It was a huge weekend in the Six Nations which saw memorable wins for Italy, Wales and Ireland. The weekend got underway with Italy stunning the Murrayfield crowd with a brilliant performance that showed that heartfelt passion and commitment still have a huge place in the modern International game as epitomised by Italy’s phenomenal Captain Sergio Parisse. In Paris, Wales put in a composed and disciplined performance that once again left France without ideas and furthered the already significant animosity between French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre and his players. Finally, in Dublin on Sunday, Ireland under the brilliant tactical tutelage of coach Joe Schmidt and the boot of Jonathan Sexton, provided England with a schooling that shattered their Grand Slam ambitions and showed just how far this Irish side has come in the eighteen months of Schmidt’s tenure with the team.
Scotland vs Italy
Final Score – Sco 19/Ita 22
Let’s face it, most people were expecting a narrow but nevertheless comfortable Scottish win, yours truly included. Under Scottish coach Vern Cotter, this new look Scotland have much to offer. However, what let them down in the first two games of the Six Nations, a general lack of discipline at key moments under pressure, caused them all kinds of headaches on Saturday at Murrayfield. After this display, many of the neutrals and I imagine many Scottish fans, will be tired of making excuses and singing the praises of this Scottish team. In short, you have the talent gentlemen, show us some results or keep quiet. Scotland could easily have won all three of their opening games, and the fact that they are now staring at the wooden spoon, must be causing many Scottish fans to be banging their porridge bowls on the table in sheer frustration. With two very difficult games left against England and Ireland, Scotland’s Six Nations campaign is all but over.
Italy on the other hand, must surely take great heart from their performance at Murrayfield. There is no question that Italian Captain Sergio Parisse is a huge talisman for his teammates and his complete commitment to and passion for the Italian cause is an inspiration to all. Parisse’s superhuman efforts on the rugby field are now up there amongst the greats of the game, and it was obvious on Saturday that this enthusiasm was infectious to the rest of his colleagues as against the odds they carved out an impressive away win. Italy were not perfect, but they were willing to take chances and capitalise on whatever whiff of opportunity came their way. In short, they seized the day as Scotland became more and more frustrated and ill-disciplined as a game they felt they should have had in the bag slipped steadily out of their reach.
Scotland started the match easily the more impressive of the two sides, with scrum half Laidlaw making sure that his boot would make any Italian indiscretion pay dearly. This was then followed by a superb interception of a pass from Italian fly half Kelly Haimona, who to be honest has failed to impress all tournament, that was so obvious it probably had been advertised on billboards outside Murrayfield prior to the match. Scottish centre Mark Bennett, couldn’t believe his good fortune and dashed more than 50 metres unopposed to the Italian white line. Ten minutes in and with Italy trailing 10-0, the rout that many predicted already seemed to be on the cards.
From there however, it all went horribly wrong for the Scots. Italy’s impressive pack soon hit back and used a rolling maul to superb effect for a full 15 metres, with Italy’s Josh Forno, who impressed all match, crashing over the Scottish line for the first points for the Italians. Haimona as usual missed the conversion but Italy were looking determined. Penalties were traded up until the 36th minute, when Haimona missed a penalty but his winger Venditti in a moment of brilliance leaped on the ball that bounced off the posts and charged at the post while a seemingly asleep Scotland failed to stop him in time. Here was an opportunity that presented itself out of thin air and Italy proved to be more adept at seizing it and converting it into points.
