If you had said at the start of February that, in seven weeks’ time, Wales would be playing for the Grand Slam, most doctors would’ve sent you for a nice lie down in one of those rooms with lovely soft walls. They might even have given you a lovely jacket with sleeves that do up at the back. Particularly if you had said it at half time during their game with England. Yet on Saturday they will take on the French in a game which not only decides the destination of the Six Nations, but which gives them the chance of the their second clean sweep this millennium.
There was an awful beauty in the way that Wales defeated the Irish at the weekend. Over the course of the championship they have turned into a ruthlessly efficient side and they stifled the Irish completely in the second half. Moreover, they’ve developed a thoroughly cynical edge to their game which wasn’t there at the start of the tournament. The knee drop on Marcus Horan which sent Mike Phillips to the sin bin just before half time was stupid and has no place in the sport, but Wales seemed utterly unfazed by it. The resultant penalty lost them the chance to kick a goal of their own and they went in behind at half time, but for the rest of the 10 minutes (at the start of the second half) they were the dominant side and actually contrived the only score of that period when Stephen Jones slotted a penalty. Later, Martyn Williams had to cool off for ten minutes when he tripped Eoin Reddan to prevent him supporting a rare Irish breakout.
Star man for the Welsh was Shane Williams. He’s come a long way from the winger who so panicked against an England B side in 2003 that he couldn’t even tie his bootlaces. He scored his 5th try of the tournament with a typically elusive run from short range and even turned in a more than adequate performance as replacement scrum half whilst Phillips was in the bin.
Can the Welsh beat France in Cardiff? On the evidence of the last two weekends, they certainly can. The French were barely any better against Italy than they were against England, but that is to take nothing away from an Italian side who have been putting in some good performances in this championship without ever looking like winning a match. Having said that, if Gonzalo Canale hadn’t managed to drop the ball when it would have been easier to score – for the second match running – things could have been very different.
In fact the game in Paris was really one between two sides who are the victims of their own selection policies. That the Italians do not have a proper half back combination has been mentioned here before, but it got so bad on Sunday that Andrea Masi was practically playing as a third centre rather than at fly half. This meant that they started every move a good 15-20 yards behind the gain line, which is a heck of a distance to try and make up at this level. The French, on the other hand, have a coach who thinks he is rugby’s answer to Claudio Ranieri and who therefore cannot stop changing the side from game to game. There were eight changes from the French team which played England and he’s made another six for the game against Wales. Then he looks surprised when they go out there and play like 15 guys who have never met before.
There’s not a lot to be said about the Scotland – England game. Woeful weather conditions, even worse rugby and a game which the Scots one by the simple expedient of being less appalling than England. Johnny Wilkinson had his worst game ever for England, Toby Flood proved again that he isn’t up to playing inside centre at this level, Lesley Vainikolo’s handling and lack of pace were again exposed and Lee Mears isn’t even the best hooker in Bath, let alone England. By the time the England management woke up to all of this and made some changes the game was dead and gone. Scotland’s management were equally shortsighted and once again stifled their own game by shifting Chris Patterson to the wing when Rory Lamont was stretchered off, but the English performance was so bad they didn’t need to be a lot better than England to win.
Scotland will still play off against Italy for the wooden spoon. On form, they ought to lose, but with both sides putting out substantially the same team as last weekend the game will probably go to whichever side makes the fewest unforced errors, which will probably be Scotland.
England and Ireland have both lost their talismans for their meaningless game at Twickenham. Wilkinson has been dropped in what is surprisingly the only change from the match at Murrayfield, whilst Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll was injured towards the end of the game in Dublin and will not be fit. Wilkinson is replaced by Danny Cipriani who, in a further punishment for his nightclub misdemeanour, will spend the afternoon being flattened by the Irish back row of Leamy, Wallace and Heaslip. Ronan O’Gara gets to captain the Irish for the first time in place of O’Driscoll, but the question is whether an Irish side without either Bod or D’Arcy can create enough behind the scrum to trouble even a side as bad as England.
For the big finale in Cardiff, Wales have made just two changes to the French six. Bringing in James Hook for Stephen Jones is a bold move, but no more so than leaving out Dwayne Peel in favour of Peters, especially as the French have Jean-Baptiste Elissalde back at scrum half. The Welsh pack will be strengthened by the return of Huw Bennett at hooker and heartened by the way that the Italians marched the French scrum around the park on Sunday – nothing Lievremont has done will alter the problem of that unit being chronically underpowered. Can someone please do something about Adam Jones’ hair though – cornrows have no place on a prop forward at any level.