There were plenty of thrills and spills this past weekend with the Wales and Ireland game offering all the drama and tension it promised. In probably the best game of the tournament so far that had most people on the edge of their seats, Wales put on a truly heroic defensive effort that ultimately denied Ireland their shot at the Grand Slam. England then comfortably put Scotland away at Twickenham to put them at the top of the Six Nations table with a slender points difference over the Irish, but at the same time failed to really make a statement that this is really the finished product for the World Cup. Finally in Rome, France found some spark in their step against a truly woeful Italian side that seemed bereft of skill, imagination or drive, qualities that they had shown in abundance at Murrayfield two weeks previous.
Wales vs Ireland
Final Score – Wal 23/Ire 16
Everyone thought this was going to be the big game of the weekend and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Ireland went to Cardiff intent on keeping their Grand Slam ambitions on track but were under no illusion as to the enormity of the task. Wales following their convincing win in Paris were upbeat and playing a confident Welsh side at home in front of their very vocal fans is always a very challenging proposition. Furthermore, Ireland knew they needed to answer their critics regarding their lack of tries in the competition so far.
So the stage was set for an epic battle. After Ireland had essentially dismissed England a fortnight ago in a mere 55 minutes, many thought that the Welsh game would be Ireland’s hardest test in the competition and they were not proven wrong. Wales started the game full of intent and Ireland struggled to find composure in the first twenty minutes. Wales and Leigh Halfpenny’s boot capitalised on Ireland’s frustration in the first quarter as they struggled to settle their nerves. Leading 12-0, Wales looked comfortably in charge. It was only when Sexton successfully kicked a penalty in the closing stages of the first quarter that Ireland seemed to settle. However, for much of the game Sexton was not quite the star performer for Ireland that his team have come to expect from him. Sexton didn’t necessarily have a terrible game, but didn’t quite show the superstar qualities he showed against England, and on this occasion Wales’ Dan Biggar was easily his equal. When Sexton put a restart out on the full, you knew it was going to be a hard day at the office for Ireland. Despite Ireland starting to really come into the game by the half hour mark and Wales’ Sam Warburton getting a yellow card, Wales were already showing that they were a phenomenal defensive outfit. Their ability to remain solid and exceptionally well organised in defence under an increasingly ferocious Irish assault was impressive. As the whistle blew for half time, it was clear that the second half was set to be the most intensive 40 minutes yet in the entire Championship.
The message in the Irish dressing room at half time was obviously all about possession and pressure. Ireland came out and dominated possession in the opening stanzas of the second half. Somehow Wales stood firm and simply absorbed the relentless Irish onslaught. Every time Irish fans rose from their seats, convinced a try was imminent, an unbreakable Welsh defence managed to push them back to the point where Ireland would have to start all over again. It was exhausting to watch, and it seemed impossible that Ireland and Wales could keep this up for a full forty minutes – but keep it up they did!
Don’t get me wrong, Ireland played a solid game and in many aspects dominated the second half in terms of possession, but once again, Wales made better use of the lesser possession they had than Ireland. Ireland made good use of the rolling maul and their scrum was superb, however they tended to once again rush a resolute defence and not make use of space when on the rare occasions it became available. Add to this that Ireland’s lineout was not the best, and Sexton wasn’t quite up to his normal high standards as evidenced by a kick out on the full at the restart early in the first half. Furthermore, Wales big, mobile loose forwards put enormous pressure on Ireland in midfield and caused one infraction after another in the first half, which Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny will always punish you with – his long-range kicking being some of the best in the modern game.
Welsh coach Warren Gatland’s faith in Scott Williams was rewarded in the second half as the replacement took a beautiful offload from fly half Dan Biggar to set up a try minutes after coming onto to the field to seemingly put Wales out of reach with twenty minutes to go. Ireland did regain their composure immediately and had they played like that for the full eighty minutes and taken the space out wide that was on offer to them at the 65th minute with a four man overlap, we may well have ended up with a different scoreline. Ireland’s relentless pressure on the Welsh line in the second half and at one point through an astonishing 32 phases finally saw them rewarded with a penalty try as a heroic but exhausted Welsh defence caved under the onslaught. Wales struck back immediately with yet another pinpoint long-range kick. With five minutes to go, Ireland then never let up. Even with Wales having only 14 men as Jonathan Davies received a yellow card due to a deliberate knock on, and Ireland camped on the Welsh 22 Ireland could just not crack an unbelievable Welsh defence and in the end Wales emerged the deserved winners.
