Arguably Rugby’s greatest tournament is back as the opening weekend of the RBS 6 nations took place this weekend. England went in as favourites after winning the Grand Slam last year, completing an unprecedented 3-0 whitewash of the Wallabies and then winning all 4 of their autumn internationals to match the 2003 legends record of 14 consecutive wins, 13 of which under new coach Eddie Jones. However, the threat of others, particularly Ireland after their famous win in Chicago over the all-conquering All Blacks, will still prove a stern test if they want to win consecutive championships.
And so it proved, as a seemingly straight-forward home fixture against France turned out to be one of the toughest the English have faced under the Aussie Jones. A lacklustre first-half, described by Sir Clive Woodward in the ITV studio as the worst he has seen under the new boss, saw none of the dynamic attacking play and intensity that the Aussies could not live with in the summer. France, instead, played a very good half and really should have been comfortably ahead.
The most worrying aspect of the game though, is how nothing seemed to change after the break. An Owen Farrell penalty put a spluttering England into the lead for the first time, but France’s size and power was too much for the English defence, and a try from substitute Ribah Slimani gave the French a deserved lead with 15 minutes to go. Then England turned the screw. James Haskell, injured in the Autumn, came on and gave the home side some much needed tempo. Worcester centre Ben Te’o came on and gave England the win, but it was far from an accomplished performance and some drastic improvement will be needed for the trip to Cardiff on Saturday.
Widely regarded to be England’s closest challengers, Ireland began their match against Scotland in similarly slow fashion. Three quick tries, a first half to savour from Stuart Hogg and all of a sudden Scotland had a 21-8 lead at the break. The living legends that won on that famous day in Chicago were shell-shocked. A backlash was inevitable. After a blink of an eye, the Scots lead had been wiped out. The incredible intensity and accuracy that New Zealand couldn’t cope with was back, and 22-21 was the score, after tries from Ian Henderson and Paddy Jackson, with just ten minutes to go.
After a history of losing narrow games, most notably by just a point to Australia in the Quarter-finals of the world cup just over a year ago, Scotland seemed tired and out of luck. Up stepped Greig Laidlaw. The Gloucester and Scotland scrum-half and captain had been imperious from the boot, and sealed two late penalties to pull off a miraculous win for the hosts. They have found a way to win these narrow games and have moved away from Italy at the bottom of the table; seemingly moving towards a genuine title challenge and could possibly overtake Ireland as the potential rivals to the English.
Speaking of the Italians, they may have seen the visit of the Welsh, who aren’t in the best form themselves, as being their most realistic chance of claiming a win this tournament. Wales did beat Japan and South Africa in the Autumn, but the performance wasn’t that becoming of Six Nations challengers. So it was perhaps unsurprising that the Italians not only scored an early try, but went on to lead 7-3 at half-time in Rome. The game seemed even until the hour mark, but the fitness issues Italian skipper Sergio Parisse feared came to light, as a flurry of tries from Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and a spectacular run from George North saw a 33-7 win for the visitors, although they’ll be disappointed by just missing out on the first try bonus point as Williams just knocked the ball on in the last seconds. Wales played well, but the Italians poor performance bread new life into the call for relegation to be introduced to the tournament.
After an eventful weekend, England may still be favourites for the tournament, but any more performances like that and breaking the all time record of 18 consecutive wins will be a distant memory. Ireland will be upset with their performance, and the Italians in Rome are not going to have it any easier next weekend when the Irish come to town. Scotland will be buoyed by a memorable win, but an extremely difficult task awaits them with a trip to Paris after a great performance from the French at Twickenham, meaning a repeat display will be very difficult. All in all, the Six Nations is back with a bang.
On a side note, Joost Van Der Westhuizen, the great that almost single-handily stopped Jonah Lomu to win the 1995 World Cup for South Africa, passed away today after a seven year battle with motor neurone disease. The legend of the game was just 45. An incredible man who graced the game with his incredible ability. Outstanding Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll summed up the man perfectly: “An incredible player and a fighter to the end.” RIP Joost.
This post comes from my personal blog, which you can read here: https://matdunnett.wordpress.com