Super Saturday more than lived up to its name with the final (full) weekend of action delivering some breath-taking rugby and some big talking points…..
Heartbreak in Paris as Wales’ Slam hopes fall at the death
A cruel end to a surprisingly impressive campaign for Wayne Pivac’s Wales, as their somewhat unlikely Grand Slam hopes faded into the Parisian night-sky with Brice Dulin’s last-minute try sealing a famous 32-30 victory for a French side whose title hopes remain intact with one re-arranged match for them still to play. With three yellow cards and a red brandished by referee Luke Pearce in the final quarter alone, it was a crazy end to a hugely entertaining and engrossing game with both sides more than playing their part with rugby of the highest quality. A match that never seemed to come up for air from the start, both sides made a fast start sharing two tries apiece with the scores level at 14-14 at the end of the first quarter. Having seen France take an early lead twice through tries from Romain Taofifenua and Antoine Dupont – the latter courtesy of some wonderfully executed play between Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert – Wales responded in kind first through Dan Biggar’s well-timed run on to a flat Gareth Davies pass and then from Josh Navidi’s close-range effort. From there Wales continued to impress and grew into the game, mixing their play up effectively with centres George North and Jonathan Davies making inroads in midfield and wingers Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit coming off their wings to great effect. Couple that with a strong set-piece platform and Wales were producing some of their best rugby of the Wayne Pivac era. After a hectic opening quarter, a penalty apiece from Biggar and Jalibert meant the two sides went into the break level at 17-17, but with the visitors looking the more composed all-be-it against a threatening France side. Wales returned for the second-half with much the same confidence as they had shown in the opening 40 and it wasn’t long before another scoring chance came their way. After some exquisite footballing skills from flanker Justin Tipuric, Josh Adams’ kick-through was gathered by replacement scrum-half Tomos Williams before offloading to Adams who forced his way over the line with a couple of desperate French defenders around him. After a lengthy TMO check referee Pearce awarded the try, with Dan Biggar adding the extras to go with another penalty that saw Wales push out to a ten-point lead with half-an-hour to play. Maintaining their second-half dominance, Wales went about adding to their lead and when a rolling maul charged towards the French line it looked for all money that the Welsh pack would roll over the line for a bonus-point score, only for French prop Mohamed Haouas to cynically collapse the driving maul. With Pearce playing advantage, Williams fizzed a pass out wide where Rees-Zammit produced a stunning acrobatic finish in the corner only for TMO Wayne Barnes to confirm that the ball had brushed the touchline on grounding. Resisting the urge to award a penalty try, Pearce yellow-carded Haouas and with Biggar kicking the subsequent penalty Wales had a thirteen point lead and a one-man advantage as they went into the final quarter. From there however things took a turn for the worse as a dangerous France side finally woke up in attack and went gunning for the Welsh line in pursuit of the tries that would get them back into the game. After a long spell of attacking pressure and some gutsy defending from Wales, it looked as if Brice Dulin had got his side back into the game with a try, however the officials went back for a look at ruck clear-out which subsequently showed that French lock Paul Willemse’s fingers had made contact with Wyn Jones’ eye when clearing out the Welshman. With the footage conclusive Pearce had no option but to red-card Willemse and rule out the French try. By now the Slam looked on for Wales but their discipline let them down at a crucial period as first Taulupe Faletau and then Liam Williams were yellow-carded in quick succession leaving them to play the final seven minutes with thirteen men against France’s 14. The hosts continued to pound the Welsh defensive line until finally their numerical advantage paid dividends as captain Charles Ollivon snuck over to score with the resulting conversion leaving France three points behind with just over three minutes to play. With Wales under the cosh the comeback was on, but with barely two minutes left France lost possession and Wales looked to see the remaining 90 seconds out by holding the ball and going through the phases. Yet even more drama was to come when replacement lock Cory Hill gave away a penalty allowing France one final opportunity to attack, from which despite the best efforts of the Welsh defence the ball was moved out wide where full-back Dulin was able to run in for the game-clinching try that denied Wales the win that would have secured another Grand Slam. An incredible end to an incredible match, played at break-neck speed by two top-class international sides. A heart-breaking end for Wales who had up until the last ten minutes produced their best performance of the championship, but poor discipline and game management in the final stages ultimately cost them dear. For France a miraculous comeback that looked very unlikely after sixty minutes keeps them in contention for the title, although needing to beat Scotland by 21 points and with a try bonus-point they will need to be at their swashbuckling best if they are to wrestle the title away from Welsh hands.
