Of course, it’s impossible to reach the halfway point in a five round tournament, unless you’re pedantic and choose halftime in the France v Wales game on Saturday evening, but this is perhaps as good a time as any for a midpoint recap.
This weekend threw up two surprises, most notably in Murrayfield, proving for once that the bookmakers are not entirely prophetic. Scotland were pipped at the end by an Italian penalty try and while bad luck played its part; Giovanbattista Vendetti’s try; Scotland, like Charles Stewart Parnell were in many ways the architect of their own downfall. At least Parnell’s troubles were instigated by, amongst other things, his presumably enjoyable dalliance with Katherine O’ Shea. Scotland’s failings have been brought about largely by incompetence and a failure to execute.
Inaccuracy has been a real problem for Scotland. Late on in Saturday’s game, having been somewhat fortunate to win a penalty on an Italian scrum, Peter Horne, in as an enforced replacement, was entrusted with, what the entire of Murrayfield would have presumed to be, a safe kick to touch. When the friendly confines of touch were all that were required, Horne, like Finn Russell in the defeat to Wales, unforgivably missed and returned the ball to the Italians. An ensuing maul and further indiscretion by the Scottish pack handed Italy a hugely welcome and genuinely unexpected victory.
It seems patronising to say that Scotland needed this victory more than the Italians but frankly, they did. The Scots are coached by the man, Vern Cotter, who along with Joe Schmidt brought Clermont Auvergne to their rightful place at the top table of French club rugby and consolidated their position there. Sergio Parisse aside, how many of the Italian team would honestly force their way into the Scottish team. The Scots sparkled intermittently in the opening two rounds of the tournament so, perhaps on Saturday, they, like this column, failed to regard the Italians with the respect they merited. After the French defeat, there was a sense here that Scotland would have a real shot at home victories against the Welsh, Italians and Irish, and a chance to go to Twickenham with, at the very least, a puncher’s chance. Fool me once Scotland and all that jazz. Scotland’s response to this latest defeat will prove just how much character and resilience Kiwi, Cotter has instilled in this genuinely talented side. Skills and talent are only so impressive. After all, it is execution more than ability, which invariably sees a side over the line. Only a brave man or a fence sitter will honestly believe that Scotland travel south in two weeks with much more hope than a man with a lottery ticket.
Italy, on the other hand, will look to their upcoming Stadio Olimpico clash, with a French side in disarray, with real belief that they can cause an upset, the French monkey having been lifted off their back following 2013’s dramatic victory. The Italians rode their luck at times this past weekend but their pack, their rolling maul in particular, was infinitely superior to their hosts. Kelly Haimona is not an international outhalf and how Italy long for a reliable place kicker, in the mode of all-time great Diego Dominguez. Sides like Italy, limited in attack, simply can’t afford to leave points behind and they must find a kicker whose success rate is, at least, somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent. Still, if metaphorically, Italy went to sleep on Friday to relentless rain and gloom, on Sunday morning they will have awoken to a rather unexpected but welcome Indian Summer.
Wales’ championship ambitions are well and truly alive and kicking once more. To his and their credit, Warren Gatland and his big boppers went to France looking for a fight and, beyond any shadow of a doubt, won the physical battle comprehensively. The most experienced centre pairing in the Six Nations stood strong and there were also exceptional performances from Dan Lydiate and outstanding captain, Sam Warburton. Dan Biggar was accomplished and composed throughout, taking his try extremely well and, as ever, Leigh Halfpenny’s accuracy from the dead ball was close enough to faultless. George North responded well to Gatland’s demands that he become more involved in the game, his carries visibly sapping the will of the French defenders. Adding guile to the brawn was the nippy, dangerous, livewire Rhys Webb at scrum half. We accept that Gatland’s gameplan requires far more straight lines than arcs but a slippery customer like Webb is vital for variation. Still, for the most part Wales stuck to the tried and trusted and, as France are limited and wholly ineffective for large parts of each of their contests, the Welsh blueprint worked just fine. Ireland, their next opponents in what is sure to be a complete hum dinger in Cardiff, play a very specific style of rugby. Their game is somewhat rigid but remember, more importantly, that it is extremely effective. Following a system and sticking to a job, almost Germanically, should not be confused with being limited. Wales will fancy their chances in two weeks and based on their last two outings they should do, but beating this particular French side, even away from home, will pose far less problems than Joe Schmidt’s side.
