Match 1 – Wales 27 France 6

          Wales put in a strong performance to get their Six Nations campaign back on track with a classy win over a sloppy French side.  Wales were handed the perfect start when, after Leigh Halfpenny had slotted a penalty in the opening minute, George North capitalised on Brice Dulin’s fumbling of a kick through to dive over after only 4 minutes, although Halfpenny pulled the conversion. The same kicker made amends only 5 minutes later with a long distance penalty, to make the score 11-0 after only 9 minutes, although the home team were lucky that Yoann Huget’s try was disallowed because of a knock-on. The two kickers, Halfpenny for Wales and Jean-Marc Doussain for France, traded a penalty each, with fly-half Jules Plisson adding a further 3 points for France after Doussain handed over the kicking duties. Just before the break, however, Halfpenny scored his fourth and fifth penalties respectively to give Wales a 20-6 half-time lead.

            France came out much stronger after the break, but their attacking ambitions were thwarted by a dominant Welsh pack (led by eventual man of the match Gethin Jenkins) and their own sloppy handling. Both teams missed a penalty each, before both Jenkins and French prop Nicolas Mas were sin-binned for contributing to the collapse of a scrum. A few minutes later, France were reduced to 13 men when captain and number eight Louis Picamoles was sin-binned for handling in the ruck; Wales took full advantage of their extra numbers in the 63rd minute when Sam Warburton managed to stretch one long arm to reach the try-line after a battling run, with Halfpenny converting. Wales then resisted a late French surge to avoid conceding a try for the first time in this Championship, thus sealing their 27-6 victory.

            Buoyed with their morale-boosting performance, the Welsh will be in the unusual position of supporting England in their clash with Ireland on Sunday: if they do win, then all of France, Wales, England and Ireland will be on 4 points at the top of the Championship table, leaving this year’s tournament wide open. France, on the other hand, will be disappointed that their dreams of a Grand Slam have evaporated, although they will be thankful for a (they hope) slightly easier match against bottom of the table Scotland before their potentially title-deciding fixture against Ireland on the last day of the competition.

Top Points Scorer: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) – 17pts

Man of the Match – Gethin Jenkins (Wales)

           

Match 2 – Italy 20 Scotland 21

            Saturday’s first game was a thriller in Rome that was eventually decided in favour of Scotland through a heroic drop-goal from Duncan Weir in the very last minute of the game.  The first half was a scrappy affair marked by indiscipline and a lack of quality rugby from both sides: Italy’s lineout frequently crumbled under Scotland’s (and especially lock Jim Hamilton’s) pressure, although they were up 6-3 by the 38th minute as kicker Tommasso Allan profited from Scotland conceding 10 penalties to Italy’s 2, with Greg Laidlaw providing the visitors’ only points. However, just before the break, Italy spread the ball wide from a scrum in the Scottish 22 for Allan to crash over for a try which he promptly converted to give Italy a 13-3 lead.

            In the 45th minute, Laidlaw scored another penalty to bring Scotland within touching distance before Alex Dunbar scored a superb try running from deep, although Laidlaw dragged his conversion wide. The visitors continued to attack while the Azzuri tired, and their perseverance paid off when in the 67th minute Dunbar doubled his tally for the match with another well-worked try, which Laidlaw converted to give Scotland a 13-18 lead. However, the home team had not given up, as Josh Furn muscled his way over in the corner for a 70th minute try: Allan’s well-struck conversion gave Italy a slender 2 point lead. This set up the game for Weir’s drop-goal in the final minute, which gave the Scots a last-gasp victory which moved them off the base of the Championship table.

            Scotland’s impressive victory will relieve them, as it is probably Italy and not they who are going to suffer the ignominy of receiving the last-place Wooden Spoon “prize”, but a tight win over a lacklustre Italian side will by no means relieve the pressure on coach Scott Johnson. The Azzuri will be disappointed seeing as they were without doubt targeting this home game above all others, and will have to improve for next week’s clash with Ireland in order not to be completely blown away.

 Top Points Scorer: Alex Dunbar (Scotland) – 10pts

Man of the Match: Alex Dunbar (Scotland)

 

Match 3 – England 13 Ireland 10

            Ireland’s grand slam hopes were also dashed as England claimed a hard-fought victory in their first home match of the tournament

            With only 5 minutes on the clock, England had a golden opportunity to score the opening try as winger Johnny May came agonisingly close to touching down in the corner; however, replays showed that the ball had been knocked out of his arms even with his upper body over the try-line. After that, the game was incredibly tight throughout, with the first points not coming until Owen Farrell scored a long-distance penalty after 23 minutes, although he was lucky to be on the pitch as moments before he appeared to illegally shoulder charge Ireland’s Connor Murray. In a game played at ultra-high intensity and brute physical strength, both team’s defences were sufficiently rock solid to keep the score to 3-0 at half-time.  

Ireland, obviously inspired by words from their new coach Joe Schmidt, gave the perfect start to the second half, when Rob Kearney completed a brilliant pre-planned move to score under the posts, which Jonny Sexton converted, also scoring a penalty a few minutes later to give the Irish a 10-3 lead. However, England responded magnificently to going behind: firstly, Farrell scored his second penalty and promptly after Mike Brown broke through the Irish lines to offload to scrum-half Danny Care, who ran in to score under the posts. With Farrell’s conversion, England led by 13-10 in the 58th minute; they then came under enormous Irish pressure, especially at the scrum, where they had been second-best from the start. This pressure came to a peak in the 72nd minute when there were a series of ferocious scrums on the English 22, with neither team fully overcoming the other; eventually, Brown scrambled the ball clear and the home side managed to cling on for the final 8 minutes to achieve a memorable victory.

            England’s win sets up a grandstand finish to the tournament as four teams (Ireland, England, Wales and France) are tied on four points at the top, a fact with lends extra edge to their fiery grudge match against Wales which will take place in two weeks’ time. Ireland now know that their destiny is not fully in their hands, but will be comforted by the fact that their points difference is very large (due to big wins against Wales and Scotland) which means that they are probably still favourites for the title.

 Top Points Scorer: Owen Farrell (England) – 8pts

Man of the Match: Mike Brown (England)

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