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Irish beat Scots to end first round on top of Six Nations

© AFP

Text by Peter BERLIN

Latest update : 2014-02-02

Ireland beat Scotland 28-6 in Dublin on Sunday afternoon to complete an opening weekend of the Six Nations rugby tournament in which all three matches ended in home victories.

On Saturday, Gaël Fickou came on as a replacement with barely five minutes left and scored a try two minutes later to give France a 26-24 victory over England at the Stade de France. In Cardiff, Wales, pursuing a third straight title, struggled past Italy, 23-15.

Ireland leads Wales and France in the standings on points differential. As usual after the opening weekend, three teams already know they cannot win a cherished Grand Slam. But, as Wales showed last season when it lost to Ireland on the first weekend, a team can still win the title after falling in its opening match.

In Dublin, Andrew Trimble, Jamie Heaslip, the captain, and Rob Kearney scored tries as Ireland won a typically bruising battle against the Scots with something to spare.

Like the French, the Irish are desperate to exorcise the demons of 2013. Like France, Ireland only won one Six Nations match last year. But their most painful memory was a heroic performance against the New Zealand All Blacks in November. Ireland led 19-0 but lost 24-22 to a try in the final attack of the game.

O'Driscoll becomes Ireland's most capped

The Irish might also be motivated to give their talisman, Brian O’Driscoll, a winning send off. This Six Nations represents an international farewell tour for the 35-year-old centre. On Sunday, he broke a tie with Ronan O’Gara for most Irish caps. He needs to play three more games in this competition to overtake George Gregan of Australia for most overall international appearances for any teams.

In the opening match in Cardiff, Wales took the lead after just three minutes when a strange bounce fooled Angelo Esposito, the Italian winger. Alex Cuthbert pounced to score. When Scott Williams added a second try, the rout seemed to be on. Instead, Italy fought back.

Wales looked sluggish and, in the face of ferocious Italian resistance, made a string of errors. Michele Campagnaro scored one try after a charged-down kick and another from an interception. But Leigh Halfpenny’s try gave Wales enough of a cushion.

The ball also took some weird bounces in the opening minutes in Paris. Yoann Huguet, following up kicks ahead, was twice in position to catch the ball and dance past the flat-footed English defenders. After 22 minutes France led, 16-3.

England gradually established control. They dominated possession and territory. Mike Brown and Luther Burrell scored tries either side of half time. After 43 minutes, England led.

France washes away last year's bad luck

With four minutes left, England was ahead by five points. Then Fickou broke through. He made sure he touched down as near the posts as possible. That set up Maxime Machenaud to kick the conversion. That gave France a victory that began to wash away the bad taste left by an awful 2013 when they won just two of their 11 matches.

Fickou is just 19 years old. When Florian Fritz crashed his scooter in December breaking an arm, many French fans wanted his Toulouse teammate to partner Wesley Fofana at centre. Instead, Philippe Saint-André chose Mathieu Bastareaud.

Bastareaud is not just five-and-a-half years older than Fickou; he’s also 33 kilograms heavier. That’s an important difference in modern rugby.

Bastareaud can tackle more strongly against beefy, physical opponents like Les Rosbifs. Even though he basically runs in straight lines when he has the ball, when you weight 123 kilos and can run very fast, even straight lines can be tough to stop. Yet for 75 minutes, the English did stop him.

On the bench, Fickou had just told the physiotherapist that he wouldn’t be going on when Yannick Bru, an assistant coach, ordered the youngster to do just that.

Two minutes later, France attacked. Dimitri Szarzewski, a replacement hooker, burst through the English line. With the defence in retreat, he passed to Fickou. The youngster then did what Bastareaud couldn’t. After faking a pass, he changed direction. Once again the English were left flat-footed. Fickou glided through the gap and sailed to the line to score.

Instinct and French flair

“It was instinct,” he told the media after the game.

It is instinct French rugby fans love. They understand that size matters, but they also cherish the French tradition of creative, unpredictable play.

On Saturday, despite their size, the French were simply beaten up by the English for the middle 50 minutes of the match. In the end, they needed something else to win.

“Le French flair still exists,” crowed the Parisien newspaper on Sunday.

“That last try wasn’t a ‘try from the end of the world,’” ex-French rugby captain Philippe Saint-André said.

"But this try was a synonym for hope for a young team that doesn’t give up.”

Date created : 2014-02-02

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