In probably the most unscripted tournament in years, Round 3 of the 2017 Six Nations served up plenty of thrills and continued to set the stage for an epic final two weekends in March. Scotland provided a spectacular start to the weekend’s proceedings by proving once and for all that the resurgence in Scottish rugby is clearly no mere flash in the pan as they put in a solid effort against Wales even without some of their key players. Wales were once more left to wonder why a team of such obvious talents is struggling to get results. Ireland as many expected, at home in Dublin and with the return of world-class fly half Johnny Sexton, put in a clinical display which ultimately negated the significant forward power that France possesses as well as their increasingly dangerous running game. Lastly at Twickenham, Italy decided to use the rule book to their advantage and for the first forty minutes caused England to scratch their heads as they tried to figure out what sort of contest they were involved in. While it was brilliant play by Italy in avoiding the whitewash and potential cricket score that many were predicting at the hands of tournament favourites England, it ultimately backfired on them in the second half as England emerged from the break with a clear idea of the weaknesses presented by the Italian game plan and consequently exploited them to the full. It was another exceptionally exciting weekend of Test Rugby which once more showed how close this year’s competition is and the fact that none of the sides can take anything for granted. As the tournament heads into its final two weekends, England’s position at the top of the table starts to look more than just a little fragile as Scotland and Ireland remain in clear contention for the title. Much like the cliff hanger tournament of the 2015 season we are unlikely to know the winner until the final whistle of the final match on the last weekend!
Scotland vs Wales
Final Score – Scotland 29/Wales 13
We predicted that the game between Ireland and France was likely to be the firecracker of the weekend but in the end this match ultimately kept us on the edge of our seats and spilling our drinks much more than the contest in Dublin. What perhaps was most exciting was the fact that on paper and given the injury list that Scotland was managing, other than home advantage, in many ways Scotland were the underdogs. Consequently the exceptionally brave and skillful performance the Scots produced with such heart made it all the more worthy spectacle and a great advertisement for the global game. Wales will once more be left wondering why a squad boasting so much world-class talent cannot get the results it should be getting when they matter most, and in a game where they were essentially outclassed and outplayed, more questions than answers will be raised about the coaching styles currently being used by Wales and interim Coach Rob Howley’s abilities.
Unlike in their victory over Ireland in the tournament opener, Scotland did not catch Wales napping in the first half and Wales looked more than comfortable for much of a closely fought half with the Welsh ending the half with a narrow lead. As predicted Welsh back rowers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric were proving adept at breaking up any Scottish attempts at rhythm and causing havoc at the breakdowns. However, one concern that Scotland had going into the match was put to rest within the opening few minutes. With talismanic Scottish Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw sidelined for the rest of the tournament all eyes were on Ali Price’s call to start in only his first Test start at scrum half, despite two previous caps on the bench. Price did not disappoint and, as we suspected he would, provided some real urgency and pace to the Scottish attack and often quicker ball to his colleagues than Laidlaw produces with his more conservative style of play.
In a frenetic opening twenty minutes the momentum swung back and forth between both sides but as predicted Wales were getting the better of the physical exchanges especially through Warburton and Tipuric. As a result, it would be Wales who would get the first five pointer of the match through winger Liam Williams who is a consistently reliable attacking platform for Wales no matter how the rest of his team plays. On this occasion however, Williams benefitted from some fine passing across the park from the rest of his teammates ultimately putting him into space and across the white line for Wales, with Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb and fullback Leigh Halfpenny providing key supporting roles. Rhys Webb would go on to prevent an almost certain try from Scotland in the dying minutes of the first half, as the strike axis of Scotland’s fullback Stuart Hogg, winger Tommy Seymour and centre Huw Jones started to really hit their strides in a counter attacking move from deep in the Scottish half that showed off some dazzling footwork and passing skills from the Scottish trio. Webb’s heroics ably supported by his forwards in a world-renowned Welsh defensive effort would see Wales head into the break leading 13-9. The warning signs were clear though from Scotland and fly half Finn Russell’s boot was keeping Scotland well in touch on the scoreboard.
