The thrills and spills came at a frenetic pace in the second round of this year’s Six Nations championship. The action got underway as Ireland blitzed a hapless Italian side and made an emphatic statement that the slip up in Murrayfield was an unfortunate hiccough along the way to what should prove to be a solid challenge for the title. Next up was the weekend’s most highly anticipated match between England and Wales. England as defending champions and last year’s Grand Slam heroes were keen to prove that a sloppy start against France in the first round was simply that and no serious cause for concern, while Wales sought to silence their critics after an emphatic opening win against Italy. One of Test Rugby’s great rivalries provided plenty of spectacle, but it was England’s ability to go the distance that allowed them to emerge the victors in a thrilling contest. Lastly, Scotland looked to set to continue the momentum from their epic opening round victory over Ireland against a resurgent France. A punishing physical contest, which left bodies strewn across the park especially for Scotland, still produced some breathtaking displays of running and attacking rugby. This year’s Six Nations is proving that Northern Hemisphere rugby is in exceptionally robust health!
Italy vs Ireland
Final Score – Italy 10/Ireland 63
Ireland came to Rome with a point to prove and Italy sadly ended up being the sacrificial lambs in the process. One thing for certain was that Italy, despite the input of new Coach Conor O’Shea, still have a long way to go before they become genuinely competitive in the Six Nations, which sadly means the calls for the inclusion of other countries such as Georgia at Italy’s expense will once again be one of the talking points when the tournament wraps up next month. Ireland were exceptionally impressive after their upset to the Scots a week earlier, but against such a hapless Italian side it is hard to really judge how they will fare against much stiffer competition for the rest of the tournament. Nevertheless Ireland managed to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and in a good position for a much more challenging fixture against a French side that is showing plenty of promise.
Ireland came screaming out of the blocks and the points were not long to follow. Ireland simply dominated every aspect of the game leaving Italy clutching at straws for the full eighty minutes. By the twenty minute mark Ireland were comfortably ahead by three tries. The only blip on Ireland’s radar for the full eighty minutes was some ill discipline by second rower Donnacha Ryan, for collapsing an Italian maul from a lineout which saw him sent to the sin bin and Italy being awarded a penalty try. That was to be Italy’s only moment of glory, as from then on it was strictly one way traffic from Ireland.
Flanker CJ Stander was playing like a man possessed for Ireland scoring three outstanding tries and being in the thick of everything for the Men in Green. Ireland will also take heart that in the absence of their regular Captain and Hooker Rory Best, Munster’s Niall Scannell had an excellent game at Hooker once more reinforcing the considerable depth that Ireland are developing in all positions. Replacement winger Craig Gilroy had a barnstormer of an afternoon for Ireland running in his own hat trick, complementing the efforts of fellow winger Keith Earls who ran in two of his own. Lastly Gary Ringrose also added to the party atmosphere with a fine try of his own and some superb work alongside his centre partner Robbie Henshaw all afternoon.
Italy will need to pick up the pieces somehow as they travel to Fortress Twickenham this weekend to take on tournament favourites England. It would seem that their trials and tribulations are set to continue but it is hoped they can find some positives for the remainder of their campaign. They have a great Coach in Conor O’Shea and some very talented players, but for now are struggling to click as a cohesive unit especially when under pressure. For Ireland their Six Nations campaign only gets harder from here until the final showdown with England, but this emphatic victory will boost their confidence as they prepare to take on a French team that is just starting to hit its straps this weekend in Dublin.
Wales vs England
Final Score – Wales 16/England 21
One of Test Rugby’s oldest and most intense rivalries lived up to its billing and then some as England travelled to Cardiff. It was an epic Test match that kept us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes. Wales will be gutted to lose a match they could have clearly won, while England will take huge confidence from the fact that they seem to have become masters of their own composure under pressure with an ability to close out big games that is starting to rival the abilities of New Zealand’s All Blacks.
From the opening whistle until the last both teams played at full throttle, and at times from a spectator’s point of view it was almost exhausting to watch. To be honest for much of this match Wales were the dominant side but it was England who were able to make better use of their chances as well as be that much more precise in their execution when it mattered the most. As we saw last year on the tour to Australia, England’s defence has an ability to really settle when under pressure and after a shaky start against France in the opening round, England were the more composed of the two sides as Wales mounted continuous assaults on the English line.
As expected there was some solid Welsh pressure from the forwards, and despite England’s front row getting the better of their Welsh counterparts, Wales were giving as good as they got in some punishing physical battles which often saw the Welsh having the slight edge. However, the superhuman efforts of the English second row in the shape of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury who were outstanding along with flanker Maro Itoje, ensured that England were always competitive across the park. English Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley was not having his best game but an enormous positive for England was the fact that replacement Hooker Jamie George played an outstanding final 30 minutes and is likely to get a starting berth against Italy this weekend. Flanker Jack Clifford also made his presence felt as did number eight Nathan Hughes.
