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George Hook: Exhilarating day offers a glimpse of what rugby could be

By George Hook

After possibly the greatest afternoon in the history of rugby union, Ireland emerged as Six Nations champions for the second season in a row.

Saturday was a great day for Joe Schmidt, his team and the legions of followers, but the sport of rugby was a massive beneficiary, and those charged with the future of the game were given a vision of what could be.

The challenge is now to give the game back to the children, the amateurs and the public and take it away from the gladiators.

We watched the most efficient, most organised and most motivated team in the history of Irish rugby. It was also the luckiest and, across England and Wales, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth as fans saw the spoils slip from their fingers.

It was compelling. Ireland deviated little from the path of a narrow frontal attack, although, in the first quarter, Luke Fitzgerald saw more of the ball than the hapless Simon Zebo did in the previous four games.

Despite the apparent switch in plan, the habits of a season were hard to break. Robbie Henshaw butchered an opportunity to put Fitzgerald away and then Tommy Bowe came back inside when there seemed to be a wide option.

Paul O'Connell, who stormed over from three yards, rescued the two errors. It was a telling commentary on the narrow focus that Jared Payne, who had a fine game, scored by an inside switch.

The conservative strategy worked but it needed an assist from Wales and England. Predictably, Ireland had the lowest winning points score despite playing against the worst team. They held Scotland in a vice-like grip except when depending on an extraordinary saving tackle by Jamie Heaslip on Stuart Hogg.

The arrival of Sean O'Brien demonstrated, if proof were needed, that a winning team cannot be fashioned without an openside.

Describing this extraordinary player as the 'Tullow Tank' gives scant recognition to his incredible athleticism, flair and courage. The problem for the coach is that, without his first-choice No 10 and No 7, his team is toothless.

The title was there for the taking for Wales, and a dropped pass at the death, with seven points beckoning, allowed Italy to score and the points difference went from a possible 67 to 53. Wales were magnificent but lacked Ireland's execution.

England succeeded three times in losing a championship winning position. How they allowed Les Bleus to score five tries was a mystery.

The fixture coincidence, which left four of the six nations in with a chance of the championship on the final day, created a different focus for the competing countries.

It placed a premium on points scored and not just victory. The result was that kicks at goal were turned down in the search for a converted try.

For the first time in a decade, we saw sides run from deep, consistently off-load at pace and risk everything in search for seven vital points.

The comparisons for Ireland are interesting. Wales and England scored more points as they had better full-backs and centre partnerships. Ireland risked least as they did not have the firepower.

The problem may come earlier than we expect in the World Cup. France were seen as a walkover but showed a dangerous side in Twickenham. Even if we pass the first examination, a semi-final could mean a meeting with England.

As we reflect on the thrills and spills, there is a nagging feeling that, in a few months, the game will return to the sterile arm wrestle it has been for almost a decade.

The game's administrators were given a peek at the possibilities. Are they men of courage, conviction and imagination to make the changes to save the game from extinction?

Belfast Telegraph

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