Six Nations 2015: Five things we learnt from the weekend

The tournament is finely balanced heading into the final weekend

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The Independent Online

OVERZEALOUS OFFICIATING CAN EVENTUALLY OPEN THINGS UP

Wayne Barnes dictated the first half of Saturday's match at the Millennium Stadium in true southern hemisphere style, favouring the attacking team and penalising any player that did not roll away from the ruck area instantly.

But it took both teams some time to adapt to the referee's interpretation. In the first half, both Wales and Ireland were penalised seven times, as Barnes disrupted the opening exchanges by refereeing the ruck in a ruthless fashion.

But Barnes' impatience eventually paid off and in the second half the defending team refused to slow the ball down at the breakdown and incur the wrath of the referee.

Sam-Warburton.jpg
Sam Warburton celebrates Wales' win over Ireland

Every player that found themselves on the wrong side of the ruck evacuated the area immediately. As a result, both sides generated quick, clean ball and used it to play some fast-paced, running rugby, in what turned into an enthralling spectacle.

After the interval, Ireland made countless carries and even managed to build 32 uninterrupted phases at one point, whereas Wales were more efficient with their unspoilt ball, scoring on the two occasions they ventured into the Irish 22.

THE RAMPANT IRISH CAN BE STOPPED

Ireland rolled into Cardiff looking to build on their emphatic win over England and claim a record-breaking 11th consecutive Test match triumph. 

In the previous meeting between the two teams, Wales were undone by an exceptional Irish kicking game, but this time the Welsh were wise to Ireland's kicks. Before the match, Wales assistant coach Rob Howley had said that his team were expecting a “kicking feast” and their anticipation had clearly fuelled some effective preparation.

Wales were in full control of all the air traffic from the off and after the Welsh back three confidently claimed Ireland's first three probing kicks, the visitors realised that they would not be able to just kick over the red wall, so they set about trying to force their way through.

Ireland were shut out in the first half and restricted to three penalties, but they spent the vast majority of the second period encamped in the Welsh 22, attacking with intent and ingenuity.

However, the Welsh defenders were as intense and unrelenting as the cheers from the Cardiff crowd that spurred them on and they refused to relinquish their lead. The home side were forced to make 140 more tackles than Ireland, but with Sam Warburton leading the defensive charge, Wales repelled wave after wave of the Irish onslaught.

BEN YOUNGS IS THE LINCHPIN OF ENGLAND'S ATTACK

Against Ireland, Youngs was operating behind an England pack that was second best at the breakdown and he was left to shovel the scraps. But against Scotland, he was supplied with front-foot ball by his forwards and he was able to scamper across the Twickenham turf, unchecked and often untouched.

The England scrum half always looked to raise the tempo, he harrowed the Scottish fringe defence, kept them on the back foot and prevented them from rushing up on the English backline.

George Ford is relishing Youngs' aggressive approach. The scrum half's snipes allow Ford to play extremely flat and propel England through the gaps that always appear in scrambling defences.

On Saturday, England's half backs carved through the Scottish defence after just 20 seconds and went on to engineer another 16 clean breaks.

ENGLAND LACK A CLINICAL EDGE

In the build up to Saturday's match, Stuart Lancaster insisted that his side were going try and ignore the outcome of Wales vS Ireland match and focus on their own game.

But if England had taken a few seconds out of their warm up to work out that Ireland's defeat meant that points difference would ultimately prove pivotal, they would have been less likely to waste so many glorious opportunities.

The only way the home side could have been more wasteful was if they had decided to throw cash confetti into the pyrotechnics that usher them out of the tunnel before kick-off.

With less than 30 seconds on the clock, England strolled through the Scottish defence and Luther Burrell opted to take the ball into contact instead of putting Anthony Watson or Ben Youngs over for an incredibly early score.

Jonathan Joseph wriggled over a few minutes later and it seemed that England were keen to convert their chances, but when Jack Nowell went careering through and squandered another opportunity by ignoring his support runners, it became clear that the hosts were more interested in creating them. 

After the break Tom Youngs, Tom Woods and James Haskell all failed to deliver fatal final passes as more chances went begging. England did enough to regain top spot but if they fail to register a sizeable score in Paris then they could lose a second successive Six Nations title on points difference. 

ITALY STRUGGLE IN SOGGY CONDITIONS

Italy were supposed to build on their fiery performance at Murrayfield by beating the faltering French, but those aspirations were doused by Sunday's downpour.

In a seriously sorry spectacle at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy were unable to acclimatise to the wet and windy conditions and they failed to score at home for the first time in the history of the Six Nations.

Both sides struggled to grasp the greasy ball and build some phases, in a game that was spoilt by 37 handling errors, but after Italy's third string fly half hit the bar with an early penalty attempt, the hosts never threatened the French line.

The Italians chose to kick many of their second-half penalties into the corner instead of going for the posts, but their most effective weapon, the rolling maul, was comfortably thwarted by the French forwards.

After watching the Italian defence dissolve in the wet weather, Wales will now be praying for rain in Rome next Saturday, as they need to pile on the points to stand any chance of claiming the title.

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