In the second half it was all about Scotland, as they simply dominated the Welsh in every aspect of the game and managed to win the second half 20-0. The Scots weren’t just good in the final forty minutes, they were outstanding and surely must take great heart from the quality of their efforts as they head into a crucial and very challenging encounter with England at Twickenham next weekend. If Scotland can produce the kind of second half they put on display against Wales when they meet England, it is going to end up being a barnstormer of a contest with the final result very difficult to call.
Scotland came out of the tunnel in the second half with a point to prove which they did emphatically. They simply outplayed Wales in every aspect of the game and showed the inability of Wales to adapt when things start to unravel for them. What’s more despite appearing the weaker of the two sides on paper in the physical aspect of the game, Scotland in the second half managed to completely negate Wales’ physical authority. Scotland picked up the frenetic pace of the opening twenty minutes right from the get go in the second half. The Scots struck early with fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Tommy Seymour once more providing some dazzling attacking skills as they got them on the board and into the lead. From that moment on even watching on television you could sense the crowd at Murrayfield start to raise the roof as yet another historic win for Scotland seemed on the cards. Wales didn’t give up but their execution just wasn’t as crisp as that of a very fired up Scotland. In the final quarter that man Hogg would once more have a say in assisting Scotland across the Welsh try line as a lovely flick pass saw him put winger Tim Visser across in the corner.
Scotland ended the match strongly and Finn Russell’s superb kicking kept the scoreboard ticking over till the very end as Welsh discipline began to fade. Scotland ended the match with a comfortable win at the end of the day and a massive confidence booster going into their toughest game of the competition – a showdown with England at Twickenham this Saturday. It had been another complete Scottish team performance and one in which Scotland’s injury concerns going into the match appeared null and void as Ali Price had a huge game at scrum half, while Finn Russell made sure that Greg Laidlaw’s kicking boots were not missed. Flanker John Barclay had a superb outing as Captain in place of the injured Laidlaw while number eight Ryan Wilson and replacement flanker Hamish Watson played out of their skins. They will need to do it all again this Saturday at an even higher level of intensity and commitment, something this team really seems to want to do to send outgoing Coach Vern Cotter off on a high note and recognise the contribution he has made to the remarkable journey Scottish rugby has taken under his tutelage in the last two years.
Wales meanwhile know they have a great deal of soul searching to do as they prepare to meet an Irish side who are finally showing the promise that had them ranked as favorites behind England. Wales are a good team, of that there is no doubt and they possess some extraordinary talent. When a team can boast names like Warburton, Moriarty, Tipuric, Williams, Halfpenny and Webb it is in more than capable hands. The problem seems to still lie in a lack of coaching direction as to exactly what type of game Wales is trying to play and how to execute it. Although resolute under pressure especially in defence Wales still seem unsure of themselves and lack confidence in their purpose especially on attack. The game against Ireland at home in Cardiff should still be an epic encounter, but Wales really need to use the passion of the home crowd to give them the confidence to develop that killer instinct needed to put away an Irish side starting to build momentum just when they need it most.
Here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.
Ireland vs France
Final Score – Ireland 19/France 9
Ireland, fresh off a staggering 63 point haul over Italy, came into this match knowing that having got their Six Nations campaign back on track, keeping momentum was going to be absolutely essential against a rapidly improving French side. France had given tournament favourites England a nasty scare in the opening round and then gone on to a convincing win over Scotland, the team that had given Ireland such a shaky start to this year’s Six Nations. It was always going to be a tight affair between two sides who have a long history of spoiling each other’s parties.
While it may not have provided as much excitement in terms of open running rugby as the contest in Scotland, it still highlighted some undeniable skill from both sides and in particularly Ireland’s tactical edge with the welcome return of fly half Johnny Sexton. While his understudy Paddy Jackson is becoming increasingly capable in the role, there is no denying that with Sexton on the field Ireland invariably takes on another dimension. France clearly had plenty of intent when it came to attacking rugby it was just that, as has been their Achilles Heel in the last year, the execution needed to finish off some dazzling moves is still a work in progress at times. Nevertheless it would be France who would be first on the board through the boot of fly half Camille Lopez in the first quarter through a penalty kick. France in the first twenty minutes produced some superb displays of running rugby which ultimately lacked the finishing needed. However, they were looking dangerous and led on the scoreboard 6-0.
