The fifth round of action would ordinarily have decided the championship, but there remains one final chapter to be written next weekend when France and Scotland meet in Paris for their catch-up match.
After Scotland had predictably swept aside the hapless Italians at Murrayfield, Ireland dented Eddie Jones’ England in Dublin to consign the visitors to a lowly fifth position, only a few months after annexing the 2020 Six Nations title.
Then followed a classic in Paris, as Wales came within touching distance of a Grand Slam, last achieved in 2019. The cards rained down, the encounter lasted two hours, and the rugby was stirring.
A try to fullback Bruce Dulin in the 81st minute, after a patient build-up, saw France edge ahead 32-30 and sink a dagger through Welsh hearts. It was locked at 17-all at the break, the tries coming tit for tat. Wales looked the more composed, but had a try to wing Louis Rees-Zammit ruled out by the TMO. There was little in it.
But there was a heap of flair from France, some brain explosions such as lock Paul Willemse raking his hands across Wyn Jones’ eyes, thus incurring a red card, and two other yellow cards against the home side. Wales, too, was not squeaky clean in its discipline, copping yellow on Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau. The ball was over the line and not down on several occasions, and TMO Wayne Barnes was a busy man.
Wales muscled up physically to France and Dan Biggar kicked his goals, but Wayne Pivac’s charges will, despite some heroic defence, rue missed opportunities.
The French now must beat Scotland next weekend by a margin of at least 21 points and secure a bonus point for four tries to take the championship. Anything less will see the title go to Wales.
In the early match, Scotland ran in eight tries in dispatching the Azzurri 52-10.
Kiwi Sean Maitland ran freely at fullback, while centre Huw Jones was a cutting edge in midfield. Braces to hooker Dave Cherry and bustling left wing Duhan van der Merwe highlighted a good day’s work for the Scots.
Italy’s best were hooker and skipper Luca Bigi, who scored a fine early try off a maul, and left wing Monty Ioane, formerly of the Bay of Plenty Steamers, whose crushing hit on Darcy Graham reverberated around the ground. Ioane, however, was binned for a dangerous tackle on Stuart Hogg.
Ireland was good for its 32-18 victory over England. Johnny Sexton again pulled the strings with aplomb, kicking 22 points, while Keith Earls wound back the clock with an aggressive display on the wing, underpinned by a man of the match outing from centre Robbie Henshaw, playing outside Bundee Aki.
Scotland 52 (Dave Cherry 2, Duhan van der Merwe 2, Darcy Graham, Huw Jones, Scott Steele, Sam Johnson tries; Stuart Hogg 6 con) Italy 10 (Luca Bigi try; Paulo Garbisi con, pen) HT: 24-10 Scotland
Ireland 32 (Keith Earls, Jack Conan tries; Johnny Sexton 2 con, 6 pen) England 18 (Ben Youngs, Jonny May tries; Elliot Daly con, Owen Farrell 2 pen) HT: 20-6 Ireland
France 32 (Romain Taofifenua, Antoine Dupont, Charles Ollivon, Brice Dulin tries; Mathieu Jalibert 2 con, Romain Ntamack con, 2 pen) Wales 30 (Dan Biggar, Josh Navidi, Josh Adams tries; Biggar 3 con, 3 pen) HT: 17-17
15 Bruce Dulin (France)
14 Keith Earls (Ireland)
13 Huw Jones (Scotland)
12 Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
11 Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)
10 Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
9 Gareth Davies (Wales)
8 Gregory Alldritt (France)
7 Hamish Watson (Scotland)
6 CJ Stander (Ireland)
5 Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
4 Grant Gilchrist (Scotland)
3 Zander Fagerson (Scotland)
2 Ken Owens (Wales)
1 Wyn Jones (Wales)
Points: Wales 20, France 15, Ireland 15, Scotland 11, England 10, Italy 0
NB. The postponed France-Scotland round three game will be played on March 26.