The dust is just about settling on a pulsating Six Nations championship, with Wales earning their first title in six years and an unprecedented third Grand Slam under Warren Gatland.
The tournament served as a tasty appetiser to the main course to come later in the year – the World Cup in Japan. With New Zealand far from unbeatable, the northern hemisphere sides will feel they have a better chance than in any of the previous two tournaments to prevent an All Blacks’ three-peat.
Even though England and Ireland need to head back to the drawing board after a puzzling tournament, they are still powerhouses, while Scotland once again showed their exciting attacking prowess and are making strides forward.
We take a look back at the last six weeks of action and hand out our Six Nations awards.
He may be 33 but the Welsh second row doesn’t appear to be slowing down as he celebrated matching Gethin Jenkins’ overall Wales and British & Irish Lions caps record (134) by leading his side to a monumental Grand Slam. It was a historic third under Warren Gatland and the Ospreys stalwart has been around for all three.
Despite in the twilight of his career and making his Wales bow 13 years ago, Jones shows no signs of slowing down and, if anything, looks like he has years left in the tank.
He was immense for Wales and among the top performers in several categories. He recorded the fifth most tackles (71) and joint sixth most offloads (three) in the championship.
He played the fourth most minutes (350) for Wales, had the fourth highest amount of carries, and beat more defenders (two) than any other man in red on Saturday.
Jones embodies Wales – pride, passion, fearless and ferocious. He leads by example and is never found wanting – playing through the pain against Ireland after twisting his knee early in the game.
Named as a replacement to rest his weary bones against Italy, it was the veteran lock Gatland summoned from the bench in the 63rd minute to restore order and calm in an error-strewn performance in Rome which was threatening to get out of the Dragons’ grip.
First given the captaincy in 2017 by interim coach Rob Howley, Jones is revelling in the role.
Who else? Although the New Zealander will be hoping to bring the curtain down on his Wales tenure in perfect fashion with a maiden World Cup triumph for the Dragons, this was a fitting way to close the Six Nations chapter of his reign.
Billed as title challengers but coming into the tournament under the radar as third favourites behind Ireland and England, Wales stormed into contention with a gritty 21-13 victory over old enemy England in Cardiff in round three.
The Dragons did it the hard way with three away games and the Irish and English at home was bound to be pivotal. Despite being far from marauding in narrow wins over Scotland, Italy and France, Wales were mighty in both of their toughest tests.
Resisting everything England could throw at them while clinically scoring twice, before simply having too much for the vanquished Irish, who were kept scoreless for 80 minutes.
JONNY MAY (6)
Tipped by many to pick up this accolade before the tournament and the England flyer didn’t disappoint – wrestling the award away from Ireland speedster Jacob Stockdale.
The clinical Leicester Tigers man roared to six scores and went over the whitewash in every game bar a cagey affair in Cardiff – the highlight a devastating hat-trick bagged against hapless France in round two.
At their best, England possess a deadly finisher capable of contributing to or finishing off classy moves. At their worst, magical May is capable of creating something from nothing.
OWEN FARRELL (59)
His tournament ended in acrimony as he was taken off by head coach Eddie Jones with 10 minutes to go against Scotland as his erratic play and lack of discipline had contributed to Scotland’s remarkable comeback.
He could have left the field earlier had a shoulder charge on Scotland’s Darcy Graham not gone unpunished. But there is no doubting the quality and leadership England’s No10 possesses.
For the most part it was his dazzling array of skills and kicking prowess that was on show throughout the six weeks – highlighted by him scoring 59 points (16 more than anyone else).
ENGLAND 38 SCOTLAND 38
Easiest choice of the lot. Little was riding on this game – apart from the Calcutta Cup and the fact neither set of fans really like one another. But after Wales had blitzed Ireland to secure the title and Grand Slam earlier in the day, it was feared there would be a flat atmosphere inside Twickenham.
But the hosts – determined perhaps to put on a spectacle for their deserving fans – stormed out of the blocks with the bonus point fourth try secured 12 minutes before half-time.
Game over, right? Oh, how wrong could we be. Stuart McInally’s lung-busting effort lit the blue touch paper and from there a sea of dark blue washed over Rugby HQ as the Red Rose were washed away by the most brilliant Scottish fightback.
