Archive for the ‘Six Nations 2015’ Category

Now that most of us have come back down to earth and put away our calculators and more importantly our defibrillators, we look back on one of the most incredible finales to the Six Nations that most of us have probably ever seen and one which certainly silenced the critics’ accusations that Northern Hemishpere rugby has become a slow ponderous affair devoid of tries.  On a day where it was a three-horse race between Wales, Ireland and England (and even France having a wild card outside chance), the drama and tension was there in spades as it all came down to points differences with all teams having to make sure their defences didn’t leak points while at the same time scoring as many of their own as humanly possible.  That is exactly what we got, with Wales producing a second half of one try after another in Rome.  Ireland then had it all to do at Murrayfield, and proceeded to score 40 points against a bewildered Scotland and show that when tries are needed the Irish are more than capable of scoring them.  That left England with a mountain to climb at Twickenham which they then proceeded to do with gusto – the only problem was that a French side that everyone had written off also decided to try and match them try for try.  It was all a spectacle that many of us will remember for many years to come, but one which ultimately saw Ireland just hang on and claim an incredibly hard-fought Six Nations Championship for a second year in a row.

Italy vs Wales
Final Score – Ita 20/Wales 61
Rome

So with calculators at the ready, Saturday’s Six Nations final Saturday got underway in Rome, with Wales needing to put at least 40 points on the Italians to take the Championship while making sure their phenomenal defence as witnessed against the Irish leaked as few points as possible.

Let’s face it, Wales did not get off to an exactly stellar start and Italy after their implosion against France the week before looked up for the challenge even without the talismanic figure of their Captain Sergio Parisse who had to look on from the bench.  What was interesting about the match was certainly for the first 20 minutes there seemed a certain lack of urgency from the Welsh, which considering the enormity of the task in front of them, seemed surprising.  Whether or not this was a deliberate tactic to not rush the game in the pursuit of points so they could wear down the Italians early on, we will never know.  Italy however were not daunted by the Welsh challenge and for most of the first half completely took the game to the Welsh, and if not for the error count on the part of the Italians which was better than against France but still there, the Welsh might have found themselves with even more to do post the half time whistle. The hapless Italian flyhalf Kelly Haimona who for once seemed to be having a marginally better day with the boot, was replaced with a broken arm within the first ten minutes. His replacement Orquera, defended well and showed some promise in attack, but Italy are still faced with the basic problem that they are without a world-class flyhalf.

Wales problems were then compounded as on the half hour mark, Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny took a horrendous bang to the head from the knee of Italy’s Samuel Vunisa as the Italian number eight obviously took a leaf out of his injured Captain’s book by making an impressive rush through centrefield until heroically stopped by the unfortunate Halfpenny. Halfpenny was then taken off for the rest of the match, but his loss was certainly not the end of the world for Wales, as his replacement Scott Williams ably stepped up to the task and just as he did in the Irish game, had a superb match. There is no question that in the form of Williams, Wales has superb depth at fullback. Furthermore, Welsh flyhalf Dan Biggar who impressed all tournament also ably took on the kicking duties when required and for Welsh coach Warren Gatland there is very little to lose any sleep over in this department.

In a back and forth first half, the referee’s half time whistle saw Welsh fans biting their nails as Wales led by a slender one point margin 14-13, hardly the points difference they were looking for! Italy had proved competitive and were a shadow of the bumbling side that we saw the week before. I am sure that we all would have loved to have seen the video cameras of what was said in the Welsh change room during the half time break. Whatever was said it inspired this Welsh team to produce one of the most amazing second halves I have ever seen, and one which despite all the resolve in the world the Italians were in no position to respond to as a growing sense of shock took hold of the Azurri as the Welsh didn’t just find another gear, they found an entirely new 8 speed transmission.

The first eight minutes of the second half were evenly matched and the Italian defence continued to hold firm – and then it happened. Liam Williams spotted the gap at the 48th minute and rushed under the posts and it was suddenly game back on for the Welsh. What then happened was a mesmerizing final thirty minutes in which Welsh runners continually found space and the Italian white line. The man who had threatened to make a difference for Wales all tournament finally showed up on the day and singlehandedly took the game from Italy. Welsh winger George North had been booked to set the tournament on fire from the beginning but opposition defences recognised the threat he posed and for much of the Six Nations kept him ominously quiet. However, in Rome the man was on fire. At the fifty minute mark, acres of space opened up for North on the right and he was away. He then proceeded to do this two more times in quick succession, putting Wales into a commanding 42-13 lead. All of a sudden the points difference that Wales were after was back on.

Sadly for Italy, discipline broke down in the the last 20 minutes, yellow cards were seen and Italy basically started to retire. They were consistently outmuscled and with the Welsh running at them from all angles right across the park, they found it hard to hang on to the ball for more than one or two phases and once again the error count kept creeping up. Wales big loose forwards in the form of Alun Wyn-Jones and Captain Sam Warburton were causing all kinds of problems for a rapidly tiring Italian defence, and Wyn-Jones in particular was outstanding and deserved man of the match. Warburton showed just how dangerous the Welsh loose forwards are as he stormed from almost the halfway mark to score Wales seventh try. Wales kept up the tempo and as the referee blew the whistle for full-time, despite a last-minute surge by Italy through the impressive Leonardo Sarto resulting in a try, it was 61-20 to the Welsh. Having been asked to climb a mountain they did that and then some and suddenly found themselves in a commanding position on top of the Six Nations table, with a significant benchmark set for England and Ireland to topple later in the afternoon. This Six Nations was set to go to the wire, but could Ireland and England really outdo the Welsh miracle in Rome?

It was a spectacle and one of the greatest second half performances I have ever seen. It was thrilling stuff and when you actually consider that most of Wales’ bucketload of tries came in just the last thirty minutes makes it even more remarkable of an achievement for Wales. It was devastating for them that ultimately this superhuman effort didn’t win them the Championship, but nevertheless they can take enormous heart from this as a team performance. Italy fought bravely for the first half but once the floodgates started to open, you could see their resolve in the face of a seemingly unstoppable Red Machine start to falter dramatically in the last thirty minutes. Whether Wales can reproduce this kind of performance against stronger sides at the World Cup later this year remains to be seen. However, one thing they have shown this tournament is that their old bugbear of fading in the last ten minutes is now very much a thing of the past. Wales has depth, strength and the ability to play a full intense 80 minutes of rugby – this is a good side – a very good side! The rest of the world is watching and waiting.

Scotland vs Ireland
Final Score – Sco 10/Ire 40
Murrayfield

So next up were Ireland to play for the Six Nations title, needing to score at least 20 points over Scotland to get them the Championship providing things went their way in regards to the England/France game later in the day.  However, as I have said repeatedly a mere twenty points wouldn’t be enough, especially if they simply came from Johnny Sexton’s boot.  What Ireland really needed were tries and plenty of them.  Firstly to put the title comfortably out of reach of the English and secondly to silence Ireland’s critics that they couldn’t score tries and thus as a result are not really a World Cup contender.  Add into this mix a glorious day for running rugby in Edinburgh, a Scottish side who knows how to score tries especially in the form of their star fullback Stuart Hogg and a team desperate to salvage some pride out of a disastrous Six Nations in front of their Murrayfield faithful.  Scotland may have been the side staring at the wooden spoon but they were by no means a pushover and Ireland were fully aware of this!

