Apologies on the late blog posting. Valentines Day weekend and yours truly was on a romantic jaunt but rest assured that I was able to fit in some rugby action to boot.
Le Bleu win the war
Paris in February should not be like this; rotten wet conditions, precious little excitement from open play and a match official who flat out botched the contentious talking point. Maestri is an enigma; the Toulouse second row always seem to have an edge when facing Ireland and so it proved last weekend with his cynical high shot on Johnny Sexton who is now resembling a washed up boxer who has taken one too many punches. The indiscretion may have yielded the opening three points in this dour contest for Ireland but where was the actual punishment for the crime. Maestri on another day should have served at least ten minutes in the sin bin for the offense; perhaps unfinished business after the Ireland RWC triumph but the offense was clearly more than only a penalty.
It summed up the afternoon of Jaco Peyper; was not decisive enough in the set piece where both teams were guilty of scrum infringements. France appeared to be wheeled on a number of occasions in the opening period bossed by Ireland but the South African like the match officiating eternity are writing their own rules on constitutes a scrum infringement. The breakdown for both sides resembled starting formations in trench warfare; sealing off a plenty but no action and then several forward passes were ignored. Perhaps, the referee was trying to let the game flow as there was precious little to entertain the masses in the stand.
Both sides will point to the weather but the lack of cutting edge from either side with ball in hand was massively disappointing. Ireland’s lack of scoring creativity when in periods of dominance was exposed for the second week in a row. The three quarters have being defensively tight but with ball in hand have shown precious little in game line yards. The front five were improved from the opening fixture but in key points of that opening period, the set piece failed to execute and opportunities were spurned.
France improved after the break much to do with their scrum which was getting the benefit of the doubt from the man in the middle. It was the pressure in the scrum which yielded the pivotal game winning score as France pressure five meters from the Ireland line saw O’Donnell having to hold his position for a fraction second late in the scrum which allowed Medard to evade the back row player and score the try. The sense of relief in the French ranks spoke volumes; a key moment potentially in the development of this squad and one that French supporters will hope with see increased confidence in the side to play a more expansive game.
For Ireland, it is reflection on how decisive line breaks can be converted into points; all too common mistakes in the red zone from last weekend were exposed yet again. A question mark in terms of three quarters should surely emerge. McCloskey and Marshall’s power and creativity surely comes into the equation. Henshaw for all his promise has shown precious little with ball in hand in this tournament and it is time that McCloskey partners the Leinster bound player to form a long term partnership. Payne is a natural full-back and should compete for that position alongside Kearney, precious little came from full back hitting the line last weekend. Time for changes but will Joe Schmidt react. The fact that Jack McGrath had to play yet another full game speaks volumes on Schmidt’s view point on his squad depth at prop. Furlong was exposed at scrum time when introduced and James Cronin is apparently not ready for the international fray. Cian Healy’s return cannot come quick enough. A miserable fixture and one that will not be in the archive reel.
Wales triumph, Scotland woe
Scotland are becoming used to being the bridesmaid of RBS 6N tournament. They are getting into positions to win but a lack of composure and game management is their fatal flaw. As like last weekend, Scotland botched a clear try scoring opportunity when John Barclay strode with ball in hand but not seening a colleague on the outside fly kicked the ball away into touch. Wales got out of jail and never looked back.
This contest was incredibly entertaining; would not be hard considering the drab opening match affair. The plus points for Wales was the performances of Jamie Roberts who was a man mountain with ball in hand and defensively dominant with some crunch hits (just ask Cowan) and George North whose work rate and aerial threat was rewarded with a sensational try in the second half to seal victory. The negative is potentially the imbalance that Wales have in the back row. Tipuric and Warburton are superb players but their understanding is little off at this time. Lydiate’s relationship with Warburton is immense and it will be interesting to see how Gatland negotiates this point.
Scotland’s performance was again encouraging after a disastrous start conceding such an early score but the fight, heart and decision to play expansive was commendable. Cotter’s charges were full value for their half-time lead. Their try in the opening period was superbly worked, numerous phrases exposing Wales defense out wide and Finn Russell (taking the right decision) to kick the ball aerially for Tommy Seymour to touch down. Seymour’s performance for Scotland was the first highlight. The Glasgow Warrior back was superb both in work rate, aerial exchanges and his ability to make game line yards caught the eye. The second highlight for Scotland was the emergence of Duncan Taylor in the three quarters. The Saracens player has had to be patient for his opportunity but showed his skills with an assured performance culminating in an impressive try which showcased his ability to pick a superb running line and finish a try scoring move.
Wales’s second half performance in the third quarter won this contest; their scrum continued to impress yielding penalties to create set piece opportunities close to Scotland’s line. Roberts’ try was as emphatic as you will see all tournament; great running line but his physical power was never going to be stopped. North’s try was the end product of sustained Wales pressure, several missed Scotland tackles which was caused by an energy sapping previous fifteen minutes was crucial. Taylor’s try was too little, too late but Scotland have shown again that if they can improve that they will win matches. Wales stride on further in the tournament eyeing up England and France as the pivotal games to potentially reclaiming the championship.
England stroll (in the second half)
Joseph hat-trick of tries. Jamie George’s cameo and a certain number six introduction (Maro Itoje) who will become an England legend are the high points for Eddie Jones but there were issues in the opening forty minutes as Italy took the game to their visitors. The Italian pack were competitive in the lineout and their maul caused England problems forcing penalties. England’s attack were blunted by an initial Italian defense line full of speed and enthusiasm but the second half saw the hosts tire and allowed England space for Ford / Youngs and Care to launch their three quarters. Joseph’s pace was exposing Italy defensively and it highlighted a total lack of defensive structure from Italy in the outer fringes.
40-9 scoreline was harsh on Italy considering their first half efforts but let us be honest until they start to develop a quality out-half and attacking game plan with their backs, this sort of score could be replicated before the end of the tournament. England receive a major confidence boost but there are questions on the captain already. Hartley and George debate will rage in the England national media as the Saracens hooker cameo was brilliant full of work rate, line breaks and correct game management decisions.
Itoje at six also impressed. The player will become a superb second row option but his sheer athleticism at the breakdown will have Robshaw wondering on his starting place. Mike Brown’s performance was atypical mixed and Jones surely will be looking at Goode as a viable alternative option. Eddie Jones’ reign has started well but more pressing engagements lie in wait in Wales and France. Ireland in two weeks time may come at a good time for England considering the injury and lack of form issues plighting Joe Schmidt’s side.