Two for Graham and one try each for Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson unfathomably saw Scotland erase a 31-0 deficit after 29 minutes. Thirty minutes later Russell’s converted score made it 31-31 before they took the lead with four minutes to go.
George Ford sniped over to break Scottish hearts but it only served to cap the craziest of games.
DARCY GRAHAM (SCOTLAND)
Scotland could have had legitimate argument for a top five tries of the tournament on their own – with hooker McInally outstripping both Farrell and lightning winger May to sprint 70 metres for a breathtaking score after charging down Farrell’s kick well inside his own half.
But for sheer aesthetics we’re giving it to the Dark Blues for their second try in a mesmeric comeback at Twickenham. String-puller Russell sparked the move, which involved lightning hands from Johnson, Ali Price, Sean Maitland and Price once more, before determination and strength from Graham saw him power past three would-be tacklers to dive over the whitewash. Amazing.
WALES BEAT ENGLAND TO MAKE HISTORY
In a championship that was, as usual, full of highlights, the award goes to champions Wales for their record-setting run to 14 wins.
They smashed a 109-year-old record in the process and had to beat England in order to re-write history. The run began in last year’s tournament – a 38-14 triumph over Italy at the Millennium Stadium – and has since gathered more eye-catching victories over Australia, South Africa and Argentina (both twice), England and Ireland.
The fact that a new record was set in front of their own fans, against their fiercest rivals, England, in round three, was all the more special.
HADLEIGH PARKES (WALES)
The 31-year-old Kiwi is a late bloomer in terms of international rugby – earning his Dragons’ debut only in the autumn internationals of 2017, aged 30.
In 15 caps since though he has become an integral component of the Welsh squad – forming a rock solid partnership in midfield with Jonathan Davies.
He has slotted seamlessly into the No12 jersey vacated by battering ram Jamie Roberts, matching his intensity and appetite for hard work, as well as inputting a fair bit of flair and skill.
He saved his best performance for last, setting the tone against Ireland in attack by getting on the end of Gareth Anscombe’s clever chip to put Wales in the ascendancy. In defence, meanwhile, his gallant chase and sublime tackle to deny Jacob Stockdale a certain try, will live long in the memory of Welsh fans.
DARCY GRAHAM (SCOTLAND)
Blair Kinghorn pushed him close – scoring a hat-trick on debut against Italy (Scotland’s first in the championship for 30 years) – but the diminutive Edinburgh wing came into his own in the latter stages of the tournament.
The 21-year-old would have been a complete unknown outside Scotland before the tournament kicked off and didn’t even feature in the first two games – getting his second cap off the bench against France, a 15-minute cameo.
He starred as a replacement in the next game, giving everyone a glimpse of his explosive speed and fearlessness with a darting run in the first half that almost led to a try against Wales. He did score in the second half as he finished off a stunning passing move orchestrated by Russell before being forced off injured.
He recovered to feature against England on the final day and shone in a stunning second half comeback with his trademark speed and toughness again on show in his brace of tries, as Scotland came back from the dead to secure a memorable 38-38 draw.
Eddie Jones believes England are suffering from a fault line exposed during the 2015 World Cup as he plans to recruit outside help to work on reshaping his players’ minds.
Mirroring the collapse in Cardiff earlier in the Six Nations, England fell apart in the second half against Scotland as a 31-0 lead was squandered with only a converted injury-time try by George Ford salvaging a 38-38 draw.
It continues a theme that initially developed on last summer’s tour to South Africa when strong positions were surrendered in the first two Tests.
Jones insists the flaw evident on Saturday was a result of England’s traumatic group exit from their own World Cup four years ago, but is adamant it will be rectified in time for Japan 2019.
“It’s about how the team thinks under pressure. It’s like we have some hand grenades in the back of a jeep and sometimes they go off when there’s a lot of pressure. We have a few of them and we’ve got to get rid of them,” Jones said.
“The team has probably had it since the 2015 World Cup and we’ve been working on a process to fix it. We will get it right, but it takes time.
“Whenever you have a difficult tournament or difficult games, there’s always a lingering thought process there. Sometimes it takes longer than you’d like to fix it, but it is fixable.
“It comes in when you get under pressure, a lot of pressure, and you can’t work out a way to get back to what you want to do.
