Ireland 12 – Wales 16
Scotland 15 – England 9
France 25 – Italy 13
Forget about dedication, control is what you need if you’re going to be the best and beat the rest.
On the penultimate weekend of the 2008 Six Nations, Wales exerted the type of control against Ireland that brought about a deserved win, a Triple Crown and probably should have secured them more points than the 16 they managed.
Scotland then played a very controlled and limited game to secure an unlikely but thoroughly deserved victory over an English side that looked clueless.
Finally, France always looked in control against a plucky Italian side that battled hard but once more fell short in terms of ability and composure.
All three matches lacked quality, but there was plenty of intensity and tension.
First up Wales were looking to measure just how far their revival under Warren Gatland had come against an Irish side that last time out had finally started to click. It was Wales who took the step forward.
Shane Williams equalled the all-time Welsh try scoring record with another devastating burst of speed and despite having two players sin-binned, Gatland’s team never looked like losing against an Irish side lacking in inspiration.
A Triple Crown for Wales, another championship decider in Cardiff in a week’s time and the opportunity for the home side to secure an unlikely Grand Slam.
Shortly after the final whistle at Croke Park, the match between Scotland and England kicked off in monsoon conditions and a war of attrition ensued with the Scots playing a very limited but highly effective game to keep control and ease to victory. But, yet again, the Auld Enemy proved inept, insipid and infuriating.
Only England can take a potent attacking force like The Volcano (Lesley Vainikolo) and render him dormant.
Jonny Wilkinson set a new world points scoring record, but once more looked unable to inspire his team when the pressure was on – but his replacement Charlie Hodgson followed suit and effectively kicked away the last, flimsy hope England had of winning in the final minute when the ball needed to be kept alive. With England’s golden child, Danny Cipriani, watching at home in disgrace following a classic storm in a teacup, which direction Brian Ashton chooses to take next is anyone’s guess.
It was all smiles for Wales again, although the tension in Dublin was quite immense. Grimly determined can probably sum up Warren Gatland ahead of his international return to Ireland and his team mirrored the coach’s demeanour.
After a bit of a stalemate in the first 20 minutes, Wales began to take control and by the end of the half the omens weren’t looking good for the Irish. Indeed, for the last 20 minutes of the first half and the whole of the second half Wales looked completely at ease, full of confidence and assured of victory.
The scoreline suggests it was close, but Wales always looked likely of staying in front once Williams had danced through for his almost obligatory try. Despite rightly losing Phillips and Martyn Williams for 10 minutes for foul play (although how the Irish replacement Jackman didn’t follow suit late on for a stupid piece of dangerous play that yielded the match winning penalty is baffling to say the least), Wales looked far more comfortable, controlled and confident.
The Triple Crown is rightly going to Wales in 2008 and yet there is still plenty of room for improvement and a need to step up another few gears in the final match against France.
Ireland may have pleased their fans in running rings around the Scots in round three, but the hesitation they showed against Wales brought back uneasy memories of the 2007 World Cup failure.
Over in Edinburgh, the Scots beat the English and deservedly took the Calcutta Cup in a similarly dour encounter. The Scots have been poor this season, but redemption of sorts arrived thanks to the boots of Patterson and Parks and an equally poor English side.
Many had prematurely predicted an English revival after they grind down an under-par France in Paris in round three, but the failings and failures that were evident in defeat against Wales and a barely deserved win over Italy were all-too apparent once again.
The inability of England to function as a team was typified by the increasingly frustrated Andrew Sheridan getting involved in all sorts of niggle instead of rampaging through the opposition as he did in Paris and by Vainikolo scrambling around in the mud and maybe wishing he was back in Bradford playing league – or had joined Cipriani for a midnight flit to a London nightclub and so earned a free pass from this match.
England were woeful and have a mountain to climb. But so were Scotland, who deserve credit for shutting down the game but need to work out how to play the all-action brand of rugby the national team is capable of producing.
The final match of the weekend saw a much-changed French side looking to continue their post-World Cup rebuilding against an Italian side smarting at conceding 48 points against Wales.
On paper it could have been another brutal, attritional, forward-dominated encounter, but the new-look French side is trying to rediscover some of the run from anywhere flair that has been lacking in recent years.
France never looked threatened, although the Italians again will be kicking themselves for spurned chances and missed tackles. The home side ran in some good tries, the Italians huffed and puffed, but ultimately the championship decider between France and Wales always looked like being set up.
The big question in the week to come is what sort of side the French selectors will put out against Wales – will they continue to experiment as they rebuild, or will they revert to tried and trusted players and combinations?
The answer to that question could decide the result.
Wales are full of confidence and against the sort of team that started against both England and Italy they will fancy their chances for a Grand Slam. If the French go for experience over youth, then the result is much harder to call and Wales might just have to rely on their superior points difference to claim the championship.
The 2008 Six Nations hasn’t been a vintage year – just like 2005, is that a positive omen for Wales? – but it is fitting that the two best sides in the championship will play the final game and title decider next Saturday.
The French are always dangerous, but the progress Wales have made in the space of three short months is amazing.
Next week – John Inverdale please take note – England will help provide the warm up to the main event and a match between Wales and France that really is too close to call.