After a nail-bitingly tense finish in Paris, the agony of watching the lumbering Sebastien Vahaamahina carrying the ball straight into the open arms of Chris Henry and Devin Toner, with a body as upright as the Obelisk in the centre of the Place de la Concorde five miles away, will live on in the mind of English rugby fans.
Two minutes prior the French had a chance to go over in the corner, only for captain Pascal Pape to give a forward pass at the match-defining moment.
Only the French, having been so dismal for the previous few weekends, could rally themselves to the point of gallantly pushing the Irish to the wire, only to repeatedly butcher their chances in the dying seconds.
Italy 11-52 England
If Stuart Lancaster had calmed his troops before the game by telling them not to chase a scoreline, it didn’t show in the opening exchanges. A scrappy first ten minutes saw wayward passes and dropped balls, while the Italians were able to keep a series of sidewards drifting attacks at bay.
Italy took an early lead through a Luciano Orquera penalty but Owen Farrell went some way to settling the side down by leveling the score five minutes later. From here on in, Farrell’s composed display with ball in hand and from the kicking tee was crucial to England’s hefty final score, aided superbly by a Speedy Gonzales-like, razor-sharp Danny Care fizzing the ball away from every ruck. Farrell put Luther Burrell into space to set-up Mike Brown’s first try, hit a wonderful line through two Italian defenders to take his own, gave a superb offload for Brown’s second, took the ball to the line and fed Tuilagi for the centre to bulldoze over from 10m out and kicked everything from the tee.
Along the way England fans were treated to the differing centre styles of play of Luther Burrell and, when he came on, Manu Tuilagi. Arguably the revelation of the tournament for England, Burrell has taken the opportunity of stamping his mark on the no.13 jersey with a brand of intelligent and exceptionally skillful rugby, while Tuilagi no longer gets the jersey by default and may have to settle for the ‘super sub’ tag. Not a bad player to have on the bench, mind.
Mike Brown, looking dangerous every single time he touched the ball, continued the exceptional form he’s displayed all tournament and was fully deserving of his third Man of the Match award of the Championship.
In a day of running rugby, the forwards also ably kept up with the pace, though Mako Vunipola looked positively bemused to run in his try from short range! The back row popped up frequently with ball in hand, including a beautiful, tracking support line of George Ford from Chris Robshaw on the final whistle, deft little flicks from the base of the scrum and solid carries from Ben Morgan and a dominant display in the lineout from Tom Wood.
With the clock showing 67m (shortly after Manu Tuilagi had announced his return to international rugby in the only way he knows how), England primed themselves for another wide attack, sending the ball through the hands to try and close in on the Irish points difference. Only ten points separated the side in the table but it wasn’t to be. An intercepted pass for Leonardo Sarto meant England trailed Ireland by 17 with only 12minutes left to play.
Were it not for a crazy five minutes in Paris it’d be a very different story.
Wales 51-3 Scotland
In hindsight, this wasn’t as dull an affair as we’d envisaged. One-sided? Absolutely. But entertaining none-the-less.
On a night to forget for the Scots, they suffered their biggest defeat in the Championship to date as Wales record their biggest ever victory.
Initially competitive and taking an early lead through a Greg Laidlaw penalty, the game was then decided 22minutes in by a moment of madness by Stuart Hogg. Flying late into Dan Biggar with a full-on shoulder charge to the head, ref Jerome Garces initially showed Hogg a yellow but upgraded to a red after seeing it again on the big screen replay.
Not only down to 14 men, the Scots had also lost their most potent attacking weapon. Their main source of forward momentum, David Denton, was forced to drop back to help debutant winger Dougie Fife cover full-back. As such, amongst an otherwise lacklustre performance, though that’s probably harsh given the circumstances, Denton shone, ably fielding the high balls that were repeatedly sent down his throat and topping Scotland’s attacking stats in an impressive individual display, with 16 carries and 71 metres made.
The Welsh exploited the extra space out wide and seven tries later, the Scots dejectedly departed the field. George North found his best form of the tournament and Leigh Halfpenny’s injury was forgotten about as full-back stand-in, Liam Williams, made a series of brilliantly hit running lines and a well taken try. The second row pairing of Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris stopped any
Scottish Dentonish momentum with a combined tackle count of 26.
If you needed proof it’s impossible to compete with 14 men in international rugby, here it was. But can the Welsh take anything from it? Not really. Not to discredit some individual performances (George North, as above; Jamie Roberts too was at his usual barnstorming best), but you suspect a solid 20-point victory over a competitive 15-man Scotland would have meant more than what turned out to be farcical game of rugby.
Looking forward, Wales’ next fixture, on their summer tour to South Africa, will be a little harder.
France 20-22 Ireland
This was the old French stereotype at its most stereotypical. Woeful away form turned into exciting, running rugby in Paris as they pushed the would-be champions Ireland to the very last play of the game.
A French willingness to keep the ball alive saw them offload the ball 16 times and the power of Louis Picamoles (12 carries over 49 metres) and Mathieu Bastareaud (15 carries over 87 metres) kept Les Bleus moving forward, the latter actually playing his first reasonably decent game of the tournament, particularly giving Brian O’Driscoll a torrid time.
Fly-half Remi Tales, given his first start of the tournament, showed his precision with the kick that lead to Brice Dulin’s try and the back three (two-thirds of it at least) showed it could work as an effective unit. Yoann Huget was on hand to give a perfect tap back to Dulin, while Maxime Medard was nowhere to be seen, presumably enjoying an espresso and a cigarette on the other wing while charming a female member of the crowd with his manly facial hair.
But an improved French display wasn’t enough to see off a rampant Ireland, the likes of Chris Henry and Devin Toner excellent all day long in their persistent work rate with ball in hand and at the breakdown. Both seen as lower down the pecking order than other injured counterparts, Devin Toner has excelled on the international scene with a total of 28 lineout takes over the Championship (including three steals) whilst working hard in the loose with 35 carries and 48 tackles (at a completion rate of 92.5%). Henry, seen very much as an understudy to Sean O’Brien, has also shone, felling anything that moved in an opposition shirt (64 tackles) and racking up six turnovers – and thus forming a deadly pilfering partnership with Peter O’Mahony.
The front row has also surpassed themselves, providing the foundations of the most successful set-piece of the tournament. The French ‘old guard’ of Thomas Domingo and Nicolas Mas looks increasingly, well, old, whereas the Irish pairing of Cian Healy and Mike Ross has wreaked havoc with opposition front rows all tournament. As for Rory Best, his Lions lineout throwing woes are far behind him.
Ireland’s back line is quickly proving it can compete with the best too with Andrew Trimble in particular proving that Irish life goes on without Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, even though he passed up a try in an attempt to put BOD over. As for the great man himself, while the last game wasn’t up there among his best of vintage performances, he rolled back the years with tournament stats of 2 try assists, 11 defenders beaten, 33 carries, 174 metres, 31 tackles and 4 turnovers. Not bad, but BOD!
Until next year.