Saturday, February 23, 2008

England Turn Over France

Six Nations Game 9 - France vs England (13-24)

England got the perfect start, despite France running the ball. In the first five minutes, Jamie Noon put a huge hit on Cédric Heymans who spilled the ball. Paul Sackey [right] was on hand to chase the loose ball, chip ahead and fall on the ball over the line. Jonny Wilkinson added the extras to take a 0-7 lead.

The French then gave away silly penalties, and Jonny kicked another three points for 0-10 after 15 minutes. Damien Traille had the opportunity to claw back 3 after an England infringement but he pulled it wide.

James Haskell had to retire with an ankle injury, on came Tom Croft for his first cap. England's lineout was looking a bit shakey with overthrows, some of which were tidied up by white shirts, some blue.

At 25 minutes, Sackey was pinged for going in from the side of a ruck, Damien Traille's [left] boot downfield was huge, France's lineout was solid and the team worked a good pushover try to the right of the posts. Traille's conversion was on song this time, pulling back to 7-10.

The French were caught offside close to the half hour; Jonny attempted a penalty from way out wide and it sailed plumb through the middle, making it 13-7. Just after the half hour, England won a lineout close to the French line. A ruck was set up, England had to inch their way up the pitch. But then France got a penalty, white hands not releasing the ball.

Ian Balshaw missed a huge kick from the French, Paul Sackey covering the mistake. Brian Moore's classic comment on the TV commentary: "he was so far away from it, he might as well have been in Croydon"! Quite.

On 35 minutes, England gave away another penalty in their own half; Traille's kick rebounded off the woodwork to give England a 22m dropout. With minutes to go before half time, England were back in the French half. Several phases of play took them across field and up to the 22, but Tom Croft knocked on. The scrum was a bit of a mess, but then the whistle went for half time.

A great first half, all the English supporters were praying that the second half collapse wasn't going to happen again this week. There was more exciting action from both sides, but no scores until Mark Regan [left] gave away a silly penalty: France's 19-year old Scrum Half Parra took the kick and it went straight over. Regan was immediately subbed by Lee Mears.

France were back in the game at 10-13, and looked to be playing the best rugby. Please not another England collapse...

At least Mearsey's first lineout was a goodun. Then France were penalised at an England scrum. Wilkinson's long-range attempt was pulled wide. He got another chance in the 58th minute, it was on target but too short.

England put a nice passage of play together, which hopefully steadied the nerves. Then they had a decent bit of field position and a lineout, the ball going to Jonny for a drop goal, making the score 10-16. Still a nervous time, with 16 minutes to go. The England scrum was demolishing their French counterparts. They won yet another penalty from it on the half way line. Wilko finally got the line and the length - and England pulled 9 points ahead, 10-19.

England gained possession at the restart, the English fans were Swinging Low and the French fans were relatively quiet. Then with 10 minutes to go, Sheridan was subbed for Matt Stevens. As the clock ticked on, I for one, was feeling rather nervous, hoping the boys could hang on to their lead for the last few minutes.

The 9 point lead was eroded to 6 when France won a penalty near the England 22. Dmitri Yachvili booted it over, 13-19 with 6 minutes to go. The restart was secured by France, but England kept defending and inching them towards the French line. Then the French knocked on giving England a 5m scrum. Les Bleus' scrum was still creaking.

England did the pick and drive, running down the clock, the war of attrition between white and blue. The forwards kept going, phase by phase. Hookers, props, second row, flankers all involved. Left, right, tick, tick, Richard Wigglesworth [right] wriggled over! I screamed. I hope the neighbours didn't mind. Jonny's kick finally sailed wide, but it didn't matter. 13-24, France turned over in their back yard by England again. Phew.

England's second half wobbled slightly during the first 20 minutes, but they settled and took the French apart. Wigglesworth had a cracking debut, looking sharp in all areas of his game. The English defence held firm. And thank God they kept up some decent play for the whole 80 minutes.

Croke Park Cracker

Six Nations Game 8 - Ireland vs Scotland (34-13)

The first few minutes presented Scotland with a penalty chance, but Chris Paterson opted not to take the 3 points, insted going for a bigger pirze. Unfortunately, Ireland weren't letting the Scots through their defence and the chance for any points went begging.

