Joyous France yet to hit their peak as eyes turn to home World Cup after grand slam triumph

Antoine Dupont lifts the Six Nations trophy after France beat England to win the Grand Slam

Antoine Dupont hoisted the trophy aloft and at last the Paris party could properly start. Not that the Stade de France had been subdued beforehand. It had been one of the great nights in the French capital, an expectant crowd whipped up to a frenzied, intoxicating din, this sporting shrine throbbing to the beat deep into the night. It provided the richest of soundscapes for a grand triumph and the first coronation of this joyous, diverse France side.

When the Eurodance had finally stopped pumping, Dupont wiped joyful tears from his eyes and basked in the glory. “We’ve created memories. We wanted to win for ourselves, for the staff and for our fans. We wanted to write our own history. You can use all the superlatives you want, but we just want to savour this together.”

The scrum-half had been at the heart of it all, the supercharger in the French engine. Whenever his side lulled, or the crowd’s nerves grew, up popped Dupont. Having been challenged by Shaun Edwards to lead from the front defensively, only two Frenchmen out-tackled the scrum-half, and it was he brushing off a fatigued Jamie George and Ben Youngs to put the result virtually beyond doubt.

The scary part is that it still does not feel like France are yet brushing up against the upper limits of their potential. This performance was imperfect and imprecise, their most vivid first-half pictures often scuppered by maladroit handling. There was an ill-considered drop goal, a curious choice to kick at goal from range, aerial insecurity: France did not have to be close to their best.

While they will be better for having closed out the Grand Chelem, there can be no certainty that Fabien Galthie’s side will kick on. But what is clear is that, whatever happens over the next 18 months or so, they will be able to count upon a special atmosphere at a home World Cup. France 2023 should be spectacular.

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“Of course, this is in our mind,” Dupont said afterwards of the World Cup. “It’s impossible to avoid. But right now we are going to make the most of this victory, this grand slam. We’ll think about the future later.

“Some players have great careers without lifting trophies. I know I am lucky to be part of a generation that is performing. When you are part of a dynamic like this, you don’t want it to stop.”

It was fitting Dupont scored the crucial try to put the grand slam beyond doubt

As the France squad celebrated, lingering English players weaved between them in search of friends and family, on the periphery in every sense. This might have been England’s best showing of the tournament, with a backline belatedly discovering its purpose, and yet a home victory still felt at times inevitable, a twelve-point margin slim.

It was another fighting effort from Eddie Jones’ side, but at this level that should be a pre-requisite. The same problems of disconnected attacking parts and under-resourced rucks have persisted throughout the tournament. It may yet come good with the greater preparation time together that England’s squad will be granted ahead of the World Cup, but the free attack that Jones is so keen to evolve still looks fragmentary.

Results elsewhere ensured it was a third-placed finish for England, but the green shoots of life of the autumn have been rather deadened by a late spring frost.

“They’ve got to have some faith,” Jones said of his message to doubting England fans. “I think I’ve done a reasonable job for England for the past seven years.

“We’re going through a period now where we’re rebuilding the team and it takes time. Look at the French team, it took them three years to win the Championship. We’ve rebuilt the side from the last Six Nations.

“I think the progress is very positive. The results aren’t the results we’d like – we’d all like to be winning tournaments and be at the top of the table, but we’re not quite good enough to do that now. I’m so disappointed with the results but I’m never been as excited as about the prospects of this team. If I did not have the petrol in the tank then why would I be sitting here.”

Eddie Jones has been backed by the RFU after a Six Nations campaign that brought three defeats

It is, roughly, 14 months until Jones will first assemble his chosen group ahead of the World Cup, a period in which England will play 12 tests. Jones retains the unequivocal backing of the RFU. A cynic would point to a dearth of readily available and able replacements, and the financial difficulties a regime change might cause, but Jones has just about earned a stay of execution.

He will again face a nameless review panel to determine England’s next steps, and they will have to improve ahead of a first tour of Australia in six years, a three-test itinerary of vital importance for Jones for so many reasons. William Blake wrote to expect poison from the standing water, and having reached deep into the aquifer to refresh, England’s stagnation cannot continue.

Wales 21-22 Italy

The final try may have been a bolt right out of the blue but this was a thoroughly deserved win for Italy. On balance, they were the better team in Cardiff, finally finding a most outstanding finish to end the long losing streak, the angel-faced Ange Capuozzo’s break heaven-sent to produce a divine moment. Paolo Garbisi’s disbelieving, exultant collapse having knocked through the game-winning points will remain a defining image for this young side.

It is a result that has been coming, both in this tournament, where they have grown week-by-week, and more widely given the strides the junior Italian sides continue to make at youth level. The challenge now is to build on this with greater consistency.

Ireland 26-5 Scotland

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It counted for little, in the end, as France completed their grand slam business, but Ireland’s Triple Crown secures their place among the potential contenders 18 months out from the World Cup. The squad is beginning to take shape, and while Johnny Sexton will have to be managed carefully, Dan Sheehan and Mack Hansen’s tournaments show the depth and potential within Andy Farrell’s squad.

As for Scotland, on and off-field blunders meant a tough end to the tournament for Gregor Townsend, who joins Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones in a crowded coterie of coaches needing strong summer tours. Argentina, under a new head coach in Michael Cheika and hosting international rugby for the first time since August 2019, will be far from straightforward.

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