In a fantastic contest taking place in Lyon on a Tuesday night, France almost regained their old glory against New Zealand. The brightest stars amongst them was the youthful 9/10 partnership of Dupont and Belleau. Both of whom look to have exciting futures, employing an attractive blend of pace and guile. We'll miss Camille Lopez’ big game mentality and flair, but not for long. New Zealand did enough to take the game by a narrow 5 point margin. France look like a strong prospect for 6 nations success on this evidence.
As for the Saturday matches, the one word that summed up almost every game was ‘nearly’. The performance that should be the first on everyone’s list was Scotland running New Zealand right to the wire. By the 44th minute, each side had only produced 3 points. A long floated pass led to a try for Taylor which Barrett could not convert, and a deft kick by Sonny Bill Williams led to a try for Mackenzie. But after a yellow card for the All Blacks, Jonny Gray showed excellent strength to burrow over. Sonny Bill Williams was also integral in releasing Barrett to streak away to re-take the lead.
In another loss of discipline, Wyatt Crockett took the Scottish scrum half without the ball. Another yellow card. Some exceptional handling out wide by Seymour and Huw Jones tore the All Blacks wide defence to pieces. Hogg almost stole the game in the last minute with some scintillating pace, but was bundled into touch in the dying seconds. As some commentators have suggested, Scotland made New Zealand ‘look human’. The real story here is that Scotland’s success is no accident.
Despite the flattering scoreline, Australia will feel that their performance at Twickenham earned them the victory they deserved. Instead, England put Australia to the sword late in the game after a matter of two or three blades of grass had gifted Elliot Daly his second England try to swing momentum in their favour. Australia may feel a little hard done by with some lengthy TMO decisions going against them. In the end, it was raw pace and some excellent footballing skills by Danny Care that made the difference. Jonny May showed his incisive finishing was still sharp. Jonathan Joseph’s acceleration in the 73rd minute reminded us of how dangerous he can be with open field.
Michael Hooper’s discipline let him down trying to slow England’s momentum in an otherwise barnstorming performance. Kurtley Beale showed his frustration slapping down an England pass as they looked to break on the outside. Despite Beale’s protestations of innocence, his hand was directing the ball down to the turf and the referee had no choice but to give him 10 minutes to contemplate his mistake. Australia looked dangerous throughout the game. Fijian born Marika Koroibete looked to be a devastating prospect, who will count himself unlucky not to have capped his performance with a try. In a game of fine margins, a clinical 20 minutes by England was enough to put the Wallabies to the sword.
Georgia nearly finished a gutsy performance of strength, power and organisation against the much changed Welsh side, but knocked the ball forward at the death. Wales struggled for any sort of momentum and the Georgians continued to impress on the international stage, falling to a 13-6 defeat at the Principality Stadium. Controversially, Georgia opted for a scrum, but due to a yellow card for Tomas Francis, and claims by Wales that their potential replacement (who can come back on for scrums despite having been substituted off) had developed cramp and was therefore not fit. Georgia therefore could not contest the scrum (at which they had been the dominant force), and instead the lineout did not go the way they wanted, leaving them short of a famous draw. The controversy in relation to the prop situation may continue, but Georgia continue to make a case for top tier European inclusion.
Ireland, like Wales, made a number of changes to allow them to test new combinations against a Fiji side who had been humbled by Italy the week before. In a game that had very substantial momentum swings, Ireland had cultivated a 17-3 lead, before a resurgent Fiji prevented Ireland from scoring for a full 32 minutes either side of half time. Fiji drew level twice at 17-17 and then at 20-20, before a penalty late in the game decided the match in Ireland’s favour. A broken forearm looks to have finished Joe Carberry’s contribution to the Irish campaign, but many positives will be taken from the young 10s performance, missed conversions aside.
France were beaten by a stung South Africa 17-18 in a battle of the ‘2023 potential hosts’, with France having recently been announced as the winners of the process, despite World Rugby recommending that South Africa should be awarded the tournament. France’s youth was nearly enough against the All Blacks, and was nearly enough against the Springboks, with Belleau taking 12 of the 17 points himself, and Serin the other 5. However, the young Handre Pollard missed 4 kicks, and South Africa took advantage of a flat French team on the day.
Argentina against Italy was perhaps the only game which did not throw up any near misses or surprises with Argentina dominating the second half to take the game 31-15 against an Italy side who never really threatened the try line, restricted to 4 penalties and a drop goal. We now move on to the final weekend (for most sides), with Scotland, Wales and Ireland facing relatively stern tests of Australia, New Zealand and Argentina respectively. England are unlikely to learn much about themselves against a Samoa side still in moderate disarray, but we can hope that Jones will take this opportunity to test some new combinations in the side. We wait with bated breath to see if this talented Scotland squad can finally take revenge against the Wallabies for the World Cup controversy.
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