The first 20 minutes saw Scotland showing plenty of endeavour, but no points on the board. But with so little territory, Ireland made the most of their time on Scottish soil, and David Wallace broke from the back o f a close-range scrum, then snuck over the line right under the posts. Ronan O'Gara added the conversion and Ireland took a 7-0 lead.

In the 24th minute, Scotland got themselves on the board when Paterson kicked a long penalty, trailing by 4 points 7-3. But minutes later, Ireland cut through the Scots when Ronan O'Gara picked up from a ruck, passed to Brian O'Driscoll [right] who floated a long pass out to Rob Kearney on the wing, who scored his first try for Ireland. O'Gara had no problem with the conversion, and Ireland pulled away at 14-3. Paterson kicked another penalty to nibble back three points, 14-6.

Scotland pressured the Irish line with five minutes to go - they got to the line but were held up: the resulting scrum saw Ireland give a huge shove, and the Scots had to marshall themselves again from the 10m line. They got themselves up to the corner flag again. Initially, Scotland won a penalty, but Nathan Hines swung an arm at an Irish head, and the penalty was reversed.

The Irish got the perfect start to the second half, winning the restart kick and O'Gara punted the ball into the corner to find Marcus Horan - a prop - waiting on the wing to roll over. With the conversion clean, they pulled away to 19-6. They made it 22-6 in the 49th minute with another penalty from O'Gara. Ireland were looking comfortable.

Complacency is a gangerous thing - Simon Webster [left] took a flat pass from Paterson and ran in for a try, with Paterson adding the extras - Scotland were back in the game at 22-13.

Scotland went on the attack in the 61st minute, but the Irish intercepted, O'Gara did a wonderful reverse flick pass and it went through hands to Tommy Bowe [right] on the wing, who just had the reach to stretch over for a try as he was tackled. Again, O'Gara added the extras and Ireland stretched their lead to 29-13.

The Irish bench got some exercise with a raft of subsitutions. Then with five minutes to go, Scots substitute Jim Hamilton was stretchered off with a splint on his leg. Not confirmed, but it definitely looked like a break. It will be a big blow for Scotland in forthcoming matches if he's out for any length of time. Euan Murray also limped off, and Ross Ford had to come back on as a prop, so the next scrums were played uncontested.

The dying minutes seemed all blown out, but Tommy Bowe jinked over for a second try after the Scots fumbled a pass, the ball picked up by Andrew Trimble and then passed to Shane Horgan and out to the winger. The final score ended up 34-13 and Ireland looked very much more in control than they have over their last two games.

Welsh Rout Italians

Six Nations Game 7 - Wales vs Italy (47-2)

The Italians have been slow to start their last two games, and they intended to try better this time round. But they gave away two silly penatlies in the first few minutes, to take Wales into a 6-0 lead.

In the 12th minute, Wales stuffed up their own lineout deep in their own half; Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni caught the overthrow and dived for the line for a try. Unfortunately, Andrea Marcato's conversion hit the woodwork. But all of a sudden, Italy were only trailing by one point. They spilled another try-scoring performance around 20 minutes, when Ezio Galon passed to Gonzalo Canale, who knocked on within inches of the line. Kiwi Coach Nick Mallett was literally hopping mad in the stands!

In the 28th minute, Wales hit back with a lovely team-engineered try from Lee Byrne [left], who dived over in the corner. Stephen Jones' conversion was good, giving the Welsh a 13-5 lead.

Plenty more endeavour, but no more scores until just before the final whistle for half time. Italy's forwards were pushing hard against the Welsh defence; they had the line in site with pick and drive moves, Wales infringed and Marcato's kick for 3 points was clean, even from a tight angle. So the Azzurri would be happy to go in 13-8 down at the break.

Wales struck a killer blow two minutes in to the second half, when Andrea Masi threw a terrible pass which was intercepted by Tom Shanklin [right], who ran in under the posts from half way. Jones' conversion was simple. And Shanklin will be celebrating his 50th Cap with a great try, taking his team to a 20-8 lead.

