French finally fall upon inevitable Grand Slam

“They played like France and we played like England”. That was the view of Morgan Parra after the final game of the weekend. This was not the fan fair to glory that Les Bleus had anticipated. England have a history of defeating the French when they’re not supposed to. When Lièvremont and co. saw Jonny Wilkinson stride onto the field as a late substitute and then strike the most monstrous of penalty goals, they feared another coq-up might be on the cards. This is exactly what MJ had planned: “Le Wilko” has been a right pain in la derrière in recent meetings between the two sides. Unfortunately, the French had just enough nous about them. They suffocated England at the scrum (denting Dan Coles burgeoning international career – he’ll be back), winning eleven penalties and free kicks by half-time. This gave them nine points. Once ahead they had little intention of playing any rugby. And fair play to them – the conditions were atrocious. Instead they kicked the ball deep into England’s half and waited for the inevitable handling errors. In the end it was successful, but only just. England created numerous opportunities in the face of a faltering French defence – Francois Trinh-Duc was particularly generous. Martin Johnson will look back on this game and wonder what could have been.

On the counter-attack, the back-three of Mark Cueto, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden were a constant threat. With the English backroom staff under pressure, Johnson lavished praise upon them, crediting John Wells in particular for developing the attacking game plan. This was to isolate Mathieu Bastareaud as he rushed out of defence by using quick hands to ship the ball on and attack the hole the big brute had left in the French defence. With just five minutes gone, Ashton took the hit and Foden dived over in the corner. This was Gallic rugby at its best. Toby Flood was providing the back-line with a first-receiver moving forward from a relatively flat position ensuring England got over the game line time and time again. He also had a battering ram of a target in the midfield – a resurgent Mike Tindall. With youthful exuberance all around him, it is a shame that Tindall does not have time on his side such was the promise that this back-line offered. It was in fact the old veteran who released Ashton for his balls-up when he inexplicably kicked ahead with runners either side of him. On such moments are games won and lost. With Brian Moore losing his rocker (again), France held on to clinch their much-deserved Grand Slam. It wasn’t pretty though, but I suppose that is the English way and on Saturday evening the victors were firmly Anglo-Saxon.

Ireland’s farewell party at Croke Park was ransacked by Scotland this weekend. Ireland were supposed to secure the Triple Crown to mark a relatively successful season. Instead sharks will bite as serious questions are asked about the credentials of this Irish pack. Scotland crippled the Irish machine by starving it of secure ball. Jim Hamilton and Alastair Kellock were instrumental: Scotland won seven out of seventeen Irish line-outs. Paul O’Connell has rarely been so embarrassed. Euan Murray was equally destructive at tight-head. It has been the prominence of the ‘Killer Bs’ – Brown, Barclay and Beattie – though which has so marked the development of the Scottish side this season. There are few more efficiently gelled back-rows in world rugby. It was Johnnie Beattie who crashed through numerous tackles for Scotland’s try. Much credit must also be given to Dan Parks who displayed a textbook kicking show. Not only did he land a huge penalty from the touchline to win the game, but his kicking out of hand was expert too. Indeed, it was his punt deep into Irish territory which put Rob Kearney under such pressure that Scotland were handed a game-defining shot at goal. A few months ago Dan Parks did not even make the group of forty-plus players that Andy Robinson selected for pre-season training. Three man of the match performances later and things look oh so different. Suddenly, the Cardiff Blues have just signed the best fly-half in the Northern Hemisphere!

Ireland are perhaps not quite what we thought they were then, or were they just overawed by Croker’s final fling? That is what Stephen Ferris suggested anyway. They did make a good start though. Jonny Sexton’s beautiful break and pass sent Brian O’Driscoll over the try-line. But then the cracks started to show. Ireland could not secure quick ball and could only rely on Sexton’s attempts at goal. Unfortunately, despite his undoubted qualities, he is no Ronan O’Gara when it comes to consistency from the kicking tee. He has only knocked over six of fifteen attempts this tournament – not good enough. When the chips are down, you need a reliable kicker to keep you in the lead. Scotland had that; Ireland had it on the bench in the form of O’Gara. By the time the Munster man jogged onto the field his side were 17-10 down. Yet any team which has the best finisher in Europe in its ranks should not be counted out prematurely. It was that man Tommy Bowe who forced his way over to give O’Gara the chance to level the game 17-17. Parks and O’Gara traded points once more before a good Scottish chase following Parks’ punt meant Kearney was pinged for holding on. The Irish supporters, usually so silent when opposition kickers line up a shot at goal, desperately wailed and whistled to no avail as Parks stepped up to seal the game from the most unhelpful of angles.