“I’ve got one person that’s going to help us that’s a bit of an expert. I’m not sharing that name with you now. I haven’t used her before.”
Jones is confident the summer-long pre-World Cup training squad offers enough time to work on the fragility seized upon by Wales and Scotland.
“When we won 18 games in a row, we still had those problems. And they have come to the fore in a couple of games recently which is beneficial for us because it’s made it quite clear what we have to fix to be the best team in the world,” he said.
England’s most capped scrum-half Ben Youngs disputes Jones’ explanation for why the team is vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds, although there was no hiding his frustration at a bewildering disintegration against the Scots.
“I wouldn’t agree with that at all. I don’t think it’s pressure, we just need a better understanding of where the momentum of the game is and what we want at that current moment,” Youngs said.
“We are looking at ourselves in the mirror going: ‘What have we done’? You can’t be that ruthless in the first half and then be so toothless in the second.
“We thought the job was done and it was far from done. We were too loose, too flippant with the ball. Disappointing. There’s going to be a lot of reflection on this one.”
Jones brought off Owen Farrell in the 71st minute with the match entering a critical phase and the captain later admitted “we probably gifted them the momentum swing, me more than anyone”.
Farrell had gifted tries to Stuart McInally and Finn Russell and was also lucky to escape a card for a late shoulder-led tackle on Darcy Graham.
“We just needed a change and we needed someone to change the momentum of the game,” Jones said.
“Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi both still had enough in them to stay on, so it then became a decision on whether to replace Owen and we thought it was the best decision for the team at that stage.
“Owen lost a bit of his edge. We know George is an excellent player who can bring something different to the table. We ended up getting a draw due to George’s brilliant play.
“It’s always a team loss. You never lose because of one player. Owen’s the hardest taskmaster in the world and he’ll be disappointed with his game.”
Hadleigh Parkes is ready to embrace the expectation that will surround Wales’ World Cup campaign after their Six Nations triple triumph.
Wales will head to Japan in September as Six Nations champions, Triple Crown and Grand Slam winners.
They were World Cup semi-finalists eight years ago, and Wales are already being backed in some quarters to at least replicate that achievement.
The last team to win a Six Nations Grand Slam in World Cup year were England in 2003 – and they ended up being crowned world champions.
“It’s nice to have a bit of expectation on you,” said Wales centre Parkes, whose second-minute try sent his team on the way to a title-clinching 25-7 victory over Ireland in Cardiff.
“There is a lot of rugby still to be played. It’s going to be an exciting time for those involved. Hopefully, it will be a good year for the Welsh people.”
Integral to Wales’s World Cup hopes will be captain Alun-Wyn Jones, who looks set to be named Six Nations player of the tournament later this week following an inspired contribution.
Despite hurting his knee early in the Ireland encounter, Jones picked himself up and led from the front as Wales ended a seven-year wait for Grand Slam glory.
Parkes added: “He has to be one of the greats. That’s pretty simple.
“What he does for the Ospreys, what he has done for Wales for a number of years, he has to go down as one of the greats.
“He is the leader, he is the one you look to, he’s the one who steps up week in, week out. Every game he puts in a performance.
“He is a very nice man as well, that must be said, a very humble man. But what a leader, what a captain. What a bloke.
“He is all about this team. He’s really enjoying his footy. I think he probably wishes he was 21 again – he is running around like he is 21 again!”
New Zealand-born Parkes only qualified for Wales on residency grounds 15 months ago, but he has established himself as a pivotal member of the team alongside Jonathan Davies in midfield.
“I am very grateful and humbled by the opportunity that I’ve been given by the managing team here, and also the people in west Wales at the Scarlets,” Parkes said.
“It’s been an amazing four-and-a half years so far. I have to pinch myself.
“You dream about these moments. The England Test was amazing, but this was just another step up again.”
Parkes, meanwhile, dedicated Wales’ win to victims of the New Zealand mosque shootings. Fifty people are known to have been killed in attacks at two mosques in Christchurch on Friday.
A minute’s silence was held before kick-off in Cardiff, and Parkes said: “I am really thankful for the minute’s silence.
“It’s terrible. You kind of think New Zealand is like a safe haven. You are so far away, you keep to yourselves.
“For the people of Christchurch, for the Muslim community, it’s shocking. It is heartbreaking to hear about that kind of thing.”