Within another minute, Dwayne Peel went off with blurred vision after an earlier knock, Mike Philips came on for him, and made a blistering break up the wing. He passed out of a tackle but the receiver couldn't quite finish it off. The Welsh won a lineout close to the Italian line, and the Azzurri infringed, so Jones took another three points, 23-8.

Mirco Bergamasco was sin-binned for killing the ball, so spent 10 minutes of his birthday in disgrace. Stephen Jones kicked another penalty to make the score 26-8.

Wales managed to gather another of their own overthrown lineouts, and it passed through hands until the last man on the wing was Shane Williams [left] - who scored a lovely try in the corner, his 38th in the red jersey. Stephen Jones made it 7 out of 7 kicks, Wales romping away at 33-8.

The rout continued in the 67th minute when Lee Byrne scythed through the Italian defensive line and ran in from the half way line. Tired Italian legs could do nothing to stop him. James Hook, on for Stephen Jones, took the extras and Wales were up for a 40-8 lead.

Turning the screws further, Shane Williams cut through the Azzurri's defence, swerved past several tackles and made a blistering run to finish off his second try. Hook made it 47-8, the final score, and another win under Welsh belts. They march on next week to a possible Triple Crown if they can beat Ireland.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

England Scrape Past Italy

Six Nations Game 6 - Italy vs England (19-23)

England fans can be forgiven for thinking there was a certain amount of déjà vu this weekend. For the second game running, the Red Rose boys looked promising, even impressive in the first 40 minutes, but seemed to go to pieces in the second half. Thankfully this time the result was different.

Jonny Wilkinson [right] initially appeared to be on song when he made a lovely chip ahead, caught a kind bounce and flipped a pass out of the back of his hand to Paul Sackey, who ran in for a score in the first couple of minutes. Wilkinson added the extras in England were ahead 0-7. Italy replied after five minutes with a penatly struck by David Bortolussi, and another at 12 minutes, pulling the hosts back to 6-7.

Around the quarter hour, Jamie Noon charged down a Bortolussi kick, passed to Wilkinson who offloaded to Toby Flood, who took a flamboyant dive in the corner. The all-newcastle midfield were firing well together. Jonny's conversion took him to 1,000 points in an England shirt and England to a 6-14 lead.

England managed another two penalties before the break, both from the boot of Wilkinson, giving them a 14-point cushion at 6-20. But as with last week, England lost the plot in the second half. Whatever Brian Ashton had said to them in the dressing room at half time, I wish he hadn't bothered!

Italy managed the lion's share of possession and territory in the second half, and two more pentalties for the Azzurri kept them in touch with England, 12-20. Then Ashton decided to bring on some replacements, and the team seemed to loose even more cohesion.

Richard Wigglesworth [left] was given his first cap at Scrum Half. And Danny Cipriani came on, only to have a clearance kick charged down by Simon Picone who then flew half way up the pitch to score under the posts - more or less uncontested by England's defence. Bortolussi added the extra two points, pulling Italy back to 19-23.

So England's fans were left with a couple of nervous minutes before the whistle blew, and Italy were still pushing and praying for a last-minute miracle. It was their best result against England in the 14 tests the two countries have played.

An England this sloppy will be put to the sword by France next time round, especially as the game is in Paris. They really must learn to play like they did in the first half - for the whole 80 minutes - or they will be heading for another pasting.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Late Irish Revival Can't Stop France

Six Nations Game 5 - France vs Ireland (26-21)

Ireland started brightly with quick ruck ball, camping in the French 22 for 2-3 minutes. But then just when they were expecting France to kick, Aurelian Rougerie steamed up the middle, the ruck formed and France had a chance of a penalty - which Elissalde pushed wide.

Bernard Jackman's first lineout was a disaster, going to French hands. Les Bleus worked the ball across the field one way, then the other, and if it wasn't for a forward pass, they would have scored.

Around 10 minutes, Ireland were looking for points in the French 22 after a lineout, with several phases well put together. Rucks, passes, pick and drive, until Eoin Reddan threw it wide, then back into midfield. Things only stopped when Ireland knocked on close to the line.

