Last weekend drew to a close the 2014 Six Nations and what a finale it was, coming right down to the final game of the tournament between France and Ireland to decide the winner.
It couldn’t have been scripted any better.
In many ways all three of the games of the final weekend epitomised the good, the bad, and the ugly of European rugby, and the state of world rugby as a whole.
After 15 Test matches, and 1,200 minutes of entertaining, brutal, and majestic rugby, it came down to the final game, where three teams (England, Ireland and France) all had a chance to take the title.
In the end it was Ireland, the most consistent performers throughout the whole championship, who were deserving victors, sending Brian O’Driscoll out on a high, in his 133rd Test match and last in the green jersey.
It put to an end an amazing career which, ironically, began in France 15 years ago, and finished on a St Patrick’s day weekend.
It would have been some party in Dublin.
England were so close once again, coming within 10 points of overcoming what looked to be an insurmountable points difference heading into the final game, as they dispatched Italy by 41 points in Rome.
They did however, walk away with the Triple crown, beating Ireland, Wales and Scotland, showing their continued improvement under coach Stuart Lancaster.
The individual performances of second row partnership Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, halves Danny Care and Owen Farrell, and fullback Mike Brown, who should be named player of the tournament (voting closes Wednesday), all point towards a promising back half of the season and they pose a genuine threat of knocking over the All Blacks in their end of season tour.
And finally France, the perennial underachievers, played the sort of rugby we all know they can, and consistently.
In the past, French supporters have been left frustrated at the uninspiring, lacklustre performances of Le Bleu, but they saw a team that portrayed the flair, passion and physicality synonymous with French teams of the past.
It was Scotland and Italy again languishing at the foot of the table, as they competed valiantly with the other four nations, but inevitably couldn’t keep it up for the whole 80 minutes of their matches.
The most worrying factor for Scotland is they only managed to score 47 points over the course of their five matches, the lowest of all the nations.
There was also the bizarre saga surrounding captain Kelly Brown, who was dropped from the entire playing squad following the opening match in Dublin, then reinstated as skipper against France by interim head coach Scott Johnson.
They can take some positives out of the tournament: They deserved a victory against France, eventually going down by two points, blooded a number of young players into international rugby, and have the experienced Vern Cotter of Clermont taking over at the end of May, as Johnson moves into a Director of Rugby role.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Italy, who failed to win a game, and the ease with which they let in seven English tries at the weekend was hugely disappointing.
The issues within Italian rugby aren’t limited to the national side, as Rabo DirectPro 12 Club Benetton Treviso recently announced their decision to pull out of next year’s tournament over ‘uncertainty’ of their future.
In the past week though, a successful agreement has been reached for the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) to join Celtic Rugby as an equal partner from July 1, 2014, ensuring the participation of two Italian teams in the competition for the next four years.
This ensures their involvement in the top flight of European club rugby, but won’t ensure performances and results required to stay there.
To call it ugly is a bit over the top; let’s call it the frustrating, the inconsistent and the uncertain.
If the final hours of the tournament weren’t so climatic and entertaining, I’m sure this issue would have secured more headlines and sparked endless debate among rugby supporters.
It centres around those who shouldn’t be in the limelight, but unfortunately are making a habit of late of finding themselves uncomfortably in it.
It’s the referees.
Stuart Hogg was sent off in the 14th minute of the Wales versus Scotland game after a high and late shoulder to the head of flyhalf Dan Biggar. I have no issues with the decision, it was a red card if there ever was one, but it is the way it was handled that is cause for concern.
Jerome Garces had initially sent Hogg to the sin bin, but after a replay was shown on the screen at the Millennium stadium, Garces called Hogg back on-field, issued him a red card, ejecting him from the game.
If this overturning of decisions is allowed to happen (Garces actually didn’t ask the television match official to show the replay), why can’t a red card be changed back to a yellow?
I bet Welsh supporters wish Sam Warburton could have returned to the field in the World Cup semi-final against France after Alain Rolland overreacted in sending him off, and Bismarck Du Plessis’ perfectly legal hit on Dan Carter in last year’s Rugby Championship could have been corrected with a TMO review.
But the system doesn’t seem to want to admit the referee has made the wrong decision, and this needs to be fixed.
It’s the inconsistency of the use of technology by referees that adds to the concern. Steve Walsh awarded a try to France’s Dimitri Szarzewski without consulting the television match officials, while replays showed he clearly had knocked the ball on before grounding.
But it wasn’t corrected, because the referee’s decision is final, and perhaps that’s the way it should always be.
We are taught as youngsters to always respect the referee’s decision and never back-chat, but it’s hard to hold back when we can immediately see that the wrong call has been made, especially when such decisions – like a sending off, or falsely awarding a try – can have a profound effect on the result of the game.
It should be the players that decide the game, not the referees.