You can beat Europe’s top teams but you can’t beat the Six Nations
Southern hemisphere fans might scoff at the quality of Europe’s premier rugby competition but, yet again, the Six Nations championship has proved itself unrivalled when it comes to unpredictability and excitement.
Having waited 61 years for their second grand slam, Ireland were within seconds of having it cruelly ripped from their grasp, only for Stephen Jones’s last-minute penalty to fall short in Saturday’s nail-gnawingly tense Cardiff finale.
Had Gavin Henson been entrusted with the 48-metre kick instead of Jones, who was always straining for the distance, then Ireland might have been celebrating merely their first championship since 1985, with Wales having the consolation of a triple crown.
As it was, Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal, and another immense performance from Brian O’Driscoll, proved decisive, and few neutrals will begrudge either great servant their moment of joy.
The 2009 championship will always be remembered as the year Ireland’s “golden generation” finally delivered, and in typical Six Nations fashion, they did it just when everyone had stopped predicting that they would do so.
They were at their best for only short spells but showed admirable tenacity and, crucially after so many heart-breaking previous near-misses, showed that they were no longer willing to play the role of plucky losers.
Wales also emerged with their honour intact, playing their part in Saturday’s memorable finale, which will also have delighted the tournament schedulers, its beleaguered sponsors and the BBC.
England enjoyed a roller-coaster tournament, ending with the high of wins over France and Scotland to secure a second successive second place.
It was the same old same old for France, who turned on the style to beat Wales and followed it up with their shocking capitulation against England.
There was little to celebrate either for the competition’s “bottom division” as Scotland managed just one win for the third season running, and Italy went backwards with a clean sweep of defeats.
The quality of the rugby on show will not have struck fear into the world champion Springboks as they prepare to welcome the British and Irish Lions but, as Johnson knows all too well from his captaincy of the 1997 Lions who beat the then-world champions South Africa, you write the Lions off at your peril.
“The whole feel of the tournament has been great and Ian McGeechan and his crew have a really good group to pick a series-winning squad from,” Johnson said on Saturday.
“He knows what he’s after and what type of person he wants on that tour. I think he’ll get a really top squad.”
PHOTO: Brian O’Driscol celebrates after Ireland’s victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales March 21, 2009. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
NOTE: We got our maths wrong first up. It was of course 61 years since Ireland’s first Grand Slam, not 51, and I’ve amended accordingly.