Ireland came out of the blocks blazing with their Captain Paul O’Connell, leading the charge in the first four minutes crashing across the Scottish line.  Scotland came back at Ireland and managed ten minutes of sustained pressure on Ireland which resulted in a penalty through Greg Laidlaw’s boot.  Scotland may have been shocked but were still very much in contention.  However, with Rory Best seeming to have recovered from some of his wobbles in the throw in to the lineouts that we saw in the Welsh match, Ireland were soon back in the Scottish twenty-two where they would increasingly stay for the rest of the match.  Sean O’Brien at number 7 finally made a dramatic return to form that Irish supporters had all been eagerly anticipating, and at the 23rd minute from a textbook lineout, weaved his way through some wrongfooted Scottish defenders and set the scoring tone for Ireland for the rest of the match.  Scotland would have flashes of brilliance, but with O’Brien playing as a man possessed, constant Scottish lapses in defence and errors on attack, the game was set to be Ireland’s.

Furthermore, what was exciting to see for Irish fans, was their team at long last spreading the ball wide and running and making some terrific offloads.  What we saw on Saturday was Ireland getting the finishing from the possession they have enjoyed all Championship.  Once this was sorted the tries were sure to come.  Also as mentioned above, with Sean O’Brien back to his very best, you really got to see the attacking prowess he lends to the Irish especially in quick go-forward ball – long may it continue!

Stuart Hogg continued his dangerous form and his searing breaks led to the only try for Scotland at the half hour mark.  Even though Hogg was brought to ground, quick play ensured that space was gained through the territory gained by Hogg and Scottish fly half Finn Russell made from Scotland’s only foray across the Irish white line.

Ireland had a comfortable lead at half time, 20-10 but the Scots had shown plenty of enterprise at times but the ghosts of indiscipline were starting to haunt them in defence as they became increasingly frustrated by Ireland’s constant sniping attacks and ferocious intensity at the breakdown. You sensed that Ireland were getting ready to stamp their traditional seal of authority on the match in the second half, while at the same time showing that this can also include tries as well.

We were not disappointed, as Irish scrum half Conor Murray who has had a truly outstanding tournament, along with Johnny Sexton (even though some of his trademark accuracy was missing on the day against Scotland) quietly applied the noose to the Scots. Ireland’s halfback pairing were providing plenty of space for their forwards especially the rampaging Sean O’Brien while the Irish backline were getting more opportunities to weave their magic.  The centrefield pairing of Henshaw and Payne was working well, with a superb snipe from Payne to score Ireland’s third try. Sean O’Brien took final honors with 9 minutes to go, to cap a truly superb performance from the Irish number 7, as his sheer strength and quick vision caused him to crash through Scottish defenders and just touch the ball down from a quick Murray offload at the breakdown. Ireland had more than they needed and looked set to have the Championship sewn up.

However, there was still drama to come that could have almost ruined Ireland’s party. At the 75th minute Scottish danger man Stuart Hogg made a blistering break down the right hand side, and just as he was about to cross the Irish white line, Ireland’s number 8 Jamie Heaslip made the try saving tackle of the Championship and caused Hogg just to lose the ball forward as he was touching down. From an Irish perspective it was heartening to see Heaslip at the forefront of such crucial game-saving plays after his nasty injury in the French game. Ireland could breathe again and as the final whistle blew, they knew they had done more than enough to get their hands on the Six Nations trophy in three hours time provided things didn’t detract too much from the script at Twickenham.

One couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Scots. They hadn’t necessarily played badly this tournament and at times had provided us with some genuinely exciting rugby, and there is no question that fullback Stuart Hogg was one of the players of the tournament. However, time and again their discipline let them down, particularly in defence and take away Hogg’s brilliance and the Scottish product starts to look a tad ordinary. There is promise aplenty there however, with plenty of young talent emerging, witness Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s try saving ankle tap on Tommy Bowe, and Finn Russell’s superb breaks and snipes through various Six Nations defences. Furthermore, Scottish coach Vern Cotter is a class act and still has plenty more to bring to this Scottish side. It may have been a tournament that promised so much for Scotland but delivered so little, and yes the wooden spoon is a harsh injustice, but expect to see this Scottish side continue to improve, making them a problem side for any opposition come the World Cup. Dare I say that if Vern Cotter is still around for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Scotland might even be where Ireland is now? We wait and see.

England vs France
Final Score Eng 55/Fra 35
Twickenham

By this stage in the afternoon most people were reaching for the strongest drink they could find in the house, as yet another cliffhanger match was set up.  The Championship was England’s for the taking if they could outscore Ireland and run riot against a French side that for all intents and purposes was a mystery as to how they would perform.  In the end, it was as close as you could possibly get in terms of England running Ireland as close as possible in terms of the points difference.

Knowing what they had to do, England started this match with pace, energy and full of intent.  At no point were there leisurely walks to the lineouts or scrums.  Urgency was the key word of this match for the full eighty minutes, and as  a result we the fans had a fitting spectacle for the finale of an incredible day of rugby.

England got the game off to a cracking start within the first minute, as they set to lay down a marker to France.  Indeed their reaction was so swift through their scrum half Ben Youngs, who had a truly outstanding game and has surely made the number nine shirt for England his, that you felt that England were set to blitz a hapless French side and easily take the Championship.  It was a superbly worked series of phases starting in the back line and England looked on fire.  Thereafter, it was all France who hit back with two tries in rapid succession.  France looked strong and were using their rolling maul with the charismatic figure of Captain Thierry Dusatoir at the back to full effect.

It was furious back and forth stuff and had Jules Plisson playing for the injured Camille Lopez at fly half for France been more accurate with the boot then the resulting scoreline could have been much different.  Plisson did receive a truly MASSIVE hit from England’s Courtney Lawes, which as horrific as it looked was perfectly legal but no doubt knocked some of the stuffing out of him.  Just before half time however, England reasserted themselves and took the lead through a try from Anthony Watson. George Ford’s boot made the conversion count along with a subsequent penalty, so that at half time, England were leading comfortably at 27-15, but still with it all to do regarding beating Ireland on points difference.

The second half was equally as furious and just as England looked set to run away with the game the French would come back at them and score to force England to have to start the points chase all over again.  France’s centre Maxime Mermoz was having a truly superb game, and he has often been seriously underrated by France in my opinion.  In addition, French winger Noa Nakaitaci was truly a revelation scoring a try that almost went awry as he just got the ball down before his foot touched down outside the dead ball line in the first half, and setting up some sublime breaks down the touch lines for his teammates to capitalise on throughout the match.  The sight of Nakaitaci speeding down the left wing with of all people, French prop Vincent Debaty in hot pursuit is a sight most of us will remember for a long time to come, especially as Debaty then went on to score a superb try from Nakaitaci’s sublime offload.

England, throughout the match showed why they have comfortably taken the mantle of the most impressive attacking team of the tournament, with the halfback partnership of George Ford and Ben Youngs showing some superb vision and pace.  Ford himself through his own try, showed that not only is he exceptionally reliable – he now definitely has that X factor that England has so desperately been looking for at number 10.  As I have said in these pages since the November Tests there should be absolutely no question in the England coaching department that Ford should be their starting number 10 for the World Cup.  However, in the urgency to attack at all costs this match did show some of England’s defensive problems on the wing and in the centre channels.  Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph have impressed all tournament, the latter in particular but have had some serious defensive lapses in the process.  Jack Nowell has been a revelation and in this match in particular showed that he has an extraordinary attacking prowess.  Mike Brown seems to have recovered much of his form since the Scotland match, but even he at times faltered once or twice when the French started to attack from all angles.  England are a superb team and on paper probably have more spectacular players at an individual level than any of the other Northern Hemisphere sides.  However, where perhaps they struggle still is in organisation and cohesion as a unit – an area where Ireland who may not have been as flash seems to have got the upper hand.