At half time with Italy trailing by one point, to say that the tension in the air at Murrayfield was palpable would be an understatement. The first twenty minutes of the second half was a bruising affair as both sides sought to outmuscle each other with the Italians if anything looking slightly better off in this department, spurred on by their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse who never seemed to tire. While the Scots seemed to have more of the possession the Italian defence looked rock solid. You could sense the growing frustration on the part of the Scots as the clock marched on and they could not break the Italian line, despite a close call when a pass that sent the flying Scotsman of the tournament Stuart Hogg over the Italian line was correctly judged forward. For the last ten minutes of the game, Italy then took over proceedings. Parisse scented a historic victory was in the making and the Italian pack spent the last ten minutes camped in the Scottish half. The Scots were by now frustrated beyond belief as they struggled to make sense of a game that was rapidly slipping away from them. This frustration rapidly turned into the benchmark lack of Scottish discipline and the rest was history. Referee, George Clancy repeatedly warned Scotland to keep their cool under the steady Italian onslaught on the Scottish white line. In the end, two yellow cards saw Scotland trying to hold off a turbocharged Italian outfit and a penalty try was the last straw as Scotland caved and apart from the ecstatic Italian fans an eerie silence fell around Murrayfield. Scotland`s Six Nations campaign was all but done and dusted.
Italy are not exactly a polished outfit but there is no lack of commitment to make up for some of the gaps in their skill levels, and as a result they totally deserved the win. The sheer joy and emotion on Italian Captain Sergio Parisse`s face when the final whistle blew was inspirational to rugby fans around the world and a glowing advertisement for the glorious spirit of human endeavour in our great game. This win will give Italy great confidence as they prepare to face a misfiring French outfit in Rome in front of their rapturous fans and raises the question: is another big upset in this tournament on the cards?
For Scotland there is now time to lick their wounds and face two very tough games before they can close the curtain on a Six Nations tournament that promised so much but delivered so little. Barring any miracles, I can’t see Scotland causing any surprises in their remaining two outings, and the sheer daunting nature of the remaining two tasks ahead of them is unlikely to quell the frustration levels causing so much of the discipline problem in Scotland right now. I am sure we all hope that Scotland can salvage some pride from their last two matches and run either England or Ireland close, but that is about the best they can hope for. The task now for Scotland is to take their potential, learn from their mistakes and try to make the statement they should have made in the Six Nations at the World Cup in September. Vern Cotter and his charges have a great deal of work to do between now and then and I wish them luck.
France vs Wales
Final Score – Fra 13/Wal 20
Much was expected of France in this key fixture to keep their Championship hopes alive, but sadly it wasn’t to be. Once more, despite flashes of brilliance France never really looked like they had an overall game plan, coupled with the usually reliable fly half Camille Lopez having for the most part a truly awful game. When France did run with the ball, especially in the period leading up to their only try in the second half, they did look threatening and shades of the old French try scoring machine were there for all to see. This was very much a battle of the kickers, and Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny from Wales were simply in a league of their own compared to their French counterparts on the day. The Welsh centrefield worked superbly well in comparison to France’s and Dan Lydiate’s offload to Dan Biggar produced the superb Welsh try. To cap it off, on defence Wales were better organised and more effective than France and deserved ultimately to win a match that at times had plenty of excitement and drama. Although France lacked the skill or ideas to finish off some enterprising passages of play coupled with their discipline letting them down at key moments, had they had a more reliable kicker on the day and a greater sense of composure and cohesion there would have been a lot to work with.
The first half as expected was a close tense affair, as France struggled to match the sheer physical intensity of Wales right across the park. Nevertheless they held firm, and had fly half Camille Lopez managed to kick better the scoreline would have been much different. Like many, I was surprised at Lopez’s poor performance, but as in the game against Argentina in November, when things are not going his way he seems to suffer more from nerves and a lack of composure than other top class international flyhalves, despite his obvious skill set. Lopez missed several crucial penalties plus the conversion from France’s only try, and his tactical kicking left much to be desired. As mentioned above, had France hung on to the ball more and made better use of the considerable amount of possession they actually had in the match, then it may have been a very different ending. France in this match all too often kicked away well-earned possession earned through some hard yards ground out by their forwards. Add to this repeated disciplinary indiscretions which the laser guided boots of Leigh Halfpenny would always make France pay dearly for, and Les Bleus were left increasingly without ideas as the clock wound down, especially in the last 10 minutes.
