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France march on as England waste their opportunity

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An atmosphere of great anticipation and excitement had generated before the kick-off at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon. England had a glorious chance to make it three wins from three matches against Ireland, but painfully fluffed their lines to hand France a two-point lead at the top of the Six Nations table.

The French had travelled to Cardiff the evening before and only narrowly avoided a potentially brilliant second-half Wales comeback with a 26-20 victory – their third consecutive win of this year’s championships. For the first time in 2010, France showed in those 40 second-half minutes that they’re far from infallible.

But it was Wales who were the masters of their own downfall in this match. Two intercepted tries from Alexis Palisson and François Trinh-Duc meant Warren Gatland’s side went into the half-time interval 20-0 down.

France, it seemed, were in an unassailable position.

However, just as they did against Scotland a fortnight earlier, Wales showed their dogged attitude once more and produced a commanding display after the break to give themselves real hope of producing another memorable comeback.

Leigh Halfpenny gave the home supporters a familiar feeling that something special was about to happen inside the Millennium Stadium as he crossed the line on 61 minutes to reduce the deficit to just seven points; but France continued to edge further ahead thanks to the clinical Morgan Parra.

A late Shane Williams try gave the Welsh supporters reason to cheer with seconds remaining on the clock – it was the birthday boy’s record 19th Welsh Championship try – but it proved slightly too little too late.

That win put France on a maximum six out of six points after three matches. Les Blues had set the benchmark and England knew exactly what they had to do to keep the pace with the pre-tournament favourites.

England may have entered the match confident of victory, but Ireland wing Tommy Bowe soon dampened the home crowd’s spirits with a clever try after just three minutes.

Under-fire Jonny Wilkinson grabbed two penalties before the half-time break to bring Martin Johnson’s side within two points of the reigning Grand Slam champions; but in the second-half Ireland proved they’re not a spent force with a comprehensive display of attacking rugby.

Dan Cole cancelled out Keith Earls’ earlier second-half try to level the scores, and when Wilkinson kicked a drop-goal with 10 minutes left on the clock – a shot not too dissimilar to that iconic kick in the 2003 World Cup Final – it seemed as if England were on course for a sensational victory.

But Ireland were not done yet. Bowe cut through the England defence in the 73rd minute to cruelly end the home side’s hopes of Grand Slam glory.

Declan Kidney’s side ran out 20-16 winners – probably a fair reflection on the balance of play; but Wilkinson and England were left to rue several missed opportunities. Had the fly-half been more accurate, then they’d be level on points with France this morning.

However, it wasn’t to be. A lot of people had written off England’s chances of winning the Six Nations before the tournament had begun; but Johnson must have silenced a few critics after the first three matches in this year’s championships with a series of hard-fought performances.

Another team, who were given even less hope of doing anything of note in this year’s Six Nations, Italy, showed that they’re a nation on the up with a thoroughly deserved victory against Scotland in Rome.

The Azzurri had been threatening to produce a performance like this for a while now, but Scotland, who had looked impressive in the opening stages of their clash against Wales two weeks earlier, were simply not at the races at the Stadio Flaminio and now look odds on to pick up the uncoveted Wooden Spoon.

It would be unfair on the Scots to disregard the fact they were without several key individuals on Saturday afternoon, but this still fails to explain their patchy and unpredictable form.

Once again, Dan Parks played the role of Scotland’s talisman and scored all of the visitors’ 12 points. But he looked like the only man in dark blue capable of producing a moment of magic.

Pablo Canavosio was the man who conjured the match-winning move, though. The Italy wing crossed the line with less than 15 minutes of the match remaining to seal the underdogs another famous win over the Scots in the Italian capital.

At this stage of the tournament, it seems likely that France will hold on to top spot; while Scotland will need to produce a far better display in their final two matches to move off the bottom spot.

England, though, will be kicking themselves after wasting a brilliant chance to take this year’s championship race to the final match of the campaign.

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