It’s Sunday morning and the dust has finally settled after a Saturday to end all Saturday’s. In fact, now I understand why it is known as ‘Super Saturday’. Yesterday, I sat and watched three amazing games of rugby union and can only ponder at the potential of the sport if every game was played in the same way. There was passion, skill, strength, guts and huge helpings of excitement. It could even rival that ’round ball’ game.
Up until yesterday there was a general feeling that rugby union was becoming boring, dominated by collapsing scrums, defence, penalties and pedantic referees. Rugby fans bemoaned that the game no longer possessed players of the quality and skill of Gareth Edwards, Jeremy Guscott, Shane Williams, Brian O’Driscoll and Serge Blanco. The media highlighted structured games plans and dictatorial coaches who only wanted their teams to play in one style. How wrong could they all be?
The preceding four weekends of test matches had seen Ireland, England and Wales dominate the championship, each securing three wins. The atmosphere in Cardiff on that Friday was electric and there was a buzz of anticipation. The streets of Cardiff were full of red and white with scarfs, hats and flags everywhere you looked. On that opening night in Cardiff, England cast aside memories of 2 years ago and, with a dominant second half performance, deservedly beat Wales. I was photographing at the Legends Hospitality event in the Parc Thistle in Cardiff, with Steve Fenwick and JPR Williams in attendance, and left in stunned shock at the manner of our defeat and how badly we had underperformed in that second half. The media leapt on the defeat, citing ‘Warren Ball’ and a lack of ‘Plan B’ as being the reasons for the defeat when, in truth, it was simply that England performed better than Wales on the day.
In the eyes of the English press, I do believe that after that opening day victory they thought that the championship was England’s, but Ireland had other ideas. Out in Dublin they displayed why they were the Six Nations champions and masterly executed a plan to deservedly beat the English.
With a Grand Slam in their sights, Ireland arrived at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to play Wales. Since the opening match Wales had improved, beating Scotland and France and there appeared to be a renewed belief in the team. Again, I was covering the Legends Hospitality event in the Parc Thistle in Cardiff for Legends Hospitality, and before the match we listened to wise words and funny tales from Garin Jenkins and Kingsley Jones. We had to match them up front, was the general opinion, and Wales ended up doing that and much much more. In one of the most incredible defensive performances of all time, Wales beat Ireland. Records tumbled with the most tackles ever being made in a Six Nations test match (289) and with Luke Charteris, a second row forward, making 46 of them. What was more incredible in my eyes was the fact that Wales looked so comfortable in defence, organising and reorganising as wave after wave of green shirts assaulted the Welsh line. Shaun Edwards, you are a master of your trade.
So onto the final weekend with the three strongest rugby union teams in the Six Nations each playing potentially weaker opposition with points difference likely to determine the championship winner. Wales had to beat Italy by an unthinkable margin in Rome, Ireland had to rack up the points against Scotland in Murrayfield and England would then be left to get out the calculator to work out how many points they would need to beat France by at Twickenham. Even the most imaginative script writer in Hollywood could not have dreamt up what actually unfolded.
At 12:30, Wales and Italy kicked off in Rome with Wales just edging a tense 1st half. I was watching the game with my Dad and son in his house, whilst being fed by my Mam. What happened in the 2nd half defied belief. With power, skill and speed they annihilated the Italians 61-20. Tries were being scored at will, some started from their own try line. This was pure magic and the unimaginable was suddenly appearing possible. However, the Italians scored a last minute try and converted it from the touchline and I looked at my Dad and we both wondered if that would cost us the championship. However, we still had a very strong points different. I was quietly confident.
Ireland and Scotland were up next and this was the one I feared. Scotland had been really poor and were without a single win. My fears proved founded as Ireland totally took them apart, winning 40-10 and destroying Welsh hopes. My dream had been destroyed. My heart broken by the men in green. Ireland was now in command of the championship and England would have to do something truly extrodinary to win the tournament.
I had left my Dad’s by this time and was back home watching England play France. I expected England to win, but only just. France was due a big game after having a poor championship. I turned on the TV with France 15-10 up and thought that England’s chances were over. How wrong could I have been? In one of the most amazing performances I have seen, England ran France ragged, scoring try after try, but the French refused to give in. Out of nowhere they kept coming back, scoring tries and denting the English hopes. Ultimately, England just could not score the points they needed and the Six Nations championship was once again green.
On that incredible last day records had tumbled. A record win for Wales in Italy, a record win for Ireland in Scotland and a record win for England against France. After the Wales victory I honestly thought that we would secure the title and we ended up finishing 3rd. The quality of the three top teams means that we truly have potential World Cup winners and the Southern Hemisphere sides would have watched the games with wide open eyes and nervous stomachs.
Yesterday was one of the best adverts for the game of rugby union that I have ever seen and I just hope that all three sides can perform at these incredible levels in the Autumn World Cup.
Congratulations Ireland but I salute you, Wales and England!