Saturday, 21 March 2015

Crazy win not enough for England

England won 55-35 against France at Twickenham in a crazy game but it wasn't enough to claim the Six Nations title, which is retained by Ireland.

Ben Youngs scored the first try of the game in the opening minute, and from then it was back and forth all game, with England taking advantage of their greater fitness to run in seven tries.

France played their part, scoring five tries of their own, but missed 12 points with the boot and failed to take advantage of a period of first-half dominance before running out of steam.

Youngs and Jack Nowell scored two tries apiece to leave England needing a converted try in the final seconds but after the ball was turned over, Rory Kockott kicked it out to put paid to England's hopes.

Anthony Watson, George Ford and Billy Vunipola scored the other English tries, with Sébastien Tillous-Borde, Noa Nakaitaci, Maxime Mermoz and Vincent Debaty crossing for les Bleus.

England grabbed the first try after just two minutes, taking advantage of a mix-up in midfield by the French.  Jonathan Joseph pounced on a loose ball before finding Mike Brown outside him.

With the French scrambling, Brown fed Ford, and while he couldn't get over he had Youngs on his shoulder for the score.  Ford converted and England were 7-0 up in no time.

It could have been even better for the home side after a powerful scrum earned them a penalty, but Ford was off-target from 45 metres out.

And having made a calamitous start, France finally got a foothold in the match after ten minutes when Thierry Dusautoir got in at a breakdown to earn a penalty, with Jules Plisson slotting the three points.

From that moment France took control, taking advantage of an English mistake to score their first try.  Youngs was scragged in a ruck and the loose ball was scooped up by Tillous-Borde who sprinted 60 metres to score.  Plisson missed the conversion, but France were leading 8-7.

France almost blew another try when Nakaitaci sprinted over, but he tried to go under the posts and was tackled by Youngs.  He was on the verge of going dead in-goal, getting the ball a fraction of a second before his foot went touched the dead-ball area, much to his relief.  Plisson's conversion made it 15-7.

After England's good start, it was all France, and they almost had a third when Nakaitaci again got away down the left, but England just scrambled in time to stop Alexandre Flanquart getting the final pass away with his winger awaiting a return pass.

Les Bleus had also turned things around in the scrum, but Plisson missed an easy shot at goal when Joe Marler was penalised in the English 22.

The game was being played at a ferocious pace, but it came to a shuddering stop when Courtney Lawes put in a huge hit on Plisson.  While the ball had gone, the tackle was deemed legal with Lawes having launched into the tackle before the pass was made.

The game had been stopped and required a scrum to restart, and this time France were penalised, with Ford cutting the deficit to five points.

France came back and should have stretched their lead back to eight but Plisson again was off-target when Dan Cole went off his feet in a ruck.

And on the half-hour England took the lead again, with Watson taking advantage of a great run by Youngs.  The scrum-half had fed Ford, and while he was tackled, Nakaitaci ripped the ball away but it bounced kindly for England and James Haskell put Watson over in the corner.  Ford converted to make it 17-15.

The momentum was with England and they went over again five minutes later with a stunning counter-attack.  After Ford had been charged down, the ball went into touch five metres out.  England took the lineout quickly and Joseph got away.  His kick-through was collected by Bernard le Roux who was immediately under pressure from Burrell.

The centre seemed to go off his feet but the decision went the other way as France were accused of sealing.  The penalty was taken quickly and Youngs slipped out of le Roux's tackle to score.  In front of the posts Ford made it 24-15.

There was still time for more points, with Mermoz obstructing Joseph on a kick-chase, and Ford completing the half with another penalty to make it 27-15 at the break.

Trailing by 12 points after a crazy half, France needed an instant response and they got one after just two minutes.  Some great work off a lineout saw them work their way into the English 22, and after a number of charges Guilhem Guirado produced a delightful offload out of the tackle for Mermoz to go over.  Plisson converted to bring France back to within five points.

The intensity wasn't about to let up though, and England came straight back with a try from Ford.  Youngs spotted a gap as France struggled to get back at a ruck and after he sprinted through Ford was on hand to go under the posts.  His conversion made it 34-22 to England.

France turned to their bench and when Marler couldn't resist and put his hands into a ruck, Rory Kockott added three points with the help of the post to bring the deficit back to nine points.

But it was only temporary respite, with England turning the ball over in the French 22 and le Roux leaving Nowell free to run in a try on the left.  With Ford's conversion England led 41-25 and were ten points away from claiming the title.

Their task got harder though when Haskell tripped Plisson and was sent for ten minutes in the sin-bin.

Still, France were struggling in the lineout, and missed the chance to get back onto the front foot with an overthrown lineout by Kayser.

While they looked out on their feet, France weren't done yet, and Debaty completed a stunning counter-attacking try.  After Mermoz had put Nakaitaci into space, the winger couldn't go all the way, but stayed on his feet long enough to feed Debaty in support to score in the corner.  Kockott couldn't convert however and the deficit remained at 11 points.

It didn't stay that way for long, as England managed their sixth try despite being a man down, with Vunipola crashing over from close range, but every time England looked to be back in with a shout of winning the Championship, they let France back in.

This time it was after a powerful rolling maul, with Kayser the man to emerge from the pile of bodies.  Again the conversion was off-target, bringing the French tally up to 12 points missed with the boot.

England needed 13 points and they set up a grandstand finish with a try off the back of a scrum, going through the backs and sending Nowell over.  With Ford's conversion England needed a converted try with three minutes to go.

They had their chance when they had a lineout five metres out but the French won a penalty and Kockott eventually kicked it out to hand the title to the Irish.

Man of the match:  There were many candidates, but in the end we've got to go with Ben Youngs who scored two tries and was involved in a number of others.  Arguably his finest performance in an England shirt, even if it wasn't quite enough.

Moment of the match:  How do you pick in a game with 12 tries?  We'll go with Ford's try early in the second half.  That try seemed to definitively kill off the French challenge and set England up to chase the title.

Villain of the match:  The trip from Haskell was pretty careless and did deprive England of a man for ten minutes.

The scorers:

For England:
Tries:  B. Youngs 2, Watson, Ford, Nowell 2, B. Vunipola
Cons:  Ford 6
Pens:  Ford 2
Yellow Card:  Haskell

For France:
Tries:  Tillous-Borde, Nakaitaci, Mermoz, Debaty, Kayser
Cons:  Plisson 2
Pens:  Plisson, Kockott

The teams:

England:  15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Geoff Parling, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements:  16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieron Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees

France:  15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements:  16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud

Venue:  Twickenham, London
Referee:  Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees:  John Lacey (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO:  Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

Ireland edge towards title

Ireland rose to the challenge set by Wales earlier on Saturday, thumping Scotland 40-10 to claim top spot in the Six Nations table.

An incredible second-half blitz from the Welsh in Rome left Joe Schmidt's side chasing a points difference deficit of 20, with England hosting France in the final match of the tournament shortly after full-time at Murrayfield.

Paul O'Connell and Jared Payne touched down in addition to a brace from the monstrous Sean O'Brien as the men in green flourished in the Edinburgh sunshine.

Scotland mustered a solitary score through Finn Russell, and an early penalty from captain Greig Laidlaw.

In need of points, Schmidt's troops enjoyed the perfect start.

From a seemingly innocuous position, a slip in the Scottish midfield suddenly presented Ireland with a huge overlap, Rob Kearney's arcing run and pass to Robbie Henshaw taking the visitors to within five metres of the line.

Scotland defended the subsequent onslaught ably, but the pressure always looked likely to tell, O'Connell crashing over round the fringes of the breakdown.

Jonny Sexton converted, and took Ireland's lead to ten after as many minutes with a penalty, Scotland pulling down a maul on their own 22.

The hosts responded well to the furious Irish opening with a spell of possession in their opponents' half that culminated in Laidlaw's penalty.

The livened atmosphere at Murrayfield soon grew dark again, however, as from a lineout on the Scots' 22, the home forwards parted as though Moses, not O'Brien was carrying the pill, the flanker evading Dougie Fife and powering over for a try converted by Sexton.

There followed a frenetic few minutes, where O'Brien lacerated the Scottish midfield, and Tommy Bowe was denied a try by a superb Russell cover tackle, while the unlikely duo of Jim Hamilton and substitute Geoff Cross made impressive inroads of their own.

With the match fast developing into as expansive and high-octane fare as anything involving either side this tournament, it was Scotland who struck next.

From a Tommy Seymour grubber down the left touchline, a smart, and not entirely subtle, nudge from the chasing Stuart Hogg saw Jared Payne collide with Kearney, the Scotland full-back claiming the ball, and a few phases later, Adam Ashe feeding Russell to canter round under the posts for a first Test try.

Laidlaw converted, but Sexton added his second penalty to restore a two-score, ten-point gap on 34 minutes.

Matt Scott almost sent Russell in again after the centre gathered his teammate's sumptuous chip-kick, but his attempted offload was knocked astray in contact.

Sexton scored first after the interval with a penalty from point-blank range as Ireland began to seize control of the match, and the fly-half delivered a sweet inside ball in the shadow of the Scottish uprights to send Payne diving over the whitewash.

It was far too simple a score from Vern Cotter's perspective, given the number of defenders on hand, and the ease with which Blair Cowan was bumped aside by the centre.

