Joy Neville believes it is “inevitable” that the historic feat of a woman refereeing men’s Six Nations and World Cup Test matches will be accomplished.

Neville, a trailblazer for aspiring female officials during her ground-breaking career as a referee, will exit the international stage after taking charge of Sunday’s Women’s Six Nations game between France and Italy in Paris, when the crowd will include her wife Simona and young son Alfie.

But while refereeing retirement beckons for the 40-year-old, she will continue to play a key role as World Rugby’s head coach for elite women officials in the 15s game.

Scotland’s Hollie Davidson this season became the first female assistant referee in a men’s Six Nations Test, while England’s Sara Cox has refereed in the Gallagher Premiership and South African Aimee Barrett-Theron is a regular on the United Rugby Championship circuit.

“It is going to happen and it will be a completely-deserved appointment,” Neville told the PA news agency.

“It is inevitable. The calibre of female referees that we have in place now is significant.

“I know a lot of the girls so well, how they work and I am just excited about supporting them further in ensuring they have the support to progress and help them achieve whatever goals they have in mind.”

Neville’s 11-year refereeing career began in a Limerick schools match at under-15 level and she can end it by looking back on numerous achievements.

She controlled the 2017 women’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand and was the first woman to referee men’s matches in European and URC competitions.

Neville also took charge of a men’s Rugby Europe Conference match between Norway an Denmark, while in 2017 she was named World Rugby referee of the year and last autumn became the first female to be part of a men’s World Cup officiating panel, working as a television match official.

And all that after an outstanding playing career that saw her win 70 Ireland caps, captain her country, play in two World Cups and win a Six Nations Grand Slam.

“I felt it was time to take a step away for family reasons,” Neville added. “Refereeing demands an awful lot of commitment and time away from home.

“And while I have enjoyed every single experience and I have learnt so much from the difficult moments and enjoyed the great moments, there comes a point that you realise it is time to enjoy a more normal lifestyle!”

Recalling how she became involved in refereeing, Neville said: “It was one or two days after I announced my retirement as a player.

“David McHugh (former international referee who worked for the Irish Rugby Football Union) called me and was coming to me with something that would demand even more time away and commitment.

“I had never for one second contemplated becoming a referee. When people retire from the game, they automatically think about giving back by volunteering, coaching and so on, but no one really properly considers refereeing.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t find it difficult at the start, going into a new environment, learning a new skill, learning from my mistakes, understanding different people-management. To be honest, refereeing can teach you so much.

“Yes, I have had difficult moments, but I have learnt from them and learnt how to cope and deal with those situations.

“I remember I refereed my first professional game – Southern Kings versus Ulster in Belfast – and all the media attention was about the first female to referee a professional game and all I have ever tried to achieve was drop ‘the first female’. It is just a referee.

“Just make it the norm and thankfully I think we have broken down that door.”

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont paid tribute to Neville ahead of her final game.

He told the World Rugby website: “As someone who continues to blaze a trail for aspiring female and male referees, we are delighted that Joy will be continuing to channel her experience, passion and expertise into helping our international match officials be the best they can be as World Rugby’s elite women’s 15s match officials head coach.”

England captain Jamie George has been hailed as “incredible” ahead of his return to club rugby after resolutely leading his country through a Guinness Six Nations campaign during which his mother died.

Saracens hooker George discovered his mum Jane had been diagnosed with cancer on the same day he was appointed national team skipper in place of club-mate Owen Farrell.

She died from the illness on February 14, four days after England’s 16-14 round-two win over Wales at Twickenham.

 Sarries director of rugby Mark McCall saluted George’s strength of character as he contemplates including him in his squad for Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership clash with rivals Harlequins.

“Just talking to our England players who were there, I think it was quite remarkable how he was able to go and captain the side,” said McCall.

“The first time being a captain of that side and to have suffered what he suffered with his mum dying as suddenly as she did.

“And they said he was incredible. He’s highly popular amongst all the playing group from all the clubs, so he did an incredible job.”

George started each of his country’s five matches during the championship amid a difficult time in his personal life.

The 33-year-old has been given time off since the tournament but could still feature in this weekend’s derby with Quins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as fly-half Farrell prepares for a milestone appearance for Saracens.

“We haven’t seen him this week,” said McCall. “We’ve given some some time away.

“He might (be involved), you never know. It’s Owen’s 250th game and he’s one of Owen’s best friends.


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“What he didn’t need was a couple of training days, to be honest.

“He’s got a new baby. He needed to be at home with his family and he’s the sort of person that we would trust with one practice to come and be part of the 23 if he really wants to be part of Owen’s big day.”

Saracens captain Farrell, who sat out the Six Nations to prioritise his mental health, echoed McCall’s comments

“Jamie’s obviously had a lot going on recently,” he said.

“I thought the way he’s held himself over that period and led the team was outstanding and you can see by the way the boys ended up playing it really built up well through that time. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Reigning champions Saracens begin the Premiership run-in sitting fourth in the table as an era draws to a close.