Wales against Italy was a dead-game. Italy had already achieved their token victory (they were not to expect a Scottish win in Dublin later in the afternoon) while Wales solely wanted to avoid embarrassment. The Welsh ran out 33-10 winners. Yet time and again Wales butchered chances in the Italian twenty-two. They allowed runners to become isolated by not committing sufficient numbers to the breakdown and were also guilty of numerous handling errors. Wales could only go into the break 12-0 up. Though the tries came in the second half, courtesy of two from James Hook and one from Shane Williams, it is a worrying statistic that all ten of Wales’ tries this year came in the second half. This was an improvement though. In their previous four games, Wales had lost seventeen line outs. This was more than anyone else. On Saturday, the returning Matthew Rees secured possession by simply throwing the ball to the front of the line out. Amazing isn’t it? The return of a fellow Lion, Mike Phillips, made a big difference too. Ian McGeechan stated that the reason he selected Phillips as his scrum-half for the Lions Tour was because of his exceptional long-pass. He could release the midfield far more effectively than anyone else could. On Saturday, Jamie Roberts and Hook finally showed signs of a developing partnership. It is symbolic of the state of Welsh rugby though that Phillips was drafted in to provide a calming influence. A more abrasive figure you would not find in all the Valleys. I swear at one point he was about to start on the whole Italian team!

Italy were pretty poor it must be said. Despite what Nick Mallett said, it was not an improved performance from Paris – if Wales had been more clinical the score line would have been just as embarrassing. Typically, they did keep fighting though, quite literally in the case of the Bergamasco brothers! Mirco Bergamasco first went for Phillips and then his brother Mauro shoved Hook onto his face at a ruck, earning a sin-binning in the process. Though neither incident was particularly noble, the two brothers do at least put themselves about and give this team a bit of a bite. Yet just as you begin to despair about this Italian team they come back at you. As Wales began to ring the changes, a degree of momentum was lost and the Italians scored a consolation try. Luke McLean side-stepped his way through the Welsh defence as Andrew Bishop took an unfortunate slip. Just as in Paris last week, Italy had saved their best rugby for when the game was already beyond them. Mirco Bergamasco notched a penalty too. At least they had avoided being ‘nilled’. With Scotland seemingly undergoing something of a transformation, the pressure is on the Azzurri to keep up with the pace. The inclusion of Treviso and Viadana in next year’s Magners League should help them. Each week thirty-five to forty Italian players, currently competing in the Italian League, will go up against the best Welsh, Scottish and Irish players. In the Italian League the ball is often in play for just twenty minutes. Against Wales it was in play for something approaching forty-eight minutes. The quicker the Italians get used to such intensity the faster they might become a force in Six Nations rugby. Don’t hold your breath though!

So, it has been a rather bizarre tournament this year. While France were magnificent on the whole, they stayed true to their laissez-faire tendencies by inexplicably ‘having a rest’ in the second half against Wales. It almost caught them out against England too. Italy also strangely gained their sole victory against the team many consider to have made the most progress – Scotland. Andy Robinson’s side very nearly had four victories, all without a back-line. They scored just three tries (just one of them courtesy of a back). Despite a poor campaign, Warren Gatland and his men still plot world domination. No doubt I shall be suckered into believing it possible such is the hysteria that the Welsh media is capable of building. It seems safe to conclude that, following the finale of the 2010 tournament, the coaches will simply want to get their players out onto the field again as soon as possible. England and Scotland to show that their final performances were not just a flash-in-the pan, France to take on the Southern Hemisphere, Ireland to rid themselves of the bitter taste of defeat, Wales to perform for a full eighty minutes against top-class opposition and Italy, well, to try and win another game. Alas, we must wait until mid-June for the summer tours! No matter, next week, the 2010 RBS Six Nations (alternative) Awards!

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