France in the Six Nations driving seat
February 28, 2010
Italy's Luke McLean and Martin Castrogiovanni celebrate their side's famous victory over Scotland in Rome © Getty Images
Tommy Bowe Dan Cole Keith Earls James Hook Martin Johnson Brian O'Driscoll Alexis Palisson Johnny Sexton Francois Trinh-Duc Jonny Wilkinson Shane Williams
The battle for this year's Six Nations crown continues to thrill and frustrate in equal measure and as the dust settles on the latest round of Championship action only one side remains in the hunt for the elusive Grand Slam.
France beat Wales in Cardiff on Friday night to maintain their winning run but England saw their dreams of a clean sweep shattered by Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday. In between, Italy conjured a rare win in Rome to breathe life into their campaign and heap woe on the hapless Scots.
France's 26-20 victory at the Millennium Stadium was Les Bleus' third consecutive win - the first time they have managed the feat since Marc Lievremont took charge in 2007. However, the win was far from straightforward with Wales exposing some cracks in the French armoury for the first time.
As appears to be the norm for Wales in this year's Six Nations, they gifted their opponents a commanding lead before deciding to make a game of it. Centre James Hook and winger Shane Williams were guilty of forcing the game early on with France's Alexis Palisson and Francois Trinh-Duc pouncing for interceptions before gleefully racing away to score. In a desperate bid to recreate the magical seven minutes that carried them to victory against the Scots, the Welsh seemed to play as if the clock was again once again working against them. It was surely not a deliberate ploy but either way they were made to pay by a clinical French side who could not believe their luck.
As grateful as the visitors were for that head start, it almost cost them with the security offered by the scoreboard leading to a lack of concentration and focus. That opened the door to a resurgent Welsh side who, having remembered how to play, battled back into the contest with a try from Leigh Halfpenny and suddenly the French were looking vulnerable. Sadly for Wales, they were unable to harness that momentum with missed opportunities and handling errors applying the hand brake on their hopes of another stunning comeback. France eventually recovered their composure but they still could not stop the dancing feet of Williams carrying the wing wizard to a 50th Test try for Wales that saw him eclipse the legendary Gareth Edwards' Championship record of 18 tries. France remain favourites for the Six Nations crown but Wales showed they are vulnerable when placed under pressure. The question is whether Italy or England, their remaining opponents, have what it takes to exploit that apparent weakness?
Italy entered their clash with Scotland on the back of two brave performances against Ireland and England and they conjured another at the Stadio Flaminio - but this time they tasted victory. Winning is yet to be habit for Nick Mallett's side and it had been a long two years since their last Championship success - in the corresponding fixture in 2008. But they were good value for their 16-12 win that was built, as you would expect, on a steadfast defensive display with another monumental forward effort. But what may come as a surprise is that the winning score did not come from a scrum or some other concerted forward effort but instead a blistering backline move from centre Gonazlo Canale who cut the Scots open before popping a scoring pass to replacement scrum-half Pablo Canavosio.
Scotland may well cry foul in the wake of their second successive heart-breaking loss that leaves the squad and coach Andy Robinson a physical and mental mountain to climb ahead of their Calcutta Cup clash with England in Edinburgh. They were on the wrong end of at least one questionable decision from referee Dave Pearson that saw Italy's Josh Sole escape a yellow card for cynically killing the ball to snuff out a promising Scotland attack before the break. Pearson was not the only one guilty of mistakes with both sides serving up a depressing level of handling errors but it was Scotland's failure to take their opportunities rather than any dubious officiating that was their undoing.
England's bid for a Grand Slam was scuppered by Ireland who kept their own Championship hopes alive in the process. The Irish produced a superb defensive display to shackle a determined England who were once again found wanting in attack. And they were made to pay for their lack of a cutting edge by the visitors with Irish winger Tommy Bowe crossing for two well-worked tries either side of another from speedster Keith Earls. England dominated possession but lacked the guile required to unlock a well-regimented Irish defence and the fact that prop Dan Cole burrowed over for the home side's solitary try only served to underline the shortcomings of the back division.
The much-hyped showdown between fly-halves Jonny Wilkinson and Jonathan Sexton failed to materialise with both failing to stamp their authority on what was always going to be a close contest. The ever-impressive Jamie Heaslip was at the heart of Ireland's effort and rightly claimed the man of the match honour but it is the collective belief of the defending champions that is their most impressive attribute. They exude confidence as individuals and more importantly as a team and back themselves to deliver when it matters most.
It is said that you learn a lot about a side by the way they respond to a defeat and if that is the case then Ireland are in good shape. The test for Martin Johnson's under-fire England will come in a fortnight's time when the Six Nations battle resumes.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.