Captain Farrell will join French side Racing 92 in the summer, while Mako Vunipola, who is available following a ban, and brother Billy are also set to depart.

“I don’t want to talk without them having completely finalised their plans,” McCall said of the Vunipolas. “But they are coming towards the end of their time with us.”

Ryan Baird was determined to savour Ireland’s latest Guinness Six Nations title success following inspiration from a framed Maro Itoje jersey and the motivational words of his mother.

The Leinster forward struggled to fully embrace last year’s triumph due to preoccupation with analysing his own performance in the immediate aftermath of the Grand Slam clincher against England.

Baird took home the match shirt of rival star Itoje following that memorable 29-16 St Patrick’s weekend win in Dublin.

In the wake of last weekend’s last-gasp loss at Twickenham, the souvenir provided a timely reminder of the magnitude of championship glory ahead of Saturday’s decisive 17-13 victory over Scotland.

“I struggled to enjoy it last year because I was so frustrated about some of the mistakes I made and it kind of ruined it for me,” said Baird.

“Only when we lost last week and I was back home, my mum for Christmas had framed my jersey with the Maro Itoje jersey for me and she was like, ‘just remember how special that was and how hard they are to win’.

“So when the final whistle went, I’d made a few mistakes in the game but I put that aside.

“I remember being on the ground as the ball was being kicked out and I thought ‘you know what, appreciate the last eight weeks of hard work you have put in, appreciate the time you spent with your team-mates’.

“It didn’t give me a crazy high, it just gave me a satisfaction. I worked hard, we all worked hard.”

Baird, who can operate at lock or flanker, made his Test debut during the 2021 Six Nations.

The 24-year-old has patiently awaited opportunities but could benefit from the potential retirement of captain Peter O’Mahony.

Baird idolises O’Mahony and feels “privileged to be led” by the veteran Munster flanker, who is contemplating his international future after leading his country to silverware.

“He epitomises what it is to be an Irish rugby player,” said Baird, who featured in each of Ireland’s tournament fixtures but only started the round-two win over Italy.

“I said to him before the game how much I look up to him and I said it to him after. Yeah, I idolise him.

“I’m so fortunate to play with him as well, the way he carries himself. He’s such good fun off the pitch and such a hard worker on the pitch.

“You can see it is everything to him and I’m privileged to be led by him.”

Ireland face a two-match summer tour of South Africa before autumn clashes with New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia.

Baird hopes to add to his 20 caps – 14 of which have come as a replacement – against the top southern hemisphere sides.

“I just want to fulfil my potential and I feel very fortunate to be in this group,” he said.

“I’m not representing me, I’m representing family and friends and the big thing we always say is we want to inspire the nation.

“As I get older I’m realising more that I am less selfish in my views as to why I am doing this.

“I do it first because I love playing rugby and I love representing this country and what this gives others when we do this and when we win.

“I’m starting to appreciate that more and I guess it’s why I’m more fond of this one (Six Nations title).”

George North delivered a message of hope for Welsh rugby as he departed international rugby on crutches after Wales’ wooden spoon nightmare became reality.

There was no fairytale finish for North on his 121st and final Wales appearance, with Italy’s 24-21 victory at the Principality Stadium leaving Warren Gatland’s team propping up the Six Nations table.

Amid the doom and gloom, though, North spoke of “shining lights” as an extensive rebuilding job now moves to the next phase – facing world champions South Africa at Twickenham before two Tests against Australia Down Under.

While North prepares to see a specialist on Monday, Gatland and his staff will continue an extensive review into Wales’ worst Six Nations campaign since 2003.

“We have spoken about it honestly, and I think you have to in these times. We know where we are as a squad,” said North, whose Wales career included four Six Nations titles, two Grand Slams, four World Cup campaigns and 47 tries.

“The boys know the standard. Gats (Wales head coach Warren Gatland) drives that, the coaches drive that, but it is going to take time for us to get there.

“There are some real positives coming through, some shining lights, we have just got to give them time.

“Unfortunately, we are in the results business and the results business waits for no man.

“What a great challenge now for these boys to go (against) South Africa and Australia at the end of a long World Cup year. It is the experience they need to build that resilience and robustness into them and drive forward.

“The public have been incredible with their support for the boys, and all I would say is keep believing in them.

“The talent is there – I have seen it first-hand. The talent is immense, we’ve just got to give it time. I don’t think we are too far away from clicking.

“You have to get through this bit to get to the good bit.

“I was very fortunate I had a few more people to hold my hand when I was their age and show me how to go about winning. Once you know how and win once, you know.”

Asked about Gatland’s offer to step down, North added: “That wouldn’t solve much, would it?

“He knows how to get the best out of boys, especially with where we are. He’s done it before, but like I said, it takes time.”

North must wait to discover if he will return to action for the Ospreys this season ahead of joining ambitious French club Provence for next term.

But he will no longer be seen in the red jersey of Wales as he follows players like Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny into Test retirement during the last 10 months.

