Lara Hopkins analyses the action from the penultimate weekend of this year’s Six Nations tournament, which saw Ireland, England and France all take victories to set up a three-horse race for the title
Ireland v Italy
With this being Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in a green shirt on Irish soil, everyone, no matter where they were from, was hoping for a vintage performance from the record setting marvel.
From the beginning the number 13 delivered, setting up a try for Jonathan Sexton on the seven minute mark and then another for Andrew Trimble to give Ireland a comfortable 17-7 lead going into the break.
The second half saw a demolition of Italy, with Ireland starving them of the ball through solid lineouts and dominant scrums, resulting with them winning 78% possession and an incredible 83% territory, scoring a further five tries, another assisted by O’Driscoll.
Though Italy took their early try well when given the chance, they never looked like scoring again. With their talismanic captain Sergio Parisse rested for next week and the very experienced prop Martin Castrogiovanni forced off with broken ribs in the early stages, Italy lacked the leadership to keep the game within reach.
This really was the send-off that the legendary O’Driscoll deserved; the Irish crowd gave him a standing ovation when he left the pitch and every time he appeared on the big screen thereafter, showing the respect that his immense 15 year career truly deserves.
Scotland v France
Scotland lost this very mediocre game through poor discipline – though they scored two tries in the first half, they also conceded nine penalties to gift France the nine points which kept the visitors in the game going into the break.
For the second successive week, Scotland showed that they do possess attacking threats across their backline, running in two tries in the first halve, their first at home in two years. However, they also showed great naivety in failing to close out a game against a French team that has lost key players to injury. This was epitomised by the late penalty which gifted the game to France.
For the majority of the game, France were woeful, losing eight of their 14 line-out throws (probably the worst seen in recent international history) and totally lacking control in their game with young fly-half Jules Plisson struggling horribly. If France disintegrate like this next week, then Ireland will waltz home with the championship.
England v Wales
Without the sublime kicking of Leigh Halfpenny, England would have drubbed Wales in the same manner they themselves were pounded in Cardiff last year. The players showed the resilience and ruthless edge they had previously lacked, with Danny Care snatching a very early chance when Wales lacked concentration, diving across the try line to give England a lead which they never relinquished.
What was expected to be a very cagey affair began with both teams ambitiously running the ball and producing exciting rugby. However, as the match slipped away from them, the Welsh back line resorted to aimlessly kicking away possession and, with no kick chase, territory too.
England must be praised; they were dominant across the field, with the work of the lock pairing (Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes) supreme, a front row which forced a yellow card for Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins, and industrious back row, a controlling half-back pairing and a back five whose attacking threat humiliated that of their Lions opponents.
The only slight dampener on this English performance was the number of kickable penalties they gave away. As they progress towards the World Cup, England cannot concede points straight after scoring as they did this weekend, particularly in areas where there is no imminent try scoring threat.
Awards and Predictions
Best Performance: Though his pace has dropped as his years have advanced, Brian O’Driscoll’s quick feet, clever passing and sensational rucking ability have endured. A mention also has to be given to Courtney Lawes, who was not only menacingly superb at the coalface, making crunching tackles and safely securing line-out ball, but also acted like an outside centre at times, giving a spectacular offload which almost resulted in a second try for Luther Burrell.
Biggest Disappointment: Wales. There just isn’t a Plan B. Both Ireland and England have managed to starve the big players of the ball and Wales have failed to cross the line. Their kicking is too poor to get them out of trouble.
Championship Winner: In theory, three teams still have a chance. In reality, with a 49 point advantage over England, the trophy is Ireland’s unless they completely freeze in Paris. However, this remains a possibility as they have only won there once in 42 years of trying, and should they come a cropper once more, England’s point difference should be sufficient to keep them ahead of France – a team who, frankly, don’t deserve to be anywhere near the trophy.
Wooden Spoon: Italy have no chance if England play in the same way they did today, and look set to end the tournament without a win.bookmark me