England trample on a fairytale
February 24, 2014
There will be no Grand Slam send off for Brian O'Driscoll © Getty Images
Two rounds are left in the Six Nations and every side's Grand Slam dreams have been dashed. The championship is now a four-horse race and Monday Maul looks at the key talking points from a fantastic weekend of rugby.
No perfect ending for O'Driscoll
When George Gregan played his 139th match for Australia, he saw his team lose 12-10 to England as their pack was unceremoniously destroyed by Andrew Sheridan in that famous quarter-final match in Marseille back in 2007. There was no perfect ending for Gregan.
England also tore up the script on O'Driscoll's record-equalling 139th Test appearance. While O'Driscoll had the luxury of playing behind a pack on the front-foot there will be no Grand Slam ending to his Ireland career as England ground their way to 13-10 win.
Fantasy team of the round
It wasn't meant to be like this for O'Driscoll. If the rugby God wore a shamrock-emblazoned shirt, O'Driscoll would have bounced off the field at the full-time whistle against England with the Grand Slam still an achievable target. Instead, he sloped off in the 79th minute exhausted having given it his all. The romantics and Irish will want him to end this campaign with a Six Nations winner's medal but he will need two more lung-busting efforts if that becomes a reality.
Scotland also show massive cojones
While England showed "massive balls" against Ireland, credit also has to go to Scotland for their win over Italy. It was a far from perfect performance and their win came down to a collective will and desire to put critics back in their place. They showed huge character to get back from 13-3 down in the first-half and then 20-18 in the final stages to get Duncan Weir into a position to slot the winning drop-goal. In the slightly adapted words of Farrell, Weir showed huge cojones to slot that three-pointer.
This team could be a more potent weapon if it had David Denton and Kelly Brown in the line-up while Richie Gray's performance on Saturday made a mockery of Scott Johnson's decision to drop him for the game against England. There are still plenty of issues for Scottish rugby to sort out but for one night at least, you can forgive them for putting worries to one side and enjoying the victory.
North the centre of attention
Warren Gatland has a big call to make over George North and just where he will play against England in a fortnight. Against France, North did exactly what you want from an outside centre - he made a nuisance of himself and got the key try but he also missed six tackles. Going forward, he looked confident alongside Jamie Roberts and they will fancy their chances against the ever-learning partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell.
But would North have more joy up against the even more inexperienced Jonny May and Jack Nowell on the wing? Against France he made 26 metres with ball in hand but he was used as a structural weapon rather than one for gainline breaking. Much of it will hinge around whether Jonathan Davies is fit. If not, then expect North to stay at centre with Liam Williams continuing on the flank. Burrell may fancy his chances of breaking past North in a manner similar to what we saw him do for England in rounds one and two.
Youthful exuberance needs direction
One thing Jack Nowell and Jonny May do not lack is enthusiasm. May made 80 metres with ball in hand against Ireland but much of that would have been running sideways across the pitch. When he ran directly at the Irish defence he caused havoc as one of his main strengths is the ability to change direction in the blink of an eye - he's clearly learnt from James Simpson-Daniel at Gloucester. For Nowell, he made 41 metres and similar to May, when attacking Ireland face on their defence looked troubled and scrambled. If they ran forwards all game they would be lethal.
In May and Nowell you have two project players for Lancaster. They are not the finished article but they are hugely exciting. England still talk much about learning game on game and the two wingers will be growing in confidence and ability in every Test they play.
Championship up for grabs
It's now a four-way tussle for the title. Ireland have a healthy points difference of 42 at the top of the tree with England on 21, Wales on six and France on one. At the moment it looks like it is Ireland's championship to lose. If England can beat Wales next weekend, it will be between them and Ireland for the title and it is likely to be a question of points difference in the final weekend. Ireland should be able to beat France, who were dreadful against Wales, while England will go to Italy looking for a big win against the team destined for the Wooden Spoon.
Mike Brown, the goalkeeper
Following the match on Saturday at Twickenham, one of the first things Joe Schmidt mentioned were Brown's two 'goalkeeper saves'. One came in the dead-ball area and another saw him leap at an O'Driscoll kick-through. He's playing fantastic rugby and is integral to this England team.
Great things happening in tier two
While the Six Nations, understandably, dominated the news agenda this weekend, Georgia and Romania's qualification for the 2015 World Cup slipped under the radar. There are great things happening in European rugby away from the top table and Georgia pulling in an attendance of 54,827 for their game against Russia shows there is real passion for the game away from the traditional strongholds.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.