“People don’t always get the fairytale ending they want,” North said. “With two minutes to go I thought I might have had a chance to take it all in, but then obviously stuff happens.

“I am still incredibly proud of what I’ve achieved and how I went about my work. To be able to do it (bow out) at home is incredibly special.

“I’ve said to everyone at the Union the amount of messages I’ve had since I made my announcement has been incredible, and I can only say a massive thank you for the support from everyone.”

The 2024 Guinness Six Nations Championship was ultimately decided by events on the opening night when Ireland beat France in Marseille.

Although the Irish subsequently lost to England at Twickenham, they still successfully defended their title by a margin of five points from runners-up France, while Wales hit rock bottom with a wooden spoon.

Here, the PA news agency looks at five things that were learnt from the tournament.

Ireland back on track after World Cup woe

Ireland emphatically bounced back from familiar Rugby World Cup quarter-final disappointment to underline their status as the northern hemisphere’s top Test side by clinching a second successive championship title.

A record win away to France set the tone for another dominant campaign, with only the finest performance of Steve Borthwick’s reign as England boss – and a last-gasp drop goal – scuppering the pursuit of back-to-back Grand Slams.

Ireland will now turn their attention to backing up widespread claims of being the world’s best. A tantalising two-Test summer series against world champions South Africa should settle that debate. Mouthwatering autumn matches against New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia will follow before head coach Andy Farrell temporarily departs his role to take charge of the British and Irish Lions.

England find their mojo

Finishing third at the 2023 World Cup was a significant achievement, but Steve Borthwick’s reign has really been given lift-off by the last two rounds of the Six Nations.

Toppling defending champions Ireland was their greatest win of the last four years, and it was in the result only that they failed to back it up against France, losing to a Thomas Ramos penalty with seconds left.

England have their mojo back, emboldened by a new-found appetite for attack, and they can look ahead to their summer tour to Japan and New Zealand with genuine excitement. Given how grim it looked when they were beaten by Scotland at Murrayfield on February 24, it is a remarkable turnaround.

Warren Gatland’s Wales in freefall

Wales have gone from World Cup quarter-finalists to finishing bottom of the Six Nations in just five months as they suffered the ignominy of a first wooden spoon since 2003.

Head coach Warren Gatland said that he offered his resignation – which Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Abi Tierney rejected – immediately after a demoralising home defeat against Italy. It was Wales’ fifth successive loss of a tournament when they ultimately propped up the table by seven points.

Gatland’s post-World Cup rebuilding job is an extensive one, and while there was promise provided by newcomers like Cameron Winnett and Alex Mann, Wales ultimately could not overcome the absence of such key performers as Dan Biggar, Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, Jac Morgan and Taulupe Faletau. George North has now followed Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny into Test retirement, and Wales’ next game is against world champions South Africa. A long and painful road lies ahead.

A familiar story for Scotland

It was a missed opportunity for Scotland to post their best finish of the Six Nations era after somehow managing to end up with just two wins from five despite being well in contention in each of their matches – and establishing commanding positions in four of them.

Concentration issues proved costly in narrow defeats by France, Italy and Ireland, while they were fortunate not to pay the penalty for an alarming second-half collapse in the opening match against Wales.

Gregor Townsend’s side had chances to put the French away, before being left to rue the officials’ controversial decision not to award them a late match-winning try; they had victory firmly within their grasp in Rome before losing their way badly in the second half; and then in Dublin, a poorly executed lineout in front of their own line ultimately undermined a spirited away performance. Scotland must find a way to cut out the flakiness that continues to hold them back from being considered a truly top-class side.

Italy deserve the highest acclaim

While Ireland were once again crowned kings of the Six Nations, a strong case could also be argued for Italy as team of the tournament.

They might have finished only fifth, but their level of improvement under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada was something to behold. Italy had collected the wooden spoon for eight successive seasons, yet this time around there was a quality, purpose, direction and dynamism about their rugby that underpinned victories over Scotland and Wales, an away draw against France and narrow loss to England.

Michele Lamaro was an an inspired captain, the centre pairing of Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello proved on a par with any midfield partnership in the competition, newcomer Louis Lynagh looked a Test natural, Paolo Garbisi ran things impressively from fly-half and there was so much better tactical appreciation and execution from Italy than for several seasons. They were a joy to watch.

Warren Gatland faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career after Wales’ alarming demise was confirmed by a first Six Nations wooden spoon for 21 years.

Wales finished seven points adrift of fifth-placed Italy following the Azzurri’s 24-21 victory in Cardiff, which was their 14th defeat in the last 16 Six Nations games.

They have lost seven successive matches in the tournament at home, and Gatland has a miserable 10 per cent Six Nations win-ratio since he returned for a second stint as head coach.

During his trophy-laden first spell in the job between 2008 and 2019, Wales won Six Nations titles, Grand Slams, reached two World Cup semi-finals and were briefly the world’s number one-ranked team.

There are significant mitigating factors behind Wales’ slump, including Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and now George North retiring from Test rugby, Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau and Dewi Lake all recovering from long-term injuries, Louis Rees-Zammit quitting rugby union to pursue a possible American football career and Liam Williams playing club rugby in Japan.

