There was sunshine in Rome, the best dropkick ever scored in Paris and in Cardiff they nearly took the roof off. Welcome to the Six Nations.
Scotland arrived at the Principality wearing the unusual tag of favourites and I think that might have got to them. What is going on in your head influences the game so much more than people realise. After the Twickenham thrashing last Autumn Scotland must have had a few mental scars about travelling too far from the sound of bagpipes. Watching Scotland playing such brilliant rugby in the Autumn most of us pundits and watchers of the game quite rightly expected a lot more than we got on Saturday. In some ways Scotland were not that bad. The intercept try when they were on the attack followed by another try shortly after created such doubt in their minds that they struggled thereafter to rise above it. The noise in the enclosed stadium when Wales took the lead was ear shatteringly loud and the Scotland team in trying to chase the game just ended up delivering Warren Gatland a sweet victory. I am pretty sure Gats would have been smiling to himself thinking of all the criticism he got for not picking many Scotland players in his Lions tour. Sadly the opportunity for players such as Finn Russell to prove a point dissolved rapidly over the 80 minutes. Coach Gregor Townsend is going to have to find a way to pick this team up and inspire them to a victory over the visiting French next weekend otherwise there is a possibility they could be facing the humiliation of playing off against Italy on the last day of the tournament for the wooden spoon.
Back to Wales however and they were good. Very good. The selection of 10 Scarlets worked as the familiarity of the guys with each other meant the passing and running lines were crisp and well executed. Another massive plus point was the Wales defence which was brick wall like. Despite having a name that sounds like an upmarket hotel Hadleigh Parkes was one of the stand outs in the team popping up everywhere with lovely handling and some big hits. I thought most of the team stood up and it was good to see Steff Evans steaming down the wing, Gareth Davies hurtling downfield with his intercept and Rhys Patchell conducting at fly half. The war horse Alun Wyn Jones was magnificent but he was ably supported and my goodness Gatts will have some very difficult conversations coming up when he starts to get some of his more senior players back fit. It looks like having his hand forced to play some of these fringe players has given the Wales coach a nice little selection headache.
In contrast to the free flowing stuff we saw at the Principality over in France it was what is normally called ‘an arm wrestle’. It sure was not pretty but the French side did decide to turn up for new boss Jacques Brunel and put in a committed and physical display. Ireland were off colour that’s for sure. I think they felt the pressure a little as lose your first game in the Six Nations and instantly the Grand Slam has gone and you are on the back foot. The fact they won it with one of the most glorious drop goals ever witnessed – apart from Jonny’s in 2003 but I am biased – should not detract from a workmanlike performance. Ireland play percentage rugby with an accurate kicking game and great defence. They can spark some exciting attacks but under Joe Schmidt they play controlled and precise rugby. However they found a way to win in the end that is something that is crucial in big games and a fantastic reflection of the determination and skill in that team particularly from Sexton. Both these teams will get better and for Ireland they will be mightily relieved to have that crucial away win in the bag.
One controversial incident which had social media outraged was the HIA incident. It looked like to everyone watching on TV as if the French player had a leg injury and to then find him claiming he needed a HIA stretched credulity to the limit. Brian Moore summed it up best, ‘that is not a HIA unless his brain is located in his knee’.
The Eternal City is a very popular destination for England rugby fans and as I was lucky enough to be there this weekend I could see for myself the incredible numbers of white shirts all around the Stadio Olympico . God Save the Queen was belted out at such a volume you could have been at Twickenham and Swing Low reverberated all around the ground. What to take from the game? For me England were totally in control. Despite some obvious improvements in the Italian team, as well as them finding a couple of absolute gems in Boni and Minozzi, it was England’s generosity with penalties and two defensive errors that allowed Italy small footholds. All the chat beforehand about England’s lack of ball carriers was proved to be partly right but Eddie’s inclusion of the strapping Ben Te’o at 13 gave the backline a bit more power and carrying as well as the indefatigable Mako smashing it up like a man possessed. Sam Simmonds the Exeter Chief called up to step into the very big boots of Billy Vunipola was just quite amazing. Of course he was not a destructive ball carrier but we knew that. He does however look like one of the most rapid forwards in the game and was explosive and a defensive kingpin. Would be interesting to see him have a go at openside or even blindside flanker.
England’s ball playing was mesmeric at times with Ford and Farrell executing perfect wrap around moves - courtesy of the Sexton Playbook - that befuddled the Italy defence. The scrum also looked improved and set piece in general must have given the coaches some satisfaction. Sympathy goes out to scrum half Ben Youngs for that quite horrible knee injury and I understand he will now be out for around 4 months. The replacement number 9 is Richard Wigglesworth who will add experience and control but of course the question has to be asked. Should there not have been a younger scrum half already part of the wider squad who was up to speed with the calls?
So round 2 should start to give us a better idea of where we are. Italy face a tough old clash over in Dublin but their young team will front up and to me I see green shoots and the difference Connor O’ Shea is making. Ireland will get the win but I think we all hope Italy keep improving and put in a credible performance.
Tired cliché I know but it’s a must win for Scotland up in Murrayfield and if Wales go to Twickenham with confidence they know beating England is not an unobtainable dream - far from it as the Wales record there is good. Paul Gustard, Defence Coach of England, will be working manically to fix a couple of those defensive weaknesses out wide that resulted in two Italy tries and so it is shaping to be quite a game. But then England v Wales at Twickenham is I believe one of the truly great contests. Six Nations – don’t you just love it!