L’eau: c’est claire et bleue, n’est-ce pas? (Did I get the feminine thing, right?)
Clear blue water. It feels that way, the morning after: France at a higher level. With Matt Dawson’s recent description of Scotland as ‘world class’ looking ever dafter – or evermore like some kind of weird but familiar (and peculiarly English) Existential Guilt. An over-compensation.
Murrayfield was swiftly quietened. Then England Wales felt and often looked slightly Division Two, with Eddie Jones’s crew again looking like a team that lacks identity – quite possibly because Eddie Jones changes the line-up every time they step out on the park.
The hierarchy seems clear, then: France ten points better than everybody else, with Ireland and England closely matched, behind. Les Bleus go to Cardiff – where they should win – and host England, who may yet offer a challenge. Should Natural Justice prevail, however, the best and most entertaining side in the tournament will win a Grand Slam. Few would deny them that.
Scotland have closed a metaphorical gap, to their credit, in recent years, but remain reliant on inspirational sparks from the crowd, or from hearty, ball-carrying individuals. It’s notable – and disappointing for us neutrals – how Hogg and Russell have underwhelmed, thus far. Wales, meanwhile, are somehow both close to a slump… and occasionally brilliant. Here are my two live blogs, from Saturday.
Du Pont! Generously waiting a full seven minutes before dancing and smashing through the hosts. Classically ‘French’ try – meaning all-court rugby of a particularly expansive species, made by the scrum-half’s endless, penetrating break. Murrayfield stamps its feet quietly and shakes out the cold. May be resigned, early doors.
A minor response – an important response – as Russell knocks over a pen but within another five or six minutes a second, genuinely glorious try from as France surge, sling, then bundle over in the corner. After fifteen, the visitors lead 12-3 but have already minced most of those absurd expressions of confidence from pro-Scottish pundits. (C’ mon: it’s been obvious. Scotland were fortunate to beat England, they are an improved side but still a relatively moderate one AND NOWHERE NEAR AS GOOD AS FRANCE. Whatever happens from hereon in).
The wind is blowing strongly, in Scotland’s favour – assuming you accept that a following wind is a boon. The thought strikes that Hogg’s monumental kicking game may be key to keeping this close ’til half-time… but beyond that?
Scotland managing set-pieces okay: they rob a line-out and van der Merwe opens his legs. Encouragement. Then a Big Moment. Jaminet launches at the high ball but clumsily mis-judges. Yellow? He is maybe fortunate. What the full-back’s error does do is offer real momentum to Scotland. They capitalise, after an extended period of pressure: Darge powers over after a tap penalty. After the extraordinary expression of superiority from France, in those initial exchanges, the scoreboard reads 10-12. Ridiculous and rather wonderful. *Perhaps especially* given the growing sense that a few French heads are reverting to stereotype: i.e. lost under pressure.
Scotland again get the penalty upon contact: then France strip the hosts. Then a knock-on, from Jaminet – who, in fairness had to reach behind himself in the attempt to gather. (Poor pass). Incredibly, we reach 35 minutes (in about 12) and this entertaining harem-scarem feels even. No phases, lots of excitement.
AAAARGH. Clear green water for van der Merwe then Hogg must surely score?!? The pass is out front… a teaser… a killer. The skipper can’t get there but can’t stop himself reaching and knocking on. Could decide the match, that – a score then and even I might believe in a ridicu-grind towards a Scottish victory. Instead, we approach the half and France have a line-out on the twenty-two.
The first opportunity is missed, strangely because of a slightly lazy long pass, form the godlike Du Pont. No matter. France, well into red time, keep this alive and scorch diametrically towards the other corner. Pace and power again combine, as Fickou barges over and in. (Perhaps that might have been defended?) Whatever. 10-19 may flatter France a tad… but surely does represent the relative strengths of the sides?
Second half. France score early (so I’m looking wee bit smug). Danty may have been a tad fortunate with the bounce but again, that sense that Natural Justice is at work: an improved but out-gunned Scotland are being, yaknow, out-gunned. 10-26, now.
Half of you may not like my dismissal of the Scots: it ain’t personal. I rate and respect the development and the skill and spirit (especially) they are showing again, here. But they are not The Contenders some of the Top, Top Pundits have been saying they are. And I do think that’s been obvious – even when they’ve won games, showing a healthy mix of ambition and of guts.
France are kicking a bit like France; otherwise the differential might be bigger. It’s blowing, at Murrayfield but our friend Eunice is long gone. Notable that Russell is having little influence; a kind of non-developing theme, in this championship?
Have Scotland suddenly tired? The French winger Penaud suddenly has acres to jog into, unopposed. One of the weirder ones – and surely dispiriting, for the team in white? Converted, so we now sit at 10-31, in (whatever the French is for) mullering territory. La Marseillaise; magnificently.
The game does that thing where it goes into Inevitably Scrappy Mode. Scotland have no choice but to look for tries, and battle courageously. France seek unanswerable superiority through multiple phases which the hosts, to their credit, deny them. It’s a clear away win and has been, arguably, since the fourth minute. The breakdown is contested manfully, to limit the damage but Penaud again finds a paddock available as Ntamack kicks serenely into space. 36-10.
Finally, something for the locals to cheer. Kinghorn runs… and runs… and offloads to the grateful VDM. Thrilling but almost irrelevant. A knock-on in midfield prompts the whistle. 17-36: away win, of the convincing variety. Warburton waxes lyrical about France, who come to Cardiff on 11th March to entertain us – and *I do mean* us. I’ll be there!
