Before a ball was kicked, word was out that World Rugby’s new match officials supremo, Joel Jutge, had spoken to the refereeing panel to ensure both the five-second law and the breakdown directives of 2020 (which had largely been ignored at international level last year) were correctly officiated.
Nigel Owens, now ex-Test referee, joined the discussion in public, stating that the way forward to a faster game was to simply enforce the laws currently on the books.
Who would have thought, eh, Nigel? Good to have you aboard.
He made particular note of the advantage line, slowing ball at the ruck and illegal formation of attacking mauls from line-outs as areas where enforcement of the laws had fallen down in the past.
Italy vs France
Let’s deal with the negative elephant in the room first.
This Italian side has been through more rebuilds than Jerusalem, and yet again, a bunch of young Italians were sent into a mismatch to continue their run of defeats, which is as long as anyone can remember. This side is considered tier one and therefore holds three votes at World Rugby votes, hmmmm.
Wonder why they are still there?
France, now everyone’s second favourite side, are physical upfront and have pace to burn outside.
When one of the most promising flyhalves in the global game is not available, Matthieu Jollibert steps in and looks to the manor born, they are spoilt for choice across the park.
They offload with impunity and halfback Antoine Dupont is a major beneficiary, as he runs those middle of the park support lines with real aggression. Dupont is an interesting study – a look at his highlights is notable for the lack of traditional halfback stuff he does.
He is a running nine, topping the metres in this game, scoring one off a midfield support line, throwing an offload in a tackle for another score and didn’t mind sticking a shot on two to three channels off the ruck. If he didn’t have a number on his back, it might be difficult to pick what position he is playing much of the time.
But the beating heart of this side is its loose forward trio, by some distance the best combination in world rugby now. I suspect we will be hearing the names Dylan Cretin, Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt for a few more seasons yet.
France won this in a canter and eased up as the game went on.
England vs Scotland
The game that was going to be the litmus test for Mr Jutge’s instructions.
An England side built to play in the NFL like vignettes against a Scotland team with real pace in its loose forward trio and a couple of talented, but flawed, characters out the back.
While referee Andrew Brace started down the right road, he disappointingly pulled the throttle back as England slowed the game at every possible opportunity and if I am correct, he issued two further yellow card warnings to England early in the second stanza without pulling the trigger again.
With England down to 14 men in the first half, one scrum sequence took a full three minutes to complete. You’ve got to be tougher on this, Sir.
Scotland took England head on upfront, got to the lead early and never looked like being headed. Jonny Gray (who surely must have been man of the match), Hamish Wilson and the Fagerson family all dominated their opposites and played with a level of aggression in contact that stayed just the right side of the line.
For England, this performance has been there simmering away, just hidden beneath the surface in their performances post-RWC. This game highlighted the lack of attacking threat and invention in this team.
The debutant at centre, for example, had only one touch of the ball and that was on the hour.
This wasn’t a particularly quick game, but I wonder whether player size has reached a zenith as Jamie George and Billy Vunipola both looked the wrong side of, shall we say, optimal conditioning for the amount of ball movement. Vunipola interestingly did not register a single run metre – almost unheard of.
The much-vaunted battle for the Lions 10 jersey produced two losers. Owen Farrell looked lost once behind on the scoreboard and his usually effective kicking game was totally trumped by Stuart Hogg returning Exocets.
I suspect this is what Warrens Gatland’s scorecard looked like for Finn Russell: one foot trip, one sin-binning, three points needlessly conceded, one kickable penalty missed, five turnovers conceded and a brain snap going for a ‘look at me’ drop goal, which gifted the ball back to the opposition with the clock gone.
Hardly British and Irish Lions stuff, is it?
Scotland were good value for every inch of this win, dominating all the key battlegrounds of the contest. There is a balance in this Scottish side which hasn’t been there for a while and a trace of steel running through the pack, which will ensure they will be competitive against all comers this year.
This result makes the rest of the season very interesting for both sides.
For the record, I backed Scotland, and so I don’t look like Harry Hindsight, here’s the evidence.
Wales vs Ireland
A match where both coaches must have been looking over their shoulder – one in the process of changing up a restrictive game plan with tools not fit for the purpose, and the other, well, not sure what it is the Ireland coach is trying to do, other than replicating what didn’t work for them at the end under the previous regime.
The sending off of Peter O’Mahoney in early order looked like being the death knell for this one, but it was anything but. It signalled the best period of the game for Ireland as they scored 13 consecutive points, as Conor Murray served a far flatter attack with Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne prominent and Ireland held that lead through to oranges.
Both sides would have discussed the need for ball security with the combined lineout count for the opening stanza being four from nine. Ouch.
The second half saw a more controlled effort from Wales, and they did a far better job of finding the space left by only 14 men and scored two nice tries wide out.
Then came the last 10 minutes.
Can anyone remember a game with poorer decision making and execution down the straight?
Wales got turned over taking a maul to ground; with the clock on the cusp of 80 minutes, Welsh halfback Gareth Davies meekly grubbered the ball away, allowing Ireland one last chance to steal the game, and perhaps fittingly for the end of this match, the game ended as Irish replacement 10 Billy Burns missed touch kicking for an attacking lineout which could have won them the game.
You really couldn’t write this stuff.
So, it was great to have international rugby back, even without crowds.
We saw the sea change in officiating we’d hoped for, and it delivered the desired outcomes in speed and space. It wasn’t perfect, of course, as it is early days, and it will remain to be seen whether the French refereeing crew toe the line when they join later in the tournament.
I think World Rugby will declare weekend one a success.
Now, they only need to show the intestinal fortitude to keep this focus going; what could possibly go wrong?