Well, another compelling weekend of Six Nations rugby! Plenty of controversy and talking points as always but perhaps more astounding was that I predicted all three winners! I now have six correct predictions from the eight games played for an impressive 75% success rate. Given my previous poor history of predictions then this represents something of a moral victory for yours truly.
And for those of you who read my Blog for Week 3, then I wasn’t too far away in my thoughts as to how all three games would unfold! So let the arguments commence (I’ve a feeling there may be one or two more comments than usual following this weeks blog…..!!!!).
So the opening game of the weekend was in Dublin where Ireland rather ran away with things in the second half following another plucky first half display from the Italians. The Irish backs reveled in the lack of physical intimidation coming from their opposite numbers with Messrs Earls, Trimble and Bowe all getting on the score sheet. I did suggest beforehand that much interest would again focus on the display of the Italian Number 10 and I think it’s fair to say that Botes didn’t convince that he was a saviour to their ills in the position. It would be a little foolhardy to suggest that his missed kicks had a massive impact on the final result but they certainly didn’t help the Azzurri gain any scoreboard momentum. Parisse was again irresistible but I have to say once more, why isn’t McLean getting a run at 10? Ireland had to endure some nervous moments before half time but once they got their early second half try it was game over against the rather one paced visitors. However we didn’t learn anymore about the ability of the Irish backs to counter more physical sides or whether the balance in the back row is really right. However an Irish friend of mine thinks he has the answer to both problems. “It’s simple Gar, we’re going to play Ferris in the centre and D’arcy in the back row from now on…”
Sunday at Murrayfield was an intriguing match up. In last weeks Blog I suggested that the Scots would come rampaging out of the blocks and try to put France out of their stride. If they could do this then we may learn what Saint-Andre’s Bleus are all about. Well at 10-0 it certainly seemed as though the home crowd might be witnessing the building blocks to a first win in four games. But it was to be short lived as the French regained their composure to roar back. Even when the Scots got 17-13 up after an hour, the speed of the French response indicated that this is a side confident it has extra gears to go through if needed. It seemed to me that France felt that they could do enough without really having to get their full repertoire out whilst the Scots will rue the fact that they couldn’t build on their short lived leads on the score board. The Scots can still take heart from their performance but they remain in the unwanted land of plucky losers. France? Well they just look in a good place and whoever gets on the end of a full 80 minute performance from Les Bleus is going to have a long afternoon.
Without doubt the focus of the weekend was Saturday’s game at Twickenham. This was a ferocious encounter with raw physicality on display from both sides. England certainly looked better for the changes in their selection whilst Wales got stronger as the game moved into it’s latter stages. The opening quarter was all Wales and they will know that they should have scored with their first attack. North streaked away from a lineout only to be stopped by a despairing tap tackle by Strettle. It is a credit to England’s new found togetherness that they not only stopped Wales from getting on the score board in that opening onslaught but that they had the belief and composure to work their way back into the match. Led by the robust power of Botha, Robshaw and Tuilagi and the composure of Farrell they dominated the second quarter and a 9-6 lead was well earned by the home side.
In last weeks Blog I stated that I expected the game to be close with Wales doing enough in the final quarter to win. Following the game I think that is a fair epitaph to an absorbing contest. Wales were needlessly reduced to 14 men (through their own making) and whilst we expected the home side to gain the upper hand the sin bin in fact galvanised the Welsh effort. The stats say that they held possession for around 8 minutes of the 10 whilst Priestland was off the field and with that “mini game within a game” ending 3-3, it was Wales who then had the belief to go on and win the game. This was a big psychological turning point in the match. Some questionable substitutions by the England coaches (Dickson taken off exactly on 60 minutes to be replaced by a clearly out of sorts Youngs had the feeling of the prescribed decision rather than the instinctive about it) also seemed to rob the home side of cohesion as none of the English replacements made a positive contribution. A superb piece of individual skill from Scott Williams in stripping the ball from substitute Lawes (who didn’t seem match sharp following his introduction) before then kicking and re-gathering to score (I must apologise to all those present in the members bar at PGRFC for my uncontrolled outburst as Scott slid in for his try…) atoned for his earlier howling mistake not to use a two man overlap only minutes before. The score put Wales ahead for the first time in the match with only four minutes to play but it is to the home side’s credit that the game wasn’t allowed to peter out under a deluge of pick and goes as we often see in the latter stages of many tight games.
The last play perhaps sums up where the new look England team currently stands in its development. My take on it is quite simple. Strettle should have finished the move without the need for any TMO intervention. If the passing had been crisper (again why was Brown introduced from the bench with only two minutes remaining to then have to give such an important pass..) and the run to the line was for the corner rather than arcing back towards the cover defence, then even the desperate Welsh scramble defence would have proved redundant. If the boot had been on the other foot then it is doubtful that the Welsh wingers would have passed up such a clear opportunity. International rugby comes down to fine margins. The TMO rightly concluded the video evidence was inconclusive but from the home fans perspective he shouldn’t have been needed to be called upon.
Both teams will take a lot of positives out of such a game. England will have the belief that they are on track and that the majority of their selections are proving correct. It will also allow the players and management alike to know that whilst the basics are in place there is much to do to move from the competitive to the dominant.
For Wales a first Triple Crown secured at HQ will give this young team great belief after a number of high profile close defeats. With two home games left, it is going to take a good team to stop them from winning a third grand slam in eight seasons.
So with the rearranged game between France and Ireland being played this Sunday (yes the Irish fans were no doubt ecstatic with the rescheduling) we are down to two unbeaten sides. I expect that to still be the situation after this weekend with France just edging past a spirited Ireland. There is little to choose up front but a good big “un” invariably beats a good little “un” and the French backs have a full set of good big “uns”.