So far so good, except France were the side to grind out the win, and England left distraught after playing more of the rugby.
In a game where very few gave them a chance, Martin JohnsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s men gave France an almighty scare, and more than a few Frenchmen in the crowd will have been thinking to themselves Ã¢â‚¬Ëœnot againÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ when Jonny Wilkinson kicked a long range penalty to bring England within two points with just over ten minutes to go. However, it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t to be as the French managed to strangle the life out of the game and didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t give England a chance to spoil the party.
It had started well for England. After conceding an early drop goal to FranÃƒÂ§ois Trinh-Duc, they spread the ball through the hands to work an overlap where newcomer Ben Foden showed his pace to go over in the corner. However, unlike in previous years, France did not crumble upon conceding an early try, and great tactical kicking by Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra, combined with a completely dominant scrum, allowed France to kick four penalties to take a 12-7 half time lead.
Before this tournament, Thomas Domingo had just one start for his country, and his path into the side looked definitively blocked by Fabien Barcella. However, the young Clermont prop has taken his chance with both hands, and caused EnglandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s young hopeful, Dan Cole, all sorts of trouble in the first half in Paris.
France looked in control as England were trying to run everything but getting nowhere, especially with the torrential rain making handling impossible. However, that changed in the second half as conditions improved and England started to spot some gaps in the French defence. Debutant, Chris Ashton, had a great chance when he was face to face with ClÃƒÂ©ment Poitrenaud, but chose the wrong option by chipping when a pass to Riki Flutey outside would surely have led to a try.
Mark Cueto also made a great break, but yet another knock on, this time from Danny Care, stopped the attack dead. The more attacking England became, the more the French retreated into their shells. It had been three years since they had beaten their big rivals, and this psychological hold was clearly inhibiting them. But despite, WilkinsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s penalty, Thierry Dusautoir and his men managed to hold on, and perhaps now, they will be able to play with the same freedom against England as they did against most other sides in this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s championship.
So, France won the Grand Slam, and despite a disappointing performance in the last game, they were head and shoulders ahead of the rest. Marc LiÃƒÂ¨vremont knows that he is building towards the World Cup next year, and whilst there is still work to be done, they certainly have the potential to be contenders.
Second place went to Ireland, who will be disappointed at losing two games after last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s slam. They have a few youngsters coming through, but the inability to replace John Hayes will be a major worry, and their scrum was far and away the worst in the tournament.
England came third, with a final performance which may have saved Martin Johnson his job. The question now is will he continue to play the same rugby that we saw in Paris, or will they return to the safety first tactics that proved equally unsuccessful against the Irish and the Scots.
Warren GatlandÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Wales secured a second consecutive fourth place, and the Kiwi will start to come under a little pressure, given the quality at his disposal. In his defence, the loss of several key players, especially Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins, was always going to make things tough for the Welsh, but with a very tough programme to come leading up to the world cup, Wales would have hoped for better.
The revelation of the tournament was the Scots. Although they only recorded one win, and had to wait until their final game to do so, they could and probably should have beaten Wales, Italy and England. Their back row competed with everyone in the tournament, and Dan Parks produced his best performances in a Scottish shirt. With a lot of youth in the side, Andy Robinson has the chance to build a side which can compete at the top of the Six Nations for the first time in a decade.
And unsurprisingly, in last place came Nick MallettÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Italians, with a solitary win at home over the Scots. It was always going to be tough without their one world class player and captain, Sergio Parisse, but Italy fought valiantly until the final two matches where they were unable to cope with the pace of the French and the Welsh. The signs of progress are not too apparent, but with the addition of two Italian sides to the MagnerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s League, perhaps the popularity of the sport will increase.
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BIOGRAPHY: Hector Bellerin
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