A big thank you to everybody who attended the opening weekend of the 2018 Six Nations in Kieran’s. We can all agree the atmosphere was great for the Saturday games. The opening round of this year’s Six Nations produced more than its fair share of surprises and excitement. The surprise came in the Welsh performance against Scotland, the excitement in Paris and a predictable workmanlike performance in Rome.
A resurgent Scots team traveled Cardiff to take a Welsh that appeared in the doldrums. This writer predicted a win for the Scots in a previous article. That’s what he knows about Rugby. The game started in lightning fashion. Both teams had significant chances in the first few minutes and it was end to end stuff. The Welsh made a dream start to their 2018 Six Nations campaign as they crushed Scotland in a bonus-point win at the Principality Stadium. The home team rocked the much-fancied Scots with early tries by Gareth Davies and Leigh Halfpenny. After the break Halfpenny completed a 24-point haul with two penalties and a second try before Steff Evans dived over for the bonus-point try.
The visitors only managed a 79th minute try through Peter Horne. Warren Gatland claimed his 50th win as Wales coach in a match that marked the 10th anniversary of his first match in charge. It was also Wales’ 50th win in the expanded Six Nations tournament. The Scots had travelled in hope after beating Wales for the first time in 10 years in 2017, but were ruthlessly taken apart in the second half. The visitors could not break free from a smothering defence as Wales extended their winning home run against them past 16 years.
Full-back Halfpenny had not scored a Test try in five years and he also nailed six out of six kicks at goal for a personal best tally in a Test match. But he was beaten to the man of the match award by flanker Aaron Shingler, who was part of a superb Welsh back row. Having dazzled in the autumn series against Australia and New Zealand, Scotland could not get their running game going while Wales confounded predictions with their attacking intent.
Their power game in the later stages, however, came as no surprise while Scotland paid a heavy price for errors. So much of the talk before the game was about injuries. But Scotland’s scrum was not dominated in spite of missing nine front-row players, while Wales made light of missing eight British and Irish Lions. And Wales coach Warren Gatland’s decision to start with 10 players from one region paid rich dividends as all their points were contributed by Scarlets. In reality, after a lightning-fast start, Finn Russell failed to trouble Wales’ midfield of Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams and Halfpenny handled the kicks well, sometimes under intense pressure.
And some of the rugby – particularly in the early stages – left the crowd breathless. Scotland could have scored in the first two minutes when Jonny Gray galloped through a gap after Davies’ poor touch kick handed them an attacking platform. And they still had Wales on the rack when Ali Price’s pass was intercepted by the predatory Davies who sprinted 70 metres for the opening try.
Wales were 12 points ahead in as many minutes when Halfpenny crossed for his first try in 35 Tests, ignoring an unmarked Josh Adams on the right to burst through Huw Jones’ tackle on the line. And that followed a let-off for Scotland after Steff Evans dropped a wayward pass five metres from the line after a thrilling move involving Rob Evans, Cory Hill and Alun Wyn Jones. Scotland had more possession and territory, with Russell and Hogg counter-attacking dangerously. But a combination of handling errors and turnovers meant they could not manage a score in the first half. Halfpenny’s two penalties early in the second half killed the game as a contest and when he dived over for his second try, it was a question of how many points Wales would score. Evans’ acrobatic dive earned Wales first-ever try bonus point in the Six Nations and by the time replacement Horne crossed, Scotland were having to reappraise their Six Nations campaign.
Scotland must regroup before they host France at Murrayfield on next Sunday, while Wales’ make the journey to face reigning champions England in Twickenham on Saturday.
French coach Jacques Brunel could be forgiven if Napoleon’s famous quote, “In victory, you deserve champagne. In defeat you need it,” was at the forefront of his mind rather than what happened in that last ten minutes? Ireland snatched a remarkable win over France thanks to a brilliant long-range drop-goal by fly-half Johnny Sexton. After the Irish had led for most of the game in Paris, winger Teddy Thomas scored a fine 71st-minute try to give France the lead for the first time. However, Sexton pulled off his dramatic drop in the 83rd minute to give Joe Schmidt’s side a valuable opening win. The incredible last-gasp score denied France a winning start under their new coach Brunel. Sexton landed four penalties before missing his fifth, which would have given the visitors 15-6 lead. That failed attempt looked like proving costly when Racing 92 star Thomas scythed through the Irish defence for what seemed like being the decisive score.
