Wales 30 – Scotland 15
France 26 – Ireland 21
Italy 19 – England 23
“For God’s sake!”
The quote of the second week of the 2008 Six Nations had to come from an apoplectic Brian Moore, his face the colour of beetroot as he commented on England’s stumbling win against Italy.
I’m only guessing that his face had turned the shade of a root vegetable, of course, but judging by the passion and venom with which he delivered those three words he wasn’t exactly chuckling on the inside.
His frustration and incredulity was well-placed. For the second week running England played 40 minutes of rugby and a second 40 minutes of…well, I’m not entirely sure how to describe the second half performance in Rome.
The word implode was used a lot during England’s second half capitulation in defeat to Wales in week one, so what do you call a similarly disastrous display which this time managed to deliver a barely deserved win?
Trying times indeed in the Six Nations, but there were positives too.
In all three matches we saw some wonderfully created and finished tries – a bit of a contrast to the first week – even if one of the best owed a lot to a generous Italian TMO (Shane Williams danced beautifully at speed, but the award of his second try for Wales against Scotland was more than a little dubious).
These things do tend to balance themselves out. Wales have been on the arse end of some dodgy officialdom in recent times and during their comfortable win over the Scots they got a slice of luck. The hapless Scots will be hoping to get their share of good fortune in their remaining three matches.
The 30-15 scoreline hardly tells the story of the encounter in Cardiff. Wales played well enough, but only showed flashes of brilliance and they are still very much a work in early stages of progress. The result was never really in doubt, thanks largely to the inability of Scotland to pose any serious threat.
The Scots have plenty of grunt up front, but remain clueless in the backs. Without the Impeccable Mr Paterson’s Boot, who contributed another 5 out of 5 penalties, the Scots might not have troubled the scoreboard.
Wales, like they did against England, gifted points with sloppiness and made the opposition look better than they actually were. The home side should have been out of sight by half-time.
When they play towards their potential, with forwards and backs linking superbly and talented runners finding space, Wales remain a force. But too often they slip into bad old habits and you can expect the new coaching regime to spring a few more ruthless surprises ahead of the visit of the Italians to the Millennium Stadium in two weeks time.
The only other unbeaten side in this year’s 6N are the French. They threatened to demolish an Irish side still stuttering and seeking redemption with some traditional flair and run from anywhere rugby. Brutish forwards bullying the opposition and thrilling runners skipping over for tries was just what the Parisian crowd ordered.
But we almost witnessed another highly unlikely fightback. It may yet prove to be the turning point of Ireland’s season. Although they still lost, the way in which they fought back in the second half suggested a return of the passion, focus and determination that has been sorely missed in the last 12 months.
Vincent Clerc’s try scoring blitz threatened to swamp Ireland and the omens were not great as the second half sprung into life. Yet the prospect of humiliation on French soil again, following the RWC ’07 debacle, seemed to galvanise the Irish.
A penalty try, a bullish effort from the ever-impressive David Wallace and lots of passion saw the Irish whittle the French lead down to just five.
They fell short of drawing level or overhauling the French, but the Irish must take a lot more positives from defeat in Paris than they did in victory in Dublin over Italy in the opening round of matches.
As for the French, they are firmly installed as favourites for the championship and Grand Slam having rediscovered the mix of forward power and backline bravado that makes them such a force. Iron out a few inconsistencies and the French will be unstoppable.
Which is a lot more than can be said of RWC ’07 finalists England. They travelled to Rome hoping to appease their fans against an Italian side that looked laboured and lacking in imagination in week one.
The response of the irritated Pit Bull in the commentary box summed up the day.
It looked like England would find form and favour in Italy as the forwards battled to set up a solid platform and the backs started to show what they are capable of with quickly moved ball. By half-time the English fans were smiling, the pundits were purring and the Italians looked frazzled.
It had a touch of deja vu about it as the same was happening during last week’s match with Wales. Surely lightening couldn’t strike twice?
This time there were no glut of injuries to key decision-makers, but we saw another abysmal second half display from England. Just like last week, the English wilted under the pressure of a forward pack who decided they actually wanted to compete and not be bullied.
Without the solid platform, the English backs looked as clueless as the Scots have done in the opening two matches. The Italians chipped away at the English lead and the mistakes started to come thick and fast. Penalties were given away, a sloppy try conceded and the English seemed either scared or simply unable to keep hold of possession.
Cue Mr Moore, who expressed the thoughts and feelings of millions of his fellow English supporters with three exasperated words.
The fact England held out for a barely deserved win said more about the Italians’ inability to take advantage of possession and field position than the visitors’ resolve and defensive abilities. The Italians will still be kicking themselves about the golden opportunity they missed in Rome when they arrive in Wales in a fortnight.
The two-week break will probably benefit everyone, apart from the Irish.
Having a bit of time to analyse and remedy is something the new coaches of France and Wales will be grateful for as they try and assemble sides capable of playing to their potential for a full 80 minutes. The Italians must use the time to sort out their half-back pairing and find a bit more ambition.
The Scots must decide what to do with their outside half dilemma – the Impeccable Mr Paterson’s Boot cannot be left on the bench or the wing for much longer. They need the backline to start matching their forwards’ abilities and determination.
The English, similarly, must decide whether Saint Jonny of That Drop Goal is actually the outside half they want or if he is yesterday’s man (he was back on vintage form at half-time in Rome, according to some pundits, but was once more living on borrowed time by the final whistle). There are weak links all over the pitch, but it appears the No.10 remains in most sights – and people criticise the Welsh fans for short-term memories and fickleness.
The Irish would probably have preferred to carry on this coming weekend where the left off in Paris. They finally have some forward momentum to build on, but have to wait to try and rekindle some of that second-half fire.
There is still a long way to go in the 6N, but could we be in line for a Grand Slam decider on the final day in March when the French visit the Welsh?