Wales moved one step closer to their first Grand Slam crown since 2008 with a 24-3 win against Italy at a packed Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Warren Gatland’s side overcame a rugged Italian outfit meaning victory over France next week will seal a third Welsh clean sweep in seven years. Their future looks bright, with Gatland expected to field at least six players aged 23 or under against Les Bleus next week, while George North, 19, became the youngest player to win 20 caps for Wales. England’s win at the Stade de France means Stuart Lancaster’s side have an outside chance of winning the championship, but if Wales can avoid a heavy defeat, the title is theirs, and there will certainly be more to come from this promising squad.
England’s superb 24-22 victory over France was by far the best display of Lancaster’s short reign and his players were bold, creative and clinical. But what gave this performance a refreshing edge was the emergence of the forwards as an attacking force. Ben Morgan provided the stand-out moment. His barnstorming break and deft offload set up Ben Foden for England’s second try and really stamped the visitors’ authority on the game. Morgan continued to rampage across the turf all afternoon and even the likes of Chris Robshaw managed to make valuable line breaks. But it was Tom Croft who stole the show, producing perhaps his best performance in an England shirt. As well as disrupting the French lineout, he defended solidly and produced a try that Chris Ashton would be proud of. It was a reminder of his ability to run with the ball, and he and England must continue to show this sort of imagination and ambition if they are to continue moving forward.
France made an unusual selection this week, preferring the kicking prowess of Lionel Beauxis at fly half and also Julien Dupuy, another strong kicker, at scrum half. It seemed to be a reaction to England’s thus far successful defensive work on opposition stand offs in the Six Nations, but it didn’t work. Kicking from deep was supposed to keep England at a distance but France, as ever, looked most dangerous when running the ball from deep rather than playing a tactical kicking game. With a back line featuring two of the best centres in the Championship, it seemed odd for the French to be more concerned about what England were going to do rather than what damage they could inflict on the visitors. To compound matters, as France edged back into the game and had a drop goal for the win, where was the specialist kicker Beauxis? On the bench watching Francois Trinh-Duc’s effort drop short of the posts.
Ireland were always set to endure a tricky Six Nations campaign managing without captain Brian O’Driscoll. The experienced Paul O’Connell replaced the centre as skipper, but the Munster man’s injury resulted in Rory Best taking over from O’Connell for their 32-14 victory over Wales. The chance of a first Grand Slam since 2009 has been extinguished, but Declan Kidney’s side can still take pride from their plucky performances over the past few weeks. In fact, Ireland have scored more tries and boast a better points total than Gatland’s Wales side. Emerging stars such as Jonathan Sexton, Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney continue to impress and add genuine world-class ability. The 2013 competition holds much promise for the Men in Green.