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Six Nations: Title race thrown wide open

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After an enthralling round of fixtures at the weekend, four teams are now level on points and battling to win the championship. John Hodgson dissects the three games and looks at how the rest of the tournament could pan out:

Wales v France

George North. Photo: uk.eurosport.yahoo.com
George North. Photo: uk.eurosport.yahoo.com

Wales were able to dismantle a disjointed French side in Cardiff on Friday night. Tries from the ever-impressive George North and the rejuvenated Sam Warburton coupled with Leigh Halfpenny’s boot proved too much for an out-of-sorts Les Bleus side.

Wales were impressive all round and the eye-catching performances of their veteran Lions props, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, suggest that a pursuit of a record third straight Championship is back on track. They won the gain-line collisions and were far more combative at the breakdown. Along with Warburton’s impressive display, the return to form of Dan Lydiate will also be encouraging for Warren Gatland’s men.

The French were poor. They seemed more to resemble the Wooden Spoon side from their 2013 Six Nations shambles than the one many were touting for this year’s title.

A clear lack of direction from inexperienced first fiveeighth Jules Plisson continues to place scrutiny on Saint Andre’s decision to leave out proven Montpellier Stand-off François Trinh-Duc. Perhaps it was more luck than judgement that allowed them to prevail over England as their flaws were drastically exposed in Cardiff.

Italy v Scotland

A dramatic late drop goal from Fly Half Duncan Weir broke Italian hearts in the Eternal City on Saturday afternoon. The composed strike from the Glasgow outside half capped off an impressive comeback from the visitors. The win will go some way to silencing the vehement criticism of Scott Johnson’s men while the Azzurri appear to be heading for their 10th wooden spoon in 15 tournaments.

Italy were typically powerful up-front in the scrum and the talismanic Sergio Parisse continued to set an immense example for his team as he broke the Italian caps record. The captain, along with teammate Martin Castrogiovanni, became the joint most-capped player in the national team’s history. Elsewhere, Fly-Half Tommaso Allan was effective in attack for the home side but his defensive lapses at important times were crucial in allowing the visitors back into the game.

The return of Richie Gray to partner Jim Hamilton was significant for Scotland as they were able to drastically improve a line-out game that had been non-existent against England. What will be most encouraging for Johnson’s men was the build-up play that led to Alex Dunbar’s second try as it contained the sort of flair and off-loading capability that has been missing in recent outings.

England v Ireland

Mike Brown. Photo: uk.eurosport.com
Mike Brown. Photo: uk.eurosport.yahoo.com

England edged a titanic contest at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.  Danny Care’s converted try cancelled out an early second half score from Rob Kearney to give the Red Rose a well earned home win.

Most people predicted that the contest would be won at the scrum with Irishman Cian Healy expected to expose David Wilson’s lack of match sharpness. However, except for the occasional reverse, Wilson held his own and this went some way to deciding the contest.

Courtney Lawes was outstanding at the line-out as he impressively out-played Irish veteran Paul O’Connell both in the set-piece and in the loose. Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw led England’s monumental defensive game, which was epitomised by the former’s tap-tackle on Dave Kearney in the dying stages of the contest.

Man of the Match Mike Brown continued his imperious form as he put in another match-winning performance. He can surely start to be mentioned in the same bracket as the likes of Kiwi full-back Israel Dagg as one of the world’s best 15’s.

England’s win throws the Championship race wide open and highlights the growing class of the likes of Brown, Robshaw, Dylan Hartley, Lawes and Launchbury who all deserve mentions for exceptional performances.

Ireland were left to wonder where Sexton’s exquisite kicking game went at crucial points in the contest. His over-hit restart was a real momentum changer as he was unable to recreate his match-winning kicking form that was so central in their victory over Wales. Despite the loss, the Irish remain top of the table but England have seized some initiative by prevailing in this absorbing contest.

Predictions

Wooden Spoon: It is hard to see beyond the long-suffering Italians who have made this accolade their own over the years. With Ireland and England to play, the situation looks bleak for the Azzuri.

Eventual Winners: The head says Ireland but the heart says England. Much depends on England’s massive game against Wales at H.Q but, if they prevail, I can see them just nicking it.

Despite their superior points difference, Ireland have to go to Paris on the final weekend, somewhere they notoriously struggle. Wales and France are still in contention but I would wager that we saw the Champions play in that classic at Twickenham on Saturday.

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