Les Bleus are earning the right to be talked about as world-leaders. That’s unknowable or un-provable, surely, as yet(?) but they look like a side that could go to-to-toe with the icons of the South. Meantimes, they must be targeting a Grand Slam, to cap off an exhilarating championship. It’s what they deserve… and I strongly suspect most neutrals would welcome that eventuality.
England versus Wales.
Smith gets us going. Great hoist. England have it, just a few yards out but concede the penalty… before claiming one in return. Easy kick for the glamour boy – drilled home. Jones’ Posse looking bright and aggressive: the worst chant in world sport gets an early airing by way of erm, encouragement. A second penalty, again exactly where the fly-half would’ve wanted. 6-0; all a bit easy.
Sniff of an opportunity, for Wales. Tompkins pings a probing punt forward but nothing arises. Decent defending, from Daly. (A-and the Alliteration Overload Award of the week goes to)…
A sudden burst of pressure offers the visitors hope, via scrum then line-out, deep into the twenty-two. Longish advantage before Biggar opts for another throw in the corner. Lawes robs it!
Wales notably unhappy with the refereeing: not just their skipper ‘having words’. Cuthbert breaks but concedes a penalty on contact. But some encouragement for the red shirts, who are shading things, in this wee period. It remains 6-0, after 15, however.
Gorgeous step and no-look pass from Marcus Smith electrifies the midfield. Again, within seconds, Wales have offended but the England pivot narrowly fails to capitalise. (Kickable, nine out of ten). A mixed game, quality-wise, with limited phases. Randall looking confident, mind.
Ewels within an inch or six – hands under the ball. Prolonged break for a review of Williams’ sly mitt. The full-back is binned, eventually, and England are five metres out. Scrum. Rinse and repeat, messily, infuriatingly – consider re-setting the lawsingly.
Wales get the pen; Sinckler standing but getting no sympathy from the ref. Best part of ten minutes near the Welsh line but almost no rugby. Finally, Wales clear. Injuries and spillages. Basham rips brilliantly, Lawes gets one in the eye but still almost no rugby – or *only* rugby of that competitive-but-suffocating variety. Cowan-Dickie subbed, injured, on twenty-four minutes. Another scrum. No sense, in truth, that Wales are a man short.
The visitors surge, Cuthbert dismisses Nowell faaar too easily but another error follows. Scrum Wales, in a decent, central position. Ambition, from Biggar as he tests opposing wingers with a floaty, cross-field kick. Nothing results but the clock has ticked down. Slade’s neat step almost threatens but it’s a tectonic clattering from Curry that ultimately offers Smith the chance to increase that lead. Slotted nicely from thirty-five yards.
Now Liam Williams is back. He may be happy enough that the board confirms an increase of only three points in England’s favour. Given that conditions are perfect – really perfect – I’m wondering (after 35 mins) if this game is going to reveal the relative (that word again) mediocrity of both teams. (That harsh? Perhaps. But this is ordinary fayre).
Finally rugby breaks out. Phases; movement; threat. Smith is absolutely at the heart of it, bursting intelligently, drawing and popping, utterly justifying his place. He thrashes over a simple pen. England go in 12-0 up.
Ugly, ugly, strategic, deliberately sapping breakdown work, from England. Part of the Great Grind? Fair enough. It may be the way to win this.
OH GAWD!! Uber-clanger, from Wales gifts Dombrandt a try. The number eight has only to catch the shockingly fluffed line-out and his momentum will carry him through. He catches, he stretches and the lead goes to an inviolable 17-0, as Smith misses the kick from wide.
Wales do respond, with some sustained attacking – well, relatively, but inevitably the visitors cough up possession. Pivac will be angry, never mind disappointed.
As with Scotland, so with Wales: we get spirit. (Then we get the Royal Bloody Family).
The game feels gone but Williams throws a sharp one out to Adams… and the flyer finishes clinically, as he tends to. 17-5, 25 minutes remaining. Surely not? Wales have found some purpose. A further try is not unthinkable. And then who knows?
Line-out five metres out. Phases with some control. A TRY SEEMS LIKELY. Tompkins, deservedly, gets in. With Biggar being characteristically emphatic from the tee, Wales are flying and the margin is only 17-12. Youngs comes on for his record-breaking appearance. England need him to manage this.
A little territory, for the home side. Cuthbert breaks out but is isolated and expertly crunched by Nowell. Penalty. Smith – at the furthest extent of his range, you suspect – converts, for an eight point lead. (So important). Marginal, but that may have been against the grain of the match; certainly of the half.
Wales offend at the line-out after a clearance from Slade. Kickable. Smith again delivers calmly. Nine minutes remain. 23-12. Commentary team quite rightly making the distinction between the margin on the scoreboard (eleven points) and the ‘lack of (real) authority’ in England’s performance. Untimely pens and/or recurring pens have cost Wales.
Two minutes left and Wales looking to make some statement of defiance. Line-out routine. They have a penalty. England asleep as Hardy taps and goes. In! Jones will be angry and disappointed – particularly as Wales will have one more phase of possession. 23-19. Tension where there was none.
The visitors retain and auto-circulate, showing tremendous resolve – and skill under pressure. Williams does brilliantly to stay in touch… but Wales again contrive to concede possession. Game over? NO!! Lawes concedes a deliberate knock-on (and pundits all agree he should be yellowed). Ridicu-tension, now.
After a near-epic spell of edgy, competitive, necessarily expansive rugby, England get their hands on the ball. The roar of relief can be heard in Brighton. Were Wales ‘hard done by?’ In the sense that they were better and more threatening in the second half, yes. But they lacked both the top-level sharpness and discipline to hurt England enough. And England lacked authority. Some drama, belatedly but this was mixed fayre from two unremarkable sides.