After a first half of neither side making much headway, despite some enterprising play, many were left wondering if France would find the magic they have been looking for in the last year, as referee Jaco Peyper blew the whistle to start the second half. Indeed it looked like this may well have been the case as France started the first ten minutes with energy and enterprise and stretched Wales thin on several occasions. After twelve minutes of the second half, French scrum half Morgan Parra who was having a stormer of a game, was replaced over concerns about injuries he was nursing. Once Parra came off, although France looked threatening on many occasions for the rest of the game, they lacked the composure and direction that Parra had been providing them. They didn’t necessarily play badly they just didn’t have the vision Parra was providing them to get past the lightning quick defensive reactions of the Welsh.
Despite France having some standout performances overall from the likes of Parra, Dusatoir, Dulin, Bastareaud and Atonio, the entire Welsh team from 1 to 15 played well and it was this that separated the two sides and ultimately made Wales comfortable winners. With one or two exceptions, everything Wales did in any position on the field they did well, and at the same time maintained superb discipline for the full eighty minutes. Despite a brief flourish from France in the dying minutes of the game, Wales did not fall into the trap we saw so much of last year of them taking their foot off the gas in the last ten minutes and throwing games they had a good grasp of. Lastly their defence was superb for the full eighty minutes and gave France very little space or quick ball to work with. On the basis of this performance Wales have set themselves up well for a shot at shattering Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions in a fortnight’s time at home in Cardiff.
Ireland vs England
Final Score – Ire 19/Eng 9
It was the most anticipated game of the weekend, and it didn’t disappoint. On the back of strong showings since their victory over Australia in November, England came to Dublin both confident and with the chance of a Grand Slam in their sights. On form, many believed that England would carry the day and I must confess to having felt the same, despite my loyalty to the Men in Green. England were finally starting to look like the finished product for a World Cup host nation and title contender come October. Ireland, on the other hand, were blessed with probably one of the best brains in International Rugby right now, in the form of coach Joe Schmidt, and a team that while perhaps not packing the same awesome heavyweight punch of England’s recent forward dominance, still is starting to showing some considerable depth and talent in all positions which is just what you want in a World Cup year. Add to this mixture the lethal boot and vision of Irish fly half Johnny Sexton and ball carrier extraordinaire so far of the tournament in the form of English centre Jonathan Joseph and it was easy to get caught up in the excitement leading up to this game.
Although perhaps at times we didn’t get the spectacle some of us may have been hoping for we nevertheless were treated to a clinical display by Ireland, which essentially marginalised all of England’s key strengths by neutralising England’s significant forward threat and causing them to commit a series of disciplinary errors while at the same time providing England’s back line with no space to move. Indeed, for the full eighty minutes we hardly saw anything of English danger man Jonathan Joseph at centre, who had been labelled as England’s key weapon in this match. The superb split second try from a superbly weighted and visionary kick from Irish scrum half Conor Murray to new Irish centre Robbie Henshaw added some magic to what was otherwise a chess battle which Ireland easily got the better of.
From an Irish perspective, what we saw in this match, which had perhaps been lacking in the first two outings in the Six Nations was the speed and ferocity of the Irish at the breakdown, coupled with the Irish scrum, which had battled of late, rising to the task against their much vaunted English counterparts. Ireland started the match at a frenzied pace, and despite taking their foot off the gas for about 15 minutes in the second half once Sexton was withdrawn due to injury concerns, they never really let up. They out thought England across the park and pressured the English forwards into desperate defence and constant turnovers. England much as they did in the game against Italy were slow to get going, and up against a team as clinically effective as Ireland this forced them into a position of having to play catch up for the entire match. By the time the last quarter came around, Ireland for all intents and purposes had got the job done, with England still trying to figure out how to crack the Irish defence and make up two converted tries while at the same time keeping relentless Irish attacks at bay. Unless you’re the All Blacks, you can’t let yourself get into a position like that at this level.
