Grand Slam spoils for France but Ireland happy in knowledge they are not far behind

Two sides on an upward curve as stark gulf between top two and the rest has emerged

To France, the dream finale against England on a raucous Saturday night in Paris and with that their first Grand Chelem and Six Nations’ title in a dozen years. To Ireland, the Triple Crown and an equally deserving second place, given they finished a whopping 11 points clear of the rest in what is, after all, a five-game Championship.

Indeed, France and Ireland were not only miles ahead of the others, but both are clearly on an upward curve, with more improvement to come. Ultimately, as it felt at the time, that round two collision in Paris was the title decider.

"I think from the outset we were open enough to say that we wanted to go for a Grand Slam and not be scared of that," said Andy Farrell. "We want to win every game that's in front of us, there's no doubt about that.

“We came up short in Paris but for the second year in a row we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re into the last day with a chance and we knew we had a chance of winning a Triple Crown, which is a trophy to go for and there’s pressures within all that; going to Twickenham and getting an away win, there’s pressures within all that.

“So there’s plenty of learnings but also as well I think the group has grown in many areas, none more so than the mental strength of the group that’s got great resolve at this moment in time; hence the bonus-try wins.”

By any metric, Ireland have had the most potent attack in this year's Six Nations, the most pertinent being the 24 tries and 168 scored in five games. But perhaps nothing typified this team more than the huge, try-saving tackle by Hugo Keenan on Stuart Hogg which kept Scotland at arm's length, for Ireland also conceded the least points (63) and the least tries (four).

Asked which statistic he preferred, Farrell said: “The least amount (of tries) because it shows what type of side we are and the character that we have. That was what was most pleasing about the (Scotland) game, how we defended our own line in that second half was true grit. To have four tries scored against you, it says a lot about the group and how much they are willing to fight for one another.”

All the while the squad’s depth increases, with Dan Sheehan coming of age and Mack Hansen unearthed, as Farrell looks to take an enlarged squad to New Zealand for a three test, potentially five match tour in July.

That will allow more scope to make full use of the squad, whereas since starting against France and Italy, Joey Carbery has been restricted to a cameo at fullback against Scotland.

“Joey played a massive match in Paris,” said Farrell, adding: “The experience of Conor (Murray) coming on over the last two weeks has been outstanding, helping us to get the bonus point wins but somebody’s got to stay on the bench because when you’re down to your last sub, that’s what happens. It just so happens that as well our ‘10’ is our captain, that’s guided all those difficult patches. Joey understands all of that as well.”

The happiness and togetherness which Farrell has fostered within this group of Irish players is palpable.

"This means so much to me," said the remarkable Johnny Sexton, who wanted something tangible to reward the squad's hard work over the past two months.

“It’s a very tight bunch. We have come from some low times. It’s only a few years ago we were being written off. The coach was being written off, the captain was being written off and the team was being written off. It’s pretty fickle, sport, isn’t it? So we will keep our feet grounded because we know how fickle it is. I’m just proud to be part of this group. Yeah, it is a very special atmosphere in here now.”

By contrast, Gregor Townsend sought to draw a line on the "disappointing" breach of team protocol by six of his players visiting an Edinburgh bar the previous Saturday night which included his captain and two vice-captains.

“They fronted up today,” said Townsend. “I saw a performance today that was better than most of our performances this year.”

Scotland looked an altogether more dangerous side when Finn Russell was belatedly introduced but Townsend’s strained relationship with him and perhaps now Hogg as well compounds another anti-climactic campaign.

A memorable day for the world’s oldest and best annual international competition began with that sensational counter-attack by Ange Capuozzo to set up Edoardo Padovani’s try as Paolo Garbisi’s conversion against Wales in Cardiff ended Italy’s 36-match Championship losing streak.

After scoring two tries on his debut off the bench against Scotland a week previously, the 22-year-old Capuozzo beat Josh Adams all ends up on his magical 50 metre run, and afterwards Adams offered him his man of the match award.

“It was a moment of great class, his gesture is just sublime,” said Capuozzo. “He has the lucidity to do it when they have just lost, I find that really strong. He offered me to take the man of the match medal. He told me that it had to come back to me.

“I thanked him 100 times but I replied that it was his. I really wanted him to keep it to himself. Beyond having the medal, it’s enough for me that he offered to take it. For me, his gesture is worth ten medals.”

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