North answers his critics but Wales unlock the key
There aren’t many players who can create something out of nothing, and the problem for Wales against Scotland two weeks’ ago is that every time they tried to bring George North into the game, the Scottish defence were on the attack.
It was a very different story early on against Ireland. Smart play from Scott Williams and Rhys Webb, with a beautiful wide pass to Leigh Halfpenny, meant that the Irish defensive line was back-pedalling by the time North got his hands on the ball. That allowed the towering wing to run onto the ball at speed, and charge through attempted tackles from Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.
North copped some unfair criticism against Scotland given it’s not his job to be the miracle man, even if he has performed such tricks in the past. It’s up to the likes of Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies to bring North into the game with space to run in, and when they do he can be devastating.
Half-backs wear the bruises of a punishing first half
First it was Jonathan Sexton going off for an Head Injury Assessment, then it was Conor Murray finishing the first half with one working arm, and finally Sexton heading to the sin-bin when he got caught killing the ball after a last-ditch tackle on Davies. The Irish half-backs may have proven their metal, but it came at a cost.
Sexton wore a nasty, but accidental, knee to the face that caused his left eye to swell, and he certainly looked like he’d been in a battle come the end of the match.
Ireland miss their chances to pull a Wales
The first three matches has seen plenty of talk about Wales, taking their chances and making wrong decisions. First half penalties went begging against Italy, the same happened against England along with a period of domination after the break, and the less said about the decision-making between Alun Wyn Jones and his kicker, Leigh Halfpenny, during the loss to Scotland, the better.
But this time Wales didn’t put a foot wrong. They took their chances clinically to score twice through George North, kicked for posts when it was the right options and corners to build pressure, and even when Dan Biggar saw a drop-goal hit the upright, it was the right call, just lacked execution.
Lions starting XV - Six Nations round three
Lions starting XV - Six Nations round three
1/15 15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
Miles clear of Mike Brown and Rob Kearney and looks a much better option for running the ball than Leigh Halfpenny right now. Hogg has been nothing short of brilliant going forwards, and despite not possessing the kicking option or the defensive nous of Halfpenny, he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet.
2/15 14. Liam Williams (Wales)
Ousts international teammate George North after the Northampton Saints wing proved anonymous against Scotland. Williams has scored a try in every round so far and is proving his weight in gold as a finisher, while he’s also accustomed to coming off his wing to find work.
3/15 13. Jonathan Davies (Wales)
He is still the safest option at outside centre, but the chasing pack are closing in after a strong weekend for 13s. Garry Ringsrose is improving with every week, while Huw Jones offers more with the ball in hand than Davies, whose powerful and direct running keep him in the side. Ben Te’o also showed what he can offer, though time is running out for him and Jonathan Joseph is likely to come back into the England side to face Scotland.
4/15 12. Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Henshaw gives you the understanding with Jonathan Sexton combined with a player who not only thrives on front-foot ball but also can cope with beating the gain line when on the back-foot – a very handy trait to have in the locker. He can also cover at outside centre, which on a Lions tour is a major boost.
5/15 11. Elliot Daly (England)
Deals with every challenge thrown at him and crossed the try line for the second match running to help trigger the fightback against Italy. Possesses a reliable, howitzer of a left foot, which is Halfpenny is out of the side will be a useful tool in New Zealand.
6/15 10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
Returned in style to force Owen Farrell out of the side and prove he will not give up the Lions 10 jersey easily. Injuries have dogged him this season, but it took him 40 minutes to show what he can offer as he got the Irish backline firing on all cylinders.
7/15 9. Conor Murray (Ireland)
Had Greig Laidlaw been available this week, Murray could still have forced his way back in to the side. A man-of-the-match display in Dublin – including the only try of the game – helped Ireland record back-to-back wins and his box-kicking remains the best in the business.
8/15 1. Mako Vunipola (England)
His impact from the bench was certainly noticeable as the English scrum finally got the better of the Italian pack, and with plenty of time for the loosehead to regain full fitness, there’s no reason why he won’t don the No 1 shirt on 24 June as long as he avoids any more setbacks.
