The opening weekend of the Six Nations rewrote all the predictions we had going into the tournament and provided us with plenty of excitement and more than a few surprises. I for one feel I owe Italy and their Coach Jacques Brunel a serious apology as for all intents and purposes we had already consigned them to the wooden spoon. What we saw in the tournament’s opening game in Paris was inspirational, and yes once again that man Sergio Parisse was at the heart of it, while his young charges put on a display that surely must have given Italian supporters enormous hope for the future. France meanwhile looked slightly unsure of themselves as they started a new chapter under Coach Guy Noves but there were more than enough glimmers of hope to stir French hearts and send out warning signs to the other Six Nations competitors as the competition unfolds.
England and Scotland despite all the hype, served up the least excitement over the weekend. England’s new beginnings under Coach Eddie Jones were essentially successful with a solid win, but England while got they job done clinically and effectively were hardly a revelation. Eddie Jones said before the match that as their first outing post the World Cup, a win was all that mattered and that was very much what we got in Murrayfield on Saturday. Like France there were glimpses of what this English side could do once it really settles but for now it is a case of get the job done and keep a lid on the excitement factor. Scotland meanwhile showed plenty of promise, and Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg got us on our feet on several occasions only for it to all to go to waste as Scotland once again let themselves down with some poor execution and decision making at key moments. For their supporters it was yet another tantalising look at what Scotland could be but sadly just isn’t.
On Sunday the lid finally came off this tournament as Wales and Ireland went to battle in Dublin. Although a draw is something most of us never want to see, the manner in which it was achieved easily made this contest the most exciting and riveting of the three matches this weekend. The sheer pace from both sides for the full eighty minutes was spectacular as two extremely well prepared teams desperately sought to find a weakness in the other’s game plan. Ireland answered all their critics and showed that on the basis of this performance they are very much in the running to hang on to the Six Nations silverware for a third consecutive year. Meanwhile Wales showed once more their incredible grit and determination as they battled their way back from a 13-0 deficit even without their star playmaker fly half Dan Biggar. In the end there was nothing in it between two outstanding sides and a draw really was the only fair reflection of a spectacular eighty minutes of rugby.
France vs Italy
Final Score – France 23/Italy 21
I must confess to being way off the mark on my initial predictions as to how this match would play out. Full marks have to go to Italy for a performance that clearly laid down a marker to their critics that they deserve their place in the Six Nations and will do so for a long time to come as a group of young players all stood up and were counted in a superb performance in Paris. There is no denying that they were led from the front by a Sergio Parisse at his best, just watch the footage of the Italian dressing room before they ran onto the pitch to see how fired up Italy was. Some have criticised Parisse for being too involved in Saturday at times, but I beg to differ. Agreed his drop goal attempt was not one of his better judgement calls at the end of the match but you still can’t fault the man for leading from the front for the full eighty minutes and inspiring his young charges to one of the best Italian performances I have seen in a very long time. The lacklustre Italy of the World Cup was nowhere in evidence in Paris on Saturday as they looked exceptionally well drilled in defence and attack. France on the other hand in their first outing under new Coach Guy Noves showed plenty of promise of what they can do as they settle but at times looked a bit rudderless in direction. There was some superb individual flair on display but as a team they looked far less cohesive than Italy. Lastly, the decision to use scrum-half Sebastien Bezy as their first choice kicker for points over the much more accurate fly half Jules Plisson defied all logic as countless points went begging till sanity prevailed and the baton was passed to Plisson. Had this been done right from the start then Italy’s heroics would not have had such a damaging effect on the score line. Despite the result and the fact that France eked out a narrow victory, as far as we are concerned Italy won the hearts and imaginations of rugby fans around the world on Saturday and as a result should definitely feel a renewed sense of optimism about their fortunes in this Six Nations.
