Hugo Bonneval’s second-half try proved pivotal as France ended their nine-match winless run and left Italy facing another Six Nations wooden spoon after a tense battle in Marseille. France’s 34-17 victory – their first since March – came despite an error-strewn display, with the hosts relying on the boot of the scrum-half Maxime Machenaud to keep their noses in front before Bonneval’s dramatic score on the hour mark.
Facing the team he managed for five years, France’s head coach, Jacques Brunel, made five changes to the side that lost to Scotland – with all of the players sanctioned after a night out in Edinburgh dropped from his squad. The French pack started strongly with Paul Gabrillagues going over after five minutes from a rolling maul, but Italy hit back immediately with a penalty try. France dominated the rest of the first half but could not add a second try, although two penalty kicks from Machenaud edged them 11-7 ahead at the interval.
Machenaud’s third penalty gave France breathing space early in the second half but Italy’s Tommaso Allan cut the gap and the stage appeared set for an attritional battle. The tension built inside the Stade Vélodrome but was suddenly released as Bonneval went over, collecting a clever pass from Rémy Grosso after a break started by the returning centre Mathieu Bastareaud. France then found another gear, with Bastareaud adding the try his performance deserved and Machenaud adding two more penalties. Matteo Minozzi’s late breakaway try for Italy will keep expectations in check with England up next for Brunel’s team.
Ireland inched closer to a potential Grand Slam by beating Wales in a thrilling Six Nations battle in Dublin. Winger Jacob Stockdale scored two tries with Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy also touching down for the Irish. A score by Gareth Davies had briefly given Wales the upper hand and second-half tries by Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans left the result in the balance. However, the visitors were undone by a lack of discipline in head coach Warren Gatland’s 100th game in charge.
Ireland will take a 100% record into their next match at home to Scotland on 10 March, seven days before the St Patrick’s Day meeting with England, who were beaten 25-13 by Scotland on Saturday. Welsh title hopes are effectively at an end after losing to the Irish in the Six Nations for the first time since 2014. So much of the build-up focused on the myriad of new faces Joe Schmidt was being forced to mix into his team, with six of the starting side sharing fewer than 30 caps, but it was the newcomers who made the difference where it counted.
Stockdale was involved from the opening seconds of the contest at Lansdowne Road and the young wing’s seventh and eighth tries in seven internationals bookended the contest. His opening score came after Leigh Halfpenny’s long-range penalty had put Wales on the board first and Johnny Sexton’s reply came back off the post. Ireland kept their cool and attacked again with Sexton’s bullet pass to the wing creating the space for Stockdale to dive over. The Ulster man finished off the contest too with an intercept try that mirrored Jamie Roberts’ score in Cardiff last year.
Aki’s try was a tribute to Irish persistence as the hosts showed their ability to keep possession through multiple phases before the Connacht centre contorted himself to score. Dan Leavy, who only got his chance in the back row after injuries to Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, was fully deserving of his try at the start of the second half as Ireland scored three tries in a 14-minute spell either side of half-time.
Wales had conceded just nine penalties in the opening two rounds of the championship and defence coach Shaun Edwards had emphasised the importance of continuing that disciplined approach in Dublin. Instead, they conceded the same number again. Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi and Rob Evans were all guilty of penalties as referee Glen Jackson was quick to whistle at anything he felt was illegal. In addition, the visitors made some silly errors, with Ross Moriarty attempting to run the ball from behind his own goal line proving especially costly as Ireland attacked down the narrow side from the resulting five-metre scrum for Healy to score.
Shingler’s try in the 62nd minute gave renewed hope to the visitors but once again they conceded costly penalties to dilute their chances.
From the first of those penalties, Ireland opted to take a quick tap instead of kicking for the posts but a scrum penalty allowed Conor Murray to push Ireland back into a 10-point lead and Steff Evans’ score left the visitors with too much to do in chasing the game.
Ireland have not lost a Six Nations match in Dublin since Owen Farrell kicked England to a 12-6 win in 2013, a result which triggered a collapse in Ireland’s form under Declan Kidney and heralded Joe Schmidt’s appointment as Ireland coach.
The home side had also won their last nine matches before this game and, after a nervous start, they always looked likely to extend that sequence. They were criticised for a reliance on one-out runners in the opening two rounds, but Ireland showed a much greater variety in their attack; mixing the power of CJ Stander, Aki and Farrell with subtle kicks, quick penalties and delayed passes to cut through the Welsh defence. Sexton’s kicking radar may have been off, but his ability to hold onto the ball until the last second allowed him to send Keith Earls, Rob Kearney and Stockdale through gaping holes.
Keith Earls limped off just after Shingler’s try, but for just over an hour the Munster man was electric. His pace, power and all-action style was the biggest crowd pleaser on a bitterly cold day. Wales had lost just once in their last four encounters against Ireland and this Celtic rivalry keeps finding new ways to keep the fans engrossed. The visitors started brightly and, thanks to Halfpenny’s boot, they would have led at half-time but for Aki’s try.
Ireland’s stunning start to the second half, with tries by Leavy and Healy, meant Wales looked completely out of contention with just under half an hour left to play. But, in a match in which they had to survive on just 31% possession, Gatland’s men found a way back with Shingler’s try creating a palpable tension within the ground before Evans dived over to spark a dramatic conclusion. The second rest week of this year’s championship could hardly have come at a better time for Ireland.
They will be hoping Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson can recover from their hamstring injuries during the lay-off while Garry Ringrose could also come back into contention after playing for Leinster over the weekend. Sean O’Brien also retains an outside chance of playing against Scotland on 10 March. Stockdale’s late intercept would appear to have put paid to Wales’ championship prospects. Gatland’s men can now look forward to finishing the tournament with back-to-back home matches against Italy and France, beginning with the visit of the Azzurri to Cardiff on 11 March.