It was still tight until France turned over Irish ball, which was hacked ahead and Vincent Clerc [right] flew up the wing in his golden boots, gathered safely and slid over for a lovely try. David Skrela converted and the home side were 7-0 up.

Shortly after, France were caught infringing and Ronan O'Gara stepped up for three points, overtaking Neil Jenkins' Six Nations all-time points score, (with only Jonny Wilkinson still in front). That put Ireland on 7-3.

Then after the restart, Ireland were caught napping and Clerc did it again with another blistering run - this time Skrela missed the conversion but French tails were up, 12-3. In the 23rd minute, Ireland had an opportunity when they got an attacking lineout 5m out, but Lionel Nallet's challenge was excellent.

Just before the half hour, O'Gara punted over a penatly to bring them up to 12-6. But Clerc struck for a hat-trick, scored with a jubilant dive, just before half time and Ireland were left wondering what to do - I'd hate to think what Eddie O'Sullivan would have said at the break, going into the dressing room 19-6 down.

There was plenty of action but few points as the second half began. Then in the 49th minute, France had a scrum on the half way, the No. 8 broke away and it was kicked, partially charged down, and Cédric Heymans [left], another boy in golden boots, ran in for a try under the posts with the Irish defence in shreds. The conversion brought the score up to 26-6. The French fans were in good voice, with the Marseillaise ringing out around the stadium.

At 52 minutes, Ireland got another penalty and kicked to the corner. Their previous lineouts hadn't been doing well, with Jackman's throws more often than not arriving in French hands. This time they got possession and managed to work themselves up to within a couple of metres of the line, then recycled and drove again, crawling towards the line over several phases. Then the Irish won a Scrum V. It was reset a couple of times as the French went down once the drive was on. And a second time. Third time, the Irish front row scrummaged the French off the park and Ref Nigel Owens had no choice but to award a penalty try. O'Gara's conversion was easy, and the score was back at 26-13 with 22 minutes to go.

The Irish pack made a big drive after the catching restart. Then they spun it wide, chipped ahead but it was collected by Heymans instead of an Irish hand. Then Simon Best came on for Jackman after an injury, the Irish lineout was solid and the forwards drove on. David Wallace [right] was the man at the bottom of the heap and the TMO agreed the ball was grounded. But the conversion was missed, so the scores stood at 26-18. Suddenly, the Irish were playing to their strengths (forwards) rather than running.

In the 65th minute, Clerc went into touch as he caught a bouncer, and the Irish lineout was good again. Then the Irish pack had another opportunity and drove up, and passed out to the backs - but the pass to the wing was too long and it went into touch.

The Irish comeback continued point by point, when Ronan O'Gara punted another pentalty in the 75th minute, clawing it back to 26-21. Then crucially, Ireland won a penalty on the half way, and kicked for the corner. The lineout was taken and the Irish backs broke the French defensive line. They recycled again and made more ground. The forwards took it up from the 22, mauling and rucking for their lives. 7m short, it was flung wide, collected by a French hand and it went into touch - whistle blew.

So an incredible turnaround from the Irish in the second half, and they can be proud of themselves for that. France looked extremely dangerous, especially in the first half. Ironically, Vincent Clerc (Man of the Match with a hat-trick) was dropped from the French 22 earlier in the week, and only came back in after an injury to Julien Malzieu!

Wales March On

Six Nations Game 4 - Wales vs Scotland (30-15)

The game started with a furious first ten minutes, plenty of action but no points, until 12 mins when Wales caught with penalty and Dan Parks made it 0-3. A wayward Scottish kick 2 mins later landed in the large paws of Mike Philips, who made a great break, passed out to the wing for Shane Williams [left] to make a lovely sidestep and score. James Hook converted, Wales were ahead 7-3.

Nathan Hines was binned for a flail at Lee Byrne and the Scots lost one of their talismans for 10 minutes. Wales botched a scrum 5m out form the Scottlish line, Mike Blair disrupting to get the next feed. The Scots survived with 14 men without shipping any points, but their lineout was looking shakey with throws not straight.

