The 2005 Six Nations opened with the clash between Scotland and France. France were generally expected to pummel a troubled Scottish side, but the Scots fought bravely. However, despite what Matt Williams would have you believe, they did not deserve to win. With the prominence of the kicking expert in the modern game, discipline is crucial, and if there is one thing Bernard Laporte wants from his teams, it's discipline. France conceded 7 penalties to Scotland's 15. They won 11 mauls to Scotland's 2, and completed 147 passes while Scotland managed 105. Scotland are a limited team. They came out trying to bring the French down to their level, and yes they nearly succeeded, but in the end the superior talent of the French side shone through. While the deciding score came in injury time, the result was a fair reflection of the run of play. Interestingly, it also came after Michalak was introduced.
Next up, England made the journey to Cardiff, to face a Welsh team hoping to improve on a few ‘honourable defeats’. Andy Robinson gambled on playing Tait in the centre, and this proved to be a total misjudgement. The first time Tait touched the ball, Gavin Henson hit him with a bone-crunching tackle. In the second half, Tait had the temerity to run the ball towards Henson. Henson literally picked him up and carried him back 5 yards. This was the Gavin Henson that faced South Africa and New Zealand, not the soggy lettuce that lined out for the Ospreys against Munster. The Welsh try was scored by Shane Williams, an exciting winger who reminds me of Simon Geoghegan, and who is pushing Brian O'Driscoll for the player of the tournament so far. This game went down to the wire. Trailing by a point, Wales were awarded a penalty kick around half way and Jones decided it was outside his range. Henson stepped up, told his team-mates to start celebrating, kicked the ball, and didn't even look to see it go over. As arrogant as they come, but that day, he walked the walk.
Ireland opened with a visit to Italy, and came away with the points but a few injury worries also. Italy took an early lead through an Orquera penalty, and the kicker missed a drop-goal and 2 more penalty attempts before Ireland got on the scoreboard. O'Gara struck a penalty just under 22 minutes, and a Geordan Murphy try gave Ireland a lead after 29 minutes that was scarcely deserved. Ireland woke up, and despite Italy taking a short-lived lead in the second half, the men in green ran out comfortable winners at the pleasant side of a 17-28 scoreline.
Moving on, it was the turn of the Welsh to travel to Rome. They avenged a defeat there 2 years ago, and comfortably defeated Italy 38 points to 8. The match was as one-sided as the scoreline suggested. Flanker Martyn Williams was fully deserving of his selection as man-of-the-match, with Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin adding to a fearsome attack. In the finest traditions of Welsh rugby, scores came from flowing passing moves that JPR Williams and Jonathan Davies would have been proud of.
Despite another shaky start, an Irish team without Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy ran out comfortable 40-13 winners over Scotland. In addition to those enforced changes, Johnny O'Connor replaced Denis Leamy on the open side of the scrum. Leamy failed to make an impact against Italy, and although he was officially injured for the trip to Murrayfield, it's unlikely that he would have retained his place. Cussiter, the Scottish scrum-half, had been touted as a possible for the Lions jersey, but O'Connor's pace at the breakdown meant that he was constantly in Cussiter's face and didn't give him a second to relax for the whole game. In O'Driscoll's absence, Paul O'Connell led the side. His leadership qualities were tested when Scotland took an 8-0 lead, but O'Connell ensured that his team stuck to their game plan and effectively ignored what Scotland had just done. Victory was primarily engineered by the Irish forwards, with Malcolm O'Kelly winning his 70th cap (and setting a new Irish record in the process) the first to cross the try line. He was followed by O'Connell, who broke one tackle and dragged three Scots with him in a score reminiscent of Ginger McLoughlin against England. Denis Hickie reminded us that there is more to the back line than our famous centres, before John Hayes got another one for the forwards. The strong team bond was obvious here as the whole team gathered around to congratulate Hayes who doesn't often feature on the score sheet. With the last piece of open play, Gavin Duffy made his debut and ran in a try. David Humphries' (a replacement for Ronan O'Gara) conversion was the last action of the game and O'Gara was the first to congratulate him when the final whistle went.
The England-France clash was predicted by many commentators to be the effective championship decider. Most of those commentators are based in London or Paris though. Here on Monkey Island, we had a different view, and our prediction that the championship will be fought out between Ireland and Wales is still looking good. Charlie Hodgson and Olly Barkley kicked England to defeat, missing three shots at goal each. France said “Merci” or rather Dmitri Yachvili did, and showed the men in white how it was done, kicking six penalties to score all of France's points. France barely scraped through though, and in the fifth minute of injury time, Charlie Hodgson missed a drop-goal attempt right in front of the posts. There were rumours of excessive sniggering in Dublin and Cardiff.
The Scotland-Italy game was the most error-ridden game in the competition so far, and it was easy to see why it was billed as the wooden-spoon decider. Missed passes, knock-ons, fumbles, missed tackles – this game had the lot. Scotland were the lesser of two evils, and despite a late Italian try and conversion, they still won by 8 points. I watched this particular match in a pub in Edinburgh and it says a lot that the Scottish crowd were paying more attention to the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” machine in the corner, than to their representatives on the big screen.
The France-Wales clash was an entirely different matter, providing the most entertaining game of the championship so far. France began in style, with Yachvili converting his own try within five minutes. Rougerie added another try and Yachvili another penalty before half time, while Wales had two Stephen Jones penalties to show for their meagre efforts. For forty minutes, France were superb and threw the ball around with beaucoup de Gallic flair. Wales looked like … well … Scotland, and France punched holes in their defence at will. After the break however, we were shown that soccer is not the only “game of two halves”. When the second half started, it was as though the teams swapped jerseys at the interval. Martyn Williams scored two tries within the first five minutes, one of which Jones converted. Wales continued their rampage with Jones adding a penalty and drop-goal. Michalak kicked a drop-goal to keep it close. Despite some tremendous pressure from France, Wales dug deep and put in the hard tackles. While both sides made defensive errors, this game was pure entertainment and was an absolute joy to watch, with Wales outscoring their hosts by 24 points to 18.