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The kick-offs were staggered and the rugby was staggering. The first three rounds of the Six Nations produced 27 tries, a number matched on superlative Saturday. Wales set the bar high by running riot in Rome, obliging Italy and England to follow. The straitjackets were off and players revelled in the freedom, thrills augmented by spills.
It was a case, for once, of who dares wins rather than sins and the extraordinary nature of the final day may be summed up in Wales scoring 61 points away from home and England passing 50 against France for the first time only to receive commiserations.
“I am devastated,” said the England captain Chris Robshaw after a victory that in the previous weeks would have been a cue for national celebration. He and his players, runners-up for the fourth consecutive year, were left to rue a late driving maul that ended with a penalty to France rather than the penalty try that would have taken them above Ireland.
But, as they reflect on another tournament that got away, other incidents will come to mind.
James Haskell was centimetres away from scoring a try in Cardiff; they gave away a soft try at the start against Italy; they were denied a try late on in Dublin because a pass was ruled forward; and they failed more often than not to finish what they started against Scotland. The last four titles have been shared by Wales and Ireland: England have lost four matches in that period, the same number as Wales but three fewer than Ireland who have also drawn two.
England had the advantage of knowing what they had to do against France. Wales and Ireland before them had only been able to set a target and then wait, which prompted questions about the fairness of staggering the kick-offs on the final day.
Why not, as on the final weekend of football’s Premier League season, have all the games starting at the same time?
The Six Nations is not about fairness. England played three of their five matches at home this year while Wales and Ireland were on the road on three weekends. Last year the position was reversed.
Wales have long complained about the way the fixtures are organised, saying they invariably get one of their toughest fixtures first-up, unlike Ireland or France.
The different kick-off times meant that the drama on the final day was played out in three acts. All three games had twists in the closing moments. Gareth Davies’s failure to cling on to an interception in Rome meant that instead of winning by 55 points, which would have been enough to secure the title, the margin over Italy was 41 because Leonardo Sarto, the wing who had destroyed England’s title dream in Rome the year before by helping himself to Luther Burrell’s pass and scoring, ran most of the length of the field to leave Ireland the task of defeating Scotland by 21 points to end Wales’ challenge.
In the closing moments at Murrayfield, Stuart Hogg was over the line and about to touch the ball down when the Ireland No8, Jamie Heaslip, knocked it from his grasp. If converted, England would have needed to beat France by 19 points, which they did; if not, it would have meant the kickable penalty 90 seconds from the end at Twickenham would have been for the title rather than a means of setting up a driving lineout.
Would the tension have been so high with simultaneous kick-offs? Stoppage time is invariably longer in rugby union than football with some matches lasting considerably longer than others, not least if television match officials have a busy afternoon. Each second half would have to start at the same time, but even then the chances are that one of the three contenders would have a few minutes when they were in control of their destiny.
The varying kick-offs worked, but it also helped that the order of the matches involved the team with the lowest points difference going first and the one with the highest concluding the weekend. Wales acted on the basis that victory alone would not have been enough, not unreasonably given that France had not beaten one of the top three since the last World Cup and Scotland had done so only once, and their second-half spree set the tone for probably the most remarkable weekend in the 16-season history of the Six Nations.
“Massive credit to the French for the way they fronted up for this game and for the way they played, compared to a few other countries,” said the England full-back Mike Brown, reflecting on the capitulation of Italy and Scotland. “France played a game. I don’t need to say anything else. Everyone knows it.” Everybody knows that England had their chances against Scotland the previous week and failed to take most of them. For the second time in three years, they started the final day at the head of the table but failed to stay there.
It was down to them, not others, and Haskell’s yellow card for tripping ultimately cost England who conceded 10 points while scoring seven in his absence: without that difference, the late penalty would have won them the title on try count. The tournament came down to the final play of the final game. Who could reasonably ask for more?