In what is essentially a short tournament (five rounds of matches fitted into seven weekends in February and March) momentum usually means winning your first match. This breeds confidence with spills over into future games and this process is, in theory, self-fulfilling as the early protagonists fight amongst themselves for the title. True, in the last game or two nerves may return as the prize at stake (the title, or a Grand Slam) becomes higher, but usually a good start still yields at least one of the two goals. Since the onset of the professional era (shortly after the 1995 5 Nations) only two teams have proceeded to win the title after losing their opening match (England in 1996 and France in 2006). Another bonus, since the introduction of Italy to the championships, is having three home games rather than two. In the 13 previous Six Nations championships, only 4 teams have won the title playing only two games at home and hence three away (England in 2000; Wales in 2005; France in 2007 and Ireland in 2009).
By this dual statistical measure, England came into the championships looking good. Stuart Lancaster's young side capped off an otherwise mixed set of Autumn Internationals with a resounding defeat of the All-Blacks! On the back of this they opened up their campaign with a comfortable, expansive victory over Scotland at Twickenham. A 12-6 victory over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium ended a 10-year away drought against the Irish and was followed by home victories over France and Italy. Although the latter victory was far less comfortable than anticipated, they still seemed to have the momentum, confidence and ability to win the championship and maybe even the Grand Slam to boot. Their likely competitors Ireland and France, meanwhile, were playing only two home games and had fallen by the wayside as injuries and poor form overwhelmed them.
Lying in wait for England in the final game was Wales. Grand Slam winners 12 months ago, the Welsh were coming into the championships shorn of confidence, having been beset by injuries (particularly to their 2nd Row) and having failed to win a single game since last year's Championship! To compound things, they were then blown away by Ireland in the first-half of their opener at home in the Millennium Stadium. Although they recovered in the 2nd Half, it was not enough to salvage the game. With confidence seemingly at rock bottom, and a trip to Paris next up, they seemed to be going nowhere fast. In this sense, there seemed to be echoes of 2006 and 2009, both years in which Wales had - despite occasionally good performances - demonstrably failed to kick on after Grand Slam successes in the previous years. Some even went further; with three away games remaining, a Wooden Spoon was a distinct possibility.
The remedy was that Wales needed a win from somewhere...anywhere! They were perhaps fortunate to be encountering a French side which themselves were going through a period of introspection after title dreams were blown away by a surprise opening weekend defeat to Italy in Rome's Stadio Olimpico. What followed was a nervous match, played with little adventure by two teams trying their hardest simply not to lose. One moment of inspiration punctuated the perspiration on offer; spotting space, fly-half Dan Biggar sent a delicate chip out to the far-side which was seized upon by wing George North, who promptly bundled over for a priceless Welsh try. Leigh Halfpenny's boot had not wavered even through the difficult times and the full-back added the rest of the points to give Wales a breakthrough 16-6 win at the Stade de France.
The Welsh were on their way and, suddenly, things started to fall into place. Ryan Jones - restored to the side as captain in Paris - seemed to enjoy drawing upon his years of experience to guide a young side through their difficulties and wins followed against Italy (in the Roman rain) and Scotland (at Murrayfield). Relative newcomers against Ireland started to mature and grow in confidence, including the second-row forwards Ian Evans and Andrew Coombs and fly-half Biggar whilst experienced heads like Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones overcame their respective injury battles. Coming into the final weekend of the championships, only Wales could deny England a Grand Slam and, if they won by eight points or more, they would even pinch the championship! Despite, lest we forget, three away games and an 11-month losing streak which included the opening game of the Six Nations! Even at this stage, England were most people's pick. Yes, it was in Cardiff, in front of a passionate Welsh rugby crowd. Yes, Wales were coming to the boil and, yes, they may even win, but most people's money was on England staying close enough to still take the title.
Wales saved their best for last and, with it, all predictions and betting slips were heading for the recycle bin long before the full-time whistle. To give England their due, they fought tremendously hard in an extremely physical contest and, as a result, were still in touch at 9-3 down at the interval. But they couldn't sustain that performance for ever and after about 55 minutes the Welsh put the afterburners on; after Halfpenny's kicks and a Biggar drop-goal had earlier put them a crucial nine points ahead, two tries by wing Alex Cuthbert truly took the wind out of England's sails and hastened a 30-3 romp in Wales' favour - a record win for them over their big rivals from across the River Severn! Heroes in red were to be found all over the field; the front-row (Jenkins - stand-in captain with Ryan Jones injured, Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard) were 'streetwise' in the scrum; Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric were brilliant ball-carrying flankers (Warburton also reacting perfectly to losing the captaincy following injury earlier in the tournament and then not getting it back once fit again); Mike Phillips was back to his best at scrum-half; Cuthbert delivered the tries and Halfpenny was clinical with the boot whilst also impervious to pressure under the high ball in defence.
In short, the star of this mostly young Welsh side flashed the brightest it had done since we saw a glimpse of what they were capable of during the 2011 World Cup. And do not underestimate, furthermore, what they have achieved in the process. To win the 2013 Six Nations Championship after losing their opening game and facing three away fixtures is a highly impressive feat; not for nothing did stand-in coach Rob Howley describe it as better than their Grand Slam achieved twelve months previously. However, for them to fully realise their potential, their hunger must not by satiated purely by winning the Six Nations and, additionally, by dealing out periodic thrashings to the English. Rather, they must build on this and try and plot a way of conquering the Southern Hemisphere sides in years to come, despite some of them proving a bete noire for the team in recent years (most notably Australia). As for England, well there are still plenty of positives to take from their championship as, with a team even younger than Wales', they came within an inch of success. Their lack of attacking flair at times, and their loss to Wales, seems to indicate that they are a bit further away from the finished product than were Sir Clive Woodward's Grand Slam near-miss sides of 2000 and 2001. However, with the likes of Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw (captain), Tom Wood, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, a nucleus of the side is forming. They will learn from this experience and could still - particularly with home support -be a force in the 2015 World Cup, though they are in a Group of Death featuring Australia and, yes, Wales.
That said, aside from Wales' fightback and their final flourish, there was little in this year's instalment of the Six Nations Championship that will set the Southern Hemisphere quaking in their boots in the immediate future. The opening weekend saw 16 tries and raised hopes of a tournament packed with expansive, running rugby. Alas it flattered to deceive as only 21 tries were scored in the remaining four weekends across 12 matches, leaving the overall tally at 37, a record low since 2000. There were mitigating factors, including inclement weather and the continued improvement of Italy (previously whipping boys who this year continued to show their worth by beating France and Ireland in Rome to finish 4th - with the same number of points as Scotland). Indeed, the increased competitiveness of the Six Nations was the real plus to take out of this year; France, favourites going in, finished with the Wooden Spoon despite scoring three points. However, them and Ireland were particularly disappointing (despite Ireland's poor luck with injuries) and the former - historically famous for their flair - seemed particularly low on ideas. Scotland finished a commendable third (beating Italy match-points difference), largely by heroic defending backed up by racking up penalty points or counterattacking tries; the rugby equivalent of defending deep and then striking on the counterattack. Again it wasn't usually pretty although, in fairness, they did have their moments and the players' efforts could never be faulted. Indeed, one lesson for all teams here is to try and add creativity and greater assertiveness to the important quality of endeavour. It won't be easy, particularly in tight matches...though better weather conditions would, of course, be a good start.
[UPDATE 14/04: WEBLINKS AND MINOR CORRECTIONS (E.G. REGARDING REQUIREMENTS OF FORWARDS; CLARIFICATION OF ITALY'S FINISHING POSITION HAVE, AT LAST, BEEN ADDED!]