England and Ireland won their matches on Saturday by stopping the opposition from playing a high-passing game. The atmosphere of Stade de France brought out the best from England; a performance reminiscent of the stranglehold used by them during the World Cup.
France continued with their high-risk passing game but, like Scotland, put pressure on themselves trying to play from inside their own half. These two teams jointly passed the ball 321 times, double the figure of their conservative opponents, who together made 158 passes. England and Ireland capitalised on their opponents' desire to force the game from deep and scored three tries from turnovers.
England reverted to their base virtues – physicality in defence and at the contact area and a powerful scrum that rewarded them with five penalties. The majority of these were down to a mammoth Andrew Sheridan scrummaging display. Although this improvement was enough to beat the French, the style of play will be insufficient to win a Championship that will most likely be decided on points differential.
Wales are gathering momentum, recording 10 tries in the competition so far. Five of these have come in the last quarter when they exploit the greater spaces afforded to them. Defence is playing a key role. England and Ireland were bombarded in the first quarter but held out and this laid the foundation for their success. Wales have conceded just two tries, although their toughest tests are to come.
The efficiency of defences means more scores are occurring from unstructured situations – 18 from 35 tries have resulted from turnovers, kick receipts and quickly taken tap penalties. Wales and France have been key beneficiaries with 12 of their 18 tries being scored in this way. Their back three players have provided the coup de grâce with 14 tries between them – Vincent Clerc (5), Shane Williams (4), Lee Byrne (3), Cedric Heymans (1) and Julien Malzieu (1).
While being able to prevent teams from playing, Ireland and England have failed to put points on the Azzurri. This might go against them, while France could put themselves in a strong position with a big win against Italy. Romantics will hope the likes of Shane Williams can keep dancing their way to opposition try lines to the tournament's end.
Alun Carter was head of match analysis for Wales from 1998 to 2007 and technical assistant to Graham Henry on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. He played back row for Pontypool, Newport and Wales.Reuse content