With just two rounds of fixtures to go in the 2017 Six Nations, results in the third round of fixtures between the European nations have presented a much clearer picture of where this year’s tournament will be won and lost. A decisive weekend of fixtures where title hopes went up in smoke for some, whilst others reignited their championship credentials, there was much to talk about from three intriguing matches. So what did we learn from these performances?
Scots’ enterprise and imagination too much for the Welsh
Having failed to beat Wales since 2007, Vern Cotter’s Scotland ended that dreadful sequence of results with an emphatic victory over a Welsh side who produced their most abject display of the tournament so far. With Rob Howley’s side having somehow managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in their previous match against England, it was no surprise that Wales came flying out of the blocks at Murrayfield. With both sides having traded a few early penalties, the visitors crossed the try-line first as quick thinking from Wales No.9 Rhys Webb saw the Welsh backs move the ball across the field before Leigh Halfpenny timed his pass just right to give Liam Williams space to dive in at the corner. In a first-half devoid of clear-cut try-scoring opportunities, Wales’ superiority at the breakdown was giving them the edge with Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in particular excelling with their tackling and work on the floor. A couple more penalties from either side saw the Welsh go in at the break with a slender 13-9 lead, a disappointing return from a half where they always seemed in control. The Welsh disappointment soon escalated at the start of the second half with Scotland the side coming out all guns blazing, as following good work from backs Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser, Scottish wing Tommy Seymour squeezed in for a try in the corner under pressure from Welsh defenders. With Russell adding the extras from out wide, Cotter’s men now had a 16-13 lead and never looked back with flanker Hamish Watson playing like a man possessed as the Scottish back-row began to usurp their opposite numbers in the Welsh back-row. After holding back the inevitable Welsh onslaught, another penalty from fly-half Russell gave the hosts some breathing space before expert handling from the peerless Hogg put Visser in for the crucial score that took the game beyond the Welsh. As if to emphasise the fortunes of the two sides in the second-half, Scotland ran out convincing winners in the end scoring 20 unanswered points with Wales failing to register a single point as they meekly surrendered their title aspirations. In contrast, Scotland travel to face England in a week’s time not only with their title prospects still intact, but also chasing a first Triple Crown in 17 years. The difference in the second-half was clear to see, with Scotland’s back division always seeming to be on the same wavelength in attack, whilst Rhys Webb’s failure to hold on to Jonathan Davies’ offload after a promising break from the latter was indicative of a Welsh backline who seemed unsure of what each other were doing in attack. With a tough-looking match to come in Cardiff against title-chasing Ireland, much soul-searching will have been done over the past week and coming days within the Welsh camp with confidence seemingly at an all-time low amongst both players and supporters, whilst for Scotland all roads lead to Twickenham and a possible tilt at an unlikely championship title.
Irish half-backs lead the way against improving French
In another game that neither side dare lose if they wanted to remain in the title hunt, the return of fly-half Jonny Sexton for Ireland was enough to see them edge out Guy Noves’ France in Dublin. A fixture where bruising encounters have been a common theme over the last few years, this game was never likely to be a high-scoring affair and so it proved with Irish scrum-half Conor Murray going over for the only try of the match 30 minutes in. In previous years, a half-back combination as deadly as that of Murray and Sexton would have put France well and truly to the sword, but under Guy Noves this French side are growing in confidence and stature and whilst the performances from the Irish duo swung the game the way of the hosts, France caused the Irish plenty of problems along the way. The visitors started the game with a spring in their step following a first win of this campaign against Scotland in the previous round, and with young scrum-half Baptiste Serin keeping the Ireland defence on their toes, it was perhaps no surprise that Noves’ side went closest to crossing the try-line in the first-half. A cross-field kick from fly-half Camille Lopez looked to have set up the first try of the match for centre Remi Lamerat only for the referee to pull it back correctly for a knock-on from Lamerat’s centre partner Gael Fickou. Whilst the try didn’t come, Camille Lopez softened the blow from the kicking tee, guiding his side into an early 6-0 lead with two penalties. Their lead did not last long however with the