By Duncan Bech, PA England Rugby Correspondent
There were conclusive away wins for France, Ireland and Wales in another compelling round of Guinness Six Nations action that sees the destiny of the title remain in Irish hands.
Here, the PA news agency examines five things we learned from the penultimate weekend of the competition.
Defeat for England. #ENGvFRA | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/NTCEe80u1B
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 11, 2023
A history of English rugby in the professional era could justifiably show 6.30pm on March 11, 2023 as rock bottom. Steve Borthwick’s team were obliterated in a seven-try rout that registered their heaviest defeat at Twickenham of all time and their third biggest loss home or away. Only the 1998 ‘Tour of Hell’ and 2011 World Cup compare, but Saturday’s 53-10 collapse is the latest instalment of a slump that has unfolded against the backdrop of an ongoing financial crisis. Wasps and Worcester have been placed into administration and other clubs are also in danger as a growing number of England’s top players head to foreign leagues to find work. From Test to domestic level, the Rugby Football Union should be deeply concerned.
Pool D drama awaits
England progressing from their World Cup group was previously seen as a formality but Argentina and Japan will now fancy their chances this autumn.
The draw has been kind to England as a scan of the ultra-competitive Pool B shows, but the malaise that set in during the Eddie Jones era is deep rooted and means no fixture can be taken for granted. On current form, reaching the quarter-finals would be an achievement and the gulf in class evident against France shows they are a long way adrift of the tournament hosts and their fellow title contenders Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand.
France on a different level
5️⃣3️⃣ 𝙎𝙝𝙖𝙙𝙚𝙨 𝙤𝙛 𝘽𝙡𝙪𝙚 💙 #ENGFRA pic.twitter.com/hLynJDyvfi
— 𝗔𝗻𝘁𝗼𝗶𝗻𝗲 𝗗𝗨𝗣𝗢𝗡𝗧 (@Dupont9A) March 11, 2023
At least England know they faced a France side operating at the peak of their powers. Les Bleus’ hit-and-miss Six Nations exploded into glorious technicolour as they were re-established as World Cup favourites with one of their great displays.
Powerful, inventive, intelligent – it was rugby from another world orchestrated by their remarkable half-back general Antoine Dupont. But he was aided by a majestic supporting cast of Thibaud Flament, Gregory Alldritt and Jonathan Danty – among others – as Fabien Galthie’s team claimed the outstanding destination victory they prized after France’s last Six Nations win at Twickenham came 18 years ago. They will take some stopping in the global showpiece.
Ireland roll on
The Grand Slam dream is alive! ☘️@IrishRugby win a thunderous Test match in Edinburgh to take a step closer to the title.#AwakenAnticipation | #SCOvIRE pic.twitter.com/mnYgW6lgw5
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 12, 2023
The green machine continued its ascent to the Grand Slam with a 22-7 victory over Scotland that was a humdinger until Jack Conan’s 62nd-minute try propelled Ireland out of sight. In a similar vein to France, Andy Farrell’s side are playing a different game to most of their rivals and even the brilliant Finn Russell was unable to take the hosts’ title dream into the final round.
Ireland proved why they are the best team in the world with a display of ruthless efficiency that was delivered despite sustaining a host of injuries. Only England stand between them and their fourth Grand Slam.
Wales not kidding themselves
#WelshRugby | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/BwarnwDRo3
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏴 (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 12, 2023
A first win of a testing Six Nations lifted some of the gloom surrounding Wales as they saw off Italy and delivered an eighth successive victory in Rome. Inspired by scrum-half Rhys Webb on his first Test start since October 2020, Wales delivered some impressive moments, but the juggernaut that is France now awaits.
Beating Italy was a timely morale-booster that should spare them the indignity of finishing bottom, but Les Bleus away is a completely different ball game.