The first round of the RBS 6 Nations didn’t fail to disappoint, being played out in typically exhilarating style.
In two home victories on the opening day of the Championship, Wales proved too strong for the Italians and English hearts were broken at the death by the French. A quick note to international wingers: rugby balls are egg-shaped … and don’t bounce predictably.
Wales v Italy
Fulfilling their stereotype of being slow starters, the Wales performance was generally scrappy but barnstorming running from the likes of Alun-Wyn Jones (15 carries) and Jamie Roberts (13) kept them on the front foot enough. A fortuitous bounce and a defensive slip by Italian debutant Angelo Esposito gave Alex Cuthbert an early try and a further before the break should have set up a framework for Wales to run away with the game in the second half but Sergio Parisse’s ball-carrying (no less than 21 carries), Luke McLean’s monstrous boot and superb work in attack from centre Michele Campagnaro, who made 98m on his 6 Nations debut, kept the Italians in the game.
Campagnaro pounced on a couple of opportunistic tries to give Wales a scare but it was the boot of full-back Leigh Halfpenny that made the difference as he converted both tries and added three penalties. Wales 23-15 Italy.
France v England
Over to Paris and was again the word of the day as French winger Yoann Huget capitalised on a fortuitous bounce and defensive slip [see the pattern here?] by Jack Nowell to cross the white wash in the first 30 seconds. England conceded again 15 minutes later, Huget again taking advantage of a – you guessed it – fortuitous bounce, this time with Alex Goode left in his wake. To an extent though, teams create their own luck and Stuart Lancaster commented on this post-match: “Perhaps the bounce of the ball didn’t go our way … But we need to control the things we can control. We can’t rely on the bounce of the ball.”
England showed resilience to come back from 16-3 down. Danny Care made one of his trademark snipes from a tap-and-go penalty to put Mike Brown over just before half-time and Billy Vunipola, after a bull-dozing run through the French centres, found Luther Burrell for an easy run-in under the posts shortly after the break. Incidentally Vunipola put in a fantastic shift, making 17 carries over a total of 63 metres and nine tackles.
But England will be disappointed with the final result, given they had 59% of possession and 63% of territory overall. They also struggled at the set-piece losing two scrums and two lineouts, while the French scrum stood solid on their own ball.
Following tactical substitutions in the last quarter, they lost the zip of Care, who had been controlling the game well, and the ball-carrying of Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes and were unable to close out the game as France came back to win with a score under the posts in the dying minutes. With four minutes to go, Joe Launchbury found himself defending the blindside channel too narrowly and couldn’t keep up with the fresh legs of Dimitri Szarzewski. While Mathieu Bastareaud had been largely ineffective due to the marshalling of Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees, replacement centre Gael Fickou slid past Alex Goode with ease and touched down under the posts. France 26-24 England.
Ireland v Scotland
In Sunday’s showdown between Ireland and Scotland, very little separated the sides in the early exchanges. With the late loss of captain Paul O’Connell to a chest infection, Ireland lacked firepower but a flash of brilliance from fly-half Jonny Sexton, as he scythed through a gap, put Andrew Trimble into the corner before half-time and gave them momentum. A more composed display by Ireland in the 2nd half, in which they built a series of strong forward drives, then saw them comfortably home. Stuart Hogg was one of very few shining lights for the Scots, while Jamie Heaslip put in an outstanding all-round performance for the MOTM award, captaining Ireland in the absence of O’Connell, leading the carry count (11) and scoring a try from a driving maul, whilst also making his fair share of tackles (10) and lineout takes. Ireland 28-6 Scotland.
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