Ireland's Grand Slam hopes were dashed by Wales and England moved up into top spot in the RBS Six Nations table, but which players took top billing and which were lost in the crowd scenes in round four of the tournament?
Take a bow, Paulie
He ended up on the losing side and was even robbed at the lineout on one occasion, but Ireland lock and captain Paul O’Connell is still a saint after becoming the fourth of his countrymen to reach a century of caps.
Following in the footsteps of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes, O’Connell is only six away from being Ireland’s most-capped forward of all time now.
Against Wales he belied his 35 years by being the second-most prolific ball-carrier in the game with 18 carries, just one behind his team-mate Sean O’Brien. The end of his career may be nigh, but there’s life in the old dog yet.
Wales’s chief medic Prav Mathema is on the Saints list this week as the new system he instigated to use TV coverage to spot head-knocks which are missed by the pitch-side medics produced its first positive result. The person monitoring the TV pictures spotted Richard Hibbard taking a bang on the head, the message was sent down to pitch-side and the hooker was assessed and removed from play. This would not have happened if Wales had not brought in the new system after they missed George North’s concussion against England. Now World Rugby needs to make it mandatory at all Test matches.
Red means stop
The Wales defence, as a collective, deserves a big round of applause as Ireland battered on the door relentlessly during a nine-minute period of the second half but Sam Warburton and his team held firm. There was a brilliant individual tackle from an already battered Jamie Roberts on Tommy Bowe during that period, but every player in red was involved in the rearguard action as some stage. Wales were leading 15-9 at the time, so an Ireland try would have swung the momentum of the game, but instead it was Wales who scored next and stretched away to win 23-16.
The final set of post-match statistics showed Luke Charteris had made an astonishing 31 tackles, Warburton and Taulupe Faletau had made 23 each, Alun Wyn Jones 21, Scott Baldwin 20 and even fly-half Dan Biggar 19. No wonder the Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards was purring afterwards.
All right Jack
The mistakes England made in attack against Scotland on Saturday grabbed more of the headlines than the things they did well, but Jack Nowell made the biggest and best contribution to England’s offensive play.
He stood out among the threequarters, popping up all over the pitch to make a total of eight carries. The Exeter Chief ran 185 metres with the ball in hand and only Mike Brown was within 100m of that total, with 88. Nowell didn’t miss any tackles either, so it was a good day at the office for him.
Last line of defence
England made a mess of several try-scoring chances on Saturday, but were denied five-pointers on two or three occasions by the individual excellence of Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg.
He brought off a try-saving tackle on Mike Brown after 13 minutes when England were still only 7-0 up and didn’t only shine in defence. Hogg was unlucky to have a clever, quick flip of the ball across to Tommy Seymour called back for being forward when Scotland were attacking with the score at 10-10. The trajectory of the ball looked flat on the TV replays and a try for the Scots at that stage would have been useful to say the least.
A bright spark
There was precious little good rugby for the supporters at Italy‘s Stadio Olimpico to enjoy during the first half of Sunday’s game against France, and the chilly, drizzly weather wasn’t helping. However Italy full-back Scott Spedding finally warmed up the crowd with a scorching break in the 46th minute, sprinting and swerving from his own 22 into the Italy half, then finding No 8 Loan Goujon in support. Spedding’s sprint led to a try for lock Yoann Maestri and was the highlight of the match.
Cian Healy is usually as dangerous on the ball as he is destructive in the scrum but the Ireland prop made a horrible error when his team were trying to breach the Wales defence during the second half. They had been battering the line close to the posts, then the ball popped up to Healy, who had come off the bench less than ten minutes earlier, and he knocked it on with the line at his mercy. Another knock-on later in the game rounded off a miserable afternoon for the prop.
England moved to the top of the RBS Six Nations table after beating Scotland 25-13 but in some ways it was a hollow victory as they butchered so many try-scoring chances.
In the first half George Ford gave a forward pass to Luther Burrell in the build-up to what would have been a try for Anthony Watson, but it was disallowed.
During the second half Tom Youngs made a superb break through the midfield, splintering Scotland’s defence, but spoiled the impact by passing the ball onto the floor, in between the two players who were running in support.
James Haskell also made a good half-break and spun around to pass to Mike Brown, who raced over the Scotland line, but the try was disallowed as Haskell’s pass had gone forward.
Even the otherwise excellent Jack Nowell tripped over his own feet when he was sprinting for the line at one point.
With the championship looking likely to be won on points’ difference, England may regret their carelessness next weekend.
England prop Dan Cole should have been sin-binned for a professional foul after 28 minutes of Saturday’s game v Scotland. With England leading just 10-7, Scotland were camped on their line, with the ball at the back of a ruck. The referee told Greig Laidlaw to “use it”, then Cole stepped around to the wrong side of a ruck and picked up the ball. Laidlaw had five seconds to play the ball and it is up to the official to say when that time is up, not to Cole to try to judge it for himself. Scotland got a penalty to tie the scores at 10-10 but they should really have had a man advantage for the last ten minutes of the first half.
Tim takes a tumble
Scotland flanker Rob Harley owed Tim Swinson an apology on Saturday evening after making a mess of lifting the lock up to take a re-start. He lost control of his team-mate and ended up allowing him to tip over and land on his head and shoulders. Luckily Swinson was not badly hurt.
The clash between Italy and France in Rome looked like it would be the least important of this weekend’s three games and for much of it the two teams played like they agreed with that billing, as they served up some third-rate rugby.
There were no less than 21 handling errors from the two teams in the first half and by the end of the game Italy had conceded 24 turnovers and France 23. Compare that to Wales, who conceded just eight in their game against Ireland, and you get the picture.
Yoann Maestri’s try lit up the game briefly and France went on to win 29-0, but neither team will be especially proud of their day’s work.