England collected a deserved Six Nations win but missed out on a Grand Slam at the final hurdleYOUTUBE/RBS 6 NATIONS

After five rounds of tight, exciting and passionate rugby, a tournament which started with an Irish upset ended with an Irish upset. After an opening day defeat to Scotland, Ireland’s victory over champions England would have felt oh-so-sweet. And so it was that the team chasing their second consecutive Grand Slam, and a world record of 19 consecutive wins, fell short in Dublin:13–9 to Ireland.

Elsewhere this weekend, Wales lost to France in a 100-minute thriller, as 20 minutes (!) of stoppage time passed before France nicked the crucial try to win 20–18. In Edinburgh, Scotland put four tries past Italy and held the visitors scoreless, winning 29–0.

The final-day results saw three teams finish on 14 points for the championship, as second to fourth place were decided on points difference. They finished: Ireland, France, Scotland. Wales sank to fifth – their lowest position since 2007 – while Italy took the wooden spoon: their 12th since 2000.

Hurt by their defeat to Wales, Ireland hit back against England with a performance well-deserving of the victory. England were second-best in most areas of the game, as Ireland dominated the breakdown, bossed the gain-line, kicked accurately, and out-competed England at the line-out. Their constant pressure around the ruck and quick line-speed stifled England to the point that they could barely string a passage of play together. The game-plan was clearly to neutralise England’s dangerous backline, and in the adverse conditions, they succeeded.

The odd break from Elliot Daly aside, Ireland had control from minute one to 80. In the first half, the men in green enjoyed 75 per cent possession and 77 per cent territory, as England failed to impose their game on their opponents. The second half saw greater parity, as England managed 55 per cent possession and 54 per cent territory, winning the half 6–3, but against this almost impenetrable Irish defence they had left themselves too much to do.

Late on, there were two key moments: Ben Te’o leaving the field and the decision not to take three points with seven minutes to go. Te’o’s introduction from the bench had given them fresh impetus, with some much-needed punch in midfield, and Farrell – having moved to fly-half – seeming more comfortable than George Ford. Unfortunately, a nasty clash saw him leave the field with suspected concussion on 68 minutes and Ford returned. It was a costly injury.

On 73 minutes England were awarded a penalty in front of the posts, just inside the Irish half. With both Farrell and Daly possessing huge boots, it was surely a gimme to put them to within one point. Instead, they decided to go for touch. Farrell put in an average kick, taking them up to the 22, where O’Mahony stole the line-out: opportunity wasted.

Very few England players genuinely had good games. Watson fumbled possession several times while Ben Youngs’s passing was not at its usual accurate best, and George Ford was exposed badly in defence. Up front, even Billy Vunipola struggled to get forward, and Lawes made several unforced errors. Perhaps those deserving of the greatest credit were the front row, who managed parity – if not better – against their Irish counter-parts in the scrum. This will stand them in good stead for Lions selection. Joe Launchbury, too, stood out yet again in the England defensive effort.

On the opposing side, Peter O’Mahony – having been called into the starting XV moments before kick-off after Jamie Heaslip tweaked a hamstring in the warm-up – put in a huge shift and gave a timely reminder to Lions head coach Warren Gatland about what he can offer. Iain Henderson, too, justified his recall with a try-scoring performance, while Jonny Sexton pulled all the strings from fly-half despite taking an absolute hammering from England’s defence. Fair play to him for carrying on.

Another player who took a nasty knock was Ireland’s Sean O’Brien. During the second half he looked to have been knocked out cold before getting up and playing on. Having already had to shuffle their back-row, perhaps Ireland were reluctant to remove one of their more potent ball-carriers, but such risk-taking is unacceptable.

After twenty minutes of additional time, Wales were denied by a last-gasp tryYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

The head injury protocols were also at the forefront in Paris because of the drama that unfolded after 80 minutes were up. France won a penalty on the Welsh five-metre line and, having opted for the scrum, and after several resets, first-choice tight-head prop Slimani was brought back on because his earlier replacement, Antonio, apparently needed a head injury assessment.

While concussion is by definition invisible, the player was displaying no apparent symptoms, nor had he been knocked out. Wales have alleged that France were in breach of the rules, with head coach Rob Howley stating: “Slimani was warming up prior to going back on. One of their coaches was outside the technical area and had a conversation with the doctor. He’s then gone on to take the tighthead off. The evidence suggests it wasn’t in line with the integrity of our game”. An investigation will surely follow, but it brings memories of the blood-gate controversy that beset Harlequins several years ago. Concussion-gate, anyone?

The additional 20 minutes saw penalty after penalty awarded to France, and the Welsh prop, Francis, who was yellow-carded after the first few penalties, even had time to re-emerge from the sin-bin in the most bizarre of endings to a game. This was a real examination of the rules on substitution reversals and it has to be said that the fourth official did not seem entirely clear. You'd also have to question why referee Wayne Barnes did not award a penalty try after so many repeated infringements. It made for a hugely confusing and controversial end to an already scrappy match.

In all honesty, this weekend was disappointing after such a promising championship overall.

This was particularly true of Italy who, despite applying real pressure during the second half at Murrayfield, were simply unable to finish the most straightforward of try-scoring opportunities. Added to the fact that Carlo Canna seemed to have left his kicking boots at home, and you can begin to understand why Italy failed to register a point. Credit to Scotland for some strong defensive work and for finishing their four tries, but the score-line said more about Italy than it did about them. 

Italy's poor finishing ensured a clean sheet for Scotland in Vern Cotter's final gameYoutube/RBS 6 Nations

Nonetheless, it was a bonus-point win to bid farewell to head coach Vern Cotter. He has taken this Scotland team a long way, developing an attacking style of play, bringing through a group of talented players, and instilling a confidence in Scottish rugby that has not been seen in the Six Nations era. He will be replaced by Gregor Townsend this summer, but he has well and truly left his mark.

Scotland can be pleased to have won three matches out of five, but there is plenty more to come after two disappointing results away from home. Wales will be gutted to have finished fifth, especially after beating Ireland and pushing England so close. The French will be satisfied with a third place finish, and it might just be enough for Noves to keep his job. There is some real talent in this French team and it is going to be exciting to see how they improve. Ireland will be reassured after their victory over England, but away defeats to Wales and Scotland show that they’re not quite at England’s level yet, especially in terms of consistency.

Then there’s Italy. Unfortunately, they have provided little evidence that they are deserving of their automatic place in the Six Nations. With Georgia and Romania again having dominated at the next tier down, the case for a relegation play-off gets only stronger.

The last word must go to the champions, though. It was good to see plenty of smiles on the English players’ faces when they received the trophy in Dublin, despite the result on Saturday night, and the team can be extremely proud of winning back-to-back Championships, and of their record winning streak. Grand Slams don’t come along too often for a reason and, as the England team in 2001 found out, having suffered the same fate, you often learn more after a defeat. This England team are not yet the finished article but their potential remains and they will be hoping that, like the 2001 side, their best will come in two years’ time