For France they can take heart in showing the world once more that once you have written the French off they are at their most dangerous.  The last year has been an exceptionally trying one for this traditional giant of the Northern Hemisphere.  While I don’t see many of the coaching problems currently plaguing the side disappearing much before September – what we did see is plenty of talent that with the right organisation could become a very dangerous side.  On the basis of this French performance I would think that Ireland are certain that their last pool game at the World Cup against France and thus the decider for which of the two teams will face a quarter final with the All Blacks, is going to be a barnstormer in which both teams will have to be at their sharpest after a relatively easy ride up to that point.

In short what we witnessed from England on Saturday was an incredible if not awe-inspiring performance against a French side that has potential when they decide to play.  If England can play at the same intensity and with more cohesion come the World Cup, then there is little or no question that on home ground they will be a serious contender for the Webb Ellis trophy if they can get past the initial hurdle of competing in the toughest of all the four pools.  England may not have won the Six Nations and still have plenty of work to do before September, but Stuart Lancaster and his staff are in the enviable position of having some pretty impressive foundations to build their strategy on.  They have the depth, they have the talent, all that remains to be seen is if they have the mental fortitude.  On the basis of what we saw on Saturday, I am sure we all wish them well!

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
Cardiff

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
Twickenham

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
Rome

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
Rome

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
Murrayfield

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
Twickenham

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!

With two weekends left in this Six Nations, there is quite literally everything to play for.  Ireland have a challenging match away from home in Cardiff to keep their Grand Slam ambitions on track, against a Welsh team determined to spoil their party.  Meanwhile a wounded English side sees the return of lineout giant Courtney Lawes as they look set to put a Scottish side brimming with talent but lacking in results to the sword at Twickenham.  Lastly can the Azurri and their truly inspirational Captain, Sergio Parisse, cause upset number two of the tournament by beating another chopped and changed French side in Rome?  Either way there is heaps to look forward to this weekend as we take a look at the action that all kicks off in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon.

Fixtures this weekend

Wales vs Ireland
Saturday, March 14th
Cardiff

Without question this is THE big fixture of the weekend.  Ireland are on a roll in this Six Nations tournament, despite the fact that they have not been high on the try scoring statistics.  This has led many to level accusations at them of being boring.  Furthermore many critics are asking if the X factor of Jonathan Sexton is removed then does their success merely become an illusion?  I would argue that while they may not have perhaps played the most spectacular rugby of the tournament, they have been the most clinically effective.  The Six Nations is a unique tournament, and every match is literally a knockout stage and as such must be played as such.  The adventurous play that leads to multiple tries often has no place in the tactical battles that unfold in the Six Nations, where margins and point differences can ultimately mean the success or failure of your campaign.  Some may call this boring, but like most people I found this tactical struggle as evidenced in the Ireland vs England game a fortnight ago both fascinating and just as exciting.  Yes I agree that the nature of Ireland’s performance changed dramatically once Sexton left at the 55 minute mark, but after a purple patch of 15 minutes, Ireland had re-established their authority by the 70 minute mark.  It all came down to discipline and all the players knowing exactly what was expected of them.  Expect more of the same in Cardiff this Saturday.

To say that this Welsh team is up for the challenge would be an understatement and Ireland will have to play just as well if not better than they did against England, especially when they have to factor the Millenium stadium crowd into the equation.  Wales are still very much in the hunt for the Championship and derailing Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions in front of an ecstatic Welsh crowd would be the sweetest of victories for them.  For Warren Gatland and his men this is no doubt the biggest game they will play between now and the World Cup.

While Wales may not have the awesome forward firepower of England, they perhaps have a more effective and mobile forward pack that is able to challenge physically anyone who comes at them.  The Welsh first eight is powerful, mobile and totally committed and features the impressive new form of Samson Lee who will no doubt put his opposite number Mike Ross under enormous pressure while veteran Gethin Jenkins will make sure that he makes it hard for Jack McGrath to stay honest.  Scrum for scrum I can’t help feeling that these two sides are equal, with some equal heavyweights holding them up.  The key will be the accuracy and ferocity at the breakdown and here I think Ireland just has the edge provided they are able to keep their discipline.

In the half back pairings, Wales are no slackers in the form of fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Rhys Webb who have shown much of the same electricity and pace that we have seen from their Irish counterparts Sexton and Murray.  However, the similarity stops there, they may be fast, particularly Webb and have a good kicking game, but when it comes down to split second accuracy and feel of how play is unfolding and how to act on it, Ireland’s Murray and Sexton are rapidly proving to be in a league of their own.  Murray’s superb kick under pressure to Irish centre Robbie Henshaw in the match against England was sublime and was definitely one of the tries of the tournament. Murray’s offloads in general are more accurate and when an offload is not on, he has shown time and again how effective he can be in making the hard yards for the rest of his pack to pick up on, and in this area he is clearly superior to Rhys Webb. Meanwhile, Sexton is rapidly proving to be one of the master tactician’s of the modern game and will no doubt provide Wales’ impressive Dan Biggar with a few valuable lessons this Saturday. As I say, this is not to detract from Biggar’s skill set and he has impressed me all tournament but Sexton’s vision is just that much better.

In the back line, Ireland and Wales are relatively evenly matched, but with the pedigree of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney in the backroom engine, Wales will have to work hard and Leigh Halfpenny will have a very busy afternoon as Kearney and Sexton provide him with a continuous aerial bombardment. Meanwhile the new Irish centrefield pairing of Henshaw and Payne continues to gel and Henshaw in particular is rapidly proving that Ireland’s concerns about the lack of a Brian O’Driscoll at centre is not quite the end of the world. As I have said, Henshaw is not and never will be O’Driscoll Mk II, they are very different players but as evidenced so far this tournament Ireland are adapting well to the skill set Henshaw gives them and are using it increasingly effectively. Meanwhile Simon Zebo on the wing is becoming much better at answering his defensive critics and when given quick ball and space to work with the guy has got pace – there is no question about it. However, Wales also have their strengths here even though George North perhaps has not had his best tournament on the wing for Wales. Nevertheless, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams have both proved that they are hungry for tries and have the results to show for it.

In short, as essentially two full strength sides match up against each other in a do or die match, I have a hunch we are perhaps in for the game of the tournament. When both of these teams get to play the game they want to play they have plenty of exciting rugby to offer, even though we have perhaps seen it less from the more cautious but devastatingly effective Irish. If you look at how these two teams match up for a potentially fast paced running game of rugby the odds are actually very good as they are relatively equal in strengths man for man. Ultimately though, I think Ireland will just out think the Welsh at the end of the day, and under such circumstances we have seen Wales cave in the last ten minutes. An exciting game in prospect for any rugby fan with huge amounts at stake for both sides. If I was to hedge my bets though despite me getting every prediction wrong for Round 3, I am going with Ireland taking this one by five points and a close contest all the way to the end.

England vs Scotland
Saturday, March 14th

Twickenham

The annual Calcutta Cup dustup between these two sees England at home at Twickenham and excited at the prospect of the return to the fold of the mighty Courtney Lawes. Meanwhile, Mike Brown returns at fullback despite him not necessarily having been one of the form men for England this tournament and I was surprised to see Alex Goode who filled this position against Ireland and who was one of the standout English players of the match not even getting a spot on the bench. Whether or not this indicates that England are feeling rather optimistic about this outing against Scotland remains to be seen. Many seem puzzled at times by English coach Stuart Lancaster’s selections, nevertheless despite the hiccough in Dublin, one would assume there is a master plan here.

Scotland come to this match with their Six Nations campaign all but over, and only some pride left to salvage. For many this has been a rough couple of weeks for the Scots as they came to the tournament with so much to offer and sadly despite some flashes of brilliance and some exceptional performances from fullback Stuart Hogg, there is little to show for all this promise. In a big pressure cooker match like this, expect to see the Achilles heel of Scottish rugby at the moment – discipline – trip them up on numerous occasions. England know this and their big forward pack will seek to force the Scots into one disciplinary mistake after another as Scottish frustration mounts.

