Wow, what a win! That was test match intensity at its best, England’s ferocity was at a level not seen for a long time – I’d argue it was the best performance since the 2nd test in Australia in 2016, being relentless in defence, with Tom Curry (despite a contentious yellow card) who was magnificent on his Six Nations debut in perhaps one of the best England backrow performances in living memory.
The return of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola was the simple catalyst, they tired out Ireland’s defence with big bullocking carries that accumulated an impressive 62 and 73 metres made respectively. This combination enabled England to a perfect start with a sublime Owen Farrell skip-pass which put Elliot Daly into space before passing to the absolutely sensational Jonny May to race in the corner.
Captain Farrell converted and the Aviva Stadium was stunned. However a bit of indiscipline let the Irish back in, with Jonny Sexton converting a penalty and Tom Curry was sinbinned. Thankfully, England dealt wonderfully enough to make me not complain about the fact that Curry’s hit on Earls was not late in real time and it was a perfectly legal tackle, therefore it was play on.
The Sale flanker returned but could not prevent loosehead Cian Healy burrowing his way over the tryline. The home side had restored the lead. Not for long, Jack Nowell harassed Jacob Stockdale and he fumbled a bouncing ball and Elliot Daly dotted it down in pure delirium to regain the away side’s lead. The imposing Mako Vunipola thought he scored England’s third but the officials deemed it to have been double movement, again another close call. Fortunately, Farrell kicked over a penalty instead to give Eddie Jones’ men an unlikely 7 point lead at the break.
Ireland started the better, Sexton converted a penalty to close the gap to just four points, but that was the 2018 World Player of the Year’s last positive contribution in the game (well, if you’re Irish) as lock-forward Courtney Lawes was unleashed to give the flyhalf nightmares. England though extended their lead after Henry Slade gathered and score off a wonderful chip from May, Farrell again converting. After another converted penalty, England had the Irish pinned in their own 22 and Slade picked off Sexton’s desperate pass in the most extraordinary manner to grab England’s fourth try, capping off the Exeter Chief’s best performance in a White shirt thus far.
Ireland did respond late through Ulster star John Cooney but there was nothing they could do to prevent England from winning with the bonus point, in what could be deemed their biggest win under Eddie Jones and also one of the great English victories. However they must keep their heads on and continue the momentum against a wounded French beast in the next round.
Lady Luck casts her magic on Wales
Looking back on this game, cries of déjà vu will be exulted. There were substantial comparisons to the opening game for Les Bleus versus Ireland last year, and you could argue France played much better this time round, especially in the 1st half. Wales were riding on their high horse, backed by unscrupulously biased BBC coverage, but were very rattled by the home side, Number 8 Louis Picamoles sidestepped and then barged his way over the line, which started one of the worst halfback place-kicking performances in Six Nations history! France then extended the lead in tremendous classic French style with Huget diving in the corner after a lovely Iturria offload. A penalty and a trademark drop-goal (Lopez’s world class attribute) ensured France were in a commanding lead.
Or so everyone thought… George North pounced on a Huget slip to score Wales’ 1st try of the evening. Josh Adams burst through a gap by a ruck of some expectedly tired forward legs to put Tomos Williams in for the score and the Welsh had regained the lead spectacularly. Ross Moriarty thought he scored Wales’ third but a well spotted obstruction by referee Wayne Barnes brought play back. Then on come a marching French replacement front five and the home side win a penalty from the scrum, Lopez converts and regains the lead at 19-17. A great Baptiste Serin box-kick was gathered magnificently by Gäel Fickou and the French launch the ball out wide… As a fellow lock-forward, I feel bad for Sebastien Vahaamahina, I believe he thought there was a knock-on advantage when he threw that ball. Well there was no advantage, and Christmas came incredibly early for George North as he raced away for Wales 3rd.
I watched that moment of craziness in disbelief, it seems a new boundary for Frenchness has been discovered. Wales can take barely anything from that game except from the fact they will not be so lucky the next time they are this poor.