With Sexton's conversion, and the score at 30-10, Ireland had equalled Wales' points difference, and should have bettered it when he slammed a routine penalty off the post 53 minutes.

Repeat infringements and maddening indiscipline have long blighted this Scotland squad, and as referee Jérôme Garcès lost patience, Cross was shown yellow – the Scots' fifth of this championship.

Again, however, Sexton was off-target from the tee.

Bowe next came closest to posting crucial points on the board, his tip-toe down the touchline was stalled by Sam Hidalgo-Clyne's tap-tackle, the stumbling winger's momentum was sufficiently halted for him to fall short of the line.

Sexton finally rediscovered his range on 62 minutes, taking the margin on the scoreboard to 23 points with 19 minutes left.

With the requisite points scored, both half-backs, Sexton and his partner Conor Murray, reverted to the disciplined, controlled kicking game that has dominated Ireland's championship and characterised their recent performances under Schmidt.

Pinning Scotland deep in their own 22 with an array of dinks, hoists and probes, they had their reward, and made safe their elevation – as things stand – to first place when O'Brien ignored a massive overlap to battle his way over from five metres.

Ian Madigan, on for Sexton a minute earlier, converted, but as the Fields of Athenry began to ring out, Scotland threatened to throw a huge spanner in the works.

Hogg looked to have collected Rob Harley's looping pass and scored in the corner, but Jamie Heaslip's tackle had forced the ball from his grasp at the last possible instant.  In such moments are championships won and lost.

Ireland preserved their lead, passing up another chance to extend it when Madigan hooked a penalty with the last kick of the game.

All eyes now point towards Twickenham – England tasked with overturning a 26-point deficit – and a phenomenal climax to this, the ever-engrossing Six Nations.

Man of the match:  The Irish back-row were outstanding around the contact area and in the loose – none more so than two-try, all-action Sean O'Brien.

Moment of the match:  Heaslip's tackle.  It could prove title-deciding.

Villain of the match:  Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For Scotland:
Try:  Russell
Con:  Laidlaw
Pen:  Laidlaw
Yellow Card:  Cross

For Ireland:
Tries:  O'Connell, O'Brien 2, Payne
Cons:  Sexton 3
Pens:  Sexton 4

The teams:

Scotland:  15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Dougie Fife, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Adam Ashe, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.  Replacements:  16 Fraser Brown, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Tim Visser

Ireland:  15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements:  16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

Venue:  Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Referee:  Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees:  Pascal Gauzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO:  Graham Hughes (England)

Wales blow title race wide open

Wales ran in 47 second-half points as they beat Italy 61-20 on Saturday, giving themselves the best possible chance of winning the Six Nations.

The visitors ran in eight tries on the day but a late Leonardo Sarto score for the Italians gives England and Ireland hope ahead of their respective fixtures.

Wales knew the size of their task and maybe pundits had done a disservice to Italy this week, as they showed plenty of early guts in defeat.

In fact, they led for the majority of the first half as the Welsh struggled to get off on the right foot in the first game of the last day.

They began terribly when straight from the kick-off, obstruction led to a penalty being awarded to the Azzurri.  Kelly Haimona added three.

However the unlucky fly-half would leave the field four minutes later after his tackle on Wales centre Jamie Roberts saw him injure an arm.  On in his place was Luciano Orquera, who like his team defended admirably in the first period whilst demonstrating decent spells in attack.

There was a back and forth in terms of early scoring in Rome as Italy were caught offside after eight minutes, leading to Leigh Halfpenny stepping up for his first points of the afternoon.  But when lock Luke Charteris handled an Italian at the lineout, Orquera made it 3-6.

But then it would be the turn of Italy to make the cardinal error of obstruction at the restart, meaning it was a short-lived lead for them.

With almost 20 minutes gone it seemed Wales were so intent on not rushing matters that at times it seemed lethargic.  Fortunately a grubber kick from Halfpenny down the left side of the field led to Roberts collecting and grounding for 11-6.  Halfpenny crucially missed the extras.

The trend continued though and with Wales defending unlike they did last week, Italy left wing Giovambattista Venditti snuck over from the tail of a maul.  Orquera's successful conversion meant the Azzurri were back in front at 11-13, as Welsh fans started to look at the clock.

Concerned Welsh supporters had feelings of tension heightened when full-back Halfpenny departed after a head collision with Samuela Vunisa's knee.  He did not return from his Head Injury Assessment test as Scott Williams came on and performed well for the remainder of the fixture.

A re-jig to the backline led to Wales upping the pace and despite not getting the required try before the break, Biggar did land a penalty.

Then with the second half came the breakthrough for Wales as Liam Williams moved to fifteen and starred at the back, picking up a try after running a fine line off Rhys Webb on 48 minutes before setting up George North with a score from halfway to make it 28-13.  It was game on.

North crossed again on 55 minutes to make it 35-13 only seconds after Italy centre Andrea Masi was shown yellow for taking a player out and suddenly the Azzurri looked lost and tired while the Welsh were firing on all cylinders, with both benches being used for different reasons.

A hat-trick try from North soon followed before the hour mark as Wales surpassed England to go with Ireland on the points difference column.

Italy received another yellow card on 64 minutes when second-row Quintin Geldenhuys was pinged for dragging down a maul and Wales almost got their sixth but for lock Alun-Wyn Jones being held up over the try-line.  That score did come soon after though as Webb went over for 47-13.

They hit the 50-point mark before 70 minutes too with arguably the pick of their tries when Scott Williams and Justin Tipuric combined to send captain Sam Waburton over from 35 metres.  The wheels of the Italian machine were now well out of sight in the Rome rear-view mirror.

A further try from Scott Williams on 72 minutes looked like setting up a perfect finale for Wales but when Sarto crossed at the death, the Welsh fans wondered how that might impact on their title hopes.  England and Ireland know their task as the Six Nations goes down to the wire.

Man of the match:  Losing one of the best goal-kickers in the world was possibly a blessing in diguise for Wales as Liam Williams' form at the back was outstanding in the second half.  However, for another consistent performance at the coalface, Alun-Wyn Jones gets the nod, ahead of the hugely impressive Sam Warburton.

Moment of the match:  The try from Liam Williams on 47 minutes gave Wales the springboard to get the ball rolling in Rome.  From then on their superior fitness and quality shone through.

Villain of the match:  Harsh on replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies but he will be a nervous man for the next few hours after coughing up a late chance to score.  Italy went down the other end and crossed for a try of their own.  Could it prove costly?

The scorers:

For Italy:
Tries:  Venditti, Sarto
Cons:  Orquera 2
Pens:  Haimona, Orquera
Yellow cards:  Masi, Geldenhuys

For Wales:
Tries:  Roberts, L Williams, North 3, Webb, Warburton, S Williams
Cons:  Biggar 6
Pens:  Halfpenny 2, Biggar

Italy:  15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Mauro Bergamasco, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements:  16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Quintin Geldenhuys, 20 Robert Barbieri, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Enrico Bacchin.

Wales:  15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements:  16 Ken Owens, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.

Referee:  Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees:  JP Doyle (England), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official:  Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Assessor:  Donal Courtney (Ireland)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Revitalised France nil Italy

Yoann Maestri's first international try helped France to a morale-boosting 29-0 victory over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

After an uninspiring first half, les Bleus ground their way into the lead before taking control in the second-half.

And when Maestri went over five minutes after the break, France moved 19-0 ahead to ensure a second win over the Championship after successive losses, with Mathieu Bastareaud adding the finishing touches with a last-second try.

On the day that Sergio Parisse became Italy's all-time most capped player, it was a wretched afternoon for the Azzurri, who failed to make the most of their early dominance before being completely overwhelmed from the 20 minutes onwards.

Instead it was Thierry Dusautoir, captaining France for the 50th time, who enjoyed a win in Rome, after consecutive losses in 2011 and 2013.

Italy had all the ball in the opening minutes but the first real danger came from a high ball collected by Noa Nakaitaci.  On debut, the winger sprinted 50 metres but couldn't get past Parisse, with the Italy skipper using the touchline to his advantage.

Still, the visitors were struggling to get any ball, and Italy should have gone in front on eight minutes when Bernard le Roux was penalised at a ruck.  Tommaso Allan, a late replacement for Kelly Haimona, was off-target with a relatively simple shot at goal.

Allan was clearly struggling with a groin injury, and soon had to leave his team-mates, with Luciano Orquera taking his place.  However the Zebre fly-half had no more luck than his predecessor, hitting the post with his first shot at goal as Italy failed to take advantage of their early dominance.

France barely touched the ball in the opening quarter, but earned a first penalty at a scrum, however Scott Spedding was off-target from 45 metres out.

The quality was fairly limited but Italy had their first semblance of a chance when Edoardo Gori dived onto a loose ball in midfield.  However after Samuela Vunisa had arrived in support his pass to Giovanbattista Venditti was forward.  Again Italy threatened, this time Andrea Masi was the guilty party with a knock-on when there was a big overlap.

Just before the half-hour, Vunisa collected a knock-on from Leonardo Ghiraldini, handing Camille Lopez a shot at goal from 40 metres out.  Having endured a really poor start to the game, Lopez made no mistake and gave France an unlikely 3-0 lead.

The conditions were poor, but that still didn't fully explain the number of handling errors and poor passes that made attacking play difficult.