But much of their performance against Italy was scarred by schoolboy errors and a chronic lack of composure. In truth, Italy were at least 20 points better.

Wales’ post-World Cup rebuild has witnessed some green shoots, notably the arrival of newcomers like full-back Cameron Winnett and flanker Alex Mann, while they threatened an unlikely comeback win against Scotland, ran England close and were competitive for an hour before subsiding to France.

The Italy performance, though, illustrated how big Gatland’s task is. Wales’ next game is against world champions South Africa in June, followed by a two-Test tour of Australia.

Asked if he was confident of turning things around, Gatland said: “Absolutely. I’ve never shied away from that.

“We have had glimpses where we have been really good in this tournament. We need to do that for longer periods.

“We need to start better in games and make sure we are more accurate.

“Probably the amount of turnovers in those games have allowed opposition teams some easy outs where they haven’t had to play too much rugby and have waited and relied on us shooting ourselves in the foot with some mistakes.

“We just need to win, don’t we. We need to get some confidence and self-belief, whether that is first of all at the national level, but also at regional level.

“When you start winning and get confidence, it makes a huge amount of difference.

“I know that the regions and (Welsh Rugby) Union are talking collectively and trying to put strategies in place for the future. That will make a huge difference to everyone.”

Gatland said he had offered his resignation – which was rejected – to WRU chief executive Abi Tierney immediately after the Italy game.

The painful Six Nations review process will now take centre-stage, in addition to starting preparations for some demanding assignments against heavyweight southern hemisphere opposition.

Gatland added: “There is planning to be done over the next few weeks, in terms of the summer tour and making sure as a coaching group we are visible in the regions as well.

“I can promise you we will go away and review this really carefully. We have already done some review stuff, and we will work on areas that need to improve.

“I think collectively we have all got a lot of work to do to make sure we can continue to improve the state of Welsh rugby.”

An eventful Guinness Six Nations has seen a crop of emerging talent announce their arrival on the Test stage.

Here the PA news agency picks five players who enjoyed a breakthrough tournament.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, England, wing, 21

It is indication of Feyi-Waboso’s impact in only three caps that he was missed when ruled out against France because of concussion.

A genuine X-factor player with pace and power who had Twickenham on their feet for the visit of Ireland in round four.

Joe McCarthy, Ireland, second row, 22

McCarthy’s coming of age display against France on the opening weekend went unmatched in the rest of the Six Nations but his status as a second row enforcer was already assured.


Bristles with aggression on both sides of the ball.

Cameron Winnett, Wales, full-back, 21

One of the slightest players on the international stage but Winnett’s speed, footwork and handling have proved a handful for opponents.


Not bad for a player with just 15 professional appearances for Cardiff to his name before the tournament began.

Tommaso Menoncello, Italy, centre, 21

Menoncello’s international appearances before this Six Nations lacked consistency but he is now becoming the force his talent suggested was possible.

Powerful and direct, has has the physicality to make an impact in attack and defence.

Nolann Le Garrec, France, scrum-half, 21

An outrageous 35-metre reverse pass headlined a man of the match display against Wales that was also his first start.


Faced with the impossible task of replacing Antoine Dupont, Le Garrec has showed there may be life outside the France superstar after all.

Gregor Townsend insisted Scotland have proved they are capable of being genuine Guinness Six Nations title contenders as he reflected on what might have been following a frustrating bottom half finish.

The Scots showed plenty of promise during an inconsistent campaign but slipped to fourth place in the final standings after being denied a first Triple Crown in 34 years by Saturday’s 17-13 loss to champions Ireland.

Defeat in Dublin was a third from five championship fixtures following a controversial round-two reverse to France and last weekend’s shock loss away to Italy.

Head coach Townsend, who faced questions about his future after a chastening experience in Rome, is adamant his side are making progress.

“We were in contention over the last couple of weeks, which hasn’t been the case before in championships,” said the 50-year-old, who masterminded wins over Wales and England.

“We would have been more in contention if we’d been awarded that try against France, so I think the evidence is there.

“We’re still searching, like any team, to back up performances.

“It is difficult during the Six Nations, every team has found that. And in particular this Six Nations with the competition and the quality of the teams we were up against, if you don’t get your performance spot on then you’re going to be really challenged to win that game.

“We have to be at our very best every time we play.”

Scotland have not won the championship since winning the final Five Nations in 1999.

Huw Jones’ late try offered hope of ending on a high but it proved to be a consolation as Ireland held on to retain their crown.

Co-captain Finn Russell, who kicked eight points at the Aviva Stadium, spoke of mental frailties undermining his country’s development following the largely positive performance.

While head coach Townsend hailed Scotland’s tenacious defensive display as their best in years, he concurred with the assessment of his influential fly-half.

“Yeah, I agree with him, it happens in every sport,” he said.

“The mental side is the same as the strategy, the same as the skill side, the physical side.

