What a difference a day, or in this instance, several weeks makes. On the back of an unprecedented run of defeats and having just lost at home to Ireland in their 6 Nations 2013 opener, nobody would have pegged Wales as the team to be lifting the trophy at the end of the season. Yet, 6 weeks later, after one of the most inspired performances of the professional rugby era, they did just that.
The tournament began at breakneck speed with Ireland racing out to a half time lead in Cardiff in the opening fixture only to end up holding on for a narrow victory in the end. England followed this up by mauling the hapless Scots, exposing a misshapen defensive line to put 38pts on the board and lift the Calcutta cup. The first weekend was completed by one of the best moments in the tournaments history. The much maligned Italians turned the Stadio Olimpico into the scene of one of their finest hours; beating a much fancied French side and sending shock waves through Northern hemisphere rugby.
If that first weekend was anything to go by, Ireland and England had emerged as real title contenders and the French had turned in a typically maddening showing. But, as this wonderful competition often does to us, we were soon to be surprised yet again.
In round two, the hapless Scots and inspired Italians swapped roles, as the Tartan army roared on a mammoth Scottish victory over a frankly disinterested Italian side. A stark contrast from the previous week. In the next game, France and Wales tried their best to ensure we all fell asleep early that night; the Welsh eventually winning the game thanks to a late try and penalty - cue Parisian boos. The final game of the weekend was in a monsoon soaked Dublin, where the only two unbeaten teams faced off. A damp squib in every sense, neither team looked like crossing the white wash, with England winning the attritional battle and maintaining their unbeaten record.
After a week off, which allowed us all to spend Valentine’s day watching Die Hard 5, round three of games began with Wales dispatching an off kilter Italian side. England then faced possibly their toughest test, when they had to come from behind at Twickenham to beat France, although Freddy Michalak's kicking boots being left in Paris were a contributory factor. In the final game of the round, Ireland somehow managed to turn over 70% possession and over 75% territory into a defeat as they yet again failed to score in the final quarter of a match, allowing Scotland a 12-8 come-from-behind victory.
Week four left the championship in the balance, as a seemingly revitalised Welsh side overcame Scotland at Murrayfield, meaning the championship was still a possibility for them. Ireland did their best to lose their game with France, only for the French to prove equally inept at winning the match, leaving both teams with a point which neither deserved. England then survived a scare and had some questionable decisions to thank for their seven point victory over Italy.
Entering the final day, England were on for the Grand Slam, Wales had an outside chance of winning the title and France were on for the wooden spoon. Compare this with the pre-tournament odds, which had England and France as 2-1 favourites, with Wales 5/1 "outsiders" for the trophy, and we get a feel for the type of surprises the 6 Nations is want to spring on us.
In the first game of the day, Ireland blamed injury and referee decisions on their defeat to Italy when, in truth, the Italians were thoroughly deserving of their victory. To think that this may have been Brian O'Driscolls last appearance in the tournament really makes one feel a sense of injustice to the great man when allying his possible last appearance with the ridiculously poor level of his teams displays this year.
Despite being the second game of a triple header, the Wales v England game was clearly the standout fixture of the day and the defining moment of the tournament. The math was simple: Wales needed to win by 8 to secure a championship of their own. A win for England of any sort would see the men in white secure their first Slam since 2003.
Even before the anthems, the tension was palpable as fans filled the wonderful Millennium stadium which, with the roof closed, is undoubtedly one of the best sports venues in the world. A surprisingly loud rendition of 'God Save the Queen' gave an idea just how many English supporters had managed to get their hands on tickets but, as they have countless times before, the Welsh fans set the tone with their ear-piercing version of ''Land of my Fathers”.
From the moment the game kicked off, you could sense there was something different. The hits were colossal, every ball taken at pace and met with ferocity in the tackle. Wales, having a clear disadvantage at lineout time, made a very shrewd tactical decision to not kick ball into touch. They kept the ball live as much as possible, which seemed to unsettle the English. As the teams traded blows, in the tight and the loose, Leigh Halfpenny was winning his kicking duel with Owen Farrell with the teams going in 9-3 at halftime. No slam, but still a championship for England as it stood.
After another Halfpenny penalty, the game was still tightly balanced until, following some questionable work at the breakdown by Ken Owens, Wales countered quickly down the right, putting the ball through the hands and Alex Cuthbert finished neatly in the corner. Now, the championship was staying in Cardiff but there was still time on the clock. A Dan Biggar drop goal after several phases extended the advantage before Wales put a spectacular nail in the English coffin. After a poor pass from Danny Care, Sam Warburton broke upfield and again quick hands saw the ball on the Welsh wing with the men in red screeching toward the English whitewash. What we saw next would have been lauded had it been from O'Driscoll, Carling or Campese but the fact that it was the Welsh back row forward Justin Tipuric made it all the better.
Two on two with Cuthbert outside him, Tipuric straightened his run and drew his own man before showing great acceleration to avoid the tackle. With Mike Brown holding the correct position outside, Tipuric threw a glorious dummy, ducked past Brown and then threw another dummy to draw the tackle before a sublime offload sent Cuthbert into the corner and extinguished any lingering English hopes. A fitting end to a wonderful game and a typically unpredictable championship.
End of Championship Awards
Best Try: Zebo profiting from O'Driscolls brilliance in Cardiff, Staurt Hoggs wonderful near-pitch length intercept against Italy and Fofanas wonderful solo effort against Italy were all stunning scores but, given the magnitude of the occasion and the wonderful skill shown by all involved, my vote goes to Alex Cuthberts second try in the decider against England in Cardiff.
Best Coach: If I say Declan Kidney, does that mean he'll leave? Scott Johnson was excellent in turning around Scottish fortunes with a total overhaul of their defensive approach and Stuart Lancaster has worked wonders with England but, given that they won two games and could conceivably have won three, Jacques Brunel gets the nod for his work with the Italians this campaign.
Best Team: The aforementioned Italians or Scots could have won here but, given that they were written off by the critics after the loss to Ireland, the Welsh win out on this count. They grew into the tournament and peaked at the right time, culminating in a complete second half destruction of the Grand Slam chasing England. It's just a shame for Wales that the World Cup is two years away.
Best Player: There were several standout players from almost every nation. Zanni and Masi, Picamoles, Wood, Tipuric et al. My choice is, in my opinion, the starting fullback for the B&I Lions this summer in Australia, Leigh Halfpenny. The security he provides his teammates from a defensive standpoint, his assuredness under the highball, ability and willingness to counterattack, along with his near perfect goal kicking, leave him top of the pile for 2013 and will have Robbie Deans and the Wallabies looking elsewhere in the Lions XV for weaknesses.
Standout Moment: There were amazing games, wonderful individual displays and some memorable supporters but, for me, the moment of the tournament was watching Andrea Lo Cicero depart the field for the final time in Rome with tears in his eyes. Having represented his country 103 times, he still exuded the emotion and hunger of a new cap and serves as a great example that professionalism has not ruined the purity of the sport.
We had a near-miss Grand Slam, the eventual winners had been written off after the first match and one of the pre-tournament favourites finishing last. Unusual? An aberration? A once in a lifetime occurrence? Nope. Just another 6 Nations.