But while it was France who had been heavily penalised in the early stages, that trend was reversed in the lead-up to half-time, with Francesco Minto pinged for coming in at the side at a ruck.  From 40 metres out, Lopez found the target, to give France a 6-0 advantage.

That seemed to liberate the French a little, and after one monumental rolling maul, Lopez almost scored a sensational solo try.  He slalomed through a number of tackles, but with the cover defence in place, his final pass didn't go to hand.

Italy were suffering on the injury front, with Matias Aguero and Luca Morisi joining Allan in coming off before the break.  And the momentum seemed to be turning, with the game now being played almost exclusively in Italian territory, although France were not much more effective with ball in hand.

They did have the edge in the scrum though, with Nicolas Mas impressing on his return to the team.  A penalty on the stroke of half-time gave them the chance to stretch the lead to nine points, with Spedding resuming kicking duties as Lopez needed treatment on his ankle.  The full-back made no mistake and France led 9-0 at the break.

The ankle problem turned out to be too much for Lopez to carry on, and he was replaced by Jules Plisson at the break.  The second half started with France again on the front foot, and Plisson knocked over an early penalty to settle his nerves.

And after 45 minutes France got the first try of the game thanks to some great ambition from Spedding.  The Bayonne full-back chose to run back a loose kick, before finding Loann Goujon inside him.  The support play was good and Guilhem Guirado popped up to keep the move alive.  He seemed to be caught high but the ball was quickly released and Yoann Huget played the overlap well to send Maestri over in the corner.  Plisson slotted the conversion and all of a sudden France led 19-0.

France looked a team transformed with a little confidence, and the introduction of Rabah Slimani and Benjamin Kayser made a difference in the scrum as les Bleus produced a massive effort to march the Italian eight back 15 metres before being penalised.

Just before the hour Italy conceded another penalty, with Plisson continuing his fine afternoon with the boot to stretch the lead even further.

While France had clearly bucked up their ideas, all wasn't clicking, with Kayser missing his jumper a couple of minutes later when France had a great lineout just five metres out.

Still, they were defending well and Italy had no response, with the French finishing the game on the front foot and there was time for Bastareaud to power under the posts with the final act.

It was far from perfect, and the first 20 minutes were desperately poor, however with a little confidence France certainly looked a far more capable team.  Whether they can maintain that next week against England remains to be seen.

Man of the match:  A lot of questions were asked over Loann Goujon's place in the starting line-up, having not made a start at number eight for La Rochelle since October.  The 25-year-old really showed up though, providing a big ball-carrying presence and winning his battle with Sergio Parisse.

Moment of the match:  It has to be Yoann Maestri's try.  A great counter from Scott Spedding with good support from Loann Goujon got them going before Yoann Huget released Maestri for the score.

Villain of the match:  No nasty stuff to report.

The scorers:

For France:
Tries:  Maestri, Bastareaud
Cons:  Plisson 2
Pens:  Lopez 2, Spedding, Plisson 2

The teams:

Italy:  15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Samuela Vunisa, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements:  16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Barbini, 20 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Enrico Bacchin.

France:  15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Sébastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements:  16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud

Venue:  Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Referee:  JP Doyle (England)
Assistant referees:  Nigel Owens (Wales), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO:  Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Saturday, 14 March 2015

England pick up Calcutta Cup

England kept their hopes of lifting the Six Nations trophy very much alive, despite labouring past Scotland 25-13 in a sloppy showing on Saturday.

Victory leaves the English top of the standings on points difference — four ahead of Ireland and 25 up on third-placed Wales — ahead of hosting France next weekend in a fascinating final round of Championship fixtures.

But they will rue a plethora of missed opportunities in this game as Scotland battled well and stayed in touch until Jack Nowell's late try sealed the result.

Scotland were clinging on by their fingernails as early as the fifth minute as England came out all guns blazing, crossing early after Jonathan Joseph slipped a tackle from close-range.  That came moments after Luther Burrell could have set up Anthony Watson following a simple break.

England were so dominant in the opening 20 minutes that they made a whopping 260 metres as Scotland were falling off tackles, 11 in total.

However, the hosts had nothing further to show for their efforts before Scotland somehow managed to claw their way into the match.  A brief passage in the English half led to an intelligent line-out before the ball was moved out to centre Mark Bennett who crossed in the right-hand corner.

Greig Laidlaw slotted a wonderful touchline conversion and suddenly, despite having been under the cosh for so long, the Scots were level.

George Ford and Laidlaw then traded penalties in the 25th and 29th minute, but Scotland would be forgiven for feeling hard done to when referee Romain Poite did not show tighthead prop Dan Cole a yellow for cynically taking out Laidlaw at the base just one metre from England's line.

At 10-10 England continued to look threatening with ball in hand against a poor Scottish defence.  But fortunately for the visitors, Ford's pass 40 metres out that sent Burrell through before Watson finished over the line was called forward by Poite.  Somehow we were still tied.

And incredibly it was Scotland who would head into the break at Twickenham leading when an offside from England saw Laidlaw make it 10-13.

It didn't last as England, like they did in the first, started the second-half with real intent as they went over on 44 minutes, with Ford finding a gaping hole in the Scottish defence to cruise over from ten metres out.  His successful conversion put the English 17-13 in front.

That cushion was pushed out to seven points in the 51st minute when Rob Harley made contact with Courtney Lawes in the air at line-out time, Ford making no mistake as England looked set to turn the screw.  Indeed, Stuart Lancaster went to Tom Youngs and Geoff Parling as fresh legs.

Still the Scots would not be floored though as yet more English ball and opportunities to kill the game with tries were foiled by a mixture of knock-ons, forward passes or strong breakdown work from the visitors, the highlight being James Haskell's skew pass to full-back Brown.

But England would put the game to bed in the 75th minute when Nowell finished well in the left corner for a score that took them top of the standings, with Scotland meanwhile taking heart from a much-improved performance.

Man of the match:  Playing some excellent rugby for a youngster, Anthony Watson was impressive yet again on Saturday, running well and offering the ball well in or before contact.  Mike Brown also played well at full-back while openside flanker Blair Cowan and left wing Tommy Seymour were good for Scotland, but it has to go to metre-making England wing Jack Nowell, who deserved his late try in the corner.

Moment of the match:  While they created try-scoring opportunities, England's video session will look at what went wrong to leave them claiming only a narrow win.  In truth they should have put this to bed in the opening 20 minutes.

Villain of the match:  Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For England:
Tries:  Joseph, Ford, Nowell
Con:  Ford 2
Pen:  Ford 2

For Scotland:
Try:  Bennett
Con:  Laidlaw
Pen:  Laidlaw 2

England:  15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements:  16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

Scotland:  15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements:  16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Adam Ashe, 22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 23 Greig Tonks.

Referee:  Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees:  George Clancy (Ireland), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO:  Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

Williams try ruins Irish slam hopes

Scott Williams' second-half try was enough for Wales to end Ireland's Grand Slam hopes 23-16 in a titanic tussle in Cardiff.

After racing into a 12-0 lead, Wales spent large periods of the second half camped in their own 22, but showed that for all their tactical nous, Ireland are still struggling a little on the try-scoring front.

A penalty try ten minutes from time did give Ireland hope at the Millennium Stadium, but Leigh Halfpenny responded with a penalty that appeared to have sealed the win, and despite a final effort from the Irish, Wales hung on.

Wales racked up an unbelievable 289 tackles, as Ireland lay siege to their line in the second half, but with the exception of one maul, the Irish couldn't find a way through.

Despite yellow cards for both Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, Warren Gatland's side held on for the win, and are now right back in contention for the Six Nations title before next week's trip to Italy.

Wales took the lead within two minutes when Ireland ventured offside in the first passage of play.  Warren Gatland's men were dominant early, and after a long period in the Irish 22, Peter O'Mahony cynically killed the ball in a ruck, conceding a penalty, which Halfpenny converted to make it 6-0.

In the build-up to that second penalty, Leigh Halfpenny had brilliantly claimed a high ball out of the hands of Conor Murray, while Davies had then handed off Johnny Sexton on a powerful charge.

It was all Wales, and on Ireland first extended period of possession, Gethin Jenkins got in well at a ruck to earn a penalty, which Halfpenny converted from halfway to make it 9-0 after just ten minutes.

Ireland seemed rattled, and that was evident when Sexton put the restart out on the full.  From the resulting scrum, Wales were dealt a big blow though, with Samson Lee injured and receiving oxygen before going off.  The game had carried on and after Jack McGrath slowed the ball down in a ruck to allow Halfpenny to make it 12-0.

Finally Ireland got themselves into the game when George North failed to release the tackled player in a ruck, and while Sexton was off-target with his first penalty attempt, he made up for it a minute later when Scott Baldwin caught Tommy Bowe high round the neck.

Ireland were finally getting themselves into the game, and after another long period of possession, it was the Welsh who failed to roll away on a number of occasions, with Dan Biggar the man finally penalised.

The visitors turned down the three points, but Rory Best's lineout was stolen by Warburton, who was then taken out in the air by Devin Toner as the chance went begging.

Wales earned another penalty a minute later when the Irish collapsed a promising maul, but they saw a chance of their own disappear when they knocked on a lineout on the visiting 22, with Aaron Jarvis struggling in the next scrum and conceding a penalty.

