By Max Mathews
- England end Ireland’s Grand Slam dream and overtake Andy Farrell’s side in standings
- France squeeze past Wales to make it three wins from three
- Scotland outclass fellow strugglers Italy in basement battle
SIX NATIONS – All the talking points and analysis from the third weekend of the 2020 Six Nations as Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes were ended by England, France’s were maintained at the expense of Wales and Scotland cruised past Italy.
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Dominant English win proves credentials
17 points is a lot. Scotland just about managed the same in 80 minutes against the worst side in the Six Nations by a long way. Admittedly England were at a raucous Twickenham rather than a hostile Aviva Stadium and Dublin, and weren’t completely faultless during the game. Still, being 17 points up at the interval against an apparently resurgent and previously unbeaten Ireland side is not to be sniffed at.
Coach Eddie Jones’ allusion to declaring at half-time was comedic, antagonistic exaggeration – England gave up a 31-point lead over Scotland last year – but it reflected the domination showed by his side throughout. This was the first big performance since the World Cup semi-final and the first instance of the brutality promised by Jones ahead of the tournament opener against France.
Sure, the two opening tries came from poor individual mistakes, but England created a choking, pressure-cooker atmosphere which encouraged errors with their suffocating defence and diligent kick chases.
Ben Youngs conjured a try with a cleverly-flighted kick after a bullocking Manu Tuilagi break and Johnny Sexton turned a nightmare into a reality as the Irish skipper fumbled, juggled and then handed opposite number George Ford a score on a silver platter. He compounded the mistake when he later shanked a routine kick at goal well wide to keep Ireland at nil.
After Jonathan Joseph jinked through a static Ireland defence when Conor Murray failed to kick clear properly, Ford repeated the tactic and Jacob Stockdale repeated the mistake. Elliot Daly punished his dawdling and nudged the Ireland wing out of the way and dabbed down delicately. Sexton rounded off a horrible half when he gave away a penalty which Owen Farrell converted for 17-0.
Ireland – oh to be a fly on the wall in Andy Farrell’s changing room at half-time – improved and hit back through Robbie Henshaw from close range after a scrum five metres out, but as momentum threatened to build Sexton missed the vital conversion.
As England’s six-two split on the bench paid dividends with late dominance up front, replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie peeled away from a driving maul to extend the lead, and although Henshaw somehow escaped punishment for a cynical take out on Jonny May – and Andrew Porter burrowed over late on – the result was never in doubt.
Both teams pushed their luck with referee Jaco Peyper – Farrell junior especially – who was fortunate to avoid punishment when he held onto CJ Stander’s leg in a ruck, but decisions were given even-handedly.
All of England’s backs were good, none of Ireland’s were. In the forwards only James Ryan stood up to be counted amid the Rose’s dominant physicality up front. Maro Itoje had the shirt off Stander’s back in an early scuffle and every England forward had their opposite man’s number throughout to boot.
Ultimately, England staff will see this as a vindication of their methods and where they’re trying to go not only during this championship, but across the four-year World Cup cycle. More of the same is needed for the remainder of the Six Nations; then the situation will doubtlessly be re-assessed. But this was a big step for the England in the new decade.
Tetchy Jones bites back at critics
Is the crafty Australian the Jose Mourinho of rugby? Whereas most coaches (ex-Wales coach Warren Gatland being a notable exception) stay composed and classy in press conferences these days, Jones nibbles at reporters’ semi-baiting questions and throws out hooks and barbs like an avid angler.
Whether it motivates his players or the opposition more is still up for debate, but he indubitably is the master of fighting talk, as his post-match quotes proved. He was in typically fiery mood when responding to media critics via BBC Sport.
“They’re a good team, this England team. Any time we have a small mishap it’s the end of the world, the whole world’s falling in. The first half was outstanding. We played with intensity, we executed well, and we had the game won at half-time. If it were a cricket match we could have declared.
“I don’t need vindication. I pick the team I think is right for the week and you media guys are so clever, you’re all clever so I’ve just got to suck it all up and try to learn from you, and maybe I can pick a better team next week.”
The latter comments were intended for criticisms of his sometimes unusual selections, for example man-of-the-match Courtney Lawes at flanker and centre Joseph on the wing. Both impressed, with Tom Curry growing in confidence at number eight and the partnerships around the field showed signs of clicking. This was a real test and one they passed with flying colours. Whether it proves enough to win the title is now however fully in French hands.
