Round 3 of this year’s Six Nations saw England assert their authority in their race to lift the trophy this month while Wales made it clear that they have every intention of being the team to upset England’s party at Twickenham in Round 4. Ireland and Scotland meanwhile provided plenty of entertainment, particularly in the case of Scotland as they recorded a much needed and emphatic win in Rome. Ireland played with plenty of heart and their handful of new caps provided some exciting insight into what Ireland could look like in the very near future. Meanwhile, despite the truly heroic efforts of their Captain, France failed to impress in what was a fairly dire effort in Cardiff and Italy showed plenty of courage but were ultimately blown away by Scotland’s composure and devastatingly quick back line.
In many ways despite what was at stake for all teams at the midpoint of the competition, Round 3 was not the most riveting weekend in Six Nations rugby with the exception of the Scotland game which provided us with a glorious spectacle of attacking rugby. The match in Cardiff between Wales and France was more like a comedy of errors at times and it was only a spectacular Welsh defence and some heroic marshalling of the troops by French Captain Guilhem Guirado that sparked our interest. The game in Rome was visually the most entertaining of the three contests and while there was plenty of tension in the match between England and Ireland, as expected it was a gritty encounter at times with both teams leaving plenty of points on the field that could have and should have been taken. England were the more effective of the two teams and the sight of Billy Vunipola providing a one-man tank assault on the Irish defence was quite awe inspiring at times, but we were left feeling that there could have been so much more from a fixture that had been so built up in terms of expectations from both sides. England were clearly the better side on the day, and from an Irish perspective it was good to see some new caps really make a statement, but overall the match saw England get the job done and Ireland wonder what might have been.
Wales vs France
Final Score – Wales 19/France 10
Like most people we were all really looking forward to this contest. France had shown some signs of serious recovery after their time in the wilderness known as the Philippe Saint-Andre years and Wales looked good value for money as main title contenders with England. Wales’ defensive abilities are rightly considered to be the best in the tournament so far this year, but the French scrum after some tweaking in the first two rounds is showing some clear promise for the future allied to a new generation of exciting and competitive forwards. France seem to be developing some attacking flair and prowess once more, and Wales through a solid halfback partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies clearly have the potential to pick apart defences at will unleashing a powerful Welsh back line. Consequently, we anticipated a relatively high scoring game with some good running rugby. In essence we got neither as we watched two sides play a slightly unstructured game riddled with schoolboy errors. In short, the French looked confused and at times the Welsh looked comical.
The first half had few if any highlights. Wales looked solid defensively and in the set pieces but failed to capitalise on the few attacking opportunities they had. Furthermore, endless scrum resets by referee Wayne Barnes slowed the match at times to a snail’s pace. Although Wales looked the more settled of the two sides, they seemed more content to simply sap French energy than genuinely try and create opportunities of their own. Meanwhile, France looked completely confused for much of the first half and without any sense of purpose in attack. French winger Virimi Vakatawa did his best to spark an energetic French attack to suddenly find himself facing a Welsh wall with no support players in sight. At the breakdown French play was typified by a few bodies on the floor and several others milling about aimlessly on the fringes or stumbling into each other not quite sure what if anything was supposed to happen next. Wales seemed content to simply soak up the pressure and let the French tire themselves out while capitalising on any penalties that came their way. Just before half time, Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies took matters into his own hands through a blistering break, but much like France’s Vakatawa suddenly found himself with few if any options in the form of the rest of his teammates at the breakdown. As Wales led 6-3 at half time, we hoped that the inevitable dressing room question and answer periods would produce a slightly more interesting second half.
The second half wasn’t that much better and despite an initial spark of brilliance from Welsh centre Jonathan Davies who masterfully put the ball into acres of space for a charging George North, what followed next from both sides can only be described as a schoolboy friendly at its best.
George North would be happy with the try and French fly half Jules Plisson may be considering other sporting professions, but although a crucial score for Wales, apart from Jonathan Davies initial effort there was very little skill involved. It seemed to put the nail in France’s coffin. Instead, it served to galvanize French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado to put in an heroic effort at rallying his dysfunctional troops. France seemed reenergized and once more went on the offensive with Guirado being in the thick of everything. However, despite repeated heroic assaults on a Welsh defensive line that would simply not crack, France by the final quarter had nothing to show for their efforts and a humiliating thrashing at 19-3 seemed to be a harsh reward for all their efforts as disjointed as they may have been. Francois Trinh-Duc came on for the flailing Jules Plisson at fly half and some order was restored to French efforts. Finally, Guirado’s perseverance paid off and he secured a consolation try for France and just reward for his superhuman efforts in service of his country. The final whistle blew much to the relief of players and spectators at 19-10 for Wales.
