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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 06:53 GMT
A Six Nations to savour?
By Bryn Palmer

What to make of the 2006 Six Nations?

A sub-standard affair with no outstanding team and little to get the juices flowing?

Or a celebration of the unpredictability of sport and the narrowing of the gap between the haves and the have-nots?

It was a curious tournament, to say the least.

France fly-half Frederic Michalak celebrates their Six Nations title triumph
Too little to show for it? Frederic Michalak celebrates France's victory
France and Ireland shared the spoils of victory, carrying off the Six Nations title and Triple Crown respectively.

Yet Scotland - who had their best campaign since winning the last Five Nations title - and Italy, who collected another Wooden Spoon, had as much, if not more, to celebrate.

To see France's players cavorting around in Cardiff once their triumph was confirmed suggested a satisfactory denouement, at least in their eyes.

They were, lest we forget, favourites at the outset, and duly proved they merited that particular label.

But while Les Bleus celebrated a fifth title in 10 years, and their third in the last five, it was far from a vintage effort.

Where was their much-celebrated flair? In the delicate chip that Frederic Michalak sent over the Welsh defence for the winning try in Cardiff perhaps, but scarcely evident elsewhere.

The French game-plan was no more than perfunctory, often relying on opponents' mistakes, and yet it was good enough.

"I would rate our performance as average plus," said team manager Jo Maso. "But this average plus performance leaves us with a positive balance sheet."

How many of the other countries can say the same?

Certainly not England, for whom the prospect of a successful World Cup defence looks a ludicrously optimistic proposition.

Fourth for the second year in a row, with three more defeats on the bounce, including the lamentable display in Paris.

Andy Robinson claims his side are making progress, but England have stagnated at best, if not gone backwards.

Presuming the Rugby Football Union does not go into guillotine mode, the head coach has plenty of hard thinking to do - if it is not too late already 18 months out from the World Cup.

What of Wales, last season's Grand Slam champions?

It was never realistic to expect them to repeat that achievement with half a team of front-line players out injured.

FINAL SIX NATIONS TABLE
France W4 L1 Tries F18 A7 Pts8
Ire'nd W4 L1 Tries F12 A10 Pts8
Scotl'd W3 L2 Tries F5 A7 Pts6
Engl'd W2 L3 Tries F12 A8 Pts 4
Wal W1 D1 L4 Tries F9 A15 Pts3
Ita W0 D1 L4 Tries F5 A14 Pts1
But the internal machinations that led to the shock departure of coach Mike Ruddock two games into the campaign were self-inflicted wounds still to be healed.

The continued uncertainty over Scott Johnson's position cannot have helped either, as their Dublin display illustrated.

But there was enough in Saturday's uplifting effort against France to suggest Wales will challenge again next year, bolstered by the return of their long-term absentees.

Ireland might reflect that if their miraculous second-half recovery in Paris had continued to the final whistle, they could be celebrating a Grand Slam of their own.

Yet a second Triple Crown in three years is sufficient reward for a campaign that started with a splutter and never really hit top gear, even in victory at Twickenham.

After a tricky autumn, though, coach Eddie O'Sullivan will point to the success of several new faces as evidence his side are on the right track towards France 2007.

And so to Scotland, the surprise package of the tournament.

There were a few raised eyebrows when Frank Hadden hinted at the outset his men could be on the verge of one of the country's sporadic "periods of tremendous over-achievement".

Coach Frank Hadden (left) celebrates with Chris Paterson after Scotland's win in Rome
The Scots had plenty to celebrate
But the new coach was as good as his word, inspiring his men to epic home victories over France and England and a last-day triumph in Rome.

In captain Jason White, he had the player of the tournament, epitomising the Scots' remarkable defensive resilience.

Scoring tries does not come easily yet, but the adventure shown in Rome bodes well for continued progress.

And how to comfort Italy, whose impressive campaign yielded only a fifth Wooden Spoon in seven years?

They were competitive in every game, yet had only a solitary point - their first away from home - to show for their efforts.

But in the Azzurri's dramatic improvement lies perhaps one of the underlying reasons for an underwhelming tournament.

A few years ago there was talk of a second-tier Six Nations, but now there are no pushovers, no easy victories, no givens.

That in turn makes it more difficult for the traditional powers to shine, as the minnows learn how to swim with the big fish.

The overall standard, particularly in attack, left something to be desired; the All Blacks are hardly quaking in their boots.

But the Six Nations, as Europe's showpiece tournament, is an end in itself, and not a reliable guide to World Cup fortunes.

It is an annual ritual, tribal warfare at its best, where each country reveals its national traits, for better or worse.

And for that we should celebrate it, not denigrate it.




SEE ALSO
England 24-28 Ireland
19 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Wales 16-21 France
18 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Italy 10-13 Scotland
18 Mar 06 |  Internationals
France 31-6 England
12 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Ireland 15-9 Scotland
11 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Wales 18-18 Italy
11 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Ireland 31-5 Wales
26 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Scotland 18-12 England
25 Feb 06 |  Internationals
France 37-12 Italy
25 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Wales 28-18 Scotland
12 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Italy 16-31 England
11 Feb 06 |  Internationals
France 43-31 Ireland
11 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Scotland 20-16 France
05 Feb 06 |  Internationals
England 47-13 Wales
04 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Ireland 26-16 Italy
04 Feb 06 |  Internationals


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