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Six Nations wrap: Grand Slam dashed, Quesada, Gatland and the Wooden Spoon

STADIO OLIMPICO , ROME, ITALY - 2024/03/09: Juan Ignacio Brex of Italy celebrates with Tommaso Menoncello after scoring a try during the Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Scotland. Italy won 31-29 over Scotland. (Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images)
STADIO OLIMPICO , ROME, ITALY - 2024/03/09: Juan Ignacio Brex of Italy celebrates with Tommaso Menoncello after scoring a try during the Six Nations rugby match between Italy and Scotland. Italy won 31-29 over Scotland. (Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Everybody thought Ireland would walk to back-to-back Grand Slam titles this year while many expected Italy to again be the whipping boys of the Six Nations. In round four, however, these two assumptions were shattered in what was one of the great weekends of Six Nations rugby in recent history. Here’s what we learned.

Six Nations upsets

Saturday was an incredible day for the history of the Six Nations with Italy and England overcoming the odds to pull off upsets in round four.

The Azzurri toppled Scotland with a rousing performance in Rome. Their 31-29 victory at the Stadio Olimpico was their first in the competition since 2022 and their first at home in the Six Nations since they beat Ireland in 2013.

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England followed up that shock with one of their own, beating Ireland 23-22 at Twickenham to deny the tournament’s overwhelming favourites a shot at a second consecutive Grand Slam.

There was a shock in Cardiff, too, but it came with surprise French dominance rather than a Welsh upset.

Les Bleus went to town on their opponents and gave us a glimpse of the France we thought we’d lost this year with their 45-24 thumping.

England spoil Grand Slam

The scenes at full time in Twickenham were unlike anything seen in recent years. England are in a transitional phase with a number of youngsters coming into the fold and the side looking to move on from the likes of Owen Farrell.

And in their incredible victory over the Irish, one where England managed to combine aggressive defence with exciting attacking plays, Steve Borthwick’s side marked themselves as a team worth taking notice of again.

It’s not like this campaign had been a failure before round four, many would have taken two wins from three and then a loss to Ireland, but the win in south west London spoke volumes of England’s character and their intention to develop.

Youngsters shone at the end, with Marcus Smith’s drop goal an obvious highlight, but Borthwick’s decisions to drop Freddie Steward and bench Alex Dombrandt, for example, were all vindicated in one of England rugby’s great wins.

The Quesada project

It’s difficult to look at this Italy side and not heap praise on their new coach, Gonzalo Quesada. He came in after the World Cup but didn’t panic.

Assistant coaches were maintained, the general attacking foundations laid by the previous regime were kept, and only minor tweaks were made.

They came close against England in round one and drew with France but were undone by Ireland.

On Saturday against Scotland, though, we saw some of the best Italian tenacity and temperament in recent years.

They’re a youthful bunch with experienced players dotted throughout but their previous habit of throwing winnable games away vanished at the weekend.

Their ideal scenario now, however, will see them back up their win against Scotland with a strong performance in Cardiff against Wales – where two years ago they picked up a famous win.

French fancies

With the likes of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack away from the French squad we have seen a side really looking for, and developing, a Plan B.

But in Cardiff on Sunday that plan was realised in what was a welcome return to the style of play that saw so many back France for the World Cup last year.

Man of the match Nolann Le Garrec stepped into the Dupont-shaped boots and bossed the breakdown while a number of players showed up for Fabien Galthie, a head coach seemingly under pressure across the Channel.

A stylish France is good for northern hemisphere rugby and the glimpses of textbook Joue rugby yesterday at the Principality Stadium eventually made Wales look bang average.

Warren Gatland’s men now must beat Italy, a team they lost to two years ago in Cardiff, to avoid the Wooden Spoon.