Image Credit: [Evening Standard]
If Ireland vs England comprised the main course of this weekend’s action, France vs Wales on Friday evening promised to be a tantalising appetiser. Fielding the heaviest pack in test history and an exciting backline featuring nineteen-year-old centre Romain Ntmack we waited to see if the French could find the blend of power and panache for which they were once renowned. For 40 minutes they did just that to lead 16-0 against a Wales side who have not lost since last years tournament. What followed was the kind of collapse only Les Bleus are capable of. The mobile Welsh back row seemed to outrun a French pack that looked more suited to the slower tempo of their domestic league, while George North scored two tries from elementary errors and Josh Adams set up a third for scrum half Tomos Williams. Wales will consider themselves fortunate to escape Paris with a victory and know improvement is needed if they are to take advantage of playing both England and Ireland in Cardiff.
Scotland defeated Italy comfortably despite a late flourish giving the scoreboard a more respectable appearance for the Italians. Blair Kinghorn’s hat trick shows they have threats across the backline and will be a difficult proposition, especially at home. Three tries in the final ten minutes offer some hope for the Italians and avoided a morale-crushing defeat, but they remain overwhelming wooden spoon favourites. As for Scotland, they will need to take early chances better and not drop off in the last quarter if they are to compete for the title.
All eyes then turned to Dublin, where England travelled to face the world’s form team with the bookies making Ireland 8-9 point favourites. When Owen Farrell’s perfectly weighted pass allowed Elliot Daly to put Jonny May over in the corner after 90 seconds England fans had the start they could scarcely have dreamt of. Ireland struck back but England’s brutal defence, immeasurably improved with the addition in the summer of kiwi John Mitchell to the coaching staff, kept them at bay for the most part and they led 17-10 at half time after Daly pounced on spilled ball from winger Jacob Stockdale for their second try.
England’s half backs Youngs and Farrell continued to out kick their illustrious counterparts Murray and Sexton, while their back three diffused whatever aerial threats came their way. With the front five putting their bodies on the line to secure front foot ball (justly recognised with prop Mako Vunipola’s man of the match award) England scored the crucial try with fifteen minutes remaining when Henry Slade gathered May’s chip ahead, with the Exeter centre also on hand to score the bonus point try after a loose pass from Jonny Sexton. England did to Ireland what Ireland have done to everyone else over the last eighteen months, and perhaps exposed the lack of a plan B when they are confronted with a physical and tactical challenge to match their own. Ireland now face a tricky away fixture in Edinburgh while England host the unpredictable French at Twickenham.