Who knew an entire nation or perhaps entire nations, could be brought on a seven-hour rollercoaster ride filled with every single emotion on the spectrum – watching rugby! Baseball’s World Series has the fabled ‘Shot heard ‘round the world’ when Bobby Thompson connected for a game-winning home run for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951. Well, over sixty years later Six Nations rugby now has its very own landmark moment, the ‘What the f**k are you doing, heard ‘round the world’ when Yoann Huget, clearly a man who loves a bit of drama, pushed our hearts to the very top of our mouths with a quick tap penalty on his own line with the game up for England. In Huget’s defence, we have moaned here incessantly about our longing for the France of old. Well on Saturday we got it, right up to the last second of a Twickenham encounter that will surely go down as one of the greatest games in rugby history, particularly when circumstances are taken into account.
On Friday we bemoaned the fact that the staggered kick off times left an uneven playing field for the players. How now do we argue with the greatest afternoon’s rugby that many of us will ever see in our lifetime? I’m not sure if we can. Is the format unfair? Yes. Was that the most thrilling, stomach churning, nerve inducing sporting experience a spectator could ask for? Absolutely! Perhaps the only way the format should be tweaked, as has been suggested by many people this weekend, is to ensure the order of play on the final day of the tournament is rotated each year. Therefore Wales and Italy would avoid playing the first game on the final day next season and so on. It wouldn’t be a perfect system but, in any event, we get the feeling there won’t be a major overhaul of the format. Not after that!
Wales got the thumping victory we anticipated but not quite in the manner we imagined. For the second week in a row the Welsh scrum was destroyed early on except this time the referee applied the rules differently and the dominant side was rewarded. The home side only trailed by a point at half-time and it seemed Wales’ mountain would be too far to climb. The visitors, though, came out a different beast in the second half, running in tries from every neighbourhood. Still, we noted before the weekend that all-out attack could open a door for Italy, a potentially fatal one for Wales, and so it was that Leanardo Sarto managed somehow to keep his legs inside the field of play and touch down for the game’s last try. Luciano Orquera then landed a tricky conversion to give Ireland and England hope. And as Brendan Rodgers once said, probably with a straight face, “….you can live without water for many days, but you can’t live for a second without hope.” Right on, Brendan!
So to Murrayfield, where millions of Irish hearts must have felt that twenty-three points were doable, but the head, no matter how hard it tried, just couldn’t agree. We know what happened. Up-tempo from the first second, Ireland came in waves, Tommy Bowe’s searing break a sign of things to come. Paul O’ Connell, almost enjoying folk-hero levels of popularity these days touched down for Ireland’s first try but, of course, there was drama to follow; a sloppy Scottish try, snatched place kicks from Jonny Sexton and Ian Madigan and a game-changing tackle by the incredibly alert Jamie Heaslip to prevent a seemingly certain try for Stuart Hogg. The Irish players couldn’t help but be thoroughly satisfied with their efforts, but they knew that they wouldn’t be reaching their destination without a few more bumps along the road.
All eyes then to south-west London and who in their right mind could foresee what was coming. England’s task seemed nigh on impossible. A twenty-seven point victory was needed over a French side who hadn’t even conceded that many points in a single game in this year’s tournament. Never mind, as for the first time in years Les Bleus decided to play ball the Gallic way. Once the set-pieces were over then what of the restrictive numbers on their backs. Vincent Debaty, the twenty stone veteran prop racing on to an offload from the breathless Noa Nakataici coupled with Nakataici’s own insouciance in touching down for his early try made us realise how much we missed the carefree, slightly insane thrills that the French can bring to the game.
To England’s credit it was they who put together the single most entertaining and exhilarating eighty minutes of the tournament. Ben Youngs’ brilliantly worked try within two minutes was a fabulous score but little did we know that almost two hours later we’d have seen eleven more tries, breathless end- to- end play from both sides and a firm message to the Southern Hemisphere that rugby is alive and kicking up here. Even in a World Cup year the 2015 Six Nations has left an indelible mark on our memories.
Before we completely lose the run of ourselves though, let’s remember that these final games were taking place in a bubble, a series of catch me if you can challenges laid down by three teams who had come to play. Wales caught fire almost from nowhere, Ireland were adventurously cautious for the whole game while England thrilled but made some absolutely unforgivable mistakes. Thus, it is perhaps fitting that the winner of the ultimate spoils showed the greatest composure when it counted most.
Either way, we should all remember that this past Saturday we experienced the most perfect storm imaginable. This is perhaps where we get too carried away with sport but where else will you get such honest endeavor, selfless dedication and outpouring of emotion. For seven hours on Saturday nothing else mattered. Sure, there are politics in sport, but there are none on the pitch. We saw an unscriptable drama, thriller and tragedy (for England) all rolled into one. Remember where you were when Nigel Owens blew the fulltime whistle at 6:57 p.m. on Saturday 21st March 2015. We may have been cursing Yoann Huget but maybe he knew he was putting the finishing touches on a day of rugby theatre that we will not see for quite some time.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Bill Lonergan