Scotland’s main threats will come in the form of Johnny Gray and Blair Cowan being expected to cause England some grief, and Laidlaw’s boot to get the Scots out of trouble. Other than that apart from Stuart Hogg at fullback there is not too much of a threat for England to contain on Saturday. Saturday sees the return of Finn Russell for Scotland at fly half and although he has impressed at times his inexperience at this level will be evident for all to see when matched up against the continuing improvements and growing maturity of England’s George Ford.

Given Scotland’s defensive discipline problems expect to see some good running rugby with England’s danger man Jonathan Joseph leading the charge. If Scotland’s Johnny Gray and Blair Cowan can gain some good forward ball, and Laidlaw provide some quick offloads then we can all hope to see Scotland’s Stuart Hogg weave his magic as a Scottish reply to England’s running game. However, when it is all said and done, England should easily overpower Scotland in front of the Twickenham faithful. With the likes of Stuart Hogg on the park, it is unlikely to be a runaway scoreline for England and we should benefit from a few more tries in the match than we have seen in the general run of play so far in the Six Nations. Unless Ireland come seriously unstuck in Cardiff, England should easily remain well and truly in the hunt for Six Nations silverware by the final whistle.

Italy vs France
Sunday, March 15th
Rome

The last fixture of the weekend, sees Italy at home and brimming with confidence after their away win against Scotland.  The result will hopefully be another epic arm wrestle in Rome as the Azurri take on yet another rendition of a French team struggling to find some consistency. France go to Rome once again with coach Phillipe Saint-Andre chopping and changing, leading many to wonder if come the World Cup any French players will ever have played more than one game together.

One weak link in Italy’s armor has been the kicking duties performed by their New Zealand import at flyhalf, who quite frankly has failed to impress me all tournament.  Kelly Haimona had a truly awful outing at Murrayfield, and there was a big sigh of relief as he was replaced by Tommaso Allan who restored some semblance of order to the position.  With neither of these two available for duty this weekend due to injury scares, the task has fallen to Luciano Orquera who was instrumental in Italy’s impressive win against France in the Six Nations in Rome two years ago.  Although his goal kicking can sometimes be hit and miss (although I doubt it can be any worse than Haimona’s), he is better with opportunistic kicks into space than his Kiwi rival.  Although he has the odd shocker and his club team Zebre’s woeful performance in Europe would lead us to believe that not much will change for Italy in terms of their kicking game on Sunday, I must confess that whenever I have seen him in an Italian shirt Orquera seems to find another gear and has put in some stellar performances.  Let’s face it, with France’s Camille Lopez demonstrating some very sloppy footwork against Wales a fortnight ago, perhaps Italy shouldn’t feel too despondent in this area.

As of writing this, the Italian team had not been announced, coach Jacques Brunel obviously keeping his cards close to his chest.  What we should expect to see is essentially the same team that beat Scotland, led as always by Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse who in front of a home crowd will no doubt spur his teammates onto even greater heights than we saw at Murrayfield.  Some say that passion is fleeting and has no place on a rugby field, but after watching Parisse in this tournament I beg to differ.  The man is so inspirational in the way he keeps that passion alive for the full eighty minutes that I imagine quite a few of us would probably lace up a pair of boots and run onto the pitch if he asked us to, even if we weren’t Italian.  Italy’s back line has shown that they can score tries as well as think quickly, even if the finesse required is lacking at times.  Meanwhile their forwards have been consistent and superb in defence and certainly in Scotland tightened up their discipline.  In short this is not a bad Italian side – France in their current state should feel more than a little concerned.

As for the French, most of us are left scratching our heads as coach Saint-Andre makes some rather outlandish and very demoralising statements to the press about his players, while at the same time accepting no responsibility himself.  If you were a French player I imagine you would not be feeling all that motivated right now.  One of two things will happen in Rome on Sunday.  The first is that a written off French outfit will come storming out of the blocks and prove that they are still the world’s most dangerous underdogs as they seek to play as a French team of old despite the current coaching regime.  The second and in my opinion more likely scenario is that faced with a stable and established Italian side who have come to really believe in themselves in the last two weeks, France will struggle to execute a coherent game plan as 22 players suddenly thrown together try to figure out how to play away from home in front of a hysterical Italian crowd.

As always with these two teams, the score will be close, but I can’t help feeling that at home Italy will ultimately emerge the victor. I am not sure that given the frustration levels and animosity in the French camp between players and coaching staff, anything other than the French team making the statement that it is time for Saint-Andre to move on will be made, much to Italy’s advantage on the day. While I doubt that the French will let the Italians walk all over them, there are issues in this French team that are larger than the 80 minutes of rugby we will see on Sunday. Either way I doubt this is going to be a boring game and one which will leave us all with much to think about.

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
Murrayfield

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
Paris

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

Dublin

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!

It’s the halfway point of the Six Nations, and for many the meeting of England and Ireland in Dublin on Sunday is being seen as a potential Championship decider.  Meanwhile, the Italians travel to Murrayfield feeling more optimistic after their showing against England a fortnight ago.  Finally, Wales take on a French side that is slowly starting to build some momentum in front of a French crowd hungry for results and a much-needed boost to national pride.  There should be plenty of drama and intensity this weekend as the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby hierarchy for 2015 starts to take shape.

Fixtures this weekend

Scotland vs Italy
Saturday, February 28th
Murrayfield

Scotland enjoy the luxury of another home fixture this weekend ahead of a very tough trip to Twickenham.  Scottish fans are dying to see the promise shown by Scotland at the end of 2014 deliver some results in this year’s Six Nations.  While Scotland were impressive against France and Wales, in both instances these were games they should and could have won.  If anything despite the scoreline being as close as it was against Wales, Scotland seemed to take a step backwards when compared to their efforts against France a week earlier.  Their discipline let them down too many times, and Wales simply were more effective in taking the chances they were able to create.  Scotland created some good opportunities against Wales yet failed to capitalise on many of them.

Italy on the other hand, stepped up their game against England, and although the scoreline reflected a resounding English victory, there were many aspects of the Italian performance that were encouraging.  However, like Scotland it was discipline and a lack of finishing that ultimately let them down against England.  Nevertheless, expect this Italian side to once again prove problematic for Scotland, particularly if they can pressure them up front.  Furthermore, Italy’s defence if it keeps its discipline is hard to crack.

Where Scotland most likely have the edge over Italy is in the half back battle.  Although the dynamic if inexperienced Finn Russell is serving a two-week disciplinary ban after the match against Wales, Scotland are still able to call on the services of Peter Horne who along with Russell has been instrumental in Glasgow Warriors success in the European Champions Cup this year.  Match this up to the superb work rate of Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw who also supplies some great kicking support, and Scotland easily have a more stable platform than Italy.  Italy’s flyhalf Kelly Haimona has yet to impress this year and is still finding his feet in the Italian camp, whilst scrum half Edoardo Gori all too often lacks the finesse needed in the position.

In the back line, once again Scotland is boasting more pedigree overall than Italy can muster.  Stuart Hogg at fullback has shown he can be dangerous given space anywhere on the park. Alex Dunbar, Sean Lamont and Tommy Seymour have all shown that they have the capability to make the opposition gainline when given quick ball.  The question remains will Scotland’s back line make better use of the chances their forwards and half backs provide them than they did against Wales.  With a bit more composure and patience I would argue the answer is yes.  The Italians however, have also shown that they have some serious attacking flair and just as he was against England expect Italian centre Luca Morisi to be a serious danger man for the Scottish defence.

