The Six Nations is only a week old, but already it’s shaping up to be some year. A youthful Wales, bereft of star names, slaughtered Scotland 34-7 at the Millennium Stadium. Champions England, going for a record third-straight crown, rolled over Italy in Rome. And Ireland rescued victory from the jaws of a defeat thanks to Jonny Sexton’s stunning late drop goal in Paris.
There’s already been high drama and great games in the first round of fixtures, so rugby fans should be excited for the rest of the campaign. Here, Matt Jones looks at some of the most dramatic Six Nations games and moments in the tournament’s 18-year history.
1. Wales 31 Scotland 24, February 13, 2010
Arguably the most enthralling end to a Six Nations match. Wales were 24-14 down with 76 minutes on the clock but Leigh Halfpenny’s late try and Stephen Jones’ conversion made it 24-21 and gave them a chance to level.
Scotland, down to 14 men, were then reduced to 13 when Phil Godman, who’d barely been on the field a minute having replaced Dan Parks, took out Lee Byrne and was sent off. Wales opted for safety and the penalty to level the game.
However, there was just enough time to take the kick-off and Wales, roared on by a fervent home crowd, poured forward, Shane Williams eventually taking advantage of a ragged Scotland defence to score a try and seal the most dramatic end to a rugby match, perhaps ever.
2. England 55 France 35, March 21, 2015
On a truly mad-cap final day three years ago, a total of 221 points were scored across three games as Ireland, somehow, successfully defended their Six Nations title as a record 40-10 win over Scotland surpassed Wales and England’s final-day efforts.
England fell one try short of a first Six Nations title in four years as they out-ran France in a sensational 12-try contest that ended 55-35 to the Red Rose. Needing to win by 26 points to deny Ireland, they attacked relentlessly in a chaotic, thrilling match and so nearly pulled off a remarkable win as they fell six points short.
It was the culmination to a splendid day’s rugby as Ireland, needing a 21-point victory to overtake a Welsh side who had thrashed Italy 61-20 earlier in the day, led 20-10 after Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien crossed. Scores from Jared Payne and another for O’Brien then took Ireland beyond the reach of England. Winless Scotland were condemned to the Wooden Spoon.
3. Wales 15 Ireland 17, March 21, 2009
To this day, the greatest moment in Irish rugby history. The men from the Emerald Isle had not won a Grand Slam since 1948, but made history nine years ago thanks to the boot of Ronan O’Gara. A 78th minute drop-goal brought Ireland a famous win, in spectacular fashion as they overcame Wales by two points at the Millennium Stadium.
Ireland’s first Slam in 61 years was sealed by O’Gara’s late drop goal. Stephen Jones, who kicked his third and fourth penalties and appeared to have won the Triple Crown for Wales with a drop-goal with five minutes remaining, saw a late penalty attempt for Wales, following O’Gara giving the Irish the lead, fall just short.
4. Italy 34 Scotland 20, February 5, 2000
A defining moment for the expanded tournament as new boys Italy made a winning start against the reigning champions with 29 points from impeccable fly-half Diego Dominguez.
Not only did the Azzuri make a dream debut by defeating Scotland in their first ever Six Nations game, even more significant was the fact that they made the front page of the Gazzetta dello Sport the following day – the first time rugby had ever knocked football off the famous publication’s front page.
Italy, rank outsiders, had been given no chance against the Scots after conceding 196 points in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, including a century against New Zealand. Dominguez’s dominant performance included nailing three drop goals, one from just inside the Scotland half.
5. France 25 Ireland 27, March 19, 2000
A memorable day for many reasons. Ireland secured their first win in France for 28 years, while a certain 21-year-old centre by the name of Brian O’Driscoll truly announced himself to the world, setting the game alight with a stunning hat-trick.
It was a supreme performance from O’Driscoll, who injected life into a side who started the tournament as likely contenders for the Wooden Spoon.
The silky centre started the move that led to his first try. He added a second after Warren Gatland – now Wales coach – introduced veteran Paddy Johns from the bench.
Scrum-half Peter Stringer side-stepped his way through a host of French tacklers, before offloading to the young centre with the try-line beckoning, David Humphreys’ conversion seeing Ireland celebrate a famous win.
6. Ireland 20 England 14, October 20, 2001
England travelled to the old Lansdowne Road in October – it was the year that foot and mouth hit Ireland, so they played their final three Six Nations fixtures in September and October – hoping to avoid an infamous hat-trick.
