Rampant France streets ahead
March 15, 2010
Marc Andreu celebrates his maiden Test try © Getty Images
Marc Andreu Keith Earls Imanol Harinordoquy Marc Lievremont Brian O'Driscoll Tomas O'Leary Dan Parks Morgan Parra Jonny Wilkinson
Another week, another mix of thrills and frustration in the Six Nations. The latest round of action left France within touching distance of a well-deserved clean sweep while those masters of execution, Ireland, are eagerly anticipating a possible Triple Crown.
Ireland's victory over Wales in Dublin kicked off a weekend of action that had promised much, with England and Scotland battling to a dour, uneventful draw later on Saturday. As storm clouds gathered over the tournament once again France provided glittering riposte on Sunday with their blitz of tries against Italy to set up a mouth-watering Grand Slam meeting with England at the Stade de France next weekend.
Ireland's 27-12 victory over Wales highlighted their clinical finishing skills and put them in line for a fifth Triple Crown since 2004. Brian O'Driscoll led his team onto the field on the occasion of his 100th cap for Ireland and was warmly greeted by a packed house for the penultimate game at Croke Park.
Ireland will return to the newly renovated Lansdowne Road, now called the Aviva Stadium, next season and have the chance to sign off from their successful spell at the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) with more silverware against Scotland in the final round.
Declan Kidney's men ruthlessly punished Wales' latest bout of yellow fever, Tomas O'Leary and Keith Earls pouncing for tries while Lee Byrne was in the sin-bin for an unwarranted bout of killing the ball. Earls added a second midway through the second half to seal the points, leaving Warren Gatland with plenty of questions to answer as he looks to avoid the ignominy of a wooden spoon finish against Italy at the Millennium Stadium.
As the action switched to Edinburgh and Murrayfield, the tension was palpable. Scotland, backed by a big crowd, faced off against England in the latest instalment of the oldest rivalry in world rugby. Unfortunately the rugby that followed didn't so much as live up to the billing as fall desperately short, with the spoils shared 15-15 and the Calcutta Cup retained by England.
With both teams low on confidence it was never likely to be an aesthetic delight but the lack of enterprise and accuracy on display set a new low for this year's Championship. Jonny Wilkinson broke Ronan O'Gara's Championship points record with his three penalties, and at least there was a flicker of excitement as England searched for an underserved final drop-goal to outdo Dan Parks' 15-point haul for Scotland. The atmosphere was perhaps well summed up by BBC blogger Ben Dirs, who was told at the final whistle by a fan, "Why the glum face? At least it's over..."
Italy's victory over Scotland in round three added an edge to their trip to face France in Paris, with the intriguing prospect of Les Bleus battling a back-row and smothering defence that had also left little room for movement for Ireland and England.
Marc Lievremont's men answered the questions posed of them with a blistering display of flair, their attitude spot on as Italy were ruthlessly run at from deep in a 46-20 win. Many teams have spoken of the difficulty of playing Italy, master spoilers as they are, but France showed their class by refusing to be drawn into a dogfight.
Clement Poitrenaud, dubbed a 'luxury player' for too much of his career, was immaculate as an attacking force from fullback while scrum-half Morgan Parra and No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy continued their personal battle to influence the Player of the Tournament votes. Harinordoquy scored one of six French tries, with Perpignan's David Marty enjoying his recall in place of Mathieu Bastareaud by crossing for a brace. Clermont's impressive flanker Alexandre Lapandry scored his debut Test try, as did Castres' Marc Andreu.
Standing at only 5'5'' the winger immediately calls to mind Shane Williams of Wales and his performance was a definite crowd-pleaser as he broke clear for France's fourth try before setting up veteran centre Yannick Jauzion for a deserved score.
Italy's late rally brought a second try in two Tests for lively scrum-half Pablo Canavosio and also a well-worked effort from lock Carlo del Fava, ensuring that Wales will have a few things to worry about in training this week. France, disorganised due to a raft of changes, will also need to tighten up in the closing stages against England, but it's Wales' sieve-like defence that will need the most work before the Azzurri arrive in Cardiff.
Early rumblings from the England camp suggest that they will travel to Paris to spoil for all they are worth - they'd better be good at it.
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown