Friday, February 29, 2008

Roses in bloom

Well, predictions are made to be dashed, I suppose... A cussed defeat of the French in Paris by England and a predictable win for the Irish over the Scots saw the table level out again, with Wales still just ahead. Although I remain confident that my forecast of a Wales-France showdown for the championship will come to pass, it looks like the equation may not be quite as simple as it looked like turning out.

England in particular will have their tails up after winning away to France in the Six Nations for the first time since 2000. Where the team had fallen away in the latter stages against Wales and Italy, Ashton's charges showed far greater resolve in the Stade de France, and their rugby was typified by a hard-boned aggression which Marc Lièvremont's youthful side could not compete with. Although France's lone try came from a front five push, it was chiefly in the tight exchanges where England confirmed their ascendancy, while the inexperienced half-back pairing of Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc were unable to harness the running potential of the back three outside them.

England's victory could yet turn out to be another false dawn, with a potentially troublesome trip to Murrayfield tomorrow, but at least they have finally shown some guts on the road after numerous disappointing international away-days over the last few seasons.

With a final match-up against Ireland at Twickers to come, England will hope for eight points and only the aberration of Wales' win at Twickenham to haunt memories of their 2008 campaign. Brian Ashton may then be able to unfurl the attacking masterplan we all hope he has up his sleeve and lead the red rose back to the lost citadel of try-scoring rugby. Fingers bisected of course.

For the Welsh, the fable of 2005 could yet be retold, and the Irish will need luck as well as judgement to resist the shimmering waves of red. A victory margin of anything more than 10 points will bolster the already-formidable Welsh difference, and see them practically assured of the title, if not the grand slam. Don't bet against it...

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Two games leaves two teams

Although my rugby coverage has been remiss thus far in the 2008 Six Nations, I thought I would use the lull between game weekends two and three to analyse some of the goings on. After the belligerent renaissance orchestrated by England in the World Cup, their collective resilience appears to have dissipated, while a youthful French team and the resurgent Welsh have claimed the early plaudits. So how are things going to play out?

Well, it already appears that it's between two teams, with a second Grand Slam in four years in the offing for Warren Gatland's Wales, and a possible third successive title on the table for Marc Lièvremont's beguiling Bleus.

Although the Welsh must surely consider themselves lucky to have pulled off their sacking of Twickenham despite only turning up for the last twenty minutes, their enterprise and brio during that late period of the Championship's second game was enough to justify them the points. Quite how England's wheels fell off so spectacularly, Brian Ashton will probably never know; but if it keeps occurring, as it did against the Italians in Rome, then his time free for pondering will rapidly increase. The unemployed-sitting-on-the-sofa-watching-daytime-TV kind of time, that is.

While the post-World Cup blues have suckered England once again, the new-look French have come haring out of the traps, playing some of the free-flowing rugby that used to be such a quintessential part of their game. In particular a livewire back three of Cédric Heymans, Vincent Clerc and Julien Malzieu/Aurélien Rougerie has contributed to their impressive start - Clerc's five tries already put him only three behind an 80-year-old tournament record.

Heymans, a winger whom I greatly admire, but a full-back of dubious pedigree, has broken the shackles of his indecision and is penetrating the line from the No15 position with an insouciant swagger (just watch France's third try here). Clerc, so lethal in denying Ireland at the last in 2007, is as deadly a finisher as anyone currently operating in the world game, and has the quicksilver feet to damage most sides. England will be attempting to bag him early at the weekend.

While some uncertainty remains around the pack, France's ability to hold their own up front whilst running in tries from all parts of the field makes them one of the teams to beat. However, just such a beating may be meted out by the Welsh in a few weeks' time, as Les Bleus will have to attempt to confirm their ascendancy by avoiding defeat in Cardiff in the final round of games.

After last year's abject campaign where Scotland were narrowly forced to accept the wooden spoon, the Welsh dragon has grown a leathery hide; although one which still sparkles with the odd jewel. Shane Williams is still dancing through defences (even when they put him into touch), while James Hook continues to look like a world class five-eighth. The real fillip, however, has been the return of Ryan Jones, whose captaincy and skill behind the scrum have shored up Wales' tight play. It is, of course, pretty handy to have the recently-retired Martyn Williams lurking around again too.

Whilst Ireland might justifiably claim that their late assault on the French means they cannot be discounted in what will probably be another tight Championship, they find themselves in the same uncomfortable position as England. Close analysis does not treat either team well. Scotland have been heartbreakingly unenterprising, while the Italians' brute force and increasing proficiency seem destined to come to naught this year, possibly until Scotland visit the Stadio Flaminio in March.

So, with just two games played, it's looking like Wales versus France, just like it was in 2005. Only this time the French will travel to Cardiff, where they will have to be on their game to avoid getting burned. Once again, the dragon is roaring.

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