Wales took another step closer to a shock 2021 Six Nations win following an imperious performance in Rome and losses for both rival contenders, France and Scotland, in what proved to be an enthralling weekend of rugby.
Wales outplayed, outthought and outworked a dawdling Italian side which more than ever have looked out of their depth in this championship. Exploiting Italy’s indiscipline, Wayne Pivac’s side scored two early tries while the home team’s captain, Luca Bigi, was dispatched to the sinbin. Bigi’s return to the field had little influence on the Welsh onslaught as a brace of tries from lineout mauls for hooker Ken Owens gave his team complete control of the game, and a first half bonus point.
Scores from George North, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit in the second half brought Wales’ points tally up to a dominant 48. In response Italy offered just one consolation try through a chip and chase from Monty Ioane, Italy’s most promising prospect to emerge from the tournament.
Wales are hot favourites to win the championship heading into the final weekend. A win against France would give them the Grand Slam while a narrow loss would nevertheless earn them the title. Italy, on the other hand, stare down the barrel of another winless Six Nations as they face Scotland in Edinburgh.
Twickenham bore witness to the highest quality game of the tournament so far on Saturday evening. In an 80-minute exposition of physicality and skill, a brutish and accurate England side pipped a silky French team to the post with a scorline of 23-20.
A solid start for Fabien Galthié’s side saw superstar scrumhalf Antoine Dupont cross the line on the back of a Teddy Thomas chip. Winger Anthony Watson, however, soon hit back, finishing off England’s most accomplished attacking spell of the tournament. A well-executed set move earned France the lead once again in the 31st minute after crisp handling and perfectly-ran decoy lines put Damien Penaud through in the corner to score.
The second half was a cagier, more contained affair with penalty exchanges bringing the score to 16-20 in the 75th minute. Thereafter, England’s forward power took over, as a strong lineout maul followed by two bruising carries created just enough space around the ruck for Maro Itoje to crash over. With just five minutes left on the clock, France did not have to composure to burgle the game back from England.
This result does not spell disaster for France. Not only did they play with incredible precision and intensity, but they are also still in the hunt for the title – should France beat Wales and Scotland comprehensively, which they are more than capable of doing, they will win the tournament. England meanwhile have made amends for their lacklustre performance in Cardiff and will hope to replicate the ferocity and skill they showed on Saturday when they face Ireland in Dublin.
Ireland’s trip to Edinburgh yielded another captivating game, which was only settled by a Johnny Sexton penalty in the 75th minute to make the score 24-27. Prior to that decisive kick, Sunday’s match ebbed and flowed as Ireland twice took commanding leads and Scotland twice fought their way back into contention.
Andy Farrell’s side started the game strongly, amassing a ten-point lead through an ariel bombardment which Scotland’s backfield failed to counter. The magic of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell soon struck in return. Charging down an Irish clearance, Hogg jabbed the ball infield with his boot and Russell gathered to score. Second half Sexton penalties and a try from Tadgh Beirne gave Ireland a 24-10 advantage.
However, two scores, the first from replacement Huw Jones and the second from omnipresent nuisance Hamish Watson, left the score 24-24 with seven minutes to go. Cue Sexton, who under immense pressure slotted a tricky penalty to win Ireland the game.
If Ireland can follow up their victory against Scotland with another against a rejuvenated England, their tournament will all of a sudden seem a lot less gloomy. Scotland, on the other hand, despite all the promise they have shown, have only won two games. To show they are genuine title contenders in future, Gregor Townsend’s side will have to perform well against France when their match is rearranged.
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