Consistency is the word that sums up the second week of the 2007 tournament – or, rather, the lack of it.
With the exception of France, none of the teams have shown anything like the level of consistency required in international rugby. Equally disappointing was the lack of consistency in officiating.
There were poor performances and baffling decisions from the referees at both Murrayfield and Croke Park – which affected all four teams and left a large number of players and fans scratching their heads about certain rules and interpretations.
As a result, we still had a largely hit and miss weekend and once it again it took the third and final match on Sunday for the excitement level to rise. But week two did throw up some major winners and losers:
- England 20 – Italy 7
This proved a much sterner test for England than the opening week’s canter against a poor Scotland and as a result it gives us a truer picture of how the recovery is going. England struggled against an Italian side that put up more resistance than the previous visitors to Twickenham. This was a disjointed performance and it is no coincidence that England’s only try came from the only really cohesive passage of play the side managed to put together. The forwards found it hard going against a robust Italian pack and the backs failed to sparkle in the face of some determined defence. For Italy there was a certain degree of redemption following their capitulation at home against France in the opening round of matches and they deserved their second half try. England were generally too strong, however, and Jonny Wilkinson continued his rehabilitation with a solid display that saw him rack up the points again but it was not quite as spectacular this time.
Verdict: A deserved win for England and more encouragement for Italy, but this was another game short on quality and genuine excitement. The way England struggled showed how much work Brian Ashton and his coaching team still have to do in order for England to mount a realistic challenge at the World Cup.
- Scotland 21 – Wales 9
We were promised free-flowing rugby and got a dour, soggy, error-strewn encounter instead. This match highlighted the lack of consistency in this year’s tournament more than the others – Scotland showed all the pride, passion, determination and guile they lacked against England; Wales failed to build on the promising display in their opening round defeat against Ireland and arguably produced their worst display for years. Two years is a long time in rugby and this Wales side was a shadow of the one that demolished Scotland at Murrayfield on their way to the Grand Slam. The Scots had a simple game plan – secure the ball, bully the Welsh forwards and stifle their backs – and stuck to it with aplomb. They were undoubtedly aided by a particularly inept Welsh performance and what is a real cause for concern for Gareth Jenkins is the failure of the forwards to compete and once again the lack of a real cutting edge in the backs. No tries says it all about a match dominated by a hard-working forward slog by the Scots and the boot of Chris Paterson.
Verdict: Signs of hope for the Scots with the forwards battling hard, although the backline again failed to offer too many threats. A lack of consistency has been the Welsh disease for over a decade and is coming back to haunt a team that now faces two tricky away trips to Paris and Rome and England at home to avoid the wooden spoon.
- Ireland 17 – France 20
The Grand Slam decider? Ireland were full of hope after “winning ugly” in Cardiff in the opening round and the emotionally charged atmosphere at Croke Park – the temporary home of Irish rugby and spiritual home of Irish sport – was supposed to sweep them to victory against France. But France had other ideas, took the game to the Irish in an opening half-hour blitz and arguably could and perhaps should have sewn the match up by half-time. The French forwards bullied their way around the pitch and the backs threatened to run rings around an Irish side badly missing their talisman and captain (Brian O’Driscoll). The Irish started to raise their game to the sort of level we have come to expect from this particular side and dragged their way into the match. But they failed to adopt the no-risk strategy that worked against Wales and has worked so well in recent years and never managed to turn the screw against a French side that always looked threatening. Vincent Clerc’s excellent late try secured a deserved win for France and probably determined the outcome of this year’s tournament. It was another absorbing match, however, it wasn’t helped by another inconsistent display – this time by the referee.
Verdict: Ireland stuttered again but unlike Wales in week one, France had the quality to exploit the mistakes and take a big step towards the 2007 title and Grand Slam. The Irish possess one of the strongest teams in the Northern Hemisphere and have failed to live up to the promise. France will take a huge dose of confidence from this win, but can they maintain this consistency?