Just before the half-hour Wales lost Warburton to a yellow card.  The Welsh skipper tried to contest a ball at the breakdown but referee Wayne Barnes deemed that he hadn't released the tackler.  It was probably the right call, although it seemed a little harsh, with the visitors having been heavily penalised in the opening quarter without conceding a card.

Sexton made no mistake with the resulting penalty, as Ireland looked to be in the ascendancy, but Wales responded and set up Biggar in position to knock over a drop goal and push the lead back to nine points.

It didn't last long though, with Ireland again looking dangerous, Paul O'Connell — on his 100th Ireland appearance — made a half-break and a couple of phases later was tackled without the ball, allowing Sexton to add three more points.

In the end the ten minutes at 14 cost Wales just three points, and Warburton returned just before half-time as Warren Gatland's side went in 15-9 ahead.

The second half was even more frenetic with the first, beginning with an endless period of Irish pressure.  Time and again they looked certain to score, but the Welsh defence held strong, thumping back the visiting forwards.

After more than 30 phases, Wales were penalised, but having kicked to the corner, Ireland eventually lost the ball after another spell on the Welsh line.

Having spent a good ten minutes defending, Wales came back, and looked set to score the first try of the game when Davies went clean through but the support wasn't there.  Still Wales kept the ball and twice seemed to have overlaps but eventually the chance went begging when Biggar overthrew Halfpenny out wide.

Gatland chose to introduce Scott Williams at that moment and after the home side had stolen yet another lineout, the Scarlets centre spotted a gap in midfield and sprinted over for the first try.  Halfpenny was off-target with the conversion but Wales led 20-9, and it was a long way back for the visitors.

Ireland weren't about to give up though, and they set up camp again on the Welsh line and should have scored.  With a massive overlap, they kept going through the forwards, with Cian Healy eventually knocking on.

By that point Wales had already racked up more than 200 tackles, and it was beginning to show.  When Dan Lydiate was penalised in a ruck, Ireland kicked to the corner.

Sean Cronin had more success than Best in the lineout, and after a well-structured maul, Ireland got a penalty try, with the Welsh dropping it just short of the line.  Sexton converted and it was back to 20-16 with ten minutes remaining.

Wales came back, and earned a penalty that Halfpenny converted, but Ireland refused to bow down.

They got back into Welsh territory, and with three minutes remaining Davies was sin-binned for an intentional knock-on.  Ian Madigan kicked for the corner, but after a first lineout had been stolen, Wales then slowed a final rolling maul, with Luke Charteris fighting through to the ball to cap a splendid afternoon for the giant lock.

Wales remain outsiders to win the title, they have 21 points to make up on Ireland on the final weekend, unless the Scots can do them a favour.  Still, they'll take it after the disappointment of that opening defeat to England.

As for Ireland, O'Connell special day was spoilt, while their run of ten straight wins comes to an end.  They dominated possession and territory, but will need to find a little more penetration against the best defensive sides.  Their much-lauded half-back partnership was also off-colour.

Man of the match:  Sam Warburton was given the official nod, and certainly had an outstanding game.  We're going to go with Luke Charteris though, as he finished with 37 tackles, as well constantly breaking up the Irish maul.

Moment of the match:  It has to be the endless period of Irish possession early in the second half.  It seemed like a try was inevitable but Wales somehow held out before going up the pitch and scoring themselves.

Villain of the match:  Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For Wales:
Try:  S Williams
Pens:  Halfpenny 5
Drop Goal:  Biggar
Yellow Cards:  Warburton, Davies

For Ireland:
Try:  Penalty
Con:  Sexton
Pens:  Sexton 3

The teams:

Wales:  15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements:  16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.

Ireland:  15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements:  16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.

Venue:  Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Referee:  Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees:  Pascal Gaüzère (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO:  Graham Hughes

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Sexton shines as Ireland beat England

Another commanding performance from Johnny Sexton sent Ireland on their way to a 19-9 victory over England in a physical battle in Dublin.

Ireland were smarter, better disciplined and more clinical throughout than their opponents.  Even the scrum, touted as their area of weakness, surpassed expectations as England took too long to get going.

This wasn't the humbling of Cardiff two years ago for England but it certainly was an education for the likes of George Ford and Anthony Watson, talented youngsters who will go far but learnt the hard way this time out with Ireland giving them no time or space.

It was a breakdown and tactical kicking clinic from Ireland, espeically with the way they disrupted England's ball at the ruck.  Sexton's all-round play, not just his work off the boot, was really of the highest order.  His loss to an apparent hamstring injury after 50 minutes will cause some concern ahead of visiting Wales.

England's relative inexperience hadn't been a factor before Dublin but it showed here, particularly up against the studied approach that Ireland brought to the table.  The hosts were by far and away the better side with their visitors showing too many nerves, but Ireland only led by six at the break.  There was to be no comeback.

Ireland will now have their thoughts on a Grand Slam although the road will not be an easy one, travelling first to Wales, confident again after winning in Paris, before rounding up in Italy.

Dublin had provided all those heading to the Aviva Stadium with an apocalyptic weather warning, yet by kickoff the rain, sleet and snow was thankfully gone.

England's start was awful, while Ireland were perfectly precise with their tactical kicking as expected.  An early nudge from Sexton and his super kick into the corner left Jack Nowell and Alex Goode cleaning up a real mess.

Two scrums five metres out were field position that Ireland had to captalise on, but despite the huge carries from Sean O'Brien and Rory Best they settled for a second penalty and a 6-0 lead after as many minutes.

All the possesion was with Ireland, 95 percent of it to be exact after the first ten minutes.  When England eventually got their hands on the ball they did threaten.  Jack Nowell's touchline chip set up good field position and after multiple phases Ford slotted a drop goal with a fine strike to put England on the board.

The Bath fly-half couldn't land a penalty from the halfway line after Jordi Murphy failed to roll away, the ball drifting left past the post, as Ireland persisted with putting the boot to ball.

Ireland won the first big gamble of the match when Devin Toner poached an English lineout five metres from the line, Chris Robshaw turning down three points England arguably weren't in a position to miss out on.

The hosts saw the best of O'Brien with his thundering carry but it was sadly to be his last act, stumbling punch-drunk around the field afterwards before being taken off with concussion.

Vunipola's breakdown penalty saved England's bacon but Sexton was excellent shortly afterwards at isolating Luther Burrell, the Racing Métro number ten adding his third penalty of the half to put Ireland up by six.

Sexton's thumping tackle on Ford marked another point to the Irishman but worse for England was Anthony Watson playing the ball from an offside position, presenting Sexton with his fourth penalty opportunity which he surprisingly couldn't convert.  That felt like the tale of the end of the first half, Ireland clearly on top but not punishing England any further as the score stood at 9-3 at half-time.

Only greater discipline and accuracy would get England back into the contest but it was Goode's brilliant escape work that avoided any further damage on the scoreboard, running the ball out from behind his own posts with a real touch of class.

Ireland capitalised on their visitors' indiscipline yet again with Sexton refinding his range, turning away in satisfaction long before the ball had passed through the posts.  In such a close contest, nine points felt like too big a gap for England to close.

Unsurprisingly Ireland's try came from a chip kick by Murray, Robbie Henshaw working hard to rise above Goode and doing well to ground the ball so close to the touchline.  No way back for England from 19-3 down, surely.

Ford added a second penalty as England's scrum started to motor but they would need more than that, Vunipola trying his best to inspire with a long charge upfield unfortunately without any support.

Cian Healy's introduction was warmly received and he instantly did a job at the breakdown along with birthday boy Marty Moore to snuff out James Haskell's carry, limiting England's possession and territory.

Ford's tough afternoon could have been a lot worse had his loose pass been intercepted but some rare multiple phases in Ireland's half ended with another three points for the visitors.

Enjoying more of the ball and with the freshness of their replacements England looked a different threat, in an almost copycat performance to the one produced by France two weeks ago.

Ireland's bodies suddenly looked weary but a big free-kick at the scrum five metres from their line provided some required relief as the clock wound down.  The forward pass to Nowell after he thought he had scored a consolation try summed up England's afternoon, with no call made for the TMO or any replays supplied to confirm the call.

Ireland's first 50 minutes with Sexton at the helm proved to be enough for a hard-earned victory.  With two rounds to go now, the champions are right in there with a chance to make it back-to-back titles.

Man of the Match:  Sexton may have been the difference but Robbie Henshaw was tirelessly effective for Ireland throughout, also scoring his first Test try.

Moment of the Match:  The fourth penalty from Sexton to make it 12-3 felt crucial as Ireland moved out of reach.

Villain of the Match:  Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For Ireland:
Try:  Henshaw
Con:  Sexton
Pens:  Sexton 4

For England:
Pens:  Ford 2
Drop Goal:  Ford

Ireland:  15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements:  16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

England:  15 Alex Goode, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements:  16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

Referee:  Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees:  Jérôme Garcès (France), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO:  Deon von Blommestein

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Wales continue French winning streak

Dan Biggar's second-half try was enough for Wales to edge past France 20-13 in a nervy affair at the Stade de France.

While Wales dominated territory and possession in the first half, their biggest advantage was Leigh Halfpenny, who was virtually flawless from the kicking tee, unlike opposite number Camille Lopez.

Leading 6-3 at the break, the Welsh seemed in total control when Biggar went over with 15 minutes to go to make it 17-6, but France responded with a try through Brice Dulin.

