Another year of Six Nations action ends with a different name on the trophy.
Ireland hadn’t beaten France and England away in the same championship since 1972. They had won just one grand slam in 70 years, and yet they didn’t just win the slam, they romped it.
For Wales and Scotland, there were positives to take. Three wins apiece cementing the development we have seen from the pair in the past 12 months. A basis from which to kick on and move forward.
France can be happy too. They may have only recorded two wins, but their wins were extremely convincing, and their three defeats averaged a losing margin of two.
Even Italy will look back on the Championship with something to move forward with. Another five defeats extended their winless run to 17 in the tournament, but they came mighty close against Scotland.
And then there’s England…
Jones’ simplicity has caught him out
To say England’s bubble burst in this competition would be the understatement of the year. Four weeks ago, they were odds-on favourites to win another grand-slam and third consecutive title.
Never in the history of the competition had it happened, yet there was something special about England. 24 from 25. Jones had the greatest record of any international rugby coach.
They pitched up in Scotland confident. When they were beaten, there was no kind of reaction.
Piecemeal changes to the line-up, no attempt to alter their attack and no tactical plan. Beaten again, and then again, and so dominant were Ireland in that first half, England were buried inside 20 minutes.
The simplicity, which helped England soar to second in the World Rankings and appear seemingly untouchable in that spot has come back to bite coach Eddie Jones in an overwhelming manner.
England’s players play too much
Now, even with this point in mind, Jones could have avoided England’s worst Five or Six Nations performance since 1983. He could have rested players in the autumn, been so much more inventive in attack, or quite simply picked a better team.
But what this tournament has flagged up is the ridiculous overplaying of English players.
Along with the injuries at the start of the tournament, England’s players looked worn out. Such is the intensity of the Premiership, and the fact the RFU have no control on how much rugby their players play, that physical and mental burnout has kicked in overwhelmingly on the English players.
Ultimately, when England crash and burn in the World Cup (either in the group or when they are beaten by 50 points by New Zealand), the RFU will finally turn to central contracts. And then, England really will be a force.
France can build on spirit
Jacques Brunel was harshly criticised for his recent record by some, myself included, and many saw this being a Championship where the French would have come away with four big losses and a solitary win against the Italians.
But Brunel has brought a spirit to the French and a resilience which has made them very tough to beat.
It is reminiscent of the early days of his job as Italy coach. In his first two years in charge, he limited the opposition to only narrow victories and picked up wins against Scotland, Ireland and France.
France’s spirit was not enough against Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as discipline as well as an attack in need of improvement let them down, but against England it was enough to see them over the line against a team low on confidence.
It is something with which they can move forward.
Wales and Scotland have got the performances in them
This Celtic pair managed three wins each. Wales were unbeaten at home, as were Scotland, who also snatched a win in Rome.
They probably would have both been content with that when the competition got underway, nevertheless would have been disappointed by the performances in the games they lost.
Both could have provided a much sterner challenge to Ireland, and they both came back thinking what might have been from their other away defeats.
Nevertheless, focussing on the wins, these two know they have the performance in them to challenge the very best nations.
Find consistency, and they will have their name in the hat for the title next year.
Bonus Points Have Brought Life to the Championship
I was so pleased when Bonus Points were finally introduced to the Championship. They didn’t have a huge impact in 2017, but they really showed their potential importance this time around.
It had no effect on the title race, but to highlight the extent of Ireland’s dominance, as they earned three bonus point wins, but that wasn’t the only focus.
Wales pipped Scotland into second by virtue of the former’s try bonus points, whilst France edged England to fourth due to the losing bonus points they’d picked up.
Clearly, we are seeing teams fight for these bonus points as well. France took losing bonus points in all their games, and the 78 tries scored in the tournament was a record.
It has encouraged attacking rugby from the likes of Wales and Ireland and punished England, whose attack simply didn’t offer enough after their first 100 minutes of the Championship.
Ireland are the best team in the World
After their 2016 Australia Tour, England were the form team in the world. But since then, they’ve gone nowhere.
At that time, Ireland had just suffered a frustrating test series defeat to South Africa, but since their stunning win over the All-Blacks at Soldier Field, their previously slow progress has accelerated at an incredible rate.
Their forwards dominate teams, they are in control of their set-piece, they maximise the points in a game with both their goal-kicking and finishing, they are able to attack all areas of the pitch and ultimately have a settled, united dressing room.
If the men in green were touring New Zealand this summer (which they haven’t for six years), I believe they would win the series.
Clear the 17th of November in your diaries. It is sure to be a titanic battle between two outstanding rugby teams.
Nick Powell, Pundit Arena