Thrills and spills galore this past weekend as one of the most anticipated Six Nations in many a year got underway. England started the show with a barnstorming display in Cardiff that shattered Welsh hearts. Ireland meanwhile made a cautious but effective start to their campaign in Rome and gave some new players a chance to shine. Finally, France struggled past a very determined and exciting Scottish side in Paris, leading many to think that on home soil this new look Scottish team is set to cause some upsets.
Wales vs England
Final Score – Wal 16/Eng 21
Finally English fans got a look at what the finished product might look like as the Men in White head into the World Cup. What was significant about England’s victory in Wales was that despite a continuing injury list, the English forward pack continued to be the unit to overcome in this year’s Six Nations, and what’s more this was coupled to a backline that really started to fire and show the promise that was so evident all last year. As for Wales, they didn’t necessarily play badly, and indeed took the game by the horns in the first twenty minutes, however as we saw throughout last year they failed to close out big games and for much of the last fifteen minutes looked out of ideas and dead on their feet. Unless this is fixed Wales’ efforts will continue to stall, and the current acid atmosphere that seems to be developing between coach Warren Gatland and the players will only make this worse. We’ve all seen how badly player/coaching relationships can effect a national side, Australia and France have given us plenty of reference material on that subject in the last year.
The sense of spectacle for this game started right from the get go, with the English players refusing to head out onto the pitch and wait for the home team to make their appearance in the rather frigid temperatures. This added an element of tension to an already significant pressure cooker. Once the whistle blew the game was off to a flying start courtesy of the home team, with the ever impressive Rhys Webb being in just the right place as Faletau broke away from a Welsh scrum and handed him a perfect pass to get Wales across the white line within the first seven minutes. The cracker of a match that we were all anticipating was already off to a flying start and Halfpenny effortlessly converted to put Wales 10-0 ahead. Exactly seven minutes later, England replied with some brilliant quick thinking of their own as Mike Brown found some form and chipped an excellent grubber through for winger Anthony Watson to pounce on and England were right back in the hunt. George Ford who would excel throughout the course of the match unfortunately just missed the conversion but England from then on would slowly strangle Wales to ultimately lay down a marker for the rest of the Championship and walk away the winners.
Wales were competitive for the first three quarters but it was obvious that constantly having to fend off a rampaging and unstoppable English pack with James Haskell in particular playing the game of his life, ultimately took its toll so that by the last fifteen minutes, Wales were bereft of ideas and energy. As we saw against Australia in November, England’s forward pack is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and surely striking fear into not only the other Six Nations contenders, but also the Southern Hemisphere’s big four as they prepare for the World Cup. The absence of the superb Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the English pack as they utterly dominated their Welsh counterparts both on attack and defence.
As mentioned above, what perhaps was even more noticeable than the English forward performance, which we all expected to be significant anyway, was the fact that with the superb efforts of Ben Youngs at scrum half and George Ford at fly half, the English back five really came into their own. Despite a few mistakes, Mike Brown at fullback had a much more assured outing than several of his end of year perfomances. Meanwhile, Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph had a superb centre partnership, with Joseph scoring THE try of the match and displaying some breathtaking footwork as he danced his way through numerous stunned Welsh defenders in the second half. Finally, as I have said in previous scribblings on this site, for me the choice for England at fly half should now be cast in stone – George Ford. Despite his lack of Test caps, Ford is rock solid in big pressure matches like this one. It is obvious that he already has the unanimous respect of his fellow teammates. If England are serious about challenging for World Cup silverware come the Autumn, then every effort should be given to ensure that Ford has as much big game time as possible between now and September. The debate around Farrell vs Ford should surely be put to rest. Ford has earned his stripes, has the match temperament and skill set to go with it and surely should now be England’s first choice number 10. If Stuart Lancaster and the English management choose to revisit this debate then they will only seriously jeopardise England’s chances come the autumn.
Wales on the other hand are faced with some serious questions as they head north of Hadrian’s Wall this weekend, to face a rapidly improving and hungry Scottish side. As I have written in these pages last year, Wales still lack the ability to finish big games, only really playing 70 minutes of top level Test rugby on every outing. If they can’t close out big games in front of their adoring fans, I doubt they will be able to do so on the road in the coming weeks. Furthermore, although they have plenty of talent, they seem to be a tad predictable in attack and rely far too much on Halfpenny making it easy for opposing teams to start to see patterns in the Welsh game plan that are then fairly straightforward to dismantle. The tag of one-dimensional and predictable is increasingly being levelled at Wales, and I won’t disagree. The brilliance shown in their opening try was then absent for the rest of the match. Couple this with some questionable fitness levels, as Wales looked exhausted after 70 minutes and Wales lost a game that on paper they should have won. Ignoring the fact that the Welsh medical staff missed an obvious concussion to George North, coach Gatland and his charges and management have an uphill battle in the next few days. Given the acid atmosphere in the Welsh changing room after the match between Gatland and his players, February could end up being a cold month for Wales.
