Here Jacob Whitehead looks at the biggest controversies to take place during the Six Nations.

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

The Six Nations is nearly back. Every team will be resetting to an extent from the Rugby World Cup, but not all discussion will focus on the sides’ performances on the pitch…

Controversy never seems to be far away from the Six Nations, with grudges being renewed each and every year. When teams know each other so well, the margins can often be miniscule, and so the smallest edge can prove pivotal. With that in mind, here is Rugby World’s guide to Six Nations controversy…

Martin Johnson’s red carpet reception

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

Talking point: Martin Johnson talks to match officials during the red-carpet controversy (Getty Images)

Clive Woodward’s England team were one of the first sides to embrace the philosophy of marginal gains.

Ireland traditionally had a lucky left side of the red carpet at Lansdowne Road for when the anthems were sung, but Martin Johnson, claiming ignorance, lined up on the wrong side ahead of the final game of the 2003 championship. Ireland resolutely lined up to their opponent’s left but this led to insufficient red carpet for the dignitaries.

Irish officials tried to convince Johnson to move, but the England captain refused, later claiming he’d only have shifted if asked by the referee.

Irish President Mary McAleese was forced to get her shoes muddy while England didn’t take a backwards step all game. They went on to win 42-6 in a virtuoso performance, claiming the Grand Slam.

Game over for Wales

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

Calling time: Wales captain Gareth Thomas in discussions with referee Chris Whtie at the end of the match (Getty Images)

It’s a shame that this controversy overshadowed what should have been a great moment in Six Nations history, namely Italy’s second ever win over Wales and the first time they’d ever won two matches in the same tournament.

In their 2007 meeting Wales led deep into the second half, but a Ramiro Pez penalty and Mauro Bergamasco’s 77th-minute try gave the Azzurri belief. Wales had one more shot, as a penalty was awarded to them in the Italian half.

Referee Craig White indicated to James Hook that there was time to kick to touch, before shocking the Welsh by blowing the full-time whistle after the fly-half set up a lineout close to the Italian line. White apologised after the match, but it would prove to be little solace for a bemused Wales.

Questionable quick lineouts

Four years later in 2011, Wales were the beneficiaries of controversy as the match officials missed an illegal lineout for the crucial score.

Wales hadn’t won a home match in seven, but clinical goalkicking brought them to within a point of a Brian O’Driscoll-inspired Ireland. Ronan O’Gara mishit a clearance kick to send the ball out on the full, and Welsh captain Matthew Rees sprinted to the halfway line to mark the spot.

A ball-boy presented the hooker with a new ball, which he flung to scrum-half Mike Phillips, who outsprinted Tommy Bowe to score in the corner.

The problem was that laws dictate a quick lineout can only be taken with the same ball and providing that it had not been touched by another person. Neither condition was met and Ireland’s chances of winning the championship disappeared into the Cardiff night.

Frozen out in France

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

Cold front: Heaters could not defrost the Stade de France pitch in time for kick-off (Getty Images)

Ireland had another reason to be aggrieved in 2012, as their game against France was controversially postponed due to a frozen pitch.

It was the first time since 1985 that adverse weather conditions had caused such a delay. Referee Dave Pearson only made the call ten minutes before kick-off, angering a crowd who were sitting in temperatures of -5C, with a wind chill of -11C.

The Stade de France pitch does not have undersoil heating, leading many to ask why the game wasn’t played earlier than 9pm, with Paris bathed in winter sunshine earlier in the day.

The game was eventually played three weeks later, with the sides grinding out a 17-17 draw – Tommy Bowe scoring a brace.

The 100-minute match

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

Late return: Rabah Slimani came back on in the match against Wales (Getty Images)

The middle of the decade was fairly uneventful – until France played Wales in Paris in 2017. Wales led 18-13 thanks to the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, were exhausted from a mammoth defensive effort and the clock was ticking into its final moments.

France claimed that their prop, Uini Atonio, was suffering from a suspected concussion so he was taken off for an HIA and replaced by Rabah Slimani, their best scrummager, in the closing minutes.

The Wales coaches, particularly Rob Howley, were apoplectic at this, a mood which only worsened when Welsh tighthead Samson Lee was sin-binned after duelling with Slimani.

Lee’s replacement Tomas Francis was slow to come on the pitch and the clock kept ticking remorselessly on. France kept winning penalties, choosing to scrum and failing to batter their way over. Eventually Damien Chouly forced his way over and Camille Lopez knocked over the simple conversion to win the match by two points – in the 100th minute.

An investigation was later launched to look at the substitution of Atonio but found there was “no clear evidence that there was any intent to obtain a competitive advantage in the match”.

Conor O’Shea’s ‘anti-rugby’

England’s 2017 game against Italy seemed as if it would present no real stumbling block for the men in white, who were undefeated under Eddie Jones.

However, Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter came up with a cunning plan to ensure that the game would not go all England’s way and the Italians were rewarded with a 10-5 half-time lead.

The visitors decided to not commit any numbers to the ruck, meaning that without a player from each team present, no breakdown was formed and so the offside line disappeared. Scrum-half Edoardo Gori disrupted the channel between nine and ten, as Danny Care at times seemed utterly confounded by the Italian tactics as pass after pass was disrupted by the rampant Azzurri.

England players asked referee Roman Poite for some explanation of what was transpiring, only for Poite to give the immortal reply: “I am sorry. I am a referee, not a coach.”

England would go on to win comfortably, but coach  Jones was furious, claiming that “the whole game became a joke” and telling spectators to “ask for your money back”.

Concussion confusion

Biggest Six Nations Controversies

Trading places: Antoine Dupont and Maxime Machenaud (Getty Images)

France and Ireland’s 2018 meeting is best known for Johnny Sexton’s incredible last-gasp drop-goal. But there was also talk about more French concussion subterfuge.

Scrum-half Antoine Dupont went down having injured his right knee late in the game, but when referee Nigel Owens stopped the game, he indicated there was a suspected head injury.

It was the independent match-day doctor who indicated that Dupont would be going off for an HIA and this allowed France to bring on a specialist scrum-half for the closing minutes having already used all their replacements.

Maxime Machenaud came back on and France won a penalty from a scrum. Anthony Belleau missed the kick, though, setting the stage for Sexton’s Paris party trick.

Another investigation was launched but again no wrongdoing was found with the decision to call for an HIA “not made by anyone who was formally connected with the French team”.

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