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6 Nations Review

In Rugby Union on February 15, 2010 at 10:31 pm

The second weekend of Six Nations action gave us a comeback for the ages, a statement from the French and a dogfight in Rome.

Yannick Jauzion crosses for a French try

We’ll start in Paris, where a focussed French XV made a mockery of Ireland’s 15 month unbeaten run. Losing at St Denis is no cause for shame, but the manner in which Ireland were broken down was very discouraging.

For the first quarter, they were right in the game. It looked as though we might be headed for classic 80 minutes as the two favourites duked it out. Alas, it was not to be. Irish indiscipline handed the keys to the home side, and they didn’t take their foot off the gas until the game was won.

There were a few key plays in the opening period which Ireland never recovered from. It’s far too simplistic to say ‘everything went against them’, because a lot of the damage was self inflicted. The bounce of the ball as D’Arcy zeroed in on the line was definitely just ‘one of those things’, but it was a poor chase which opened the door for the opening score of the game.

It was Tommy Bowe this time who opted for a predictable up and under, but when he was beaten to the ball by a soaring Harinordoquy, the back rower was presented with an acre of open field. A French counter attack is one of rugby’s most inspiring sights – unless you’re on the other end of it. This one ended badly for Cian Healy, who couldn’t resist tugging a French arm off the ball for a deserved yellow card.

Morgan Parra made no mistake with the penalty, but Ireland had the chance to level matters just a few minutes later. Or rather, they would have, had it not been for a moment of madness from hooker Jerry Flannery. He scythed down Alexis Palisson to sound the death knell for the winger’s afternoon, and posibly his own Six Nations. The resulting penalty put France in a great position to capitalise. They duly did so after a series of crushing scrums near the Ireland line. 10-0 down after 25 minutes was exactly where Ireland did not want to be. But it was indiscipline that got them there.

Scrum half Morgan Parra impressed in Paris

O’Gara gave his side hope with a penalty from the restart, but once the French went 17-3 up it was practically game over. Yannick Jauzion’s try had its origins in a rare communication breakdown in the green midfield wall. Matthieu Bastareaud was sent right between the centres as a gap yawned in front of him, and it was just a matter of moments before Jauzion was streaking through to finish.

There will be much food for thought for the Irish backroom staff, and this is where they must prove their worth. Time and again Ireland knocked on in French territory, and while many of the miscues can be put down to individual errors, there was a worrying lack of shape to their attacks. When they reached the red zone, the only ideas seemed to be telegraphed pick and go’s from the base of the ruck or long, deep passes out the backs.

They have weapons in this area, but seemed clueless as to how they should be deployed. Wallace, Ferris and Heaslip are punishing ball carriers who should be picked out charging hard at space on the gain line. At the very least, they will suck men in and afford the backs some space with which to work. With the centres and finishers we have out wide, flat passes and hard angles should be used when the ball does go wide. Instead, it was all predictable and stagnant. Ill-judged chips and grubbers came to nought, static ball carriers were swallowed up by a mass of defenders, and laboured passing moves were engulfed by a tide of blue.

Some of this can be put down to the slow ruck ball and a lack of direction from the under par half backs, but there didn’t seem to be any plan. The mantra after a defeat like this is always that the team ‘will learn some lessons’. Well they are there to be learned, so let’s hope they are.

Healy’s yellow can be put down to inexperience, but he is developing a streak of indiscipline that must be stamped out. Flannery’s chop was as inexcusable as it was inexplicable, and he should be handed a few weeks off to think things over. Intentional or not, there is no place for dangerous play like that on a rugby field.

Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll was unable to turn the tide

Those two incidents cost Ireland the crucial first 10 points. Hopefully we will see an improvement in that area in future, because Jonny Wilkinson and England thrive on grinding out penalties.

On the positive side of things, there were some good individual performances and the line-out was once again a steady source of ball on both throw-ins. Apart from some poorly timed defensive shoots, O’Driscoll again looked lively with ball in hand. His midfield partner D’Arcy was probably our best performer, while the back row showed up well in the loose and Flannery also had a good game apart from his indiscretion.

Along with a predictability in attack and a lack of discipline in defence, the third factor that really killed Irish chances was unforced errors. 19 was the count on the day, and the amount of knock-ons became almost comical towards the end. Every promising break and attacking move seemed to flounder as a pass was knocked on or an off-load tumbled forlornly to the turf.

Declan Kidney’s side have vastly improved their ball skills in the last few years, and while they may not be quite on a par with some of the continuity shown by the Kiwis and French at their best, they are a lot more advanced than they looked on Saturday. A lot of the handling mistakes can be put down to a combination of French pressure and a simple bad day at the office for Ireland. Bad days will happen, but when the opponents are as fired up and on song as they were on Saturday it will invariably get messy.

This Irish side may not be the best in the world, but rest assured they are not as bad as this. In the same way that they can beat anyone on their day, there are quite a few teams they are still vulnerable to should they not perform. A non-performance combined with a French masterclass added up to a 23 point loss. A points deficit that big means that any Championship hopes are now probably at an end, but the Triple Crown is a possibility, and would go a long way towards repairing the damage.