Italy vs Ireland
Final Score – Ita 3/Ire 26
As predicted, Ireland got their campaign off to a slow start in a gritty encounter in Rome. Nevertheless, although Ireland were perhaps cautious they did enough to keep Italy in check and emerge with a healthy 23 point difference which may serve them well should the Championship come down to this in its closing stages, especially with their main rivals England starting to look very dangerous.
What was positive for Ireland however, was an assured performance by Munster fly-half Ian Keatley in his first Six Nations outing. The young fly-half controlled Ireland’s game well and given his lack of experience at this level wisely chose a cautious path against an occasionally adventurous Italian team. In addition, in one of the talking points of the first round of the Six Nations, Tommy O’Donnell was called in literally minutes before the match as a replacement for star flanker Sean O’Brien who injured a hamstring in the warm-up. O’Donnell went on to play a spectacular game and as icing on the cake scored his first Six Nations try. O’Donnell put up his hand and was counted and then some, showing a superb work rate and exemplifying the speed and tenacity that Ireland have now become synonymous with at the breakdown. Ireland now have two world class number 7s – the growth in depth of the Irish squad grows apace.
As predicted last week, the first half was a war of attrition. Ireland could probably have had at least one or two tries on the board by the end of the first forty minutes, but there seemed a genuine reluctance to spread the ball wide and instead run the ball through the centre channels where it was ground down by a steadfast and very workable Italian defence. All credit to Ireland’s new centre pairing of Jared Payne and the man tipped to replace the legendary O’Driscoll, Robbie Henshaw. Henshaw and Payne resolutely charged through the midfield and were constantly looking for space. However, you could tell that Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo were feeling increasingly lonely on the wings. Italy didn’t play badly per se, and led by their incomparable Captain Sergio Parisse at number eight, they were often superb defensively as they showed against the Springboks in November. However, although enterprising at times their attacks lacked finesse and were often error strewn along with some questionable decision making. The second half saw Ireland comfortably take charge of the match after leading 9-3 at the break. Nevertheless, Italy continually thwarted their efforts till the last quarter of the game, where increasing indiscipline saw them go to fourteen men after hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was yellow carded. Irish scrum half Conor Murray expertly marshalling his forwards seized the day and crashed over for Ireland’s first try. Two minutes later, Tommy O’Donnell went charging off to score Ireland’s second try. From there despite a stoic Italian defence that withstood a continuous Irish onslaught, the game was a lost cause for the Italians and the Irish emerged deserved if cautious winners.
Ireland were impressive once they really put the heat on the Italians in the last quarter of the match, and I am sure most Irish fans are putting the first half down to a case of Ireland and Joe Schmidt settling the nerves as they gave some of the newer caps some big match experience. As the game wore on, Ireland became increasingly confident and the tempo of the game picked up dramatically and we saw much more of the Ireland we had come accustomed to seeing last year, inventive in attack, solid defensively and ferocious at the breakdown with Conor Murray providing quick ball to his teammates. It is this momentum that Ireland will need to carry forward into the game against France this weekend if they are to set the pace for the rest of their Six Nations campaign. With the return to the fold of stalwarts such as Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton coupled with some serious tactical thinking by Joe Schmidt, Ireland should be on course to achieve this.
Italy meanwhile, can take heart in some heroic defence and the fact that despite the scoreline, they are a very hard team to crack defensively. While their attacking flair seems to mainly centre around Sergio Parisse, if they can improve their discipline and open up play around Parisse, they will still cause the other Six Nations teams all kinds of headaches, and as always a fixture against Italy is no pushover. Nevertheless, despite some serious commitment I fear Italy will comfortably take the wooden spoon this year unless there is an improvement in their offensive skills, especially as some of their more senior players are nearing the end of their tenure.
France vs Scotland
Final Score – Fra 15/Sco 8
In a match that offered plenty of excitement, Scottish hearts were ultimately broken despite some very high quality play from a Scottish team that looks better and better every outing. France on the other hand did enough to get the job done, but in a manner that failed to capture the imagination or leave anyone with the impression that this is a French team of old. Let’s face it had it not been for the boot of French fly half Camille Lopez who had an excellent game and a lack of Scottish discipline in the last quarter, Scotland most likely would have caused the first upset of the tournament especially as they were the only side to score a try.