Much was made of the two number 10s in this game. Perhaps it is unfair to compare an uncapped teenager with the British and Irish Lions starting fly-half, but the difference between the sides was crystallized by the fortunes of the two men wearing the number 10 shirts. On his Test debut, Matthieu Jalibert lost an early aerial battle with Rob Kearney and minutes later he miscued an attempted chip over the Irish defence to cough up possession. The Bordeaux youngster was too frequently guilty of crabbing across the field, which cut off space for his team-mates, before limping off after 30 minutes following an awkward collision with Bundee Aki. However, all is not lost for the young man and we can expect more from him in the future. In contrast, Sexton’s control of the Irish attack was flawless. The Leinster man consistently probed at the French back three with an array of clever kicks. And the playmaker showed nerves of steel to land the match-winning score at the death.
Thomas produced a real moment of magic to put France within seconds of a stunning win. With less than 10 minutes left on the clock, the wing struck to put his side into the lead for the first time as Les Bleus appeared to have grabbed an unlikely victory. Thomas gathered a clearing kick near the halfway line and sprinted past Kearney on the right wing before swerving in field, leaving Jacob Stockdale, Sexton and Keith Earls in his wake to score under the posts. It was the first moment of real genius in the match before Sexton’s stunning winner. When Brunel sits down to review the video of his first game as French national coach, he will see the cost of the indiscipline shown by his players. France conceded 10 penalties in total, but all three of Sexton’s first-half penalties were relatively straightforward and the result of needless errors.
Sebastien Vahaamahina was guilty of four silly penalties either side of half-time – two of them were converted by Sexton for points and another cost his side a rare attacking position. The home side fought their way back into contention in the third quarter but almost released the pressure valve when team captain Guilhem Guirado didn’t roll away, but Sexton missed his kick.
The home side improved their discipline in the closing stages, but was left to rue their early mistakes. The French can take heart that their defensive display was wonderful. Ireland had a 40 phase passage of play that lead to Sexton’s final kick and that type of pressure generally results in a penalty of some sort from the defending team; however, the French maintained their discipline. Unfortunately, they could not prevent Ireland from reaching Sexton’s kicking range.
The young French players will be devastated to have lost in such dramatic fashion, but they have shown that they can be contenders in this year’s championship and will have another week of training under Brunel before their visit to Scotland next Sunday. Ireland’s Grand Slam remains on track – but only just. They will know they must improve their attack if they are to regain the title they last won in 2015. Joe Schmidt may now decide to use the same players again and resist the temptation to experiment against Italy in round two on 10 February.
England began their defence of the Six Nations championship with a thumping win in Rome on the opening weekend of the Six Nations. For all England were left disgruntled, uncomfortable, bemused and bewildered by the opening phases of their clash with Italy 12 months ago, by contrast they were anything but this time around.
Their very first attacking opportunity, set up by a scrum penalty won by Dan Cole, saw England get quick second-phase ball and the loop of George Ford and Jonny May created space for Anthony Watson in the corner. The wind might have been taken out of the visitors’ sails by a serious knee injury to Ben Youngs, who was taken off on a golf cart with what looked like a torn cruciate ligament after a player rolled on his outstretched knee.
But Watson was brilliant once again, making much of his own luck after picking the ball up on the Italian 10-metre line, shrugging off three defenders to score in the corner. However, Italy coach Conor O’Shea had promised his side wouldn’t “die wondering” and they delivered in the 20th minute, Tommaso Benvenuti capitalizing on the good work from Tommaso Boni and Mattia Bellini on the opposite flank to reduce the deficit. The Italians looked more inventive out wide than in recent years and their young backline will grow in confidence.
But for England’s defensive holes, they were slick in attack and had a third try before half an hour had passed, Farrell collecting a fine pass from Ford to walk in from 15 metres. The 17-10 half-time lead was soon stretched as England began to use their finishers, Captain Dylan Hartley once again finding himself on the bench after just 54 minutes.
He had still been present and it was after his line-out throw that Sam Simmonds streaked away from the Italian pack, showing off the acceleration that makes him a credible and different threat from the injured Billy Vunipola, to grab his first Six Nations try.
Italy would not go away though as Mattia Bellini did brilliant to withstand the last-gasp tackle of Mike Brown and squeeze in the corner. However, for all of O’Shea’s enterprise, Italy’s frailty in defence remained and the strength in depth of Jones’ group showed. The combination of Ford and Farrell struck again to give the former his sixth international try with 12 minutes to go, enabling the coach to empty the bench and give 24-year-old prop Alex Hepburn, born in Australia, his international debut.
And Simmonds added a second to confirm his arrival as a genuine contender for the No 8 spot, underlining the tries with a no-look pass to set up Jack Nowell in the dying minutes and make it a seven-try rout for England. Jones wanted to send the Six Nations a message – England certainly did that, but there are tougher tests to come. England host Wales next Saturday