Scotland hold onto bonus point win despite Azurri late flourish
At the fortress that is Murrayfield, the Italians always had it against them, despite the good form of club Benetton Treviso and the U20s. They gave a really good account of themselves it must be said with a watertight defence that didn’t allow Scotland enough chances to break through. However, the Scots knew that constant pressure would tire out the Azurri, who are known to fade in the last quarter. A wonderful cross-field kick from flyhalf Finn Russell unlocked the door and Blair Kinghorn crossed over for Celts’ 1st. The Edinburgh flyer soon grabbed his second in a less conventional manner, picking up a loose NFL style offload from Stuart Hogg to score. And despite heaps of possession and pressure, the home side only had a 14-3 lead at the interval.
In the 2nd half, the Scots became more dynamic and more intense, Hogg finishing a neat Russell grubber by the tiniest of margins to score Scotland’s third. Openside Jamie Ritchie ran a great line to keep the ball alive and after a sharp dummy wrap-around, man of the match Kinghorn bounced over the tryline to grab his hattrick. The homeside were not done and a neat team interplay enabled replacement Chris Harris to dot down for the fifth try. The Azzurri did not fold as expected and piled on the pressure, however, and after a sustained presence in the opposition 22, replacement tighthead Simon Berghan was sinbinned for collapsing the maul. The Italians pounced, scoring three tries in quick succession through scrumhalf Palazzini, substitute Padovani and winger Esposito. Unfortunately for the Wooden Spoon favourites, they couldn’t clinch an important try-scoring plus a losing bonus point and the hime side held on for victory, though will be thoroughly disappointed with the last quarter and they know that they have to be at their absolute best to slay the defending champions next week.
Team of the Week:
1 – Mako Vunipola (England)
2 – Stuart Mcinally (Scotland)
3 – Kyle Sinckler (England)
4 – Grant Gilchrist (Scotland)
5 – Maro Itoje (England)
6 – Josh Navidi (Wales)
7 – Arthur Iturria (France)
8 – Josh Strauss (Scotland)
9 – Ben Youngs (England)
10 – Finn Russell (Scotland)
11 – Jonny May (England)
12 – Sam Johnson (Scotland)
13 – Henry Slade (England)
14 – Damian Penaud (France)
15 – Blair Kinghorn (Scotland) Played at 14 on the weekend but is primarily a fullback
Meanwhile in the Women’s tournament
The return of Bulldozer Bern helped the Red Roses to a comprehensive victory over the Irish, the tighthead prop from Bristol Women was rampant, charting ridiculous metres over the gainline and clinching a try for her efforts as England stretched to a 7-51 victory. The Italian women put the Scottish Ladies to the sword with a great bonus point 7-28 victory away. And on Saturday, defending champions and Grand Slam favourites France demolished Wales 52-3, hooker Caroline Thomas with a hatrick to her name and talismanic powerhouse Safi N’Diaye also crossing the whitewash.
What happened elsewhere
In the U20s edition of the tournament, an experienced England U20s side were shocked by the Irish 35-27 in Munster. Meanwhile, the Italians showed further signs of significant progression with a 22-32 away victory in Scotland and on Sunday the U20s made amends for their senior side’s debacle with a comprehensive 32-10 victory over the Wales U20s in Vannes.
In the Premiership Rugby Cup, an error-strewn Worcester finally secured a home semifinal with a bonus point try from Bryce Heem sealing the deal and Newcastle Falcons achieved an impressive away victory to Sale, meanwhile the twice-postponed derby between Bath and Gloucester will take place this afternoon.
And finally in the second incarnation of this season’s South African Derby Round of the Pro14, the Toyota Cheetahs held on for a Derby Double in an entertaining and high-scoring affair, the game eventually finishing 40-36 in Bloemfontein.
Key Talking Points:
– Is that England’s best performance under Eddie Jones?
– Who had the rub of the green in Dublin?
– Should we feel sorry for the French?
– Can Scotland perform away from home?
– Will Parisse get the final hurrah he so deserves?