rbs6nations.com > Italy
Last weekend reaffirmed its unique capacity in the grand manner. Wales set the theatrical tone, dimming the lights just before proving that reports of their demise as champions had been exaggerated on a scale not dissimilar to Mark Twain's premature obituary.
France were on their way home when Italy and Scotland began staging such a thriller in Rome that the lead changed hands three times in a wonderful finale settled by Duncan Weir's monstrous drop goal.
Then, to cap it all, England-Ireland delivered the match of the championship hitherto, a Twickenham classic from start to finish.
Crowds of more than 220,000 watched the three matches and untold millions more on television around the world.
Once the results had been added up, mathematics had to be applied to separate the four countries in contention for the title.
Any one of Ireland (points difference +42), England (+21), Wales (+6) or France (+1) will be crowned on March 15.
The glorious uncertainty is such that it will inevitably go to the last match of the last round - France-Ireland in Paris.
A week's break will give everyone time to recover for Round Four. Ireland, no longer the last team standing for the Slam, still top the table with Italy in Dublin on Saturday week.
Scotland v France later that afternoon will be followed the next day by arguably the mightiest of all Sunday collisions - England and Wales at Twickenham.
When it comes to close encounters of an Anglo-Irish variety, the number 13 keeps recurring. It proved enough for England last Saturday, just as it had been for Ireland by exactly the same score when Michael Kiernan's 11th hour drop goal won the Five Nations title almost 30 years ago.
Thirteen was not enough for England on the second of their excursions to Croke Park five years ago when two more yellow cards provoked their manager, Martin Johnson, to show his understandable disgust.
At the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, it could be said that England were nothing if not consistent, also chalking up 13 points on their first visit two years earlier in the course of losing by 30.
Thirteen was not enough for England on the occasion of their first appearance at Twickenham as World Cup holders ten years ago. Johnson had retired from national duty and Neil Back found himself demoted to the bench but the rest of the gold-medal gang were still there for what marked the beginning of the end of England's reign.
Thirteen turned out to be just enough at the same venue ten years earlier. England had won two Grand Slams in the three previous seasons only to be undone by the most famous of Simon Geoghegan's tries, the one where he beat
Tony Underwood on the outside and hurtled in at the corner despite Jon Callard's despairing attempt to stop him.
England-Ireland close shaves:
February 28, 2009 at Croke Park:
Ireland 14, England 13.
England: D Armitage; P Sackey (M Tait), M Tindall, R Flutey, M Cueto; T Flood (A Goode), H Ellis (D Care); A Sheridan (J White), L Mears (D Hartley), P Vickery; S Borthwick, capt., N Kennedy (T Croft); J Haskell, J Worsley, N Easter (L Narraway).
Try-Armitage. Conversion-Goode. Penalties-Armitage, Flood.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, P Wallace, L Fitzgerald; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer); M Horan, J Flannery (R Best), J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip (D Leamy).
Try-O'Driscoll. Penalties-O'Gara 2. Drop goal- O'Driscoll.
March 6, 2004 at Twickenham:
England 13, Ireland 19.
England: I Balshaw; J Lewsey, W Greenwood, J Robinson, B Cohen; P Grayson, M Dawson; T Woodman, S Thompson (M Regan), P Vickery; S Borthwick, B Kay; J Worsley (C Jones), R Hill, L Dallaglio, capt.
Try-Dawson. Conversion-Grayson. Penalties-Grayson 2.
Ireland: G Dempsey; S Horgan, G D'Arcy, B O'Driscoll, T Howe; R O'Gara, P Stringer; R Corrigan, S Byrne, J Hayes; M O'Kelly, P O'Connell; S Easterby, K Gleeson, A Foley.
Try-Dempsey. Conversion- O'Gara. Penalties- O'Gara 4.
February 19, 1994 at Twickenham:
England 12, Ireland 13.
England: J Callard; T Underwood, W Carling, capt., P de Glanville, R Underwood; C Andrew, K Bracken; J Leonard, B Moore, V Ubogu; M Johnson, M Bayfield; T Rodber, N Back, S Ojomoh.
Penalties- Callard 4.