It was on the half hour mark that Ireland finally started to hit their straps as fly half Johnny Sexton made a spectacular break and provided one of his incredible pinpoint kicks on the fly and at speed, with some desperate French defence just narrowly getting to the ball before Irish winger Keith Earls, and thus stopping a certain try in the corner for the Irish. Ireland’s continued determination to wrest control of the game firmly in their favor would ultimately see them dominate the rest of the half ending with a fine pressure try from scrum half Conor Murray as his forward pack mounted a concerted assault on the French white line. Ireland were back in charge at 7-6 as referee Nigel Owens sent the teams to the tunnel for half time but they were keenly aware of how hard they had been made to work for it.
As the second half got underway, Dublin’s inclement weather attempted to spoil the proceedings but still failed to dampen the intent or enthusiasm of both sides. Ireland kept up the pressure especially in terms of the physical contest and the French began to tire and lose their composure. Sexton would increase the lead as French discipline began to slip. Then with half an hour left to go Sexton would, from 30 metres out and despite a swirling wind, slot a superb drop goal and suddenly it was Ireland who were firmly in control. France would then proceed to throw everything they could at an Irish forward pack that simply denied them a say in proceedings. Ireland were clearly focusing on the win and less about chasing points despite the introduction of the bonus point system in this year’s Championship. Consequently, they simply stopped the French attacks dead in their tracks while at the same time not risking any flash moves of their own especially as the weather continued to deteriorate. With ten minutes to go, France made the questionable decision to kick for points rather than touch even though they were trailing by ten points. Although fly half Camille Lopez gained France a valuable three points making it a seven point difference, it was hard to imagine France making up the deficit required to win the match with six minutes to go in front of an ecstatic Irish crowd. As Ireland called in the reserves from the benches, Sexton’s replacement Paddy Jackson quickly got Ireland back to a ten point lead with a fine penalty kick.
From there it was all over as Ireland once more got back in the driving seat and came close to bagging another try in the final two minutes. However, as the clock wound down into the last minute, Ireland decided they had had enough and the need to risk bodies ahead of a gruelling away fixture with Wales was simply not worth it. The ball was kicked into touch and Ireland ultimately emerged the comfortable winners. Ireland know that they will need to get closer to an unbeaten England on points difference for the final two matches, but in challenging circumstances against an increasingly dangerous looking French team they had kept their composure and played the smarter game of rugby. France will rue opportunities missed and a lack of finishing at crucial moments, but will still take heart that the systems they are putting in place are starting to deliver results. France is back in business after the heartache of the past four years, and it is great to see French teams playing with such enthusiasm, committment and flair once more. There is still plenty of work to be done, but don’t be surprised to see them be serious contenders for the title next year.
Once more here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.
England vs Italy
Final Score – England 36/Italy 15
Some called this match one of the most bizarre displays of rugby seen in a long time. England Coach Eddie Jones seemed veritably incensed by Italy’s tactics and struggled to even describe it as a game of rugby, after his players spent the first forty minutes desperately searching for a rule book on the sidelines. Even referee Romain Poite was consulted by the English players as they sought to understand the Italian tactics, causing one of the best lines of the tournament so far from the Frenchman – ““Sorry, Dylan, I am a referee, not a coach.” For the Italians it was a clever albeit perfectly legal ruse in a game that we sometimes forget has layers of complex strategy set to throw even the most experienced players off their guard. By simply not contesting the rucks and not committing players to the breakdowns, Italy allowed themselves to never really be in an offside position. While it worked well in the first half for Italy, as a bewildered English team desperately sought to understand what was taking place on the pitch, it ultimately backfired on them in the second, as England caught on to what was happening and the fact that it was leaving Italy vulnerable to any sort of English attack at speed if they could keep the ball moving quickly. England quickly took charge and the most potentially embarrassing banana skin of the tournament was avoided. However, Italy can take heart that at least for the first half they at times made the tournament favourites look like school boy amateurs.