In the forward battle, I see there to be a fairly even contest between both sides.  The key here for both sides will be discipline.  In front of a noisy Scottish crowd, the pressure on the Italian forwards could all be too much and we have seen Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini lose his cool too often already in this tournament.  Ultimately whoever wins the battle of temperament and thus discipline in this match will emerge the victor, and on this occasion my money is comfortably on Scotland.  Expect a feisty challenge from the Italians and Scotland will have to work hard, but ultimately get the job done.  If Stuart Hogg and company can bag a few early tries, I’ll give this match to the Scots by 10 points.

France vs Wales
Saturday, February 28th

Paris

Despite the fact that France have often seemed to be floundering without ideas in recent months, as evidenced against Australia in November, this is a team that can get it right. Although their game against Ireland a fortnight ago was not particularly attractive, especially in the last twenty minutes and with the appearance of scrum half Morgan Parra, France seemed to gain a new sense of purpose and injection of energy. Some Gallic flair once more seemed to be creeping back into their game, rather than simply passing the ball to centre Mathieu Bastareaud and expect him to bullock his way through opposition defences on the off-chance that some of his other back line colleagues may seize an opportunity. France once more looked in the business of creating opportunities.

Wales will be more than aware of this, and no doubt endless debates will have been held in training sessions as to whether or not the sleeping giant that France can be is once more stirring. In the game against Scotland, Wales showed plenty of enterprise and executed some superb tries, with Jonathan Davies superlative effort being the killer blow. Expect more of the same. Given Wales’ intense physicality from all of their players, forwards and backs, France will not want to get bogged down in grinding battles at the breakdown. If they do, then the game is there for Wales to take. I very much doubt that France will let themselves get locked into such corners on Saturday, despite the efforts of Welsh fly half Dan Biggar to pin them into such contests. Wales have their own running game, and against Scotland looked much less one-dimensional in attack than they have of late. With the electric Rhys Webb at scrum half, expect Wales to cause France all kinds of problems on attack.

However, I can’t help feeling, based on the last twenty minutes of the Ireland/France game, that France have one or two big games in them this tournament and I have a suspicion that this will be one of them. In front of a home crowd, I expect to see a more composed Camille Lopez at fly half, making any Welsh indiscretion an easy three pointer as well as more confidence and reliability in his kicking game overall. In Dublin, Lopez seemed rattled and made too many uncharacteristic mistakes. French coach Philippe Saint-Andre whose head is on the chopping block for most of the French press, has wisely chosen to stick with the experienced Morgan Parra at scrum-half. Parra’s arrival at the sixty minute mark in Dublin, added an instant spark and diversity to the French attack that had been sorely lacking for the first three-quarters of the match. Once again expect more of the same.

If Wales are to win on Saturday in Paris, then their forwards will have to outplay their French counterparts and on paper I think Wales have the edge here. The battle of the half backs will be fascinating and will be a test of who has the cooler heads. Meanwhile, the Welsh back line has poise and experience up against a French back line that has pace and strength but perhaps lacks the gel that makes their Welsh counterparts work so effectively. If you are to look at this one on paper then you would be hedging a Welsh win. However, I am putting it down to passion and on the day I think France will suddenly reinvent themselves and surprise us all. It will be close, it will be tense and above all a fascinating encounter, but ultimately I can’t help feeling that the French will finally stand up and be counted as in days gone by. I may be wrong, but my heart is telling me France by two or three – either way let’s hope for a vintage performance from both sides.

Ireland vs England
Sunday, March 1st

Dublin

And so we come to the BIG ONE! The anticipation around this match has been growing since the beginning of the Championship. Ireland as defending champions face off against the only other unbeaten side and rivals for the Six Nations crown – England. Despite much criticism in the last year, England are finally looking the finished product heading into a World Cup on home soil. Of all the teams so far in the Championship, England have been the one who has impressed the most. Ireland has had two credible outings but have yet to really show us that they are capable of anything truly special, and the lack of tries against France a fortnight ago must be of some concern to Irish management, especially as they face an English back line containing a certain Jonathan Joseph.

Ireland are a good side and superbly coached, but so far in the Six Nations, it is the first time that we are perhaps seeing the absence of the O’Driscoll intelligence and magic in centrefield. As Ireland seek to find a centre pairing that works, they are up against an increasingly settled English back line with some real magic in the form of Jonathan Joseph. As of writing this, the Irish and English teams have yet to be announced, so the speculation for this match is even greater.

A serious concern to Ireland will be the absence of influential number 8, Jamie Heaslip after he fractured three vertebrae in the match against France. As of yet there is no word who will step in for him, meanwhile England will no doubt be fielding the superb Billy Vunipola who as we saw in the match against Italy will no doubt seek to make huge inroads into the Irish defensive lines. On paper I must say this English side looks good. Their forward prowess is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and Ireland will have to stand firm here. I thought the Irish scrum looked vulnerable at times in the match against France and they will have a serious challenge on their hands in the form of England. I expect the battle of the hookers to be ferocious, especially if it is England’s Dylan Hartley up against Ireland’s Cian Healy. Both these two are potential disciplinary time bombs. For Ireland, Mike Ross will have to hold up better than he did against France to avoid frustration creeping in and yellow cards being handed out in equal measure to Healy and Hartley. If it does come down to this though I still expect to see Dylan Hartley leading the charge on disciplinary lapses, despite many commending him for supposedly wearing his heart on his sleeve – like many others I just see it as a lack of discipline and big match temperament which may well serve Ireland well on the day.

If Ireland can contain the English forward juggernaut then their half back partnership of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray should get enough opportunities to create and find space for their back line. However, once again on paper England’s centrefield pairing is starting to look more polished than Ireland’s experimental efforts. In the back three, especially in the form of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney Ireland are equally the measure if not better than England, however Simon Zebo may be hard pressed by England. Nevertheless, with a sound tactical approach Ireland should be able to get the measure of England here, especially with Sexton directing the run of play.

So in short, Ireland will have to try to contain a rampaging and devastatingly effective English forward pack. Their half back partnership of Sexton/Murray should manage to outperform England’s George Ford and Ben Youngs, though I like most have been impressed with George Ford’s increasing ownership of the England 10 shirt with every outing and he has added an element of composure and control to England’s game that was rarely seen last year. In centrefield, England will be exceptionally dangerous and I would say easily have the edge over Ireland. If England’s Jonathan Joseph is not shut down for the full eighty minutes then it will be a very difficult day for Ireland. Under the high ball though I’ll give Ireland the edge through Bowe and Kearney. In conclusion, two sides almost at the top of their game, though I can’t help feeling that England is showing just a bit more polish and solidity than Ireland right now. As a result, an epic encounter awaits us that hopefully will have us all on the edge of our seats till the final whistle. As to who will emerge the winner, is almost impossible to call, but as much as the Irish supporter in me is riling at this call, I am afraid to say that I think England just may edge out Ireland on Sunday. For both sides this will be the biggest game they will play between now and the World Cup. England has the goods to get the job done – Ireland has the talent but it remains to be seen if they also have the brains to ultimately outthink one of the most daunting physical sides in International Rugby right now.

As this year’s Six Nations continues to heat up, England put in a huge performance at Twickenham, which left Italy in the dust, despite the Azurri having a much more successful attacking game than they did against Ireland.  The Irish meanwhile, as expected, engaged in a bruising battle with France in Dublin which was not exactly pleasant to watch and the fact that the injury lists for both sides are not higher than they are is nothing short of a miracle.  Finally, as predicted Scotland came charging out of the blocks at Murrayfield and almost caused the first upset of the tournament against the Welsh, but as against France a week earlier, costly lapses in discipline and some odd timekeeping on the part of the officials left the Scots once again empty-handed.

