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Phuket Sports: England hit the buffers

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PHUKET: The most unpredictable Six Nations Championship of recent years ended with yet more surprises: Wales as champions and France, tipped at the start as possible winners, holders of the ‘wooden spoon’.

On the final, decisive Saturday, the shocks continued as Italy, this year’s surprise packet, beat a lack-luster Ireland, clearly hampered by an appalling run of injuries and three yellow cards on the day. At a vociferous Stadio Olympico, Italy experienced a brief hiccup while their talismanic captain Parisse was dispatched to the sin-bin, but stormed back to record a convincing victory. Declan Kidney’s role as Irish coach will come under intense scrutiny.

But the England vs Wales game was the one everyone was talking up, with England needing a win to achieve the coveted Grand Slam and Wales requiring victory by seven points to deprive them of the championship. It was also the ultimate audition for places on the Lions tour to Australia. The pre-match hype, with George North the Welsh wing, calling for a “blood bath” was predictably frenetic, with more sober critics just favoring Wales. And so it turned out, though the manner of the Welsh victory, by thirty points to three, was more than the most passionate Welshman could have hoped for.

From the first scrum, England were under the cosh, penalized at almost every put-in by the Australian referee. It was a significant omen. The team, for once exposed for what they are – a courageous but callow side with fewer than half the caps of their opponents, could establish no continuity or composure, were forced to tackle all afternoon, and eventually succumbed to two well-taken Cuthbert tries.

What few English opportunities presented themselves were squandered by poor decision-making. Every high ball they put up was impeccably fielded by the ever-reliable Halfpenny. Tuilagi, expected to be make a huge impact, was tackled out of the game, Farrell lacked direction with his kicking, and England were outplayed in the wide areas of the pitch.

Brown stopped a certain try from the juggernaut George North with a trip tackle, but soon the flood gates opened and the much vaunted English substitutes could do nothing to stem the tide. Lancaster, the new coach observed succinctly that we “didn’t match their physicality”. Backs coach Farrell declared that “momentum is a great thing and we couldn’t get any, especially in the first half.” Lancaster has earned his plaudits, but he needs to pick in-form wingers.

On the other hand, Phillipe Saint-Andre, the French coach cannot be sure of his position. Though “Les Blues” finally broke down a gallant Scottish side in a cold and wet Paris, the score after an hour was still 9-9 . It took tries from the mercurial Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard to complete a 23-16 win. Scotland’s interim coach Scott Johnson opined: “I was really proud of the defense. But we let ourselves down with our kick return stuff.”

Nonetheless, it was Scotland’s best season since 2006. For France there was only the ignominy of a first wooden spoon.

Now speculation about the composition of the Lions team can begin in earnest. One thing is sure, Wales will have the largest complement of players. Indeed their whole back line, apart from fly-half, is likely to make the trip. Wales lost their first game. But how things can change in one short championship.

— Patrick Campbell

 

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