The rugby wasn't always vintage and the set scrum (or rather its interpretation by referees) remains a terrible mess but there's still something very splendid and very special about the Six Nations championship. France were the class of the field, even if they produced their most indifferent performance of the season when clinching Le Grand Chelem against England last night.
Elsewhere it was a case of frustrated regrets over what might have been mixed with glimpses of a more promising future. Every side will mourn the opportunities that got away. For Scotland that feeling was especially acute as winning positions against Wales (a match henceforth to be known as The Mad Horror), Italy and England were all squandered. But everyone else could say something similar. England will feel they could have beaten Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France while Wales must suspect that only ill-discipline prevented them from beating England. Meanwhile Ireland will rue their failure to conquer Scotland to claim another Triple Crown and even Italy will think that with a spot of luck, a touch more composure and so on they could, for the first time, have beaten England.
Given their resources, of course, England were the gravest disappointment and in any pound-for-pound analysis they'd be bottom of the table. Nevertheless, it's a mark of their cussedness that despite being poor for much of the tournament they were not so very far away from winning it all. Then again, the divide between success and failure is so very, very thin and so you could also argue that England were miles away from success. This too is part of the beauty of the championship.
A report card, then:
France: When France beat New Zealand in Dunedin last summer it was apparent that Marc Lievremont had, after some time and no small amount of experimentation, discovered his best side. Consider this back division: Medard, Rougerie, Mermoz, Traille, Heymans, Michalak, Yachvili. A pretty useful outfit indeed, yet none of these players played a major role in the championship, such is French strength in depth. For all that, it was the front row of Domingo, Servat and Mas that laid the foundation for French success. Nallet was magnificent in the boiler-room and Imanol Harinodoquy a joy to watch at 8 and, in my view, the player of the tournament. Behind them Morgan Parra was the outstanding scrum-half on show and it was grand to see Jauzion back to his princely best. I'm unpersuaded that Matthieu Bastareaud's defence and hands are quite good enough and suspect Maxime Mermoz will return next season. In theory at least, this French side should continue to improve. Which is a bit of a problem for everyone else. On the other hand, trips to Dublin and London next season will not be easy...
Ireland: There was a splendid efficiency about Ireland when it came to taking their chances against both England and Wales. But efficiency is another way of saying that they failed to dominate. Notwithstanding the introduction of Cian Healy this Irish pack is beginning to show the signs of age. Under-powered in the front five and with the years and miles catching up with David Wallace Ireland urgently need to find fresh faces at 3 and 7 if they're to a) achieve security at the scrummage and b) deliver the quick ball such a richly talented back division both demands and deserves. Johnny Sexton will kick his fair share of goals in the future, but I suspect Ronan O'Gara believes he's still the best 10 in Ireland. Brian O'Driscoll was, as always, splendid and Tommy Bowe, with his intelligence and balance and poise and nous, is a joy to watch. He is, by some distance, the best winger in these islands.
England: I think it's very difficult to succeed in international rugby without a genuine open-side flanker who is both scavenger and creative pivot. England, for all Lewis Moody's bravery and tenacity, don't quite have such a player. Consequently, too much of the ball they win is too slow which in turn makes it terribly hard to break defences. Equally, the current England front five terrifies no-one and while Danny Care does some good things he can take a hell of a long time to get his pass away. So the lack of penetration in the back division is not just a backs problem. I suspect England may also be guilty of over-thinking the game. Paradoxically rugby is a complicated sport that is, in essence, very simple. England sometimes seem so conscious of the former that they forget the latter. They play as though they're cramped and muscle-bound; yet as they showed in Paris when they set themselves free (or have little to lose) they can still play with a measure of pomp and creativity. Everyone else worries that England will get it right one day; they seem to worry that they won't. And play accordingly.
Wales: Given that they played most of the championship without Mike Philips, Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees, Wales might settle for mid-table. Add Jamie Roberts' lack of form and Lee Byrne's inconsistency and Wales, for all their talent, may have done better than their actual performances merited. Certainly their victory against Scotland was an act of larceny and for all the spirit they showed I'm compelled to remind you that two of their tries, including the last, sickening, match-winning score depended upon forward passes. But Wales have talent and, almost or just as importantly, belief in that talent. The back-row must be a concern however: Ryan Jones was the weakest number 8 in the championship, there's no real bruiser at 6 and Martin Williams's best days must now be behind him. Defensively too, Wales were weaker than in recent years and one wonders if other countries have sussed them out somewhat. Nevertheless, James Hook had a splendid season and with a full complement Wales retain the ability to defeat anyone else in the championship. Still, I suspect only England can be more disappointed with their season.
Scotland: Conversely, if oddly for a side that won only once, only France can be happier with the season than Scotland. Results matter more than anything else, for sure, but this was a great step forward for Scotland. No-one will be carried away for far too many holes remain but Scotland were only a couple of minutes and a couple of inches away from heading to Dublin to play for a first Triple Crown in 20 years. The back division remains workmanlike (as three tries in five matches attests) but the defence was, on the whole, sound and this Scottish pack is beginning to look as though it can do some damage. Best of all its best days should be ahead of it (the average age of the pack that started against Ireland was 26.75). Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnny Beattie were three of the most improved players in the championship and since all good Scottish teams depend upon a ferocious, marauding back-row this bodes well for the future. If Lievremont is coach of the year, Andy Robinson is probably runner-up. With three matches at Murrayfield next year, three wins is a reasonable target.
Italy: I like seeing Italy win matches; I just wish more of those victories were against Wales, Ireland, France or England. After an appalling start in Dublin in which they betrayed the spirit of the game Italy were splendidly competitive against an admittedly terrible England before, yet again, beating Scotland in Rome. Castrogiovanni, Mauro Bergamasco and Zanni were all immense up front in both these fixtures and it is now the case that, at home, Italy are tough nuts. That's good. On the whole their defence was much improved and if they still lack pace and wit in the back division there's little doubt, I think, that Italy are improving. Control at half-back remains a problem but Canavoisio and Gower each had their moments and Nick Mallet is making progress. Entry into the Magners league should help and there remains something marvellously refreshing and infectious about the enthusiasm and spirit of the Italian supporters. Ten years after their debut they remain a welcome addition to the championship and everyone, I think, loves to go to Rome for a spring weekend every second year. Their time will come. Eventually.
So, a team of the tournament:
You can easily quibble with or be infuriated by some of these selections. So here's a 2nd XV to annoy you too.
English players may be a little hard done by here, but their merits were displayed as a collective rather than as individuals.
Roll on next year!