The penultimate Saturday of the Six Nations is usually an exciting affair as teams make their last gasp attempts to push themselves up the table before it’s too late and Grand Slam dreams are dashed or fueled. This week, with only two of the three matches played, it’s already been a HUM-DINGER.
I’m not going to lie to you, this humble manpiler tuned into Italy v France this afternoon expecting France to walk away with the Garibaldi cup with nary a bat of an eyelid but what actually happened was a lot more like this:
It wasn’t pretty (well not play-wise..), but the Azzuri finally broke through and did what we all thought was impossible, they beat their nearest neighbours, neighbours who still hold the Six Nations Trophy. After 50 minutes of play that could only be described as ‘scrappy’ from both sides, with an early and clinical try from Vincent Clerc and two failed kicks from Mirco Bergamasco that left nobody in any doubt that France could have Italy for breakfast, something amazing happened.
Quite apart from Mirco Bergamasco’s boot chipping away at les bleus lead, Andrea Masi went over the whitewash for an amazing try that ate into France’s 18-6 lead and left everyone but the Azzuri doubting themselves. Italy became ferocious, defending like their lives depended on it and forcing errors all over the shop until, with a heart stopping three minutes left on the clock, Mirco’s boot once again found its way to another three points which took them ahead of France in Rome for the first time in the Six Nations.
What followed was the most tense and breathtaking three minutes of the tournament so far, with everyone who wasn’t French desperately willing Italy to close it down. A few failed scrums later and the whistle sealed France’s fate, etching Italy’s name onto the Garibaldi prize and making sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
It’s been a long wait for Italy to get this but the way they played today and against Ireland at the beginning of the tournament suggests it won’t be long till wins like this are no longer such a shock.
Manpilez Man of the Match: Mirco Bergamasco, for rising to such intense pressure
Meanwhile, in Cardiff, Wales v Ireland was also going off big time. The most evenly matched game of the weekend started off a little bit… meh, if we’re honest. Despite a lightening opening salvo with an injury and a try within the first five minutes, the first half saw neither side capitalising on their opportunities and in the case of Wales, kicking away possession with alarming regularity.
Ireland’s indicipline was also a big feature of the first half, which though not penalised as much as they probably should have been, was responsible for all of Wales’ points in the first half.
The second half however, opened a can of worms the size of the Millennium Stadium’s over-discussed roof. After a kick to touch, a mix up around a quickly taken throw-in lead to Mike Phillips’ resulting try being questioned far and wide and was the kind of wrong-balls-up that people are not going to forget in a hurry to the point where Rule 19.2(b) was nearly crowned Man of the match. The initial kick to touch landed in the crowd, the ball boy handed Matthew Rees the ball, which he quickly fed to Phillips who made a run for the line. The second the Irish boys stopped chasing him they, realised what had happened: to take a thrown in quickly the ball must a) be the same ball that went out and b)must not have been touched by anyone but whoever sent it into touch. As the ball was caught by a spectator and the ball boy had changed the ball neither was the case and a full line out would have been needed. Neither the touch ref or the ref picked up on this and so the try stood, legal or no the ref’s decision was final.
Whether this would have ultimately prevented a try from Phillips when he was clearly on a mission to have his 50th cap a try-scoring one we will never know, but we do know that Wales’ eventual victory by 6 of the resulting 7 points means that the Irish are not going to forget it in a hurry.
The rest of the game was understandably fierce as Ireland tried to answer those points but Wales’ return to the blitz defence, predictable or not, put paid to all attempts and as the clock went red and Wales turned over an Irish ball heading dangerously close to the tryline, it was left to Shane Williams only to hoof the ball out of the park to close out at 19-13 and end Wales’ home victory drought while we all allowed ourselves to breathe again.
Manpilez Man of the Match: we’re going to agree with the beeb here and go for James Hook, who other than hitting the woodwork early on, is proving his mettle at 10 in fine style.
Both games are the kind that will keep us talking for weeks to come, which pleased BBC viewers as it actually shut John Inverdale up about England for a full five minutes.
Tomorrow will see England and Scotland battle it out for the Calcutta cup and we can only hope for the same level of drama…
Words by Lauren