Still, les Bleus had given themselves too much to do, and a final Halfpenny penalty eight minutes from time sealed a fourth-straight win for Wales against France.

That means that Wales are very much back in contention for the Six Nations title, ahead of their home game with Ireland in a fortnight, while France will likely find themselves finishing in the bottom half of the table for the fourth-straight year of under-fire Philippe Saint-André's reign.

Despite an early knock-on, it was France who made the better start, Yoann Huget putting in a thumping hit on Liam Williams before Eddy Ben Arous showed his ability at the breakdown to win a penalty.

However from their first set move there was a mix-up in midfield with Wesley Fofana's dummy run leading to an obstruction which allowed Wales to clear their lines.

Wales had made the decision to use Jamie Roberts early and often in midfield, but it was after a series of pick-and-goes in midfield that Wales earned the first kickable penalty, with Romain Taofifenua penalised for going off his feet.  From in front Halfpenny was never going to miss and Wales went 3-0 up.

France responded with their first dangerous attack, Rémi Lamerat almost going clean through in midfield but for a desperate tap tackle by Sam Warburton.  Then after an unsuccessful maul a cross-kick looked set to put Huget in but Williams got across well to cover.

Still, les Bleus were the more dominant team in terms of territory and were soon back on level terms when the Welsh rushed up too quickly in defence at a scrum, giving Lopez a penalty in front of the posts.

While they were back level, France were dealt a blow when Lamerat was forced off, seemingly having not recovered from a knock picked up when he broke through earlier.  In his place came Mathieu Bastareaud to resume his partnership with Fofana.

It was a fairly even affair but France could have moved in front after 25 minutes when Warburton was penalised in a ruck.  Morgan Parra took the quick tap and the Welsh weren't back ten.  However from 45 metres out, Lopez's effort was inches to the left.

Wales responded, almost scoring when Dulin struggled to deal with a grubber through, bringing back memories of George North's opener in Cardiff last year.  France survived, but conceded a penalty a minute later, Halfpenny on target to make it 6-3 after half an hour.

Back came the French again, and they thought they had the first try through Huget when he shrugged off three tackles to go over in the corner.  It was brought back though, with Lopez's long pass having drifted forward to put the winger away.

Wales' best chance of the half came when George North was put into space on the right, but having got away from Sofiane Guitoune, he was well-stopped by Dulin, who put his body on the line to stop the giant winger.

And France should have been level at the break, the Welsh guilty of pulling down a maul, but Lopez pulled his attempt to the right as the visitors went into half-time leading 6-3.

A change of kicker early in the second half made no difference, with Parra pushing his penalty attempt wide.

A moment of real class followed when Lopez spotted a gap in the Welsh rush defence and delayed his pass to put Fofana away.  He in turn found Huget but he couldn't get the ball back to Fofana and the Welsh survived.  Still the French had started the second half on fire, with another series of quick drives into Welsh territory leaving their visitors scrambling only for Lopez's cross-kick to land agonisingly out of Huget's reach.

Another penalty a minute later, with Wales seemingly at breaking point, allowed Lopez to deservedly bring les Bleus level.

It didn't last long through, with Wales coming back with their first real maul of the evening, and earning a penalty which Halfpenny slotted.

That seemed to be just what Wales needed, and they scored the first try on the hour after some more great work by Rhys Webb.  He spotted a gap at a ruck and broke before feeding Dan Lydiate on his shoulder.  The centre gave the ball straight to Biggar who had enough pace to go over in the corner.

Halfpenny was off-target with the conversion, but got his radar back with another penalty as France failed once more to defend a Welsh maul legally.

France looked done, but finally ended their long wait for a try against Wales when Dulin went over in the corner.  After an interminable sequence in the Welsh 22, Lopez put Dulin away on the left and he dived under Taulupe Faletau's desperate tackle.  From the touchline on the wrong side, Lopez found his kicking boots, bringing France back to 17-13 with just over ten minutes to go.

Wales responded with a powerful scrum, countering the big French replacements, and Halfpenny pushed the lead back up to seven points.

France came back once more, and threatened without working their way back into the Welsh 22.  And after a mess of a scrum, the visitors were able to see it out to stay in the hunt for the title.

As for les Bleus, they looked more dangerous than against the Scots, but paid for their indiscipline within range of the posts yet again, and a lack of a top-class goal-kicker when faced with Halfpenny.

Man of the match:  It was a real team effort from the Welsh, but Leigh Halfpenny's goal-kicking was the difference between the sides.  The full-back was a stark contrast to Camille Lopez who struggled from the tee.

Moment of the match:  There was always a feeling that Rhys Webb would make one snipe, and it proved the decisive one.  He spotted Sébastien Tillous-Borde a little out of position, and within seconds Dan Biggar was over.

Villain of the match:  No nasty stuff to report.

The scorers:

For France:
Try:  Dulin
Con:  Lopez
Pens:  Lopez 2

For Wales:
Try:  Biggar
Pens:  Halfpenny 5

France:  15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Sofiane Guitoune, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Romain Taofifenua, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements:  16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Jocelino Suta, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud.

Wales:  15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements:  16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.

Venue:  Stade de France, Paris
Referee:  Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees:  JP Doyle (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO:  Simon McDowell

Italy conquer Murrayfield

Italy claimed a rare Six Nations victory on the road on Saturday, coming from behind to beat Scotland 22-19 at Murrayfield.

The Azzurri outscored their hosts two tries to one in the first half but Scotland nevertheless held a 16-15 lead at the interval.  There was late drama however as a penalty try in the last minute handed the visitors the spoils.

The Azzurri typically present bristling with blood-curdling pride and frenetic vigour, but lacking the clarity of mind to execute skills with great accuracy when entering what teams nowadays refer to as the ‘finish zone'.

There are signs this tendency is beginning to change, but their slow arc of improvement, fraught as it has been and will continue to be with setbacks and hammerings, is less advanced and progressing with less velocity than that of the Scots under Vern Cotter.

After the familiar anguish of narrow defeats to France and Wales, Scotland, desperate to shed the label of gallant losers, simply had to emerge from Round Three with not just a win, but a win with substance.

This then was a match that ought to have belied the gulf in panache and in ruthlessness between the sides, but a turgid, disjointed Scotland, often their own worst enemy, toiled to break down Jacques Brunel's Italy.

It was a dreadfully inept and utterly toothless display from the hosts – their worst under Cotter.

Pete Horne, a talented fly-half replacing the banned Finn Russell, looked sharp with ball in hand, with Greig Laidlaw kicking twelve points to supplement Mark Bennett's early interception score, but his missed touch just as his pack had won a crucial penalty blighted his earlier promise.

A bruising score from Josh Furno, a freak Giovanbattista Venditti try and the irresistible power of the Italian forwards left them staring at the Wooden Spoon.

It started well for the hosts, however.  With barely a minute gone, Laidlaw opened the scoring with a penalty in front of the posts as Glasgow Warriors' new signing Simone Favaro cleared his soon-to-be teammate Alex Dunbar off a ruck from the side.

Brunel opted with the power of Kelly Haimona at fly-half over the guile of Tommy Allan, and the pivot endured a tough opening ten minutes, blowing a two-man overlap on halfway with a dreadful pass picked off by Bennett, who raced in untouched for his first Test try.

Laidlaw converted with ease, but the Italians soon reminded their hosts just how mean their pack can be with a monstrous fifteen-metre maul that ended with Josh Furno plunging over in the corner, Haimona missing the conversion.

It was an omen, a sign of things to come as the visitors used the driving maul to great, ultimately match-winning effect.

Laidlaw extended Scotland's lead with another routine penalty, but it was cancelled out almost immediately by Haimona as Blair Cowan played the ball from an offside position from the restart.

Laidlaw struck again on twenty-seven minutes to restore Scotland's advantage, but despite enjoying a sizeable chunk of possession and territory, struggled to find the precision to break the blue line.

And when a Haimona penalty ricocheted back off the upright, bouncing a yard from the line and sparking panic in the home ranks, it was Venditti who pounced first to ground against the base of the post – his pivot couldn't miss with the conversion.

Haimona retreated injured five minutes into the second-half, Allan, capped at U20 level for the hosts his replacement, and trailing by a point, Italy continued to frustrate the Scots.

The substitute fluffed a simple penalty effort to the delight of most of Murrayfield, many of whom could surely sense the ignominy of another defeat to their fellow strugglers looming.

Sean Lamont almost sent Stuart Hogg in on the hour mark as Scotland finally mustered some momentum and dynamic phase play, but his pass inside was correctly called forward by George Clancy.

Laidlaw landed his fourth penalty, but persistent indiscipline from the Scots saw Italy, four points down, pile on the pressure with a series of mauls and scrums deep in home territory as the game entered its final ten minutes.

The visiting pack turned the screw – the set-piece went up, then down, then round on its axis, but somehow, Scotland's eight held firm, winning a penalty that heralded the biggest roar of the afternoon.

But the hosts' weren't yet done shooting themselves in the foot.  Horne missed touch from the penalty, Scotland infringed again, and they were back on their line, defending for their lives again.

Ben Toolis was sent to the sin-bin for pulling down a maul, and as the Italians kicked to the corner again, rest, drove and drove inexorably towards the whitewash, crumbling to the turf inches short, Clancy strode under the posts, consigning Scotland to a third straight loss, and bottom place in the tournament standings.