The Red Rose had been denied Grand Slams in the final round of fixtures in 1999 (by Scott Gibbs and Wales at Wembley) and 2000 (by Scotland at Murrayfield).
However, Clive Woodward’s side were again forced to endure bitter disappointment, losing 20-14 to an Ireland side inspired by Keith Wood’s ingenious try. Wood took a line-out five metres from the England line, set off as the throw left his hand, took a quick return from Anthony Foley and smashed through the surprised English defence for his eighth international try.
7. Wales 11 England 9, February 6, 2005
The game that came to be defined by ‘The Tackle’. Mathew Tait, the 18-year-old England debutant who had been revising for his A Levels 12 months previously, was picked up and carried backwards like a rag doll by Gavin Henson, in a tackle that may have well seen him yellow carded today.
It became the abiding image of Wales’ 11-9 victory. That and the spray-tanned, spiky-haired, silver-booted Henson’s monster 40m penalty four minutes from time that secured a result that bore huge significance. For Wales, it was their first victory in 12 years over England in Cardiff and laid the basis for the first Grand Slam since 1978.
Henson appeared on the cusp of greatness, although his career deviated worryingly after this. Injuries played their part but many setbacks were of his own making. The year after winning a second grand slam in 2008, Henson took a sabbatical from the Ospreys and appeared on celebrity TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing.
8. Wales 30 England 3, March 16, 2013
Wales stormed to the Six Nations title as they secured a record win over England and crushed the visitors’ Grand Slam hopes in the process.
Two second-half tries from winger Alex Cuthbert, four penalties from Leigh Halfpenny and eight points from Dan Biggar’s boot were a fitting reflection of what became a romp. Wales had needed a winning margin of at least seven points to snatch the title from their visitors’ grasp, and led by only six at the interval.
But they steamrolled an overwhelmed England side in the second half and ran away with the match as the capacity crowd celebrated wildly.
It represented a remarkable turnaround for Wales, who had lost their last five matches in Cardiff and been dismantled by Ireland in the first half of their last fixture here. But four successive victories – this last one the best of the lot – meant they topped the table for a second season in succession.
9. France 18 Wales 24, February 26, 2005
This was the game that convinced the nation something very special was about to happen as Wales came from behind thanks to a brace of tries from Martyn Williams that helped set up a first Grand Slam for the Dragons since 1978.
Wales found themselves 15-6 down at half-time, with skipper Gareth Thomas forced to leave the field injured. Shane Williams sent ‘Nugget’ over for an early try in the second period and that was soon followed by another moment of magic from the flanker as he took a quick tap penalty and dived over to give Wales the lead.
Frederic Michalak leveled the scores with a drop goal but Stephen Jones landed a penalty and a drop goal of his own to seal a famous comeback win.
10. France 22 England 24, March 11, 2012
England, under new captain Chris Robshaw, shattered a cautious France with counter-attacking tries by Manu Tuilagi, Ben Foden and Tom Croft. England took revenge for their Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat the previous year and produced by far the best display of interim coach Stuart Lancaster’s young revolution with a nerve-shredding victory in Paris.
Tries in the first 20 minutes from Tuliagi and Foden helped England to a 14-3 lead but France, with penalties from fly-half Lionel Beauxis, scrum-half Julien Dupuy and his replacement Morgan Parra, came roaring back to within two points at 15-17.
Croft’s fine solo try and Owen Farrell’s dead-eyed conversion looked to have made the game safe, only for a late try for the outstanding Wesley Fofana to again bring France within range of a remarkable win.
But Francois Trinh-Duc’s last-gasp drop-goal attempt fell just short and England were left celebrating their fifth victory in their last Six Nations match of the year against Les Bleus.
Jones has ignited the build-up to an inevitably high-octane Twickenham occasion, highlighting what he sees as Wales fly-half Rhys Patchell’s Test match inexperience and labelling him as Wales’ “third-choice 10”.
He claimed Scarlets star Patchell will be “under some heat” this weekend when Wales target a first Twickenham Six Nations win against England since 2012.
Reflecting on Wales’ 34-7 thumping of Scotland last weekend, Jones said: “Wales played really well against Scotland, but it’s going to be different on Saturday – they had no expectation on them last Saturday, but this week they come full of expectation.
“Everyone has been telling them how well they played. (Wales coach) Warren Gatland’s been talking a lot this week. He’s confident. They’re confident.”