Italy came charging out of the blocks in this match and almost got a superb try for their initial efforts through winger Leonardo Sarto who once more proved in this match what a potent attacking threat he is for Italy. A lovely little box kick from scrum half Eduardo Gori would have resulted in a sure try from Sarto had he just managed to hang on to the ball. Still it was a taste of things to come. Italy asserted a clear physical dominance over the French in the opening quarter for the game and turned the ball over on numerous occasions. Fly half Carlo Canna in the first ten minutes justified my faith in his abilities through a superb drop goal after ten minutes.
There was no question that France were struggling especially in the physical contests and Italy clearly had the measure of them as well as ensuring that France’s new wonder weapon, winger Virimi Vakatawa, would be constantly tested and put under pressure. However, France showed the class they are capable of at the end of the first quarter as Vakatawa showed just what a threat he can be as France continually probed the Italian defenses through some lovely passing. After some sustained pressure Vakatawa broke free through a lovely offload from fullback Maxime Medard and dotted down in the corner. It did look in the replay like Vakatawa’s foot had grazed the touchline, but it was never queried and still doesn’t take away from a superb passage of play from France. Scrum-half Sebastien Bezy lined up the conversion but was way off the mark, a problem he would have all afternoon until fly half Jules Plisson was given the kicking duties. Ten minutes later, with Vakatawa again providing enormous problems for the Italian defence, a rare disciplinary error from Parisse allowed France a quick tap and go which caught the Italians napping and flanker Damien Chouly would dot down in the right hand corner for another five pointer which Bezy would once more fail to convert.
As the second quarter got underway, Sergio Parisse put Italy back in the driving seat after a superb rolling maul from the lineout and fly half Carlo Canna made no mistake with the boot and put Italy in front with the conversion 10-8. As mentioned above, for me Carlo Canna stood out all match and despite some inevitable mistakes given his youth and inexperience he showed some enormous potential for Italy in this match and surely must be a key part of Italy’s strategy in building towards Japan and 2019. Canna started the second half for Italy in fine form kicking a solid penalty for Italy, and then feeding off some real skill and commitment from his Captain Parisse, the young fly half would score a superb try. France’s Vakatawa pulled off a try saving tackle on the rampaging Parisse but the offload from Italian scrum half Eduardo Gori put Canna in space and an easy conversion followed. The Paris crowd went quiet as they suddenly saw their side trailing 18-10.
The end of the third quarter saw France spark back into life and regain their composure. Once more we saw some superb running lines from France and the offloading was exceptional. Vakatawa was once more in the thick of things, shrugging off tacklers, but the ability of France to spread the ball wide and keep the ball in the contact areas must surely have given Coach Noves confidence for the rest of the tournament. This time it was winger Hugo Bonneval’s turn to dot down in the corner and suddenly France seemed to have found their second wind. The kicking duties were sensibly handed to fly half Jules Plisson and France were back in the hunt trailing by one point.
The remaining quarter would see penalties traded on both sides as a series of sniping attacks from both teams would come to nothing. Italy’s Canna showed how fearless he was in defence as he brought down a thundering Vakatawa in full flight in a heroic tackle but one which sadly had to see him leave the field as the medics took him into the changing room for the mandatory concussion protocols. Kelly Haimona came on to replace him and to his credit managed to kick a vital penalty to keep Italy’s noses just in front with six minutes to go before the final whistle. However, now that the kicking duties had been passed to Plisson for France their accuracy with the boot had dramatically improved. In a match that had left both sides exhausted France capitalised slightly more in terms of discipline. Plisson booted a massive long-range penalty and France were in front 23-12 with five minutes left on the clock. Italy were immense in the last few minutes of the match and it was all about the Azurri as they desperately sought to carve out an historic win. As the clock ticked into the red and with Italy dominating possession Parisse suddenly found himself in the pocket in front of the posts. However, Italy’s Captain may be many remarkable things for his team, but a kicker is not one of them. One can understand him taking the option as Italy had few real chances left and the next time the ball went to ground or Italy lost possession the game would have been over. Still history may say that it might have been prudent to hang onto the ball just one phase more as the momentum of play was all Italy’s. Sadly, it wasn’t to be and Italy can only consider the what ifs as to what might have been.