Hamish Watson too was shown yellow and the boos rang out as Allan converted.  The rain began to fall, and with it washed away the optimism and expectancy that abounded in these parts just a few short weeks ago.

Man of the match:  On a day when precious few stood out, Furno gets my nod for an impressive display of carrying and ballast in the tight.

Moment of the match:  Horne missing touch allowed Italy possession, from whence they won the penalty that enabled them to work their way downfield anew.  Unforgiveable.

Villain of the match:  Nothing terribly nasty to report, besides the odd spat.

The scorers:

For Scotland:
Try:  Bennett
Con:  Laidlaw
Pens:  Laidlaw 3
Yellow cards:  Toolis, Watson

For Italy:
Tries:  Furno, Venditti, Penalty trty
Cons:  Haimona, Allan
Pen:  Haimona

Scotland:  15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Peter Horne, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements:  16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Matt Scott.

Italy:  15 Luke McLean, 14 Michele Visentin, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Enrico Bacchin, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements:  16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Samuela Vunisa, 21 Guglielmo Palazzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giulio Bisegni.

Venue:  Murrayfield
Referee:  George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees:  Romain Poite (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Television match official:  Graham Hughes (England)
Assessor:  Lyndon Bray (New Zealand)

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Wales edge Scotland battle

A second-half try from Jonathan Davies and brave defence helped Wales to a 26-23 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.

Hammered, humbled and humiliated, Scotland trudged off the Millenium Stadium paddock a year ago reeling from a red card, a record thrashing, ravaged by the Welsh dragon and nursing gaping wounds that remain palpably raw eleven months on.

On this crisp but sunny Sunday afternoon, they retreated to the Murrayfield dressing rooms on the final whistle, one would imagine, hurting every ounce as much.  The margin of defeat was far slimmer, but its manifestation was just as maddening.

Vern Cotter's side shipped penalties and possession, spurned opportunities that simply had to be grasped in a criminal display of profligacy, and kicked poorly from hand against a Wales side streetwise enough to take advantage.

For Scottish supporters, it was all very familiar.

The game lived up to its billing by most as ‘too close to call', Greig Laidlaw and Leigh Halfpenny trading shots at goal, before Jon Davies struck the killer blow for the visitors with a try under the posts that assured Wales a two-score lead for the final fifteen minutes.

The pre-match statistics, as usual in this day and age, did not favour the Scots.  They had not beaten Wales in their last seven attempts, and had scored a solitary try in their previous three.

A lack of discipline, particularly around the breakdown blighted their Parisian performance and hindered their capacity to retain possession.  They leaked three penalties in the opening five minutes – all at the ruck – on their way to a final, remarkable tally of seventeen as Wales started with energy, and Blair Cowan's failure to roll away in his own 22 presented Halfpenny with a simple opportunity to open the scoring.

Defensively, Scotland continued where they left off in the Stade de France, however, cutting the powerful red runners down around their ankles, and crucially, behind the gain-line.

Alex Cuthbert was one such runner, isolated and chopped down by namesake Dunbar, allowing the Scots' golden boy, Finn Russell, to pinch possession and feed Richie Gray, who found Stuart Hogg on the blindside with fifty yards of unguarded hybrid turf between him and the line – Richard Hibbard chased bravely, but the hooker had no chance of laying hands on his Lions teammate.

Laidlaw knocked over the conversion from straight in front, and Scotland should have been in again as Dunbar scythed through the Welsh midfield after a lovely delayed pass from Russell, only to see what looked a scoring pass tipped away by the covering Liam Williams.

That passage of play would yield three simple points for the skipper, before try-scorer Hogg saved the day at the other end with a magnificent tackle on Rhys Webb.

The scrum-half looked set to touch down after a brilliant Halfpenny take – Russell and Laidlaw both having lunged for a high ball with near-catastrophic consequences.

His kicker was soon removing scrum-cap and lining up another shot in the shadow of the Scottish posts, however, cutting the gap to four as the penalty count continued to rise.

Indeed, though Scotland's rear-guard action was exemplary, it should not have been required, self-inflicted as it was through a spree of needless infringements.

Their sixth and seventh respective transgressions at the contact area heaped on the pressure, Wales opting for the corner, but fine maul defence twice thwarting them.

There were shades of 2009 and Geoff Cross' debut sin-binning in this fixture as Russell inadvertently clattered the soaring Dan Biggar, turning his back to avoid a faceful of studs, but drawing a mandatory yellow card from Glen Jackson.

And the extra man was swiftly made to count as Cowan spilled possession in the Welsh 22, and Halfpenny instigated a flowing move featuring Jamie Roberts – a questionable looping pass – Davies and Williams, who drew Hogg and sent Webb scampering over in the corner.

Halfpenny converted, but Wales' numerical was soon harshly negated, as the chasing Davies collided with Johnnie Beattie in the air, aided by a shove in the back from Sean Lamont – a contest between two airborne players that warranted no sanction.

Scotland responded with a stirring onslaught on the Welsh line, beginning with a twenty-five metre maul for the Welsh, stopped at the corner flag, but unforgivably ending pointless, the visitors creaking but rallying to retain a six-point lead at the break.

With Russell's return, the Scots squandered more field position with an overthrown lineout on the Welsh 22, but excellent work from Dunbar at the breakdown earned a penalty in midfield and another three points for Laidlaw.

With concussed Samson Lee's absence, Aaron Jarvis was enduring the challenging shift on the tighthead side many anticipated, but Al Dickinson dropping his bind allowed Halfpenny to restore the visitors' lead off the post – Wales now restored to fifteen men.

Laidlaw slotted his third penalty from distance, but the visitors amped up the pressure anew, Roberts punching the Scottish midfield and driving the Welsh forward.

Williams was a denied a score in the corner when Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball obstructed Rob Harley from a maul breakaway, and though Scotland leaked yet another breakdown penalty, Halfpenny pulled his effort wide.

The hosts could only live dangerously for so long.  Game-breaker Davies struck the killer blow cutting a lovely line off Biggar, beating Matt Scott and dummying Hogg to stride between the posts, his full-back converting for a ten-point lead.

Scotland again laid siege to the Welsh line, but errors at vital times, and a brilliant turnover from Sam Warburton held them at bay until it was too late to snatch victory.

Sam Hidalgo-Clyne almost capped his Murrayfield debut off the bench with a try after a sixty-metre move from a stolen lineout, and Jon Welsh eventually lumbered over the line with the last play of the match.

Russell converted, but with apparently ten seconds remaining, Jackson called time, sending two-thirds of Murrayfield home nursing an accustomed sense of frustration, and the Scarlet hordes who biennially invade Edinburgh off into the local hostelries with their Championship back on-track.

Man of the match:  Alex Dunbar was excellent for Scotland, but Jamie Roberts gets the nod for me for nine bruising carries that sapped the hosts' energy.

Moment of the match:  Scotland had time for a comeback after Davies' try, but Sam Warburton's penalty-winning turnover under his own posts ten minutes from time ensured Wales a safe passage to victory.

Villain of the match:  Yellow cards aside, neither of which were the result of any malice, nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For Scotland:
Tries:  Hogg, Welsh
Cons:  Russell 2
Pens:  Russell 3
Yellow Card:  Russell

For Wales:
Tries:  Webb, Davies
Cons:  Halfpenny 2
Pens:  Halfpenny 4
Yellow Card:  Davies

Scotland:  15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements:  16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Jon Welsh, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Matt Scott

Wales:  15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements:  16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.

Referee:  Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees:  George Clancy, Dudley Phillips
TMO:  Simon McDowell

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Sexton leads Ireland past les Bleus

Johnny Sexton marked his return to action with a confident display, allowing Ireland to see off a stubborn French challenge 18-11.

The Irish fly-half, after three months out, looked comfortable throughout, and his tactical kicking proved the difference between the sides.

In a game marred by indiscipline at the breakdown, Ireland played more of the game in French territory, and were able to feed of their visitors' errors to grind out the win.

Sexton kicked five penalties, with Ian Madigan also chipping in with a three-pointer, while France needed a late try from Romain Taofifenua to stay in touch.

The French fought hard in the final stages, but it was Ireland who held on for the win and set up a tantalising game against England in a fortnight's time.

The first half was an attritional affair, with Ireland taking advantage of French indiscipline to open up a 12-6 lead and Sexton showing no ill-effects from his three months off as he picked out the open spaces with his kicking game.

The Irish started keeping hold of the ball and trying to move the French pack around and they monopolised possession in the opening minutes of the game.

However at the first ruck Mike Ross went straight to his knees under pressure from Eddy Ben Arous, conceding a penalty.

That allowed France to send Mathieu Bastareaud down Sexton's channel for the first time, but the returning Irish fly-half was up to the task, clamping onto the ball to earn a scrum.

The Irish turned things around at the third scrum of the afternoon, earning a penalty which allowed them to kick into the French 22.  While their maul struggled to make ground, Thierry Dusautoir was penalised, giving Sexton a first shot at goal of the afternoon.  He made no mistake from wide on the left, giving Ireland a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes of play.

France responded immediately when Rob Kearney misjudged a high ball and then found himself isolated with Ben Arous earning the penalty.

From 45-metres out in front, Camille Lopez split the posts to level the scores but almost immediately Ireland were back in front.