Scotland looked the more dangerous side all match, and this coupled with some sterling defence meant that France had to work exceptionally hard to eke out a win. In the end France did what was necessary to contain the Scots and force them into making errors and costly disciplinary mistakes, but there was very little if any French flair on hand to marvel at. In short, France played a boring but effective game of rugby. They did enough to get the win, but against stronger sides such as England and Ireland, they will have to work a great deal harder and show much more imagination than they did this Saturday in Paris. If it were not for the boot of Camille Lopez and some sound tactical decisions on his part as mentioned above, Scotland would have put the French to the sword. Defensively France were good enough though not spectacular and on attack there didn’t really seem to be much of a game plan other than feeding the ball to the battering ram of a centre Mathieu Bastareaud and hope that one of his bullocking charges would make enough ground for some other enterprising French player to take advantage of. To beat England or Ireland France will need to have much more of a game plan than this.
For Scotland, however despite the loss there is much to take heart from this past weekend. Their backline, particularly in the form of the superb Stuart Hogg at fullback were electric at times. Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw was a terrier at the rucks and mauls though sadly unlucky with the boot this match. The game’s only try which saw Scotland swing the ball from one side of the French 22 to the other on the back of some truly superb passing was a pleasure to watch. Despite some disciplinary lapses and basic mistakes as the French ground down the Scots in the second half, Scotland looked good and I am sure that Vern Cotter will be working hard with his charges to fix this in the week leading up to the match with a wounded Welsh side in front of a fervent Scottish crowd. While Scotland at times took their game to another level, France rarely looked as though they would elevate themselves beyond grinding out a laboured win. In the end they got the job done, but France do not look like a team on fire or likely to create any magic moments in the coming weeks, and on the basis of this match it is Scotland who people will want to watch.
Fixtures this weekend
England vs Italy
Saturday, February 14th
This match should be a foregone conclusion on the basis of England’s performance in Wales. With a side brimming with confidence and combinations now clicking nicely across the park, England should be able to keep Italy out of the running for much of the match. On the other hand, Italy’s defence will cause England some problems despite their formidable forward strength. However, I can’t see Italy being able to hold out for long against the white juggernaut. As in the Ireland/Italy game, expect a tight first quarter, but once the English start unlocking the Italian defence, we should see the scoreboard start to tick over at a fairly consistent rate in England’s favour. Italy most likely will score more than the three points they managed against Ireland, but England should score double the number of tries that Ireland scored. In front of a home crowd expect to see England emerge comfortable winners and their backline ensure that England rack up a healthy scoreline and not just through the boot of George Ford.
Ireland vs France
Saturday, February 14th
All eyes will be on Dublin on Saturday, as Ireland look set to really make their statement of intent for this Six Nations campaign. With the return to service of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien, this will be a full strength Irish side. While they scored a comfortable win in Italy, they will need to take their game to another level this weekend especially if they want to entertain hopes of beating the English powerhouse at the beginning of next month.
France on the other hand remain the question mark they always are. However, based on last week’s performance I can’t help feeling that they will ramp up their game but not enough to dispatch a well disciplined and tactically astute Ireland in front of a home crowd. I may be wrong but I can’t help feeling that this is Ireland’s game to win. France certainly didn’t look like they had any surprises up their sleeve last weekend whereas Ireland did. Whereas France were able to force Scotland into costly mistakes at the breakdown last weekend, I expect Ireland to turn the tables on them in that department this weekend and it will be the French who will start to show cracks in their discipline under a ferocious Irish onslaught. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown is becoming legendary, and in their present form I do not see France able to counter this for a full eighty minutes. It may be close, it will certainly be exciting but ultimately Ireland should emerge the winners in Dublin on Saturday. In a battle of two of the best fly halves in the International game, Ireland should have the edge as they have a more complete and structured team.
Scotland vs Wales
Sunday, February 15th.
As I did last week, I am going to stick my neck out on this one and once again call the odds and say that Scotland will cause an upset this weekend. Although they were close to pulling it off last week but fell short, this weekend could be different. Scottish coach Vern Cotter has done wonders with this Scottish team, and they are a hungry, talented and cohesive group of individuals. In front of a home crowd, provided they don’t let the moment overwhelm them and they tighten up the weak points in their game seen in Paris, I can’t help feeling this game is Scotland’s for the taking.
Wales are a wounded beast and thus extremely dangerous with everything to prove. However, in front a rapturous Scottish crowd they will be facing the same intimidating atmosphere they tried to provide their English visitors with last weekend. With players and coaching staff seeming to be out of sync on the communications front, Wales will have to dig deep to overcome Scotland. If Scotland can open up Wales early on then and keep the pressure on for the full eighty minutes, the crisis in Welsh confidence will no doubt leave Wales out of ideas and energy once more by the 70 minute mark. If Wales have to chase or close out the game in the last ten minutes then their track record speaks for itself – it doesn’t look good.
Make no mistake, I think this will be an incredibly close game, but ultimately Scotland may just have the edge on the Welsh, especially if in front of a home crowd they elevate their game to another level from that which lit up the field at times in Paris last weekend. I may be wrong but I stick with an upset here – Scotland are up for this one and they have the talent and skill set to pull it off.