Saturday’s game between Scotland and Italy was billed as the ‘wooden spoon decider’ which, coming as it does just half way through the competition, implies that neither team is any good and the result is unimportant. This is really rather unfair; neither team is likely to win a world cup any time soon, but both have some very talented players and the capacity to play exciting rugby. I was hoping for a close, entertaining game.
Sadly the pressure on both teams – and especially the coaching staff – not to lose was horribly apparent, and led to a match where neither side were willing to take any risks; most of the game was just plain dull. Italian No.8 Sergio Parisse again showed his class, while for Scotland the Evans brothers hinted at the excitement they can bring to a game.
The scoreline at the end flattered Scotland in that they simply didn’t deserve that many points, despite being by far the better side over 80 minutes. Judged on this performance, both teams have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the 6 nations, although we know that Scotland are capable of pulling rabbits out of hats on occasion – the same cannot yet be said of Italy.
Billed as the main event of the day, the Ireland v England match was also afflicted with the desire not to lose, again stifling much of the play. Ireland went into the game as strong favourites, on paper as well as form. England, by contrast, were under huge pressure to show that they were at least starting to recover the sort of form that they should be showing, given the size of their player pool.
Ireland failed to live up to their top billing, appearing to be hesitant and lacking in ideas of how to break down England’s defence. Ronan O’Gara, Ireland’s No.10, had a bad day at the office and this undoubtedly played a big part in shaping the team’s performance, although it would be unfair to lay all the blame at his door. Ireland currently have a number of players in the very top rank and they must all share the responsibility. Only the ever-reliable Brian O’Driscoll really stood out and it was he who held things together for the Irish.
England, on the other hand, demonstrated once again that they have a phenomenal defence but little to offer anywhere else. There were hints of an attacking strategy beginning to germinate but basic errors, a complete lack of vision and some catastrophically brainless moments undid any good work. Indeed, the best move of the match was a break by Tait from first phase possession that should have resulted in an easy run-in for Flutey, but Tait appeared to forget to make the scoring pass.
Two more yellow cards and several marginal late/illegal tackles did nothing to dispel England’s growing reputation for ‘dirty’ play, and of course meant that they (again) played 25% of the match with a man down. 10 yellows in their last four games says it all.
A fair result, then, which leaves Ireland on course for a Grand Slam, but they will have to do much better to overcome Wales in their final match.