February every year brings about the tribal tournament that is the 6 nations. With there being local rivalries taking place every week the fans are always engaged and bragging rights are to be claimed for another 12 months. This is why the 6 nations is the most passionate rugby tournament on the planet. Last weekend we had the round 1 games and here are my thoughts on the matches.
France vs Italy – 23-21
Despite playing at home France were wearing their unfamiliar white kit and a return to the traditional French style of play was expected under their new coach Guy Noves. This optimism was further underlined with Basteraud and Spedding not being in the squad. For Italy not many people gave them a hope as they had never won at the Stade de France and also started with a couple of new caps in their starting XV.
This game was an end to end game with both defenses looking a bit porous and looking at the match stats the close final score of France 23-21 Italy was expected. Both sides made in excess of 400m and possession was nearly 50/50. The Italians looked to be moving away from their traditional strength of the pack and players like Michele Campagnaro were able to find plenty of space to run into. Ultimately Italy were unlucky not to win the game with captain magnificent Sergio Parisse missing a drop goal that would have won the match. I couldn’t help but feel that the set up for the drop goal was all a bit rushed and if the game management from Italy was a bit better they could have played through another couple of phases and setup the drop goal better. France were not as impressive as expected and the early loss of Louis Picamoles could have been a significant factor in this. They were fortunate however to have Jules Plisson is decent nick to guide them through the game and take over the kicking after Sebastien Bezy missed a large number of kicks.
An impressive debut was had by Virimi Vakatawa and it was all the more amazing that he currently doesn’t have a club side! Other players that stood out for me were Jonathan Danty, Leonardo Sarto, Francesco Minto and Carlo Canna despite his kicking radar being a bit off.
Scotland vs England 9-15
Scotland were riding the crest of the wave after their world cup performances and I was expecting them to put in a big performance against an England side that is in transition after a dismal world cup. That said Scotland haven’t won in 8 years against England in the 6 nations and haven’t scored a try in the fixture in 12 years. So as to which way this was going to go nobody was too sure.
England came out of the blocks like Usain Bolt and for the first 20 minutes they had Scotland pinned back in their 22 and really kept the crowd quiet with George Kruis powering through a couple of Scottish tacklers to score a try. As fatigue started to set in Scotland started to come back into the game with England seemingly wanting to kick the ball to Stuart Hogg and have him run it back to them. The breakdown was a bit of a mess with John Barclay and John Hardie on the flanks being a particular nuisance for the English back row. At half time the game was still in the balance with the score being Scotland 6-7 England. In the second half the English set piece was still very solid and Eddie Jones started to empty the bench, and ultimately it was the strength in depth of the replacements which made the difference in the final score with Jack Nowell going over for a try in the corner after good work from Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell. This wasn’t the best of performances from either side but for England Eddie Jones will be happy as they got the win without looking overly threatened due to the wastefulness of some of the Scottish players notably Finn Russell and Tommie Seymour.
Stand out players from the game were Billy Vunipola who seemed to make ground at will, James Haskell who made 18 tackles, Stuart Hogg and John Hardie.
Ireland vs Wales – 16-16
Ireland headed into this game with a large number of injuries and missing talismanic players that had recently retired from international rugby and so it was difficult to guess what sort of form they might be in. Wales were getting some of their longer term injuries back into the starting XV after missing them at the world cup and so I thought they were going to put in a big performance.
Driven on by the raucous Irish crowd the players rose to the occasion and dominated the first 30 minutes of the game with an opportunistic try from Conor Murray where he identified a lack of guard around the edge of the ruck and made a snipe which left Justin Tipuric with too much to do. Things soon started to look even more bleak when Dan Biggar, arguably the in form player of Europe, had to leave the field with heavy strapping on this ankle. Before the game Warren Gatland promised that Wales would look to play a more expansive game and this led to a Welsh 5 m scrum from which Taulupe Faletau burst over the try line to drag Wales back into the game at a key moment. From half time onwards it was all Wales with Rhys Priestland landing a number of kicks and really stepping up the mark. Ultimately the game ended in a bit of a splutter with neither side really creating the platform to engineer a game winning score. Afterwards both coaches lamented not being able to get the win but Joe Schmidt seemed to be the happier with the result because of his sides lacklustre second half performance.
Key players from the game were CJ Stander on his debut with some incredible match statistics, could he be the long term heir to Jamie Heaslip? Devin Toner and Tommy O’Donnell for Ireland. Jamie Roberts was a mountain of granite in the Welsh midfield with some massive tackles and hard line ball carrying, Taulupe Faletau displayed his good footwork and put himself about with gusto and Liam Williams showed up pretty well considering his limited game time to date.