At the risk of upsetting the Welsh and Irish, there really is no other place to start rounding the last round of the 6 Nations action than with England’s win in Paris. Which of course runs the risk of upsetting the French. I am sure that Brian Moore would approve, and at least the Scots and the Italians will be pleased that I’m not drawing too much attention to how abysmal they were.
England’s 24-13 win may, finally, have put paid to French coach Marc Lieveremont’s attempt to win the tournament without picking most of the side which reached the World Cup semi final only four months ago. In fact, it is probably true to say that the different approaches of the two men in charge played as much a part in England’s victory as anything which happened on the pitch.
Prior to the game, both sides were forced into changes at scrum half. France were unlucky to lose the exciting Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to injury, whilst England’s last two performances indicated that they simply could not continue with Andy Gomersall, who was showing less form than an amoeba.
Lievremont picked 19-year-old Morgan Parra for his first international start, while Brian Ashton went for the Sale Sharks’ Richard Wigglesworth, who was also starting his first international. The significant difference in the two was that Wigglesworth weighs 13½ stones, whilst Parra looks as if he barely manages 13½ pounds sopping wet.
The consequence was that Wigglesworth was able to snipe around the fringes like a latter-day Dewi Morris and keep the English attack moving, whilst Parra spent the afternoon being pancaked by the English back row.
Lievremont’s lack of tactical nous was shown up during the game, with a series of uninspired substitutions. This was no better emphasised than during a five minute period of madness in the second half, when both hookers lost what little common sense they had.
First of all, a French penalty on England’s five metre line was reversed when Dimitri Szarzewski decided to tackle Mark Regan so long after the whistle had blown it was almost Easter before he arrived. Regan, idiotically, then decided to weigh in with a few punches of his own at the next ruck, resulting in a penalty against him. Ashton immediately withdrew Regan from the game, Szarzewski was still there and still giving away penalties when the final whistle blew.
Having said all this, England still won in spite of themselves. A more alert coach then Lievremont would have exploited England’s weakness at full back and on the wing, where Lesley Vainikolo looks to be lacking an awful lot of pace for this level.
England will go to Murrayfield in a fortnight with a justified air of confidence. Scotland will be dreading it, after finding themselves comprehensively outplayed by the Irish on Saturday.
In truth, the current Scottish side would struggle against most second division nations like the USA or Canada and they were cruelly exposed against an Irish side who finally started playing like a team and who ran in five tries with very little difficulty, including two for winger Tommy Bowe, who has been in fine form all season and really should’ve started the last two games as well.
Ireland’s next game is against Wales, who barely broke sweat in thrashing Italy 47-8. Italy were abject and a mere shadow of the side who had performed so well against England and Ireland. The Welsh again took time to get going (the score was only 13-8 at half time), but will be pleased that all of their five tries came from their back division, whilst their pack performed well against a stronger and heavier Italian side.
It will be an interesting match, because neither side starts well but both have finished very strongly in all of their matches to date. The game could turn on whoever piles up the most points in the first half.
Italy meet France next and are likely to do so without flanker Mauro Bergamasco, who has picked up a thirteen week ban for eye-gouging. Although this is less clear on the film I have seen, the punishment should really be anything from a six month to a two year ban and only Bergamasco’s previously good character can have saved him from a lengthier suspension.
Which will be a shame for the Italians, as they have a chance against the French. Their pack is better and France are one side where their lack of a kicking fly half will not matter, because you don’t want to kick the ball to Clerc, Rougerie and Heymanns anyway. On the plus side, lock Carlo Del Fava has escaped a ban for a shocking knee to the head of Welsh fly-half Stephen Jones, whilst Lieveremont has dropped eight of the side who lost to England, including Heymanns, Parra and, inexplicably, Thierry Dusautoir, who was their best forward in that game.