Six talking points from Round Three

Wales players celebrate Cory Hill scoring their first try 23/2/2019
What a third round of action it was in the Guinness Six Nations.

What a third round of action it was in the Guinness Six Nations.

And the upshot is, Wales are the only unbeaten team left in the Championship, Ireland are right back in contention for the crown and France appear to have turned the corner at last.

Here are our six talking points from a fascinating trio of matches this past weekend.

Warren Gatland’s final year in charge of Wales was never going to end with a whimper was it?

This was a performance full of grit and determination and no little tactical cunning that has come to epitomise his reign.

The back three deserve plaudits for the way they calmly dealt with the much-vaunted English kicking game.

But up front, Wales only shipped three penalties all game and took on their English counterparts and beat them over the 80 minutes.

The fitness work in the gyms of the Vale is clearly paying off. Wales finish games so strongly now that they are near impossible to hold off.

This year they alone they have overturned a 16-point lead in Paris and in Cardiff on Saturday they battered England 18-3 in the second half.

Their lineout and scrum still need work and Gareth Anscombe and the backline never really clicked in the first hour, but Gatland has created a winning machine.

12 Tests in a row unbeaten is a new national record and with a trip to BT Murrayfield up next to play a Scotland side that Gatland has never lost to with Wales, a Grand Slam looks a real possibility. They couldn’t, could they?

In the end, there was little shame in losing such a pulsating Test match to their old rivals.

After all, Eddie Jones’ side had pinched one late on last time the two sides met here back in 2017 – and this time around they were deservedly beaten in similar fashion.

Skipper Owen Farrell did not get the armchair ride his forwards treated him to in the first two rounds of this Championship and in the end his side could not halt the Red Sea.

While Wales grew in the final quarter, the Red Rose appeared to wilt.

So it was strange to see three of Eddie Jones’ replacements in George Ford, Dan Robson and Luke Cowan-Dickie all remain unused on the bench at full-time.

Fresh impetus was clearly needed but England failed to adapt to the changing nature of the contest. The damage is done and a Grand Slam is gone now for England.

But the Championship is still very much up for grabs with Italy and Scotland the visitors to Twickenham in the final two rounds of games.

Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Mako Vunipola are out for the Championship but it would appear England need Maro Itoje back as soon as possible.

It may have taken him three rounds, but Jacques Brunel appears to have finally hit upon a winning formula.

The bold decision to pair the young Toulouse half-backs of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack paid off in spades.

France attacked with invention throughout against Scotland on Saturday, scoring four tries and having four more chalked off by the TMO.

But in defence the youngsters, who also profited from their teammate Thomas Ramos making his first start at full-back, also produced the goods when it mattered.

There was attacking panache in the backs, but also power up front.

Demba Bamba was a deserving man of the match for their pack offering at scrum time and in the loose while the late replacement Grégory Alldritt was the beneficiary with two late tries.

Next up is a trip to the defending champions Ireland. A sterner test than this injury-hit Scotland side no doubt.

But confidence is returning for Les Bleus, anyone who saw Mathieu Bastareaud chip over the top and re-gather in the second half will know that…

Injuries have made life hard for Gregor Townsend and Scotland this year.

They began the Championship with realistic ambitions of challenging for the crown and those only grew after a bonus-point win over Italy in round one.

But losing the likes of Stuart Hogg, Huw Jones, Ryan Wilson and Finn Russell – not to mention the invaluable WP Nel – would hurt any team in world rugby.

And after back to back defeats, their Championship hopes are hanging by a thread.

They had not won in Paris in 20 years and in all honesty never really looked like ending that run on Saturday after France’s fast start.

There were bright spots however, Blair Kinghorn deputised impressively for Hogg at full-back while Price and Adam Hastings added impetus from the bench in the second half.

But Hogg and Russell cannot come back soon enough if Scotland are to turn things around, starting with the visit of unbeaten Wales in a fortnight’s time.

The mark of a good side is winning even when you are not playing well. And there is no doubt that Ireland are a good side. A very good side in fact.

And so, despite defeat to England in Dublin and two spluttering victories over Scotland and Italy since then, Joe Schmidt’s side remain firmly in the hunt for another Championship.

They were given a real fright on Sunday in Rome, but still had far too much class for the Azzurri in the end.

Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls look razor sharp on the wings while Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are still working off the ring rust.

But Cian Healy, Rory Best and James Ryan will return to the pack in round four and you can be sure that this Ireland side have another couple of gears to go through.

A bonus-point win in Rome is not to be sniffed at, a week after ending Scotland’s impressive home run in the Guinness Six Nations.

Ireland are on the move. Expect them to be firing on all cylinders come Cardiff in round five in what could be a very Super Saturday.

This was probably Italy’s best game in the Guinness Six Nations since Conor O’Shea took over.

They led the defending Grand Slam champions 16-12 in the second half at the Stadio Olimpico and were a good bet to finish the job off.

In the end, it wasn’t to be as Ireland tightened the screws and secured a narrow win but how Italy delighted the home crowd in that first half.

Tito Tebaldi was a joy to behold both in attack and in defence, his breakdown work akin to a flanker.

O’Shea must wish his No.9 had not hurt his back in the warm-up before the Scotland clash in round one.

With him in the side, the first two rounds against Scotland and Wales could have been a different story entirely.

But it was not just Tebaldi catching the eye on Sunday, lock Federico Ruzza was handed a first Championship start and proved he deserves to do so again in Round Four.

Jayden Hayward is becoming an international full-back of real class while Michele Campagnaro and Luca Morisi look to be back to their best after injury hell.

Italy nearly shocked England at Twickenham two years ago. Eddie Jones and co would do well to expect the same again this time around.