France emerged the winners but it had a slightly hollow ring to it, as in many ways Italy had been the star of the show. However, when it mattered France were slightly more clinical and had Plisson been kicking for points right from the start then the score line would have been much more in France’s favor. However, when France clicked on attack they looked really impressive with Vakatawa making a superb transition from his sevens success. France ran some lovely lines on Saturday and as they continue to grow in confidence they surely must be feeling optimistic about their chances in the tournament. I can’t help feeling that ultimately Six Nations silverware may not be on the cards for France this year but they are likely to build a solid platform in the process for the future. Italy meanwhile despite the loss can take huge heart from this match, as they looked very much like a complete unit with all their young guns firing. Parisse was immense for his country and although he sometimes could be accused of getting carried away with his role in the team, he nevertheless inspires his team to incredible heights and the challenge for Italy will be to find someone amongst this group of youngsters who can carry his mantle in the future.
Scotland vs England
Final Score – Scotland 9/England 15
It may not have been pretty at times from both sides, but ultimately England can feel pleased that their first outing post the nightmare episode of the World Cup, was an effective endeavour that showed they have a platform for getting results. While it still may appear slightly predictable and one which a more streetwise side could have found weaknesses to expose, England are clearly rebuilding and the speed and execution needed out wide to really challenge the likes of the Southern Hemisphere sides will come. Scotland meanwhile once more showed plenty of promise but a seeming lack of conviction and killer instinct left them once more bereft of results. As evidenced by fullback Stuart Hogg they are an exciting side to watch but their inability to hang onto the ball at key moments, poor execution and a lack of composure when it came to decision-making once more served to be their undoing.
To be fair to both sides there was very little in the match in the first quarter with both sides taking chances when they presented themselves. England fly half George Ford is struggling with form this year and at times this was painfully evident in this match. He found himself in the pocket ten minutes into the match but a drop goal that in the past would have been a sure fire 3 pointer for him went astray. England’s clear domination of possession paid dividends as lock George Kruis would burrow his way through the Scottish defence to get England’s first try. Owen Farrell playing at centre would add the extra two points for the conversion and England look comfortable.
This seemed to spark Scotland into action much to the relief of their supporters and the next twenty minutes up to half time would see the game ebb and flow between the two sides. Greg Laidlaw would get Scotland’s first points through a penalty. However, we would see a rare miss from him a few minutes later after Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Tommy Seymour put England’s George Ford under enormous pressure resulting in another shot at goal for Laidlaw. Despite Scotland having the edge continued poor execution from Scotland was costing them dearly especially in the lineouts and at the breakdown. Scotland would build a promising attack only to lose the ball in the contact areas time and again. Another Laidlaw penalty just before half time would keep them in touch trailing 7-6, but it should have been so much more. All credit to England however, as they looked the more composed of the two sides under pressure.
Scotland kept up the momentum as they came out for the second half, but ultimately England would once more show that they were the better of the two sides in terms of execution. With the Vunipola brothers making life exceptionally difficult for the Scottish defences all afternoon, Mako Vunipola would set up a platform to allow the ball to be fed out wide to winger Jack Nowell who used every inch of limited space in front of him to maximum effect to put England ahead 12-6. Farrell missed the difficult conversion but now although there was no need for Scotland to panic, you couldn’t help feeling that unless they fixed their handling issues it was going to be difficult to see them getting past England’s defences which were proving to be rock solid. Then came a moment that perhaps epitomised the problems plaguing Scottish rugby despite its obvious talents. A mistimed pass from English scrum half Ben Youngs as England attacked the Scottish line, would see Scottish fly half Finn Russell make a quick interception. As he burst out of the blocks with fullback Stuart Hogg tearing alongside him on the outside with only a wrong footed George Ford to beat, Russell for some reason decided to hack the ball on with it wobbling into touch. Had he offloaded to Stuart Hogg instead there are few that doubt Scotland would have suddenly found themselves with an easy five pointer and a conversion under the posts, putting them 13-12 ahead. It is precisely this sort of poor decision making that Scotland has to remedy if this exceptionally talented and exciting team are ever to get away from being on the wrong side of the score line when the final whistle is blown.
