Andy Farrell’s charges laboured to subdue a 14-man England 32-15 but will at least be satisfied with the maximum five points from a compelling contest at Twickenham to highlight round four of the Six Nations.
Two Kiwis – halfback Jamison Gibson-Park and left wing James Lowe – the latter whom raced in for an early try – were amongst the best in emerald green, but the game hinged on a controversial red card on England lock Charlie Ewels in just the first minute for a head on head tackle with opposite James Ryan. The contact was clearly accidental but French referee Mathieu Raynal, who subsequently heavily penalised the visitors, ruled to what he said was the letter of the law.
Down a man, a determined England pack lifted its game and tackled with discipline and heart, but was worn down in the final 10 minutes. Wing Jack Nowell even packed on the side of the scrum for the home team.
Ireland tried to force things, as it did against Italy in the previous round when enjoying a two-man advantage, but two late tries to Jack Conan and Finlay Bealham spared any blushes and secured the bonus point. That could be vital in next weekend’s tournament climax when Ireland will need to dispatch Scotland and then cheer England against France to make a rails run for the Six Nations title.
Wales adopted the high ball tactic to disrupt France in the Friday night fixture in Cardiff. It nearly paid off, France thankful for an early team try, finished by flanker Antony Jelonch, to win 13-9. This was a classic case of a good team playing well below its best and yet still winning the game. The All Blacks are past masters at this.
Wales even used attacking bombs and was able to pressure a flaky French lineout. But the visitors and Six Nations leaders can thank their defence, organised by Shaun Edwards, a key cog in Warren Gatland’s Wales management for many years.
Scotland and Italy played out a bright and breezy encounter in Rome, the Scots winning 33-22. But this was Italy’s best display of the championship and shows that progress is steady under new coach Kieran Crowley.
He may even have unearthed a gem in diminutive replacement wing Ange Capuozzo, who scored a double on Test debut, impressing with his twinkling footwork.
Scotland scored some fine tries, including a brace to strong centre Chris Harris, and relied on the usual full-on outing by No 7 Hamish Watson, still yet to miss a tackle in this year’s championship.
It all comes down to Super Saturday in the final round of this Six Nations. Will England be able to find the energy to push France in Paris to deny Les Bleus a Grand Slam, and can Ireland beat its Celtic neighbour to take the championship lead in the penultimate match?
Cardiff: France 13 (Antony Jelonch try; Melvyn Jaminet con, 2 pen) Wales 9 (Dan Biggar 3 pen) HT: 10-9 France
Rome: Scotland 33 (Chris Harris 2, Sam Johnson, Darcy Graham, Stuart Hogg tries; Finn Russell 4 con) Italy 22 (Amge Capuozzo 2, Calum Braley tries; Paulo Garbisi 2 con, pen) HT: 19-10 Scotland
London: Ireland 32 (James Lowe, Hugo Keenan, Jack Conan, Finlay Bealham tries; Johnny Sexton 3 con, 2 pen) England 15 (Marcus Smith 5 pen) HT: 15-9 Ireland
Points: France 18, Ireland 16, England 10, Scotland 10, Wales 6, Italy 0
15 Hugo Keenan (Ireland)
14 Jack Nowell (England)
13 Chris Harris (Scotland)
12 Sam Johnson (Scotland)
11 James Lowe (Ireland)
10 Dan Biggar (Wales)
9 Ali Price (Scotland)
8 Toa Halafihi (Italy)
7 Hamish Watson (Scotland)
6 Courtney Lawes (England)
5 Maro Itoje (England)
4 Paul Willemse (France)
3 Tadgh Furlong (Ireland)
2 Julian Marchand (France)
1 Ellis Genge (England)
Round five, Sunday March 20 (NZT):
Wales v Italy, Cardiff, 3.15am
Ireland v Scotland, Dublin, 5.45am
France v England, Paris, 9am