For me this was without doubt the game of the championship so far. Thrilling end to end stuff, and both teams playing out of their skins and equally matched. In the end though, it came down to execution and Wales on the day, with the sound of the Millenium faithful resounding around the stadium, had enough to just edge out Ireland. It was always going to be close and although Ireland made some mistakes there is still a lot to take from this game for them. What it has done is set us up with probably the most nail biting finish to the Six Nations in many a year, as the three-horse race of England, Ireland and Wales kicks off next Saturday.
England vs Scotland
Final Score – Eng 25/Sco 13
After their loss to Wales at home a fortnight ago, many were predicting that this would be a rather painful outing for the Scots at Twickenham with England seeking to re-establish their credentials after having been silenced by Ireland in Dublin. What we got instead was a spirited Scottish side that fought hard but ultimately were outplayed by an English team that got the job done but certainly didn’t leave anyone with the impression that their Southern Hemisphere rivals should be feeling any great degree of concern come the World Cup in September. England are a mystery at the moment, on paper an exceptionally strong side but one that often looks weak in execution despite the obvious talent that they boast. Having said that, they still are the top try scoring team in this year’s competition but somehow that doesn’t really seem to convince the rugby public at large that this an all-conquering team.
England had everything to prove after Dublin while Scotland had it all to do, even though all that was left for them to salvage in this Six Nations was pride. England came out full of intent and within four minutes English danger man Jonathan Joseph was across the Scottish white line. What then followed was 20 minutes of clear English dominance in possession yet nothing to show for it except one fluffed opportunity after another and a certain degree of white line fever setting in amongst their players with little or no regard to the larger game unfolding around them. It was all slightly bizarre to watch from a team who you felt should really be putting a stranglehold on the match. Scotland looked like they were hanging on in sheer desperation – England’s mistakes Scotland’s only saviour and they soon began to realize that this English side was dangerous but not invincible. Sure enough Scotland then hit back at the 21 minute mark through a well worked try and proceeded to then hang on till the end of the first half. In fairness, they didn’t just hang on they often took the game to the English at times despite England in general enjoying more of the possession and exposing continuous weaknesses in the Scottish defences. The result was that a stunned Twickenham found themselves looking at a 10-13 scoreline in favour of the Scots at halftime.
England obviously took a serious look at themselves and found some of that determination that was so evident in the first twenty minutes of the game as they got the second half underway. English fly half George Ford who has impressed me all tournament and was one of England more solid players in this outing, showed that he has no fear of physical contact and finding holes in opposition defences as he sniped his way through the Scottish lines to put England back in front within the first four minutes. Ford had a great game and was one of the few English players who consistently understood the ebb and flow of the game and how to adapt to it as well as make use of the opportunities that were then made available. However, once again England would then proceed to spend the next twenty minutes tripping over the opportunities that they often created as forward passes and knock-ons seemed to be the preferred tactics while the Scots started to grow in confidence in terms of defence. Scotland’s Blair Cowan in particular caused all kinds of problems for the English especially at the breakdown.
However, in the last ten minutes you sensed that the pendulum was about to swing in England’s favour and sure enough at 75 minutes, English winger Jack Nowell confirmed Stuart Lancaster’s faith in him by being in exactly the right place at the right time to finally put an end to Scotland’s hopes of clawing out a historic draw. Nowell’s try took the home side to a comfortable 25-13 lead with less than five minutes to go.
England looked good with ball in hand but not so good at putting together a successful set of phases to capitalise on all the possession they had. As many said there were at least another two tries gone begging in this match for England. However, that would be unfair to the Scots who by the second half had upped their defensive game and made life increasingly difficult for England perhaps causing them to make the blunders they did. England were good but often poor in execution and if anything were slightly flattered by the scoreline while the Scots could take some positives from their own performance. England did enough to get the points difference they needed to nudge them into first place in the Championship after four rounds but it surely left many English fans less than convinced that England is set to take the world by storm come September.
Italy vs France
Final Score – Italy 0/Fra 29
On the basis of this scoreline one could almost make the claim that France are back and mean business, and while there is some hope, such a claim would still be long way from being reality. Yes France did put Italy to the sword, but then Italy really couldn’t have played any worse if they tried. It was saddening for all Italian fans and neutrals alike to see Italy play so utterly poorly. In short, they were awful, and it this that detracts from any claims that France are once more on the rise. Sure France played a winning game, but up against such an error strewn opposition it wasn’t exactly difficult and certainly in the first half, France were only marginally better themselves. The difference in this match came in the second half, where France finally seemed to pull themselves together while Italy just couldn’t seem to gel and string more than a few movements together.
