We couldn’t really have asked for more from this Six Nations opening weekend. Obscene amounts of drama, some blissfully skillful tries and a result that defied all the pessimistic pundits’ predictions. Let’s just hope the rest of the tournament can live up to these tremendous opening matches.
Wales v Ireland: 22-30
Rugby writers the world over, yours truly included, had predicted a close match with some of Europe’s greatest players battling it ought for a hard fought win. And yet for the entire first half, and the beginning of the second, it looked as if we were in for a near Welsh massacre at the hands of a formidably confident Ireland.
The former champions looked sluggish, void of creativity and utterly incapable of handling an Irish side hungry for victory. An admirable revival and comeback late in the second half offered glimpses of what this Welsh side is capable of, injuries not withstanding, but it simply wasn’t enough to make up for their lethargy in the first half as they ended the game eight points behind at 22-30.
And the principal architect of their downfall? None other than Brian O’Driscoll. Bitterly disappointed at being overlooked for the captaincy, the former skipper defied his critics with a characteristically courageous and sublimely skilled performance.
It was O’Driscoll who set up Ireland for their first score, fixing three Welsh defenders and popping the offload which set up winger Simon Zebo for the opening try of the tournament. Zebo displayed his class in the build up to Ireland’s second try, effortlessly flicking up a loose pass on the back of his shin to keep the ball alive. Ireland’s patience and discipline on the tryline was rewarded when the bulk of Cian Healy finally crashed over the line for five points. Admirable conversions and penalty kicking from Sexton saw Ireland go in with a halftime score of 23-3, Wales managing a solitary penalty from fullback Leigh Halfpenny.
With such a deficit, Wales had set themselves a monumental struggle to mount a comeback, made all the more elusive by an Irish score early in the second half. O’Driscoll, finding himself buried into a try-line ruck with his forwards, managed to weave his way over for a third try, securing man of the match status in the process.
Staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat suddenly seemed to spur the hosts into action. Alex Cuthbert managed to go over for Wales’ first try, surely a relief for the winger who had endured an uncharacteristically poor first half.
Wales then dominated territory for the remainder of the half, while Ireland were punished for lapses in discipline with two yellow cards. The home side seized their numbers advantage, putting first Halfpenny and then Mitchell over for two hope-inspiring tries. But in the end, they’d simply left themselves with too much chasing to do. Ireland clung to their eight point lead right to the end, condemning Wales to a disappointing home victory.
England v Scotland: 38-18
Twickenham is a rather hostile environment for a visiting team at the best of times. So for a young Scottish side rebuilding itself after a disastrous Autumn, scraping a win in this clash against England was always going to be a big ask. And so it proved. Despite a promising start from Scott Johnson’s men, England swiftly grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and never let go.
Yet it was the visitors who opened the try-scoring, with a flash of what this young side is capable of on the counterattack. Fullback Stuart Hogg seized his chance after a substandard clearance from Mike Brown, slicing through the English defence to within inches of the try line. A cluster of phases later and it was winger Sean Maitland who eventually went over, putting Scotland in front.
Step forward Owen Farrell, who maintained his enviable kicking record by slotting over a further handful of penalties to put England back in front and calm the nerves of his teammates. After sustained English pressure, it was newcomer Billy Twelvetrees who managed a superb debut try as he picked a delectable line to cut straight through the Scottish defence and over the whitewash.
More superb skill from Farrell saw England score once more, a perfectly weighted pass out wide from the fly half finding Geoff Parling in the corner for the try. A win by this point seemed an increasingly vain hope for Scotland, despite Stuart Hogg managing to chase down a kick from teammate Maitland to score his side’s second try of the match.
A final burst of audacity from replacement scrum half Ben Youngs, who nipped over the line from close range to make it four tries for the home side, rounded off this bruising encounter for Scotland with a painful 38-18 final score.
Italy v France: 23-18
It was certainly a weekend of rugby lessons. Don’t underestimate the might of the Twickenham crowd. Certainly don’t write off Brian O’Driscoll just yet. And perhaps most important of all – never write off the Italians.
The Azzurri faced a tough opening fixture when pitched against tournament favourites France in their first match, albeit at the raucous home venue of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Most critics had written off the ‘plucky’ home side in the face of the Gallic might of their opponents.
But with almost impenetrable defence, crucial kicking accuracy from Luciano Orquera and characteristically formidable leadership from Sergio Parisse, the Italians silenced their critics and stunned the French with a hugely deserved 23-18 victory. In the process, they repeated the magic of their 2011 nailbiting win over France and considerably opened up the rest of the tournament.
Put it down to the roar of the Stadio Olimpico, or the rousing national anthem, but Jacque Brunel’s men made a dream start to their tournament, scoring within five minutes. Orquera followed a searing run from winger Luke McLean by slipping through a gap in the French defence, before passing out to skipper Sergio Parisse to gallop over for the try. The fly-half added a drop goal to his conversion to put Italy ahead 10-0.
The French comeback didn’t take long in coming, when France’s hulking number eight Louis Picamoles defied opposite number Parisse to lumber over the line for five points. Quick work in the back line from full back Yoann Huget and winger Benjamin Fall then saw the French nudge back in front, Michalak adding the extras to make it 13-15.
But while the Italians have stumbled in the past, mounting a real challenge in the second half, this time they reemerged determined to seize the game. Advancing steadily phase after phase, they found themselves just short of France’s try line, the French scrambling desperately to hold them off.
Yet again, it was Orquera who provided the spark they needed. Two French defenders clinging to him, he managed to hurl himself forward and offload to the ever-ready Castrogiovanni, the Leicester prop needing no further invitation to bundle over for the try. The conversion and a drop goal saw Italy stretch to a five point lead, with the score at 23-18 with twelve minutes to go.
A desperate final three minutes from France saw them on the verge of snatching victory from the hosts, shipping the ball wide in the dying seconds for a last-ditch try attempt. But the Italians were not to be denied their much-deserved victory, managing to bundle the ball into touch and secure the win. A monumental day for Italian rugby, and a game changer for the whole tournament as the competition favourites found themselves categorically humbled.