Six Nations 2013 Matchday Three – Sacre Les Blues!

Today’s double bill of Scotland v Italy and France v Wales just showed us how spoiled we were with the outstanding quality the opening weekend of the Six Nations produced.

In the second game in particular, some of the play was desperately poor, neither side able to string more than two or three coherent phases together, not helped by a pitch offering as much traction as a carpet on a marble floor.

There were times when Scotland and Italy gave us some poor fare, notably when Sergio Parisse dropped the ball only to see Greig Laidlaw’s attempted counter-attacking pass bounce off the referee’s head. There were, however, enough moments of quality, almost exclusively Scottish, in that game to keep the hardcore fan more or less happy.

The stats reveal that Italy dominated possession and territory, forcing Scotland to make by far the most tackles. And they lost 34-10 – the biggest hammering they have taken at the hands of the men who were (bizarrely) also playing in light blue and white today. Stuart Hogg’s outstanding breakaway try, intercepting the ball as Italy missed a 2-on-1 with the line at their mercy, bursting through Italy’s follow-up defence and charging clear to score.

Soon after, Sean Lamont picked up a loose ball in the middle of the park and turned an Italian attack into a Scottish score. Scotland were infrequent visitors to Italy’s 22 but they were utterly ruthless when they got there.

Luciano Orquera was Italy’s hero last week, setting up both tries in the win over France but today he could do nothing right. It was his pass that Hogg snapped up to score Scotland’s wonder try and as Hogg was touching down, Orquera was making his exit, substituted and replaced by Kris Burton. Sport, that most fickle of mistresses, had struck again to remind us that you can be made to look invincible one week, incompetent the next.

Parisse did not have one of his greatest games, fumbling the ball on occasion and getting visibly frustrated with the way Scotland’s defence kept pegging his side back. He wasn’t helped by being the recipient of several hospital passes; Italy were so good last week at holding onto the ball but this week reverted to flinging wild offloads and impossible passes, which Scotland simply lapped up.

Gonzalo Canale, Andrea Masi and Tobias Botes made the occasional break, but Scotland put in a defensive performance of which they can be proud. To a man they stood firm. Unlike Italy, they had kicked on from their performance of the previous week, learnt some lessons and translated them into a result.

Despite the appalling spectacle at the Stade de France, Wales must be given huge credit for also picking up where they had left off last week. They did not allow France the sort of freedom that Ireland had been given (although whether France would have done anything with it is highly debatable on this showing) and were giving their opposition a hard time right from the first whistle.

With the ground giving way and churning up huge divots, the scrums were even more of a lottery than usual and at times, looked plain dangerous. France, like Italy, wasted a good scoring chance when Yoann Huget held on to the ball rather than feed an overlap, only to be tackled by Leigh Halfpenny. Man of the match Halfpenny just keeps putting in world-class performance after world-class performance, not to mention throwing himself at the ball, and opposition players’ boots when others (Michalak, I’m looking at you) would shy away, and kicking vital points. Both of his late kicks today were tricky but he held his nerve to help Wales rediscover that winning feeling.

Neither side kicked particularly well from hand – Halfpenny excepted – until the final moments. Ryan Jones, of all people, produced one of the best ones of the game to gain Wales territory late on and that preceded the clever chip from Dan Biggar which led to an outstanding finish from George North, who crashed through one tackle and retained his balance to dot down with inches to spare.

That was the decisive moment. France had showed their lack of penetration already as well as a lack of ambition/scrambled mindset/blind panic (or perhaps all three) when Francois Trinh-Duc had opted to drop for goal with a good attacking platform set up early in the second half. Wales – despite losing eight games in a row prior to this game – are the reigning champions, and for all of 15 minutes, played like it. It was more than enough to dispose of France.

La cuillere en bois pour les Bleus, peut-etre?

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