England vs Ireland
Ireland’s inability to score tries continues to plague them and proved their downfall in their visit to Twickenham in the hands of England, going down 13-9. Both sides have been hamstrung by the loss of their back lines to the sevens circuits ahead of Rio, but unlike France who have dominated using front-foot ball from their forwards in their last two fixtures neither England nor Ireland look to have gelled their more experienced packs with a new string of backs.
The English boast the most depth however, and this was evident in a more composed back line that was able to spread the ball and attack the wide channels with more regularity than their Celtic counterparts. This eventually led to the two try of the match through Abbie Scott and Emma Croker as a scrambling Irish defence eventually began to open up through the match.
Niamh Briggs put on a solid display from the kicking tee to ensure the Irish were not left behind, but an inability to convert periods of dominance to scores plagued them once again and they could not take advantage of her superior boot over English kicker Amber Reed.
The English will be confident after this win that things are finally starting to fall into place for them after two stuttering wins against Scotland and Italy. Ireland may have to have a real hard look at the gaps in their game plan if they are going to avoid an upset against the more adventurous and white-line crossing Italians next week.
England stand-out player: Abbie Scott
Scott was one of two players picked out by the English captain to keep an eye on this season and this match was her fulfilment of that promise. Carrying hard across the park she made a real impact to keep the English side moving forward and her decisive try must surely be a memory saved to inspire plenty more to come.
Ireland stand-out player: Niamh Briggs
Briggs really did her best to rally a team that is now sitting on back-to-back losses and sliding away from retaining the Cup they earned last year. She brought plenty of her trademark big carries to the field and her kicking skills are the envy of the Championship. Now she just needs to inspire her teammates to follow her onto the scoreboard.
Wales vs France
This has been the upset of the tournament so far. Wales, thought to be in line for a scrap with Scotland over the bottom of the table after their last two performances, beat the seemingly unassailable France 10-8 at home.
A great deal of credit for the win has to go to the Welsh coaches, who clearly had been watching France’s last two games keenly and developed a heavy-stacked defence to nullify France’s game plan. Unable to rely on consistent forward ball from a dominant pack the French ended up stuck in first gear for the rest of the game – ceaselessly hammering a Welsh defensive line with almost complete control of possession, but unable to go anywhere.
The Welsh have experience with these upsets, tripping up favourites England in last year’s first round, but this achievement was something else. France spent the majority of the match basically running the game, moving forward in inches and dominating the set piece and the breakdown. It was a scrum that gave them their try, but in the end that wasn’t enough. Refusal to switch to a plan B from their ineffective charges at the Welsh line left them with no go-to and the Welsh punished them with two incredibly exciting tries through their backs in each half. French attempts to replicate those efforts came to naught, with both attempts to score through the backs being forced into touch by an outstanding Welsh defensive effort.
The Welsh will go to face England brimming with confidence as France go to lick their wounds wondering how it all went wrong.
Wales stand-out player: Megan York
The Welsh coaches truly deserve a mention before all others here, the organisation of the Welsh defence from last week was transformative and won them the match. But it was York’s outstanding burst of pace in the second half that sealed the deal, taking full advantage of a rare chance with Welsh possession to cross the line. She was a constant of the Welsh defensive effort as well, holding up against the usually dominant French pack and frustrating their efforts for long periods.
France stand-out player: Coralie Bertrand
It is difficult to pick a winner in a game which had the French pack waste their efforts so decisively and the inside backs not take charge to change the course of the game. What hope that did come however was often through the hand of winger Bertrand, French fans can only hope that they get the ball to the opportunity-creating wing more often in their final two matches.
Italy vs Scotland
Scotland headed to Italy with confidence that they were stepping in the right direction after improvements against England and Wales, but were faced by a clinical Italian side who ran out 22-7 winners.
Both sides showed their impressive improvements over the last two seasons in what became the most attack-focussed game of the weekend – played without the loss of 7s players that has plagued the attacking ambitions of three of the other six teams. However, it showed clearly that Italy’s improvements have come over two years since their renaissance last season whereas Scotland’s big changes have come in the last six months. Where both teams played with real inventiveness it was Italy who were able to finish their chances. Scotland still lack the clinicism and familiarity with this style of game to pull off the same chances and half-breaks.
Italy took control early on with three tries in the first half, showing the same attacking fervour of earlier games in the tournament. Scotland had their opportunities to breach into the opposition half but couldn’t quite string together the phases to threaten the Italian line.
The second half was another demonstration of fading Italian fitness however, as Scotland forced their way back into the game with an interception try and challenging possession and territory for the first time in the game. The Italians held off the fight back with a try of their own and will be confident they can threaten try-starved Ireland in the next round, whilst Scotland can take some comfort that they have the beginnings of real attacking threat to worry other nations going forward, after years without.
Italy stand-out player: Manuela Furlan
Another full back who showed her capacity for attack from depth, Furlan was a constant plague to Scottish chances, repeatedly shutting down breaks and opportunities to head for the Italian line. Her try early in the second half turned the screw on the Scottish defence and she was vital in restricting a set of Scottish backs who are playing with increasing attacking ambition as the tournament goes on.
Scotland stand-out player: Lisa Thompson
One of several graduates from the Scottish U20s set up Thompson is one of the best signs of hope in the youth of Scottish Rugby. The first two games of the six nations have shown her finding her feet in the adult game and this weekend was an expression of that experience. Barnstorming runs repeatedly opened opportunities in the defence, especially with support of winger Rhona Lloyd, and it was a remarkable display of game nous that saw her grab an intercept for her try of the game.
By Tristan Gray (@RuckingGray)