Scotland continued to deteriorate as England’s superior quality bench started to take its toll into the last quarter. A pointless scrum penalty saw England inch a further three points ahead to 15-6. Laidlaw would get a chance for Scotland to narrow the gap with a well earned penalty kick, but that was far as it would go for Scotland as they would have to settle for a 15-9 loss to the Men in White. England simply dominated Scotland for the last ten minutes and the Scots were left to ponder what might have been. With such a talented backline spearheaded by the lightning speed of fullback Stuart Hogg, Scottish supporters must be frustrated beyond belief that they never really looked like ever crossing for a try. Time and again a fabulous break spearheaded by Hogg would fade into nothing by the time it got to the English 22.
England may have not been as flash in attack at times, and most of their points came from a suffocating and dominant forward performance of old but in the end it was devastatingly effective. England may not be making their Southern Hemisphere rivals feel concerned at the moment, but with their forward platform clearly intact and a set of backs who can light up a stadium when given the chance, then surely what we saw on Saturday was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this side can do in the new Eddie Jones era. England will need to keep their wits about them against a fired up Italy in Rome, while Scotland has the unenviable task of travelling to Cardiff to take on a frustrated but clearly potent Wales. Given the choice I think most of us would be feeling a lot more comfortable about the work ahead of them in preparing for next Saturday if they were wearing Eddie Jones shoes rather than Vern Cotter’s.
Ireland vs Wales
Final Score – Ireland 16/Wales 16
There is no question that this ended up being the game of the weekend in terms of spectacle, despite many people thinking that ultimately this game would swing in favour of the Welsh up against a depleted Irish side. No such fear as two evenly matched teams went at each other hammer and tongs for the full eighty minutes with neither side giving an inch in the final quarter. Intensely physical yet having more opportunities than we had seen in the previous two matches it was an epic conclusion to a weekend of Six Nations rugby. While neither side will be happy with the draw, both must surely be considered as contenders for the Six Nations title if this kind of form is maintained for the rest of the Championship. Both teams showed enterprise and speed on attack while being utterly steadfast in defence. Wales leaked a try in the first quarter but then held firm for the remainder of the match and showed some superb defensive skills. They responded to the Irish early dominance with a well worked try of their own early in the second half as they clawed their way back into a match where Ireland had streaked ahead by thirteen points. The second half saw the pendulum start to swing Wales way as they dominated possession for the first quarter of the second half at one point recycling the ball through an extraordinary 28 phases. The last fifteen minutes of this match seesawed from one end to the other and left the Aviva spectators enthralled and on their feet till the final whistle. As two exhausted and battered teams left the field, despite the draw a marker had been laid for the rest of the competition. Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt’s charges are without a doubt the two most streetwise and hardened units in the competition and are likely to only become more difficult to topple as the competition wears on.
Ireland were considered by many to be the underdogs in this match-up, a label they clearly relished. I personally wouldn’t go as far as saying this was Ireland’s B-side as many were calling it, as up against Wales supposed A side the Irish acquitted themselves extremely well. However, Wales clearly has some depth and plenty of the character they showed at the World Cup. As Welsh fans held their breath as all star fly half and kicker Dan Biggar limped off the field in the first quarter, they surely must have taken heart in the fact that his replacement Rhys Priestland made sure that Wales stayed on track throughout the match and made a remarkable comeback from being 13-0 down at one point. Meanwhile Irish fans must have been delighted to see fly half Johnny Sexton once more in full song in an Irish shirt while others whose form at club level has been less than stellar this year such as Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip put in a superb shift all afternoon and were clearly back to their best in the green jersey. Meanwhile the backrow partnership of South African born Irish debutant CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell proved devastating and for much of the game clearly matched and even outplayed at times their much vaunted Welsh opposite numbers Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton. Simon Zebo did, as predicted, display some defensive weaknesses at fullback but made up for it with some dazzling breaks through the Welsh lines. Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw were an effective centre pairing for Ireland with Payne playing with some real adventure and enthusiasm. Wales can still be pleased with the efforts of Tipuric and Warburton and for me Tipuric continues to be one of the most potent weapons in the Welsh attack and defense with a fantastic work rate at the breakdown. Lastly, Welsh lock Alun Wyn-Jones caused havoc at the lineouts and was often leading the Welsh charge through a resolute Irish defence. In short, it was an epic tussle and made for a riveting spectacle.