Ireland overpower Eddie’s England in one-sided Dublin encounter
Just a few hours before the action in Paris got underway there was the small matter of Ireland and England meeting to end their campaigns at the Aviva. With both sides having two wins apiece from their four games and potential Lions spots at stake, neither side’s players were guilty of having nothing to play for. It was Eddie Jones’ England who started the better though in Dublin with an early spell of pressure inside the Irish half eventually resulting in a penalty that Owen Farrell kicked to give England the lead. That lead did not last long though with Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton answering back with with a penalty of his own to tie the score up. As the opening quarter ticked by the game didn’t have to wait much longer for the opening try as Ireland opened England up with a wonderful piece of set-piece improvisation. Hooker Rob Herring deliberately overthrew a line-out from which No.8 Jack Conan patted the ball down to an onrushing Keith Earls who accelerated through the gap before showing impressive footwork to step around English winger Jonny May to score a well-executed try. Farrell and Sexton once again traded penalties before Ireland were rewarded for a strong first-half performance with a second try just before the break. This time provider turned finisher as Jack Conan rounded off another great Irish attacking move that started with full-back Hugo Keenan expertly beating opposite number Elliot Daly to a high ball inside England’s 22, from which they moved the ball left at speed where after a couple of phases Conan stretched over the line from close-range. With a commanding 20-6 lead at the break, Ireland were in control and with England struggling to mount any sort of meaningful comeback Sexton extended Ireland’s lead with two more penalties as the game ticked over the hour mark. Having dominated at the breakdown against an ill-disciplined opponent, Ireland’s own discipline let them down as Bundee Aki was red-carded for making contact with Billy Vunipola’s head in the tackle. England soon made the most of their advantage with scrum-half Ben Youngs darting over from the blindside of an English 5metre scrum to cut the deficit and offer hope of an unlikely comeback, but England’s poor discipline once again undermined them as Sexton kicked a further two penalties to ensure that Jonny May’s finish in the corner late on was merely a consolation try for the English. A comprehensive win for Andy Farrell’s improving Ireland who made it three consecutive wins in the championship with an imposing display that saw the likes of Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton steal a march on their opposite numbers in the battle for Lions selection. More masterful individual performances from Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw – Ireland’s two best performers in the tournament – should have ensured they too will make the tour to South Africa, whilst for England a fifth place finish that yielded defeats to Scotland, Wales and Ireland leaves Eddie Jones and his coaching staff in a perilous position with many questions to answer as to why his side have played so poorly this season.
Scots run in record win over hapless Italians
After back-to-back home defeats to Celtic rivals Wales and Ireland, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland returned to winning ways in style at Murrayfield with a record win over an Italian side who will just be glad to see the end of this tournament. After another woeful championship for the Azzurri, the win was never in doubt for the hosts even if Italy did open the scoring early on with captain Luca Bigi barrelling his way over from a rolling maul. Unsurprisingly the early lead did not last long with Scotland hooker Dave Cherry matching Bigi with his own try from a Scottish rolling maul. From there Scotland simply moved through the gears with wingers Duhan Van der Merwe and Darcy Graham finishing off impressive attacking moves before with Italy a man down to a yellow card more bold Scottish attacking this time from their own half resulted in Huw Jones racing in for the bonus point try with just under half-an-hour played. With Scotland cruising, the second-half became something of a procession with Cherry grabbing his second try from another rolling maul before after another Italy yellow card, scrum-half Scott Steele fought his way over from close-range for a maiden test try. A third Italian yellow card followed this time for winger Monty Ioane with Sam Johnson scoring Scotland’s seventh try whilst he was away, before a rare Italy attack was thwarted with replacement scrum-half Ali Price showing impressive speed to break away downfield where he offloaded to Van der Merwe who cantered away from any covering defenders to seal a convincing and much-needed win for the Scots, who after a mixed campaign will hope to finish with a flourish with a win in Paris on Friday night.
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