Wales however managed to maintain a lead all the way to the 75th minute and were taught a painful lesson in how close the margins can be at this level. The Welsh second and back rows put in a massive shift against England, with flanker Justin Tipuric and number eight Ross Moriarty proving once more what destructive forces they are for Wales. Tipuric’s abilities in attack and defence are becoming legendary especially as the man never seems to tire. Moriarty put in another ferocious performance for Wales causing England all kinds of problems as he tackled everything in sight and provided countless turnovers for Wales. Your heart has to go out to centre Jonathan Davies and that fatal clearing kick in the 75th minute which simply HAD to find touch and didn’t and resulted in English winger Elliot Daly’s superb match winning try. However, it did highlight the point that this was a game that came down to the margins and the team that had mastered the clinical finishing needed was always going to snatch the win. Wales are playing some great rugby at the moment, but so are all the other Six Nations sides with the exception of Italy, and as a result the ability to execute under pressure as the clock ticks down those final minutes is the difference between winning and losing. Something England clearly seem to have mastered and Wales have yet to achieve.
Wales must now travel to Scotland and as Ireland found out, Scotland at home are now an exceptionally daunting prospect. Wales’ resolve will be tested to the full and it will be fascinating to see how well they bounce back from the heartbreaking loss to England. For the English their momentum continues to build and with a relatively soft fixture this weekend against Italy, it is going to take an exceptionally gifted and determined Scottish or Irish side to derail the English Grand Slam express in March!
France vs Scotland
Final Score – France 22/Scotland 16
To be honest we found this match just as exciting and nerve-wracking at times as the epic dustup between England and Wales the day before. France is playing some exceptionally exciting rugby again under new Coach Guy Noves, and Scotland possesses some of the paciest backs in the modern game who can light up a pitch from anywhere. This match also showed that in the shape of replacement lock Tim Swinson some of their forwards are no slouchers either! However, the only downside was the intensely physical nature of the contest which left an exceptionally high Scottish body count and knocked their Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw out of the rest of the tournament. France were not without their losses either but Scotland clearly came off worst in the physical battles. Nevertheless it was an epic match which lacked nothing in terms of intensity and spectacle.
The first twenty minutes of this match were played at breakneck speed by both sides. However the frenetic pace of the action at times found Scotland lacking the composure particularly in terms of discipline that had served them so well against Ireland the week before. It was these disciplinary lapses, and the fact that French fly half Camille Lopez had brought his GPS kicking boots with him, which ensured that France in a tight encounter would end up with the clear points advantage despite being outscored in the try department.
Scotland although struggling with discipline at times in the opening quarter would still be the first across the white line in a superb team effort finished off by fullback extraordinaire Stuart Hogg on his fiftieth appearance for his country. France would strike back ten minutes later through the superb Gael Fickou at centre and the game’s momentum continued to swing back and forth in favor of both sides till the half time whistle. The only downside being Scottish Captain Greg Laidlaw taking an ankle injury which would rule him out of the rest of the match and the tournament. However, in an attempt to draw some positives out of an unfortunate setback for Scotland, Laidlaw’s replacement Ali Price played a good game and brought some real fizz to the position, something that Laidlaw has often lacked preferring a more conservative approach. The dynamic between Price and fly half dynamo for Scotland Finn Russell was exciting to watch and while unpolished at times bodes well for the future.
In the second half, France’s dominant physicality was starting to take its toll especially in the scrums and the Scottish body count continued to rise as a result along with continuing penalties which France’s Camille Lopez would ensure that Scotland would keep paying the bill for. However, early in the second half, second rower Tim Swinson would come on for John Hardie who himself had been a replacement for flanker John Barclay. It was another spectacular display of Scottish attacking rugby with winger Tommy Seymour playing a starring role in supporting a superb try for Swinson. Scottish fly half Finn Russell was having an off day with the boot especially with usual kicker Greg Laidlaw off injured, and his attempt at a conversion went horribly wrong courtesy of an uncooperative tee and some slightly bizarre time keeping by South African referee Jaco Peyper. Scotland would remain competitive for the remainder of the match and threw everything they could at a resolute France, but the depleted Scottish bench and breakdown in organisation at times for Scotland gradually started to give the upper hand to France allied to fly half Lopez’s kicking boot. Scotland had been the slightly more enterprising team in terms of attack but France were winning the attrition battle in physical terms as well as being the more composed of the two as the clock wound down.
In the end it had been a breathtaking match at times with both sides giving it their all, and an especially brave performance from a Scottish team lining up outside the casualty departments of Parisian hospitals after the match. Both teams now have tough matches as Scotland take on Wales, albeit at the happy hunting ground of Murrayfield, while France face a challenging trip to Dublin against an Irish team with everything to prove. However both France and Scotland are playing some great rugby at the moment and are going to provide their opponents this weekend with the sternest of tests. France have got their campaign back up and running while Scotland have had to lick some significant wounds, but still possess a team blessed with an abundance of talent so the party is far from over yet!