a World Cup year too - the last team to complete the clean sweep in such a year were England in 2003 and look how that panned out (they won the World Cup) - makes it extra special."

 Warburton maintained that the sole team in world rugby he would worry about Wales playing were double defending world champions New Zealand.

If it was anyone else at the moment, I would back Wales," said the flanker who retired from rugby last year after a succession of injuries.

If somebody else beat New Zealand and knocked them out of the tournament, as a Welsh fan you would be thinking, 'Oh my God, this is on'."

Ian McGeechan, the former Scotland and Lions centre who was Gatland's predecessor as Lions coach, hailed the New Zealander as a "fantastic servant" to Wales and northern hemisphere rugby in general.

"What I liked about this (Grand Slam) was the spirit Wales showed when they were under the cosh," McGeechan said in the Sunday Telegraph.

"They never panicked. You cannot fake that."

There can be no denying the pressure has been ramped up on Wales, where the public are notoriously fickle and every family, as the joke goes, has an international selector in their ranks.

But Warburton said Gatland had "simply changed the psychology of the nation".

"Wales are now a team of achievers and the nation wants and believes that the team can achieve," he said.

ENGLAND

Owen Farrell will skipper England. Photo: AFPEddie Jones has said he took the unusual decision to replace Owen Farrell at a key moment during an incredible 38-38 draw with Scotland at Twickenham because the England captain had "lost his "edge".

Flyhalf Farrell was in complete command as England surged into a 31-0 lead by the half hour mark of Saturday's Calcutta Cup clash, converting all their four first-half tries and kicking a penalty.

But with just over 10 minutes left and the score deadlocked at 38-38, Jones decided to take Farrell off and bring on replacement George Ford even though the Saracens star was showing no sign of any physical injury.

By that stage, however, Farrell had gifted Scotland two of their six tries, with the visitors' captain Stuart McInally charging down a kick to begin one of the all-time great comebacks before fly-half Finn Russell intercepted a loose pass for another score.

But with Scotland on the brink of one of the most remarkable wins since they played the very first rugby union international against England in 1871, Ford levelled the match in stoppage time with a try under the posts he converted -- the last kick of the 2019 Six Nations.

IRELAND

Joe Schmidt has done a lot for Ireland. Photo: Getty ImagesJoe Schmidt may have bowed out of the Six Nations with a 25-7 thumping by Wales but his legacy makes the task of his successor as Ireland coach Andy Farrell an unenviable one.

The 53-year-old New Zealander's impact can be measured by his delivering three Six Nations titles in six campaigns -- the climax the Grand Slam last year beating England at Twickenham.

Prior to his arrival the Irish had only won one prior to that in the previous 28 years -- the 2009 Grand Slam.

Now the workaholic former schoolmaster -- perhaps allowing himself a short break -- will turn his attention to the World Cup and rectifying the blip on his CV when his side were blitzed by the Argentinians in the 2015 quarter-finals.

A poor Six Nations campaign by the high standards the team had risen to under his stewardship will demand his strengths of attention to detail and work ethic. 

Ireland great Tony Ward told AFP he wished Schmidt was not leaving but believes his announcement he is leaving had a negative impact on the psyche of the squad.  

However, whilst Ward would have preferred Schmidt kept his future plans under wraps he says "Ireland's greatest ever coach" will as always buckle down and set an example to the players.

"One of his great strengths is his work ethic," said the 64-year-old former flyhalf.

"He will work as hard behind the scenes as he demands of the players on it."

SCOTLAND

Scotland captain Stuart McInally was proud if somewhat bewildered by his side's remarkable Calcutta Cup draw with England.

The Scots were on the verge of their first win at Twickenham since 1983 after an astounding rally saw them come from 31-0 down to lead 38-31 with just three minutes remaining.

But England replacement fly-half George Ford then scored a try which he converted with the last kick of the game as the match finished all square at 38-38.

McInally had started the Scotland revival when the hooker charged down England captain Owen Farrell's kick to score the visitors' first try shortly before half-time.

Scotland retained the Calcutta Cup by virtue of their 25-13 win over England at Murrayfield last year and McInally admitted to mixed emotions after one of the great Twickenham thrillers.

