This year’s Six Nations got off to a superb start this weekend, and the tournament’s billing as one of the most closely competitive tournaments in years seemed to be spot on the money. As Tournament favourites along with England, Ireland got an exceptionally rude introduction to this year’s Six Nations as Scotland finally delivered on the promises they have been making for so long in a superb victory at Murrayfield. At Twickenham a decidedly average looking England for much of the match up until the final quarter, were pushed to the wire by a French side that is clearly on the way up after years of false starts. Meanwhile in Rome, Italy looked exceptionally competitive in the first half against Wales only to dramatically implode in the second as a Welsh side looked to answer their critics and prepare themselves for a bruising showdown with England this coming weekend. There were plenty of thrills and spills with some exciting attacking rugby on display at times, no doubt egged on by the introduction of the bonus points system this year. However, the message was clear – after the damp squib of last year’s tournament – the Six Nations is back with a bang and we’re only just getting started!
Meanwhile although it lacked the spectacle and grand stages of the Six Nations, the second annual Americas Rugby Championship got underway. Canada found themselves up against Argentina in very challenging wintry conditions, but the snow certainly didn’t slow down the men from South America and Canada were given a salutary lesson as Argentina once again showed the depth and talent that is making it such a powerhouse in the modern game.
Scotland vs Ireland
Final Score – Scotland 27/Ireland 22
In a tournament that could provide many banana skins, Ireland were the first slip up. While few if any were under any illusions about the challenge facing Ireland in their opener against a Scottish side that has some blistering pace in attack, most were still predicting a tight Irish victory based on the supposed superiority of their forward pack. While that threat was there it was often negated and definitely held in check by some solid Scottish efforts up front which then provided the platform for their exceptional set of backs to really cut loose. Scotland were deserved winners last Saturday in Murrayfield and Ireland have only themselves to blame for a shambolic first half performance which gave Scotland the momentum which ensured they never looked back. Ireland fought a valiant rearguard action to get themselves right back into the match and even the lead in the second half, but they had ultimately left themselves with too much to do.
It was a great Six Nations opener between two highly competitive teams and provided the spectacle and excitement which will hopefully set the tone for the rest of the tournament. As expected Scotland were having a torrid time in the scrums especially in the early stages of the match, but their open play was full of exuberance and flair. They put the Irish defences under huge pressure right from the get go as Ireland just could not get to grips with Scotland’s explosive start. Scotland were just as competitive at the breakdowns and in the loose and were the more effective of the two sides in creating the opportunities to unleash their back line who revelled in asking the Irish defences questions they seemed to struggle to answer. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg’s opening try was a joy to watch no matter which side you were supporting.
Scotland would soon strike again through that man Hogg, after a spirited charge from Ireland into the Scottish 22 led by flanker Sean O’Brien. Scotland would work the ball back up the field to ultimately unleash Hogg into space, with the fleet-footed fullback selling Ireland a dummy which two Irish defenders bought hook, line and sinker. Twenty-four minutes in and Scotland were ahead 14-0. Ireland once more mounted an assault on the Scottish defences, but unlike the Scots it appeared unstructured and lacking in committment at times. Some heroic Scottish defending kept the Irish in check but ultimately a highly risky pass by Irish winger Simon Zebo was fortunate in finding his colleague Keith Earls on the outside and Ireland would get their first five pointer. Scotland would then get themselves right back in the driving seat in a passage of play that left Ireland scratching their heads in disbelief and showing a naiveté in defence that we are not accustomed to seeing from the Men in Green. With a Scottish throw in to the lineout close to the try line, Scotland loaded the lineout with three backs. The Irish defences obligingly left Scottish centre Alex Dunbar an exceptionally inviting gap to charge through after he had snatched the ball out of the air. The play was so obvious it had probably been on the front pages of the sports sections in papers in Scotland the day before, leaving us utterly perplexed at Ireland’s seeming confusion and lack of defensive organisation as the ball was thrown in. A bewildered and clearly rattled Ireland headed for the changing rooms at half time while Scotland revelled in a 21-8 point lead.
Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s words in the changing room at half time were obviously not for the faint-hearted as the Irish side which came out for the second half was a very different beast. The intensity went up by several notches and all of a sudden it seemed to be the Irish side that made the headlines last year in Chicago that was once more on the field. Ireland looked better organised and mounted a ferocious assault on the Scottish defences. The Irish forwards were once more playing like men possessed resulting in a try from Irish lock Ian Henderson. The game would swing back and forth between both sides with some bruising battles in the forwards and some exceptional running from both sides. There was no shortage of excitement with Ireland seeming to gain the upper hand. Irish fly half Paddy Jackson would score an excellent try of his own putting Ireland just in front at 22-21. With ten minutes to go a nail biting finish was on the cards. However, Irish discipline and composure once more started to crack while Scotland’s held. Ireland would give away two penalties which Scotland Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw didn’t hesitate to turn into points. Those last six points would break Ireland’s thrilling comeback and the stands in Murrayfield erupted in joyful pandemonium and a fair amount of emotion as the final whistle saw Scotland start their campaign with a superb 27-22 victory over Ireland.