Guilhem Guirado tried to contest a ball in a ruck as the tackler, but the ruck had already been formed and Wayne Barnes penalised him.  From the right Sexton was on target to make it 6-3.

The Irish were starting to dominate possession and territory, although the French defence was holding strong.

On their first incursion into the Irish 22, France tried to get their maul going, but Ireland chose not to defend it and earned a penalty as the French were deemed offside, with Dusautoir called back as he went over.  When Ben Arous was penalised at a ruck a couple of minutes later, Sexton stretched the lead to 9-3.

Meanwhile France had lost winger Teddy Thomas to an ankle injury, with Rémi Lamerat on in his place and Wesley Fofana shifted to the wing.

Still, the French were able to cut the lead back to three when Rory Best slowed the ball down in a ruck.

The contest at the breakdown was leading to lots of penalties, with the French furious as Barnes penalised them again in the 22 when they had isolated an Irish ball carrier.  Sexton was never going to miss from straight in front, and he gave the home side a 12-6 lead at the break.

Ireland had the first chance of the second half when Kearney was first to an up and under on the French 22.  The Irish seemed to have worked an overlap but Bastareaud got up quickly to stop Sexton, with both players forced off to get patched up after a clash of heads and resulting blood.

The home side had clearly taken control of the game, and after a long period in the French 22, they earned a penalty when Damien Chouly was caught offside, allowing Madigan to stretch the lead to 15-6.

Having brought on their big subs France started to make some ground, working their way into the Irish 22 but after the Irish had stripped the ball in a maul, France lost second row Pascal Papé to a yellow card after he entered the maul with a knee to Jamie Heaslip's back.

Ireland should have scored the first try of the game just before the hour when a powerful maul allowed them to create a huge overlap.  Robbie Henshaw put down the ball in midfield with three men free outside him.

Despite being a man down in the pack, France had clearly got the upper hand in the scrum, with Ross constantly collapsing as he failed to deal with both Ben Arous and replacement Vincent Debaty.  Successive penalties saw him on a final warning and allowed France's 14 men to get back into Irish territory.

After Papé's moment of stupidity, Best matched him, tripping Dusautoir in a ruck and earning ten minutes in the bin as a result.  However Lopez was off-target with his penalty attempt and France were still more than a score down.

When Chouly was penalised in a lineout, Sexton added a fifth penalty but it was France who would finally score the first try with nine minutes to go.  It came after some great work from the French replacements, with Uini Atonio and Debaty very involved.  Eventually they created an overlap and Debaty delivered to Romain Taofifenua to go over in the corner.

The French kept battling, and had the better of the final minutes, but in the end they couldn't find a way through the Irish defence.

It was by no means pretty, but Ireland were a little sharper in the basics, with their kick-chase a level above their opponents and their ability to play most of the first half in French territory allowing them to open up a lead.

When France brought on their big guns, they finally started to make some headway, and weren't too far away from snatching a draw.  Still they looked short of ideas for the second week running and need to show they have more than just powerful runners in midfield.  Ireland's ambition to retain their title however remains on track, with England coming to town.

Man of the Match:  He'd been out for three months, but Johnny Sexton didn't show it as he orchestrated proceedings pinning Scott Spedding back throughout the first half.

Moment of the Match:  France clearly wanted to target Sexton, and on Mathieu Bastareaud's first charge they did precisely that.  The Irish fly-half stood up to it and even won a turnover when the ball didn't come back.  He was battered and bruised later on, but that was morale-boosting moment for the Irish early on.

Villain of the Match:  Pascal Papé and Rory Best both saw yellow for stupid infringements, but overall it was fairly clean stuff.

The scorers:

For Ireland:
Pens:  Sexton 5, Madigan

For France:
Try:  Taofifenua
Pens:  Lopez 3

Ireland:  15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements:  16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

France:  15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements:  16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Rémi Lamerat.

Referee:  Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees:  Nigel Owens (Wales), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO:  Graham Hughes (England)

Joseph thrills in Italy hammering

Jonathan Joseph stole the show with two tries as England dispatched Italy 47-17 at Twickenham in the Six Nations.

The 23-year-old Bath centre scored two of England's six tries in a slow-burning but eventually comfortable victory for Stuart Lancaster's side.

England started poorly, just as they have in other recent matches, but were more or less rampant after the break, a couple of inspired pieces of skill from Italy's backs, Luca Morisi in particular, the only exceptions to the one-way traffic.

Two years ago in this same fixture England spluttered their way to an unconvincing victory, but this was more akin to last year's rout in Rome.  The ending felt familiar.

No pre-match disco was required a week on from England's assault on Cardiff but they were expected to entertain, going from underdogs to favourites against an Azzurri side with four centurions in their pack.

Any Italian victory would hinge on their set-piece, but the early darts from Leicester's Leonardo Ghiraldini were wayward with England stealing two early lineouts.

Morisi's running was far more effective.  The outside centre cut down the near touchline, fending off three tacklers and putting his team firmly on the attack.  Good patience and handling freed up Sergio Parisse for the Italy captain to fool the defence and go over to send Twickenham silent.  Far from the expected start, but a brilliant one for the visitors.

Kelly Haimona's bright opening was reflected in the way his side played with real confidence, dominating the opening exchanges and starving England of possession and territory.

A smart chip over the top from Haimona forced Mike Brown into action sweeping behind to try to stop Andrea Masi, but he paid a heavy price, colliding nastily with the Italian's shoulder.  With the fallout from George North's concussion still fresh on the mind every care was taken to ensure Brown's well-being during a lengthy stoppage in play.  He was stretchered off and replaced by Billy Twelvetrees, with England moving Anthony Watson to full-back and Jonathan Joseph onto the wing.

Brown's injury, while of major concern, did give England a chance to restart after a dire opening.  Their scrum was monstrous and their attack showed patience, ending eventually with some first points for Ford from a penalty.

Only some sharp cover defence from Parisse stopped Edoardi Gori from being trampled by Billy Vunipola as he charged for the line, with the England number eight looking to finish off a sweep around from the maul.  Or so it initially seemed, with the TMO on closer inspection adjudging that Vunipola was both not in touch and had also scored.  England as a result took an 8-5 lead.

Rightly, England fans might have been concerned about Joseph being shunted out to the wing after his dazzling display against Wales in midfield, but they needn't have worried.  The Bath back produced a superb solo try, receiving the ball out wide and accelerating through two tacklers before outrunning the cover defence having sold them with a dummy.  It was truly a special score.

Haimona missed two penalties and the opportunity to narrow England's lead which the hosts should have extended, Jonny May carelessly squandering a three-on-one trying to go himself for the corner and consequently losing possession.  Italy clung on near their own line to close out the half, England's rolling maul failing them from close range as they went in 15-5 ahead.

Italy were struggling to handle Vunipola, the young number eight making four carries in just one passage of play as England started the second half much quicker than their sluggish opening.

Ford added a second penalty but England were a little rash in their eagerness to put Italy away, opting for miracle plays rather than patient build-up.

The Azzurri benefited, the excellent Morisi finishing off an attack that all started with Leonardo Sarto's chip and chase.  The giant winger recovered possession and with the ball spread to the left, Morisi straightened and had enough strength to withstand Watson's last-ditch tackle to score.  What might have been had Italy still been able to call upon a kicker with the quality of Diego Dominguez.  Again Haimona was off-target with the conversion, making it ten points missed with the boot.

Quick thinking from Ben Youngs held off any English jitters for the time being, as the scrum-half darted over from a tap penalty after more dominance in the scrum.  Such a soft score for Italy to concede and one that did little to alter Jacques Brunel's normal pessimistic expression.

A third penalty from Ford put England 28-10 ahead as the replacements arrived, but Joseph remained the star — although he was brilliantly assisted by club-mate Ford whose delay and pass to set up Joseph's second try was sublime.

It was to be his last act, Danny Cipriani coming on to make a first appearance at Twickenham for six and a half years, but typically scoring a try within less than a minute.  The replacement surged up on the shoulder of May after the winger sucked in defenders to sprint his way over for England's fifth try.

Nick Easter got in on the act by finishing off a powerful rolling maul to become the oldest try scorer in Six Nations history at 36 as Morisi added his second try, capping off a great afternoon at Twickenham for the Treviso youngster.

England though had the match won long ago, with the bonus of seeing Mike Brown up and about on the sidelines garnering a loud cheer from the crowd.  On goes the chariot.

Man of the Match:  Strong performances from Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler, but Jonathan Joseph takes the gong with his two tries and constant threat from 13.

Moment of the Match:  The quick tap from Ben Youngs.  Italy were just too slow, half distracted by the referee's ongoing explanation, and from 25-10 the game was decided.

Villain of the Match:  Nothing nasty to report.

The scorers:

For England:
Tries:  B Vunipola, Joseph 2, B Youngs, Cipriani, Easter
Cons:  Ford 3, Cipriani
Pens:  Ford 3

For Italy:

Tries:  Parisse, Morisi 2
Con:  Allan

England:  15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements:  16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.

Italy:  15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Mauro Bergamasco, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Alberto De Marchi.
Replacements:  16 Andrea Manici, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Joshua Furno, 20 Samuela Vunisa, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giulio Bisegni.

Date:  Saturday, February 14
Kickoff:  14:30 GMT
Venue:  Twickenham
Referee:  Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees:  Pascal Gauzère (France), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO:  George Ayoub (Australia)

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Lopez kicks France to laboured win

Five penalties from Camille Lopez gave France a difficult 15-8 victory over Scotland to open their Six Nations account in Paris.

