France to win, but win ugly


Sam Geoghegan reviews the weekend’s rugby action and believes France’s Grand Slam will be down to the lack of any credible opponents

We’re now over halfway through the 2010 RBS Six Nations, and the third weekend of the Championship has confirmed what we all knew: France’s path to Grand Slam glory is all but assured, and all of the Northern hemisphere sides have much work to do if any of them want to succeed in winning the World Cup in New Zealand in 18 months’ time.

A dramatic weekend kicked off on Friday night in Cardiff where tournament favourites France faced Wales in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium. While the Welsh started with attacking intent, they were lacking in ideas and were unable to break down a French defence that were all too happy to wait and capitalise on any mistake. The first mistake came after only six minutes when outside centre James Hook attempted a wide pass to stretch the defence. His pass was poorly executed and led to French winger, Alexis Palisson, intercepting it and running the length of the pitch untouched and under the posts.

Wales continued to be punished by France for their schoolboy errors, demonstrated by another intercept try at the stroke of half time by out-half, Francois Trinh-Duc. Wales began the second half with a 20-0 deficit to overcome and although they admirably attempted the comeback, it predictably fell short, as France won 26-20.

Comebacks are becoming a habit for Wales in this year’s Championship, after falling short against England in Twickenham and by defeating Scotland a week later. If Gatland’s team began matches with the same pace and urgency shown in the second half of their opening three games, they would be the only team left in the competition undefeated. This is something that Gatland and Shaun Edwards must improve upon in their final two matches against Ireland and Italy.

Though France should secure the Grand Slam with both of their remaining games in Paris against Italy and England, it should be noted that their second half performance almost cost them the match.

The Italians emerged victorious 16-12 over Scotland on Saturday in the Wooden Spoon matchup. The gulf in class between these two sides and the other four has been consistently evident in recent years: this is Italy’s tenth year in the tournament, and they have appeared to have hit an obstacle they can’t overcome. Italian progress has been slow in the last ten years and the Azzurri have never seemed capable of an upset against the usual top sides of France, England and Ireland. Scotland and Andy Robinson appear to have no answers and with it no hope.

The most anticipated match of the weekend occurred on Saturday evening when a wounded Irish team faced an undefeated English side under Martin Johnson. Ireland, though winners, were predictable and lacking any sort of initiative. Jonny Sexton started his first Six Nations match, and it was his perfectly-weighted grubber kick for Tommy Bowe that set up the opening score – but apart from that, he and the rest of the Irish backs offered little. Ireland had to work relentlessly to score David Wallace’s try in Paris a fortnight ago – and while their tries at Twickenham were a lot more straight-forward, they highlight the fact that Ireland need more ideas, initiative and endeavour if they have any hopes of success at the World Cup.

On the other hand, England dominated possession and the Irish defence gladly soaked up the pressure and pounced upon any opportunities. The English style of play is reminiscent of their 2003 World Cup-winning team but without the same raw talent. The frustration the English backs must feel is unimaginable: Johnson shackles his backs, believing in sacrificing style for substance, and relying upon the boot of Jonny Wilkinson.

Overall, Europe’s Six Nations are a long way off the skill and talent levels of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. France should win the Grand Slam, but that’s more to do with the lack of meaningful opposition rather than their own talent.