The penultimate weekend of the 2010 RBS Six Nations saw France run tries in from everywhere against Italy, Scotland and England battle out a tense but painful draw at Murrayfield and Ireland move closer to the Triple Crown by overcoming Wales.
3-0, 3-3, 6-3, 6-6, 9-6, 9-9, 9-12, 12-12, 12-15, 15-15. Riveting stuff. The game at Murrayfield just about summed up Scotland and England at the moment. No guile, no imagination, no tries. Scotland did break through the English line on a number of occasions though. Yet, having made good yards, they simply slowed it down and looked to set up Dan Parks for a drop goal. Or, they waited for the penalty. Steve Borthwick confessed after the game that England had been unable to adapt quickly enough to Marius Jonker’s use of the whistle. Andy Robinson had moved Max Evans onto the wing believing him to be Scotland’s best one-on-one attacker. In reality though, just as against Italy, Allan Jacobsen – nicknamed “Chunk” – was their most effective runner. He really is formidable in the loose and is enjoying a great tournament. So too is Parks. His move to Cardiff Blues next season will finally hand the region a useful fly-half and should provide Parks the platform to develop his decision-making. On Saturday, he foolishly attempted to chip the ball over the English defence just yards from the line when he had numbers outside him. Another try-scoring opportunity vanished.
Jonny Wilkinson was also guilty in this regard. His wild pass into touch in the first half with the try-line beckoning was dreadful. Not only was it terribly misplaced but England had crafted an overlap. He simply needed to run straight and hand the ball on as the tackle came in. Wilkinson has been dropped for Toby Flood and quite rightly so. Everyone knows his kicking has been keeping him in the team. In the dying minutes England crafted a drop goal opportunity. It would have been perfect for Wilkinson. Instead he was stuck in the changing room with stars in his eyes. It is fair to say that there is little fluid about England at the moment. Matthew Tait should take the plaudits for being the only three-quarter to have enjoyed that rarest of things – a try. Instead he’s been dropped. Ben Foden and Chris Ashton have finally been drafted in. Delon Armitage should count himself lucky to have even started four games this tournament: he is awfully out of form. That old warhorse Mike Tindall has also been recalled. Talk about building for the future.
At Croker, like the game at Twickenham two weeks ago, Ireland passed the ball far less than the opposition. The difference between them and the visitors, Wales, was that when they did have it they were devastatingly clinical. Tomas O’Leary was fantastic. In fact he stole the show, taking Brian O’Driscoll’s thunder with him. Unlike the days of Peter Stringer, he actually provides this Irish team a threat around the base of the scrum. He scored one and was instrumental in both of Keith Earls’ tries too. Earls has put a disappointing Lions tour behind him and is making great progress on the left-wing. Ireland have struck a wonderful balance between the forwards and backs and are willing to go for long stretches of play without the ball. Like the French, it is the back row which makes this team. Stephen Ferris is world class. He is bettered maybe only by Imanol Harinordoquy. Had Jonny Sexton not been so wasteful from the kicking tee then the margin would have been greater and few would have complained. This was a highly professional performance. Ireland are frankly unlucky that they have been overshadowed by a quite sublime French team. You get the feeling that any other year their efforts would have been good enough for the Championship.
Ireland were also helped by lax one-on-one defence (again) from Wales. It is about time Warren Gatland – described before the game as a ‘menopausal warthog’ by one Irish newspaper – and Shaun Edwards proved themselves as good as everyone seems to think they are. Yes – any team would miss the likes of Gethin Jenkins and Mike Phillips (as Gatland keeps pointing out) but why have the coaching staff been entirely unable to get the best out of the players at their disposal since 2008? Lee Byrne and Jamie Roberts are not producing the sort of performances which won them so much acclaim last year. This team has been so ill-disciplined as well. Lee Byrne was the culprit this week. Down to fourteen, the game was again basically put beyond Wales. They create so many openings too but their execution is tragic. On Saturday, Wales applied severe pressure on the Irish scrum. Yet, just as a penalty try looked to be coming, John Hayes and co. summoned an almighty shove and shunted the Welsh pack back. The game really did turn on that moment.
Everyone criticised Marc Lièvremont last year. He chopped and changed too much apparently. You have to stand back now though and applaud the man. It was all part of his master plan. Les Bleus have been sensational and have a pool of talent that is the envy of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Against Italy on Sunday they ran the ball under the posts from impossible distances. Granted Italy were appalling in defence but nevertheless this was high quality counter-attacking rugby. Clement Poitrenaud seems to have rekindled his form of four years ago when he was unstoppable for Toulouse, once scoring five tries in a Heineken Cup game. So too does his club-mate Yannick Jauzion. He is immensely strong – something that tends to slip our minds when he plays alongside Mathieu Bastareaud! Indeed he was tank-like as he ran in for his try. Question marks do remain though over the credentials of Francois Trinh-Duc and his ability to run a game. He does have great vision on him though as shown by his lovely pass to send David Marty over. And, at any rate, with a petit general like Morgan Parra at scrum-half many of his responsibilities are lifted.
I suppose we should not be surprised that Italy roused themselves to score a couple of consolation tries at the end. Not going down easily is what they do really. Quite why Tito Tebaldi started ahead of Pablo Canavosio, scorer of the winning try against Scotland, is a mystery. The former was poor and was hauled off after only thirty minutes. Canavosio has real pace about him. In the final stages he skipped away from a number of French tacklers to score a superb individual try. Nick Mallett won’t make the same mistake in not starting him against Wales next week. Despite being hammered by the French they should approach the game at the Millennium Stadium with confidence. Wales have opted to give a number of youngsters a go. If Italy can get a quick start (and they’ll probably be granted it by this Welsh team) then the crowd will be right on the backs of the home side.
Only France and Ireland (and perhaps Italy?) will come out of this tournament with any credit. England and Wales have been woeful while Scotland have not lived up to their pre-tournament hype. Ireland should beat Scotland to win the Triple Crown. If they achieve that then they should consider this year a success. They have certainly not gone backwards and should finish a respectable second place. France’s points difference is +64. Ireland’s is +14. England would have to give France an absolute battering in Paris if Ireland are to steal the Championship. They won’t though. Surely, surely France won’t fail to beat England and win the Grand Slam. It would be an almighty coq-up if they did let it slip…