What a weekend!
Italy played exceptionally well against France, and in many ways surprised the pundits with their new, open, adventurous style. The result did not reflect the effort put in by the Azurri, and 4 well constructed French tries swung the match. Very few teams could compete with the French when in the mood to play expansive, and if needs be, direct confrontational rugby. Italy, with their new approach to the game, tried to play attractive rugby but such a transition will not happen overnight, and perhaps attempting to play with their new style in Stade de France might not have been the “sensible” option. A home win, 30-12 for France, probably did not reflect the Italian effort but will have encouraged Italy, for their next encounter is against the team “we all like to beat”!
Next up for Italy is the home match against England at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday. This is a match which can set up Italy for the rest of the season. This is a winnable match and I predict a home win. While the new look England squad will be in great spirits after their 13-6 Calcutta Cup win against Scotland, the statistics of that match tell an interesting story, and one which the Italian coaching team will be looking at closely. Possession, passion, field positions, tackles made, scoring opportunities and line breaks made all suggest that Scotland would, an indeed should, have won that match comfortably.
As a former internationalist and now a current supporter with a key board, it is very frustrating these days to support Scotland, who continually promise so much and deliver so little! Still, our approach to any sport in Scotland is to take part, give our best, and enjoy the little wins which come along every so often, giving us a not undeserved reputation as very magnanimous, sociable and good losers!
I must admit to consuming a couple of 10 year old Glen Grant drams in the evening after the Calcutta Cup match, reflecting on what might have been!
The match of the weekend, and possibly the Tournament, was held on Sunday in Dublin, and perhaps this was the defining moment of this years Tournament.
Wales won 21-23 away to Ireland, in the last minute of an engrossing match, full of action, tries, incidents, yellow cards, passion and consistent high quality performances from Welshmen Jamie Roberts, Mike Philips and Jonathan Davies, Irish stars such Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heslip and Tommy Bowe. This was an International match of outstanding quality, settled with a last minute penalty kick from Leigh Halfpenny!
It also sets up an interesting match at Cardiff on Sunday where rampant Wales face a shell-shocked Scottish team, missing the recently (and some say belatedly) retired Dan Parks, having gifted a decisive try to England within 30 seconds of the restart of last weeks match at Murrayfield. Cardiff hasn’t been a great venue for Scottish wins and indeed we have suffered some agonising defeat recently, including a traumatic last minute defeat 2 years ago, when Thom Evans, our flying winger suffered a major and rugby career ending neck injury, during a high octane performance from both teams, with Scotland blowing a substantial lead, and Wales closing out a superb recovery!
France plays their second consecutive home match on Saturday against Ireland who will be highly motivated to get their season back on track. Ireland will be awaiting an IRB citing decision on the back row forward Steven Ferris, and the French make 4 changes to a winning team-only France could consider that! Advantage in this match is with France – a home match, a recent win and last Sundays Irish loss, probably sets up France, as favourites for a home win.
Each match this weekend will provide close results and highly charged performances from players who enjoy the nature and format of international competition, and the successful teams will be those who have the fitness, structure, skills and the passion to win, along with an experienced bench to support those players picked to start each match.
Roll on the weekend!
Bob Cunningham, former Scottish Rugby Internationalist