Two narrow wins and a draw were served up on the first weekend of the RBS Six Nations, while teams continued to fight for every point in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12. Who were the heroes and villains this time?
Double dose of Vunipola magic
The Vunipola brothers both played a leading role in England’s 15-9 win over Scotland on the opening day of the RBS Six Nations. Billy was named Man of the Match after an outstanding performance at No 8. He carried the ball no less than 22 times, making 51 metres and beating five defenders.
Meanwhile, older brother Mako, who was on as a replacement, helped set up Jack Nowell’s try with a delicious piece of handling. As England surged forward into the 22, Mako received the ball and flipped it back inside and behind himself to Owen Farrell with the softest of hands. From there, Farrell found Nowell outside him and the wing strode over the line.
No way through
Wales centre Jamie Roberts put in a massive shift during Wales’s 16-16 draw with Ireland in Dublin on Sunday. He made 20 tackles – more than anyone else in the match – and missed just two. It was not just the number of tackles, but the bravery and aggression involved and the way Roberts sometimes gambled by charging up out of the line to meet an opponent at full tilt, but never lost the bet.
As well as acting like a one-man brick wall in the defensive line, Roberts also carried 11 times.
Just a whisker behind Roberts in the defensive stakes was Taulupe Faletau, who made 19 tackles and missed none.
Not a bad start
Ireland blindside CJ Stander picked up the Man of the Match award on his Test debut after putting in an excellent performance in Ireland’s Six Nations draw with Wales. He made 12 tackles without missing one, stole a lineout and carried the ball 23 times.
There is also a brief round of applause due to Andrew Trimble, for his try-saving tackle on Alun Wyn Jones. Just eight minutes into the game, with Ireland 3-0 up, Wales were attacking and the lock had George North outside him, but Trimble hit the bigger man effectively enough to stop him offloading.
Stuart Hogg put in another top notch performance for Scotland in their defeat by England. The full-back made 101m with the ball in hand, which was easily the most in the game. He carried 18 times and beat five defenders. Hogg might well have scored a breakaway try if only Finn Russell had realised he was outside him when Russell intercepted a pass inside his own 22, but kicked ahead instead of giving Hogg the chance to run. England were 12-6 up at the time, with a quarter of the game to go, so a try then could have been critical.
Foden’s final flourish
There was a full round of matches in the Aviva Premiership this weekend and an injury-time try by Ben Foden enabled Northampton Saints to snatch a 27-23 win over Harlequins and become the first team to beat them at the Stoop this season.
Harlequins had gone 23-20 up with a penalty from Ben Botica after 72 minutes, but Northampton – who had led three times in the first half – did not give up hope. Botica tried to find touch with the clock in red time, but Foden did well to keep the ball in play and after several phases he took a pass from Luther Burrell and dummied his way through the last line of defence for the winning try.
Jackson on target
Paddy Jackson landed a late, long-range penalty to snatch a 17-15 victory for Ulster over the Dragons on Friday evening and put the Irish side top of the Guinness Pro12.
The Dragons led 10-7 at half-time and 15-7 soon afterwards, but Ulster fought back with a penalty try and won the game with Jackson’s 78th-minute heroics. The victory put Ulster top of the table and ensured the Dragons must continue their search for a first win in Belfast since 2008.
The wrong man
Sergio Parisse is in my bad books this week for giving himself the responsibility of taking the drop-goal which could have won the match for Italy, rather than putting a goal-kicking back in the hot seat.
Italy were 23-21 down to France in the final play of their Six Nations match and worked patiently to set up the chance which could have given them their first win in Paris.
However the No 8 stepped back into the pocket to take the shot and missed the kick by a mile. Unfortunately, fly-half Carlo Canna was off the pitch by then, but Kelly Haimona had taken over the place-kicking and had slotted a penalty, so surely he would have had more chance of grabbing the crucial three points?
For years, and in this game, Parisse has been effectively carrying this Italy side on his shoulders, but he cannot try to do everything.
Ben Botica will have nightmares about his failed touch-finder, which enable Northampton to score a last-ditch try and beat Harlequins 27-23. The clock had gone past 80 minutes with Quins 23-20 up and his forwards scrambled the ball back to him in his own in-goal area after a scrum. Instead of dinking a kick to the nearest touchline, Botica hit the ball with the outside of his boot up the right and towards the 22 and there Ben Foden managed to leap up and keep it in play. A few phases later, Foden was gliding over the line to score the winning try and Botica had some explaining to do.
Owen Farrell’s petulant side emerged again towards the end of England’s win over Scotland, when he pushed Greig Laidlaw needlessly into touch as the Scotland scrum-half tried to shepherd the ball out. What would have been a lineout to England a few metres from the Scotland line turned into a penalty to Scotland and denied England a possible chance to extend their 15-9 lead. After the way last year’s Six Nations finished, players should know that every point counts.
Sevens, or eights?
New Zealand Sevens could be in hot water after World Rugby launched an investigation into whether they had eight players on the pitch during the second half of their pool match against Australia at the Sydney Sevens on Saturday. New Zealand scored a try at the death to draw the pool match 17-17, which enabled them to go through to the Cup quarter-finals as group winners. A day later they beat Australia 27-24 in the final to win their second consecutive tournament.
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By Saturday evening a photo was doing the rounds on social media which appeared to show eight black-shirted players on the pitch in the late stages of the pool game. World Rugby issued a statement saying it was “investigating an apparent breach of Law 3 (number of players on the field of play) by the New Zealand sevens team”.
Procedures in Sevens tournaments don’t allow for results to be overturned but World Rugby can take disciplinary action against New Zealand if they are found guilty.