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By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - This year's Six Nations opened with a spectacular weekend of action, lurched into tepid mediocrity amid foul weather but finished back on a high as Wales hammered England to retain the title amid a spine-tingling atmosphere in Cardiff.
Wales were worthy champions after their record 30-3 demolition of grand-slam chasing England in the title decider, having bounced back from their opening defeat by Ireland with three successive away wins.
There was joy too for Italy after they beat France and Ireland to notch two wins for only the second time since they joined in 2000, leaving England, who they pushed all the way at Twickenham, as they only team they have yet to beat.
France won their final game at home to Scotland but it was not enough to prevent them finishing last for the first time since 1999 after a dismal campaign.
Overall, the quality of rugby on show will not have caused any undue concern in the southern hemisphere, while the feeble total try count of 37 was nine down on the previous lowest since the competition expanded to six teams.
It did not look that way seven weeks ago when pre-tournament talk of an open competition proved well-founded on the first weekend when Italy stunned France, Ireland beat holders Wales in Cardiff in a classic game of two halves and England turned on the style to thrash Scotland.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel's bid to encourage more running rugby, seen in glimpses during an encouraging November series, was there for all the see in a well-deserved 23-18 victory and they finished the tournament on a high too with another worthy victory over Ireland.
In Cardiff, Wales, coming into the tournament on the back of a seven-game losing streak, found themselves 30-3 down to Ireland five minutes into the second half.
Their stirring fightback had the Millennium Stadium rocking and though it fell short as they lost 30-22, it set them on course for the four successive victories that took them to the retention of their title.
"Behind closed doors we talked about how we were going to build ourselves back and those three games away from home built our team spirit," said captain Gethin Jenkins in the wake of the title-winning win.
"I think a lot of people would have perhaps written us off because of the form England have been in and we just stuck tight. To get that win against England, to stop them winning the grand slam as well, the boys are ecstatic in the changing rooms."
Wales, having looked awful for 42 minutes, did not concede another try for the rest of the tournament.
Having shaken the world of rugby by hammering New Zealand 38-21 in December, England had to hit the ground running and did just that with a four-try 38-18 victory over Scotland.
The wins kept coming for England, even if the tries dried to a trickle with one from their next three games as they battled past Ireland and France and survived a real Twickenham scare against Italy having failed to score a try against the Azzurri for the first time in 19 meetings.
The penultimate weekend, marked by howling winds and driving rain, saw the quality of rugby on display plummet.
It was particularly the case at scrum time as that aspect became an increasing source of frustration for fans and officials alike.
A completed scrum was a rarity with this season's new engagement sequence seemingly making things worse than ever with team after team penalised for "early hits" and other offences all-too-often invisible to the paying public.
The set-piece mess, the tries drying up and desperately little backline invention from any team meant there was little to enjoy for the neutral but those involved said much of it was understandable.
"The pressure can descend very quickly," said England coach Stuart Lancaster.
"In that first weekend there was lots of nice rugby played, then some teams lost a game, or won a game, and the pressure comes on from both ends and things change."
Wales interim coach Rob Howley agreed. "The weather has really affected the quality of this championship," he said.
Action was certainly at a premium in Wales's 28-18 win over Scotland in Edinburgh, which featured a world record 18 penalty-goal attempts, with another record 13 successfully converted.
Ireland against France was little better as they drew 13-13 for their second successive draw in the fixture.
France, however, were grateful for a point after three defeats in a row had them in danger of a whitewash for the first time since 1957.
Ireland performed only in short bursts all tournament and were hard-hit by injury. Brian O'Driscoll, widely expected to announce that this will have been his final Six Nations, would not have enjoyed his finale as he was sin-binned for stamping in Ireland's last-day defeat by Italy.
Scotland were buoyed by the arrival of interim coach Scott Johnson and two wins saw them finish third, dizzyingly high after a decade spent battling to avoid bottom spot, while Italy's four points saw them equal their best finish of fourth.
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)