“Teams will have moments that go against them – every team in this championship will have had it – and it could be focus, it could be how quickly you reset.

“We’ve had chances to win all our games. The three games we lost were all within a score – that’s even more disappointing for us.

“We felt we should have won against France. We underperformed against Italy but we performed well (against Ireland) and we performed well in the two victories.

“Two wins is not what we set out to do or what we believe this team are capable of achieving.”

Andy Farrell believes falling short of back-to-back Grand Slams will be the “best thing” for the development of his triumphant Ireland squad after masterminding another title success.

Farrell’s men retained the Guinness Six Nations trophy on Saturday by beating Scotland 17-13 in Dublin to bounce back from having their 100 per cent record extinguished in agonising fashion against England.

Ireland’s current crop of stars are largely unfamiliar with losing thanks to a remarkable run of 33 wins from 37 Tests during the past three years.

Head coach Farrell feels last weekend’s 23-22 Twickenham defeat will ultimately prevent complacency creeping in moving towards a two-match summer series against world champions South Africa and autumn appointments with New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia.

“It was a fantastic campaign for this group and we’re continuing on from where we left off and trying to improve as a group,” he said.

“But we all know things change year on year as far as personnel’s concerned and injuries and whatnot, staff leaving, staff coming in, new staff.

“I reckon the loss last week will be the best thing for us as a group because some of these lads, subconsciously now, not through their own doing, they’ve been used to winning.

“For some of the lads who are not used to losing at all, they get to point where they’re turning up for games actually thinking, ‘we’re doing it’.

“You’re never, ‘doing it’. You’re never doing it in the Six Nations because things changes week to week and that Test match last week was a proper Test match in Twickenham.

“We’ll learn the lessons from that and that will be powerful for us going forward like this one (against Scotland) was.”

Tries from Dan Sheehan and Andrew Porter, plus seven points from Jack Crowley, put Ireland on course for championship glory at the Aviva Stadium before Huw Jones’ late consolation set up a nervy finale.

Farrell, who will miss next year’s Six Nations campaign as he takes a break to lead the British and Irish Lions’ 2025 tour of Australia, is “unbelievably proud” of his players’ achievements.

“I’ve no doubt that Scotland will be proud of their performance but ultimately we’re delighted,” he said.

“It’s about winning championships for us and that’s unbelievably pleasing because it’s so hard to do.

“Everyone constantly talks about Grand Slams and we get carried away with it so much, back-to-back Grand Slams have never been done before, there’s obviously a good reason for that.

“But for us to be in a position to win back-to-back Six Nations is a nice feeling because it goes down in history for Irish rugby. We’re unbelievably proud of the group.”

Farrell may have to appoint a new captain when his squad reconvene to face the Springboks in July as current skipper Peter O’Mahony contemplates international retirement.

The Englishman is set for imminent talks with the veteran Munster flanker.

Asked if he will try to convince O’Mahony to continue, Farrell replied: “Whatever its right for him.

“I’ve been an unbelievably big fan of Pete all his career and we’ve a close enough relationship to be honest with one another.

“We’ve been talking about his career, certainly over when it’s getting to the end, for the last year. We’re realists as far as that’s concerned.

“I’ve no doubt we’ll chew the fat on all that over the coming days.”

Ireland became the first team since England in 2017 to win successive Guinness Six Nations titles as they dominated this season’s competition.

Although back-to-back Grand Slams eluded them following defeat against England at Twickenham, Ireland ended five points clear of a chasing pack led by France.

Here, the PA news agency selects its team of the tournament.

15: Hugo Keenan (Ireland)

Although the Ireland full-back missed two games because of injury, he was still a class apart in that position. A major attacking threat who also never flinched in defence.

14: Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)

The Scotland wing claimed a stunning try hat-trick in his team’s Calcutta Cup victory over England. His five touchdowns overall left him one behind Scotland’s record Test try-scorer Stuart Hogg.

13: Juan Ignacio Brex (Italy)

Claimed successive player of the match awards in Italy’s victories over Scotland and Wales as he forged an outstanding centre pairing with Tommaso Menoncello for the resurgent Azzurri.

12: Bundee Aki (Ireland)

Another huge shift from one of Ireland’s most consistent players, who brought watertight defence and attacking power in abundance. An inspiration to those around him.

11: James Lowe (Ireland)

Arguably has the best all-round game as a wing in Britain and Ireland. An outstanding kicking game, brilliant positional work and try-scoring prowess make him the complete package. Topped the lists for most metres carried and metres gained.

10: Jack Crowley (Ireland)

It seemed that replacing retired fly-half Johnny Sexton would be Ireland’s biggest challenge this season, but 24-year-old Crowley stepped up in magnificent fashion, barely putting a foot wrong.

9: Jamison Gibson-Park (Ireland)

There is an effortless ease and quality about everything Ireland’s immaculate scrum-half does. He dictates the tempo, drives the forwards relentlessly and was once again hugely influential.

