We look back over the opening round of the 2019 Six Nations, as France implode at home to Wales, England prove too strong for defending champions Ireland, and Scotland’s backs run riot…
Ireland 20-32 England
Just how good were England? Eddie Jones’ side may have earned successive Six Nations title victories in 2016 – with a Grand Slam – and 2017, earned eye-catching autumn wins and won a Test series 3-0 in Australia, but Saturday in Dublin was arguably their finest performance under him.
Playing against an Ireland side who could hardly be better placed, who had not lost in Dublin for over two years and who had never lost a home Six Nations Test under Joe Schmidt – to pull off a resounding 32-20 success really is quite something.
The pace with which England started the game was outstanding, both in possession and out of it, while their physical prowess in the forward pack, and among the backs, eventually proved too strong for Ireland.
Jonny May was supreme in the air, the Vunipola’s, Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler tackled everything, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell successfully dictated play – there was very little to criticise from an England point of view.
England’s defence was sensational and Ireland had no answer to its oppressive nature.
For Ireland, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray probably had their poorest game together – Murray’s kicking and passing looked off his usual standards, while Sexton and co seemed to fail to have a plan B in the face of England’s aggressive defensive line-speed.
The Robbie Henshaw/full-back experiment also seemed to fail. The Leinster centre never appeared fully comfortable there, while England repeatedly enjoyed successes by finding grass with the boot.
Ireland have had a wonderful 18 months, but Saturday was a really poor day for them with their accuracy – something Schmidt’s side are so famed for – far off the mark. There will be a response, but do they have enough to force a title challenge?
France 19-24 Wales
Does anyone do self-combustion like the French? Leading 16-0 at half-time and cruising, playing some wonderful attacking rugby, Wales seemed done and dusted.
Yet an early Tomos Williams try in the second half after an incisive Josh Adams break gave Wales some semblance of hope, before errors of near-unbelievable proportions from Yoann Huget and Sebastien Vahaamahina earned Warren Gatland’s side an unlikely victory.
Firstly Huget, when tracking back to regather a bouncing ball in the wet let it slip on top of his tryline to gift George North a score. A Dan Biggar penalty then put Wales ahead for the first time on 63 minutes, though France fought back to lead 19-17 inside the final 10 minutes with their only points of the half coming via a Camille Lopez penalty.
From there Les Blues still conspired to lose it as second row Vahaamahina threw an incredibly naive long skip-pass on the Wales 40-metre line. North intercepted it, and with that won the match. Quite what the Clermont forward was thinking is hard to fathom…
You have to feel for France head coach Jacques Brunel. Individual mistakes of such proportions just can not be legislated for.
For Wales? They have now won 10 in a row, have a priceless away success under the belt and with England and Ireland to come in Cardiff, might just quietly fancy a Grand Slam tilt…
Scotland 33-20 Italy
Scotland were always expected to defeat Italy in their opener but the manner in which their backs punished their opponents provided them with optimism for the challenges ahead.
Blair Kinghorn was the headline maker after the Edinburgh talent scored three tries. It was a superb performance from the 22-year-old as he offered a consistent threat for Gregor Townsend’s side.
Kinghorn set Scotland on their way to a bonus-point victory and he showed huge promise, especially considering he was playing on the wing rather than his favoured position at full-back.
His exceptional pace was too much for Italy to handle but better teams than them may struggle to handle his speed and movement.
Kinghorn was not the only back to flourish at Murrayfield with Stuart Hogg producing several standout attacks. The Exeter-bound full-back scored a try and also had a hand in several other potent moves from the hosts.
Winger Tommy Seymour was also lively at times while fly-half Finn Russell’s awareness and ability to create openings with boot and hand also carved open the Italians.
Of course there were some concerns for Scotland, such as the way they dropped off late on conceding three tries, but the positives outweighed the negatives.
Scotland demonstrated the cutting edge of their attack. It may need to be sharpened against a wounded Ireland side next weekend but their backline has shown once again it has the pace and guile to cause problems against top teams.