"It's a weird one," said McInally, on the bench for the closing stages after a colossal effort. "With a minute to go, you're thinking 'we've done this'.

"I don't know if regret is the right word. It's disappointing to concede, right under the sticks as well.

"That was the game gone to the draw. It's a strange one."

He added: "There's so many positives to take forward, putting one of the best teams in the world under heaps of pressure in their own back yard.

"Credit to them in the first half, they played some great rugby, but we dictated the game in the second half which was really pleasing.

"We've done something we've not done in a long time, which is retain the Calcutta Cup, which means a lot to us."

Scotland were without several injured players in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, John Barclay and Ryan Wilson due to injuries and Saturday's result meant they finished fifth in the Championship, with their solitary victory coming in the first round against Italy.

McInally said: "We need to be pretty honest about the whole Six Nations.

We've showed up in parts, played well second half last week against Wales, second half this week.

"We're not going to get ahead of ourselves. That was a really good second 40 (minutes)."

Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham made the most of his Twickenham chance to play himself into World Cup contention with two tries.

"That second half is how we want to play for the full 80 minutes," said Graham.

"That's what we've not done over the Championship.

"We'll take a huge crate of confidence from that."

ITALY

Italy rugby great Sergio Parisse bid farewell to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome this weekend with another bitter disappointment as the Azzurri snatched a 25-14 defeat from the jaws of victory against France.

Even in defeat, the 35-year-old Parisse was the star of the show, setting up Tito Tebaldi's second-half try to cap a dominant performance which earned the skipper the Man of the Match award.

It was the final Six Nations game for 138-times capped Parisse and fellow Italy veterans Leonardo Ghiraldini (104) and Alessandro Zanni (111).

But it ended with a 22nd consecutive defeat in the tournament, a fourth consecutive Wooden Spoon for a whitewash, and Ghiraldini's knee injury.

There's frustration at such a missed opportunity," said number eight Parisse of "probably" his last game in Rome.

I don't know if it's my last game, we don't care," he said.

I can't find the words because we leave this game with the feeling of having dominated.

"We lost so many opportunities."

Parisse's towering presence has accompanied Italy for nearly two decades.

Born in Argentina to Italian parents, Parisse arrived in Europe to play for Italy's youth teams.

He quickly established his reputation and before he turned 19 had earned his first cap with a baptism of fire against the All Blacks in June 2002.

Seventeen years and 138 caps later, the Stade Francais captain has spent half of his life in the Italy jersey.

The World Cup in Japan from September 20 to November 2 should mark the end of his international career, allowing him to close the gap on New Zealand's Richie McCaw's record of 148 caps.

In the Six Nations, Parisse is already out on front with a record 69 matches played, 51 as captain, overtaking Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll's 65 this campaign.

FRANCE

Jacques Brunel's squad has faced some injury battles. Photo: Getty ImagesCoach Jacques Brunel insisted on Saturday that France's disappointing Six Nations campaign would have no impact on their World Cup in six months time.

The French claimed their second win of the tournament against a weakened Italy (25-14) after beating Scotland (27-10) earlier in the campaign.

"This tournament was a disappointment," said Brunel after his fifth success in 16 matches since taking over as France coach at the end of 2017.

"I said it from the beginning, the World Cup is a completely different competition, reduced to four decisive matches (in pools), history has shown it to us many times.

"We'll have time to sort out all the details where we haven't been good, we'll try to prepare ourselves accordingly."

The French avoided the ignomy of fifth defeat in the tournament for the first time since the Six Nations format in 2000 and avoided a first defeat to Italy since 2013.

"We didn't have reassuring performances, even disappointing. We are aware of this," said Brunel.

"Since the beginning of the tournament we weren't up to the level of the leaders. We were behind the top teams it's obvious.

"We knew that Italy was going to pile on the pressure from the start of the match.

"We would have liked a better controlled match, especially at the beginning. Unfortunately, we did not know how to do it, and we suffered to the end.

The French are desperate to avoid a first World Cup elimination in the group stage.

"Luckily we showed character until the very end. We want to build on this strength we had to resist."