RUGBY   Six nations tournament

THE 2005 edition of what amounts to the game’s European Championships is now well under way with some surprising results. In the first round, 2004 winners France, who achieved their eighth Grand Slam in the process, took on Scotland in the Stade de France. The Scots had suffered an embarrassing whitewash last year but more than equalled their formidable opponents on this occasion. French rugby has been in a crisis for some time and only luck saw the home side scrape to a poor 16-9 win over the passionate Scots. Leading 9-6, a try from Ally Hogg, which would surely have proven decisive, was disallowed and Jon Petrie was controversially sin-binned to end the tartan army’s hopes.A Damien Traille converted injury-time try did the rest.

World Champions England were undone at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium by a combination of Andy Robinson’s selection and a young Welsh side coming of age. Robinson picked the non-kicking Jamie Noon at centre, a retrograde move in these attacking modern rugby times, and Wales duly punished Sir Clive Woodward’s successor 11-9, with glamour boy Gavin Henson providing the decisive strike that gave the home side its first win over England in Cardiff for 12 years.

In the final first round match, the much-touted Irish found the going against a robust Italy pack a lot tougher than expected. At the end, the score read 28-17 in the Triple Crown holders’ favour but the John Kirwan-coached Azzurri, featuring players of the calibre of Mauro Bergamasco and try scorer Martin Castrogiovanni, are no longer the cannon-fodder of old.

Last weekend’s second round saw the return to a more established order. Ireland, hampered by injuries to their centre pairing of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, were shocked early on as Scotland raced ahead with a Chris Paterson penalty and a Hugo Southwell try. But they came roaring back with five tries of their own to crush the Scots 40-13 for maximum points in the competition so far. Substitute Gavin Duffy made a huge impression on his debut and once restored to full strength, Ireland could be on target for their first Grand Slam since 1948.

Wales, too, maintained their 100 per cent record with a conclusive 38-8 Shane Williams-inspired victory over Italy. The Ospreys wing scored one breathtaking try himself and had a hand in three others. On this form, Wales are serious contenders for the Six Nations trophy, the equivalent of which they last won 11 years ago.

England, restored to a more attacking formation, took on France at Twickenham in a game they had to win to remain in contention in this year’s championship. England started well leading 17-6 at half-time with tries from Lewsey and Barkley, Hodgkinson’s boot doing the rest. By the final whistle, victory turned into an 18-17 defeat thanks to six missed penalties. Never has Wilkinson been missed more as England are down and out.