England coach Eddie Jones is as much wind-up merchant as rugby coach, and he’s excellent at both. In his post-match press conference he was in typically voluble mood, suggesting to BBC Sport Kiwi referee Ben O’Keeffe was on Wales’ side after a controversial red card for Manu Tuilagi:
“I find the whole thing ridiculous. But that is the way it is and we had to cope with it. I don’t know what Manu is supposed to do in that situation. How is he is supposed to tackle the guy? How else do you tackle if you don’t tackle with your shoulder?
“The guy is like literally half a metre off the ground. I just find that bizarre. We trained on Wednesday the whole session 13 v 16 so we’ve had some practice, we thought it might happen.”
If a football manager intimated the referee was even semi-biased, let alone making up the numbers for the other team, they could expect a hefty fine. Whether Jones can question the official’s integrity with impunity is up to the governing body, but his comments had the desired effect.
They took all the attention off Tuilagi’s reckless tackle and his side for their late Six Nations collapse – notwithstanding their numerical disadvantage – and England were arguably lucky to be so far ahead before Wales’ comeback too.
Jones might argue although Tuilagi’s eyes were closed and he wasn’t in a position to wrap his arms, it was perhaps harsh – general consensus seemed to be that a penalty and yellow card was right – and England were in complete control before the decision.
England, via the superb nine-10-12 axis of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell, controlled the game brilliantly and had their lives made easier by another brutal display up front from the likes of Maro Itoje and George Kruis. Nicely worked pre-planned moves put Anthony Watson – how England missed him – and Elliot Daly over the try line early on. The Welsh had England’s indiscipline and subsequently Dan Biggar’s boot to thank that it was only 20-9 at half-time.
Literally seconds into the second period England slipped up. Daly over-chased, creating a dog-leg which meant Nick Tompkins – playing against the country of his birth – burst past him and fed Josh Navidi on the touchline. Even then the situation was seemingly under control with Henry Slade marking Navidi and Youngs opposite Tompkins.
Youngs, who overall enjoyed his best game in an England shirt for quite some time, kept his eyes on Slade’s man Navidi, going high and weak on Tompkins after Navidi’s pass. Covering tacklers Tuilagi and Ford could only watch in horror as successive two-on-ones bypassed them and a helpless Slade couldn’t reach galloping bronco Justin Tipuric. Suddenly it was a four-point ball game.
But England reacted well, strong-armed two more penalties and the perennially clever Henry Slade created space with a dummy run for Tuilagi to jog over untouched via a cute Ford basketball pass. With seven minutes left England were 17 ahead and cruising, before Tuilagi tackled George North high in a desperate attempt to save a try.
Dan Biggar scored from close range, then Tipuric dotted down with the clock in the red after a clever half-break from Rhys Webb but it was too little too late for Wales and England had the victory their performance deserved.
For all the Welsh carping after the game – the only justified claim was Alun Wyn Jones protesting Joe Marler grabbing his crotch, an action the Harlequins man has been cited for retrospectively – this was possibly the most dominant three-point victory the Six Nations has ever seen.
On paper England had just more than a third of possession, made fewer metres, more than double the number of tackles and missed almost twice as many as Wales. None of that mattered; any viewer would be hard pressed to say the men in red warranted anything from the game.
For Welsh coach Wayne Pivac and possibly soon-to-retire captain Wyn Jones, it’s back to the drawing board. For the Eddie Jones meanwhile, it’s a dinner with RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney to discuss his future, garnished with a Triple Crown and a possible Six Nations title to sweeten the deal.
Les Bleus see red, Hastings sees Scots home
Neither England nor Ireland would have had the chance to win the tournament were it not for another Gallic flash of red. In the 47th minute of the Wales v France quarter-final of last autumn’s World Cup, France were deep in Wales territory, nine points up and in possession with a maul going forwards.
Lock Sebastian Vahaamahina – whose international career is now seemingly over aged 28 – elbowed Aaron Wainwright in the face. Wales won by one point and France’s tournament was over.
Fast forward the clock six months and yet again indiscipline has cost them. The price, their first Grand Slam this decade. International rugby is a highly pressurised, uber-macho environment, and it was only fiery Montpellier prop Mohamed Haouas’ fourth cap.
But less than four minutes to go until half-time, winning at Murrayfield after Antoine Dupont’s perfectly-judged crossfield kick assisted Damian Penaud, France were sitting pretty. At least until Haouas punched Scottish flanker Jamie Ritchie full on in the face. The Frenchman was furious after he received his marching orders but red cards can be and are routinely given for less.
Fly-half Adam Hastings – pictured with a grimace after dad and Scotland legend Gavin Hastings kissed his wife (and Adam’s mum) Diane – knocked over the resulting penalty to take the lead.
Three minutes later and with the interval seconds away, he took a lovely arcing running line around second row Paul Willemse, dummied the bleached-blond Mathieu Jalibert and a phase later Sean Maitland was in the corner. Four minutes after half-time, a super flat pass from Hastings, Maitland in again, game over at 21-7.
Stuart McInally got one more after a lucky bounce and France captain Charles Ollivon grabbed a consolation score but realistically the game was up with that first-half punch, which aptly proved a knockout blow to France’s Grand Slam dreams.
Wales-Scotland centre stage as Covid-19 spreads
The France result, of course, means the Six Nations title is still up for grabs. March 14 was billed as the blockbuster final day of Six Nations action, however as the ‘final’ weekend takes a double hit due to Covid-19, Ireland are still yet to host Italy or indeed travel to France come Sunday evening – nor England will have made their Rome pilgrimage. Only Wales and Scotland will face off on the fifth weekend.
Thank heavens for small mercies in that neither side are in contention for the title – both sides hoping to avoid second bottom. Wales could end up only beating Italy this championship, which would be a disaster after an excellent World Cup showing, only losing to eventual winners South Africa by three points in the semi-final.
A few new faces have been blooded, most notably ex-Scarlets coach Pivac, but on the whole the nucleus of the side is the same, which makes their performances thus far especially disappointing. Pivac would argue a radically overhauled style of play after Warren Gatland’s departure would always take time to bed in, but a home fixture against a Scotland shorn of the exiled Finn Russell should be a banker.
Scotland, on the other hand, were just a score off Ireland in Dublin and England and have since beaten Italy to nil and seen off previously unbeaten France. The Townsend turnaround will be complete if they win in Wales, and would allow Russell back into the frame in a much more optimistic camp. This year is gone for both sides – but this game will define their futures.
Wales host Scotland on Saturday in the fifth weekend’s only fixture, with the games between Ireland and Italy, Italy v England and France v Ireland currently postponed due to Covid-19.
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