A dramatic weekend of Six Nations rugby faded rapidly in quality. From start to finish the action ranged from brilliant, to clumsy, to utterly hideous.
Ireland were under the cosh from kickoff as Wales stormed out of the gates with some surprisingly adventurous play, putting a dozen points on the board via the boot of Leigh Halfpenny in the opening 15 minutes of the match. Both teams looked on edge with numerous penalties awarded, and Jonny Sexton replied with three kicks of his own to claw his side back into the game. A classy drop goal from Dan Biggar just before the break edged Wales forward, and a wonderful try to Scott Williams broke 20 minutes of deadlock to set up a pulsating final quarter.
A relentless Irish assault was repelled by a magificent Welsh defense led by Luke Charteris and Sam Warburton, among others. After a penalty try from a driving maul Ireland were in position to steal a famous win, but Halfpenny’s 5th goal of the match took away dreams of victory. The final moments saw Ireland parked deep in Welsh territory, only to be held off one last time much to the delight of the partisan Cardiff crowd.
It was a hugely entertaining encounter, with drama and tension that seemed to crescendo as the clock moved closer to full time. Ireland were rattled by the staunch Welsh tacklers and both their kicking game and lineout were short of their best. Wales, by contrast, were fiercely committed in easily their best performance of the championship. The result blows the title doors wide open with everything to play for heading into the final week.
Wales – L. Halfpenny 5p, D. Biggar 1d, S. Williams 1t
Ireland – J. Sexton 3p 1c, Penalty try
Wales – S. Warburton yellow (28), J. Davies yellow (78)
L. Halfpenny; G. North, J. Davies, J. Roberts (S. Williams 60), L. Williams; D. Biggar, R. Webb (M. Phillips 69); G. Jenkins (R. Evans HT), S. Baldwin (R. Hibbard 57), S. Lee (A. Jarvis 13); L. Charteris, A.W. Jones (J. Ball 72); D. Lydiate (J. Tipuric 69), S. Warburton (capt.), T. Faletau.
R. Kearney; T. Bowe, J. Payne, R. Henshaw, S. Zebo; J. Sexton (I. Madigan 75), C. Murray (E. Reddan 64); J. McGrath (C. Healy 57), R. Best (S. Cronin 64), M. Ross (M. Moore 64); D. Toner (I. Henderson 64), P. O’Connell (capt.); P. O’Mahony, S. O’Brien, J. Heaslip (J. Murphy 72).
Referee: W. Barnes (RFU)
Assistants: J. Garcès (FFR) & F. Anselmi (UAR)
TMO: G. Hughes (RFU)
Stuart Lancaster will have had plenty to cover in the debrief as his side committed a comedy of errors in the opening half to somehow trail by 3 points to a very average Scottish side. England dominated the opening quarter and should have been three scores up by the break, but forward passes and poor decision making conspired to give the Scots an unlikely chance. Jonathan Joseph’s try early on looked an ominous sign, but Mark Bennett’s cracking reply made things interesting.
Thankfully for the home crowd, the second half belonged entirely to England. George Ford controlled play with 10 more points and Jack Nowell sealed the game after a fortunate bounce of the ball off the uprights. That Scotland were anywhere near still in the game by then was a testament to the lack of accuracy of England more than anything exemplary achieved by Scotland, though to be fair they did show some passion with ball in hand.
England are now in pole position to win the title after the incredible result in Cardiff, but cannot approach the ever-dangerous French as they did this match. With both Ireland and Wales hot on their heels, they will be thankful the match is in London and not Paris. Scotland meanwhile remain in the basement, and host Ireland in a last ditch bid to avoid the Wooden Spoon, an unlikely proposition at best.
England – G. Ford 1t 2p 2c, J. Joseph 1t, J. Nowell 1t
Scotland – G. Laidlaw 2p 1c, M. Bennett 1t
M. Brown (D. Cipriani 77); A. Watson, J. Joseph, L. Burrell, J. Nowell; G. Ford, B. Youngs (R. Wigglesworth 66); J. Marler (M. Vunipola 60), D. Hartley (T. Youngs 51), D. Cole (K. Brookes 66); D. Attwood (G. Parling 51), C. Lawes; J. Haskell (T. Wood 66), C. Robshaw (capt.), B Vunipola.
S. Hogg; D. Fife, M. Bennett, M. Scott (G. Tonks HT), T. Seymour; F. Russell (S. Hidalgo-Clyne 72), G. Laidlaw (capt.); A. Dickinson (R. Grant 60), R. Ford (F. Brown 60), E. Murray (G. Cross 55); J. Hamilton (T. Swinson 36-40, 47), J. Gray; R. Harley (J. Beattie 66), B. Cowan, D. Denton (A. Ashe 55).
Referee: R. Poite (FFR)
Assistants: G. Clancy (IRFU) & M. Mitrea (FIR)
TMO: B. Skeen (NZRU)
What a horrendous game of rugby. Don’t let the score fool you. France were dreadful, Italy were worse – diabolically poor. It was bad to the point of exhaustion, requiring serious levels of concentration to follow through to the end. The match highlights reel could have shown Yoann Maestri’s try and left it at that. We can file this one on the shelf labelled “how not to play rugby” and forget it ever happened. Awful, awful, awful.
When things didn’t go horribly wrong, France obliterated the Italian scrum and generally had their way with everything aside from catching or passing or decision making. Italy had absolutely nothing, and when Tommaso Allan went off after only 14 minutes – himself a last minute replacement for Kelly Haimona before kickoff – the Azzurri seemed to lose any sense of combativeness. Next week cannot come soon enough for both sides.
France – C. Lopez 2p, J. Plisson 2p 2c, S. Spedding 1p, Y. Maestri 1t, M. Bastareaud 1t
L. McLean; G. Venditti, L. Morisi (E. Bacchin 38), A. Masi, L. Sarto; T. Allan (L. Orquera 14), E. Gori (G. Palazzani 72); M. Agüero (A. de Marchi 33), L. Ghiraldini (A. Manici 58), D. Chistolini (L. Cittadini 51); G. Biagi (Q. Geldenhuys 51), J. Furno; F. Minto, S. Vunisa, S. Parisse (capt.) (M. Barbini 74).
S. Spedding; Y. Huget, G. Fickou (M. Bastareaud 70), M. Mermoz, N. Nakaitaci; C. Lopez (J. Plisson HT), S. Tillous-Borde (R. Kockott 63); E. Ben Arous (V. Debaty 58), G. Guirado (B. Kayser 53), N. Mas (R. Slimani 51); A. Flanquart, Y. Maestri (R. Taofifenua 64); T. Dusautoir (capt.), N. le Roux, L. Goujon (D. Chouly 73).
Referee: J.P. Doyle (RFU)
Assistants: N. Owens (WRU) & S. Berry (SARU)
TMO: S. McDowell (IRFU)