While the Super Rugby sides go through their final trials ahead of the new season, the Six Nations kicked off this weekend with three entertaining games.
Although the World Cup might be a good three years away, the British and Irish Lions are hopefully touring in just a few months, and the Six Nations is one of the best chances to catch the eyes of the selectors.
What was missing because of the absence of crowds was made up for with some exciting games, including two away wins and a couple of nailbiters.
So what were the big talking points from the weekend?
Finn Russell winning the race to be Lion King
All rugby fans should be hoping that the British and Irish Lions get to tour this year and play the Springboks. Of course we all want it to happen safely, but we really want it to happen! The competition for spots on the tour will go down to the wire in many cases, and one of the most hotly contested will be for that first-choice flyhalf jersey. Owen Farrell, George Ford, Finn Russell, Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar will all feel that they would do the Lions proud. But only one can get the slot, and after the first round Finn Russell and Johnny Sexton have got their noses ahead in the race.
Sexton delivered a really good controlled performance against Wales. He didn’t set the game alight with creativity, but he directed his team around the park like a master. His team were 0-6 down and had a man sent off in the first half, but Sexton led his team back and guided them to a lead that they really could have, maybe even should have, turned into a win.
Russell is in even better form at the moment. He’s always been known for his attacking flair with ball in hand, and then on Saturday he used his boot to great effect with some beautiful chips and grubbers that not only created chances for Scotland but also forced England’s defence to work hard and keep guessing. The white wall that is so often used as a brutal battering ram was on the back foot as Russell put doubt into their mind.
In the cons column on Warren Gatland’s notepad would have been the yellow card that Russell picked up for tripping Ben Youngs just before halftime. But the thing is that with Russell you sort of know that you’re going to have to cop something like this if you want to benefit from all the pros – he’s just that sort of player. And in the last year or so he’s started to reduce the number of those incidents, making him more and more attractive to coaches.
Speaking of Scotland…
In The Roar’s Six Nations preview there was discussion about how Scotland continued to be a mystery team and how crucial the first game against England was going to be to their tournament. Many didn’t expect a win, but it was essential that they put in a good performance and build from there.
Well, forget all that! They played England off the park and showed a combination of skill and wisdom that England neither expected nor adjusted to as the game unfolded.
In the post-match interviews Owen Farrell looked like the journalist had asked him to do quantum equations in his head – confused, frustrated and wishing someone would make it all go away. And that was how England looked for most of the 80 minutes thanks to Scotland’s style of play and execution.
Yes, England were poor, but Scotland won this and won it well. The scoreline was tight but the gap between the two teams was far greater, and the rest of the competition should be quite concerned now about what Scotland could do to them.
The older heads such as Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Hamish Watson are playing well and leading by example. The youngsters like Cameron Redpath and Duhan van der Merwe are looking very much at home on the big stage and outshone their opponents every step of the way on the weekend.
England are not the messiah; they’re very naughty boys!
England not only lost against Scotland at home in Twickenham, but they also played some of their worst rugby for a very long time. There are plenty of excuses to reach for – poor conditions, no rugby for many of their players for a few months – but none of them should be used to explain this defeat. England were poor all over and Scotland played really well.
One of the biggest issues for England on the day was their discipline – they gave away ten penalties in the first half and then 15 by the final whistle compared to Scotland’s six in total. That behaviour from England caused them plenty of issues and really highlighted how off the pace and out of sorts they were.
Considering the fact that Scotland had so much possession in the opening half – well over 70 per cent – England should have the experience to know that it was crucial that they didn’t make things harder for themselves by giving away penalties. But give them away they did, over and over and over again.
Some of England’s best players – Maro Itoje, for example – have always played right on the edge of the laws and we all know that some of the greatest in the game have built a reputation on being able to test the flexibility of the rules.
But England were getting pinged from the first few minutes and should have realised that today was not the day to test the referee. Some have even commented that the lack of a crowd led to the penalty count against England being higher – or should that be more accurate? – but again, England are wanting to be classed as the best team in the world. You can’t achieve that if you’re not going to be able to adjust to the game as it unfolds.