Scotland if they keep it up are more than just dark horses and do have a genuine shot at lifting the trophy if they can keep their momentum. They played a brilliant game of rugby and have become such an exciting team to watch especially once their backs start chewing up the mileage on the pitch. Ireland are unlikely to play as poorly as they did in the first half again this tournament and while still clearly in the hunt they can ill afford any more nasty surprises like the one they received at Murrayfield, and a bonus point win in Rome this weekend against Italy is surely a non-negotiable objective.
England vs France
Final Score – England 19/France 16
While not quite as entertaining as the match between Celtic rivals Ireland and Scotland, this match provided one of the more exciting encounters between age-old rivals France and England. After their extraordinary successes of 2016, England didn’t look quite as polished and composed as we have come to expect under new Coach Eddie Jones and at times were stretched to the limit by a French side that showed some clear signs of a return to the glory days of French rugby. England managed to regroup and after a decidedly average opening sixty minutes finally found their stride by depleting the benches and putting in a much more energetic and convincing performance to ultimately seal the deal and start their Six Nations campaign off with an important win.
England looked just a little sluggish in the opening stages of this match and all the momentum appeared to be with France. Furthermore England seemed to lack confidence and lapses in discipline allowed France to pull ahead with a penalty in the first ten minutes. This was soon answered by England’s Owen Farrell getting his own penalty goal to keep the scores level. An unfortunate error by winger Johnny May saw him sit out ten minutes in the sin bin for a sloppy tip tackle on French centre Gael Fickou. French fly half Camille Lopez kept racking up the penalty goals as another tackle by English lock Maro Itoje on the rampaging figure of French number eight Louis Picamoles was deemed high. Nevertheless despite France having the more damaging attacking runs especially in the shape of number eight Louis Picamoles, who was a wrecking ball all night, and French fullback Scott Spedding, the scores would be level at half time. However, alarm bells were ringing for England particularly defensively as had the French passing been a bit better and their ball in hand work been a bit more precise, France would have crossed the English white line on at least two occasions in the first half. It was an uncharacteristic display from a usually confident English side, with their defense seeming to be more than just a little porous and disorganised at times.
The second half continued in much the same vein, although England were unlucky to not get a try after a superb passage of play that left winger Elliot Daly’s foot just nudging the touch line as he put the ball down after some excellent cover defence from his opposite number Noa Nakaitaci. France would get the first try of the game through the exceptional replacement prop Rabah Slimani. With less than twenty minutes to go, there was a sense that another upset of tournament favorites was on the cards. However, England called in wholesale changes from the bench and England’s fortunes suddenly went from zero to hero in the blink of an eye. Leading the charge was flanker James Haskell who immediately tore huge holes in the rapidly tiring French defences. English centre Ben Te’o was also making his presence felt off the bench and in the 70th minute put England back in contention with an outstanding try. Owen Farrell would kick the conversion and England would take the lead that they would doggedly hold on to for the remaining ten minutes, as they emerged the winners from a nervous contest at 19-16.
It hadn’t been the most convincing performance from England by a long shot, but in the end they did enough to avoid an upset that could have been the talking point of the weekend. They know they will have to up their game considerably if they are to avoid the next banana skin that awaits them in the shape of Wales in a difficult encounter away in the cauldron of Cardiff at the Principality Stadium. For France it was a gut-wrenching loss after such an impressive performance at times. France are starting to look exceptionally dangerous and once the finishing skills are in place they are going to be a very difficult team to beat especially at home, something Scotland are no doubt keenly aware of as this weekend’s set of fixtures approaches.
Italy vs Wales
Final Score – Italy 7/Wales 33
While few doubted the end result of this match, not many would have predicted a scoreline favouring Italy by 7-3 at half time. If anything Italy were perhaps the better and more enterprising of the two sides for the first 40 minutes, making their rapid demise in the second half all the more frustrating for supporters and new Coach Conor O’Shea. The usual suspects played a huge role in Italy’s first half heroics, with Captain Fantastic Sergio Parisse once more stealing the headlines. Wales however, pulled rapidly away in the second half, and much like England the day before it was the bench that seemed to make all the difference.
Italy put in a powerhouse first half performance and their scrum was clearly getting the better of the Welsh outfit. The confidence this was giving Italy was reflected in the decision to avoid kicking for points after spending long periods camped in the Welsh half, and instead kick for touch and rely on their forward power to crash over for a five pointer. Perseverance finally paid off and on the half hour mark some concerted forward pressure on Wales would see Italian scrum half Eduardo Gori crash over for the first try of the match. However, Italy’s renowned problems with discipline would see them come short once more as they gave away a costly penalty allowing fullback Leigh Halfpenny to slot the three points and keep Wales in touch of the scoreline. Italy were clearly the more buoyant side heading into the changing rooms as they ended the half leading 7-3.