1: Andrew Porter (Ireland)

The tough-as-teak loosehead prop provided a strong scrummaging foundation, while his work around the pitch was of its usual high standard. Scored a try in title-clinching victory over Scotland.

2: Dan Sheehan (Ireland)

Ireland’s livewire hooker maintained top-end performance levels that have become his trademark. Scored five tries to finish as the tournament’s equal top try-scorer with Van der Merwe.

3: Uini Atonio (France)

It proved to be an erratic Six Nations campaign for France, which included a thrilling victory over England and home draw against Italy, but juggernaut prop Atonio made a consistent impact at scrum-time.

4: Maro Itoje (England)


Showcased all the experience gained from more than 80 England caps. The Saracens lock soared to exceptional heights during a memorable win against Ireland, and there are few who can match him when he is on his game.

5: Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)

The beating heart of Ireland’s pack, he was again to the fore in every aspect. A world-class forward with set-piece mastery, his work in disrupting opposition lineouts proved particularly impressive.

6: Caelan Doris (Ireland)

Has a commanding on-pitch presence as a natural leader in everything he does. A model of consistency, he is emerging as a major contender to captain the British and Irish Lions in Australia next year.

7: Tommy Reffell (Wales)

It was a Six Nations to forget for Wales, but their openside flanker provided some rare highlights. He was king of the breakdown, claiming 11 turnovers and equalling the tournament record.

8: Ben Earl (England)

Barely put a foot wrong. His 73 carries saw him top that category by a distance, and his standards never dropped. Made an extremely strong case to be named player of the tournament.

Steve Borthwick praised England’s fighting spirit after seeing his team denied a precious Guinness Six Nations win against France by a final-minute Thomas Ramos penalty.

England appeared to have snatched victory with the second of two fightbacks when Tommy Freeman crossed in the right corner only for a no-arms tackle by Ben Earl in the closing seconds to enable Ramos to seal a 33-31 victory.

It ended an enthralling evening in Lyon that saw Borthwick’s side back up their stunning triumph over Ireland in every respect apart from the final result.

Borthwick stated after England lost to Scotland at Murrayfield in round three that the Red Rose jersey was weighing heavily on his players, but he saw the pressure lift at Groupama Stadium.

“My overriding emotion is immense pride in the players and gratitude to our supporters,” Borthwick said.

“The players have been incredible – they played really well and I’m really disappointed for them.

“I’ve talked about the weight of the shirt in the past but with the kind of support we’re getting, the England shirt is starting to feel a bit lighter, it’s helping these players grow.

“We didn’t get the result we wanted but you look at the players and the fight and intensity they had.

“I don’t think these guys are ever beaten and we weren’t beaten in this game, we just ran out of time. We saw the way they went back at it to try to find another score.

“We’ve taken on two teams in the top four of the world and we’ve shown how we can compete with them.

“To be clear, we don’t just want to be competing, we want to win. We shown the team has step forward.”

The nature of France’s victory brought memories of last autumn’s Rugby World Cup flooding back for Jamie George, who recalled the similarity between Ramos’ penalty and Handre Pollard kicking South Africa to a last-gasp semi-final win from a similar position.

“That’s the way Test match rugby goes – we knew it’s going to be hostile and we knew France were coming out to give it a good crack. I thought it was a great Test match all in all,” England captain George said.

“Of course I’m gutted about the result. I feel like we deserved a lot of the game because of the way we attacked it game and went after it.

“There was a lot to be very pleased about and very proud of. Fair play to France for coming back and getting that penalty at the end and fair play to Ramos for knocking it over.

“There was a bit of deja vu from the Pollard penalty a few month ago. That’s always going to be tough to take but like Steve said there’s so much to be proud of over the last few weeks.

“We genuinely feel like this team is on and upward curve and we’re going somewhere.”

France finished second in the Six Nations and boss Fabien Galthie felt it helped make amends for their World Cup quarter-final exit.

“We are very happy, it was a tough game, it was a tough tournament. We paid for our mistakes, we learnt about our mistakes. We were resilient and solid,” Galthie said.

“This game looked like our quarter final against South Africa but at the end, the result is really different.

“And I think this game can help us to forget what happened during the World Cup.”

England finished third in the Guinness Six Nations after a monster Thomas Ramos penalty in the final minute sent them spinning to a heartbreaking 33-31 defeat at Groupama Stadium.

Steve Borthwick’s men have trailed at half-time of every match of the Championship and once more they faced an uphill battle, this time in the form of 16-6 deficit that included a try of the tournament contender for scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec.

But they turned the contest on its head by amassing 21 unanswered points through two Ollie Lawrence tries and a Marcus Smith touch down as their attack ran amok through the France midfield.

France regrouped to cross through Leo Barre and Gael Fickou but England were not done yet as Tommy Freeman stormed over in the right corner with five minutes remaining.

They appeared to have secured their fourth win of the Six Nations having staged multiple fightbacks but when they infringed just outside their half with seconds left, Ramos kept his nerve to hit the target.

Manu Tuilagi came on for what is likely to be his final England appearance and he could not have asked for a more dramatic send-off.

