As this year’s Six Nations continues to heat up, England put in a huge performance at Twickenham, which left Italy in the dust, despite the Azurri having a much more successful attacking game than they did against Ireland. The Irish meanwhile, as expected, engaged in a bruising battle with France in Dublin which was not exactly pleasant to watch and the fact that the injury lists for both sides are not higher than they are is nothing short of a miracle. Finally, as predicted Scotland came charging out of the blocks at Murrayfield and almost caused the first upset of the tournament against the Welsh, but as against France a week earlier, costly lapses in discipline and some odd timekeeping on the part of the officials left the Scots once again empty-handed.
England vs Italy
Final Score – Eng 47/Ita 17
As predicted, England took it up another few gears in this match after initially being rattled by an enterprising and slightly more adventurous Italy than we saw in the match against Ireland. Once England, found their feet in the match they were away and never took their foot off the gas for the full eighty minutes, giving themselves a healthy points difference over their nearest challenger for the crown, Ireland, and thus leaving them at the end of Round 2 sitting atop the Six Nations table. England looked decidedly shaky in the first ten minutes of the match, but by the time the second half got underway, this was a composed and dominant English side.
As I thought last week, Italy were not to remain tryless in this match and took full advantage of England’s uncertainties in defence in the first five minutes and their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse went powering over the English white line, to put the first points on the board for Italy much to the surprise of a stunned Twickenham. Italy failed to convert but kept the pressure up for the next ten minutes. England were looking slightly flustered by the ferocity of the opening Italian attacks and Mike Brown sadly was a victim as he had to be stretchered off in an unfortunate collision with Andrea Masi.
England however, were looking increasingly confident, and slowly ramping up the intensity once they had dealt with their initial Italian surprise attack. As he did in the game against Wales, George Ford quietly took control of the game, Ben Youngs expertly marshalled England’s devastating forward pack and despite some solid efforts by the Italians England steadily asserted themselves on the match. As was expected, Billy Vunipola had an immense game for England and every time he got the ball this ferocious number 8 made solid yards for England and his efforts were rewarded with a superb try.
However, the star of the match for England was without question the superlative Jonathan Joseph, who after the injury to Mike Brown was moved from the wing to centre. This did nothing to diminish his skills and brilliant running play. As he did against Wales, the two tries he scored were mesmerizing to watch. With Joseph anywhere in the back line England must surely feel confident that their misfiring back lines of last year are a thing of the past.
All was not lost for Italy as Parisse continued to have a superb game and the Italians always looked promising on attack especially when the ball ended up in the hands of Italian centre Luca Morisi who was a danger man all match, as evidenced by his superb two tries. What let them down continually was lack of discipline particularly at the breakdown and fly half Kelly Haimona having a poor day out with the boot. Nevertheless, given that they were up against along with Ireland the best team in the competition, their two tries gave them a sense of respectability and a definite improvement on their performance against Ireland the week before.
England, had a great game and emerged the deserved winners by a mile. However as they head into the championship decider with Ireland in Dublin, they will need to watch some of the slightly risky and downright adventurous play which against Italy they were lucky to get away with but against better sides they would have paid dearly. Although it was impressive to watch, England will need to tighten up some areas of their game against a more tactically astute and better organised Ireland.
Ireland vs France
Final Score – Ire 18/Fra 11
A game which was so highly anticipated but ultimately delivered so little in terms of spectacle was the case with this match. It was an often torrid and bruising affair, almost painful to watch at times, especially with Mathieu Bastareaud seemingly determined to target Jonathan Sexton. This resulted in numerous violent clashes between the two, leaving many Irish fans fearing that Sexton was in line for his fifth concussion within the space of a year. To Sexton’s credit, he was utterly heroic for the full eighty minutes and never once shirked from one of Bastareaud and company’s assaults. Furthermore, he kept calm under intense pressure and has he has done so often for Ireland, made all the right decisions and kept a hungry French side at bay. In a bruising encounter though, Ireland sadly lost the services of Jamie Heaslip at number eight which will be a serious concern as he will now miss the rest of the Championship. The foul on Heaslip by Pascal Pape was cynical and perhaps epitomised the rather aggressive and nasty nature of this game.
As I say, this was not a pleasant game to watch and once more Ireland in particular seemed reluctant to use space out wide and instead run the inside channels continuously where they met a consistent and ferocious French defence. Irish coach Joe Schmidt is a superb tactician and I was surprised to see once more that on several occasions with the French locked up tight in centre field and acres of space on the outside and few covering French defenders, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo getting little ball. I can perhaps understand given some of Zebo’s weaknesses in defence, but Tommy Bowe is playing some of the best rugby of his career both offensively and defensively and it is a shame that he is not getting more opportunities to showcase his skills.
