In the penultimate week of the Six Nations, we have the English smashing records (and the Scottish) and claiming the championship a week early, the French smashing the Italians in Rome, and the Welsh winning a cracking arm wrestle against the Irish with a score line that made it look like a smashing.
And, while the winner of the tournament is all wrapped up, the stage has been set for even more records to tumble next week…
Rhys Webb passes the ball
WALES 22 – IRELAND 9
By Nick Wasiliev
The Irish came into this match as the last realistic chance of stopping the English from claiming the Six Nations silverware, and had good reason to feel confident after back-to-back wins against Italy and France. Wales were the polar-opposite, out to restore some pride after back-to-back losses against Scotland and England.
Ireland were the first to get on the board through the boot of Jonny Sexton. What was most impressive in the early stages was the defence of both teams, with both putting pressure on the attacking team and leading to regular turnovers, however none were able to capitalise in the opening twenty minutes.
However, despite some threatening Irish passages of play, it was the Welsh who scored first on the twenty minute mark, when scrumhalf Rhys Webb made a brilliant break in play and combined with Leigh Halfpenny to put George North in the corner. Ireland however struck back quickly, regaining the lead through the boot of replacement fly half Paddy Jackson.
With the Irish lead a solitary point, the Welsh were looking more threatening with the ball, and when Jonny Sexton was back on the field, he found himself sent to the sin bin three minutes from halftime for killing the ball. Halfpenny took the easy points to give his team a two-point lead going into the break.
Halftime Score: Wales 8 – 6 Ireland
Wales continued to build up the pressure, and three minutes into the second half scored their second try, with Webb once again sending North over the line. Halfpenny converted, and the Scarlets were nine points ahead. However, with Sexton returning to the field and reinforcements arriving from the bench, the Irish began to swing momentum back in their favour, pounding the Welsh with phase after phase. However, they were unable to capitalise, and had to settle for three points in the 57th minute.
The Irish then appeared to score off a brilliant rolling maul eleven minutes from full time. However, referee Wayne Barnes penalised Robbie Henshaw for illegally joining the ruck from the side. This proved to be the momentum killer for the Irish, and when the Welsh charged down a kick and scored three minutes from time, it was the final nail in the coffin of what was a riveting, bruising game of attrition.
Fulltime Score: Wales 22 – 9 Ireland
This was a game where doing the little things right really counted, and it was reflected in the final score. The Irish played their guts out, but they did not take their chances. The Welsh did, through great defence and outstanding pressure, and were deserved winners.
The Game Changer
The Irish did well to wrestle back control of the game in the second half, and looked to have scored in the 68th minute. However, Wayne Barnes correctly penalised Henshaw for joining the maul incorrectly. This proved to take the wind out of the Irish sails, and the Welsh capitalised to win the game.
GAGR Man of the Match
Rhys Webb was sublime for the Scarlets at scrumhalf, setting up George North for both his tries and being the dynamic X-Factor in both attack and defence that got the Welsh over the line.
Get more match information from ESPN Scrum.
Michele Campagnaro and Angelo Esposito of Italy tackle Gael Fickou of France
ITALY 18 – FRANCE 40
Out of the three matches this weekend, this was probably of the least significance, with both others having a possible outcome on the championship.
Italy reverted to their more traditional style of play, however it wasn’t enough to help them get the win. France walked away victorious after completely dominating the second half.
The match got off to a flying start for the Italians with fly-half Carlo Canna offloading to captain Sergio Parisse who went over the line. The try, scored in the 3rd minute, is the quickest of the tournament (so far).
The opening 20 minutes was a scrappy affair, with French fly-half Camille Lopez and Canna trading penalties. With the score at 8-6 to the Italians, France ran the ball from their own 22 after the restart. Virimi Vakatawa and Remi Lamerat took the ball all the way to Italy’s 22 before spreading it wide to Gael Fickou to cross the line.
The only other scores for the half came from penalties to Canna and Lopez, taking the score to 16-11 to France at half time.
Halftime Score: Italy 11 – 16 France
France were on the board first in the second half, through another penalty goal to Lopez after a penalty for a high tackle.
5 minutes later, the French pulled further away after a second try to Vakatawa. Lopez, again successful with the conversion, took the score to 26-11.
Italy had their chance to narrow the gap after 3 quick penalties against France, Campagnaro kicking for the corner. But the ball went loose from the lineout handing possession back to the French.
The Italians had another scoring opportunity 5 minutes later, when Bronzini barged over the line, but the TMO ruled that it was held up, Italy had the scrum 5 metres out.
