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17 Mar 2008 07:56
All hail the Six Nations, the tournament that never ceases to surprise and fascinate.
Having scraped one victory last season and gone home from the World Cup early, Wales looked to be continuing their downward spiral when they trailed England 19-6 with 20 minutes remaining of their opening match on February 2.
Suddenly they scored 20 unanswered points in a 12-minute spell to claim a remarkable 26-19 victory, their first at Twickenham for 20 years, and everything changed.
Six weeks later they were celebrating their 10th grand slam after beating France 29-12 in a pulsating game on an emotional night that nobody in Cardiff will ever forget.
In between, came solid home victories over Scotland and Italy and their first success in Dublin for eight years.
That set up Saturday’s finale, fittingly the last game of the tournament, and the Welsh players, their remarkable fans and their magnificent Millennium Stadium all played their part to perfection.
Shane Williams, the most exciting winger in the tournament, became Wales’s leading tryscorer with his 41st score while flanker Martyn Williams, persuaded out of retirement by coach Warren Gatland, completed a wonderful personal campaign with the clinching try.
All through the Wales squad, there were stories of men reborn.
The previously unwanted Gavin Henson was back to his majestic best at centre, James Hook and Stephen Jones dovetailed to perfection in sharing the flyhalf role and new captain Ryan Jones led a forward revival.
New Zealander Gatland added structure to the Welsh adventure while assistant Shaun Edwards masterminded a defence that set a new record of parsimony by conceding only two tries.
The championship also ended well for England, a 33-10 victory over Ireland earning them second place, their best showing since their 2003 grand slam.
However, the jury is still out on coach Brian Ashton.
England made hard work of Italy, were at their brutish best to beat France in Paris, woeful in losing to Scotland but bright and confident in beating Ireland for the first time in five attempts.
The startlingly confident performance of 20-year-old flyhalf Danny Cipriani in his first start against Ireland was probably the most significant aspect of the whole campaign, not least because it came at the expense of dropped icon Jonny Wilkinson.
France failed to claim an unprecedented third successive title but few rugby fans in the country could be disappointed at coach Marc Lievremont’s first foray.
Spectacularly throwing off the restrictive shackles of predecessor Bernard Laporte, the new coach handed debuts to no less than 13 players as he looked to bring back the long-buried concept of French flair.
Though he returned to many of his proven performers for the title decider against Wales, Lievremont can go away from the tournament with a wealth of promising players blooded and real confidence about the future.
It will be a very different few months for Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan, if he survives.
Coming after a dire World Cup, Ireland finished fourth for the first time since 1999 and, bar promising displays from newcomers Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald, there was a stale flatness and predictability about their play.
Scotland too were poor and negative as they lost four games but their fans will remember 2008 as a vintage year purely for the 15-9 victory over England in one of the dullest matches ever played in the tournament.
Italy gave new coach Nick Mallett his first win when they edged the Scots 23-20 on the final day but it was not enough to avoid the wooden spoon after another frustrating story of missed opportunities. - Reuters
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