Six Nations Review: Round 1

Six_Nations_Championship.svgWales v England

England’s injury-hit team came back from being eight points down at half time to claim an immense victory in Cardiff. Eleven points from George Ford and tries by Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph gave England revenge for the 30-3 loss in 2013. Five players made their Six Nations debut and the line-up had an incredible 290 fewer caps than the Welsh side.

A classic Halfpenny penalty and a try from Rhys Webb set up Wales for an early 10-0 lead. A merciless first half was followed by a surprisingly poor second-half where England scored thirteen unanswered points. Stuart Lancaster made a few substitutions early in the second half, which had a significant impact and completely opened up the game. Suddenly it was England running the show and playing with energy, flair and determination. Huge waves of powerful runs by hard-hitting ball-carriers followed and it soon paid off with Joseph crossing for his first Test try after a sublime overhead-dummy. Alex Cuthbert’s Sin Bin did not make things easier for a Welsh side that struggled to cope with England’s forwards and to create momentum.

Whereas England got off to a perfect start to a big year, pressure is now on for Wales as they face a must-win game away to Scotland.

Man of the Match: Jonathan Joseph

Italy v Ireland

This match was the most sombre of affairs until the hour mark. Ian Keatley kept his head by slotting four penalty goals and Italy’s only points came from the boot of Rotorua-born Kelly Haimona as Ireland were penalised at a line out. In the week ahead Ian Madigan was exepected to substitute for the ruled out Jonny Sexton but Keatley was named by Schmidt and in the end the Munster man delivered replicating his provincial game in his first ever Six Nations game.

57,000 filled the Olimpico for its final session of Six Nations rugby as the Italian side will return to the Stadio Flaminio next spring, the crowd in Rome were awake (mainly through choruses of the Fields of Athenry), but from a home perspective they were not given too much to shout about. Leonardo Ghilraldin was sent to the bin and Ireland crossed from the resulting set-piece, 25 seconds later. Connor Murray sneaking over following two pick-up-and-go’s by his forward pack. Tommy O’Donnell crossed too. O’Donnell, who was meant to be on the bench, but came into the starting fifteen as Leinster back-row Sean O’Brien pulled up in the warm-up, and could miss the rest of the tournament. His deputee galloped over from 45 metres with a clean break and Andrea Masi, player of the championship a few years back, produced a tackle that could only be compared to a gust of wind onto O’Donnell’s body, making his seventh international appearance at the age of 27. A 23-point gap in international rugby must be applauded and keeping Jacques Brunel’s team at bay too, but realistically they never even threatened the Irish 22, let alone the Irish tryline. Once Tommaso Allan was introduced, Italy began to play and Luke McLean showed his worth, but Italy only managed one clean break throughout the eight minutes. The holders started as expected, Italy did not live up to theirs. Bigger games ahead next weekend.

Man of the Match: Ian Keatley

France v Scotland

Fifteen points from the boot of Camille Lopez were enough for France to grab a try-less victory in a very physical game against a hard-hitting and determined Scottish side. The faceless expressions on the French bench at full-time pretty much sums up their game as they failed to convert substantial periods of possession into tries in the first half. A late first-half try by Dougie Fife was followed by ‘organised chaos’ in the second half, as one BBC-pundit put it. The French side looks really strong man-for-man on paper, but Phillipe Saint-Andre has yet to invent the magic formula to combine the individualistic flair, brilliance, and expertise in his squad and turn ‘Les Bleus’ into an outstanding collective. It will take much more than five kickable penalties to see off Ireland in Dublin next weekend.

The ninth consecutive opening loss in the Six Nations aside, there are plenty of positive aspects to take into the next fixtures for Vern Cotter’s side. The Scottish scrum was stellar and so were their line-outs. Moreover, the individual performances of Alex Dunbar, Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett, Greig Laidlaw, and Finn Russell were particularly impressive. Wales will struggle if Scotland bring the same work-rate, intensity, defensive structure, attacking variety and risk-taking to Murrayfield next weekend. The number of penalties deep into their own half must be reduced though, as noted by skipper Laidlaw.

Man of the Match: Finn Russell.