Ireland have proved in the last year that they are masters of playing the error count and through the work of their forwards and the Sexton/Murray partnership are able to force their opponents to make more and more errors as the game progresses. While this may not be attractive rugby it has proven devastatingly effective. The first half was a scrappy affair with a lack of discipline from both sides and Ireland’s Mike Ross was not having a good game in the scrum. Nevertheless, Sexton made sure that any French indiscretion counted in Ireland’s favour. Given England’s superb forward power, what was worrying for Ireland was that they had many problems at scrum time with errors being made by both Ross and Rory Best and this will have to be seriously tightened up in the game against England. Furthermore, given England’s try fest against Italy this weekend, Ireland will be concerned that they were unable to cross the French white line, and the French try against them will only add salt to the wound. As I mentioned eariler there were opportunities out wide but Ireland seemed reluctant to use them. In centre field the Payne/Henshaw combination seemed to work well and Henshaw in particular made some superb carries, but it is obvious that Ireland is missing the O’Driscoll magic of finding space where there is seemingly none.
In the last quarter, France brought on Morgan Parra at scrum half in place of Rory Kockott, and Parra’s immediate impact on the game was clear for all to see, leaving many wondering why French coach Saint-Andre didn’t start him in the first place. France were certainly the more adventurous in the last quarter of the game and their scrum was steadily starting to push Ireland around the park. French replacement Romain Taofifenua’s superb try with nine minutes to go, suddenly changed the whole nature of the game. Had France’s normally reliable Camille Lopez, not had a slightly off day with the boot then the match would probably have ended in a draw as the French maintained consistent pressure to the final whistle.
For Irish fans, the last ten minutes were nail biting to say the least as the French had their tails up and dominated possession. However on the stroke of eighty minutes, Simon Zebo answered his defensive critics and hauled Remi Tales into touch. It was tight and tense but ultimately Ireland were the better side defensively and tactically and did enough to hold on. They now have to ramp up their game another couple of notches if they are to stand any chance against England. They have the depth and the brains it remains to be seen if they have the skill set to match England’s in a fortnight’s time. A Six Nations classic is in the making!
Scotland vs Wales
Final Score – Sco 23/Wal 26
As predicted, this was a superb match full of tension and some superb running rugby from both sides. For Scotland, who are continuing their rejuvenation, it was once again a lack of discipline that cost them a game that they could easily have won. Given the enormous progress Scotland have made in the last six months, they surely must fix this aspect of their game on their next outing. If not, then I fear that Scotland will slip back into duking it out with Italy for the wooden spoon, which would not be reflective of how far they have come under coach Vern Cotter and what they are capable of.
So yes, I got this one wrong as I predicted that this is where Scotland would cause the upset of the tournament, and let’s be honest they almost did. Despite the fact that they lost, they were probably the most exciting team along with England to watch this past weekend. Inventive, committed and not afraid to run the ball, a Scottish game is now always an entertaining fixture. With some exciting young players showing some serious skills despite an obvious lack of big game experience and discipline, Scotland is developing well in a World Cup year and expect them to get better and better with every outing provided they can fix their discipline.
While not meaning to harp on about it, but Scotland’s discipline was inexcusable in this match. The handbags at sunset incident in the dying seconds of the game which wasted precious seconds which had already been compromised by some slightly bizarre timekeeping by the officials killed Scotland at the end of the match, especially when they were gaining some ascendancy which could have won them the game in the last five minutes. Add to this Scotland not taking some key opportunities out wide, and ultimately the match was theirs to lose. Wales were more disciplined and made better use of the chances they were given.
Nevertheless, we were provided with an exciting contest and Scotland can take heart from some superb running by fullback Stuart Hogg who had a superb game. Furthermore, although lacking in discipline, fly half Finn Russell is a definite newcomer to watch in the future for Scotland. Lastly, although it leaked a vital try and lacked discipline at times, Scotland’s defense in the game as a whole was superb.
As for Wales, all their players played to the level expected of them and it was a solid performance that was more composed and structured than the one against England the week before. Furthermore, Wales seemed to withstand Scottish pressure for the full match and their post 70 minutes fatigue which we see all too often from the Men in Red was refreshingly absent in this match. They were the better side despite getting some serious scares from a Scottish team desperate to show that Scottish Grand Slams of the 1980s were not simply the stuff of legends and ancient history.