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Six Nations title race blown wide open


England's Danny Care celebrates scoring his side's try during the Six Nations game at Twickenham

England's Danny Care celebrates scoring his side's try during the Six Nations game at Twickenham


England's Danny Care celebrates scoring his side's try during the Six Nations game at Twickenham

Mike Brown didn't score a try, which rather upset his run in the Six Nations. He'd waited 21 games for his first international try and then two came along, but not a third.

It didn't really matter because he still gave a virtuoso performance, a mixture of aggression in possession, precision in the air and clarity of vision when it came to giving the pass that released Danny Care for the try that won the game.

Also involved in this sweeping movement was Chris Robshaw, who had one of his less conspicuous days, but who slipped the ball to Brown. It was a combination of the Harlequins at their finest. Robshaw has changed his game beyond recognition: no longer the slightly hunched plougher of yards close to the forwards, but a genuine link in the more extended attacks England are trying to build.

Considering Rob Kearney had a fine match of his own at fullback for Ireland, it suggests this was quite a game. The championship does not always offer a showcase to adventurous fullbacks on both sides; it did here, and if neither 15 was quite Israel Dagg in full flow, they lit up Twickenham and offered the promise of greater adventure to come.

There are four countries boasting two wins from three encounters. To seize the initiative now – weather permitting – will depend on which team takes the best of their displays and dares to make it better through even more potent attacking play.

France, England, Ireland and Wales have all had chastening moments.

England's came in Paris, but they will be fortified by the knowledge that they should have won there. They revealed more composure here, defending their lead, than they managed in round one, when they suddenly allowed France to pass their way out of trouble at the death.

Here, they tackled with ferocity to the very end, and made a point of straying nowhere near the offside line or staying too long on the ball when off their feet.

Keeping the brain attuned to good habits is tough when the bones are aching and the lungs burning.

If there was a loss of composure in the England ranks it came after half-time. Having engaged in an almost carefree opening half that produced nothing more than a solitary penalty for Owen Farrell, the game suddenly opened up.

And it was Ireland who made the breakthrough, with a move that was pure Leinster. Jamie Heaslip fed Rob Kearney from a set-piece move and Ireland were in the lead for the first time, an advantage they consolidated when they began to reap rewards from the weapon that had proved so spectacularly successful against Wales – the driving maul from a lineout. England were in retreat at the lineout, under pressure at the scrum, and even Brown was left in that disconsolate, wrong-footed posture he adopts when he can only stand and stare as opponents go past him.

Going into the final quarter, England were trailing by seven points.

They rallied as defiantly as they had in Paris, combining patience with a visible tightening of their resolve. They bound tighter at the scrum, stood their ground at the lineout and waited for the moment to strike. Only one thing disturbed this reconstruction: the inability to convert a glaring overlap into points.

It was a recurring theme. Jonny May dropped the ball in the act of diving for the line in the first half, but he really should have been walking the ball in for a try. Time after time they had men spare on the right; time after time Farrell did not see them. There is a communication problem here, and it resurfaced in the second half, when, again, an overlap on Jack Nowell's side went begging.

Given that Farrell was a bit lucky not to be shown a card for a late challenge on Conor Murray, there are questions about how clearly he sees through the red mist that can envelop him.

Being done for a late challenge is no big deal, but failing to orchestrate finishes to clear chances is more serious. It happened twice.

Even so, England did not fall into the late trap of Paris. From the hapless finish, they at least earned a penalty and plugged away after that, the slow-burning build-up erupting when their Harlequins combined beautifully for Care's try.

They had the lead and now they had to defend it, a task they performed with total efficiency. Ireland were pinned in their own half. They tried to run their way upfield, but the midfield was wrapped up. Brian O'Driscoll left a little early, a slightly disconsolate figure. He needs to make one more appearance to be a world record-holder; he looks a tad mortal.

So, four countries sit on two victories. All have reason to be confident, England, Wales and Ireland perhaps more so than France. The French could still be in a good place; they could be imploding. It is safer to assume they will be shamed into being better next time – away against Scotland – but assuming anything with them is pure folly. They play Ireland in the final round, which could be madness on 60 legs.

That is to look too far ahead. Next, comes England v Wales. Spring is on its way – up there in the sky, down there on the drying ground, creeping into the heels of many players. This was a grand weekend in the Six Nations and it promises to be even better from now on.


Sunday Indo Sport