While discussing the finer points of purgatory with his colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) in 2008’s In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character Ray exclaims, “You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.” Perhaps he was prophetically talking about the current French rugby team and, of course, Tottenham. In any era. France made sweeping changes for Saturday evening’s game against a, let’s be honest, above average but far from spectacular Welsh side. Early on the French threatened without ever looking like cutting the Welsh midfield to pieces. The Remi Lamerat experiment never really took off, injury robbing the Castres centre of the opportunity to impress his coach and equally importantly, a decidedly frustrated French rugby public. Mathieu Bastareaud came on early in his place and barring his involvement in Bruce Dulin’s try; incidentally the first French try against Wales in four years; the Toulon man provided little more than hard carries into the arms of the improved Jonathan Davies and ever dependable Jamie Roberts. France, rather alarmingly, despite a raft of changes showed little or no ability to bring the ludicrously talented Wesley Fofana into the game. The future, or more pertinently the upcoming World Cup, looks grim for France, but, since they were able to dispense with their coach, Marc Lievremont’s advice following a chastening defeat to Tonga in the 2011 World Cup and lead themselves to the final where they were unlucky to lose to the final to New Zealand, in Auckland, we would simply say…. watch this space and dispense with all rationale when it comes to the French.
The weekend’s final game saw a good, honest slobber knocker between the two form sides, Ireland and England. Ireland won because, unsurprisingly, they were superior in a number of facets of the game, particularly in their kick and chase game. England seemed a little perturbed by Ireland’s insistence on kicking the ball with great regularity. Perhaps they should have done the same. Except better. Perhaps we’re being facetious, but given they spent most of the week informing everyone how they were preparing for the aerial bombardment, by Sunday evening it looked like a classic case of the dog eating the student’s homework. Ireland had star performers all over the pitch, each adhering diligently to coach, Joe Schmidt’s fastidiously prepared game plan. It would be impossible not to single out Robbie Henshaw for individual praise. This column is open to correction but it appeared that he never once took a backward step with ball in hand. England, always robust in every facet of the game rarely breached the Irish defensive line, Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson aside, and Henshaw was to the fore of the exceptional, home rearguard effort. The skill, awareness and timing for his try looked like a hybrid effort one might see from Tommy Bowe and Ireland’s greatest ever player, Brian O’ Driscoll.
Ireland have been accused of being limited, indeed strictly speaking they are, but if you keep on winning then how necessary is change? Remember, the English World Cup winning side in 2003 were blessed with standout players all over the pitch but it was very rare, particularly as the tournament progressed, that you saw any sort of ‘heads-up’, creative play, aside of course from the irrepressible Jason Robinson. What about the mighty All Blacks in the 2011 final? They overcame the French in the final on a whopping score line of nine points to eight. It is agreed that those teams that have won the World Cup are built on rock solid defence, a mobile pack who are ferociously competitive at the breakdown when necessary, a near faultless place kicker, and a commanding pair of half backs. New Zealand for all their glorious talent have won the tournament the same number of times as the, dour by reputation, South Africans. Perhaps Ireland will need to bring something different in Cardiff but if it’s a dog fight that the Welsh are looking for, and it most assuredly will be, then Paul O’ Connell and his charges will relish the challenge.
For all the praise of Ireland’s performance yesterday, it is hard to say that they were ten points the better side than their visitors. A number of moments had a huge baring on the outcome of the game. The instance most observers will highlight was Devin Toner’s first half lineout steal, deep in the Irish 22 after George Ford and Chris Robshaw decided to forego a relatively easy three pointer. Setting down a marker? Arrogance? It doesn’t really matter as the big second row’s excellent rob gave Ireland renewed vigour.
England looked very dangerous on occasion. Billy Vunipola showed outstanding pace to race fifty yards untouched off a messy scrum and Anthony Watson looked menacing anytime the game broke up. Additionally, the English spent the majority of the final fifteen minutes sending wave after wave over the top of the line but, with credit to the home defence, the leading point scorers in this year’s Six Nations were unable to cross for a try. A last gasp try, disallowed for a forward pass to Jack Nowell, would probably, on the balance of things, have been justified but the game was up for England by then. England probably left these shores a touch chastened, knowing they were outfought by an incredibly disciplined, aggressive pack, which incidentally looked none the weaker for the loss of back row stalwarts Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Still, while Ireland may have won the battle yesterday, one suspects the English will believe that they can finish the war on their terms in October.