Ireland may already have clinched the title by toppling Scotland but if evidence was needed that this match still mattered it came when Ramos kicked off before the countdown had even begun.

Once the false start had been dealt with, England were greeted with waves of attacks and a challenging opening was compounded when George Furbank departed with a calf injury and was replaced by Smith.

George Ford drew first blood through a penalty and his side were successfully slowing down play to stem the blue tide but there was no stopping the stunning end to end move began by Fickou and finished by Le Garrec.

England were in danger of being swept aside as they scrambled furiously to stop a second long-range strike but a sizeable lead opened up when Ramos kicked his second penalty.

Wing Damian Penaud beat a host of tackles yet made no metres in a crabbing run but it resulted in another opportunity for Ramos and he found the posts once more.

England showed their mettle, however, when Lawrence ran through Fickou on the cusp of half-time for a vitally important try that reduced the interval deficit to 16-10.

And there was better to come as a sweeping move given impetus by big runs from Sam Underhill and Ben Earl ended with a second try for Lawrence.

In a remarkable turn of events, England were now breaking through the home defence at will as Underhill and Earl combined a second time to create the opening before Smith arrived to score.

France now found their second wind and when their opponents eventually ran out of bodies in defence, they crossed through Barre to make it a one-point game heading into the final quarter.

With control restored, the 2023 World Cup hosts conjured a third try by Fickou that was born out of Theo Dan’s line-out overthrow.

But there was yet another twist as England staged a well-constructed attack that led to an overlap, providing a simple run in for Freeman.

Yet, with the Test seemingly won, up stepped Ramos to decide otherwise.

Peter O’Mahony savoured the “best feeling in the world” as he left question marks hanging over his international future after leading Ireland to Guinness Six Nations glory.

Andy Farrell’s men ignited the St Patrick’s weekend party by retaining the title thanks to a a nervy 17-13 success over Scotland in Dublin.

Reports emerged before the game that captain O’Mahony was set to call time on his international career following a 105th and final outing in the green jersey.

The 34-year-old, who lifted the championship trophy with Tadhg Furlong, is “still loving” life at Test level but concedes he has a big decision to make.

“I won’t be making any decisions over the next few days,” he said. “But next week we’ll have to have a chat.

“I’m still loving it. This part of it is the best feeling in the world and that’s the part you chase.

“But you have to have a proper chat and be realistic.

“If it was my last one, it wasn’t a bad one to go out on. I can hang the jersey in a good place, if it was. But I’ll have that chat next week.

“It means the world to me (playing for Ireland).

“It’s a special thing to be picked for your country and you’ve got to treat it with the utmost respect.”

Tries from Dan Sheehan and Andrew Porter, plus seven points from Jack Crowley, helped Ireland bounce back from having their dream of back-to-back Grand Slams dashed by England last weekend.

Veteran Munster flanker O’Mahony overcame pre-match nerves to claim the fifth – and most satisfying – Six Nations title of a Test career which began in 2012.

He opted to share the trophy lift with Furlong following the death of the Leinster prop’s father James in December.

“It was a nice moment for him and his family and I thought it was appropriate –  he’s had a tough, tough few months,” said O’Mahony.

“I think this was probably the most special (of the five titles).

“We didn’t want to lose last week. But we knew we needed to get back on the horse and put in a better performance and coming back home, championship on the line, the whole lot, it was an important game for us.

“I felt the pressure, I felt the nerves and I knew it needed to be a big day for us.

“I was saying to Andy (Farrell) on the way in there, it was a tough week and it was probably one of the toughest days nerves-wise beforehand.

“It 100 per cent has to be up there with one of the most special days of my career, if not the most.”

Head coach Farrell, whose side led just 7-6 at half-time, said: “That was a proper Test match.

“Scotland are a great side. I thought they were tenacious, I thought they were tough.

“I actually thought we played bloody well. We came out of the blocks in the second half, that was magnificent – the power, the pace we put into the game.”

Finn Russell believes Scotland must improve significantly from a mental perspective after their quest for a first Triple Crown since 1990 fell short against “probably the best team in the world”.

Fly-half Russell was encouraged by his country’s dogged display at the Aviva Stadium but was left to rue frustrating inconsistency which resulted in three tournament defeats from five fixtures.

Asked if Scotland are progressing or regressing, the co-captain replied: “Today we are progressing.

“That mentality we had today and that cohesiveness, especially in defence, was brilliant.

“But throughout the campaign we need to get mentally stronger. We need to get better and put in performances week in, week out.

“We’ve had spells in this competition that we’ve been brilliant but at the same time we’ve had spells where we’ve allowed teams to get on the front foot and get momentum.

“We are progressing and it’s tough only winning two games and saying we’re progressing but this campaign will make us better come the summer, then November and next season’s Six Nations.

“From a personal opinion, I think mentally we need to get a lot better and not drift at moments in the game.

“We need to be in every moment of the game and that’s a big work on for us.

