SIX NATIONS SO FAR | SPORTS FEATURE
Conor Knight checks up on the Six Nations to see how the tournament stands.
Crowded with life-sized daffodils, renditions of Tom Jones and a proud sea of red, the Six Nations is back in force in Cardiff. Not even the rebranding of the Millennium Stadium (now the Principality, by formality) can dampen the Welsh spirits on game day, despite the end of our annual Grand Slam dreams. Having tasted victory in Dublin over the summer, a draw at the Aviva Stadium was a fair reflection this time around. An exhibition of impeccable defences and blunt offensive creativity from either side, it was the boots of Sexton and Priestland that kept the scoreboard ticking. A case of the cursed first game, Wales will be content not just with a draw, but also Priestland’s confidence in his right foot, an attractive back-up should Biggar suffer any long-term injury. A week later and Wales passed the challenge of Scotland on home soil. A game of inaccurate rugby ping-pong at times, a controversial decision by Warburton to go for seven points over three was a defining moment of the match, a statement of intent for the rest of the tournament. It was also encouraging to get a glimpse of the towering brilliance George North has to offer after a quiet opening game. Indeed, though marred by a late but deserving try from Scotland, seeing our immense ball carriers torment the Scotland line was an encouraging sign ahead of the anticipated clash with England on March 12th. There are still negatives to the Welsh game; once again lacking creativity, it leads many to question whether Wales have a Plan B should their initial game plan be nullified. That and some underwhelming kicking out of hand, Wales still have a lot to work on if they wish to climb to the top of the table. The away clash in Twickenham will be a defining fixture for the men in red, with the alluring prospect of repeating their World Cup coup against the English rose remaining a romantic but difficult task. As past Six Nations have proven though, Wales are capable of causing many an upset.
As a Welshman it’s difficult to praise the depth and talent of the England squad. Under the helm of Eddie Jones, there seems to be an aura of ruthless optimism, with their prophesised “thrashing” over the stubborn Italy eventually accomplished. However, a difficult run-in of France, Ireland and the Pool A runners up Wales, their real tests lie ahead of them.
With the old age expression still relevant, “What French side will turn up” has been left largely unanswered thus far. Showing glimpses of flair against a stubborn Ireland and stumbling out of a bruising victory against Italy, France seemingly remain in a perpetual stasis of indifference that still leaves many guessing.
First the loss of Brian O’Driscoll and now Paul O’Connell, these talismans were relentless for Ireland; fearless leaders, the experience and decisiveness of these legendary figures changed games. Would the result of their narrow defeat to France have been different? Would they have edged Wales in Dublin? With injuries taking their toll, Ireland need to shrug off this nostalgia and look to the future.
Following a successful World Cup campaign that many – including Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards – thought ended prematurely, Scotland still arrived to the Six Nations as underdogs; a strong opening performance which eventually ended in a defeat to England and a spirited encounter with Wales, Scotland are slowly growing into an imposing outfit, though there is still work to be done to in the transition from wooden to silverware.
It seems to be the same story for Italy. Starting with a powerful, yet fruitless performance in Paris, they were left wanting after sixty solid minutes against England, eventually conceding five tries, including a Joseph hat trick. With a dubious drop goal miss from Parisse to win the game against France, you wonder when Italy will stop turning to their relentless skipper, and what will happen as a consequence.
Wales vs Italy, Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Sat 19 Mar. Tickets: £30-£70. Info: www.principalitystadium.wales