Rarely in sport does the hype live up to expectations but it did this weekend.
Every season since 2004 the Guinness Six Nations has concluded with “Super Saturday” in the shape of three back-to-back matches. It’s probably fair to say that most of these previous incarnations have been good and sometimes very good, this year’s fit the “Super” designation perhaps more than ever before!
The 2019 Guinness Six Nations saved the best ‘til last and dished up a delightful trio of encounters, ramping up in intensity to a most unlikely conclusion and riveting crescendo.
First up was the visit of France to Rome, with seemingly little at stake except perhaps for pride.
Italy once more stepped up, played some superb rugby at times, but decisive errors at vital stages meant that they did not score when in the ascendancy, and thus were in the end consigned to another defeat.
It could have been so different though with Italy six points adrift at the death and pushing hard on the French line only to concede a turnover. Fleet-footed wing Damian Penaud then made the Azzurri pay the ultimate price.
It was then over to Cardiff for the experts’ pick as match of the day. The pundits did not agree who the eventual winners would be, but they all concurred that it would be mighty close.
Wales did not read that script and produced a compelling performance of impressive determination, taking all their chances with a perfect kicking display from Gareth Anscombe in less than perfect conditions.
At half-time It was 16-nil with Ireland, who were conquerors of the mighty All Blacks just four months ago unable to get into the game.
The men in green had only been held scoreless in the first half of a Guinness Six Nations match just four times before but one of those had been a round 5 encounter at Principality Stadium in 2009, when Ireland turned around a six-point deficit to win 17-15 and claim a grand slam for themselves.
Wales continued to turn the screw and at 25-0 in stoppage time we were all looking way back to 1990 at Twickenham to find the last time that Ireland had been nilled in a Championship match.
But Jordan Larmour got the latest of consolation tries and a record fourth Grand Slam (since 2000) was in the hands of the Dragons, despite scoring only ten tries. That particular stat equalled the lowest try tally by a Six Nations grand slam winner – also set by Wales seven years ago.
A soggy Twickenham was the setting for the third leg and you would have been forgiven if you thought that with Ireland’s defeat and the champions decided that this game had little resting on it. But while England no longer had a chance to lift the main silverware, a Calcutta Cup match is always full on.
The home side were obscenely quick out of the blocks and were seemingly cruising to victory at 31-0 at a point a minute and tallying the fastest ever Guinness Six Nations try bonus point along the way.
No side in the 148-year history of test rugby had ever come back from as big a deficit to win. Someone did not tell Gregor Townend’s charges that fact as Stuart McInally’s 35th minute try gave them perhaps the faintest glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel at the half-time oranges.
After the break the Scots were possessed, playing sublime rugby with each try cutting England’s lead successively to 24, 19, 12 and then 7 points. Then with eleven minutes left Greig Laidlaw’s conversion of Finn Russell’s try tied the scores at an incredible 31-all.
It was far from finished though, Sam Johnson’s 76th minute try giving Scotland the lead for the first time on the day.
The copy was just about to be filed proclaiming the biggest comeback in Test history when George Ford had the last word with a conversion of his own try with the last kick of the game producing the biggest scoring draw in almost 10,000 games of international rugby since these same two nations started it all way back in 1871.
For the record the previous highest test draw had been set only 21 months before in Nairobi with a 33-all draw between Kenya and Uganda during Africa’s Gold Cup competition.
Scotland will have to settle for the biggest ever comeback to tie a Test match, a record that they themselves already held since 2001 when Wales visited Murrayfield in Round Two.
On that occasion Wales had led 18-6 at the break and stretched that advantage to 19 points early in the second half with a Neil Jenkins conversion of Mark Taylor’s try. The Scots once more showed that they don’t know when they’re beaten with three tries from Chris Paterson, James McLaren and Tom Smith.
Duncan Hodges’s two points conversion two minutes from time tying the scores at 28-all.
What a finish to a “Super Saturday” which not only lived up to the billing but exceeded it. Roll on the 2020 Guinness Six Nations. I can’t wait!
Wales claimed a 12th Championship grand slam with their victory in Cardiff, and it is worth noting that when they have the chance to cap a perfect campaign they more often than not succeed.
Since Wales claimed their first grand slam in 1908 they have only in fact failed to win that all important decisive final game on three occasions, whilst their home record in such encounters is now won 10, lost 1, with the only slip up being to France in 1988, when going down by a solitary point on that occasion, 9-10.
Conversely, Ireland had been in opposition on eleven previous occasions when their adversaries were going for a grand slam and only spoiled the party three times, all against England in Dublin in 2001, 2011 and 2017.
Warren Gatland brought down the curtain on a glittering Guinness Six Nations coaching career with an unprecedented third grand slam as head coach, in his 50th Championship match in charge of Wales (not forgetting that he also had a won 7, lost 3 record at the helm for Ireland in the Six Nations in 2000-01).