The last round of the Championship turned out as predicted and a stuffy away win in Italy gave Wales a boost- not only did they win but a number of injured players returned while other such as Mike Philips found their form and performed exceptionally well in Rome against Italy, a side lacking some leadership and direction on the pitch.
This hard earned away win sets Wales up for a challenging encounter in Edinburgh this weekend.
The Scotland – Ireland match was a crucial event for both teams. Scotland needed to win to convince the world that they were back on track and Ireland, stung by criticisms of their performance against England, needed to demonstrate that they had not suddenly become a passive and aging team. The atmosphere at Murrayfield was intense and the match statistics would suggest that Ireland should have won by a country mile!
The fact that Scotland tackled until the Irish threat disappeared back to Dublin and then kicked 4 penalties out of four demonstrates that there are both many ways to win and lose international matches! Scottish heroes included Geoff Cross, Jim Hamilton and Captain Kelly Brown, all of whom must have gone to bed on Saturday night still tackling green shirted runners!
Ireland will have many better days and should have won this match but for an inability to change their game plan and tactics during the match, and a failure in making sensible captaincy decisions when the going was tough. They must now regret not taking the early match penalties rather than kicking for the corners and attempting the take on Scotland physically. Greg Laidlaw, the man of the moment for his cool tactical and goal kicking skills, was a reminder that you do not need to be massive to be influential.
England in the third match of the weekend changed their style of play again and took on France in mid field with what can only be considered a titanic battle between Bastareaud and Manu Tuilagi. This spectacle of fit, aggressive 17 ½ stone centres knocking lumps out of each other was not for the fainthearted! An outstanding score by Fofana for France and a reply by Tuilagi supported by accurate place kicking from Farrell and Flood saw England home safely, if not completely convincingly, against French side which is still underperforming.
The competition is fierce this year and at the moment while England are the only side who can win the Grand Slam, Wales and Scotland could actually win the championship! Italy, France and Ireland having lost more than one match in the campaign are now in a damage limitation mode seeking some respectability in the last two matches.
First up this weekend is Scotland and Wales.
Traditionally this is marked by a huge exodus of Welsh supporters, arriving in Scotland and often staying Speyside, Aberdeenshire and Inverness. Whether attracted by the Whisky or the social life, these hardly supporters over the years did not attend Murrayfield but enjoyed Scottish hospitality! Those making it this year will see the match of the tournament. I predict a high scoring event where Wales will look to exploit their pace and finishing skills against a very tough tackling defensive formation, yet including players such as Hogg, Visser and Maitland who can turn any match.
Home advantage, a patriotic crowd and a team full of self confidence and belief, will swing this match to Scotland.
The second match this weekend is Ireland against France in Dublin. Still reacting form last weeks defeats, Ireland and France will need to recapture the style and ability which made them co-favourites to win this years Tournament. Both have under performed and with the Irish injuries in key positions, and France still not yet performing, it is difficult to predict this match. France have the greater depth of players, but have still to perform for 80 minutes in any match this year, yet have the ability to score tries out of nothing-a skill Ireland seem to have lost this season.
France to win in a high scoring match.
England is the most accomplished team in the tournament, able to vary their style to suit the opposition and the conditions. Home advantage matches in important and their match against Italy with Sergio Parisse returning to stiffen the defensive and offensive structures will allow Italy to compete more effectively and will perhaps result in a closer match than initially predicted. England has made a few changes and might suffer from that, and Italy will be boosted by the sense of being the underdog.
If they can learn from Scotland, be patient and tackle, and then take the few chances which are likely to result, we will be in for a closer match than many anticipate.
Still, I go for a home win for England, in this, the third match of the weekend
The 6 Nations Championship will not be decided until the last match, but this weekends results will rule out at least one of the 3 contenders.
It promises to be exciting rugby and as a Scotsman, watching on TV with a group of friends in a Castle owned by a Whisky company in Scotland, I am confident of a great weekend irrespective of the outcome of any of the matches!
So, if you cannot attend, do what we are doing and watch along with your friends and a bottle of your favourite dram!
R.F.Cunningham, former Scottish Rugby Internationalist, is HR Adviser to Glen Grant Distillery in Speyside.
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