The first half was not an enjoyable spectacle even though Italy actually started well in terms of dominating much of the possession in the first twenty minutes. However, even though the rain and cold made for less than ideal conditions, Italy made so many errors whenever they had possession that you began to sense that this was only going to go one way. France were not exactly flash either and the resolute crowd in the Stadio Olimpico were left wondering if they had purchased tickets for the circus instead of a rugby match as both sides put on a clownish display of schoolboy rugby. Italy’s cause was not helped by the fact that their fly half Tomasso Allan was obviously still not recovered from his pre match injury and his replacement Luciano Orquera couldn’t offer much redemption when he took his place. Furthermore their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse became increasingly quiet as it became clear that he too was nursing an injury.
After a truly torrid first half, the weather improved slightly and we waited to see if this match would prove worth the price of admission. France’s cause was not being helped by the fact that fly half Camille Lopez who was having a better game than he did against Wales was also nursing injury and was replaced at half time. Despite some initial wild passing from the French, their persistence finally paid off and they managed to score a try through the impressive Yoann Maestri. France were increasingly starting to string some phases together through some good running and an impressive rolling maul well orchestrated by their workhorse Captain Thierry Dusatoir. France were growing in confidence and on the rare occasions where Italy had the ball were defending well. Replacement fly half Jules Plisson was having a good day with the boot after replacing the injured Camille Lopez and all in all things were starting to look up for this beleaguered French side, even French public enemy number 1, coach Philippe Saint-Andre was starting to look almost happy.
The final act of the game was left to the French wrecking ball of Mathieu Basteraud to bludgeon his way across the Italian line and leave us all asking the question is he really a centre? In the end it was a French side rediscovering some self-belief in poor conditions against a hapless and error-strewn Italian side. It wasn’t a great spectacle and definitely a sideshow to the events of the day previous, but it now remains to be seen if the French can find another gear from this to make their meeting with the English this Saturday something more than a foregone conclusion. France are still far from their glory days of Six Nations gone by, but there were glimmers that the self-belief that all great teams have was starting to show. Will it be enough to cause England enough problems to deny them the Championship? Probably not, but for the French there is at least a glimmer of hope.
Fixtures this weekend
Italy vs Wales
Saturday, March 21st
This weekend unfortunately mathematics will have a significant bearing on who ultimately gets to lift the trophy, with Wales getting the first crack at it in Rome. Wales have more to do than either England or Ireland, but based on Round 4 arguably have the weakest opponents to do it against. If Wales can put 40 or so odd points past Italy and Ireland and England have less than stellar performances then the Championship could be theirs. However, they have the unenviable task of being the side to set the bar with England and Ireland then going into their games knowing what they have to do to win. Furthermore, they have to do all this away from home and against an Italian side who can’t possibly be any worse than they were against France even without the inspirational figure of their Captain Sergio Parisse.
Having said that expect to see Wales come out of the blocks at speed right from the opening whistle and attempt to keep it up for the full eighty minutes as they seek a try fest of note. From what I understand (maths was never my strong point) Wales will have to ship 40 points or more against Italy on Saturday to clinch the Six Nations title. This is not beyond the realms of possibility, especially as they have shown that they are a better side than the French who managed to put 29 unanswered points past the Italians a fortnight ago.
However, having said that, Italy are unlikely to be as woeful as they were two weeks ago. They will be playing for pride under what are forecast to relatively sunny Roman skies. Even though he won’t be on the field I have no doubt that Sergio Parisse will provide his teammates with the inspirational team pep talk of the year in the change room prior to them running onto the field. On top of that Italy have for most of their outings in this year’s Championship shown that they are strong defensively and have a set of forwards that can mix it with the best. Couple this with a courageous and at times highly enterprising back line and Wales will certainly not have it all their way on Saturday.
Nevertheless, Wales have too much class to ultimately come unstuck against a proud Italian side lacking in finesse at times and struggling to find a kicker. Let’s face it, Italy’s Kelly Haimona is unlikely to impress anyone on Saturday and certainly not cause Wales Dan Biggar or Leigh Halfpenny any concern. Wales will totally outkick Italy and if they can turn this into opportunities that can create space that points difference may just be in reach. However, while I think that Wales will comfortably win this match, I can’t help feeling that Italy will restore some pride and deny Wales the points difference they need, leaving the Six Nations to be decided by England and Ireland.
Scotland vs Ireland
Saturday, March 21st
Ireland will be under no illusion that this will be an exceptionally difficult game for them. This is all compounded by the fact that they have a points difference to strive for as well as answer their critics that despite their obvious prowess they are rather thin on the ability to score tries which will be a serious handicap if they are to defend their Six Nations crown.