“Today, we were there for probably 90 per cent of the game, just a couple of moments that allowed Ireland into it. And, probably the best team in the world, you can’t do that over here.”

Ireland retained the Guinness Six Nations title following victory over Scotland in Dublin.

Here, the PA news agency looks at their route to another championship triumph.

France 17 Ireland 38 – February 2

Ireland emphatically dismissed any notion of a World Cup hangover by romping to a record win away to the pre-tournament favourites. Andy Farrell’s men took advantage of the absence of France talisman Antoine Dupont with a devastating display in Marseille, aided by Les Bleus losing lock Paul Willemse to a first-half red card. Tries from Jamison Gibson-Park and Tadhg Beirne helped subdue the home crowd before second-half scores from Calvin Nash, Dan Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher completed a stunning success at Stade Velodrome. Damian Penaud and Paul Gabrillagues touched down to give France hope of a fightback. But the hosts could not contain Ireland’s physicality, spearheaded by impressive tournament debutant Joe McCarthy.

Ireland 36 Italy 0 – February 11

The Azzurri arrived in Dublin buoyed by an encouraging three-point defeat to England before becoming the first team to be nilled by Ireland in the championship since the English in the 1987 Five Nations. Jack Crowley’s maiden senior try set a much-changed team captained by Caelan Doris on course for a routine success. Hooker Sheehan registered two of five further tries to take his tournament tally to three, while Jack Conan, James Lowe and Nash were also on the scoresheet. Ireland’s display could certainly have been more ruthless but it was more than enough to dispatch outclassed opposition who offered little attacking threat.

Ireland 31 Wales 7 – February 24

Ireland’s ominous march towards the title continued as they equalled England’s championship record of 11 consecutive wins. Tries from Sheehan and Lowe rewarded the home team’s first-half dominance in Dublin. A youthful Wales side avoided embarrassment at the Aviva Stadium thanks to a positive second-half spell which brought a penalty try and a yellow card for Beirne. But a first Test try for stand-in Ireland full-back Ciaran Frawley broke their resolve before Beirne atoned for his earlier error by securing the bonus point at the death on an afternoon when flawless fly-half Crowley, who has filled the void left by the retired Johnny Sexton, kicked 11 points.

England 23 Ireland 22 – March 9

Ireland’s dream of successive Grand Slams was extinguished by a dramatic late twist at Twickenham. The visitors were second best in south-west London but were seconds away from remaining on course for another clean sweep when Marcus Smith kicked a decisive drop goal in the final act of a thrilling affair to reward England’s standout performance of the Steve Borthwick era. Ireland had been overwhelming favourites for victory and led thanks to two tries from Lowe and four Crowley penalties. However, Ollie Lawrence, George Furbank and Ben Earl crossed for England, who pulled off an upset in memorable fashion to take the title race to the final weekend.

Ireland 17 Scotland 13  – March 16

Farrell’s hosts were well below their free-flowing best in Dublin but avoided any major ‘Super Saturday’ drama to retain the championship title. Andrew Porter’s second-half try fatally broke the resistance of the stubborn Scots to ignite the St Patrick’s weekend celebrations and satisfy an expectant capacity crowd at the Aviva Stadium. Hooker Sheehan set Ireland on course for glory – and a 10th successive win over Scotland – with an opportunistic first-half score, while Crowley kicked seven points.

Peter O’Mahony said leading Ireland to the Guinness Six Nations title is “not a bad one to go out on” as he left question marks surrounding his international future.

Andy Farrell’s side retained the championship crown thanks to Saturday’s scrappy 17-13 success over Scotland in Dublin.

Reports emerged before the game that veteran Munster flanker O’Mahony was set to call time on his Test career following a 105th and final outing in the green jersey.

The 34-year-old, who made his Test debut in 2012, intends to take time before making a decision after helping his country bounce back from last week’s loss to England to celebrate St Patrick’s weekend in style.

Asked about his future, O’Mahony told ITV: “I don’t know. I have a few chats to have with family and stuff the next couple of weeks and if it was my last one it’s not a bad one to go out on.

“(It’s been) one of the tougher weeks of my career for lots of different reasons.

“We weren’t happy with the performance last week when we knew we could do better but we had a job to go and do and thankfully today we went out and did it against a seriously good Scottish side.

“I thought we showed loads of grit, I thought we showed ambition with the ball, in a damp, greasy environment and thought we played some good rugby and that middle 20 in the second half was massive for us.

“We spoke (at half-time) about getting stuck in and we probably put a lot of lead in their legs, so we needed to get some reward for it.

“We just said we’d stay at it and keep going and I thought the 10 minutes after half-time were really, really impressive.”

Ireland ended a sluggish first half 7-6 ahead thanks to Dan Sheehan’s opportunistic touch down, converted by Jack Crowley.

Andy Farrell’s men improved markedly in the second period and completed the job through Andrew Porter’s try and five further points from fly-half Crowley.

Huw Jones’ late consolation try, combined with eight points from Finn Russell, ensured a nervy final couple of minutes at the Aviva Stadium.

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