Ireland put enormous pressure on England for the entire first half, superbly directed by Irish fly half Johnny Sexton. This pressure wore England down and caused immense cracks in English discipline, which Sexton accurately punished with the boot every time. Perhaps one of the most telling statistics and which set the tone for the rest of the match was that Ireland enjoyed 95% of the possession in the first ten minutes. It was also telling that Irish fly half Johnny Sexton only played for 55 minutes of this game, but such was his influence that by the time he left the field the game was for all intents and purposes won by Ireland as they led 17-3. There was another stellar performance for Ireland by Tommy O’Donnell replacing Irish star number 7 Sean O’Brien who was taken off early due to concussion. O’Donnell as he did in Italy rose to the occasion and showed once more what depth Ireland is developing. Also of note was Irish centre Robbie Henshaw who had a superb game, scoring the only try. Too much talk has been made of whether or not Henshaw is the next Brian O’Driscoll. For me this comparison is irrelevant. Henshaw is a very different player and brings a unique yet potent set of skills to the number 13 shirt which are proving just as valuable as his predecessor’s. Henshaw was outstanding in defence and his athleticism and strength in the air were there for all to see as he positioned himself perfectly to outreach England fullback Alex Goode and snatch Conor Murray’s superb kick to the corner. Henshaw is definitely an exciting player to watch and has a bright future in the number 13 jersey for Ireland.
Across the park Ireland performed well. On the wing Simon Zebo silenced for much of the match his defensive critics, while Mike Ross found a newfound prowess in the scrum and was devastatingly effective in putting England to the sword up front. Devin Toner was immense in the lineout while Conor Murray as always proved that he is easily the world’s second best scrum half if not the equal of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith. Ireland really only had one purple patch for about 10 minutes after Sexton went off and the team reset itself around a series of substitutions. But composure was soon regained and Ireland gained a great opportunity to give the newbloods some superb big match game time.
England looked devastated by the final whistle. In the week leading up to the match you sensed there was a quiet though not arrogant confidence that this game was theirs for the taking. Instead, as South African referee Craig Joubert blew the final whistle, England looked lost. In order to win the World Cup, they still have a raft of questions to answer and for many the players’ expression left us with the impression that they have headed back to the drawing board before they face Scotland in two weeks. There has been much talk of England’s injury list, but like many this is increasingly being seen as an excuse. Ireland too have been beset by injuries yet seem to be more effective at developing depth in key positions than England. I agree that without Sexton, this may have been a very different game, but Ireland are still able to put in a team performance no matter who is on the field. England has a raft of good players, and many of them played well in Dublin but as a collective they often seem to lack cohesion and creativity under pressure in big matches like this. English management will somehow have to find the answer to this in the next few months.
Nevertheless, this is not a down and out English side. Without star fullback Mike Brown, England were able to find a more than suitable replacement in Alex Goode who for me was the star performer for England in Dublin, especially as Ireland managed to make Jonathan Joseph invisible for eighty minutes. Goode’s superb efforts under extreme Irish pressure at one point in his own goal area were outstanding as he danced and weaved his way around a series of Irishmen. In a situation where England could easily have conceded another seven pointer, Goode did a superb effort of getting England out of jail and managing to keep them clinging to the cliff face they found themselves hanging from. Goode was constantly tested by Ireland and for me he passed all of them. George Ford was solid at number 10 and gained some valuable experience against probably the best flyhalf in the world which will serve him well for England come the World Cup. However, what is worrying for England is once again their back line when faced with quality opposition failed to fire and their awesome forward pack when put under enormous pressure started losing its discipline. Every knockout stage of the World Cup will be in the same context as the game in Dublin and England were found wanting too many times. Even with the return to the fold of several key injured players, Courtney Lawes is probably being the most eagerly awaited, England still has to find a team and set of combinations that can rise to the occasion seven consecutive times in September/October. Right now the stats don’t look good and it’s not impossible but there is a huge amount of work still to do for Stuart Lancaster and his charges. As the hosts of Rugby World Cup 2015, England need to be one of the contenders and I like many hope for the sake of a glorious tournament that England will rise to the occasion – they have proved they are more than capable of it on their day!