England vs Italy
Final Score – Eng 47/Ita 17
Twickenham

As predicted, England took it up another few gears in this match after initially being rattled by an enterprising and slightly more adventurous Italy than we saw in the match against Ireland.  Once England, found their feet in the match they were away and never took their foot off the gas for the full eighty minutes, giving themselves a healthy points difference over their nearest challenger for the crown, Ireland, and thus leaving them at the end of Round 2 sitting atop the Six Nations table.  England looked decidedly shaky in the first ten minutes of the match, but by the time the second half got underway, this was a composed and dominant English side.

As I thought last week, Italy were not to remain tryless in this match and took full advantage of England’s uncertainties in defence in the first five minutes and their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse went powering over the English white line, to put the first points on the board for Italy much to the surprise of a stunned Twickenham.  Italy failed to convert but kept the pressure up for the next ten minutes.  England were looking slightly flustered by the ferocity of the opening Italian attacks and Mike Brown sadly was a victim as he had to be stretchered off in an unfortunate collision with Andrea Masi.

England however, were looking increasingly confident, and slowly ramping up the intensity once they had dealt with their initial Italian surprise attack.  As he did in the game against Wales, George Ford quietly took control of the game, Ben Youngs expertly marshalled England’s devastating forward pack and despite some solid efforts by the Italians England steadily asserted themselves on the match.  As was expected, Billy Vunipola had an immense game for England and every time he got the ball this ferocious number 8 made solid yards for England and his efforts were rewarded with a superb try.

However, the star of the match for England was without question the superlative Jonathan Joseph, who after the injury to Mike Brown was moved from the wing to centre.  This did nothing to diminish his skills and brilliant running play.  As he did against Wales, the two tries he scored were mesmerizing to watch.  With Joseph anywhere in the back line England must surely feel confident that their misfiring back lines of last year are a thing of the past.

All was not lost for Italy as Parisse continued to have a superb game and the Italians always looked promising on attack especially when the ball ended up in the hands of Italian centre Luca Morisi who was a danger man all match, as evidenced by his superb two tries.  What let them down continually was lack of discipline particularly at the breakdown and fly half  Kelly Haimona having a poor day out with the boot.  Nevertheless, given that they were up against along with Ireland the best team in the competition, their two tries gave them a sense of respectability and a definite improvement on their performance against Ireland the week before.

England, had a great game and emerged the deserved winners by a mile.  However as they head into the championship decider with Ireland in Dublin, they will need to watch some of the slightly risky and downright adventurous play which against Italy they were lucky to get away with but against better sides they would have paid dearly.  Although it was impressive to watch, England will need to tighten up some areas of their game against a more tactically astute and better organised Ireland.

Ireland vs France
Final Score – Ire 18/Fra 11
Dublin

A game which was so highly anticipated but ultimately delivered so little in terms of spectacle was the case with this match. It was an often torrid and bruising affair, almost painful to watch at times, especially with Mathieu Bastareaud seemingly determined to target Jonathan Sexton. This resulted in numerous violent clashes between the two, leaving many Irish fans fearing that Sexton was in line for his fifth concussion within the space of a year. To Sexton’s credit, he was utterly heroic for the full eighty minutes and never once shirked from one of Bastareaud and company’s assaults. Furthermore, he kept calm under intense pressure and has he has done so often for Ireland, made all the right decisions and kept a hungry French side at bay. In a bruising encounter though, Ireland sadly lost the services of Jamie Heaslip at number eight which will be a serious concern as he will now miss the rest of the Championship. The foul on Heaslip by Pascal Pape was cynical and perhaps epitomised the rather aggressive and nasty nature of this game.

As I say, this was not a pleasant game to watch and once more Ireland in particular seemed reluctant to use space out wide and instead run the inside channels continuously where they met a consistent and ferocious French defence. Irish coach Joe Schmidt is a superb tactician and I was surprised to see once more that on several occasions with the French locked up tight in centre field and acres of space on the outside and few covering French defenders, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo getting little ball. I can perhaps understand given some of Zebo’s weaknesses in defence, but Tommy Bowe is playing some of the best rugby of his career both offensively and defensively and it is a shame that he is not getting more opportunities to showcase his skills.

Ireland have proved in the last year that they are masters of playing the error count and through the work of their forwards and the Sexton/Murray partnership are able to force their opponents to make more and more errors as the game progresses. While this may not be attractive rugby it has proven devastatingly effective. The first half was a scrappy affair with a lack of discipline from both sides and Ireland’s Mike Ross was not having a good game in the scrum. Nevertheless, Sexton made sure that any French indiscretion counted in Ireland’s favour. Given England’s superb forward power, what was worrying for Ireland was that they had many problems at scrum time with errors being made by both Ross and Rory Best and this will have to be seriously tightened up in the game against England. Furthermore, given England’s try fest against Italy this weekend, Ireland will be concerned that they were unable to cross the French white line, and the French try against them will only add salt to the wound. As I mentioned eariler there were opportunities out wide but Ireland seemed reluctant to use them. In centre field the Payne/Henshaw combination seemed to work well and Henshaw in particular made some superb carries, but it is obvious that Ireland is missing the O’Driscoll magic of finding space where there is seemingly none.

In the last quarter, France brought on Morgan Parra at scrum half in place of Rory Kockott, and Parra’s immediate impact on the game was clear for all to see, leaving many wondering why French coach Saint-Andre didn’t start him in the first place. France were certainly the more adventurous in the last quarter of the game and their scrum was steadily starting to push Ireland around the park. French replacement Romain Taofifenua’s superb try with nine minutes to go, suddenly changed the whole nature of the game. Had France’s normally reliable Camille Lopez, not had a slightly off day with the boot then the match would probably have ended in a draw as the French maintained consistent pressure to the final whistle.

For Irish fans, the last ten minutes were nail biting to say the least as the French had their tails up and dominated possession. However on the stroke of eighty minutes, Simon Zebo answered his defensive critics and hauled Remi Tales into touch. It was tight and tense but ultimately Ireland were the better side defensively and tactically and did enough to hold on. They now have to ramp up their game another couple of notches if they are to stand any chance against England. They have the depth and the brains it remains to be seen if they have the skill set to match England’s in a fortnight’s time. A Six Nations classic is in the making!

Scotland vs Wales
Final Score – Sco 23/Wal 26

Murrayfield

As predicted, this was a superb match full of tension and some superb running rugby from both sides.  For Scotland, who are continuing their rejuvenation, it was once again a lack of discipline that cost them a game that they could easily have won.  Given the enormous progress Scotland have made in the last six months, they surely must fix this aspect of their game on their next outing.  If not, then I fear that Scotland will slip back into duking it out with Italy for the wooden spoon, which would not be reflective of how far they have come under coach Vern Cotter and what they are capable of.

So yes, I got this one wrong as I predicted that this is where Scotland would cause the upset of the tournament, and let’s be honest they almost did.  Despite the fact that they lost, they were probably the most exciting team along with England to watch this past weekend.  Inventive, committed and not afraid to run the ball, a Scottish game is now always an entertaining fixture.  With some exciting young players showing some serious skills despite an obvious lack of big game experience and discipline, Scotland is developing well in a World Cup year and expect them to get better and better with every outing provided they can fix their discipline.

While not meaning to harp on about it, but Scotland’s discipline was inexcusable in this match.  The handbags at sunset incident in the dying seconds of the game which wasted precious seconds which had already been compromised by some slightly bizarre timekeeping by the officials killed Scotland at the end of the match, especially when they were gaining some ascendancy which could have won them the game in the last five minutes.  Add to this Scotland not taking some key opportunities out wide, and ultimately the match was theirs to lose.  Wales were more disciplined and made better use of the chances they were given.