Nevertheless, despite the Italian tactics England still had the upper hand in the first twenty minutes, but were being made to work hard for it. However, sustained English pressure especially through their forward pack would see Dan Cole crash over the Italian line amidst a sea of white and blue shirts for the first points of the game. Still the Italian tactics were confusing the English and they were struggling to come to terms with how to combat them, prompting English Captain Dylan Hartley and flanker James Haskell to seek some coaching advice on defence from French referee Romain Poite. The Italian tactics and some consistent pressure from the Azurri were causing England all kinds of problems and they were clearly having a bad day at the office compounded by a myriad of unforced errors, and kicker and centre Owen Farrell having an uncharacteriscally awful day with the boot.
Italian fly half Tommaso Allan got Italy’s first points on the half hour mark through a superb drop goal, and then it was another basic schoolboy error from England which saw Italy get their first five pointer on the stroke of half time and head into the tunnel leading 10-5. Allan took a penalty kick which bounced off the posts as the entire England team took their eye off proceedings and completely missed the ball rebounding into the waiting arms of Italian winger Giovanbattista Venditti who blasted through a set of half asleep English defenders to score a try of almost comic like genius. A bemused and clearly frustrated England team headed to the tunnel while the Italians could hardly believe their luck.
A fairly stern tongue lashing had obviously been the order of the day from England Coach Eddie Jones in the changing rooms at half time. England emerged with a clearer sense of purpose and turned their frustration into some clinical execution especially in the final quarter. England got quickly onto the scoreboard through scrum half Danny Care as he picked his way through the loose Italian defences deep in the Italian half. The scores were only level however, after Owen Farrell missed yet another shot at goal. A few minutes later winger Elliot Daly would get England’s next set of points through a fine try out wide, which this time Farrell was able to convert. With the score at 17-10 to England the game appeared to lull into some kind of a stalemate until Italy once more got their foot on the gas and wrongfooted the English defence. Italian centre Michele Campagnaro, who is no stranger to England as a result of his exceptional work rate at Exeter, proved what a danger man he is as he completely shredded the English defences brushing off no less than four English tackles to score a well deserved try for Italy on the hour mark. The tension began to mount again as the unthinkable began to seem a distinct possibility with Italy only trailing 17-15.
With ten minutes to go, England finally found the rhythm that had eluded them all match as the England bench made its presence felt. Winger Jack Nowell who always takes some stopping was put into space and all of a sudden it was England ahead 22-15 despite Farrell once more missing the conversion. However, England would strike again in quick succession through centre Ben Te’o and then Jack Nowell would seal Italy’s fate in the 79th minute with Farrell this time succeeding with both conversions and ultimately putting England out of sight by the final whistle at 36-15.
England secured the much-needed win and the luxury of a bonus point, but had for the most part made it look ridiculously hard against an Italian side playing with plenty of heart and a better understanding it would seem of rugby’s rule book. Some have called Italy’s tactics cheap but you can’t fault them for using the game’s nuances to their advantage and ultimately avoiding the whitewash by England that many, including ourselves, had been predicting. England ultimately got the job done, but their sloppiness at times and initial inability to adapt to the Italians’ tactics must be causes for concern for Coach Eddie Jones as they prepare to take on an exceptionally motivated and very dangerous Scottish side this Saturday, even if it is in front of a home crowd. It is highly unlikely that England, given the talent they possess, will be as poor on their next outing. However, an inability to adapt at times and some porous defence will continue to be a source of concern if they are to keep their campaign and potential Grand Slam efforts on track in their last two daunting encounters. At home to a fired up Scotland and a final match away in Dublin against Ireland who are rapidly building momentum, are going to provide England with the sternest of Tests and a real testament to how far this team really has come under Coach Eddie Jones. England will be more than up to the task, it simply remains to see if Scotland and Ireland will allow them to get the job done. Either way it is building up to an epic final two rounds of what has been an enthralling Six Nations!
Once more here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.