Three talking points after Six Nations Round One
SPOTLIGHT: The 2023 Six Nations started with a trio of away wins to mark the start of the international season in this World Cup year.
Defending Six Nations Grand Slam champions France were pushed all the way by Italy, after Scotland had spoilt England’s first match under Steve Borthwick and Ireland wrecked Warren Gatland’s Wales homecoming.
AFP Sport looks at the three biggest talking points from the opening weekend:
Gatland has his work cut out
The scale of the challenge facing Gatland in his second stint as Wales boss was emphasised by a 34-10 loss to world number-one ranked Ireland in Cardiff.
It was his heaviest home defeat in the Championship as Wales coach, with Ireland already 27-3 ahead by half-time.
It was a stark reminder that there was no quick fix to reviving Wales after their struggles under sacked former coach Wayne Pivac.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns for Gatland was that Wales missed 33 tackles — a huge number at this level.
But unlike his first stint as Wales coach, which yielded four Six Nations titles and three Grand Slams from 2007-2019, Gatland no longer has Shaun Edwards alongside him, with the defence guru now a key member of Grand Slam champions France’s staff instead.
“In the past, we’ve been able to work hard and fix things,” said Gatland, although whether a second-round match away to a buoyant Scotland will be too soon for a significant improvement remains to be seen.
Scotland holds their nerve
Scotland has squandered numerous winning positions in recent seasons with various self-inflicted wounds.
However, this weekend they were able to come from eight points down early in the second half to defeat England 29-23 at Twickenham and record their third successive Calcutta Cup win in a fixture that had so long proved their undoing.
The first of Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe’s two tries, a stunning solo effort, is sure to become a YouTube favourite, while a huge defensive effort, with captain Jamie Ritchie leading the way at the ruck, was also a key aspect of the victory.
But Scotland coach Gregor Townsend warned this success would count for little if not backed up against Wales at Murrayfield next weekend.
“It will mean nothing if we don’t recover, train well and improve next week. In the last two Six Nations we have played Wales after beating England and we haven’t won,” he said.
Italy coming of age despite defeat
Few would have given much for Italy’s chances against reigning Grand Slam champions France before kick-off in Rome.
Come full time and 2023 World Cup hosts France had extended their unbeaten streak to 14 matches but only after an almighty scare in a 29-24 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, with Italy full-back Ange Capuozzo scoring a try in a game where the visitors were forced into conceding numerous penalties.
For so long Italy has been the whipping boys of the Six Nations. But having ended their 36-match losing streak in the Championship with victory away to Wales last season, they served further notice of their progress with a first victory over Australia in November.
Among those impressed by Sunday’s display was Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll, commentating on the match for ITV.
“This is an Italian team we need to pay attention to,” he said. “We have been waiting 20 years for this. They are really well-drilled and have the freedom to express themselves.”
Italy has yet to beat England but, on this evidence, the Azzurri will fancy their chances of ending that unwanted record at Twickenham next weekend.