Welsh supporters while elated with the win know that Wales will have to step up their game tenfold if they stand any chance of upsetting England’s Grand Slam ambitions at Twickenham on March 5th. As England look willing to attack and are becoming more confident in the process, Wales will need to match them not only in defence but also make sure they are taking the initiative in the offensive battles. From what we saw in Cardiff last Friday, Wales and Coach Warren Gatland have more than just a little homework to do. For France as they too look to be the final hurdle in denying England a Grand Slam, there are sadly still far too many questions to answer in the space of three weeks made worse by the incessant and unrealistic demands of a gruelling domestic season on national players. France are clearly making progress but the results are likely to be thin on the ground for a while yet.
Italy vs Scotland
Final Score – Italy 20/Scotland 36
In terms of spectacle and entertainment this was clearly the best game of the weekend. Scotland desperately needed a win, and a big win to boot. They managed both and must surely be feeling more than just a little optimistic about their forthcoming clash with France at Murrayfield. Their execution was absolutely top drawer and was complemented by some sound and composed decision making. Italy were not as steamrollered as the score line would suggest, but in terms of ability and flair they were completely outclassed by their Scottish rivals. Italy still looked good at times and Captain Sergio Parisse as always was in the thick of things. Italy scored two well worked tries that are a credit to the endeavour and skill levels that Italy has available to them. The renaissance in Italian Test Rugby is still ongoing despite the woeful fortunes of Italian teams at the club level in Europe. However, as good as Italy were at times, Scotland ruled the Stadio Olimpico both in attack and defence, leaving Italy to try and catch up as best they could.
Scotland were without regular number eight David Denton, but we weren’t overly concerned as from our point of view he was remarkably quiet and almost ineffectual against Wales. His replacement Ryan Wilson on the other hand had a barnstormer of a game against Italy and proved a match for his Italian counterpart, the legendary Sergio Parisse, on several occasions. Although Italy would get the first points on the board from a monster kick from fly half Kelly Haimona, the momentum would swing firmly in favour of Scotland as they would score two outstanding tries in the space of six minutes to put them ahead 14-3. In the first try Scottish danger man and fullback extraordinaire Stuart Hogg would scythe and weave his way through a dumbfounded Italian defence and then going to ground provide flanker John Barclay with a spectacular offload to see the forward get Scotland’s first try. Three minutes later Scottish fly half Finn Russell would provide his own magic by dancing his way around several Italian defenders and putting Barclay’s back row partner John Hardie over in the corner for the Scots’ second try.
Italy would regather their senses after the Scottish whirlwind and go on to score a fine try of their own, through centre Gonzalo Garcia and Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. Italian fly half Kelly Haimona for once seemed to have brought his kicking boots and the score was 17-10 in favor of the Scots at half time.
Italy started the second half full of intent but slightly lacking in execution and discipline allowing Scotland to widen the margin through Greg Laidlaw’s boot to 23-13 as both sides traded penalties, with the count being in the Scots favour. Italy maintained the pressure and were rewarded for their efforts in the Scottish 22 as lock Marco Fuser crashed over for Italy’s second try. With 20 minutes still to play and the score 26-20, Italy looked to make the comeback that the home crowd was baying for. However, Scotland’s superior fitness and bench would come into play and Scotland quietly took charge of proceedings for the last quarter in Rome. Italy maintained the pressure but bodies and minds were beginning to tire for the Azurri and the finishing skills just weren’t there anymore as discipline also started to break down. To rub salt into the wound, Scottish winger Tommy Seymour would score yet another try for Scotland at the death after some more stellar work from fullback Stuart Hogg.
In the end, it was clearly Scotland’s day as they finally really looked like the side they have been promising to be for so long. Here’s a superb view of Scotland’s remarkable skills against Italy in Round 3 to illustrate the point.
Italy can take heart from the fact that they simply never gave up against a Scottish side that was just firing on all cylinders at long last. Italy remained competitive to the end, but Scotland’s remarkable skill set just proved too much on a day where they finally managed to connect all the dots. Whether Scotland can do it all again against France remains to be seen, but based on what we’ve seen so far, and in front of an ecstatic home crowd, we think the answer will surely be yes!