Another knock on by Italy halted yet another scoring opportunity, allowing the French to take the ball down field. More handling errors cost the Italians, with Louis Picamoles eventually crossing the line for France.
Brice Dulin crossed late in the game taking the French to 40 points. A late try to Angelo Esposito at the 80-minute mark took the final score to 40-18. France now sit 3rd on the 6 Nations table while Italy are on the bottom.
Fulltime Score: Italy 18 – 40 France
The Game Changer
The match had been reasonably tight until Vakatawa scored early in the second half. The Italians had their chances to narrow the gap and they didn’t take them, and in the end they simply ran out of steam.
GAGR Man of the Match
Baptiste Serin. The scrum half made a nuisance of himself around the ruck and helped control the French attack.
Get more match information from ESPN Scrum
Scotland win the lineout
ENGLAND 61 – SCOTLAND 21
By Lee Grant
After three ugly wins England produced their best form to trounce Scotland 61-21 and thereby clinch the 2017 Six Nations with a round to go.
Scotland hooker Brown started the rot immediately when he was carded for a lifting tackle. Further punishment came when England centre Joseph weaved through for his first try of the day – two minutes after the kick-off.
Scotland were spacing their backline too generously and Joseph shredded them again to score. At 24 minutes England were having their best start of the tournament and led 20-0.
With the Scotland backs playing out of position due to injuries their wide attack misfired, but after turning down a penalty goal attempt hooker Reid scored after a lineout maul.
But Joseph snuffed out thoughts of a recovery when he attracted paranoid Scot defenders before dishing out for replacement winger Watson to dot down.
Halftime score: England 30 – Scotland 7
Two minutes after the break Joseph sprinted through on an inside run near the posts for his hat-trick. But in a rare series of attacks in the England 22, Scotland scored their second when centre Jones took charge.
For nearly 20 minutes Scotland kept England out except for a lineout maul try to replacement no. 8 Billy Vunipola. Then Jones scored his second for Scotland after making a break to set up play in the England 22, then getting the ball back.
With ten minutes left Scotland had no chance to win, but being down 21-46 was no disgrace given their circumstances.
However the England bench finished all over Scotland who had little left in the tank. This helped replacement scrumhalf Care to score twice. First he zipped through tired defenders in a set play from a 5-metre lineout; then he accepted a pass from grounded replacement prop Mako Vunipola near the goal line.
Final score: England 61 – Scotland 21.
The Game Changers
Against rampant opponents Scotland needed everything to go their way but they were broken early by head injuries to fullback Hogg and his replacement, centre Bennett. Later winger Seymour succumbed also which meant that their backline had four scrumhalves or flyhalves on the field for all but four minutes of the second half.
GAGR Man of the Match
There were many England candidates but Jonathan Joseph, who scored three tries and laid on a fourth with his thoroughbred incursions, was an easy choice.
Get more match information from ESPN Scrum.
Danny Care sums up the mood in England right now
Well, you only need to look at the table to see that when it comes to Northern Hemisphere rugby, there’s England and then there’s the rest. They are deserved winners of the championship and credit must go to Eddie Jones for his ability to turn this team around. Seriously, they haven’t lost since the start of this tournament last year! That’s crazy!
They now are favourites to take the Grand Slam and break the All Blacks record, and they face the Irish at Lansdowne Road, where they haven’t won since 2013. They have good reason to feel confident though, as they have won six of the last seven encounters against the men in green. The Irish, with their loss to the Welsh, will effectively be playing for pride, and not much else. But hey, they beat the All Blacks last year, so anything could happen.
The French, with their big win against the Italians, have the chance to finish second on the table overall if they secure a victory over Wales, which will be seen as a big improvement from previous years. It has been a mixed year for the French, but a win here would put them in good stead for their tour of South Africa later this year. The Welsh however are looking like a tough obstacle, and will want to end their season on a high. They also have the chance to finish in second if they beat the French.
Finally, a battered and bruised Scotland will have the potential to also finish in second, and will be looking to end their campaign undefeated at Murrayfield against the Azzurri. While they will be hurting after their thrashing at the hands of England, it has been a hugely positive season for them, and they will want to send out Vern Cotter in style. The Italians however, while they have been off the pace for the whole season, have an okay record against the Scots, picking up their last win against them at Murrayfield in 2015. I honestly don’t see it happening for them, but hey, rugby is a strange game.
Either way, considering next week is now a dead rubber of a round, it’s looking like a cracker of an ending to an exciting season of Six Nations…