Six Nations: Vive le France, England find form, and Scots off the mark

Photo: INPHO/James Crosbie

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If the games that made up week two of the tournament had fallen foul of the weather and largely been occasions for the purists, dry decks and a bit of sunshine provided a welcome platform for some wonderful rugby in week three, with France’s hugely exciting 27-23 win over Wales a clash for the ages.

It was Les Bleus’ first win in Cardiff in 10 years, cemented their spot at the top of the Six Nations ladder, and fuelled talk of a first Grand Slam since 2010. Meanwhile England, who had just about eked out victory over Scotland in the wind and rain in their previous match, rediscovered the form that took them all the way to the World Cup Final with a comprehensive 24-12 downing of Ireland at Twickenham. And there was reason to cheer for the Scots at last, a 17-0 win over hapless Italy in Rome kick-starting their competition and easing the pressure on coach Gregor Townsend. Here’s how all three clashes played out…

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A penalty from Dan Biggar got the Welsh off to a fine start in front of a raucous crowd at the Principality Stadium. But they were rocking shortly after when the normally reliable Leigh Halfpenny spilled a garryowen to the floor, and French fullback Anthony Bouthier ran in an all-too easy first five-pointer, converted by Romain Ntamack.

The visitor’s settled into their rhythm, their linespeed choking Wales as defence guru Sean Edwards returned to Cardiff with a rather handy notebook on the pros and cons of his former side. And the home team were dealt a huge blow when the luckless George North suffered yet another concussion and was forced from the field, after copping an accidental elbow from Gael Fickou as they challenged for a high ball.

The match rattled along at a cracking pace as Biggar tried his best to get his team on the front foot with an accurate kicking game. But it was the French that extended their lead before the end of the first quarter, Ntamack punishing a breakdown penalty to open up a 10-3 advantage in front of a suddenly nervy home support.

Biggar cancelled that out on 25 minutes after France strayed offside defending a rare Welsh visit to the 22. But the visitor’s produced a moment of magic a couple of minutes later, the backline clicking into gear down one flank before a cross-field kick on the money from Ntamack sent Fickou over on the other.

However, anyone except those with Welsh blood coursing through their veins was disappointed to see it then chalked off for a marginal forward pass. But the French onslaught continued, and one well-worked lineout play later and burly lock Paul Willemse crashed over.

Now 17-6 behind, a clever chip over the top from Biggar sent Gareth Davies scurrying away to within five metres as they looked for a riposte. But France recovered enough to protect their line and concede a penalty, an option interestingly taken by captain Alun Wyn Jones considering the scoreline. It didn’t appear to be a day when consecutive three-pointers would be enough to outscore this French attack, and it also flew in the face of the new mindset adopted by the coaching team of Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones.

They were soon back in the red zone though, applying the blow torch through the pick and drive and forcing successive penalties that brought the reward of a yellow card for Greg Alldritt, and a scrum under the posts against an undermanned pack. However, after two attempts to break down the blue wall, a knock-on left Wales frustrated and France buoyant, as they headed to the sheds with no further damage and an eight-point lead.

Romain Ntamack scores a try 22/2/2020

Romain Ntamack dives in for France in a thriller in Cardiff – Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Alldritt returned after the break with no change to the scoreboard, but it was when France were back at their full complement that Wales struck. Momentum had continued to sway towards the hosts and after several surges for the line, prop Dillon Lewis piled over near the posts, and Biggar added the extras to make it a one-point ball game.

However, Welsh delight was short-lived, Nick Tompkins pushing too hard to find his outside runners and seeing a pass picked off in mid-air by Ntamack, who had half an empty field to navigate for Les Bleus’ third try. Coach killer.

When the flyhalf slotted another 3pts just after the hour to make it 27-16, the balance of power had swung back to France. But they rode their luck in a possible game-changer a few minutes later.

Ken Owens went to feed try-machine Josh Adams for a run to the corner, only for Willemse to deliberately knock the ball down as he passed. But what appeared to be a damn good case for not only a yellow card, but also a penalty try given Adams’ position and the lack of cover behind Willemse, was deemed worthy of a penalty only by the officiating team. To say that went down like a lead balloon with the faithful would be some understatement.

