Six Nations 2021: Round One Wrap
Print Sport Editor, Nick Powell, reviews the first weekend of the Guinness Six Nations
Prior to their victory on Saturday since Scotland last won at Twickenham, the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Cold War ended, the UK has had 10 elections and seven Prime Ministers, rugby has introduced a World Cup and gone professional, the Internet has been invented and the World has gone through two devastating pandemics.
The latter one of these pandemics has led some to conclude that the lack of home fans made conditions ripe for Scottish victory, and whilst I do feel Covid-19 had a role to play, it had nothing to do with no fans – but more on that later.
Meanwhile, France underlined their title credentials with an excellent win in sunny Rome, while Wales battled past a 14-man Ireland to earn a vital win in Cardiff with an intriguing opening round.
Dull Game-plan comes back to bite, England 6-11 Scotland
England’s lacklustre post-World Cup game-plan finally caught up with them as they suffered a dreadful defeat at home to Scotland, the first time this has happened since 1983.
In the end, it was a miracle that England even got a losing bonus point, which they simply didn’t deserve. Outthought and outfought throughout the 80 minutes, England looked devoid of any quality or ideas and Scotland dealt with their limited threat with ease and regularly threatened England’s line.
For their part, Scotland were magnificent, retaining possession to draw penalties against England, dominating in the set piece and destroying England at their own game, the kicking game.
It was after Scotland lost Finn Russell for 10 minutes, and came into the sinbin period as far clear as they had entered it, that English nerves began to jangle. Russell missed a penalty and drop goal to take the result beyond doubt, and Stuart Hogg missed a further penalty, but the open play kicking of both, particularly the latter, meant that England never looked likely to score the try they needed.
Duhan Van de Merwe’s excellent first half finish was the only score of a dreary affair, but whilst Scotland did not entertain as much as they often do, they countered England’s even duller game-plan with excellent precision and execution.
So why do I blame Covid? Well, I don’t put the blame squarely at the door of the virus, but the enforced break of international rugby encouraged Eddie Jones to put together a game-plan for England that put players’ rusty skills under pressure as England tried to kick teams into submission – by causing them to make mistakes in their own half – and dominate the highly technical set piece.
It made use of England’s talented kickers, pacey wingers, and strong front row, as well as great defence as a whole team, but it neglected to use the quality and rugby ability that so many players had. Whether it was trying to create a simple, effective game-plan during the lull in quality the pandemic has created, or a response to being taken apart by South Africa in the World Cup Final against a similar style 18 months ago, it was also simple to plan against tactically, and Scotland coach Gregor Townsend did a tremendous job.
Italy unlucky in more ways than one, Italy 10-50 France
It is bad enough luck to have the best team in the competition as your round one opponents, but Italy were not graced with any luck whatsoever as they went down by 40 points in a thumping by France.
France showed off every bit of class they have, their build up play and execution as good as you will see, but soon after conceding a try where the bounce of the rugby ball hurt them, Italy had a try ruled out for a forward pass which was, at best, harsh.
If England had scored a try like that, and they have quite a few times in the last twelve months alone, the commentators and referee wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Pundits would say something like “Hint of a forward pass but a lovely finish” when they looked at it after the game.
It would not have won them the game, simply cutting a 21 point gap to 14, but it would have been a basis that would have given Italy a much deserved reward for their superiority in possession and territory, and encouraged them for the second half.
As it was, though they did manage to score in the second half, they were repeatedly undone by France’s quality and ended up being on the receiving end of a dreadful scoreline. This French team are quite brilliant, moving the ball and cutting lines in ways that no other team in the competition can, and for that reason and the way Italy were treated in that moment, it would be harsh to nail this down as more evidence they are not worthy of their place in the competition
A red day in Cardiff, Wales 21-16 Ireland
Wales achieved their most important win under Wayne Pivac so far as they edged past a spirited 14-man Ireland to move second in the table in the final game of Round one.
Clinical rugby in the first and third quarters was enough for the men in red to earn a deserved win, but Ireland will be left to run a number of key moments that cost them in Cardiff.
Slow starts in both halves, O’Mahony’s needless – but correctly awarded – red card just a quarter of an hour into proceedings and Billy Burns’ missing touch with a penalty kick with the clock in the red (after Sexton made the same mistake in the first half), will weigh heavy on coach Andy Farrell’s head this week no doubt.
They have many positives to take away, dominating the side with more players during the second quarter and showing great continuity in phases, but missing the chance to set up a top of the table clash with France in Dublin next week will hurt.
For Wales, they now have a great opportunity to enjoy a run in the competition. Should they come away victorious in Edinburgh next week, they will back themselves to remain unbeaten before a showdown with the French in Paris on the final day.
But injuries to four starters will make life very difficult, and there were parts of the performance they will want to review given the tension in a victory against a depleted opposition