However, Italy’s age-old problems of struggling to play a game of two halves and ongoing discipline issues would plague them throughout the second half, allowing Wales to comfortably deal a series of death blows in the final quarter. With half an hour to go, an increasingly exhausted looking Italy were struggling to contain a Welsh side really starting to find some rhythm. The benches were emptied for both sides and Wales clearly had the advantage. Leigh Halfpenny had been making the Italian lapses in discipline count on the scoreboard in Wales’ favour and in the last quarter Wales began running in the tries as Italy ran out of gas and ideas. In the last quarter Wales would run in three unanswered tries in rapid succession, starting with centre Jonathan Davies and then one each from the wings through Liam Williams and George North. The final whistle blew and Italy were left to reflect on what could have been if they had played a game of eighty minutes. Wales would have been disappointed to not bag the bonus point through a fourth try but it was still a confidence boosting game heading into the difficult clash with tournament favourites England this weekend. With Wales topping the table at the end of a riveting opening weekend of Six Nations rugby, they surely must feel a justified sense of optimism about their chances against England let alone the rest of the Six Nations sides.
Americas Rugby Championship
Canada vs Argentina
Final Score – Canada 6/Argentina 20
In truly appalling conditions Canada and Argentina got their Americas Rugby Championship underway in the snow in Langford. Argentina seemed to adapt much better to the conditions than the Canadians, despite the conditions being a more regular part of the winter landscape in Canada than Argentina. Although Argentina are fielding a non-Test side in the competition, the gap between the two countries was plain to see. Argentina were infinitely more structured and composed than the Canadians and their forward prowess and line speed in the backs left Canada wrong-footed for the full eighty minutes.
Canada struggled to contain the prowess of Argentina’s big forward pack and discipline suffered as a result, with Argentina taking a three-point lead after only the second minute through a penalty kick. Ten minutes in flanker Lucas Rumball made the unfortunate mistake of playing an Argentine player in the air under the high ball and ended up leaving Canada a man short for the next ten minutes. Despite this Canada put in one of their better shifts in the game and were able to put some serious pressure on the Argentine defences leading to Canada’s first successful penalty kick. For the rest of the half both sides would attempt to probe each other’s strengths and weaknesses while adapting to the challenging conditions. Nevertheless, Canada headed to the changing rooms feeling pleased with a 3-3 tie after forty minutes.
In the second half however, Argentina gradually began to turn the screw on Canada and seemed to have a better understanding of the conditions and how to play them to their advantage. A remarkably soft try in the 50th minute saw Argentina take the lead at 10-3. Canada struck back once scrum half Phil Mack came off the bench to replace fly half Robbie Tovey, with starting scrum half Gordon McRorie moving to the fly half position. As readers of this blog are well aware we feel that Mack always adds some much-needed pace and vitality to the scrum half position in place of McRorie’s rather pedestrian and predictable service. Mack immediately made his presence felt, spearheading a passage of play which almost saw Canada score a try, but replacement centre George Barton was unable to hang onto the pass in the slippery conditions. McRorie would still make a successful penalty kick shortly after to keep Canada in touch trailing 10-6.
However, Canada had been missing tackles on Argentina’s energetic backs all night, making McRorie’s decision to kick to an area of open field that had three Argentinian backs loitering with intent, perplexing to say the least. Canada paid dearly for this moment of indiscretion as Argentine replacement fullback Segundo Tuculet was waiting with open arms. Tuculet is the younger brother of Pumas superstar fullback Joaquin Tuculet, so the pedigree is there for all to see. As he slipped through three Canadian tackles the difference in depth between the two sides especially in terms of their respective benches was painfully obvious. Canada would scrap it out to the end, despite Argentina still being the more enterprising in attack in conditions that continued to deteriorate. For the last three minutes Argentina would be a man down after a yellow card, but despite a valiant effort Canada simply couldn’t find any answers or means of adding to their points tally against a resolute and clearly fitter Argentine defence.
Canada’s next encounter this weekend with Chile should be a much tighter affair and the weather will hopefully be more conducive to the type of game Canada wants to play. Still in order to be competitive against their next big challenge, the USA, Canada has a very long to do list. We hope that some of the talent that really impressed us last year really comes to the fore by then. For now we still continue to like the look of flankers Lucas Rumball and Admir Cejanovic, and really hope that scrum half Phil Mack gets a shot at starting in Canada’s next few fixtures. If the conditions had been better we probably would have seen much more from an impressive set of backs, most notably winger Taylor Paris and centre Nick Blevins, but also feel that centre Brock Staller and winger Dan Moor will impress as much as they did last year as the tournament progresses. Early days yet for Canada but hopefully it’s onwards and upwards from here!
Here’s an excellent video wrap up from Bspor TV on YouTube, of all the Round 1 action so give them a big thumbs up!
Here are TSN’s highlights of the snowball fight between Canada and Argentina in the Americas Rugby Championship.