Wales continued to ramp up the pressure, particularly up front, and three scrum penalties eventually saw tighthead Mohamed Haouas sent to the bin. But just as they looked to turn the screw under the posts from another put-in, Demba Bamba arrived in Haouas’ place, and fairly skittled the Welsh front row to get Les Bleus out of jail.

Jarrod Evans came off the bench with just over 10 to go for the hosts and instantly began to inject some fresh verve and pace into their attack. And off the back of a couple of his damaging runs, Wales worked themselves into the 22 in the 74th minute for the irrepressible Biggar to hit a nice line and just about ground the ball under pressure.

He duly dusted himself off to slot the extras, and with five minutes remaining it looked like it was the Welsh coming home with a wet sail to shatter French dreams. But when skipper Jones was pinged for playing a man in the air from a lineout, Matthieu Jalibert – on for the injured Ntamack – lined up a kick to seal the win… and missed.

The last chance fell to Wales as they looked to run it from their own 22 with the clock ticking down, Tompkins racing through a gap and almost away. But he was reeled in, and a brilliant steal on the floor from replacement hooker Camille Chat won back possession, and the game for France.

FRANCE 27 (Anthony Bouthier, Paul Willemse, Romain Ntamack tries; Romain Ntamack 3 cons, 2 pens) defeated WALES 23 (Dillon Lewis, Dan Biggar tries; Dan Biggar 2 cons, 3 pens) HT 17-9 at Principality Stadium, Cardiff

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England started their first game back at HQ since the World Cup like a side with a point to prove, accurate with the boot to apply pressure on Ireland from the air, on point with the kick-chase, and slick through the hands. Dominating territory and possession they forced the opening before the 10 minute mark, a probing grubber from Ben Youngs unusually fumbled in goal by Johnny Sexton, and George Ford dotting down the loose pill.

The Ireland skipper produced another rarity shortly after, badly shanking a kick at the posts after England went offside. And that was the visitor’s only excursion to the opposition half in the first quarter.

With Manu Tuilagi causing havoc with every barnstorming run, Ireland tried to assert themselves with some attempted physical intimidation off the ball. James Ryan was launching himself like an exocet at every ruck trying to cause maximum damage to anyone in a white shirt within range, and double-teaming with CJ Stander for a bit of handbags on the floor with Maro Itoje.

Unperturbed, England kept their foot on the throat, and another deft kick through from Ford had Ireland’s defence turning and Elliot Daly pouncing for a second try when Stockdale failed to deal with the bouncing ball.

The onslaught continued, Ireland harassed, harangued and harried into errors as England’s brutish linespeed sent them repeatedly back behind the gain line, and unable to muster anything like a sustained attack of their own. When Owen Farrell added another 3pts after Ireland were pinged at the breakdown to send his team to the sheds with a 17-0 advantage, it was a fair reflection of their dominance.

Elliot Daly scores a try despite Jacob Stockdale 23/2/2020

Elliot Daly dots down England’s second off another Irish mistake – Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Expectedly, Ireland returned with plenty of fire in the belly, and having fostered some ascendancy at scrum time they had a platform to work from. Successive penalties inside the 22 gave them the chance strike from a put-in on 50 minutes and they took it, finally getting some forward momentum off the back of it for Conor Murray to fire it wide, and Robbie Henshaw to split Farrell and Tom Curry to find the line.

The pot was boiling nicely, Ireland with some renewed belief, England keen to reassert their authority, and tempers continuing to flare as a result. That situation wasn’t exactly helped by the arrival of Ellis Genge on the hour, a move akin to pouring petrol on an already burgeoning fire. And England’s newest bulldog took one scrum to exert his influence, helping his team to win a much-celebrated penalty, and berating Ryan with sufficient ire to draw a caustic response from the fuming lock.

But it was England that fed off the rage, kicking to the corner to set up a lineout maul that was finished off by replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, with no little help from a few eager backs.