9/15 2. Rory Best (Ireland)
He’s still ahead of Dylan Hartley, but Jamie George is breathing down his neck and it’s only down to Best’s strong performance against France – with a 100 per cent lineout record from 17 throws – and a solid defensive showing that keeps him in the side. With leaders elsewhere though, George might just find himself in favour come the end of the Six Nations.
10/15 3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
He re-established the gap between himself and Dan Cole with a very impressive outing in the loose for Ireland, and he is also a third of one of Europe’s strongest front-rows right now.
11/15 4. Joe Launchbury (England)
The England lock has to come into the side after yet another man-of-the-match performance against Italy. The Wasps skipper is giving Warren Gatland plenty to think about, having proven himself in the lineout and also with his desire to carry. But with Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray, Devin Toner and Courtney Lawes also knocking on the door, not to mention the injured George Kruis hoping to somehow prove his fitness, it’s an awfully difficult task to pick the second-row.
12/15 5. Jonny Gray (Scotland)
Gray shifts from four to five but remains the standout option in the Six Nations based on the last three rounds. Having started the championship as possible squad inclusion, he’s suddenly looking undroppable from the first XV.
13/15 6. Maro Itoje (England)
Itoje offers too much to the squad to leave out. He packs down in the second-row for England, leads the lineout by example with another two steals at the weekend, and is both a formidable tackler and carrier. He simply has to slot in somewhere, and he’s currently making the No 6 shirt his own.
14/15 7. Justin Tipuric (Wales)
Tipuric holds onto the shirt despite experiencing a difficult week given that there is not much competition around. Neither James Haskell nor John Hardie – now out for the rest of the Six Nations – were able to take their chance at the weekend, and while Sean O’Brien and Hamish Watson impressed, you’d still rather have a livewire like Tipuric in the side.
15/15 8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Billy Vunipola finally drops out of the side after hinting that a Six Nations return may be beyond him. In comes Ireland’s vice-captain Jamie Heaslip, and with Taulupe Faletau yet to find his best from the replacements’ bench, it’s Heaslip who has led the way with strong outings against Italy and France.
The same cannot be said of Ireland. Countless times they turned down kicked at goal to go for the corner. The first time, Alun Wyn Jones rose to snatch the lineout, and Luke Charteris would do the same upon his arrival in the second half. Other times, Ireland’s poor handling would let them down and Wales off the hook, and while the neglected kicks at goal wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the 13-point deficit, they would have changed the game and forced Wales to come from behind to win it. Once again, the Six Nations proves his key it is to make the right decision.
Friday night’s work in Cardiff – as long as the game fits the bill
The RFU sensibly rejected hosting any Six Nations matches on Friday night’s for the foreseeable future, given the chaos that leaving Twickenham can cause. But in Cardiff, something just feels right about Friday night rugby. The atmosphere created inside the Principality Stadium is suited to the night time as the fireworks and flamethrowers light up the dark sky above, while the cauldron that is created by the home fans really gets the hair standing up on the back of your neck.
The Six Nations organisers want more grounds to commit to Friday night matches, but unless a stadium can recreate the fiery atmosphere that’s created in Cardiff, then it simply won’t feel right.
Barnes on the money to take spotlight off referees.
The opening weekend of the Six Nations wasn’t a great one for referees in the middle, but in Cardiff Wayne Barnes got every big decision right. He was given criticism from those fans in green for not producing a yellow card when three Welsh penalties in quick succession stopped the Irish attack, but given it was very early in the game and none of them were blatant try-stoppers, it felt right to err on the side of caution.
When Ireland transgressed on their line, Sexton had to go to the sin-bin for killing the ball, and Barnes promptly produced the yellow card. But his finest decision was still in the locker, as when the Irish pack looked to be heading over the line for Rory Best to score and drag them back into the game – and most likely in front with a one-point deficit and conversion to come – Barnes spotted Robbie Henshaw charging into the maul in an offside position.
Ireland didn’t like it, but Barnes was spot on.Reuse content