Ireland got proceedings off to a blistering start and though it may have caught Wales slightly off guard they quickly started to match the intensity of everything the Irish were throwing at them. However, the Irish were clearly dictating the pace of the game in the first half hour of the match. Debut lock CJ Stander after providing the crowd with a rousing and passionate rendition of the Irish national anthem was a powerhouse of the Irish assault on the Welsh in the opening minutes. Sexton was at his best in an Irish shirt again and the fly half made short working of kicking a penalty derived from some superb forward pressure from Stander. The Welsh supporters winced in agony as Dan Biggar limped off the field within the first ten minutes but replacement Rhys Priestland quickly settled into the fly half role and showed once more the extraordinary depth Wales has to cope with injuries.
The first half hour though was all about Irish attack and Welsh defence. The Irish ultimately got the better of their Welsh opponents through a welcome return to form of Irish scrum half Conor Murray. Despite a subpar season so far at Munster, Murray’s return in an Irish jersey injected some much needed pace and vitality back into his game. After some outstanding carrying work by CJ Stander and centre Robbie Henshaw, Murray was able to squirt through a gap in the Welsh defence to claim the first five pointer of the afternoon. As you could hear a pin drop in the Aviva, Sexton made no mistake once more with the conversion. After two successful penalty kicks and a converted try Ireland found themselves comfortably in the lead 13-0 approaching half time.
Wales would dig deep and a messy but still unfortunate tackle from Irish winger Keith Earls would see Wales getting a penalty which Priestland would successfully use to get Wales first points on the board. Next up Wales used their brute power off an untidy scrum to send Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau crashing over the Irish line. Faletau had been threatening all afternoon and suddenly the playing field looked a lot more even. As thirty players trudged off the field at half time with the score 13-10 in Ireland’s favour, the crowd took the opportunity along with the players to regain their voices and catch their breath.
Wales came charging out of the blocks at half time with their tails up and it was now Ireland’s turn to defend like demons. Wales would get a penalty as Irish discipline slipped slightly and the sides drew level at 13-13. The exhausting pace and physicality of the game was starting to take its toll though. A superb break from Sexton looked like Ireland were about to get the upper hand once more only to have him offload the ball to winger Andrew Trimble who was bundled into touch in short order. Wales then put together a phenomenal attack deep into Irish territory which saw them maintain possession for a remarkable 28 phases before getting a well earned penalty which Priestland used to put the Welsh in front 16-13. Ireland hit back minutes later through the boot of Sexton as Ireland went on the attack and with minutes to go it was an even contest at 16-16. Both sides played the remainder of the match as though it were a World Cup final and were clearly playing for the win and not the draw. Neither side would take the easy option of booting the ball into touch to facilitate the final whistle. In the end in one of the most evenly contested games of rugby I can recall, two very impressive sides had to settle for the draw and to be honest as frustrating as it was for both sides it was a fair reflection of the spectacle that both teams had produced.
While I feel that Wales are ultimately still going to be the team to beat in this tournament, Ireland certainly made everyone sit up and take notice that although wounded, as defending champions they rightly consider themselves very much in the hunt for the spoils. With arguably the two most tactically gifted coaches in the shape of Wales’ Warren Gatland and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt directing strategy and a stable of highly talented and committed players, the other Six Nations competitors will have to raise their games significantly if they want to tame these two Celtic tigers over the coming weeks!