In this year’s penultimate round of fixtures, there was more exciting action as title hopes were dashed and pride was restored…..
Wales run riot in Rome to set up Grand Slam finale in Paris
With a surprise Triple Crown secured with victory over England in round three, Wayne Pivac’s Wales arrived in the eternal city looking to keep their Grand Slam hopes on track and did so with an emphatic triumph over a poor Italian side. With Pivac resisting the urge to make wholesale changes for the match, a strong-looking Wales side went about getting the job done early in Rome with a fast start. Attacking at will, the Italians had no answer to their opponents and were soon down reduced to 14 men after repeated penalty infringements saw Wayne Barnes reach for the yellow card. Wales quickly took advantage with Dan Biggar firing a lovely pass out wide that wing Josh Adams comfortably took in his stride to score in the corner. Further tries quickly followed with Taulupe Faletau crashing over out wide before hooker Ken Owens scored from the back of a rolling maul. Owens then managed to get his second and Wales’ fourth, breaking away from another Welsh rolling maul to reach over for the score. With a 27-0 lead and the bonus-point already in the bag by half-time, Wales quickly added to their scoring as the second-half began with centre George North taking Jonathan Davies’ offload in midfield before racing in under the posts for try number five. With the game wrapped up, Wales unloaded their bench with one eye on the France game in round five, and unsurprisingly with so many changes Wales lost their rhythm with errors and inaccuracy creeping into their play. Italy did manage to get on the board when some great individual play saw winger Monty Ioane chip over the top out wide before gathering his own kick and scoring in the corner, but they soon were down to 14 men for another ten minutes when replacement Marco Riccion was sin-binned for dangerous use of the elbow. Once again Wales profited from their numerical advantage first through replacement fly-half Callum Sheedy who scored his first test try following some good hands by flanker Josh Navidi, and then through winger Louis Rees-Zammit who intercepted an Italian pass to run in from his own half for Wales’ seventh and final try of the afternoon. A resounding win and a job well done for Wales, although Pivac and his coaches will have been frustrated with a couple of clear try-scoring opportunities going amiss. Despite this they can now look forward and focus on France in round five as they look to wrap up the title and with it secure a fifth Grand Slam in seventeen years.
England end French Slam hopes in pulsating encounter
The most hotly anticipated game of the weekend, and one that most certainly lived up to the hype. After a chastening start to the championship that saw them lose two of their opening three games, pride was at stake for England as the unbeaten France rolled into Twickenham. Following the cancellation of their original round three match with Scotland due to Covid, the French arrived having not played in four weeks, but any hopes that the English had of catching their opponents cold were soon put to bed by a blistering start by the visitors that saw France scrum-half Antoine Dupont gather Teddy Thomas’ kick through to score with barely a minute played. Despite the poor start England rallied and soon pulled level when a spell of pressure inside France’s 22 eventually resulted in winger Anthony Watson being put in for a try in the corner. Discipline has been a problem for England throughout the tournament, but on this occasion it was the French who were guilty of indiscipline as Owen Farrell knocked over two penalties to push England out to a 13-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. As the half wore on France went about responding firstly through a Matthieu Jalibert penalty before a wonderful training-ground move saw France score a sumptuous try off first-phase ball from a lineout just outside England’s 22. A throw over the top of the lineout was gathered by centre Gael Fickou who looked to carry the ball up before deftly laying the ball off to scrum-half Dupont who then released Jalibert in space. With England stretched out wide the French fly-half attacked the line before holding his pass just long enough to commit a defender and leave Damien Penaud with an easy walk in at the corner for a try which will surely go down as the best in this season’s tournament. With Jalibert continuing his 100% success-rate from the kicking tee, a breathless first-half was brought to an end with France holding a narrow 17-13 lead. A bright start from the visitors the second-half soon saw that lead extended as Jalibert knocked over another penalty, and with just half-an-hour remaining the match looked in danger of slipping away from England. However to their credit England responded and cut the deficit through another Owen Farrell penalty before England’s replacements arrived to strengthen England’s cause. With the game finely poised at 20-16 going into the final ten minutes, it was England who grew in prominence thanks to their power of their replacements and strong forward play from an English lineout took England right up to the French try-line before some repeated surges at the line resulted in lock forward Maro Itoje powering over the line for a try that was eventually awarded by the TMO after lengthy discussions to decide whether the ball had been grounded. With Farrell’s conversion pushing England out a 23-20 lead with under five minutes remaining, all England had to do was keep France out and after a tense finish that saw France work their way up to the English 22, Antoine Dupont’s knock-on sealed a much-needed England win in a thoroughly entertaining contest. A deserved win for England who produced arguably their best performance since their 2019 World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand, with flanker Tom Curry and wing Anthony Watson in particular superb throughout. France more than played their part in the game displaying some exquisite rugby, including that magnificently-worked try, but ultimately come up just short although with two home matches against Wales and Scotland still to play their title aspirations remain intact.
Sexton steers Ireland to victory at Murrayfield
With British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland watching on from the Murrayfield stands, there was more than just championship points to play for when Scotland and Ireland met on Sunday. Yet it was the Irish players who came out on top over their Celtic rivals in front of Gatland, with Andy Farrell’s side securing their second consecutive win and ending Scotland’s title hopes for this year. Having been forced to postpone their round three encounter with France, this match was Scotland’s first in four weeks and it showed early on as Ireland made the more positive start with a Johnny Sexton penalty before indecision from the Scottish defence following a Sexton cross-field kick saw Robbie Henshaw dive on a loose ball in Scotland’s in-goal area for the opening try. Scotland gradually fought their way back into the contest with fly-half Finn Russell kicking a penalty before both Stuart Hogg and Russell showed their footballing skills and benefitted from some fortuitous bounces of the ball as Russell scored a try, with the conversion putting Scotland into the lead for the first time. That lead however was quickly lost in the final ten minutes of the first half with Sexton knocking over two Irish penalties to give the visitors a narrow four-point lead at the break. With Scotland struggling at the lineout and breakdown, Ireland quickly went about taking advantage in the second half and increased their lead when flanker Tadhg Beirne crashed over from close range. Sexton converted the try before knocking over another penalty to put Ireland 24-10 ahead approaching the final quarter. With the game fast running away from the hosts, Scotland needed a quick response and got it when some poor defending from Irish backs Hugo Keenan and James Lowe allowed Scottish replacement Huw Jones to power his way through the attempted tackles and score. With Scotland now enjoying their best spell of possession in the match, Gregor Townsend’s side continued to put Ireland under pressure in their 22 and after repeated forward surges close to the Irish line, flanker Hamish Watson fought his way over the line to ground the ball and score with the subsequent conversion levelling the scores at 24-24 with just five minutes remaining. However just as Scotland seemed to be in the ascendancy, they shot themselves in the foot once again with scrum-half Ali Price having a box-kick charged down before conceding a penalty which Sexton kicked to give Ireland a slender but deserved win. Another poor home showing from Scotland whose game management once again let them down in an error-strewn display that puts paid to any lingering hopes they had of securing an elusive Six Nations title. Ireland were outstanding, producing one of their best performances of Farrell’s reign. Led expertly by their captain Sexton, whose nerveless kicking from the tee proved the difference, Ireland hounded Scotland into mistakes all afternoon and were clinical when chances came their way with a number of players – most notably Beirne and Henshaw – doing their Lions credentials the world of good with starring roles.
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