On paper for me, I feel that Irish coach Joe Schmidt has made his selections with all this in mind. A strong defensive team, yet one that has a more solid and reliable attacking potential that has perhaps been somewhat lacking in recent outings. Much has been made of Schmidt’s tactical nous but now he really needs to show that Ireland can turn the significant possession they have enjoyed in this year’s Championship into actual and repeated excursions across the opposition’s try line and furthermore that they are able to more effectively use the space they have been offered on several occasions.
Scotland on the other hand, with their Six Nations campaign in tatters have one last chance to prove to the Murrayfield faithful that last year’s improvements were no fluke and restore some much-needed pride. There is no question that in fullback Stuart Hogg they probably have the most dangerous runner in this year’s Six Nations, and Scottish supporters and neutrals alike get out of their seats every time he gets the ball. The Scottish defence despite some woeful disciplinary lapses in the opening rounds of this year’s Six Nations has often held firm when all seemed lost and expect them to do so again on Saturday. Finally Greg Laidlaw’s boot will punish any Irish indiscretion.
So in short, Ireland have it all to do in this last major outing for them before the World Cup. In many ways, even if they don’t clinch the Championship on Saturday, they desperately need to show that they can score tries if they are to be taken as serious World Cup contenders. Therefore for me, Ireland need to score at LEAST three tries on Saturday, irrespective of the maths involved. Johnny Sexton has to have a more assured day with the boot than he did against Wales and show a bit more composure. Lastly, despite the need to score tries, the white line fever shown by Cian Healy in the game against Wales when there was a clear four man overlap out wide needs to be contained. Scotland are probably going to put in the defensive effort of their Six Nations campaign as with nothing to lose they will seek to spoil the Irish celebrations as well as restore their team’s confidence. Consequently simply charging the Scotland line through the Irish forwards is unlikely to yield the required results. Ireland will simply need to be more creative with space and ball in hand. In Murray and Sexton they definitely have the scope and vision to do this, and the back line selection for this match has the potential to get results.
I ultimately think that Ireland will get what they need out of this match, but they are going to have to fight to the death for it. If Scotland get any sense of an upper hand at any point in the match then Ireland’s cause is lost, especially if Stuart Hogg is not silenced right from the get go. Ireland were able to do this against the English danger men, and I expect after the shock of the Welsh loss to see them do it again on Saturday. I may be wrong but, I am putting my money on Ireland to win the match and get what they need to just and I put the emphasis on just keep the Six Nations Championship out of English hands by the slimmest of margins.
England vs France
Saturday, March 21st
And so we come to the last hurrah of the Championship, as England seek to overwhelm Ireland’s point difference against a French side that is probably not going to win, but may well put up more of a fight than the English are anticipating. I have said from the outset that there was going to be one big French performance in this tournament, even if this may not necessarily translate into a win or upset. It’s France’s last outing in the Championship and irrespective of the coaching issues plaguing the team, you can be sure the players will be wanting to make a statement that France is not a lost cause – struggling but not down and out and still a side with the promise of better things to come.
Consequently, I cannot see France beating England on Saturday, especially at Twickenham, but I do think they will put up enough of a fight to trip up England’s points difference quest. I also may be wrong, but I expect to see Les Bleus get two tries out of this match, which means England will have to outscore them by at least four tries (once again maths is not my strong point). However, the point I am trying to make is that France will score tries in this match meaning that England will have to really pull out the stops and show why they are the top try scoring team in the Championship. All this should make for a great game, especially for English supporters. If they click, that English backline should be scoring a try at least every fifteen minutes. The question is will they click? Under the weight of expectation I fear England may once again come unstuck and the French defence has been strong despite the other failings of the squad.
So ultimately a fascinating contest full of question marks awaits. I fully expect England’s half back pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs to establish early authority over their French counterparts, and if they create enough space through a solid forward platform for the English back line then Ireland will have to settle for second place this year. On the basis of Stuart Lancaster’s selection for Saturday, I would argue that this is a distinct possibility. However, as a neutral, like many others I am hoping to finally see France’s one big game in this tournament. I may be wrong but I have a hunch it might be in the mix. Therefore, England to ultimately win in a surprisingly close fought contest, with England pulling away in the last ten minutes but without sufficient time to get the points margin they need to lift the trophy. Hang onto your seats and your calculators everyone – as the bookmakers’ worst nightmare or biggest windfall starts to unfold on Saturday!