England have a way to go to emulate past achievements, Ireland’s embarrassment of riches in the back row and just how good are Scotland?
Ireland back row bristling with intent
It began with a deflating defeat in Murrayfield and ended with a hugely impressive win over England. Indeed, Ireland’s Six Nations campaign was an up-and-down affair following a stellar November and summer victory away to South Africa.
The tournament has done little to dispel the notion that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will be Warren Gatland’s starting half-back partnership for the Lions’ trip to New Zealand, but the back row also remains a huge source of comfort for Irish fans.
Back to full fitness, Seán O’Brien started all five games, along with CJ Stander, man-of-the-match and hat-trick hero in Italy. The South African born bruiser carried (104) and tackled (52) more than any other Irish player, and also finished joint-top of the try-scoring chart for good measure.
Jamie Heaslip’s injury in the warm-up against England allowed Peter O’Mahony back into the fold and he duly picked up a man-of-the-match in a typically bullish and clinical performance from the Munster flanker, not least in the lineout.
Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy have both featured off the bench, while the likes of Jack Conan, Tommy O’Donnell, Seán Reidy and Billy Holland will be out to impress Joe Schmidt over the course of the season and the summer’s Tbilisi Cup.
Throw in Iain Henderson as an option if required and it's an area of team brimming with quality.
England good, but not great
It is hard to argue against a side that retained their Six Nations title and equalled New Zealand’s 18-match unbeaten record at Test level, but Eddie Jones has made no secret that the 2019 World Cup is the target and, as such, the bar has been set high.
The defending champions edged past France and Wales, and stuttered for long periods against Italy as unconventional breakdown tactics had the home side at Twickenham in disarray before they finished strongly. Blitzing Scotland set up the perfect finale to a fine season.
Right from the off, however, they looked incapable of penetrating the Irish defence and were shut out for the first time in the competition in two years, since their last visit to the Irish capital.
Dylan Hartley singled out Andy Farrell’s defensive work with Ireland afterwards, but a side looking to contend in two years' time will be disappointed with their blunt attack.
"It goes to show we're not quite there yet as a team" - Dylan Hartley
Elliot Daly is growing into the Test arena, while Owen Farrell looks likely to get a Lions berth on current form at inside centre, but Jones has chopped and changed at 13 and 14 in a backline that hasn’t always clicked.
The obvious strength lies in the pack, with Mako Vunipola and Tom Wood coming off the bench in Dublin and Chris Robshaw to return from injury.
English rugby is in a good place right now, but comparisons to the 2003 vintage may be a little premature.
Old failings continue to haunt Italy
Conor O’Shea said right from the outset that it is a long-term project with Italy, which is just as well following another dismal campaign.
A strong showing a Twickenham aside, where O’Shea’s tactical approach to the breakdown had England in all sorts of confusion, it was another campaign of toil.
They failed to collect a single point on their way to another wooden spoon, shipped 63 points at home to Ireland and failed to score at all in their final outing at Murrayfield, where, yet again, failings from the tee proved costly.
Carlo Canna had a nightmare in front of the posts, pulling all four attempts wide, including three in the first half when the Azzurri were still very much in contention in a sub-standard contest.
Out-half issues of course are nothing new. Between 2011 and 2016, Italy had the worst kicking percentage of any major rugby-playing nation, including lowly Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, with just a 63 per cent conversion rate.
There are many issues that O’Shea must tackle in his current role in developing Italy as a serious rugby nation, but on a short-term basis, a reliable 10 could have a big impact for the struggling side.
Lack of variety for Wales
Critics of Warren Gatland’s gameplan with Wales is that it is based around defence and goal kicking. ‘Warrenball’, as it has become known is centred on a well-honed pack, Dan Biggar playing territory and Leigh Halfpenny being efficient from the kicking tee.
With just two wins in the tournament, it is hard to see whether interim head coach Rob Howley has been able to develop their attacking game further, and indeed the scrum was under huge pressure in Paris as the French eventually claimed the win in a dramatic finish.
Halfpenny remains one of the most accurate place kickers in world rugby, but Wales will need to sharpen up in attack if they are to progress further and have aspirations of taking on the big guns of the southern hemisphere.
There were glimpses – Liam Williams’ try against England and George North’s brace against Ireland – but not enough to suggest Wales are going to veer away from the tried and trusted any time soon.
Jekyll and Hyde Scots
Just how good are Scotland? It is a difficult question to answer based on the 2017 Six Nations.
They had a real rollercoaster against Ireland, and were poor for long stages against hapless Italy, but ended up winning both games. Victory over Wales ensured three successive wins at Murrayfield for the first time since 2006.
France were pushed all the way in Paris, but the capitulation against England was not part of the script.
Vern Cotter departs after making the Scots competitive once again and in Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones they have game changers, while the Gray brothers, John Barclay and Hamish Watson bring serious work-rate to the pack.
Still a developing side, all eyes will be on Gregor Townsend’s side next season. Can they push on, or are they maximising the talent at their disposal?