England made RBS 6 Nations history, Scotland defeated France and Ireland found their mojo once more. Who were the stars of this weekend's action and who will dread the video analysis session?
England – the champions
If you don’t want to see England get some credit where it’s due, then look away now, because England deserve major congratulations for becoming the first team to win the RBS 6 Nations Championship with a week to spare.
Saturday’s win over Wales and Scotland’s defeat of France on Sunday meant England can’t be caught, so now they can shoot for a Grand Slam in Paris next weekend knowing the trophy is already theirs.
In this year’s championship England are the only team to have scored more than 100 points in the first four games and they have conceded 13 points fewer than any other team. Their defence has been the tightest, leaking just four tries and their total of ten tries scored is bettered only by Ireland with 11, after the Irish ran nine past Italy on Saturday.
England lock Maro Itoje was the leading light in Saturday’s 25-21 victory over Wales and deservedly picked up the Man of the Match award. The 21-year-old, winning only his third cap, was eye-catching from the outset, stealing a Wales lineout as early as the fourth minute and pinching another 18 minutes later, as well as taking four on England’s throw.
He got himself involved in the match around the pitch in attack and defence. It was Itoje’s break which helped create Anthony Watson’s try after 31 minutes and before half-time he forced a turnover from Scott Baldwin when Wales were on the attack. He was England’s top tackler with 14 and made seven carries. If Itoje can do this so early in his career, imagine how good he might get!
Of course Itoje was by no means the only England player to have a great game and special mention also goes to Owen Farrell for a perfect day from the kicking tee. He scored 20 points in all and made sure all Wales’s indiscretions were punished.
Hogging the limelight
Scotland beat France for the first time in a decade and the outstanding moment of the 29-18 triumph came courtesy of full-back Stuart Hogg.
A touch of genius out of the very top drawer created a try for Tim Visser in the 67th minute which put Scotland 26-18 up. They were attacking in the France 22 with a penalty advantage and Greig Laidlaw flung a long pass out to the left in the hope of outflanking the defence. Hogg leapt in the air as the ball threatened to sail over him and flipped it back over his head while in full flight, forcing the ball out of the reach of the waiting France full-back Scott Spedding and instead parrying it to Visser outside him. The wing had just enough space to dive over in the corner and Scotland were eight points clear.
That magical moment was far from being Hogg’s only positive contribution to the match. He kicked a long penalty just after half-time to put Scotland 21-12 up and was often involved in attacks. But that flip for Visser’s try will live long in the memory.
Hats off too to Peter Horne, who had to come on to replace the injured Finn Russell early in the game and fitted in beautifully, to Duncan Taylor for his dangerous attacking play and absolutely excellent try, and to Laidlaw who kicked 11 points and led his side superbly.
Ireland finally gave their fans a win to cheer in this year’s Six Nations and what a win, as they beat Italy 58-15 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The visitors were a long way from their spirited best but Ireland deserve credit for scoring nine tries.
There are plenty of candidates for the Saints list among their number. Donnacha Ryan was named Man of the Match after a great performance up front, while Josh van der Flier equaled the lock’s tackle count of 15 while winning just his second cap. Jamie Heaslip sprinted 80 metres to keep up with a fantastic break involving Johnny Sexton, Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Fergus McFadden, to score the try of the game – if not the championship. Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin were also excellent on a day when Ireland put an admittedly limited opposition to the sword in style.
A short break
When Henry Slade broke his leg and damaged his ankle ligaments against Wasps in December it looked like his season was finished, but astonishingly the Exeter Chiefs centre was back in action on Saturday, helping his team beat Newcastle Falcons 32-17 in the Aviva Premiership.
Slade has obviously worked extremely hard to recover from such a serious injury in such a short time and the Chiefs are delighted to have him back as they continue to challenge for the Premiership title.
A sledge too far
Joe Marler is in trouble for calling Wales prop Samson Lee “gypsy boy” during the first half of England’s Six Nations win over Wales. The Six Nations bosses are investigating the incident and under World Rugby regulations concerning the verbal abuse of players based on religion, race, colour, national or ethnic origin, Marler could be banned for four weeks or more if he is found guilty.
The England prop sought out Lee during half-time to apologise for what he said, but he still faces a nervous wait this week before he finds out whether his foolishness will cost him a place in the team to take on France in Paris next Saturday.
Sledging opponents is part of rugby’s confrontational aspect, but it is totally unacceptable to bring race, ethnicity or religion into that and Marler was out of line.
Another prop who is potentially in trouble after the England v Wales clash is Wales replacement Tomas Francis, who was warned and penalised by referee Craig Joubert for making contact with the eye or eye area of Dan Cole, and was then cited after the match.
The incident happened after 71 minutes when Cole collapsed a maul close to the England line. Francis came piling in on top of the Englishman and replays appeared to show his fingers raking across Cole’s nose and eye area. Cole certainly put his hand up to his eyes as if in pain, but didn’t say anything to the referee about it when Joubert sin-binned him for collapsing the maul. It wasn’t until the TMO, Ben Skeen, drew Joubert’s attention to the incident a few minutes later that it was reviewed and Francis was penalised.
The officials concluded that as they only had one angle of footage of the incident to look at, they couldn’t determine if the act was deliberate or not, so couldn’t do anything other than give a penalty. However, Joubert warned Francis he may be cited after the game and that is what happened on Sunday.
Wales have built much of their success in recent years on a strong defence but on Saturday they were all over the place for the first 60 minutes. Their defensive line was often out of place and they fell off tackles and were beaten at the breakdown.
In all, Wales missed 26 tackles and Dan Biggar was bottom of the class, with four misses, including one on Itoje as he made the break which led to England’s try. Jonathan Davies missed three tackles and Scott Baldwin, Taulupe Faletau, George North and Jamie Roberts two each. Defence coach Shaun Edwards will have them working hard this week.
Ireland were already 25-3 up against Italy at half-time but the Azzurri fly-half Edoardo Padovani thought he would give them a helping hand to increase that lead. He threw a loose pass across the midfield in his own half, giving Jared Payne the opportunity to sprint through onto the ball and stroll across the line with it for Ireland’s fourth try.
Padovani was by no means the only sinner in an abject performance from Italy. The back three was at sixes and sevens from the outset, with a mix-up between David Odiete and Leonardo Sarto contributing to Ireland’s first try after just six minutes.
Yes, Italy are struggling with injuries, but to concede nine tries in a Six Nations match and provide such weak opposition is unacceptable.
No time for gimics
London Irish and Saracens played the first Aviva Premiership game outside England on Saturday when they met at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, USA.
The match is supposedly the first of three to be played Stateside by Irish in the next three years – but unfortunately for them it looks like they might not be able to take a Premiership match there next season as they are hot favourites to be relegated to the Greene King IPA Championship.
Irish are now eight points adrift of Newcastle Falcons at the bottom of the table after losing 26-16 to Saracens. In their predicament, they need to be concentrating on picking up all the league points they can, not trying to drum up interest from an American public which has given rugby a barely lukewarm reception until now.
You might say that Irish couldn’t have known what a lowly position they would be in in the league when they organised this American adventure, but as they have finished tenth in the table for the last two seasons it was a fair bet that they might have been among the candidates for relegation. Whoever came up with this idea has their priorities wrong.