Ireland retain Six Nations title after chaotic final day
LONDON (AP) — A wild final round of the Six Nations threw up arguably the most exhilarating day in rugby union’s history, with three consecutive finals of increasing importance in Rome, Edinburgh and London managing to blow away expectations on Saturday.
In the end, after 221 points, 27 tries, and a slew of shattered records, Ireland completed back-to-back championships for the first time in 66 years to confirm its position as the northern hemisphere’s top team heading into the Rugby World Cup.
As for Wales and especially England, they will simply shake their heads and wonder what more they could have done. They both racked more than 50 points in victory and still lost out on the title on points difference.
England, Ireland, and Wales began the day tied at the top of the standings in that order — separated only by points difference — but played in reverse order.
The Welsh put down a marker with a record 61-20 win over Italy.
Ireland reacted with a record-equaling win over Scotland, 40-10, to go above the Welsh, and set England a target of beating France by 26 points at Twickenham.
The English brought the tension to an almost unbearable level when they scored seven tries to push 20 points ahead with five minutes to go. In the final moments, they got a maul crawling to the tryline, and even drew in some backs. France stopped it as the clock ticked over 80 minutes, and earned a relieving penalty.
England won 55-35 — scoring a record number of points against the French in the process — but its players trudged off the pitch in disappointment. They’d fallen short by six points.
It was one of those days.
Ireland, watching at Murrayfield, walked out onto the field and danced in suits before thousands of its supporters who also stayed to take in the England-France game on the big screen.
“I’ve never seized a trophy in such a bizarre situation,” Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said.
“When you’re sitting there at the table with a few of the lads with a beer in front of you watching on the TV, you’re like a supporter. You’re completely powerless as to influencing the result. It’s just such a bizarre day.”
England finished runners-up for the fourth straight year and has missed out on the title in the last three years on points difference. In 2014, England was 10 points behind the Irish.
“To put it into context,” England coach Stuart Lancaster said, “we’re sat here disappointed but put 55 points on France.”
Wales was third after recovering from an opening-day loss to England to win four games on the bounce and move within sight of a third title in four years.
The Welsh backline opened up to help register the team’s highest score and biggest margin ever against Italy. Powerful winger George North grabbed a hat trick of second-half tries, with Wales crossing seven times in total and scoring 47 points after the break.
“We dug in there, and 60 points is not bad,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “We can look forward to the World Cup now.”
Scotland ended the Six Nations with the wooden spoon for finishing in last place. Widely tipped to challenge this year after seasons of underachievement, the Scots lost all five games.
Italy was fifth, despite scoring fewer points than Scotland and conceding 54 more (182).
England was the top point-scorer with 157, but also conceded more than a century.
On an afternoon and evening when the rain never came and running rugby was the order of the day, the northern hemisphere put on a show with the World Cup less than six months away.
“I’m sure the southern hemisphere looked at those games and thought, ‘Where’s that come from?’” Lancaster said. “It showed the southern hemisphere that ball in hand on a dry day . there’s some great talent in the northern hemisphere.
“But I think the World Cup will be different again.”