England vs Ireland
Final Score – England 21/Ireland 10
We’ll have to confess that this was the game we were all looking forward to the most in Round 3, and while not nearly as turgid as the contest between Wales and France it didn’t quite live up to the weight of expectation going into the match. While still a good contest it somehow lacked the sparkle and exciting exuberance of the game earlier in the day in Rome. England clearly lay down the marker that they are the team to beat this year and new Coach Eddie Jones’ initial outings in charge certainly seem to be hitting all the right notes. However, as good as England are and truly extraordinary as Billy Vunipola was last Sunday, you can’t help feeling that there is still work to be done before this new look England really can be called a finished product. For Ireland, they are clearly in transition and searching for the leadership and direction they have benefitted from in the last few years but is now painfully absent at times. However, there were plenty of signs of promise as Irish Coach Joe Schmidt finally got a chance to blood some new talent, most notably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey and Flanker Josh Van der Flier, both of whom acquitted themselves superbly last Saturday. Ireland are clearly out of the running for Six Nations glory this year, but the last two rounds of the Championship should hopefully see some solid foundations laid for the future with the pressure of having to defend their Six Nations title now removed.
It is only fair to say that the score line is not an accurate reflection of how close this game was in reality. Indeed, Ireland were only trailing by three at half time, and a late resurgence by the Men in Green could have swung the game in their favor had they been slightly more efficient with the run of play. However, England were the clear winners in a match that never looked a certainty for them until the last ten minutes. England have finally got the composure and mental fortitude to close out tight and emotionally charged matches like this one, and in his defence I have been impressed by how much English Captain Dylan Hartley has contributed to this process. Hartley has more than silenced his critics and been a model of discipline for the rest of his teammates, and his legendary short fuse which was once England’s Achilles Heel has been notably absent from England’s performances in this tournament.
England had much of the possession and attacking play in the first half but problems with execution and discipline in the heat of the action were causing them problems, and when you have the likes of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton as your opposition fly half, such lapses will always prove costly. Consequently, penalties were traded for much of the first half, with England looking the more enterprising in attack but let down by a lack of essential skills at crucial moments. To Ireland’s credit, although rarely looking a threat in attack they were solid in defence and forcing the English into numerous errors. At half time it was 6-3 for England but there had been little to genuinely lift the spirits for both sets of supporters.
The second half however would provide the fireworks that this match so desperately needed, with England Number Eight Billy Vunipola at times acting like an entire Panzer division as he set up countless opportunities and breaks in the Irish defence for his teammates. However, it would be Ireland who would get the first try as scrum half Conor Murray would take full advantage of England being a man short due to a yellow card, and squeezing himself through a tunnel in the English try line defence. Ireland all of a sudden led 10-6. England would then strike back as Vunipola set off on a personal crusade into the Irish half. His superhuman efforts would ultimately lay the foundations for England scoring two tries to put them firmly in charge of proceedings. Winger Anthony Watson would benefit from a timely offload from flanker Chris Robshaw for England’s first try, soon followed by some superb interplay from centre Owen Farrell and fullback Mike Brown for the second try, as England streaked ahead and began to look the clearly dominant side.
However, it wasn’t to be all England’s day as a concerted Irish effort was made to respond causing some heroics from both sides. Irish centre Robbie Henshaw looked dangerous all afternoon and a spectacular last minute try saving tackle from England winger Jack Nowell just managed to keep Ireland from getting back into the game after a searing break from Henshaw. Some refereeing decisions that clearly didn’t go the way of the Irish saw them denied a sure fire try from the two new forward caps Van der Flier and Ultane Dillane who both had a superb afternoon and who show enormous promise for the future. Ireland attacked again and unfortunately as Irish scrum half Conor Murray decided to hang onto the ball rather than release it, he received some undue cosmetic surgery from the boots of English fullback Mike Brown. French referee Romain Poite then proceeded to completely lose the plot as he made several different and inconsistent decisions on a rather complex passage of play. The result was a loss of momentum for the Irish and a lucky reprieve for England. However, the referees’ decisions will often be up for debate and it is the responsibility of teams to focus on the task at hand. In this case England clearly had the upper hand, and turned the pressure back on Ireland. Ireland would give it one more heroic effort but England clearly had the measure of them in defence and the English scrum and lineout was proving to be key, along with the one-man army efforts of Billy Vunipola.
In the end, refereeing decisions aside, England emerged the deserved winners against a very spirited Irish challenge that at times just wasn’t as well executed and planned as that by the Men in White. Although an epic tussle at times, it somehow lacked the spectacle most of us have come to expect from this fixture, with both sides seeming unsure of themselves at times. However, what you can’t take away from this match is the fact that England are on a roll and if you are going to stop them, then stopping this man is going to have to be a very big part of your strategy.
While they may not look the finished product just yet, England are still the most likely Championship material this year, and Wales will be racking their brains as to what they need to do to eke out a win at Fortress Twickenham a week today. As for Ireland, they can return to Dublin with their heads held high and their new young guns eager for a crack at an equally spirited and enthusiastic Italy. Ireland’s Championship may be over but the first steps to Japan and 2019 were taken last Saturday, and as a result Irish eyes should be smiling.