France throw down gauntlet to flawed rivals
Deep in the concrete bowels of the Stade de France, Marc Lievremont looked simultaneously delighted and drained with the arrival of his first Grand Slam as coach. "It is a very nice baby," he said, with apposite analogy, "even if the birth was quite difficult."
Martin Johnson is nobody's idea of the dream midwife. For long periods on Saturday night in Paris it seemed as if there would be no champagne-fuelled celebrations for Les Bleus, no tearful welcome home into the embrace of an ecstatic nation.
That France squeaked home and sealed the Slam with their least impressive performance of the season rather summed up the championship: never mind the quality, feel the tension.
Lievremont's men have been the season's stand-out team, England the stodgiest. Saturday was supposed to be a shindig to celebrate the re-birth of French rugby. Instead, it had something of a fancy-dress party about it, with each team coming as the other.
England scored the only try, tried to run from everywhere and put the ball through hands like it was spring in Hong Kong rather than a filthy-wet St-Denis. France kept it tight, kicked away possession and won the game with penalty kicks instead of panache.
If it was effective, it was also excruciating for the thousands of blue-shirted and beret-wearing home fans in the stadium and the 15 men out on the pitch itself.
Only when you arrived in Paris and started talking to the locals and reading the back pages did you truly begin to appreciate the hold England - any England - have over France. No matter that on paper the hosts were 15 points better than the stuttering tourists. As far as the locals are concerned, England always beat France when it matters. It's the role the Australia cricket team play for England, or what the German football team does to England football fans: death by penalties, whenever it really matters.
You could see it all around, in Lievremont himself before kick-off ("As a player I was annoyed by England - they did not play good rugby and they cheated"), in the stuttering performance from even the old hands on the park, in the glorious exuberance of Raphael Ibanez's mother-in-law, sat in front of Johnson and his coaches, whenever France edged further in front.
No matter that France adapted to the conditions better than England did, let the front row squeeze them penalties at the scrum and closed out the match with dead-eyed deliberation. The crowd wanted more.
With 15 minutes to go, the backs chose to kick to safety from deep rather than risk running it. Whistles and jeers filled the air. France were in front, with a Grand Slam at their fingertips. Which other set of supporters would treat their almost-conquering heroes in quite the same way?
England were a considerable improvement on the dismal drudgery of their last three matches. At last there was some quick ball, dynamism from the forwards, pace and angles and line-breaks from the backs. That they got so close to pooping the party but failed to find the coup de grace left the players and management inconsolable.
Full-back Ben Foden, who finished off a sensational early try, cannot hide his disappointment after England's defeat
All the pre-match talk had been about the importance of the first 20 minutes. When Mathieu Bastareaud smashed Riki Flutey backwards and Francois Trinh-Duc slotted a wobbly dropper before everyone had taken their seats, the signs were ominous, but so quickly and impressively did England strike back that thoughts returned to the last two meetings between the sides in the stadium.
For Ben Foden's early try this time, read Paul Sackey's two years ago and Josh Lewsey's in the World Cup semi. Foden even scored with a dive into the same corner as the latter, and the boisterous travelling support reacted with undisguised, inebriated glee.
That the momentum was soon lost owed much to the rain and the reffing. When the taps turned on, the game-plan failed to adjust and the handling errors shot up. And when push came to shove, Bryce Lawrence could apparently only see one set of villains.
Publically, England's leaders both on and off pitch refused to blame Lawrence's curious inconsistencies for their side's defeat. In private, however, Johnson and Lewis Moody were fuming. Three times in succession England were penalised for supposed infringements at the scrum, but when France transgressed moments later they were let off with mere warnings.
Lawrence isn't the most popular ref in the British Isles. It was his controversial calls against Phil Vickery that did so much so shape the first Lions test last summer. This time it was Dan Cole who repeatedly fell foul of his interpretations, no matter how much he protested his slippery-footed innocence.
Fussiness you can take. Unpredictability is harder to deal with. England conceded 10 penalties and free-kicks to France's two in the first half, and with that all 12 points that France scored.
There were chances. Chris Ashton had to score when clean through on the dithering Clement Poitrenaud. That he decided to kick rather than step or pass haunted him afterwards as he sat slumped in the away team's dressing-room.
Jonny Wilkinson too brought those World Cup memories flooding back. When he landed his best penalty for years to make it 12-10 with 13 minutes to go, you could sense the horror and déjà-vu spreading through the French players and fans.
In that semi-final, France had led 9-8 with five minutes to go before Wilkinson's penalty and drop-goal broke their hearts. Not this time. England failed to find any sort of field position to give the old stager a snap. France ran down the clock, and the roar at the final whistle was as much relief as anything else. England's skipper was left with the Moody blues, his knights in white satin slumping to the turf as their opponents waved the trophy to the sodden night skies.
The victorious French squad celebrate their first Grand Slam for six years
France deserved to be champions, even if the Slam itself was close to slipping away. They were by far the best team in the competition - not at all the finished article, and more vulnerable than their results might lead you to believe, but the only side who look capable of giving the southern hemisphere any restless nights.
They scored the most tries and the most points, made the most line-breaks and turnovers and had the most impressive set of forwards at both set-piece and in the loose. In Morgan Parra and Imanol Harinordoquy, they had the players of the tournament.
For England, the stats are less edifying - their lowest points tally in the Six Nations, only six tries scored and a third place in the table after successive seconds. It's a strange kind of progress. New-boys Foden and Ashton both impressed in Paris, which to some only underlined that they should have been handed starts earlier.
Johnson was at pains to point out that his side's two defeats came by a combined total of six points. His defence conceded only five tries in six matches, and kept the Grand Slam champions tryless throughout and scoreless for the entire second half.
"Of course we're frustrated," he said afterwards. "There are probably four teams saying 'could have' this season. But I said to the guys as they watched France lift the trophy - you've just played the champions, and you matched them all the way."
Deep down, Johnson will know further improvements will be required. Rumours from the England camp suggest the positions of assistant coach John Wells and attack coach Brian Smith are most under threat. With two Tests down under in June and a Tri-Nations assault to follow in November, the road ahead may be a rocky one.
For their northern hemisphere rivals, the Six Nations brought both optimism and doubt. Each performed in patches, but the flaws were as evident as the finery.
Wales, veering from the wonderfully cavalier to the woefully catastrophic, missed their Lions front row and scrum-half as much as Warren Gatland had feared. Scotland finished second-bottom again but were in many ways the most improved team of the lot. With luck and cooler heads, they could have won four of five.
Ireland aimed for successive Slams and failed in the end to even claim a Triple Crown, raising the awkward question of whether they are actually quite as good as many of us thought two months ago, and Italy - well, they got their win, and pushed England close to another.
For quality of rugby it was sometimes second-rate; for atmosphere and drama, it was hard to beat. Three different Grand Slam champions in three years tells its own tale of fierce competition and a levelling in standards. To France the blue riband, to the others the gauntlet.