Scott Johnson reviews the first round of Six Nations matches from the weekend, which saw Wales get off to a shaky start against Italy, England lose out narrowly to France and Ireland dominate Scotland.
Wales v Italy
Wales kicked off the tournament at home to Italy, but what was meant to be a first week warm up for the reigning champions turned into a rather limp performance as Italy continue to improve against the big teams. Their 23-15 win flattered to deceive and Italy will feel they threw away a great opportunity for an upset of unprecedented magnitude.
Even Mr. Reliable himself, full-back Leigh Halfpenny, seemed to be playing at half speed and did throw the pass that was intercepted for Italy’s second try. Ultimately though he did pass James Hook’s record to become Wales’ all-time point scorer and kicked Wales out of Italy’s reach.
The man of the match has to be Italy’s Michele Campagnaro, who looked tidy all game – his pair of tries were the catalyst behind Italy’s much improved performance. The other nations will have to keep him quiet for the rest of the tournament, or else Italy could pull off a few upsets.
Wales will have to watch their discipline against the nations with better kickers; giving away 11 penalties will be punished in other matches. Italy will need to work on their scrum, as they lost three of the seven when they controlled the put-in.
France v England
‘Le Crunch’ is always an interesting encounter, but England will be ruing their awful start to the match which saw them concede a try within 32 seconds. It wasn’t until they were 16-3 down that England really looked like they were interested in playing, but they recovered brilliantly to lead 24-19 with only five minutes remaining before 19-year-old Gael Fickou scored under the posts to leave the final score 26-24 in France’s favour.
If England had gone on to victory, many of the plaudits would have gone to Danny Care or Mike Brown for their effect on the scoreboard. But, England’s main man was instead Billy Vunipola, who looked unstoppable at times and played a major part in both of England’s tries. His ability to read the game when on the attack was a major asset to the side and he was rock solid in defence.
The match was a mixed bag for France, as poor performances by big players like Wesley Fofana completely contrasted the wonderful attacking skill shown by winger Yoann Huget. He completely deserved his two tries and he always looked a threat on the attack and looks a good pick to become the tournament’s top scorer.
England will take comfort that they fought back so well from their woeful start, eventually dominating possession and territory. But, missing 23 tackles when they only made 100 is going to worry Stuart Lancaster. France meanwhile will be happy to leave the Stade de France with a win, but will be concerned over how tight it was considering how disciplined their game was.
Ireland v Scotland
Ireland were fortunate to go in at half time 11-3 up against Scotland, but a much improved performance in the second half meant that the score-line reflected the dominance Ireland had in both possession and territory, holding 59% of the ball and 63% of the territory. Captain Jamie Heaslip scored the first of two second half tries and lead by example in a fine display of back row power.
Apart from a lot of possession in the first half this was not a good match for Scotland. Losing a third of both their lineouts and scrums is not good viewing for any coach, and they were sloppy with ball in hand as well. They seem set to struggle for the rest of the tournament based on this evidence.
Performance of the week: Michele Campagnaro summed up the dogged determination of the Italian side and his two tries were a testament to his ability as a winger.
Worst performance: Given his grand stand billing, Wesley Fofana deserves this award for really failing to get going; he will need to get more involved to ensure Frances’ momentum doesn’t wane.
Try of the Week: Mike Brown’s first try for England deserves this award – his sheer strength and determination to finish despite four French players hauling him away from the try line was exactly what Six Nations rugby is all about.
Wooden Spoon: This is almost certainly going to Scotland. They built play well but lacked any cutting edge, making it difficult to imagine them beating any other side in this competition.
Eventual Winners: If England hadn’t let France score so early it would have been their game for sure. France seem to lack the required consistency to challenge across all five games and Wales look nervous. Either Ireland or England will take it.bookmark me