The 4th weekend of the 2016 6 Nations has left England still on course for the Grand Slam, and already crowned 2016 champions with the final weekend still to come. In a thorough demolition of Wales at Twickenham they showed that they are much improved from the side that Wales beat there just 5 months ago. England saw off a late surge from Wales to hold on to win 25-21. In the first match of the weekend Ireland thrashed Italy 58-15 to register their first win of the Championships, and in Sunday’s match Scotland beat France 29-18, the first time they have beaten Les Bleus in 10 years!
Ireland v Italy
It is difficult to understand what has happened to Ireland in the last twelve months. To only be registering their first victory of the 2016 6 Nations in its fourth weekend is very strange for the country which has won the Championships the last two years running. Whether they have been traumatised by their heavy defeat to Argentina in the quarter finals of the World Cup, or whether it is something else, I have no idea.
Finally they put in a display which is worthy of them, running in nine tries in Dublin to wallop Italy 58-15. I did not see the game, but am pleased to see Ireland back in form.
England v Wales
This was, for any Welsh person, the big match of the weekend. The build-up during the week had been relentless, as I blogged about on Friday. But, when the game started Wales were nowhere to be seen. We were largely absent for the first 60 minutes of this match, going down 19-0 and 25-7 before we rallied in the last 7 minutes to make the final score a more respectable 25-21.
I really don’t know what happened to Wales in the first half. It is true that England were good, in fact they were considerably better than Wales. But, Wales did not look like they were interested; they looked lethargic, slow, lacking commitment and as if they did not have the will to play a decent game. We missed so many tackles in the first half that I could not believe what I was seeing, 19 missed tackles in the first half, more than we typically miss in a whole championship! The total number of missed tackles by the end of the match was 27. Crazy for a team who pride themselves on their defence. We also kept getting turned over at the breakdown, it was truly shocking. At half time it was 16-0, and Wales were lucky to have zero.
Whatever Gatland and Shaun Edwards said at half time to the hapless Welsh players clearly had some impact, because they came out in the second half a different team. After Farrel put England ahead 19-0, Dan Biggar charged a kick down to score under the posts. Suddenly it was 19-7. Then, two more penalties to England put them 25-7 ahead, and the brief hope of a Welsh revival seemed to be extinguished.
With the score at 25-7 and only 7 minutes left on the clock the Welsh team came to life. We scored two tries in quick succession to make it 25-21, and England looked rattled. Wales could have snatched it with a late break down the touchline by George North. On replays it is clear to me that the assistant referee made a mistake, North got the ball away before he was in touch. Whether Wales would have scored a try is debatable, as the English player and man of the match Maro Itoje looked ready to nail Rhys Webb who had caught North’s pass. But, who knows? It is frustrating from a Welsh viewpoint that a bad call should deny us a possible last-gasp victory; but I must repeat that England were the better team on the day and deserved to win.
Obviously I wanted Wales to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but had they done so it would not have been a fair result as, for 60-plus minutes of this game, we were thoroughly outplayed. England deserved their victory, and Wales need to get to the bottom of how they can put in such an abject performance for 40-plus minutes of a match with as much riding on it as this one had. It is difficult to tell how good England were in the first half, as Wales were clearly below par. But, there is no doubt that England are a much better team than they were in the World Cup, and this is clearly due to Eddie Jones, their new coach.
Scotland v France
With Scotland beating France 29-18, this was the surprise result of the weekend. Not only have Scotland not beaten France in 10 years, but until their victory over Italy two weeks ago, they had gone some ten 6 Nations matches without a win. Now they have two back-to-back wins! By beating France they have ensured that England have won the 2016 6 Nations, irrespective of what happens in the final weekend.
Final Weekend Preview
Next weekend will be the fifth and final weekend of the 2016 6 Nations. The main question is can England go to France and win there to secure the first Grand Slam since 2003? They should do, as not only are they a much better team under Eddie Jones, but France have been pretty useless in this championships. However, of any team in the 6 Nations, France are the most unpredictable, so England cannot be complacent. England have fallen several times at the last hurdle in the last 5-6 years, but I am sure Eddie Jones will ensure that this does not happen this time.
Scotland go to Dublin on a two-match winning streak, and it is going to be very interesting to see how well a confident Scotland can do against an Ireland who are still below par and lacking confidence. I am pretty neutral when it comes to Ireland v Scotland, but I would like to see Scotland do well and lift themselves from the whipping boys they have become in the last several years.
Wales take on Italy at home for their final game. It should be a comfortable win, but the Welsh fans will want to see some expansive rugby and plenty of tries. We go on tour to New Zealand in the summer, and if we play as we have done in this 6 Nations we are going to get thumped by the All Blacks. If we beat Italy we will finish second in the table, but this should not mask the serious work that Wales need to do to improve, we have gone backwards since the World Cup.