returning Sexton brushing off the cobwebs by pulling the strings effectively to push his side deep into the French half. Having forced their way into France’s 22 the pressure eventually told with scrum-half Murray darting over from close range. From then on in it was the Sexton show with the Leinster fly-half punishing any French indiscipline with accurate kicking from the tee, as well as showing his confidence and impressive nerve by nailing a long-range drop-goal early in the second-half to edge the home side further in front. Having contributed 11 points through his goal-kicking and put his team in a great position to close out a hard-fought win, Sexton received rapturous applause from the home support as he left the field with ten minutes to play. Having deputised for Sexton impressively in the opening two matches, replacement Paddy Jackson carried on from where he left off by sealing the win for Joe Schmidt’s side with a penalty late on securing a 19-9 victory. With Sexton back in the swing of things, Ireland will travel to Cardiff confident of keeping alive their title hopes especially with scrum-half Murray in such exceptional form. Schmidt’s side have recovered well from their opening-day defeat to the Scots with a crushing victory over Italy followed up by a win over the French, and with the possibility of ending England’s long unbeaten run as well as winning the championship at the Aviva in the final round of fixtures, the Irish will not be lacking for motivation over the coming weeks. For France, there will be inevitable disappointment at another missed opportunity following on from their narrow loss to England at Twickenham in round one, but Noves seems to be finally building a settled side with a clear structure and with games against two teams low in confidence to come, there is cause for optimism that they can enjoy a strong finish to the championship.
England left frustrated by Italian innovation
A bonus-point victory for the defending champions against a team that had shipped nearly 100 points in their first two matches was hardly surprising. However, anyone who watched the match will tell you that Eddie Jones’ side by no means had everything go their way at Twickenham against a battling Italian side implementing a tactic that left England’s players dumbfounded and for large parts of the game unable to find the answer to pull away from their plucky opponents. Throughout the match, with Italy committing no men to the rucks when defending, this allowed the Italians to stick a man in a seemingly offside position alongside England’s attackers leaving scrum-half Danny Care in a bizarre situation by which looking up to see a blue jersey camped in with the many white shirts of his team-mates. Clearly rattled by this England’s first-half performance left much to be desired with Owen Farrell uncharacteristically poor with his goal-kicking. Having crossed the whitewash early on with prop forward Dan Cole scoring from a rolling maul, many would have expected the hosts to pull away for a convincing win but to their credit Italy stuck with their opponents. With the game neatly poised at 5-3 at the end of the first-half the Azzurri got a big slice of luck when Tommaso Allan’s penalty came off a post before landing in the arms of the onrushing Italy wing Venditti who gleefully caught the ball and burrowed his way over for a try underneath the posts. 10-5 down, England came out for the second-half clearly with Jones’ half-time words still ringing in their ears with first Danny Care and then Elliot Daly going over as the hosts regained the lead. By now, England looked well on their way but Italy once again stormed back with centre Michele Campagnaro benefitting from poor defending to score a try that left England heading into the final quarter nervously looking over their shoulders with a 17-15 lead to protect. Still struggling to come to terms with Italy’s unusual tactics, England eventually settled nerves with replacement Jack Nowell scoring a brace of tries before Ben Teo’o added some gloss to the score-line with his second try in two Six Nations games at Twickenham. In the end it was job done for England but a final score-line of 36-15 very much flattered the hosts. After the match, England coach Eddie Jones was critical of the Italian tactics, although a more pressing concern may be another patchy display from his side following two unconvincing wins at the start of the tournament. Despite all that, England are still on course for a second consecutive Grand Slam under Jones’ leadership, and any sports team that wins when playing poorly is one to fear. England will know they need to improve from recent performances, with both Scotland and Ireland providing sterner tests than what they have faced before in this year’s tournament. For Italy, yet another defeat and with not even a solitary losing bonus point to show from their three defeats so far, things do not look good. However with Conor O’Shea and his coaching staff receiving plenty of praise for their innovative tactics the signs are there that under O’Shea Italy may be heading in the right direction.