Amidst the depths of a heavy lockdown across Europe, February 2021 marked the return of one of rugby’s most iconic showpieces: the Guinness Six Nations. Crowds may have been absent, but as the following five rounds of fixtures would show, the drama and emotion were still there.
As we prepare for the 2022 edition, join us on a path down memory lane as we reminisce on an enthralling tournament.
On that cold first weekend in February, who thought that it would be the lowest-scoring match that would prove to be the most gripping? Scotland travelled to Twickenham, hoping for a first away victory over England for 38 years. Two years previously, it was their superb second-half attacking comeback that led to a memorable draw. In 2021, it was their control and defence that proved so remarkable.
Ali Price, Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell delivered a kicking masterclass – even if the latter spent ten minutes in the sin bin for a deliberate trip. In defence, the entire side helped to keep England try-less, scoring six or fewer points for only the third time in a decade. The sight of Hamish Watson lamping that ball off the park after an 81st minute turnover will live long in the memory of many north of the border.
Away from Twickenham, France made a comfortable start to their title challenge with a 50-10 win over Italy while Wales held on to a surprise 21-16 win over Ireland, despite Gareth Davies’ blunder that gifted possession back to Ireland in the dying phases. Meanwhile, the first of six red cards to teams playing Wales in 2021 was shown to Peter O’Mahony; a trend that would certainly not hinder any Welsh title aspirations.
France, considered by many to be favourites pre-tournament, faced the unenviable task of visiting Dublin where Andy Farrell’s defensive structures would make attacking life difficult for Les Bleus. And, after benefitting from an early disallowed try from James Lowe, the familiar story of two French halfbacks causing havoc began.
Except this time, an injury to 2019 breakout star Romain Ntamack meant that the even less-experienced Matthieu Jalibert was handed the reigns. Offering a slightly more chaotic attacking angle, his flurry of miss and bounce passes soon paid off as captain Charles Ollivon crashed over in the corner. Combined with Gael Fickou’s impressive defensive display, Ireland just couldn’t break through at the death and finished on the wrong side of a 13-15 result.
Across the water at BT Murrayfield, Scotland seemed all but certain to walk away with a second victory against a Welsh side they beat four months before. Then Zander Fagerson received his marching orders for a shoulder charge on Wyn Jones.
Louis Rees-Zammit showed his class on the international stage and but it was a crucial Josh Adams tap tackle in the final play which granted Wales’ 25-24 a win, meaning they joined France as the only unbeaten sides left after two rounds. Elsewhere, England returned with a comfortable 41-18 victory over the Azzurri.
Covid cases in the French camp – eventually linked to numerous breaches of the team bubble by players and coaches – meant that their exciting match-up with Scotland was put on ice for now. Everyone’s attention switched to the Principality Stadium; could Wales continue this remarkable run and take the Triple Crown?
Take the Triple Crown they did, albeit for some fortunate moments from referee Pascal Gaüzère. First, he allowed Dan Bigger to take a quick cross-kick to find Adams at the corner while England were huddled under their posts. Then, after lots of confusion, a possible knock-on was deemed ‘not clear and obvious’, allowing Liam Williams to add his name to the scoresheet. England lost again, and comfortably. 40-24 was the final score.
It was an all to familiar tale over in Rome where despite a decent first half, Italian fitness faltered as the game progressed as Ireland romped to a 48-10 score-line. If there was a positive, the youthful halfback pairing of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi showed obvious talent that will only improve with experience.
Back in Rome, Wales placed themselves within one win of a shock Grand Slam with a bonus point win over the Italians – 48-10. In Edinburgh, another Hogg-inspired comeback wasn’t enough to secure victory over Ireland as Jonny Sexton kicked a late penalty to win 27-24. Could France continue their winning streak at Twickenham to set up a Grand Slam decider a week later?
If the first 64 seconds were anything to go by, you’d think so as that’s how long it took for Antoine Dupont to pull off some wizardry skill and score the game’s first try. While up to this point the French scrum half had not dominated as in 2020, his score and involvement in France’s second try for Penaud proved he was still at the top of the game.
But England never game up. Much to their credit, their defence firmed up after half-time and when Maro Itoje crossed with four minutes to go, England had a slender lead. It was a lead they held on to as with France within 25m of the try-line, Dupont made his first mistake of the afternoon and knocked the ball on. 23-20 to England and Les Bleus’ Grand Slam Aspirations were over.
Super Saturday arrived but for the first time, this all-day spectacle would not signal the end of the tournament. Instead, Scotland’s trip to France had been rearranged to the following Friday night. There was no guarantee of a winner being crowned that evening in Paris.
Before the main event, there were the formalities. Scotland swept aside the Italians 52-10 at BT Murrayfield in all too easy a fashion. In Dublin, England failed to back-up that positive performance the week before against France and lost-32-18. With Italy cemented to the bottom of the final standings, England could now do no better than 5th.
By 8pm, all eyes were on the Stade de France. In 2017, France and Wales played out the most remarkable of Super Saturday finales; France scoring in the 100th minute of the match to snatch victory from the visitors. 2017 may have ended in mad, dramatic fashion, but with the Six Nations title in the balance, 2021 was not done just yet.
What followed was an exciting, at some times chaotic conclusion to this campaign. Early tries – including Dan Bigger probably becoming the first ever fly-half to score off a crash ball – kept the game in the balance. Controversial TMO calls followed and Luke Pearce was forced to give Paul Willemse his marching orders for contact to the eye of Wyn Jones.
But in the 81st minute, with Wales holding a narrow lead, France spread the ball wide and Brice Dulin slid in to take victory for the hosts in dramatic fashion. The Grand Slam had slipped from Wales’ grasp and they would now have to wait another six days to find out who would take the Six Nations trophy home.
Round 3 Round 6?
Like all successful performances, the Six Nations organisers clearly knew that an encore was required. So, France lined up at home against Scotland knowing that a large bonus point victory would gift them the title.
The problem? Scotland were in fine away form and in the mood to break records. After a cagey first half, France opened the floodgates as try-scoring machine Penaud crossed over for a sublime length of the field effort that was later nominated for World Rugby Try of the Year.
If Penaud’s score was like a cinematic masterpiece, Dave Cherry’s response was akin to a slapstick comedy. Confusion at the maul set-up led to the ball juggling, ultimately bouncing off Fagerson’s back and into the grateful hands of Cherry.
The try on its own wasn’t enough; Scotland needed more. And, while Dulin was last week’s hero, this time round his failure to kick the ball out let Scotland turn the ball over. Scotland built the phases, tired the defence, then the space came out wide. Duhan van der Merwe, like the unstoppable lorry he is, scored in the corner. With that Scotland took the game, Wales took the Six Nations title and one of the most dramatic tournaments for years took place without a single fan in attendance.
So there we have it, the Story of the 2021 Six Nations. Who will come out on top in 2022? Get yourself set for the tournament with our official rugby shirts, clothing and merchandise here.