The RBS 6 Nations began with a bang - not least in Cardiff where the Wales v England match was packed with drama and controversy. Ireland, Italy, France and Scotland all joined the party on Saturday and all three games had their share of heroes and villains
Putting the boot in
England led 18-16 in Cardiff as the last two minutes of their RBS Six Nations clash with Wales began. Despite England’s second-half dominance, the game was on a knife-edge, but when the visitors were awarded a penalty, George Ford stepped up and hit the target from almost 50 metres to seal the win.
Place-kicking can be one of the more erratic parts of Ford’s game and a few months ago I would not have backed him to land the crucial kicks in the biggest games, but Friday’s ice-cool display from the England No 10 has changed all that perception.
England coach Stuart Lancaster responded to the clamour to bring Bath’s in-form centre Jonathan Joseph into the team and was rewarded when Joseph stepped and wriggled his way to the try-line early in the second half to put England right back in the game. The newcomer showed he is up to the task of Test match rugby, but most of his team-mates also featured strongly in England’s 21-16 win at the Millennium Stadium.
James Haskell and Chris Robshaw were immense in the back row, Ben Youngs was sharp at scrum-half, Anthony Watson took his try well, capitalising on a clever grubber kick from Mike Brown and Billy Twelvetrees came off the bench like a man (or two or three men) possessed to help close the game out. The fact that Joseph’s try came after 20 phases of possession tells you what a great team effort it was from England.
Beating the best
It wasn’t all bad news for Wales this weekend, as their U20s and Women both beat the reigning World Champions, England.
The U20s won 20-15 in Colwyn Bay, thanks partly to magnificent defending in the last five minutes. It was the first time Wales had beaten England in that age-grade – and Wales Women achieved only their second victory over England when they shut out the World Champions 13-0 at St Helens on Sunday afternoon.
Catrin Edwards and Laurie Harries scored the tries for Wales against an England team which featured eight of last year’s World Cup finalists.
Having expected to be on the bench for Ireland in Rome, Tommy O’Donnell suddenly found himself in the starting line-up at a moment’s notice after Sean O’Brien injured his hamstring in the warm-up. O’Donnell responded in fine style with a great all-round display – including 12 tackles and nine carries – and capped it with a barnstorming individual try, run in from the 10 metre line.
To stand out on your first Six Nations start is no mean feat and O’Donnell did just that. Praise is also due to another Six Nations rookie, Ian Keatley, who kicked four penalties and a conversion for Ireland.
Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg both had good games but for me the stand-out Scot was centre Mark Bennett, for a couple of key contributions.
He played a telling role not once but twice the in the build-up to Dougie Fife’s try, first off-loading to Hogg as Scotland raced up the left, then appearing in the line on the right to step Wesley Fofana and pass outside to Euan Murray, who in turn gave the scoring pass to Fife.
As the game entered its last ten minutes, with France 12-8 up, Yoann Huget looked certain to score a match-sealing try, but Bennett was on hand to knock the ball out of his hands as he headed for the line.
Hype or tripe?
The Welsh Rugby Union’s Chief of Whiz-bangs-and-flashes may not be the most popular bloke in Cardiff today. Having prided themselves on creating some spine-tingling pre-match moments with their blackouts, flames and fireworks in recent years, the WRU attracted nothing but criticism for Friday evening’s over-the-top fiesta/fiasco (delete as applicable).
Suspecting they were to be “treated” to a longer than usual pre-kickoff spectacular, England skipper Chris Robshaw refused to take his team onto the pitch until Wales were also in the tunnel. The referee apparently told him that if Wales did not follow England out within a minute, he would bring England back in. I did not have a stop-watch on the time-lag, but with Sam Warburton running out alone to mark his 50th cap, I suspect the curfew was broken. What is certain is that the match kicked off seven minutes late.
Plenty of people criticised the laser show which greeted Wales, including former Wales captains Gareth Thomas and Gwyn Jones on BBC’s Scrum V, with Thomas saying it wound England up and helped them. He is forgetting it was Wales who took a 10-0 lead, but England came back so well in the second half that the advantage was cancelled out.
After all the bickering in the tunnel on Friday night, there have been calls for teams to walk out together from now on in the Six Nations. I hope that does not happen as I think it would be a shame for the individual sets of fans to be denied the chance to roar their team out just because one nation has taken things too far. The WRU needs to rein in the hype and let the fans build the atmosphere.
Heading for trouble
I saw it, you saw it, the crowd in the Millennium Stadium were said to have seen it on the big screen, but reportedly no one involved in the Wales team management saw George North hit the turf face first like a sack of spuds after Richard Hibbard’s head connected with his jaw. North had already been off for one concussion check in the match, but the Wales wing played on after clearly being momentarily knocked out.
This week he will be checked for concussion under graduated return to play protocols before he is allowed to play against Scotland. Whether or not Warren Gatland and the medics saw him fall, as they were treating someone else, does this raise a general issue about the duty of care that should be afforded to players in game-time? We maybe at a tipping point in international rugby where an independent medical TMO needs to be employed to watch solely for such incidents. What matters is how the George North’s of this world will be in ten years’ time? It’s not an area rugby can afford to be negligent about.
England should have beaten Wales by a greater margin because they had a try wrongly disallowed by the match officials. Dave Attwood dived over the line in the second half but the score was ruled out because Nick Easter crossed in front of the ball carrier early in the move.
He was clearly offside, so Wales should have had a penalty at that point, but play then continued for three phases before Attwood “scored”, and as the television match official is only allowed to go back two phases from a try-scoring opportunity, the five-pointer should have been allowed.
Paying the penalty
Scotland really only have themselves to blame for failing to beat France in Paris for the first time since 1999. They played the more enterprising and skilful rugby by a mile, but kept the home side in the contest by conceding 11 penalties, many of them kickable. Blair Cowan (twice), Euan Murray and Geoff Cross were all guilty and punished by Camille Lopez’s goal-kicks, while Dougie Fife went from hero to villain as, having scored for Scotland, he conceded an utterly needless three-pointer when he petulantly threw the ball into the stand after taking it into touch.
Ireland came into the Six Nations as favourites and duly won their first game, beating Italy 26-3, but it was pretty dull fare from Joe Schmidt’s team. They had the majority of the possession and territory, but took the ball into no fewer than 128 rucks and only off-loaded five times in the whole game. Mark Bennett managed four off-loads on his own for Scotland!
Hopefully Ireland will turn on the style a little more against France next weekend.
Where it hurts
The final sinner this week is Sean O’Brien’s left hamstring, for forcing him to withdraw from Ireland’s team at the last minute in Rome. The flanker tweaked it in the warm-up and so sat the game out with ice on his leg, instead of being let loose on the Test stage for the first time since November 2013. Mend soon, Sean.