England must address this issue immediately and for the rest of the tournament have to be on their best behaviour.
Discipline not the only issue for shackled England
The loss to Scotland should have big ramifications for England. They didn’t just lose; they really had so little to offer at any point in the game, and fans and pundits alike have been left wondering if Eddie Jones has run out of ideas as a coach.
Far too often England have been shown to have little attacking quality or natural creative instinct. Any that is displayed seems to be quickly wrestled back into the box and the kicking tactic is brought back.
Jones brought in youngster Ollie Lawrence to start in the centre, heralding his attacking prowess. Lawrence certainly didn’t show much of that ability on Saturday and to be fair it wasn’t easy to do so when you consider the ball wasn’t passed to him until the 63rd minute. The England team can scare people with their physicality, but this weekend the Scots showed that if you give it back to them while remaining disciplined, the English don’t really have a plan B to try and score points.
Looking ahead, Jones should not start Farrell at No. 10 again. It just doesn’t work. Furthermore, Jones has got to stop viewing attacking play as some sort of accessory that you might add to a core of a strong defence. He’s got to get his attack firing and make teams worry about England when they’ve got ball in hand. A home game against Italy in Round 2 is a good time to let the boys play!
The old and the young
One of the highlights of the opening weekend was how some of the youngest and oldest involved shone. When it comes to the newbies, Cameron Redpath looked right at home playing in the centres for Scotland while Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi were exciting to watch as the halfbacks pair for Italy.
Meanwhile, the old dogs didn’t let the pups have all the spotlight. Alun Wyn Jones – who has more caps than the entire Italian team put together – did his usual job of leading from the front and helping his team get their heads right to win against Ireland. On the other side of that match, Johnny Sexton and his halves pairing Connor Murray also played well and showed coach Andy Farrell that any move to transition them out would be premature.
Can Antoine Dupont still be classed as young or new? He’s only 24, but he’s now picked up 28 caps. Whatever group he is classed in, one thing is for sure: the guy is insanely good. In the destruction of Italy, Dupont was involved in so many of the best things that France did all afternoon, and the engraver wouldn’t be blamed for starting to engrave the best player of the tournament trophy with his name already.
To win the whole championship teams are going to need both young and old to continue to perform. One-off appearances catch the eye, but a Six Nations-winning side needs consistency from the entire team. It’ll be interesting to see if we’re still speaking about these names come the final rounds.
Wales win but no-one is convinced
Wayne Pivac probably thought he was in for a good day when the referee pulled out the red card and sent off Peter O’Mahony in the first half. His Welsh side were 6-0 up and would enjoy a man advantage for most of the game – surely the home side would bag a good win against a tough Irish side and go into Round 2 with momentum.
But as Ireland got ready for a penalty kick to touch that would give them a chance to win the game with 83 minutes on the clock, Pivac’s blood pressure must have been through the open roof of the Cardiff stadium.
Wales got the win and, yes, of course that matters. But they were not convincing at all, and even Italy will be looking at them as a chance for a victory later in the competition.
Wales are struggling to settle into their new Pivac style, and just to make things a little bit more challenging, no-one seems entirely sure what that style actually is.
With a six-point lead and one-man advantage, Wales had plenty of opportunity to put the game beyond doubt before halftime. But they let Ireland into the game and the home side really struggled to wrest back control. Even when they picked up a couple of tries there was something that just wasn’t convincing about the Welsh performance – you never felt like they had the result in the bag. Their line out was fragile again and there was no-one who grabbed the game and took control.
Wales go to Edinburgh in Round 2, and although both sides will start with an unbeaten record, you’d be surprised if Wales keep that intact come the end of the match against Scotland.
So that’s Round 1 all done and dusted. There was plenty more that could have been discussed, such as France’s impressive performance or the concerning lack of energy from Italy, but there’s plenty of time to discuss these two teams at another time – it’s a long competition (well, not as long as the Big Bash League, but nothing is!).