Ireland win the 2018 Six Nations

The 2018 NatWest 6 Nations tournament could not have had a better or more appropriate conclusion - at least for the Irish.

On St Patrick's Day, the men in green, already confirmed as champions for the third time in five years, came to Twickenham and won 24-15 to complete a Grand Slam, only their third ever.

It was a day of huge contrasts that summed up the tournament and the very different directions in which Ireland and England seem to be going.

For the Irish, it was the vindication of all the positive assessments made about Joe Schmidt's men before the tournament. In flying winger Jacob Stockdale they have a prolific scorer, the first man to cross the line seven times in the tournament since it became the Six Nations. He has been joined by other fine youngsters like Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and Dan Leavy, in a potent mix alongside veterans like Rory Best and Jonny Sexton.

Indeed, it was Sexton who made the Grand Slam possible in the very first match, producing the last-gasp drop-kick to win the opening game in Paris. Since that scare, Ireland took on every challenge and surmounted them. Withstanding periods of pressure from Scotland and then England in their final games, they absorbed all the punches that came their way while landing the decisive blows themselves.

Eddie Jones cuts a forlorn figure

That Ireland should win the tournament was no great shock, but for England's bid for an unprecedented hat-trick of titles to end with three successive defeats and a fifth-placed finish certainly was.

Coach Eddie Jones has already admitted there are issues in attack and also at the breakdown, where a major weakness has been exposed.

Indeed, critics were arguing all was not well even as perennial whipping boys Italy were trounced in Rome, before a dogged defensive display saw off Wales at Twickenham in the second match. A team that had won 24 of its first 25 matches under Jones suddenly looked flawed and vulnerable, and in need of serious work if it is to get back on track ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup.

The Australian has chosen to see the situation as a positive, arguing that continued victories were papering over the cracks. Now, he argued, there is no hiding place and no excuse.

He has every reason to carry out whatever changes in personnel and approach he feels are warranted to ensure the team is ready for a better campaign next time and a real crack at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Scotland win the Calcutta Cup

Of the other sides, Scotland's win over England at BT Murrayfield did much to confirm that, on home turf at least, they are a much-improved unit. However, once more their away form held them back. After a heavy defeat in Cardiff and another loss in Dublin, they only had a narrow 29-27 win over Italy on the last day to show for their travelling efforts.

Wales may have surprised a few - including themselves - with the runners-up spot, while France will have been greatly heartened by their win over England, coming at a time when the team has been distinctly average on the field and the administration chaotic off it.

Ultimately, however, 2018 will be remembered as a year when Ireland hit the heights and England had to go back to the drawing board. Even if they do recover form soon, Eddie Jones will now know the Irish could be as much a barrier to England's Rugby World Cup ambitions as the All Blacks.



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