Wales, though, left for their Surrey base on Thursday having not engaged in verbal jousting.
“I don’t know what Eddie has said, but any player wearing the number 10 jersey is going to be put under pressure,” Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde said. “There’s nothing different there.
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 8, 2018
“He (Patchell) is surrounded by a number of players from his (Scarlets) region and that cohesion it brings, that familiarity, will hopefully stand up under the pressure of international rugby. As we saw last Saturday, it was good to watch.
“I am not going to try (to respond) with Eddie. I know better. He’s got a few things to get off his chest, and hopefully he’ll feel better for it.”
Asked if there was a message for Jones, McBryde added: “I’m going to stay out of it. I can’t win that one.”
Wales have beaten England three times at Twickenham since Warren Gatland became head coach 10 years ago, and they were the last team to topple them there in a Six Nations fixture six years ago.
“For the players involved, they can draw on those experiences and look back on why they won,” McBryde said.
“From a team point of view, I don’t think it stands for a lot. England are a bit different, Wales are a bit different, and rugby is now different, certainly with some new laws and a new emphasis on certain aspects of play.
“The game changes pretty quickly and we know momentum is pretty important. We will be aiming to start well and take it from there.
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 6, 2018
“Eddie has said he is going to put us under pressure, but the same goes for us.
“Shaun Edwards (McBryde’s fellow Wales assistant) will be banging the drum in terms of putting them under pressure. When the stakes are high, there is no quarter asked and none given. That’s what it will be on Saturday.”
The set-piece will be a critical area in terms of the overall contest, with scrummaging supremacy vital to both teams’ aspirations of victory.
“At the end of the day, we are there to do a job,” McBryde added. “We know they are going to come after us at the set-piece, and I think we’ll stand up to it and hopefully repay the compliment.
“I think we have been very legal with the way we have gone about the scrum in recent years. I know that there is a reputation we have built for ourselves, and a maturity about our front-row players, too.”
Jack Conan and Dan Leavy will make their first Six Nations starts after Joe Schmidt named the backrow duo in the starting XV to face Italy on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.
Conan, 25, and Leavy, 23, come in for CJ Stander – who was outstanding in the nerve-wracking 15-13 victory over France last weekend – and Josh van der Flier respectively, among four changes, all in the scrum.
“CJ Stander covered a lot of ground last weekend and it’s really down to mileage in giving him a bit of a rest on the replacements bench,” said Schmidt.
“It is also to reward Jack Conan as well as try and keep freshness – these Six Nations games become attritional. This is an opportunity to freshen up the team.
“Jack brings great speed and his ability to carry the ball, plus he is very physical in defence.
“He is great at transferring the ball through contact and his lineout is improving too; there are a whole gambit of things he can bring to the party.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 8, 2018
Stander is on the replacements bench whilst Van der Flier will play no further role in the tournament after a first-half injury in Paris ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Flanker Leavy came on for his Leinster team-mate and put in an impressive performance.
“He grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck,” was Schmidt’s assessment.
Number 8 Conan, who like Leavy and Van der Flier plays for Leinster, will win his sixth cap. With four tries already to his name, the Italian defence will be on high alert to the dangers he can cause.
The other two changes see veteran lock Devin Toner restored to the second row alongside Iain Henderson.
James Ryan, 21, caught the eye on his Six Nations debut against the French but is rested entirely, potentially with one eye on a tougher day at the office at home to Wales in a fortnight’s time.
Jack McGrath comes in for Leinster team-mate Cian Healy at prop.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 8, 2018
Exciting young talent Jordan Larmour – who is predominantly a full-back but can also play on the wing – is likely to win his first cap as the 20-year-old is named on the replacements bench.
Schmidt has opted to retain his world class half-back pairing of scrum-half Conor Murray and fly-half Johnny Sexton, whose drop goal at the end of 41 phases clinched the win in dramatic style over the French.
Hooker Rory Best captains the side in what will be his 108th Test appearance for Ireland, drawing him third equal with Paul O’Connell on the all-time Irish list.
The Irish – seen by many as the biggest threat to end England’s two year dominance of the Six Nations – will start as hot favourites against an Italy side that put up a good contest against the English last weekend before running out of steam and losing 46-15.
Ireland team (15-1):
Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Peter O’Mahony; Devin Toner, Iain Henderson; Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (capt), Jack McGrath
Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, CJ Stander, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 8, 2018