Pivac’s bubble bursts as Les Bleus stride toward Grand Slam
Ten whole years since France’s last Grand Slam and their last victory in the principality and, irony of ironies at the weekend, it was a Welshman at the forefront as the Gauls took a huge step towards the Slam against Pays de Galles in Wales.
The gap at eighty minutes was just four points, but for a side with Shaun Edwards as defence coach that is often enough. More unusual is the sight of formerly mercurial France grinding out close-fought wins against the likes of England and Wales – and with similar grit. But that is exactly what they’ve done so far in this tournament.
Making another match-telling show, Romain Ntamack‘s overall contribution of 17 points, eclipsed a valiant effort from opposing fly-half Dan Biggar, despite bagging a point more. All the pre-match talk of illegal French scrums and accusations of a lack of respect were ramped up by an expectant, febrile Cardiff crowd in what proved a compelling spectacle.
A penalty apiece for the fly-halves sandwiched the opening score. Then out of almost nothing, Ntamack hung a monstrous garryowen on the normally reliable Leigh Halfpenny, who knocked-on despite protective defenders for Anthony Bouthier, who in turn picked up and sped away.
After Biggar made it 10-6 with another kick, France scored a blistering counter-attacking try eventually ruled out for a forward pass in the build-up but weren’t to be denied when Paul Willemse profited from a nice round-the-corner move from a close range line-out.
France were penalised constantly in their attempts to put pressure on Wales however. Biggar nailed another kick and Gregory Alldritt was sin-binned, but then in perhaps the contest’s point of swing skipper Alun Wyn Jones went for the try rather than trust Biggar’s reliable boot. The latter failed and consequently the hosts went in at half-time 17-9 down.
One cheeky dummy from prop Dillon Lewis later and Wales were within a single point, but when an overlap beckoned for Wales, centre Nick Tompkins threw an intercept and Ntamack raced through to wrest the momentum. Ken Owens then delivered the final pass to Josh Adams to score in the corner – but Willemse knocked it down, legally, according to the officials.
Adams meanwhile joined fellow wing George North on the treatment table, yet still Wales came again and after prop Mohamed Haouas was carded, Biggar dived over and gave the Welsh renewed hope.
Tompkins made a stunning break and in the knowledge an unconverted try would deliver a win, Cardiff punters dared to dream. With seconds left alas, sub hooker Camille Chat shattered them with a wonderful, brave turnover as the referee’s whistle rang out shortly after.
The defeat – Wales’ first at home in three years and only France’s second win in ten against the Welsh – is one more step on France’s quest to become Grand Slam winners and consigns Wayne Pivac‘s early optimism into looking back towards the likes of Italy and Scotland, rather than upwards to the top half of the table.
Hogg saves Scots from wooden spoon
Guess who’s back! Stuart Hogg finally gave Scotland their first try of the tournament three games in with a lovely solo effort, paving the way for a comfortable win over perennial wooden-spoon-holders Italy in the Eternal City. It may prove Scotland’s only victory this campaign, but it could also spark a mini-revival and reignite low confidence levels.
After Adam Hastings missed a penalty – the first of three missed kicks at goal – Hogg scored a try which will likely result in Carlo Canna being forced to write out ‘do not give Scotland and Hogg the ball in the broken field’ 100 times.
When Canna’s weak nothing-much-on kick found Hastings in space, Hogg immediately demanded the ball. He received it inside his own half and seven seconds later he (very carefully, after his Ireland mishap) touched down.
Italian stand-off Tommaso Allan – son of Scotsman William Allan – hit the post with a penalty in the Azzurri’s best chance of scoring. Subsequently Italy once again put in a poor clearance kick and 15 phases later Chris Harris – back in the team for the out-of-form Huw Jones – steamrollered little Matteo Minozzi to score.
Italy, down to 14 men after hooker Federico Zani received a yellow for a dangerous tackle, then wasted a promising attacking opportunity and Hastings scored on the counter before he popped over a drop goal; 17-0 and a rare away victory for Scotland. Italy, meanwhile, will lick their wounds after a 25th and now exhaustive straight defeat.
Gregor Townsend’s side, still shorn of star Finn Russell, will take solace from the performance of the back rows and finally getting over the line – literally and metaphorically – but they face unbeaten France next up.
The 2020 Guinness Six Nations continue on March 7-8, with England hosting Wales and Ireland welcoming Italy on Saturday, before France travel to Scotland on Sunday.
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