Ireland and France set out their stalls as Scotland send England home to think again
By Richard Mulligan
Dominant displays from Ireland and France as both sent out their statements of intent as the two favourites for this year’s Guinness Six Nations Championship were the standout feature of round one.
And yet both will feel somewhat frustrated that they left quite a bit on the pitch in their respective wins over Wales and Italy – two sides now likely to be facing a head-to-head in the final round of the tournament to avoid sixth place.
Scotland and England served up a dramatic encounter at Murrayfield, the Scots prevailing 20-17 with a late second half comeback having been 17-10 down.
A good weekend to be Irish and Scottish, but everyone knows this tournament can have you up one week and down the next.
The championship is still all to play for, but for three, dreams of a Grand Slam are gone and for two, hopes of a Triple Crown are over.
And this weekend it will change again as the current top two in the competition, France and Ireland, go toe to toe in Paris on Saturday.
Already labelled the 2022 title decider, the contest brings together two sides who have recently beaten New Zealand and harbour high hopes as they look towards the Rugby World Cup in France next year.
A win in Paris, still relatively rare, would put Ireland in a great position even with a tricky visit to Twickenham ahead.
Defeat would not be the end as the championship will have a few twists and turns still to come.
And dare I even suggest, come round five on March 19 could Ireland and Scotland be going for a winner takes everything in Dublin. The Triple Crown, the Six Nations title and maybe, just maybe, a Grand Slam decider – the latter could be stretching it a bit.
Ireland 29 Wales 7
A bonus point win at home to kick-start the championship and tee things up for a huge showdown in Paris on Saturday evening.
It was an impressive showing from Andy Farrell’s men. They basically dominated the depleted defending champions.
One of the key talking points coming into the game was the debut handed on the wing to Australian-born Mack Hansen, Irish qualified as his mother hailed from Cork.
It was one of those dream debuts, named man of the match and instrumental in teeing up his Connacht clubmate Bundee Aki for the early opening score in Dublin which eased any nerves.
Andrew Conway’s second-half brace and a solo score from Garry Ringrose sealed a deserved bonus-point victory.
Convincing win yes, but there will be some frustration within the camp that they did not put a poor Welsh side to the sword.
A formidable test now awaits in Paris and Ireland will need to lift themselves to the levels of November when they emerged victorious against New Zealand to be on the right side of the scoreline against Les Bleus.
Farrell is not expected to tinker too much with his selection even with having Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw available again.
It seems crazy to think that two of their best players may not get into the starting side for what is a hugely massive game.
It is perhaps a reflection of the culture change under Andy Farrell, that form, rather than reputation, is rewarded.
Henderson and Henshaw are almost certain to be involved this weekend, but it could be from the bench.
It is a great quandary to have.
Winning in Paris is something Ireland have done before, but the French are also in a rich vein of form and it promises to be a real battle between the two sides tipped to take the main silverware at the end of this championship.
Ireland captain Jonny Sexton said: “We’re playing against one of the in-form teams in the world.
“We’re obviously in good form as well. It’s been, of course, hyped up and if we can win in the Stade de France, it puts you in a good position to win the championship.
“I’ve won there a few times over the years. In 2014 we lifted the trophy there and in 2018 we started off the Grand Slam year in that game.
“If you win there, it gives you a great chance of competing for the championship.
“We’re not hiding away from that – it’s a big game.”
Scotland 20 England 17
What a ding dong battle this turned out to be at Murrayfield. Scotland, with a late comeback, won the Calcutta Cup back-to-back for the first time since 1984. For the statisticians out there, the last time they did that they went on to achieve the Grand Slam (in the former Five Nations).
When England went 17-10 ahead in the second half, it looked as though they had turned the screw on the Scottish challenge. Then the self-destruct button was pressed.
Marcus Smith’s attempted touch-finder went dead, and the crook came out and he was replaced by George Ford shortly after. That coupled with the change in the front row saw Scotland find some more grunt.
A penalty try – there was no doubt – tied the game and Finn Russell’s penalty turned the game on its head.
England had the chance to at least go for a draw, instead it was ‘glory or bust’ and it ended with a loss.
The Red Rose will bounce back this weekend against the Italians, while Scotland will go to Wales buoyed by a tremendous victory over the auld enemy.
England coach Eddy Jones said: “It was a good effort by our team. Scotland were a bit better than us and took their chances.
“There was nothing in the game, it was a three-point game that could have gone either way, but congratulations to Scotland, and they deserve their victory.
“We’ve only got ourselves to blame. It just comes down to the fact that we weren’t clinical enough today.
“But we will be next week.”
Scotland coach, Gregor Townsend was not getting carried away with a “it was far from perfect” to open the post match media conference.
“We had to absorb a lot of phase attack from England, and through our errors, we weren’t able to build our own phase attack. We were proud of how we played in the final quarter.
“It’s a game we not only get up for, but we know we deliver close to our best rugby. Today wasn’t our best rugby, but our standards are higher than they were a few years ago.”
Skipper Stuart Hogg was absolutely delighted, saying: “I am chuffed to bits, we wanted to come out here and put on a show and show what we are about.
“I am so delighted, it was a full squad effort. We believe in ourselves as individuals and in ourselves as a collective.
“I said this time last year that this was the start of something special and next week is a challenge to back it up and do it again.
“I am not going to get carried away, this was one game.
“We will go back to the drawing board on Monday and make sure that we work incredibly hard to back it up and be the best version of ourselves next Saturday.”
France 37 Italy 10
A spirited Italy briefly threatened to derail France’s attempt at a first title since 2010 with an early try through debutant teenager Tommaso Menoncello.
With their coach Fabien Galthie isolating due to Covid, his coaching staff in Stade de France kept in contact with him during the match.
The French eventually pulled away to secure a bonus point win and leave the favourites top on points difference from Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations table.
Anthony Jelonch and Gabin Villiere crossed to put the hosts in front while after the break, Villiere completed his hat-trick after Damian Penaud went in to secure the bonus point.
Despite now having lost 33 Six Nations games in a row, for the Italians there were signs of some promise and they will want to build on that when they host England on Sunday.
Italy captain Michele Lamaro said: “We were pretty good in defence, we were pretty good physically but we have to get consistency in the whole game.
“The forwards did a pretty good performance, especially on the physical side. We faced them with all we had and that’s all I can ask of the boys.
“I’m happy for that but there’s still lots of things to work on.”
On facing England this weekend, he added: “Obviously what we did last week to prepare for France wasn’t enough, otherwise we would have had a different result.
“Now it’s important to keep creating something where we can prepare better than last week and perform better on the field at the end.”
France’s Raphael Ibanez said: “You could tell after 20 minutes we were lacking rugby together. Through the game I thought the boys did well. Five tries and five points is good.
“For next week we have to step up in every department. Ireland are not fourth in the world ranking for nothing, the game they played against Wales was good.“
Feature image Mandatory credit: Dan Sheridan/Inpho