Six Nations Matchday Nine – Fitting End To Tournament Of Firsts

I’m not just saying this because England were hammered by Wales in Cardiff, but for me the pick of the games on a wonderful final weekend of this year’s tournament was Italy’s gutsy 22-15 win over Ireland in Rome. While the England-Wales match was high intensity, and Wales’ ruthlessness was impressive, and Scotland-France had its moments, the first game of the day really set the tone.

Ireland have been dreadfully unlucky with a string of injuries and in this game, losing Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald meant they had to play forward Peter O’Mahony on the wing. That is not to take anything away from Italy, though, as they have had to battle through matches missing key players as well. No Giovanni Castrogiovanni or Marco Bortolami for them, remember.

Ireland lacked penetration. Their lineout was constantly disrupted and they came off second best in the scrum. Italian backs burst through the Irish defensive line on multiple occasions. Brian O’Driscoll marked what may have been his farewell match with a yellow card for a petulant stamp and only briefly flickered in the second half. Ireland’s most powerful runner was Ian Madigan, so determined to stop him (illegally) was Sergio Parisse, that he followed O’Driscoll into the bin for a trip.

Paddy Jackson was a positive for Ireland, keeping them in the game with five kicks. Italy did many things right. Strong up front, showing a willingness both to take the ball into the contact and build phases and play freely – but doing both at the right times. They threatened to unravel just after the hour mark but they seemed rejuvenated after Andrea Lo Cicero, that great warrior of a prop, had been taken off and was given a wonderful ovation to mark his retirement.

It seemed to inspire the home side and they were worth their six-point win. It was their first win over Ireland in the Six Nations and their development this year has been a highlight of the competition. No longer pushovers; there are no easy games in the Six Nations any more. The Lions would be a stronger side if Italy were allowed to provide players as well as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

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On to Wales. They weren’t going to give up their title without a fight, and although they were always likely to win, few expected them to run away with the match in the manner they did. England did well to stay in touch in the first half, knocked backwards by Wales at most collisions, their scrum taken to pieces and when they did build attacking platforms, they committed mistakes. Whereas Italy kept the ball in hand, England were too keen to look for the miracle offload. Any sport comes down to making the right decisions at key moments. For most of the tournament, England had won those key moments. Against Wales, they lost them all. And it wasn’t even close.

Whereas the likes of Stuart Hogg, Leigh Halfpenny, Rob Kearney, George North and others have terrorised opponents by turning defence into attack with speed and strength, England seemed ponderous, as if unsure what to do or where to go. The sight of poor decision-making meeting with poor execution is not a pretty one. There may be some decisions of a different sort to be made before too long. Chris Ashton’s defensive frailties have been exposed, Mike Brown needs tries under his belt and Alex Goode didn’t offer enough going forward.

They weren’t alone – aside from Chris Robshaw and Brad Barritt, few Englishmen had games to remember. Much was also made of England’s bench strength. It might have been enough to see off France and Italy, but Danny Care, James Haskell and Courtney Lawes added little to England’s chances, although Toby Flood at least made a small impact.

Huge credit has to go to Wales, though. Aside from a poor first half against Ireland on the opening day, they have been impressive, improving as the tournament went on and fully deserved to be lifting the title. This is a wonderful set of players, full of leaders all over the park, defensively sound, ruthless in attack and in Halfpenny, they have a man who will punish opposition mistakes with the boot. One of the great Welsh teams? Definitely. On their day, they can beat anybody and must be relishing the 2015 World Cup, provided they can keep this set of players fit, and playing together. They must have every chance of at least repeating their semi-final effort of 2011.

17mar-6n-pointsIf Italy’s rise this year has been a key feature of the competition, then so too has Scotland’s renaissance. For the first half at least in Paris, they looked like they were going to pinch a rare win, before France, seemingly inspired by Freddie Michalak getting into a scrap with Hogg, and the introduction of Maxime Machenaud, turned on the style and scored two quick tries to finish Scotland off and take a 23-16 victory.

Greig Laidlaw has become one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most reliable kickers and as France underwhelmed again, he was on hand to keep Scotland ahead. Then came Michalak’s swinging arm on Hogg and everything was all right with France again. Wesley Fofana capitalised on good work from Mathieu Bastareaud and Yannick Nyanga to skip past a non-tackle from Hogg and soon after Machenaud broke through to set up Maxime M├ędard. La Marseillaise rang out, the joie de vivre was back and France were about to win a game of rugby for the first time in too long.

There was even time to introduce their 18-year-old centre Gael Fickou, but shortly afterwards he was taken out illegally to give Tim Visser room to run through and score a try for Scotland. Nevertheless, it was too little, too late for Scotland. That backlash which we kept predicting from France, finally came – similarly too little, too late for them to avoid finishing at the bottom of the table, for the first time in Six Nations history.

It was then, a Six Nations full of firsts. First double win for Italy, first sixth-place finish for France, first back-to-back draws between Ireland and France. But the most important thing of all was a second: Wales taking their second title in a row.

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