By Felix Bolton | Contributor
It is fair to say, the penultimate round of this year’s Six Nations did not disappoint. With Grand Slam hopes and national pride on the line, fast paced, open rugby was on show. Some teams will be heading into this week full of promise for a strong finish, with others licking their round four wounds and contemplating what could have been.
One step closer to Grand Slam glory
Up against a demoralised Italian side, Championship favourites Wales produced another strong performance, running in seven tries and stamping their authority on this years Six Nations. Concise handling and a desire to stretch Italy’s defence was on display from the outset, developing Wayne Pivac’s new structure of expansive rugby. An early Josh Adams try set the tempo of the game, as Wales rampaged through Italy during the first half to pick up a bonus point before the break. A brace for Ken Owens and a Man of the Match outing for Josh Navidi encapsulated an effective performance from the Welsh forwards, dominating the set piece and outmuscling a fatigued Italian pack.
Whilst a Welsh win was somewhat inevitable, wooden spoon chasing Italy were the masters of their own downfall. Two yellow cards for the second game running dashed any hopes of a surprise victory, as ill-discipline remains rife in the Italian squad. Short bursts of promise with the ball in hand was overshadowed by careless defensive arrangement, making life easy for a confident Welsh backline. Monty Ioane’s spectacular solo try stands out as the singular piece of magic in an otherwise bleak showing for Italy, leaving Wales with just one more obstacle to navigate to reclaim Grand Slam bragging rights.
England make amends
Twickenham was this year’s host for the infamous Le Crunch fixture between England and France. Following an unexpected defeat to the Welsh in round three, England set out to restore their recently tainted reputation. The French, still chasing their Grand Slam dream and fresh from their COVID isolation period, started the strongest. A slick short side chip by winger Teddy Thomas bounced awkwardly for Antoine Dupont, who touched down after a brief juggle with only a minute on the clock. England responded quickly through a well worked Anthony Watson try, however it was the French who took the half time lead following a perfectly executed training ground move to give Damien Penaud a clear run to the line. The tight game was destined to be defined by a singular moment, which came with only three minutes left to play. A strong carry and finish from Maro Itoje gave England the late lead, which proved decisive.
Making amends for his penalty stricken performance against Wales, the second row stood out in an England team who had everything to prove. Ben Youngs showed his experience with a number of sniping runs around the breakdown, whilst the backs were controlled superbly by George Ford and Owen Farrell. Defeat ends France’s Grand Slam journey, a bitter pill to swallow for a team harbouring some of the world’s most exciting talent. Le Blues off the cuff style was handled relatively comfortably by England’s pragmatic and methodical game plan, which was worlds away from their shaky opening fixtures.
Sexton lands the final blow
Sunday’s round four game saw Ireland travel to Murrayfield, for a historically tense game against Scotland. In a game more about national pride than the prospect of lifting silverware, it would go down to the wire. Ireland’s possession based philosophy effectively got the better of their opposition in the opening exchanges, controlling much of the ball and a great deal of territory. A poachers try from Irish centre Robbie Henshaw was followed by a bizarre Scottish score. Stuart Hogg’s impressive footballing skills produced an inch perfect through ball for Finn Russell to chase, who nudged the ball past the oncoming defender to dot down under the posts. The second half saw a resurgence from Scotland after a poor show at the set piece, costing them opportunities and points. Clawing the score back to 24-24 following a Hamish Watson try, the game was on a knife edge with only minutes remaining. Pressure from Irish forwards prompted a mistake from Ali Price, giving Johnny Sexton a game clinching kick on the touchline, which he converted with aplomb. 27-24 to Ireland.
The fast flowing game could have been won by either side and showcased attacking flair alongside defensive guile. Whilst neither team can win the championship, the stern face of Warren Gatland filled the empty stadium, giving Lions contenders something to ponder ahead of a busy summer of rugby.