Wales 47 – Italy 8
Ireland 34 – Scotland 13
France 13 – England 24
It was a super Saturday for the third round of the 2008 Six Nations with all three matches sandwiched between 3pm and 8pm.
The prospects for a day of tries, tries and yet more tries looked good as Wales put a stuttering first half performance against an Italian side showing plenty of typical attrition and niggle behind them and opened up with 2005 vintage running rugby.
Forwards and backs combined to run the Italian side ragged in a second half that saw four tries. But it could well be the two tries that got away – both Mike Phillips and Sonny Parker squandered clean breaks by ignoring faster players on their shoulder – that the coaching team will dwell on in the run up to the Triple Crown decider against Ireland in Dublin.
That match in a fortnight promises to be a classic as the Irish golden generation, plus a few fresh new faces, finally started to find the form that had elevated them to the status of dark horses in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Against an admittedly poor Scotland, the Irish cut loose and produced some scintillating rugby to rival what had happened in Cardiff earlier in the day.
Two matches down and plenty to excite the average rugby fan with lots of tries, plenty of inventiveness and no shortage of skill. The Welsh and Irish fans in particular were purring having seen their sides play the sort of rugby they love to watch.
So, eventually, we made it over to Paris and a re-run of the RWC semi-final where the English had bullied and stifled the French hosts to claim an unlikely final place against South Africa. Surely we wouldn’t see a repeat?
The third match of super Saturday failed to live up to the free-flowing rugby served up in Cardiff and Dublin, but it certainly provided plenty of grunt and tension. It was a virtual repeat of the RWC semi-final, with the English forwards wrapping up the match from the opening exchanges and effectively killing any hope the French backs had of showing their pace, flair and try-scoring abilities.
It was a dour, rumbling, grumbling sort of match, short on skill but high on aggression. Little wonder that England’s main grunter, Mark Regan, was singled out for some French vitriol after the match and the men in white revelled in ruthlessly shutting down the home side.
What it lacked in style, attractiveness and genuine entertainment, the England approach still brought a famous win. The lack of self-belief and ability to shut out a game that proved disastrous against Wales and almost brought humiliation in Italy was finally banished.
It might not have been the exciting try-fest of Cardiff and Dublin, but there was still plenty of love being shown on Saturday night in Paris. The English fans had plenty to cheer – a win against the French in their own backyard again – and the manner of victory simply didn’t matter.
Suddenly everything in the English game is red rosey once more. There are no doubts about the outside half, there is joy at the sight of an English pack on best brutal, bullying form and there is an unlikely 6N title to strive towards.
I won’t mention the p-word. It doesn’t matter what the rugby purists – whoever they are – think about the Paris mis-match. A win is a win and for those celebrating picking up two points it is all that really matters.
Obviously, as a Welsh fan, I am happy that Warren Gatland’s team produced some exciting rugby to present both Shane Williams and Lee Byrne with two tries. I am also happy with the Welsh defensive effort, which kept the Italians at bay and led to the fifth try – an interception to help Tom Shanklin celebrate his 50th cap.
But, above all, I was delighted with the way that Wales responded to the traditional spoiling and niggling employed by the Italians.
For once, Wales stood up to the cheap shots and the physicality – it is rare to see Martyn Williams and Shanklin squaring up to the opposition in any match, but on Saturday they stood their ground and were happy to get into Italian faces. They also dealt with the attempts to slow down and spoil the ball by injecting power and pace, the result being space for both forwards and especially the backs to exploit.
Equally, Ireland celebrated a return of the sort of dominant forward display and inventive back play that has made them formidable opponents in recent years. The RWC debacle remains a mystery and a massive black mark, but Ireland vs Wales at Croke Park in the next round promises to be a match to savour.
England will relish the prospect of a trip to Edinburgh and a Calcutta Cup encounter with a Scottish side that is infuriating its own coach. Quite why the Scots haven’t built on a solid RWC campaign and a decent start to the season by the Edinburgh and Glasgow sides in the Magners League and Heineken Cup is almost as mysterious as the Irish World Cup implosion.
The Italians need to regroup. After two narrow defeats and promising displays they were demolished in Cardiff and arguably a visit to Paris is the best possible match to try and rebuild.
The French forwards and their Italian counterparts will both be smarting after being outmuscled and outplayed and the match in a fortnight could be the ugliest and most hard-fought of the 2008 6N.
Three down, two to play and we’ve seen enough rugby to fall in love with and plenty more to frown about.
(Footnote: Dynamic Italian back-row Mauro Bergamasco has finally overstepped the mark from aggression to thugishness. After sailing close to the wind in recent years – an unpunished punch against Stephen Jones 12 months ago and a forearm smash into the throat of Geordan Murphy earlier this 6N season – he’s been banned from all rugby for 13 weeks after admitting gouging the eyes of Lee Byrne at the end of the match with Wales).