Drama breathes new life into Championship
February 15, 2010
Wales' Shane Williams dives over to score and break Scottish hearts © PA Photos
Steve Borthwick Warren Gatland Yannick Jauzion Martin Johnson Stephen Jones Morgan Parra Chris Paterson Clement Poitrenaud Francois Trinh-Duc Shane Williams
The Six Nations bounced back to its pulsating best this weekend with a thrilling feast of rugby to restore the Championship's flagging reputation.
The opening round of fixtures in this year's battle for northern hemisphere supremacy failed to meet the high levels of expectation in terms of entertainment and standard of rugby but any concerns about the appeal of the competition were blown away by the rollercoaster of emotion delivered by the latest hypnotic exchanges - and in particular, one very special game in Cardiff.
Wales and Scotland set the tone with a rip-roaring clash that did more than its fair share to inject life into the Championship. In a breathtaking finale, Wales conjured a miraculous escape that was greeted with a wave of exultation that would have lifted the roof off the Millennium Stadium had it been closed. France and Ireland were always going to struggle to match that level of intensity but they could not be faulted for their endeavour on a bitterly cold night in Paris, where the hosts served a further reminder of their class by handing the Irish a rare defeat and ending their dreams of back-to-back Grand Slams. England's clash with Italy in Rome may not have hit the same heights, although an engaging contest, but there was little call for complaint once the dust had settled on the weekend's action.
Wales and Scotland were desperate to return to winning ways having slumped to defeats to England and France respectively the previous week and a war of words between coaches Warren Gatland and Andy Robinson only served to fuel the contest. Both sides came out firing but it was Scotland who stole the initiative. The visitors had notched just two tries in their last six outings but grabbed a couple in the opening quarter, taking advantage of some slack defensive work from Wales.
The Scots held their hosts at arm's length for the remainder of the half, stretched their lead to 21-9 a minute after the restart and weathered a hint of a Welsh fightback to close in on the win at 24-14 with just three minutes on the clock. But with replacement hooker Scott Lawson in the sin-bin the tide began to turn in Wales favour. A burst of speed carried Leigh Halfpenny over and Stephen Jones' conversion brought them within sight of at least a share of the spoils.
With the clock ticking down, Wales' Lee Byrne launched another break and the fullback was tripped by Scotland's Phil Godman in a desperate bid to halt the home side's momentum. But it only resulted in another yellow card and a simple penalty from Jones that levelled the scores. There was only seconds left in the game and a simple kick into touch from the restart would have seen the Scots escape from a game they should have won with a draw. But dazed and confused, the kick went back into Welsh hands and they launched one more improbable attack that resulted in Shane Williams diving over under the posts. Jones conversion set the seal on a 31-24 win and arguably the greatest finish to a game in the sport's long history.
Once the celebrations died down in Cardiff the reality will hit home that there remain some major concerns for Gatland in the shape of their defensive frailty and game management, but a major plus is the return to top form of centre Jamie Roberts. The nature of the defeat, after such a well-crafted performance, will hurt the Scots, as will key injuries to Thom Evans and Chris Paterson, with the latter's 100th cap being memorable for all the wrong reasons.
France followed up their brutal demolition of Scotland with an equally commanding display on their way to a 33-10 victory against the Irish. Billed as a 'clash of the titans', in truth there was only one side in this encounter from the point Irish prop Cian Healy was sin-binned midway through the first half for pulling back French scrum-half Morgan Parra. The visitors may have repelled the immediate danger but in the end they had little answer to France's dazzling combination of power and flair with William Servat, Yannick Jauzion and Clement Poitrenaud all touching down. But it was Parra and his half-back partner Francois Trinh-Duc who caught the eye as the creative heartbeat of the side.
The physicality that disposed of the Scots was again key to their success but it was laced with some breathtaking adventure that lit up an otherwise gloomy, and bitterly cold, day in Paris and which ultimately brought an end to Ireland's 12-game unbeaten run. This French side are currently a class apart and will look forward to their clash in Wales, while Ireland must re-group ahead of a trip to Twickenham. The defending Six Nations champions are still in the hunt for the title and remain a strong side on paper but injuries to skipper Brian O'Driscoll and fullback Rob Kearney are a serious cause for concern.
It was perhaps a bit greedy to expect England's meeting with Italy to complete a memorable trilogy and so it proved with the visitors labouring to a 17-12 win at the Stadio Flaminio in a match littered with bouts of aerial ping-pong. In notching their second successive victory, England failed to impress with a much-improved showing from Italy frustrating them for long periods. Despite the scoreline, Martin Johnson's side were never really in danger of losing the game but at the same time never looked like they were comfortable, with their faltering backline lacking the nerve to counter-attack from deep and repeatedly failing to make their dominance pay on the scoreboard. One try - for centre Mathew Tait - is not good enough for a side with their aspirations and once again they had to rely on the boot of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson - and he produced one of his worst performances from the tee in memory.
England's almost robotic approach to the game at times will not endear them to fans and nor will captain Steve Borthwick's assessment that his side produced some, "fantastic stuff". What would it take for a bit more honesty in post-match interviews? Wales' Warren Gatland led the way in the wake of his side's defeat to England and his reluctance to dodge issues will benefit him in the long run - if only others would follow his lead.
Credit must go to Italy for turning their game around in the space of a week after their battling if unimaginative performance in Dublin last weekend. They always seem to raise their game at home but must learn how to conjure that intensity on away trips. However, before contemplating how to do that, they can look forward to the visit of Scotland with renewed confidence. The biggest positive for England was the result - they remain on course for the Grand Slam but a similar stuttering display against Ireland at Twickenham next time out could spell the end of that dream for another year.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.