Under new boss Vern Cotter, the Scots used their pacey outside backs to cause the French lots of problems, while Blair Cowan was a menace at the breakdown.

They were however indisciplined, and three first-half penalties from Lopez gave France a 9-8 lead at the interval despite Dougie Fife's score on the stroke of half-time.

France had more of the ball in the second half, adding another Lopez penalty, before his fifth three-pointer two minutes from time sealed the win.

It was cruel on the Scots, who played more of the rugby, but they struggle to keep hold of the ball in the second half, and despite their lack of cutting edge, the French established a stranglehold on the game.

France took the lead before having any ball in hand, earning a penalty in the first minute when Cowan found himself isolated.  Lopez made no mistake to put les Bleus 3-0 up.

In a scratchy opening 20, the Scots levelled matters with a Greig Laidlaw penalty, following a scrum infringement in front of the posts.

France hit straight back, Cowan, who was proving a nuisance at the breakdown, this time pinged for sprinting offside after a Wesley Fofana break.

From there Scotland began to take a stranglehold, with the likes of Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg looking particularly dangerous.

After the former made one half-break, Hogg went clean through when faced with two forwards.  Scott Spedding tackled him just short of the line, and eventually the Scots were forced backwards before Finn Russell's drop goal attempt went wide from in front.

Les Bleus were struggling to make ground with the ball, but after one Rory Kockott break, they got into the Scottish 22, and once more the visitors strayed offside to slow down the French attack.  Lopez slotted three more points to make it 9-3 to the home side.

On the stroke of half-time, Scotland finally got the try their attacking play deserved.  First they made ground down the left, Hogg again at the heart of it, and with France scrambling, they moved it back to the right.

There Fife, on for the injured Tommy Seymour, went over after a lovely final pass from tighthead Euan Murray.  Laidlaw missed the conversion however, as France led 9-8 at the break.

The Scots started the second half well, but it was again France who scored first, Fife stupidly giving away a penalty.  After Lopez had kicked loosely Fife slipped into touch, giving away a lineout.  In his frustration he threw the ball away, stopping France from playing quickly, and gave the French fly-half three more points.

Cotter's side were giving away too many penalties, and after another offence in midfield at a ruck, France set up a rolling maul.  They eventually got going, with Benjamin Kayser breaking clear, but with the home side camped on the Scottish line, Pascal Pap

Ireland suffocate Italy in Rome

Defending champions Ireland got their 2015 campaign off the ground with a resounding if flawed 26-3 win at the Stadio Olimpico.

Tries from scrum-half Conor Murray and flanker Tommy O'Donnell saw the men in green home in a scrappy and error-strewn encounter.

O'Donnell's try represents something of a fairytale, as the Munster man was only in the side on account of Sean O'Brien pulling an apparent hamstring in the warm up.  But the man of the match was undoubtedly fly-half Ian Keatley, who contributed four penalties and a conversion in a flawless kicking display.

All the Italians could muster in response was a penalty from Kelly Haimona and although the hosts looked dangerous throughout the game, they created very little.

The Irish, who led at half-time, will be delighted with an opening win, but they'll know that they have a long way to go if they're going to retain their crown.

It was the Italians that made the better start, as Irish skipper Paul O'Connell failed to control the ball from the kick off.

But the Irish defence scrambled well, and the men in green were able to clear their lines.

The visitors settled into their patterns thereafter, as Six Nations debutant Keatley calmed his nerves with a couple of decent kicks out of hand.

And this early pressure allowed the fly-half to acquire the first points of the contest as he nailed a seventh-minute penalty after Italian loosehead Matias Aguero was caught in an offside position.

As expected, the Italians were full of vigour and physicality, but the hosts' momentum was disrupted by the concession of several unnecessary penalties in the first ten minutes.

The Irish looked relatively sharp in midfield, as Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne looked to inject the visitors' attack with width.

But scoring opportunities remained depressingly scarce as the Italian rear guard bolted the door firmly shut, with the redoubtable Sergio Parisse making several trademark tackles to shore up the home defence.

But the Irish pressure was always going to tell at some stage, and on 20 minutes Keatley doubled his side's advantage as the Azzurri were penalised for offside from a speculative Murray box-kick.

The Irish were thus 0-6 to the good, but the reigning champions weren't exactly setting Rome alight despite dominating possession.

What will have pleased Irish coach Joe Schmidt most was the assured performance of Keatley, who was controlling the game superbly.

The Irish had a great chance to accentuate their advantage on the 30-minute mark as they were awarded a penalty as a result of the pressure Mike Ross was exerting on Aguero at the scrum.

Keatley launched the ball deep into Italian territory, and from the ensuing lineout the Irish set up camp in the Italian 22.

The Irish initiated attack after attack, but the Italian defence proved absolutely outstanding to keep the visitors at bay.

But the relentless Irish kept coming and Keatley extended the lead to nine points on 36 minutes with another sweetly-struck penalty.

The first half ended with the Italians finding some momentum, with Luke McLean and Haimona putting together some phases in the Irish 22.

The ferocity of the onslaught forced the visitors to concede a succession of penalties.

The Italians kicked the first of these to touch, and set-up one of their trademark driving mauls.

The Irish defence repelled the initial incursion well, albeit illegally and the Italians were gifted another penalty attempt on the stroke of half time.

The second attempt was manifestly easier than the first, and this time the hosts wisely elected to go for the posts.

Haimona made no mistake with the resultant kick, and his side entered in the interval only six points adrift at 3-9.

Given Ireland's dominance of possession, the scoreline seemed a slightly distorted reflection of the game, but left both sides with everything to play for in the second half.

As the second period began, it was a similar story as errors and disruption abounded.  The Irish frantically tried to find their rhythm, but struggled to attain much continuity in their game.

While the Italian defence was certainly resolute, the visitors offered very little from an attacking viewpoint.

Their front row remained a potent weapon, though, and when the Italians' scrum collapsed on 57 minutes, Keatley continued his impeccable kicking performance to stretch the lead to 3-12.

With their attack off first phase proving blunt, the Irish resorted to plan B and utilised their potent maul.

With the visitors camped on the Italian line, the home side was forced to scramble desperately, and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was dispatched to the sin-bin for cynically disrupting the Irishmen's impetus.

With the Italians down to 14 men, the visitors were able to hammer home their advantage and from the ensuing passage of play Murray darted over for the opening try.  Keatley converted to make it 3-19.

The Azzurri were now severely under the cosh, and no sooner had Murray scored, than openside O'Donnell spotted a gap in the depleted Italian defence on 66 minutes to sprint over for his first Six Nations try.

With Keatley having been replaced, Ian Madigan added the extras to give his side a commanding 3-26 lead.

From a position of panic, the Irish now had control of the game.  The hosts had their moments in the final ten minutes as replacement Tommaso Allan injected some fluidity into their stagnant back play.

The Italians battered away furiously at the Irish defence, but the men in green proved adept at closing them down.

To their credit, the tenacious hosts refused to give up the ghost and they seemed to have got over for a consolation try on 78 minutes as Haimona grounded the ball.

The matter was referred to the TMO by Pascal Gauzère, but agonisingly for the Azzurri, Parisse was adjudged to have knocked on in the build-up.

The Irish thus held on to seal a valuable victory, but their perfectionist coach will know they still have plenty of work to do.

Man of the Match:  Ian Keatley surely claims the gong for his assured performance on his Six Nations debut.  The Munster fly-half controlled the tempo of the game like a 50-cap veteran, with sublime tactical kicking, astute game management, and variation in attack.  Add in an imperious performance with the boot, and Keatley was the stand-out performer, showing why he was selected over Ian Madigan and confirming that the Irish have another fly-half who can prosper at Test level.

Moment of the match:  Tommy O'Donnell's try capped a fine performance for the Munster forward.  What made the try all the more satisfying is the fact that O'Donnell wasn't in the original starting line-up, his involvement being due to Sean O'Brien's injury in the warm-up.  The try typified everything that O'Donnell is about:  pace, power, and work-rate; and was a just reward for a barnstorming performance.

Villain of the match:  When Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was yellow-carded in the second half for obstructing the progress of the Irish maul, the hosts were handicapped at a critical phase of the match and were placed at a massive disadvantage.  It is no coincidence that the Irish scored both of their tries while he was serving time in the bin.  Other than that, there wasn't any nasty stuff to report.

The scorers:

For Italy:
Pen:  Haimona
Yellow Card:  Ghiraldini

For Ireland:
Tries:  Murray, O'Donnell
Cons:  Keatley, Madigan
Pens:  Keatley 4

The teams:

Italy:  15 Andrea Masi, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Francesco Minto, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 George Biagi, 4 Joshua Furno, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements:  16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Gulgielmo Palazzani, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Giovanbattista Venditti.

Ireland:  15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements:  16 Sean Cronin, 17 James Cronin, 18 Marty Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.

Date:  Saturday, February 7

Kick-off:  15:30 local (14:30 GMT)

Venue:  Stadio Olimpico

Referee:  Pascal Gauzère (France)

Assistant referees:  Johnny Lacey (Ireland), Luke Pearce (England)

Television match official:  Graham Hughes (England)

Assessor:  Donal Courtney (Ireland)