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6 Nations Round-Up

In Rugby Union on February 11, 2010 at 4:03 pm

As expected, Ireland got their 6 Nations campaign off to a winning start on Saturday. But it wasn’t pretty. It rarely is against Italy, but with just over half an hour on the clock and the scoreline reading 23-3 to the home side, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a few more tries and some padding for the points differential.

Instead, Italy managed to win the remainder of the game 8-6, as the Irish performance sank in a morass of negative play. The stats say that they kicked 61% of possession, but it must have been closer to 80% in a soul-sapping second half that highlighted all that is wrong with rugby these days.

Italy had huge problems in the lineout

Despite referee Roman Poite having a reasonable day with the whistle, confusion still reigned at the breakdown. Ireland received one penalty straight from a kick-off which could have gone either way with O’Connell and Del Fava both wrestling for a ball on the deck, and on another occasion Ireland were awarded a highly dubious scrum deep in Italian territory almost before Luke McLean had hit the deck. These quirks discourage teams from running the ball from anywhere in their own half, and lead to prolonged bouts of aerial phony warfare which seem to make up the majority of games these days.

General frustrations aside, there were definite positives for Ireland. They showed some stout defence in the early stages, and some real spark in attack at times, generally from their celestial number 13. Ronan O’Gara also stood up and took his opportunity in the absence of Jonathan Sexton. He kicked a perfect six from six and will deservedly hold onto his place. Up front, the scrum held its own and they dominated in the lineout, while Kevin McLaughlin showed up well on his international debut. He’s not Stephen Ferris, but that can hardly be held against him. He carried with authority at times while making some good hits, and was first to a large number of rucks. He can consider himself very unlucky to miss out on the squad for Paris, but he will have other chances to impress.

Unfortunately, there were also a number of negative aspects to Ireland’s play. Rob Kearney clearly has some concentration issues, and this was one of his worst performances in the green. Recently, an out-half who has played with and against him over the years told me that he usually starts off by giving him an easy up and under. When he has time to think, so the theory goes, he is more prone to error than when he is acting instinctively. That would explain why he is capable of dominating in the back yard of the World Champions one day, and looking second rate at home to Italy the next. I fully expect him to step up in Paris next week, but performing when it seemingly matters less is something that will hopefully come with experience.

Ronan O'Gara performed well to cement his place

Tomas O’Leary is another player who will need to improve next weekend. He took his try well, but made some poor decisions from the base of the ruck which could have cost his side against better opposition. His box kicking is still a work in progress, and he has a tendency to fire out risky passes when he would be better advised to hang on to the ball.

While most of the individual performances were steady, if pedestrian, the general tactic of kicking away that much possession can hopefully be put down to the lethargy caused by having the game wrapped up by the half hour mark and a lack of match practice. This was the team’s first outing together since November, and hopefully Saturday’s game helped blow the dust off a few combinations.

Certainly, the centre partnership looked to be firing well, as they combined brilliantly to send Jamie Heaslip over for the opening try. The pack as a whole struggled to secure quick ball, but they were up against masterful spoilers. With an extra ball carrier coming into the back row in the shape of Stephen Ferris, they will need to blast those rucks to provide the backs with attacking options on Saturday. Limiting Dusautoir will be key. Any time the ball popped out quickly, the Irish threatened, despite struggling to get Tommy Bowe into the game.

For the French test, Keith Earls replaces Andrew Trimble on the wing in the only back shuffle from Croke Park. There’s not much to choose between Earls and the Ulsterman on current form, although the Lion may provide more of a broken field threat. He will need to be alert to keep tabs on the French back three. Ominously, Vincent Clerc has been recalled with Alexis Palisson coming in on the other wing.

These changes will almost certainly strengthen the French side, as Fall looked a little overawed on his debut at Murrayfield. He was bypassed a few times on the outside, and struggled to get involved going forward. Along with the injured Aurelien Rougerie, he drops out of the squad, with Julien Malzieu taking the vacant spot on the bench. The only other change Lievremont has made to his squad is on the bench, where Sylvain Marconnet takes over from Luke Ducalcon, who also picked up a knock against the Scots.

Mathieu Bastareaud notched two tries on his return to the French side

France looked far from unbeatable in Edinburgh as they laboured to an 18-9 win. You got the sense that they were playing in first gear though, as coach Emile N’tamack intimated afterwards. Young centre Matthieu Bastareaud crossed for the only two tries of the game and he and Yannick Jauzion will give their Irish counterparts a serious challenge. Morgan Parra also played very well, and his understanding with Trinh-Duc in the no.10 jersey continues to blossom.

It should be a nail-biter in Paris, But the French will again target our front row. Healy, Hayes and Flannery stood up well to the Italians, even earning a few penalties against one of the toughest units around. It won’t get any easier on Saturday though. The back row battle will also be a fiery affair with Dusautoir, Harinordoquy and Ouedraogo forming a formidable barrier to Irish hopes.

It will be the game of the weekend, but Ireland have a poor record in Paris and might just falter if the French play like they are capable.

In the weekend’s other games, England should cruise to a win over the Italians. Their match against the Welsh was hardly a classic, but was still the most entertaining 80 minutes of the opening round by far. The most impressive aspect was the enhanced cohesion in the pack. Central to this was a vastly improved performance from captain Steve Borthwick. Dylan Hartley is also a dynamic presence in the front row, while their back row is made up of tough competitors.

James Haskell is part of a combative English back row

Danny Care also provides a threat from scrum half, and the return of Riki Flutey at inside centre should help boost the creativity in the back line. If they can create chances, they have the finishers out wide. Question marks still remain over Jonny Wilkinson’s ability to fire the backs though, as he too often stands deep and limits his side’s options, and rarely let the ball outside him against Wales. That shouldn’t be a problem against Italy, but if they hope to keep Championship chances alive against Ireland in a few weeks time then they will need to score tries.

Wales meanwhile, will be out for blood as they prepare a fiery welcome for Scotland.

Their lack of power up front was exposed by the English, who took advantage of the absence of Gethin Jenkins to score a back-breaking try on the stroke of half time. James Haskell took the final plunge over the line after a strong series of forward drives that really hurt the Welsh. Although the men in red came back from 20-3 down to close the gap to 20-17, they’d left themselves too much to do. Stephen Jones’ late intercept came as they flung the ball around in desperation.

They’ve made two changes for the game against Scotland, with Jonathan Thomas taking over from Luke Charteris in the second row and Leigh Halfpenny returning on the wing. Jones has called on his side to show a big improvement after their error strewn effort in Twickenham, and he should get a response.

Prop Adam Jones goes over to close the gap

The Scots, on the other hand, were lucky not to concede more to a superior French team last weekend, but had they mustered a score towards the end then they would have been in with a chance of a result. They’ve rung the changes, bringing Dan Parks back in place of Phil Godman, with Euan Murray returning to the front row. Max Evans also misses out, with Rory Lamont coming in on the wing and brother Sean reverting to the centre. Jim Hamilton also replaces the injured Nathan Hines in the engine room.

It probably won’t be enough to avoid defeat to a hurting Welsh side, but if they can show some creativity at last then it will be a step in the right direction at least.

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