England march on

It is only two down with three still to go, but already Chris Robshaw's England stand alone as the only nation with any chance of Grand Slam glory. [more]

England march on

It is only two down with three still to go, but already Chris Robshaw’s England stand alone as the only nation with any chance of Grand Slam glory.

They ground out a 12-6 victory over Ireland in atrocious conditions at the Aviva Stadium to end home hopes of a clean sweep and add the 2013 Irish scalp to the Scottish one claimed a week earlier.

England are earning all the positive headlines and next up is France’s trip to Twickenham on February 23, with Les Bleus attracting the diametrically opposite comments as many people’s pre-tournament favourites now find themselves at the bottom of the pile as the only country without a win.

England’s victory in the wet of Dublin was a triumph for playing rugby to suit the occasion – smart rugby – and Robshaw certainly enhanced his Lions captaincy credentials with a man of the match display that demanded his troops follow his example.

And it was a contest where the match stats tell the story perfectly.

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Ireland had 58% possession, 57% territory and made three clean breaks to none by England – and still lost on a day when wings were virtually surplus to requirements as attackers with the ball in hand and it was largely all about forwards putting down markers for the summer tour of Australia.

There are just those three weekends to come for players to stake their claims on the Test stage for seats on the flight to Australia via Hong Kong as part of head coach Warren Gatland’s elite tourists.

And if Robshaw’s leadership qualities came through louder and clearer in the most searching of conditions then outside-half Owen Farrell gave another compelling performance that surely puts him well placed to claim the keys to one of the No10 spots on tour.


Chris Robshaw's captaincy credentials were under the microscope in tough conditions in Ireland

Jonny Sexton’s injury meant their eagerly anticipated head-to-head failed to go the distance but 21-year-old Farrell showed a class and composure that belied his limited international experience.

To a man his pack would have applauded his, and halfback partner Ben Youngs’, match management, and none more so than flanker James Haskell whose muscular display in tandem with his captain’s assured the “right option at the right time” approach was key in shackling and subduing the Irish eight in front of their home fans.

And after the flood of tries in Round 1, the appalling weather meant this time scores were far scarcer, although Scotland burst the Italian bubble by bagging four at Murrayfield – the first time they had managed that many against a Tier 1 team since 2007 – in a 34-10 spree.

The full back and wing spots promise to be among the most competitive areas when it comes to the final Lions selection process with Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser putting their hands up in some style for the Scots.

There was only a single try at the Stade de France as Wales joined Ireland, Italy and Scotland on two points apiece, but it was something special and worth the 72-minute wait.

George North was already a strong candidate for a wing berth but the manner in which he took his late chance was exceptional in both awareness of where the touchline danger was and his impeccable execution.


George North did his Lions chances no harm with a fine late try against France in Paris

It was key in Wales halting their eight-match losing run and leading from the front was 2005 Lions sensation Ryan Jones, with his work at the breakdown and in defence rewarded with a win on the record 30th occasion of captaining his country. The 31-year-old flanker cum lock cum No8 was aided and abetted by another towering display at full back by Leigh Halfpenny and a second successive international to remember from Test newcomer  Andrew Coombs.

It was a third match in a row against the French that Wales had denied the 2011 World Cup finalists a try, with their fine defensive display and the Dublin downpour that followed ensuring that just five tries were scored over a saturated Round 2 weekend.

Now there is a fortnight’s breather before England bid to make it three from three while Wales travel to Rome and Ireland to Murrayfield, with the clock ticking as the countdown to Lions selection draws ever closer.

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