England narrowly triumph in Rome while Scotland slip

This weekend saw one of the most pulsating Six Nations games in recent years alongside one of the worst. While Scotland grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory, England ping-ponged their way to a 17-12 victory in Rome. France further established their title credentials with the slick dismantling of Irish hopes for a second consecutive Grand Slam.

The Scots quite frankly embarrassed the Welsh in racing into their 18-9 half-time lead in the first game of the weekend. Wales’ one-on-one tackling and lineout were shocking. On the other hand, Dan Parks controlled the game beautifully. John Barclay marched through Gareth Cooper and James Hook to score in the 10th minute, before Max Evans collected Park’s grubber to capitalise on Lee Byrne’s lethargy in covering across. Sean Lamont then had the opportunity to finish the game early in the second half. He lacked precision. His forward pass to Kelly Brown meant the referee called the celebrating Scots back.

Shane Williams then stole the show. First he sped past Lamont before showing him how to execute the two-on-one. Byrne went over in the corner. Arguably his best moment was actually keeping Wales in the game. As Parks’ cross-kick came down from the heavens, Super Shane leapt disbelievingly high to steal the ball away from the waiting Kelly Brown and Rory Lamont. Last week undone by 17 points due to indiscipline, this week the Welsh benefitted from 17. After Scott Lawson was carded for impeding Richie Rees at the breakdown, Shane got away again – this time from Phil Godman. Leigh Halfpenny took the scoring pass.

24-21 down with less than a minute to go, the referee adjudged Godman to have tripped Byrne as the latter looked to chip and chase. The Millennium Stadium bayed for blood. George Clancy delivered. Ryan Jones then faced a crucial decision. Kick the three points and at least draw the game, or scrum and go for the win – a win that would keep alive their Championship hopes. Stephen Jones, who after the game admitted he wanted Captain Ryan to scrum, slotted the goal with eleven seconds remaining.

By the time the Scots ambled up to the halfway line the clock showed red. Kicking the ball into touch would end the game. The referee can only continue the game after the 80 minutes are up if an infringement results in a penalty to either side. Mike Blair, no doubt entirely mentally drained by this point, kicked straight to Lee Byrne. The Welsh now swarmed upon the 13 Scottish defenders. As we screamed at Stephen Jones to exploit the overlap he went for the cross-kick instead. Luck was very much on his side. The bouncing ball deceived Sean Lamont, falling into Lee Byrne’s arms. Several phases on, Shane slowed (one day I swear he’ll get caught) before swan diving over the try line for a quite remarkable turnaround.

France v Ireland, the game which many considered the most mouth-watering of the weekend, faced a hard task to replicate the excitement in Cardiff. A bright start by the Irish ended when the ball failed to sit up for Gordon D’Arcy following his superb solo-effort. The French now took over. They ascended in almost every position. Morgan Parra and his half-back partner François Trinh-Duc ran riot. Yannick Jauzion looked like the world-beater he once was. Imanol Harinordoquy played like the one he is. They were truly irresistible. William Servat scored the first, Jauzion the second.

This week Jerry Flannery took Alun-Wyn Jones’ tripping of Dylan Hartley a tad further. He really did properly “Cantona” Alexis Palisson. No yellow, no red. Talk about refereeing inconsistencies. In the end it made little difference as “Les Bleus” added to their 17-3 half-time lead. The born again Mathieu Bastareaud held off the flailing arms of Brian O’Driscoll to release Clément Poitrenaud to score the decisive try. By the time the Irish did achieve a try – well-worked between Stephen Ferris, BOD and finally David Wallace – it was already game over. The Irish had been quite simply blown away.

For all Marc Lièvremont’s chopping and changing he is now employing some consistency. The flourishing partnership of the “petite generale” Parra and the exciting Trinh-Duc is worth pursuing. The devastating efficiency of the French back-row and the gain-line breaking midfield partnership guarantees quick ball for these two youngsters (Parra is 21, Trinh-Duc is 23). Supported by a formidable scrum and an insurmountable lineout they simply could not ask for a better platform from which to play off. The French look ominous for “Le Grand Chelem”. Surely they won’t self-destruct? Will they?

England remain the only other unbeaten side following a laboured victory over the Azzurri. They can take few positives from the game, no matter how much Borthwick pleads otherwise. It really was soporific stuff Steve! England, on Sunday at least, returned to the prescriptive rugby of the autumn. Faced with a ragged defensive line and great yards of green within which to manoeuvre, the ball was simply ping-ponged between the excellent Luke McLean (an Italian bloke) and Jonny and his gang. The Italians loved it. They reduced England to a fringes game. Alessandro Zanni was awesome, so too was “Castro”. Despite giving England a man advantage – which they ignored anyway – Martin Castrogiovanni successfully combined his propping duties with those of a destructive flanker.

Barring Matthew Tait’s try, England solely managed individual breaks. Had Christophe Berdos not been so generous to Lewis Moody when he took McLean out in the air, it could have been very different. Though the Italians never really looked like crossing the try line, they pressed hard and won a number of kickable penalties. Mirco Bergamasco poked the ball through the sticks on four occasions. Going into the final few minutes, England fans feared he might dare to do it again. In the end the chance never came, and the result was effectively sealed when Wilkinson dropped a goal. We should not give the Italians too much credit though. They don’t have a back-line, and was it not for their opposition’s entirely inept performance they probably would have been slaughtered. The Italian Federation must ensure Treviso and Viadana join the Magners League to allow their players to experience top flight rugby week-in, week-out.

Sad news this weekend was the spate of injuries suffered by Scotland. Chris Patterson, Rory Lamont and Thom Evans have all been ruled out the rest of the tournament. Particularly worrying was Evans’ back injury. He has undergone surgery and is now able to move his limbs. We just hope this is not a career (or life!) debilitating injury. The Scots were desperately unlucky to taste defeat in Cardiff, and now face Italy when the Six Nations resumes in a fortnight. Brian O’Driscoll described defeat in Paris “a reality check”. The Irish are not the only ones who need one. Steve Borthwick and his men dare not kick down the throats of O’Driscoll, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney (if he’s fit). Wales open the weekend with an 8pm kick-off against France on the Friday night. The organisers have not been kind to the thousands of fans who will be travelling along the M4 in the middle of the night after the game. It’s not all bad though. Keep your eyes peeled and you might even catch a glimpse of Andy Powell at Junction 33…


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