Wales squandered another chance on 26 minutes, with Gavin Henson passing to Tom Shanklin, then Shane Williams, but Shanklin's pass was forward with the line backoning.

After Hines came back on, the Scots almost immediately gave away a penalty, Hook took the shot straight through for 10-3 lead. But just after the half hour, Chris Paterson punted over a penatly for himself, to claw back 3 points, 10-6, which is where they went in at half time.

As the second half began, Scotland started well, with Ally Hogg making a blistering run up the middle from lineout ball. John Barclay went to ground and Wales were penalised at the ruck, so Paterson punted another; 100% record, clawing back another three points, 10-9.

Then the Welsh woke up, got within 5 metres of the line via Jamie Roberts, and the recycled ball came back to James Hook who sidestepped two Scottish forwards and dived over for a score. He converted his own try to make it 17-9. The Welsh looked dangerous again, but were caught killing the ball during a Scottish attack; Paterson did the honours to bring them in touch at 17-12.

Then Martyn Williams broke up midfield and the Welsh were on the attack, but his pass to Mike Philips [right] was intercepted by a blue shirt and Scotland were out of danger for the moment. Ian Gough was pinged for shoulder charging in a tackle, so the metronomic boot of Paterson kicked again and they were back into the game at 17-15.

Despite playing well, Hook was subbed at 57 minutes by Stephen Jones, who's first touch of the ball was a forward pass! In the 64th minute, Wales were pushing the Scots line again, they got within 5 metres and Scotland gave away a penalty, so Jones redeemed himself a little with another 3 points straight in front of the posts, to pull ahead to 20-15.

The Welsh voices were on song again a few minutes later when Shane Williams blistered up the wing and just dabbed the ball down before hitting the corner flag - the video ref didn't take long to decide, but the commentators weren't 100% convinced as the slo-mo replay appeared to show his foot grazing the line before he touched down. Jones converted and Scotland were trailing by 12 points, 27-15.

With only nine minutes left, Wales went further ahead from Jones' boot, and they were up to 30-15. But with 2 minutes on the clock, Scotland won a scrum on the Welsh 22, and the forwards inched towards the line. A red line of defence held firm. As the seconds ticked down, the blue shirts were within a metre and the kept pushing, then Wales turned the ball over. The final few seconds gone, the clock went red and the whistle blew.

This week, the Welsh looked more convincing than last time round, Scotland less so. Progress for the boys in red, but Hadden's men must be wondering what they can do to improve. I suggest throwing some straight lineouts for a start!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

French Renaissance

Six Nations Game 3 - Scotland vs France (6-27)

For the first time in years, the Scots started as favourites against France. They have a settled team whilst France have new faces in their team and a new coach - Marc Lievremont - after "Mad" Bernie Laporte's retirement from the job.

Scotland were the first to put points on the board with Dan Parks landing a good long-range drop goal in the 4th minute. France retaliated in the 13th minute when Vincent Clerc's try was deemed good, despite the possibility of a forward pass, prior to, and maybe a double movement to score. Andrew Henderson [left] was then lucky to stay on the park after a headbutt to a French player in the in-goal area. The conversion was good and Scotland were on the back foot at 3-7. They were punished again a few minutes later when Damien Traille punted a massive penalty to go 3-10 up.

Parks had a chance to pull a few back in the 22nd minute, but missed the posts. France took a quick tap and go a minute later, and Julien Malzieu [right] noticed no-one was at home at fullback, his lovely chip and chase and a kind bounce taking him over the touchline and under the posts. Scotland were struggling at 3-17.

The Scottish scrum was working well to begin with, even pushing the French off their own ball. Dan Parks was able to make amends for his previous penalty miss with a great kick at goal on the half hour, to claw 3 points back. Elissalde missed two chance of his own at goal a few minutes later.

There was plenty of errors, breaks and running from both sides in the second half, but it wasn't until the 50th minute that Scotland won a penalty - Dan Park's kick to touch failed to go out and France got the ball again. Damian Traille's [right] next kick for goal was accurate and France pulled further ahead 6-20 in the 55th minute.

