Rugby needed a restorative 2023 Guinness Six Nations and the first round certainly delivered rich entertainment, as well as three away wins on the opening weekend for the first time ever.
Save for the Welsh, every team took positives from the first weekend, even if the reaction to England’s loss to Scotland at Twickenham, which perhaps tells us much, and Kieran Crowley was understandably angry that Italy missed a clear chance to beat the reigning Grand Slam champions, which also tells us much.
“Honeymoon is over,” declared Wales on Sunday after coming to the conclusion that Warren Gatland is not the messiah after all, he’s just a good rugby coach working within a malfunctioning system and a team that needs the most remedial work of the six.
By rights, Ireland should be beating Wales, considering how far Andy Farrell is into his rebuild compared to Gatland, the world rankings, Leinster and co versus the Welsh regions, and so on.
Joe Schmidt left a huge legacy, but dealing with “uncontrollables” such as leaked team selections, late withdrawals or, dare one say it, delayed arrivals by bus to the stadium, wasn’t one of his more obvious fortes.
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By contrast, Farrell seems to have an almost masochistic desire to embrace them. This transmits to the team which, thankfully, were clearly a good deal more serene about losing Jamison Gibson-Park and Cian Healy last Saturday morning in addition to Tadgh Furlong and Ronan Kelleher than the press room.
As pleasing as any aspect of the 34-10 bonus point win for Farrell would have been the displays of the starting “understudies”, Conor Murray and Finlay Bealham.
One of Schmidt’s enduring legacies at both Leinster and Ireland was the efficiency of the two-man clearouts
It’s amazing that after 100 caps for his country and being the best scrumhalf that Irish rugby has ever produced, so many just pigeonhole Murray as a box kicker. His savvy, the speed of his pass through the air, his footballing ability in open play, composure under the high ball, strength in contact and decision-making — all of which were positives in that opening half especially — are often all overlooked.
The surfeit of hamstring issues aside, the opening two-try salvo inside nine minutes was testament to the quality of work done in Portugal. One of Schmidt’s enduring legacies at both Leinster and Ireland was the efficiency of the two-man clearouts, and for each of the eight-phase attacks that led to the Caelan Doris and the tap penalty from which James Ryan scored, the ball was recycled in that time-honoured fashion.
Ireland also delve heavily into the Leinster attacking system, and among the common themes are the work rate off the ball and ensuing options. The Welsh defence couldn’t live with the lightning-quick ruck, which also comes from the lines of running and the generally exceptional footwork which consistently helped Irish carriers over the gain line. At its best, it is relentless.
Irish rugby is now producing a rich array of dynamic and skilful forwards and there’s more coming down the tracks after Josh van der Flier, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne, Doris et al. The Under-20s’ stunning 44-27 comeback win over Wales in Colwyn Bay featured a strong contender for try of the season with a bewildering spell of offloads and tip-ons by forwards and backs alike which culminated in Ruadhán Quinn scoring the fourth of six tries.
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Whether they again win what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Under-20 championships or not, clearly a lot of people are doing a mountain of good work in Irish rugby.
The senior performance wasn’t without its flaws: The 13 penalties conceded; at times too lateral in attack, and too soft in defence; the 46 minutes without a score. But imperfections that need rectifying after a bonus point away win is a good place to be.
France were even more imperfect in Rome on Sunday, most notably with the concession of 18 penalties. Had Italy not coughed up two soft tries through their consistently poor exits (the 4.5 second hang time for Roman Ntamack’s restarts admittedly meant Damian Penaud could always tackle man and ball), had Tommy Allan landed his 73rd minute or pushed the last penalty closer to the corner, Italy might well have won.
In particular, Shaun Edwards will have reminded his players in no uncertain terms to trust their defence more and not poach for lost causes
Italy’s ambition to take quick throws and push the pass inside the last quarter was also commendable, but it let les bleus off the hook. However, that French performance can probably be dismissed and after another week’s training they will be at a much more intense, emotional pitch in the Aviva for a meeting between the world’s top two ranked sides.
In particular, Shaun Edwards will have reminded his players in no uncertain terms to trust their defence more and not poach for lost causes (seven of the penalties were conceded at rucks) or push up offside so liberally.
As with the Principality Stadium last Saturday, by rights Scotland should be beating England too given this is Gregor Townsend’s sixth Six Nations as head coach, whereas Steve Borthwick and his ticket are just starting off.
Furthermore, England had only won one of the previous five Calcutta Cups. Much more inventive, Scotland deserved to win too, not least through Duhan van der Merwe’s individual try for the ages and his finish for the brilliant match-winning try.
It was always likely that England and Wales would improve as the championship wore on under new coaching tickets
Scotland, of course, have been here before, having beaten England in round one in each of the last two years only to lose to Wales a week later. But there was the mitigating factor of a red card two years ago in Murrayfield, and Wales look in a less threatening place now.
It was always likely that England and Wales would improve as the championship wore on under new coaching tickets. Unlike France, England have seemingly forgotten how to win tight matches.
The Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell debate has been revived after a somewhat blunt attacking performance, particularly in the end game, but Nick Evans coaches Smith at Harlequins while Farrell has been named captain. Against that, Kevin Sinfield has a a big reputation as defensive coach and it will be a surprise if that doesn’t improve by the time they play Ireland in round five. But in the meantime, Italy will travel to Twickenham without fear.
To what degree Gatland sticks or twists with the old guard, and how Wales respond, will be intriguing. Remarkably, Scotland last won their opening two matches in the championship back in 1996. They look primed to change that this time.