Ireland: C O'Shea; R Wallace, M Field, P Danaher, S Geoghegan; E Elwood, M Bradley, capt; N Popplewell, T Kingston, P Clohessy; M Galwey, N Francis; B Robinson, D McBride, P Johns.
Try-S Geoghegan. Conversion-Elwood. Penalties-Elwood 2.
March 30, 1985 at Lansdowne Road:
Ireland 13, England 10.
Ireland: H McNeill; T Ringland, B Mullin, M Kiernan, K Crossan; P Dean, M Bradley; P Orr, C Fitzgerald, capt., J McCoy; D Lenihan, W Anderson; P Matthews, N Carr, B Spillane.
Try- Mullins. Penalties-Kiernan 2. Drop goal-Kiernan.
England: C Martin; S Smith, K Simms, P Dodge, capt., R Underwood; R Andrew, N Melville; P Blakeway, S Brain, G Pearce; J Orwin, W Dooley; J Hall, D Cooke, R Hesford.
Try-Underwood. Penalties-Andrew 2.
In the hazardous business of dropping a goal when the chips are down and all but washed away, nobody had ever cut it finer than Duncan Weir in Rome last Saturday. There is a chance that nobody ever will.
Fewer than 20 seconds were left when the Warriors' stand-off took aim in circumstances which were far from ideal. For a start he was the best part of 40 metres away and, secondly, he had Sergio Parisse heading a posse of Italians all leaping in front of him.
'Wee Dunky,' as his team-mates call him, kept his nerve and delivered the perfect execution. No sooner had the ball soared off into the great blue yonder on its steepling flight between the posts than Weir knew Scotland had climbed off the bottom of the RBS 6 table.
"I ran off celebrating," he said in the euphoric aftermath. "Going off my head…."
The 22-year-old Glaswegian, had been in some danger of being upstaged by another fly-half graduate of Scotland's under-age teams, 20-year-old Tommaso Allan.
Having opted for Italy, where he was born to an Italian mother and a Scottish father, Allan accounted for all 13 points as the Azzurri reached half-time ten points clear.
In the context of drop goals since the Five Nations became Six in 2000, nothing can compare with Ronan O'Gara's Grand Slam winner for Ireland against Wales in Cardiff.
Even then, the Irish had to go through the emotional wringer of a fraught finish.
There was still time that night for Stephen Jones to line up a penalty only for his long shot to fall short.
In Rome, Weir timed his drop to such perfection that there could be no way back for Italy.
When Wales found themselves forced into a late change to their second row, they had no hesitation about promoting a player who had not even begun his professional career at the start of last season.
Jake Ball, thrown into the deep end in place of the injured Alun-Wyn Jones, responded by playing a conspicuous part in the defeat of France - not any old home win but the biggest by Wales against the French since Swansea in 1931.
The new Welsh giant had arrived, in a roundabout fashion via Ascot, where he was born, Camberley, where he first played rugby, and Australia.
At 15, Ball chose cricket instead of rugby whereupon the family emigrated the following year to Perth.
The relocation offered Ball the chance to see how far he could go as a fast bowler who likened his action to that of the fastest bowler of the Seventies, Australia's Jeff Thomson.
Ball made it into the Western Australia under-19 state team, then found he was missing rugby's 'physicality.'
He joined Palymra RFC in Perth and, at 18, won a trial for an academy place at the local Super XV franchise, the Western Force. They told him that at 95kg (15 stone) he was too light.
Returning bigger and stronger, the Force gave him a one-season contract. When that ran out, Ball was wondering what to do next when an offer reached him from west Wales.
The Scarlets, clearly no slouches in the genealogy department, discovered that Ball's father, Dave, came from Pwllheli.
His son made his first start in the Pro 12 against Munster in Cork last season and his first for Wales a mere 15 months later.
There are meteoric rises and then there is Jake Ball's…
Six Nations team of the weekend:
15. Mike Brown (England)
14. Yoann Huget (France)
13. Alex Dunbar (Scotland)
12. Jamie Roberts (Wales)
11. Jonny May (England)
10. Duncan Weir (Scotland)
9. Danny Care (England)
1. Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
2. Rory Best (Ireland)
3. David Wilson (England)
4. Joe Launchbury (England)
5. Joshua Furno (Italy)
6. Peter O'Mahony (Ireland)
7. Sam Warburton (Wales)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)