LONDON, ENGLAND – For the second consecutive year, the Six Nations will end without a Grand Slam. However, because of the lack of any one dominant side, the championship is more intriguing than ever. Four teams possess a realistic chance to hoist the silverware in three weeks’ time, and the wild third round may have repercussions that last for years. Without further ado, here’s RugbyWrapUp’s review of Round 3 of the RBS Six Nations Championship.
Wales Show the Heart of Champions
Many pundits and fans had written off the Welsh after an insipid display in Dublin, and it appeared that an unprecedented three peat was out of the question. However, the defending champions roared back with a victory against the French, dominating the match by a final score of 27-6 in an impressive display led by their talismanic captain, Sam Warburton. The flanker touched down with an impressive finish that ended any serious hopes that France may have possessed of mounting a second half comeback. Leigh Halfpenny was impressive as usual delivering the kicks, while Rhys Webb proved himself to be a legitimate international scrum-half with an assured performance. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a negative in this Welsh performance, a fact reflected in Warren Gatland’s contented assessment the players had “redeemed themselves” after the Dublin fiasco. The fourth round match against England will be pivotal for the Welsh, as they need to win by a reasonable margin at Twickenham to ensure that they have any chance of catching the Irish on point differential when they play the Scots in Round 5.
France may have to wait a long time before they have a better path to a championship. Having defeated England behind a strong first half and fortuitous late try, they coasted through the Italians as expected. However, as has been the case for the past three tournaments, an away match proved to be their undoing. The French have travelled woefully, and are now without a victory outside of Paris since 2012 at Murrayfield. Phillipe St. Andre made his frustration clear when he claimed after the game that, “Our motivation should have been as strong as that of the Welsh team, and our desire should have been the same, but it wasn’t.” It is a favorite game of British pundits to suggest that the French have something missing when it comes to in-game psychology, and St. Andre’s rant will add fuel to that particular fire. Few Frenchmen could go home with their heads held high after a particularly poor showing, and they will now have to defeat Scotland comprehensively to boast any hope of forcing a title decider in the final round against Ireland.
No Dream Ending for Brian O’Driscoll
If the 2014 Six Nations had been scripted by any competent screenwriter, Brian O’Driscoll would be walking off into the sunset with a final championship and Grand Slam in three weeks, preferably after a last minute away victory against his oldest foes, the English. It was not to be, as the Irish legend was forced off the field in the 79th minute of a titanic clash at Twickenham, as Ireland fell to England 13-10. Commentators were quick to hail this as a “true” Test match, reminding everyone present of old blood and thunder encounters of the pre-professional era. Certainly, the passion of both teams was evident, and Ireland cannot really be faulted for their effort. A little wasteful in possession, the forward pack nonetheless was solid in the scrum and Ireland’s failure to capitalize was due to England’s relentless defensive pressure, coached into them by Andy Farrell. Though the Irish will not take any consolation from such reassurances, there are few losses that will produce more pride in the Irish shirt.
The chattering classes declared that this was “England’s coming of age match.” Though such claims have been made in the past, particularly after the victory over New Zealand, there is a sense that the English may have finally learned to turn close losses into close victories, and essential trait for any side with true World Cup aspirations. Mike Brown has lifted himself into the conversation as one of the world’s best fullbacks, while Owen Farrell remains ice-cool while kicking, and has elevated his playmaking game to a higher level in the past year. England coped as well as could be expected with the loss of Dan Cole, and must develop another reliable international prop if they are to truly compete on a consistent basis. However, the victory took “massive balls,” a quote that will be used for years to come. Stuart Lancaster may have made some questionable game management decisions in his two and a half years at the helm, but none can deny that he has instilled genuine heart in an England side that was completely adrift when he took charge. Though the scoreline was low, this match was an instant classic that will live long in the memory.
Scotland Stops the Bleeding
Following their feckless loss to England two weeks ago, this particular Scottish team was deemed “the worst ever” by Sir Clive Woodward. Scott Johnson, a farce of an international manager, refused to start two of his most talented players, Kelly Brown and David Denton, and only recalled Richie Gray out of desperation. Generous commentators have suggested that Johnson’s recall of Gray was a wise decision. Gray’s performance on Saturday made it clear that ever leaving him out of the side was the work of a mad man. Bringing an instant stability to Scotland’s faltering lineout, the massive lock provided inspiration while he was on the pitch. Duncan Weir rebounded from his poor performances in rounds one and two with a memorable last second drop goal to give Scotland a 21-20 victory in Rome. However, cool heads dominated in the aftermath of the match. Even Johnson acknowledged that the Scots had much to work on, but it appears that they will avoid collecting the Wooden Spoon for the second year running. At the moment, that constitutes an achievement for this once-proud nation.
Italy will be sorely disappointed to be taking so many steps backwards after their 2013, which unquestionably marked their finest campaign. To be fair to the Italians, they have been competitors in all three of their matches thus far, pushing the Welsh hard, going into the half within touching distance of France, and losing on the final play of the game against Scotland. However, Italy has reached that delicate stage in their development where more is required. Putting forth “good efforts” is no longer enough, and with talents such as Sergio Parisse getting older every year, the next generation of Italian talent must start producing quickly. Unless they come through with a miracle against Ireland or England, the Italians are doomed to a winless 2014 campaign.