The 6 Nations is unpredictable.
Is that the most blindingly obvious statement of the century? Probably. But we’d like to somehow justify getting all three of our Round 3 predictions wrong. [Ed’s note to self … don’t try and predict ANYTHING in the 6 Nations … until the preview of the next Round.]
The Championship now sits wide open after a reinvigorated Wales convincingly dispatched France, Scotland (or more accurately Duncan Weir) produced a dying-minute stroke of drop-kicked genius to down Italy and England defended an Irish siege of ‘Fortress Twickenham’.
Wales 27-6 France
The ‘Friday Night Lights’ slot didn’t fail to disappoint in terms of a firework-clad spectacle and neither did it on the field. Gatland had obviously not been best pleased with his team’s performance in Round 2 and had breathed fire into the Welsh dragon ahead of it running out at the Millennium Stadium.
What’s interesting is that on paper Wales were still pretty dire. They gained the lowest number of metres of the Round, with only 188m – half as many as the French – missed 23 tackles and made fewer line breaks. George North, while he was rewarded with a lucky try for his hard work on the gainline, is not a natural centre – his limitations as a distributor of the ball showed as he managed only one pass and as such, the back three barely saw the ball.
Fortunately for Wales, France actually WERE dire. Their usually resolute front five contributed next to nothing, losing a whopping two-thirds of their own scrums, providing very little go-forward and failing to retain ball. Sam Warburton was at his pilfering best, turning over the French possession for fun. Les Bleus lost the ball a whopping 23 times, including conceding seven turnovers in ruck or maul (mostly to Warburton) and five unforced dropped balls.
As a result, they got desperate at the breakdown, conceded penalties, and were duly punished by five Leigh Halfpenny penalties. French frustration reached its peak when Louis Picamoles jeeringly applauded referee Alain Rolland on his yellow card, an act that has seen him dropped by Philippe Saint-Andre for the Round 4 game against Scotland. And rightly so.
Warburton, who also bagged himself a well-finished try in the final quarter to seal off the game, was one of a number of key Welsh players who stepped up their game. Dan Lydiate nullified the threat of Yannick Nyanga at the breakdown and was a rock in defence, now boasting a staggering “40 tackles made, 0 missed”, stand-in lock Jake Bell nullified the loss of Alun-Wyn Jones with an assured, powerful performance and Gethin Jenkins was immense in nullifying the French front row, including a scrummaging schooling of Nicholas Mas.
Italy 20-21 Scotland
Rarely do ‘Scottish Rugby’ and ‘exciting’ go in the same sentence but the climax of Saturday’s early fixture will resonate through Scottish rugby folklore for at least a fortnight until their next match when we’ll probably be questioning where it came from.
For the time-being though, Duncan Weir can stick two fingers up at his critics and bask in almost Jonny-esque glory … the small difference being it was the 6 Nations Wooden Spoon decider, rather than the World Cup Final.
That said there were other positives for the long-suffering Scottish fans.
Some much needed stability was provided to the set piece by the reintroduction of Richie Gray, the Scottish lineout enjoying a 100% rate compared to almost half that against England. Gray was also instrumental in providing some more go-forward, making 11 carries, and Scotland made significantly more in-roads in carrying terms in the Italian 22 than they did against England. The side missed the presence of David Denton in the early stages but bringing him on alongside Johnnie Beattie proved a shrewd move by Scott Johnson as the pair clocked up a huge work rate between them.
In the backs, the centre partnership of Matt Scott and John Dunbar wreaked havoc with the Italian defence, the latter worthy of the MOTM award, though it went to Italian 2nd row Josh Furno before the Weir drop goal. Dunbar made a huge contribution of 11 carries, 91 metres gained (whilst keeping his opposite man Michele Campagnaro at bay) and grabbed a brace of tries, ending Scotland’s run of not crossing the whitewash in 377mins of international rugby.
Not to discredit Furno; the lock was the stand-out performer in the Italian pack, carrying and tackling relentlessly – 12 carries & 15 tackles – and bagging a try for his efforts, even outdoing captain supremo Sergio Parisse, amidst a day of anonymity for most of his fellow countrymen.
England 13-10 Ireland
Much had been said building up to this fixture about a potential Grand Slam sign-off for Brian O’Driscoll.
It wasn’t to be. Despite momentum heavily weighted towards the Irish in the final stages of the game, a courageous England clung on. Chris Robshaw led a heroic defence, making 22 tackles, followed closely by the ‘silent assassin’ Joe Launchbury, whose Inspector-Gadget-esque tap tackle on Dave Kearney 5mins from time probably saved the day – quite remarkable given he had already put in one of the biggest shifts of the game.
Despite limited game time, Davey Wilson sufficiently anchored the English scrum against Cian Healy and Ben Morgan made sure Billy Vunipola wasn’t missed when the Sarries no.8 suffered an ankle ligament injury. Morgan shored up ball at the base of the scrum, made more than his fair share of tackles in only a half of rugby and carried well to prove he’s more than worthy of a place in the squad.
England’s back three continues to develop at a confidence-boosting pace. Arguably the player of the tournament so far, Mike Brown again proved he’s the in-form full-back in the northern hemisphere, though Rob Kearney gave him considerable run for his money. Both showed the importance of a full-back being able to join the attacking line, Kearney running a beautiful line (albeit aided by a slight block by Paul O’Connell) to touch down under the posts and Mike Brown instrumental in setting up Danny Care for his run-in. Care was, incidentally, at his zippy, sniping best, while delivering and accurate kicking game and superb support of Brown for the try.
Brown was ably aided by his winger colleagues, Jack Nowell and Jonny May. They’re far from the finished product but Nowell’s desire to look for work and May’s ability to beat a man – albeit often running sideways – are second to none and with more Tests under their belt, they pose a scintillating prospect for 18 months’ time.