France bounce back to form
ESPN's Gordon Bray
February 6, 2011
France's Francois Trinh-Duc thanks the Stade de France faithful following his side's Six Nations victory over Scotland © Getty Images
Nick Easter Richie Gray Imanol Harinordoquy Nathan Hines Ronan O'Gara William Servat Francois Trinh-Duc
The World Cup shadow was cast across Europe and the genuine contenders emerged.
France gloriously resurrected its raison d'etre , England enhanced their maturation process and the Irish simply did what was necessary to keep the dream alive.
Of the three victories, Ireland certainly lacked the quality of the other two but do not underestimate the substance of the Ronan O'Gara knockout punch.
Their finish was an ideal dress rehearsal for a Cup finals' knockout game. Think Joel Stransky in 1995, Stephen Larkham in '99 and Jonny Wilkinson four years later in Sydney.
Of the beaten brigade, all can take positives from their performance. Wales created opportunities to win but fluffed their lines in the first half with a poor kicking game, just when England were vulnerable.
The bonny Scots were unlucky to strike a French team performing one of their 'Cirque du Soleil' impersonations under the Stade de France big top.
And hapless Italy were plain stiff against Ireland but that said, need to start thinking like winners rather than focusing on damage control against their big brothers. Admittedly, easier said than done.
However as regards that premise, Nathan Hines' approach for Scotland is pertinent. He says , "Think of yourself as number one but work like you are number two." Over to you Mr Mallett!
There were seven positional changes to the French starting line-up that succumbed so meekly to the Wallabies in November. The return of Francois Trinh-Duc at fly-half to partner Morgan Parra as twin traffic controllers, capitalised on the rampant forward display of the hard-nosed French forwards.
France have a destructive scrum spearheaded by hooker William Servat whom my ESPN rugby colleague Andrew Blades describes as "the sharp point of a spear formation that drives straight through the opposition front row."
Returning stars Lionel Nallet, Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire transformed the pack while Trinh-Duc, although brittle on defence has surely put paid to any further experimentation at No.10 involving Damien Traille.
Surprisingly, England handled the Millennium mosh pit far better than the hosts and have grown in stature. They calmly absorbed Welsh pressure and then seized the moment when presented.
Both Chris Ashton tries were snatched when Wales were one down in the defensive line, the first through an injury and the second a sin bin.
Like France, the English halves and back-row were hugely influential and Martin Johnson's call to hand the captaincy to Mike Tindall was spot on. It allowed No.8 Nick Easter to assert his dominance without burden and his powerful ball carries and intelligence at the breakdown gave England a significant edge.
Opposite Andy Powell had a wretched evening before his injury which raises the question what might have been if his replacement and former captain Ryan Jones had been on from the start.
England's bench in contrast provided a cutting edge in the final stages. The likes of Steve Thompson and Simon Shaw literally weighed in with their bulk whereas the lack of match hardness for Lee Byrne and Dwayne Peel was exposed.
Ireland will improve dramatically in front of their faithful at Lansdowne Road this weekend. France have shown their hand early and providing tight-head Mike Ross can anchor the Irish scrum, this outcome is on a knife edge.
The winner of Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield will stay alive in the Six Nations and it should come down to the most positive mindset. On that score Scotland's impressive newcomers Richie Gray, Joe Ansbro and Max Evans are making heady progress.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Gordon Bray is ESPN Australia's Chief Rugby Analyst
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. Rewind remembers the fixture's longest-living survivor
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14