In the first weekend of the Northern Hemisphere’s premier rugby tournament, a lot of questions were raised.
Wales 34-7 Scotland
The Welsh result surprised me. To be more precise, the poor performance from Scotland shocked me.
Yes, they were missing some key players, especially in the front row, but the Scots will be sorely disappointed in the way they played.
It’s a rugby cliche for sure but the Scots tried to go wide before they’d earned the right and far too many of their best players were average to poor. The heads up, exciting, running style of play that had been their trademark for much of 2017 was missing and instead they looked a bit headless.
With the front row depleted of experience, the Scottish back row needed to be effective in all rucks, and make sure they gave good, quick ball to attack from. Instead, they were ineffective.
Meanwhile, the Welsh gameplan was fresh and exciting. The ten Scarlets players who started, not surprisingly, brought good combinations that others complemented.
France 13-15 Ireland
An average game to watch for 80 minutes has gone down in folklore, because of the final few minutes – over 40 phases of error-free play from Ireland and a 40-metre drop goal from Johnny Sexton.
The expectation that the Irish would be able to find gaps was not realised, as the French presented a solid blue wall for the whole game, never letting the visitors cross their try line.
Their level of commitment will give their new coach hope, and if they can become a really hard team to beat, then that is a good foundation to bring back some of the French flair.
As for the Irish, they both disappointed and impressed. The lack of any tries was a shame and not really surprising with the very direct game style that the men in green used. If this was a deliberate decision by Joe Schmidt, then zero tries might not alarm, but it was strange they didn’t look to exploit the French out wide.
The ability for Ireland to produce over 40 phases of play at the 80-minute mark without a single error captured the attention and while there was a lot of going sideways, their resolve shows this team is tracking well.
One thought that lingered from this match was how reliant the Irish are on Sexton. If he has a poor game or is injured, it’s hard to see how they can still reach the same heights.
Sadly, the second-biggest story from the game was HIA-gate and the French will be investigated for how they managed the assessment and treatment of players.
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Italy 15-46 England
This was a good win for England away from home, but never really in doubt.
Eddie Jones will have been impressed by Sam Simmonds at 8 – the Exeter man might not be challenging Billy Vunipola for the starting position but he definitely offers something exciting. His pace and good lines in slightly wider channels around the break down proved very effective and he tackled anything that moved all day long.
George Ford and Owen Farrell continued their partnership and looked to use some more planned moves to unlock the opposition. Will they do the same against the better sides in the tournament, especially off first phase-ball where there should be less space and no easy overlaps?
The Italians were better than in the Spring Internationals, but it was always going to be a tough day for them. There have been signs this season of improvement at the Italian club level, which is critical, and perhaps the national side know that for the time being the most important thing they can do is just keep trying their best. Their centres though showed some good skill and pace, and the two tries they scored should be celebrated.
They’ve only got one more home game this tournament, so will have to try and impress on the road.
Round 2 predictions
Ireland vs Italy
Ireland will want to cross the white line a number of times to make sure they don’t get out of the habit, and there’s no reason to suggest this won’t happen in Dublin against an Italian side that conceded seven tries in Round 1.
Ireland to win by 23
England vs Wales
The match-up of the round sees a confident Wales heading to Twickenham to face an England side marching towards a third straight Six Nations title.
England’s experience, talent and home advantage should see them win, but if the Welsh can get in early and disrupt the home side’s patterns, they have a chance.
Leigh Halfpenny’s deadly boot will mean any indiscretion from England within 40 metres of their line could cost them three points time and again.
England to win by 8
Scotland vs France
If the Scots play patiently and get ahead by enough at the 50-minute mark, then Les Bleus’ hearts might be broken enough to make the final 30 minutes comfortable for the home side.
But those speedy French wingers can score from anywhere, so the Scots will need to kick and chase well.
Scotland to win by 12