Nevertheless, we were provided with an exciting contest and Scotland can take heart from some superb running by fullback Stuart Hogg who had a superb game.  Furthermore, although lacking in discipline, fly half Finn Russell is a definite newcomer to watch in the future for Scotland.  Lastly, although it leaked a vital try and lacked discipline at times, Scotland’s defense in the game as a whole was superb.

As for Wales, all their players played to the level expected of them and it was a solid performance that was more composed and structured than the one against England the week before.  Furthermore, Wales seemed to withstand Scottish pressure for the full match and their post 70 minutes fatigue which we see all too often from the Men in Red was refreshingly absent in this match.  They were the better side despite getting some serious scares from a Scottish team desperate to show that Scottish Grand Slams of the 1980s were not simply the stuff of legends and ancient history.

Thrills and spills galore this past weekend as one of the most anticipated Six Nations in many a year got underway.  England started the show with a barnstorming display in Cardiff that shattered Welsh hearts.  Ireland meanwhile made a cautious but effective start to their campaign in Rome and gave some new players a chance to shine.  Finally, France struggled past a very determined and exciting Scottish side in Paris, leading many to think that on home soil this new look Scottish team is set to cause some upsets.

Wales vs England
Final Score – Wal 16/Eng 21
Cardiff

Finally English fans got a look at what the finished product might look like as the Men in White head into the World Cup.  What was significant about England’s victory in Wales was that despite a continuing injury list, the English forward pack continued to be the unit to overcome in this year’s Six Nations, and what’s more this was coupled to a backline that really started to fire and show the promise that was so evident all last year.  As for Wales, they didn’t necessarily play badly, and indeed took the game by the horns in the first twenty minutes, however as we saw throughout last year they failed to close out big games and for much of the last fifteen minutes looked out of ideas and dead on their feet.  Unless this is fixed Wales’ efforts will continue to stall, and the current acid atmosphere that seems to be developing between coach Warren Gatland and the players will only make this worse.  We’ve all seen how badly player/coaching relationships can effect a national side, Australia and France have given us plenty of reference material on that subject in the last year.

The sense of spectacle for this game started right from the get go, with the English players refusing to head out onto the pitch and wait for the home team to make their appearance in the rather frigid temperatures.  This added an element of tension to an already significant pressure cooker.  Once the whistle blew the game was off to a flying start courtesy of the home team, with the ever impressive Rhys Webb being in just the right place as Faletau broke away from a Welsh scrum and handed him a perfect pass to get Wales across the white line within the first seven minutes.  The cracker of a match that we were all anticipating was already off to a flying start and Halfpenny effortlessly converted to put Wales 10-0 ahead. Exactly seven minutes later, England replied with some brilliant quick thinking of their own as Mike Brown found some form and chipped an excellent grubber through for winger Anthony Watson to pounce on and England were right back in the hunt.  George Ford who would excel throughout the course of the match unfortunately just missed the conversion but England from then on would slowly strangle Wales to ultimately lay down a marker for the rest of the Championship and walk away the winners.

Wales were competitive for the first three quarters but it was obvious that constantly having to fend off a rampaging and unstoppable English pack with James Haskell in particular playing the game of his life, ultimately took its toll so that by the last fifteen minutes, Wales were bereft of ideas and energy.  As we saw against Australia in November, England’s forward pack is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and surely striking fear into not only the other Six Nations contenders, but also the Southern Hemisphere’s big four as they prepare for the World Cup.  The absence of the superb Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the English pack as they utterly dominated their Welsh counterparts both on attack and defence.

As mentioned above, what perhaps was even more noticeable than the English forward performance, which we all expected to be significant anyway, was the fact that with the superb efforts of Ben Youngs at scrum half and George Ford at fly half, the English back five really came into their own.  Despite a few mistakes, Mike Brown at fullback had a much more assured outing than several of his end of year perfomances.  Meanwhile, Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph had a superb centre partnership, with Joseph scoring THE try of the match and displaying some breathtaking footwork as he danced his way through numerous stunned Welsh defenders in the second half.  Finally, as I have said in previous scribblings on this site, for me the choice for England at fly half should now be cast in stone – George Ford.  Despite his lack of Test caps, Ford is rock solid in big pressure matches like this one.  It is obvious that he already has the unanimous respect of his fellow teammates.  If England are serious about challenging for World Cup silverware come the Autumn, then every effort should be given to ensure that Ford has as much big game time as possible between now and September.  The debate around Farrell vs Ford should surely be put to rest.  Ford has earned his stripes, has the match temperament and skill set to go with it and surely should now be England’s first choice number 10.  If Stuart Lancaster and the English management choose to revisit this debate then they will only seriously jeopardise England’s chances come the autumn.

Wales on the other hand are faced with some serious questions as they head north of Hadrian’s Wall this weekend, to face a rapidly improving and hungry Scottish side.  As I have written in these pages last year, Wales still lack the ability to finish big games, only really playing 70 minutes of top level Test rugby on every outing.  If they can’t close out big games in front of their adoring fans, I doubt they will be able to do so on the road in the coming weeks.  Furthermore, although they have plenty of talent, they seem to be a tad predictable in attack and rely far too much on Halfpenny making it easy for opposing teams to start to see patterns in the Welsh game plan that are then fairly straightforward to dismantle.  The tag of one-dimensional and predictable is increasingly being levelled at Wales, and I won’t disagree.  The brilliance shown in their opening try was then absent for the rest of the match.  Couple this with some questionable fitness levels, as Wales looked exhausted after 70 minutes and Wales lost a game that on paper they should have won.  Ignoring the fact that the Welsh medical staff missed an obvious concussion to George North, coach Gatland and his charges and management have an uphill battle in the next few days.  Given the acid atmosphere in the Welsh changing room after the match between Gatland and his players, February could end up being a cold month for Wales.

Italy vs Ireland
Final Score – Ita 3/Ire 26
Rome

As predicted, Ireland got their campaign off to a slow start in a gritty encounter in Rome. Nevertheless, although Ireland were perhaps cautious they did enough to keep Italy in check and emerge with a healthy 23 point difference which may serve them well should the Championship come down to this in its closing stages, especially with their main rivals England starting to look very dangerous.

What was positive for Ireland however, was an assured performance by Munster fly-half Ian Keatley in his first Six Nations outing. The young fly-half controlled Ireland’s game well and given his lack of experience at this level wisely chose a cautious path against an occasionally adventurous Italian team. In addition, in one of the talking points of the first round of the Six Nations, Tommy O’Donnell was called in literally minutes before the match as a replacement for star flanker Sean O’Brien who injured a hamstring in the warm-up. O’Donnell went on to play a spectacular game and as icing on the cake scored his first Six Nations try. O’Donnell put up his hand and was counted and then some, showing a superb work rate and exemplifying the speed and tenacity that Ireland have now become synonymous with at the breakdown. Ireland now have two world class number 7s – the growth in depth of the Irish squad grows apace.