The exciting talents of John Cooney were unleashed from the bench as coach Andy Farrell looked to find some way back into the contest against a team being led around the park by his own son. But all that did was illustrate exactly why many of an Irish persuasion suggest he should be starting instead of the more pragmatic Murray, if Ireland are to fully flex their expansive muscles in the post-Joe Schmidt era.

And it was the visitor’s who finished on top, replacement prop Andrew Porter driven over from a metre to put some respectability back on the scoreline. But while Eddie Jones may rue the late lapse of concentration from his charges, the damage had long been done in this one by an England side that were far more All Blacks semi final vintage, than Springbok title decider.

ENGLAND 24 (George Ford, Elliot Daly, Luke Cowan-Dickie tries; Owen Farrell 3 cons, pen) defeated IRELAND 12 (Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Porter tries; John Cooney con) HT 17-0 at Twickenham Stadium, London

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With both teams winless from the opening two rounds, the clash between Italy and Scotland was already being billed as a wooden spoon decider. But with the Azzurri not having tasted victory in Rome for seven years, it was also a huge chance for the visitor’s to get their campaign off to a belated start.

A huge touchfinder from Stuart Hogg and a clever lineout play had Scotland knocking on the door inside two minutes, Italy scrambling well but conceding a penalty from in front. However, a very casual Adam Hastings rushed his kick and inexplicably pushed it wide of the uprights to waste a gift 3pts.

Italy then enjoyed plenty of time in the Scottish 22 for the first quarter, but were turning over too much ball to a hungry opposition backrow, while struggling for a foothold at scrumtime. And it was the visitor’s who struck first from broken field, Hogg scything his way through midfield before goose-stepping his way around Jayden Hayward to find the corner with elan. Given his howler in Dublin three weeks ago, you’ve never a seen player clutch a ball so tightly with both hands as he went over.

They thought they were in again on the half hour, Hamish Watson bursting through with a nice fend to send Sam Johnson away, and the centre had scrumhalf Ali Price on his inside for the run home. However, replays confirmed Watson’s pass had travelled forward, and it remained a one score game.

Italy were on the attack in the closing minutes of the half trying to find something to take to the sheds, and they looked like they had worked an overlap, only for winger Mattia Bellini to cut back inside and be stripped in the tackle by Chris Harris. And frustration grew for the home side when Tommaso Allan struck an upright from an admittedly long-range penalty attempt, leaving them trailing narrowly 5-0 at the break.

Stuart Hogg scores the first try 22/2/2020

From zero to hero: Scottish skipper Stuart Hogg finishes off a fine individual score – Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Scotland blew another chance shortly after the restart, when the backrow of Watson, Magnus Bradbury and Jamie Richie combined well, only for the latter to spill the ball forward under pressure from Jake Polledri with the line begging.

They came again, setting up camp on the Azzurri line looking for a crack to open up through the pick and drive. Italy’s goal line defence was admirable, but with the big boppers sucked into the middle, a couple of swift passes wide finally gave Harris the room to crash his way over for Scotland’s all-important second.

The next 20 minutes were played out largely in the middle third, neither side able to gild another golden chance despite a desire from both to run free and use the ball. But any hopes of a late comeback from the hosts faded with 10 to go with the yellow card shown to replacement prop Federico Zani for an unnecessary lifting tackle.

They huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow Scotland’s house down, such was the desire and application from a defence that missed just eight tackles all game. And with a minute left on the clock they struck the hammer blow, Hastings and replacement Rory Hutchinson combining to break upfield, and Hogg lending a hand at the breakdown to open a clear path to the posts for Hastings.

The victory equalled Scotland’s biggest ever win on Italian soil, a 29-12 triumph back in 2002 thanks to a few points from Gregor Townsend, the player. This result certainly eases the pressure on Gregor Townsend, the coach. For now.

SCOTLAND 17 (Stuart Hogg, Chris Harris, Adam Hastings tries; Adam Hastings con) defeated ITALY 0 HT 5-0 at Stadio Olimpico, Rome

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2020 Six Nations Table

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