Phew! What a weekend!
Rugby in Cardiff on a Friday night was always going to mean an electric atmosphere at The Principality Stadium and, under a closed roof, the cauldron played host to one of the best games of this tournament, and Wales’ best performance since they beat England in the World Cup group stages in 2015.
A brace of tries from George North capped a sensational display from the winger, and epitomised this team’s emphatic response to weeks of criticism from supporters and the media, many of whom were becoming increasingly disgruntled by Rob Howley’s team selection policy. I must admit, I had my concerns over Wales fielding the same squad that capitulated in Edinburgh two weeks ago. However, on Friday they showed a clinical edge that has lacked in attack of late, and a galvanized defence, led by a monumental shift from Justin Tipuric, on the occasion of his 50th Wales cap. Tipuric and the equally superb Sam Warburton were able to effectively nullify the Irish back-row threat of CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, all of whom have been in majestic form this season.
Ireland could find no way through the Wales defence and were frustratingly restricted to three penalty kicks at goal from Johnny Sexton, who was sin-binned shortly before half-time for killing the ball on Ireland’s five metre line.
The visitors looked a lot more dangerous in the second half, securing possession and building pressure for longer periods, but Wales’ tackling was ferocious and relentless. A Taulupe Faletau charge-down of a clearance kick allowed replacement centre Jamie Roberts to pounce on the ball and barge his way under the posts to seal a deserved win. The celebrations from Roberts, the Wales coaches and the replacements bench said it all: Wales needed to win this game, and not with a whimper, but with style. There is lots to improve on, but finally every attack fizzed.
France await Wales next in Paris, with both teams aiming to finish in the top half of the Six Nations table after Les Blues put 40 points on Italy on Saturday. The Italians have had a woeful tournament, their last chance to record a win to come against Scotland in Edinburgh next weekend.
That will certainly be an interesting match to watch after England demolished the Scots 61-21 in Twickenham in the final match of Round 4, retaining their Championship crown in the process. What an incredible performance from England. Eddie Jones’ men finally played to the potential they showed in the autumn series: they cut loose, played at pace, passed with precision, ran angles and dummy runners, showed patience and variety and – as the score-line suggests – never took their foot off the gas. An early yellow card for Scotland hooker Fraser Brown saw the visitors immediately on the back foot. They conceded 13 points in ten minutes, and never recovered. Three converted tries were little consolation as England went for the jugular. Jonathan Joseph was absolutely sublime, scoring a great hat-trick of tries, picking irresistible running lines and demonstrating exquisite handling and mesmerizing footwork. I believe he may well have played his way into a Lions jersey.
Congratulations to England on winning the 2017 Six Nations. Next week in Dublin, they have an opportunity to win a Grand Slam and to set a new world record for the most consecutive test match victories (they currently stand on 18). Ireland will not lack motivation for that match, and will want to finish the tournament on a high after losing two of their first four games. It’s going to be an epic tussle, but England have grown into the tournament and are on stellar form, so I’m predicting a Grand Slam victory for the men in white.