As predicted last week, the first half was a war of attrition. Ireland could probably have had at least one or two tries on the board by the end of the first forty minutes, but there seemed a genuine reluctance to spread the ball wide and instead run the ball through the centre channels where it was ground down by a steadfast and very workable Italian defence. All credit to Ireland’s new centre pairing of Jared Payne and the man tipped to replace the legendary O’Driscoll, Robbie Henshaw. Henshaw and Payne resolutely charged through the midfield and were constantly looking for space. However, you could tell that Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo were feeling increasingly lonely on the wings. Italy didn’t play badly per se, and led by their incomparable Captain Sergio Parisse at number eight, they were often superb defensively as they showed against the Springboks in November. However, although enterprising at times their attacks lacked finesse and were often error strewn along with some questionable decision making. The second half saw Ireland comfortably take charge of the match after leading 9-3 at the break. Nevertheless, Italy continually thwarted their efforts till the last quarter of the game, where increasing indiscipline saw them go to fourteen men after hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was yellow carded. Irish scrum half Conor Murray expertly marshalling his forwards seized the day and crashed over for Ireland’s first try. Two minutes later, Tommy O’Donnell went charging off to score Ireland’s second try. From there despite a stoic Italian defence that withstood a continuous Irish onslaught, the game was a lost cause for the Italians and the Irish emerged deserved if cautious winners.

Ireland were impressive once they really put the heat on the Italians in the last quarter of the match, and I am sure most Irish fans are putting the first half down to a case of Ireland and Joe Schmidt settling the nerves as they gave some of the newer caps some big match experience.  As the game wore on, Ireland became increasingly confident and the tempo of the game picked up dramatically and we saw much more of the Ireland we had come accustomed to seeing last year, inventive in attack, solid defensively and ferocious at the breakdown with Conor Murray providing quick ball to his teammates.  It is this momentum that Ireland will need to carry forward into the game against France this weekend if they are to set the pace for the rest of their Six Nations campaign.  With the return to the fold of stalwarts such as Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton coupled with some serious tactical thinking by Joe Schmidt, Ireland should be on course to achieve this.

Italy meanwhile, can take heart in some heroic defence and the fact that despite the scoreline, they are a very hard team to crack defensively.  While their attacking flair seems to mainly centre around Sergio Parisse, if they can improve their discipline and open up play around Parisse, they will still cause the other Six Nations teams all kinds of headaches, and as always a fixture against Italy is no pushover.  Nevertheless, despite some serious commitment I fear Italy will comfortably take the wooden spoon this year unless there is an improvement in their offensive skills, especially as some of their more senior players are nearing the end of their tenure.

France vs Scotland
Final Score – Fra 15/Sco 8
Paris

In a match that offered plenty of excitement, Scottish hearts were ultimately broken despite some very high quality play from a Scottish team that looks better and better every outing. France on the other hand did enough to get the job done, but in a manner that failed to capture the imagination or leave anyone with the impression that this is a French team of old. Let’s face it had it not been for the boot of French fly half Camille Lopez who had an excellent game and a lack of Scottish discipline in the last quarter, Scotland most likely would have caused the first upset of the tournament especially as they were the only side to score a try.

Scotland looked the more dangerous side all match, and this coupled with some sterling defence meant that France had to work exceptionally hard to eke out a win. In the end France did what was necessary to contain the Scots and force them into making errors and costly disciplinary mistakes, but there was very little if any French flair on hand to marvel at. In short, France played a boring but effective game of rugby. They did enough to get the win, but against stronger sides such as England and Ireland, they will have to work a great deal harder and show much more imagination than they did this Saturday in Paris. If it were not for the boot of Camille Lopez and some sound tactical decisions on his part as mentioned above, Scotland would have put the French to the sword. Defensively France were good enough though not spectacular and on attack there didn’t really seem to be much of a game plan other than feeding the ball to the battering ram of a centre Mathieu Bastareaud and hope that one of his bullocking charges would make enough ground for some other enterprising French player to take advantage of. To beat England or Ireland France will need to have much more of a game plan than this.

For Scotland, however despite the loss there is much to take heart from this past weekend. Their backline, particularly in the form of the superb Stuart Hogg at fullback were electric at times. Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw was a terrier at the rucks and mauls though sadly unlucky with the boot this match. The game’s only try which saw Scotland swing the ball from one side of the French 22 to the other on the back of some truly superb passing was a pleasure to watch. Despite some disciplinary lapses and basic mistakes as the French ground down the Scots in the second half, Scotland looked good and I am sure that Vern Cotter will be working hard with his charges to fix this in the week leading up to the match with a wounded Welsh side in front of a fervent Scottish crowd. While Scotland at times took their game to another level, France rarely looked as though they would elevate themselves beyond grinding out a laboured win. In the end they got the job done, but France do not look like a team on fire or likely to create any magic moments in the coming weeks, and on the basis of this match it is Scotland who people will want to watch.

Fixtures this weekend

England vs Italy
Saturday, February 14th
Twickenham

This match should be a foregone conclusion on the basis of England’s performance in Wales. With a side brimming with confidence and combinations now clicking nicely across the park, England should be able to keep Italy out of the running for much of the match. On the other hand, Italy’s defence will cause England some problems despite their formidable forward strength. However, I can’t see Italy being able to hold out for long against the white juggernaut. As in the Ireland/Italy game, expect a tight first quarter, but once the English start unlocking the Italian defence,  we should see the scoreboard start to tick over at a fairly consistent rate in England’s favour. Italy most likely will score more than the three points they managed against Ireland, but England should score double the number of tries that Ireland scored. In front of a home crowd expect to see England emerge comfortable winners and their backline ensure that England rack up a healthy scoreline and not just through the boot of George Ford.

Ireland vs France
Saturday, February 14th
Dublin

All eyes will be on Dublin on Saturday, as Ireland look set to really make their statement of intent for this Six Nations campaign. With the return to service of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien, this will be a full strength Irish side. While they scored a comfortable win in Italy, they will need to take their game to another level this weekend especially if they want to entertain hopes of beating the English powerhouse at the beginning of next month.

France on the other hand remain the question mark they always are. However, based on last week’s performance I can’t help feeling that they will ramp up their game but not enough to dispatch a well disciplined and tactically astute Ireland in front of a home crowd. I may be wrong but I can’t help feeling that this is Ireland’s game to win. France certainly didn’t look like they had any surprises up their sleeve last weekend whereas Ireland did. Whereas France were able to force Scotland into costly mistakes at the breakdown last weekend, I expect Ireland to turn the tables on them in that department this weekend and it will be the French who will start to show cracks in their discipline under a ferocious Irish onslaught. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown is becoming legendary, and in their present form I do not see France able to counter this for a full eighty minutes. It may be close, it will certainly be exciting but ultimately Ireland should emerge the winners in Dublin on Saturday. In a battle of two of the best fly halves in the International game, Ireland should have the edge as they have a more complete and structured team.

Scotland vs Wales
Sunday, February 15th.
Edinburgh

As I did last week, I am going to stick my neck out on this one and once again call the odds and say that Scotland will cause an upset this weekend. Although they were close to pulling it off last week but fell short, this weekend could be different. Scottish coach Vern Cotter has done wonders with this Scottish team, and they are a hungry, talented and cohesive group of individuals. In front of a home crowd, provided they don’t let the moment overwhelm them and they tighten up the weak points in their game seen in Paris, I can’t help feeling this game is Scotland’s for the taking.

Wales are a wounded beast and thus extremely dangerous with everything to prove. However, in front a rapturous Scottish crowd they will be facing the same intimidating atmosphere they tried to provide their English visitors with last weekend. With players and coaching staff seeming to be out of sync on the communications front, Wales will have to dig deep to overcome Scotland. If Scotland can open up Wales early on then and keep the pressure on for the full eighty minutes, the crisis in Welsh confidence will no doubt leave Wales out of ideas and energy once more by the 70 minute mark. If Wales have to chase or close out the game in the last ten minutes then their track record speaks for itself – it doesn’t look good.

Make no mistake, I think this will be an incredibly close game, but ultimately Scotland may just have the edge on the Welsh, especially if in front of a home crowd they elevate their game to another level from that which lit up the field at times in Paris last weekend. I may be wrong but I stick with an upset here – Scotland are up for this one and they have the talent and skill set to pull it off.