Two victories on the road in Rome and Twickenham and late drama in Cardiff, here are all the talking points from the opening weekend’s action…..
Confident Scots come of age in Twickenham triumph
The biggest story of the opening round as Gregor Townsend’s Scotland continued their resurgent form with a first win at Twickenham for 38 years against a lacklustre England side. A final score-line of 11-6 to the away side may have made this victory look like a narrow and close affair but in truth Scotland were comfortable and comprehensive winners in a match that they perhaps should have won by more than 10 points. So much of the build-up to this Calcutta Cup clash centred on the dual between the two fly-halves, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell, with many predicting the man who edged that battle would lead their side to an opening round win. That ultimately proved to be the case as Farrell like many of his team-mates looked decidedly ring-rusty whilst Scottish maverick Russell went through his full repertoire of impressive skills in an assured display that will have done his Lions credentials the world of good. The same could be said for many of his Scottish team-mates with each man contributing to an outstanding team display. Captain Stuart Hogg produced one of his best displays in a test jersey whilst Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and debutant centre Cameron Redpath also starred with Redpath in particular standing out with a composed performance that belied his tender years and experience at this level. Out wide Sean Maitland and Duhan van der Merve proved dangerous threats in attack throughout and it was the latter who scored the crucial game-winning try forcing his way over from close range following some good passing in midfield from Russell and Redpath. A strangely subdued performance from the reigning champions who missed the scrummaging prowess of first-choice prop forwards Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, whilst Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and centre Ollie Lawrence were out-played by opposite numbers Gray, Watson and Redpath respectively. Scotland return home for a Murrayfield match-up against a stuttering Wales with a new-found confidence that – with three home games to come – this could be their year. Meanwhile England will want to blow off the cobwebs against Italy at Twickenham, with Eddie Jones perhaps relieved that his side have a couple of weeks to work on things on the training paddock before their match against Wales in Cardiff.
Nervy Wales ride their luck against determined and brave Irish
When Irish flanker Peter O’Mahony ploughed dangerously into Tomas Francis’ head at a ruck, referee Wayne Barnes had no other option than to give Ireland’s No.6 his marching orders with a red card. A thoroughly stupid act from a vastly experienced player made all the worse than it came within the opening quarter of proceedings in the Principality Stadium. With Leigh Halfpenny piling on the pain by knocking over his second penalty to give Wales a 6-0 lead, things looked bleak for Ireland and head coach Andy Farrell. Yet with Wales still struggling to find form and confidence under Wayne Pivac, the hosts began to struggle to impose themselves on the 14-man Irish team – this after a pretty solid start when the visitors had their full quota of players on the pitch. Soon enough Ireland crept back into the contest and began to dominate both possession and territory with Wales having to make more than twice the number of tackles than their opponents, despite their numerical advantage. Two penalties from Ireland captain Johnny Sexton brought his side level, before the constant Irish pressure told as centre Robbie Henshaw spotted a gap in the Welsh defence and made the break before offloading to team-mate Josh van der Flier who was brought down just short of the Wales try-line. A strong and efficient clear-out from Ireland though allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick-up and dive over from close range for the opening try of the game. Ireland went in at the break with a deserved 13-6 lead but that was soon overturned as a strong Welsh response in the third quarter of the match saw first George North and then winger Louis Rees-Zammit score tries in quick succession – the second expertly finished off in the corner by an air-borne Rees-Zammit. With Leigh Halfpenny kicking another penalty to extend the Welsh lead to eight points with just over fifteen minutes left, the hosts looked nearly home and dry. However Ireland duly responded with a spell of pressure that eventually resulted in replacement Billy Burns knocking over a penalty to reduce Wales’ lead to a single score going into the five minutes. That set up a tense and frenetic finale that saw Welsh scrum-half Gareth Davies bizarrely kick possession away with just seconds remaining and when Ireland won a penalty just outside the Welsh 22, it looked for all the money that Ireland would kick to the corner for a 5-metre line-out and a chance to steal a win at the death. Yet Billy Burns added to the drama by kicking the ball dead when aiming to get the ball as close to the corner flag as possible. With that Burns sunk to the turf in dismay and the whole of Wales breathed a collective sigh of relief as the hosts secured a much-needed win in what turned out to be a very strange Six Nations encounter. Wales may have got the win they wished for, but this result merely papers over the cracks of what was another poor team display. There was a strong defensive effort with Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric typically at the forefront of Wales’ best work in defence but having played over an hour with a one-man advantage the fact that Ireland still dominated possession and territory stats will be a concern for head coach Wayne Pivac, especially with a tough-looking trip to Murrayfield to come in round two. Where Ireland looked like a side who prepared for such an eventuality, Wales looked like one with no clear game-plan and this result still leaves as many questions as answers as to what style of play Wales are looking to play under Pivac. Ireland coach Andy Farrell will be left disappointed with the result but in some ways may have emerged more content with his side’s performance than that of Pivac, with the 14 Irish players responding well to the red card in particular Beirne, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Hugo Keenan who all excelled in pushing Ireland so close to what would have been a famous victory. Should they take that kind of haert and effort in to their round two match against France in Dublin and they could get their campign back on track with a win.
Dupont shines again as France sweep aside Italians
Last year’s runners-up France got their bid for the Six Nations crown underway in devastating fashion, running in seven tries for a 50-10 win in Rome against Italy. Star man Antoine Dupont picked up from where he left off last season – where he won Player of the Tournament – to deliver another virtuoso display setting up three tries whilst also adding one of his own for good measure. The visitors never looked back as soon as forward Dylan Cretin crashed over from close-range after five minutes for the first try of the afternoon. It was the backs who ran the show from thereafter for the French with Gael Fickou, Arthur Vincent, Brice Dulin, Teddy Thomas (2) running in the tries. Fly-half Matthieu Jalibert produced a strong display filling in for the injured Romain Ntamack, in a performance that puts France in pole position following round one. Tougher tests will inevitably come, not least a trip to the Aviva in round two to face an Ireland side still smarting from defeat in Cardiff, but Fabien Galthie’s side even at these early stages look like the team to beat this year. For the Italians it was another sorry start to a Six Nations campaign, with an inexperienced side looking out of their depth against the quality of opposition. There were some promising moments from young half-backs Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi, but Franco Smith and his side have a steep mountain to climb if they are to avoid finishing bottom of the championship yet again.
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