The first, and possibly most difficult, leg of that mission starts at Twickenham. If the team show up looking like they have learned from Paris, then a win is most definitely on the cards. Tomas O’Leary will come under pressure after a poor performance, but will probably retain his place for the time being. His halfback partner O’Gara may not be so lucky though. Dropping him for Sexton now is not nearly as big a call as it was in November, and Kidney may well make it.

Mathew Tait breaks free for the only try of the game in Rome

England will be going for a Grand Slam of their own this year, with a win over Ireland setting them up for the Scottish in Murrayfield and then a possible decider in Paris. They have some glaring problems though.

One of those is at out-half.

Admirable performer though he is, Jonny Wilkinson’s inability to make full use of the talent outside him is becoming a real frustration for fans of this side. After an opening game where he made a scarcely believable five passes, the English could only muster a single try in Rome. Strangely, he also looked out of sorts with the boot, missing three kicks you would expect him to land with ease.

Unfortunately for Martin Johnson, he doesn’t have a huge amount of options. Toby Flood is a viable alternative, but is hardly the dynamic game-breaker that would inspire optimism. Shane Geraghty is unlikely to be deemed ready for a showdown with Ireland. Meanwhile, Danny Cipriani seems to have regressed into a self absorbed world which Johnson clearly wants nowhere near his camp. Wilkinson will almost certainly start in Twickenham then, but should England lose without showing any spark again, then Flood will probably get his chance and Geraghty will be groomed for the future.

The game in Rome was uncomfortably close, with Matt Tait’s try the only difference in the end. It came as a result of a sharp break from Monye, who linked with Delon Armitage to send the youngster on his way. Monye looked sharp all day, while Cueto also punched holes and Riki Flutey threatened to run riot a few times. Along with Armitage, Tait and the ever alert Danny Care, Wilkinson seems very much the odd one out.

The Italians must be due some credit though, as they proved last week’s tenacity was not a once off. Yet again, they were harshly treated by the referee as Martin Castrogiovanni saw yellow. They are not popular with the officials, and, like last week, had a right to feel unfairly victimised.

They still badly miss a cutting edge though, and with a lack of pace and creativity in the backline they will find it very hard to win games. They have a shell-shocked Scotland up next though, and will fancy their chances of taking a tight game in Rome.

Welsh players celebrate Shane Williams' injury time score

The Scots put in one of their most impressive performances in years in the Millenium Stadium. Incredibly though, it was all to no avail.

Dan Parks was their inspiration, as he put in an all-action man of the match performance. If he can reproduce this kind of form on a regular basis, then Andy Robinson will have found a huge piece of his puzzle going forward.

Having not scored a try in three games, Parks helped lay on two in the first half. John Barclay is one of their batter players, and he showed what he’s capable of with a rib-busting charge through some flimsy Welsh tackles. That give his side the belief they needed. Max Evans then profited from a perfectly weighted grubber from Parks, doing exceptionally well to touch down in the corner.

Wales looked awful in the first half, and trailing 21-9, they looked as though they were headed for defeat. They were deeply indebted to the Scots unfamiliarity with closing out games though, as they self-destructed in the closing minutes.

John Barclay powers through for an early score

A moment of magic from Shane Williams had finally opened up the dogged navy resistance, but Parks answered with a penalty. 24-14 ahead with 73 minutes on the clock, Scot Lawson brainlessly got himself binned. the Welsh went wide to close the gap just a few minutes later.

Down to 14, the Scots were struggling badly, and it was Jamie Roberts who unlocked them again seconds later with a breathtaking offload to Lee Byrne. His chip through caused Phil Godman to impede his progress, and the Scots were down to 13 as Stephen Jones dragged his side level with the boot.

The main talking point afterwards was of Godman’s ‘trip’. The Scots claimed it was unintentional and Byrne made a meal of it. This smacks of bitterness though. Godman leapt into the air with the ball already past him, and he was trying to get something in the way of Byrne. Whether Byrne collapsed too easily is a moot point. It seems unlikely that he dived though, as the contact looked hefty enough on replay, and he would have wanted to carry on and score the winning try that was very much on the cards.

It was hard to feel anything but immense sympathy for the gallant Scottish side, as they kicked deep down the middle in their punch drunk optimism. With a two man advantage, Wales showed how it’s done as they marched 80 metres in injury time to break Scottish hearts.

Andy Robinson admitted they ‘committed suicide’ by not launching the drop-out dead to end the match. His mood will not have been improved by the news that Rory Lamont, Chris Paterson and Thom Evans will miss the rest of the tournament, Evans after a sickening collision which left him needing neck surgery.

With Dan Parks also limping out, their filleted side could be ripe for the picking if they don’t bring the same intensity into the Italian game.

Wales meanwhile, will be buoyed by their late comeback as they head for their Friday night collision with the French. You’d have to favour les Bleus in that one, but the Welsh will be dangerous in Cardiff and they could catch France cold in what is traditionally one of the most entertaining clashes of the tournament.

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