Six Nations Matchday Five – All Set Up Nicely

I’m still laughing at France’s decision to throw on Freddy Michalak towards the end of their 23-13 defeat to England at Twickenham. Capable of moments of genius (of which there followed one) and moments of equably disastrous misadventure (one of those too), he seemed a strange choice as France tried to get a grip on a game that was only ever going to remain quite close.

Michalak, we understand, was brought on as Morgan Parra was having an off day kicking from the tee. Yet the one kick Michalak did score is one that Parra surely couldn’t have missed. From where I was watching, Michalak miskicked and had it been further out, he might have missed too. Parra was played well otherwise yet he was taken off 12 minutes after Michalak’s introduction so why wasn’t Michalak brought on at nine, which is, after all, where he plays for Toulon?

His introduction broke up the Parra-Trinh-Duc halfback pairing that had worked well, both players kicking from hand intelligently to push England back and bringing their back line into play. Parra’s woes in front of goal put one in mind of this same fixture in 2005, when the roles were reversed. On that day Charlie Hodgson missed chance after chance and France won comfortably when they had no right to. Two missed kicks meant France had to chase the game instead of being able to control it and they can justifiably feel a little aggrieved at losing this one.

The backlash came, not against Wales, but against England.

Their line-out was stunningly effective, they dominated the scrums, were aggressive at the breakdown and reaped the rewards of restoring Wesley Fofana to his best position. Picamoles, Dusatoir and Samson were outstanding, Fall and Huget dangerous, forcing England to change their tactics. They produced more coherent rugby in the first 10 minutes than they had managed in their opening two games and looked supremely motivated by the contest.

One key difference for me was bench strength. England’s substitutions made a difference, shoring up the front row to a degree and enabling Stuart Lancaster to replace the ineffectual Courtney Lawes, for example. England winning the key moments comes to mind again. Ben Morgan’s interception after that moment of Michalak magic saved a certain try, and their instant response to Fofana’s try with a penalty was also important.

That, and luck. Parra doesn’t often miss 67% of his kicks, and England’s try came after a couple of infringements that weren’t spotted by the officials.

There was one more thing to keep an eye on. Although Owen Farrell kicked well before his injury, he seemed intent on getting involved in running battles with any French back that dared to move in his vicinity. This sort of behaviour is unbecoming of one who has so far in his career seemed so calm and able to rise to the occasion, and on another day could have affected his game – fortunately for England he does appear to have the ability to completely clear his head and focus when the ball is on the tee.

Barring mishaps, England should now go on to win the Championship. A loss to Italy is virtually impossible to imagine given current form and while Wales stand every chance of beating them in Cardiff, they would have to do so by 20 points or more, depending on next week’s results, to retain their title.

But can England do the Grand Slam? We could be set for a grand finale at the Millennium Stadium and Wales showed yesterday in their 26-9 win over Italy that they are improving as the tournament goes on.

In a match played in soggy conditions, their dominance of the scrum and line out gave them the platform to dominate territory; with Leigh Halfpenny as reliable as ever and Italy failing to show anything like the sort of form that saw them beat France, they were comfortable winners.

Such was the nature of the game that Jonathan Davies’ try came from what seemed like his first touch, capitalising on some inept Italian defending to run in unchallenged before Alex Cuthbert proved his finishing prowess with a more direct effort late on.

Wales could well have their strongest team out for the final round as players come back from injuries. England have a history of winning four games and losing the fifth. Wales will be confident after yesterday’s matches that they can win the forward battle. England will believe they have the strength in depth to respond to any such challenge. It’s all set up nicely.

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