Parks was substituted by Chris Paterson for the last 20 minutes, in the hope that he would be able to give Scotland a bit more shape. The Scots also lost Rory Lamont to injury around the same time, which can't have done their cause any good.

The French looked much more convincing that the Scots in the second half. Vincent Clerc [left] scored a second try after a kick ahead which he caught himself. David Skrela's conversion really nailed the game to take the visitors to a 6-27 lead. Clerc fully deserved his Man of the Match award.

Chris Paterson made a great hack ahead in the 69th minute and was caught inches from the line. Second phase was promising, but Chris Cusiter botched it, losing the ball as he tried to touch down. It seemd to typify of Scotland's whole game this time round.

The French looked like they would run the ball from anywhere on the pitch and even without some of their older heads, they look like a formiddable proposition for this year. M. Lievremont must be pleased with the result.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A (Sorry) Tale of Two Halves

Six Nations Game 2 - England vs Wales (19-26)

The long-anticipated Six Nations didn't begin as Englands' supporters would have wanted. There was early promise in the first half, and I was pleasantly surprised with the way England were playing - with some width and adventure.

The two teams traded early penalties, and then England camped in the Welsh half for a few minutes. David Strettle looked sharp and made a great break before being carted off the field injured after 13 minutes, to be replaced by Lesley Vainikolo [right], aka The Volcano. Jonny Wilkinson kicked England ahead once more to make it 6-3. Lewis Moody was another casualty and hobbled off as Tom Rees came on.

Just after the half hour, England were again in the Welsh 22, having turned over ball for the 4th time, but the try wasn't on, so Jonny popped a drop goal to bring the lead to 9-6.

One England player who did impress me, despite the team's loss, was new cap Luke Narraway [left]. He picked up scraps, caught high balls, charged with the ball up his jumper, took a lovely intercept of a Welsh pass, and generally made a nuisance of himself as far as the Welsh were concerned. Scrum Half Andy Gomarsall also had a pretty good game, his distribution was quick, and he made some good breaks especially in the first half.

Wales squandered a scoring opportunity around 20 minutes when a wayward pass went into touch. James Hook's kicking wasn't great at times, going out on the full instead of just inside the touchline. At 22 minutes, The Volcano took a great crossfield kick, challenging Mark Jones in the air, and sent a lovely pass off the floor to Toby Flood to go over the whitewash. Jonny added the conversion, and England's lead stretched to 16-3.

There was plenty of endeavor for the rest of the half, particularly from England. Hook popped over another penalty for Wales, Wilkinson missed one for England. Paul Sackey nearly made it another 5 for England 3 minutes before half time, but the TMO judged it to have been held up by Wales, so they went in 16-6 at the break.

[Lesley Vainikolo tackled by Wales' Alix Popham and Duncan Jones]
Even at the start of the second half, depsite a raft of injuries, England looked OK, and Wales were pinged for taking out lifters in a lineout - Jonny punted the extra 3 points. But unfortunately, they were the last points the Red Rose boys managed. In the last 20-odd minutes, the wheels really came off the Sweet Chariot, Wales woke up and the game changed beyond all recognition.

The first nail in the English coffin was a penalty for Wales, bringing the score to 19-9. And another on 63 minutes, 19-12. A third nail when Mike Tindall was carried off on a stretcher, replaced by Danny Cipriani. England kicked too many balls away when they looked pretty good running with it in the first half. Jonny Wilkinson threw a terribly wayward pass, Paul Sackey tried to clear it up, but English hands knocked on in the subsequent ruck and Wales had a scrum deep in English territory. Wales put together a great passage of play switching from side to side, going through loads of phases, and Lee Byrne was the lucky recipient at the end. Hook's conversion was sweet, and all of a sudden the scores were level at 19-all. The Welsh fans found their voice at Twickenham and Swing Low died away. 12 minutes to go. Worse was to come for English fans.

[Steve Borthwick stretches for a lineout catch]

Iain Balshaw's clearance kick was charged down by Mike Philips, it changed hands a couple of times and Philips finished it off in the corner - after an agonising replay for the TMO. Hook struck a fantastic conversion under pressure and the Welsh were leading 19-26.

