Six Nations Round One: What we learned
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: A thumping win for defending Grand Slam champions Wales over Italy, Ireland grinding out a victory over Scotland, and France pulling the punches in defeating England.
This is what we learned from the three matches of the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations:
France 24-17 England
A rejuvenated France outscored World Cup finalists England three tries to two in the rain at the Stade de France. The French public, so fickle under Jacques Brunel’s wobbly reign as coach, screamed the house down in front of a beaming Fabien Galthie.
Key for France was dynamo scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, a key cog in everything France offered going forward.
“We want to start from zero after four complicated years,” said Dupont. “There’s no better start than that.”
France can look to capitalise on their impressive showing in front of a full house in their Round Two fixture at home against Italy.
While a gnarly French defence, honed in some part by new arrival Shaun Edwards, nullified England’s promises of “absolute brutality”, the English will take heart from their second-half performance, when they battled back from 0-24 down.
Coach Eddie Jones was left with another headache after wrecking-ball centre Manu Tuilagi went off early with a groin strain.
They missed his physical presence, as well as that of the two Vunipola brothers: Mako should be back for Scotland next weekend, but ball-carrying No.8 Billy is out with a fourth broken forearm of his career.
Ireland 19-12 Scotland
Ireland will host Wales in Round Two before travelling to Twickenham to play England.
New coach Andy Farrell credited his team with digging deep to see off Scotland, for whom captain Stuart Hogg spectacularly dropped the ball in the process of scoring a try, at a crucial juncture of the game.
Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton said the win was paramount. “The first game of the tournament is all about winning,” he said.
“Last year after the [opening] England game, Triple Crown gone, Grand Slam gone, uphill battle to try to even win the Championship. We’re alive in everything and that’s where we want to be.”
Scotland were not too disheartened in defeat, coach Gregor Townsend acknowledging that it was no good dominating swathes of the game but not be able to convert pressure into points.
“There are some really outstanding parts of the game that had Ireland under a lot of pressure,” he said.
“We just have to learn that sometimes you don’t get these opportunities away from home against such a good team, so you’ve got to take them.”
Wales 42-0 Italy
Wayne Pivac got his reign as Wales coach off to the perfect start with a 42-0 thrashing of Italy.
Josh Adams, leading try scorer at the World Cup, confirmed his status as a finisher of the highest quality with a hat-trick as the Italians were run ragged.
One dilemma for Pivac will be who to select in the centre for what should be a much sterner test against Ireland in Dublin.
George North was drafted in from the wing to fill the space left by the injured Jonathan Davies at outside centre. He performed well, but so did replacement Nick Tompkins, the Saracens back enjoying a fine cameo that included a smart turnover, a solid defensive shift and a superb solo try.
Leigh Halfpenny enjoyed a great game at fullback, but with Liam Williams likely to be in the reckoning next week, Pivac will no doubt be delivering disappointing news to at least one player.
Italy’s interim head coach Franco Smith took heart from a performance he said was error-strewn rather than lacking in commitment.
“The result is not a reflection of the quality of the side,” Smith said, with a tricky away trip to Paris next up.
There can be no hiding that the defeat in Cardiff was Italy’s 23rd consecutive loss in the Six Nations, a streak an Italy side missing Sergio Parisse will be desperate to break.