The next 8½ minutes were fast and furious as the clock ticked away. England looked disorganised and wayward. Wales kept up the pressure and it was a wonder they didn't score again since they spent much of that time in England territory.

Unfortunately, Balshaw's [left] pre-match detractors were proven right - particularly in the second half, when he made a couple of costly blunders and looked decidedly shakey. It was his delayed clearance kick which ultimately cost England the game, and after Wales had scored that try, the whole England team looked demoralised and lacklustre. I'd be highly surprised if he's on the team sheet at 15 next week.

It was an extraordinary turnaround for both teams, England having looked so dominant in the first half, and Wales in the second. The Welsh deserved their win, the first at Twickenham for 20 years. And England will have to pull up their collective socks next week if further disaster is to be averted. As Italy proved earlier against Ireland, they will be far from pushovers, especially at home in the Stadio Flaminio. What can Ashton do now to inspire his team?

You can see more of my match photos here.

Shakey Ireland See Off Italy

Six Nations Game 1 - Ireland vs Italy (16-11)

After their disappointing performance in the World Cup last autumn, Ireland were out to prove they can play decent rugby. The game took a while to get going, but around ten minutes, Ireland managed to put together a few phases and attack the Italian line, but the Azzurri turned the ball over to save a try. Ireland managed a penalty a few minutes later, taken by Ronan O'Gara [left]. Then Ireland threw away another scoring opportunity when Geordan Murphy put a poor pass over to Girvan Dempsey, and Italy gathered.

Ireland got a scrum, and the ball was passed across several hands when it reached O'Gara, who punted a great cross-field kick to Andrew Trimble, who then passed to fullback Girvan Dempsey to finish it off. O'Gara took the extras, taking him to 400 points in the Championship.

Eoin Reddan [right] was making his first Six Nations start, and looked pretty sharp, providing quick ball to O'Gara and sniping at the scrum. Peter Stringer has made the green No.9 jersey his own for many a year, so Reddan definitely has a tough job to break into the team permanently. Similarly, Italy's permanent fixture at Hooker, Alessandro Troncon, has now retired, and the Azzurri were giving Leonardo Ghiraldini his second cap.

Italy's lineout was working well, compared to the Irish; Rory Best didn't have his best day at the office. Towards the break, Santiago Dellape was sent to the bin for punching, but the remaining 14 Italians threw everything at the Irish defence. Their reward was a penalty, and they went in at half time 10-3.

Straight after half time, Reddan made a lovely break and it looked like a try was inevitable, but Ireland knocked on with the line beckoning. Later, Simon Easterby [left] spent ten minutes in the sinbin for playing the ball off his feet. Italy gained a penalty opportunity, but the kick went wide.

Around 55 minutes, Italy were pinged and O'Gara potted another 3 points easily. When Easterby came back on, Italy made a good break up the field and on the stroke of 60 minutes, they rolled a maul over the line. The video ref took an age to decide, but the score was good. Captain Sergio Parisse was the man closest to the ground. But David Bortolussi missed the conversion, and the score moved on to 13-8.

Italy were caught with hands in the ruck in the 65th minute, which was a gift of another 3 points for Ronan O'Gara. And 3 minutes later, Ireland gave away a penalty themselves, which Bortolussi slotted over.

Both teams kept fighting for the last ten minutes, but the final score stood at 16-11. Italy certainly didn't discrace themselves this time round - their lineout was solid - they only lost one all afternoon, certainly better than the Irish lineout which looked shakey at times. O'Gara missed a late penalty which was quite unusual from him - it wasn't a particularly difficult shot.

As usual, the Italian forwards were very physical, and there were plenty of big hits put in. Ronan O'Gara bossed the Irish team reasonably well, but they looked a bit shakey - less than convincing. The bright spark for them was Eoin Reddan, who proved himself to be a great option at 9 - he made some lovely runs at the breakdown and distributed well. I'm sure he'll be seen in a green shirt again very soon, and fully deserved his Man of the Match award.

[Eoin Reddan, Ireland's Man of the Match in action for Wasps last season]