By Rugby World reader Dan Grose

France the team to beat after intriguing Six Nations opener Whilst the final scores may indicate otherwise, the opening round of the 2011 Six Nations Championship was far from predictable. Despite their wins, England, Ireland and France were all made to work for their supper, some much harder than others.

Few would have predicted the almighty struggle in store for the Irish ahead of their trip to the Stadio Flaminio, yet only a last minute drop goal stood between them and a potentially embarrassing result.

Heading to Rome with a squad decimated by injury, Ireland fumbled through an error ridden first half and were fortunate to be only 6 – 3 down at the break. In a typically physical match, Italian defence held firm throughout the second half, breached only by an O’Driscoll try on 44 minutes. Yet a Luke McLean repost ensured a nervous finish only quelled by replacement O’Gara in the dying seconds.

Missing the likes of Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney to name but a few, an opening tie against a tough tackling Italian side was always going to prove a potential banana skin. Uncharacteristically shaky performances from talisman Brian O’Driscoll and midfield partner Gordon D’Arcy must be addressed and then improved upon, as should the consistent wastefulness with ball in hand. Indeed, unless Ireland significantly reduce the unforced errors, their hopes of winning the championship will disappear before they have even started.

In contrast, a tough Welsh challenge was eventually put to the sword by an England side missing key players but lacking little in heart.

With inspirational trio Courteney Lawes, Tom Croft and captain Lewis Moody missing, the visitors were expected to have to work hard for a victory. This proved accurate as a highly talked up pre match gave way to an explosive game, with both teams contributing to an intensely physical contest. After Chris Ashton’s well taken try and a trio of penalties, the second half proved full of incident, with Welsh prop Craig Mitchell matching Louis Deacon with ten minutes in the sin bin. Resolute attacking from England saw Ashton cross again, but a Morgan Stoddart try and a James Hook penalty brought the scores to 19 – 23 before replacement Jonny Wilkinson put the result beyond doubt with a cooly taken penalty.

Despite the key absences, England have every right to be proud of a well deserved, if not totally perfect, victory. Special mentions must go to Tom Palmer for a dominating line out display and, once again, the ever impressive Ashton, despite his manager’s criticisms.

Developing with every game, the wing is thriving in a settled three quarters, something that will prove crucial to England’s chances of claiming the championship. And with the dynamic Moody due back before it’s climax, Martin Johnson must believe there is every chance of victory.

Yet after an opening performance of typical style and panache, France already look a threat to any side.

Against a much improved Scotland team, Les Bleus landed four tries and a penalty to run out comfortable 34 – 21 winners. Despite the visitors notching three rare tries of their own, the French never looked like losing a match that showcased every facet of their skills and silenced many of their critics.

Boasting arguably the most reliable line out in world rugby to compliment a back line brimming with talent, they certainly have what it takes, on paper, to win consecutive Grand Slams. With Harinordoquy, Dusatoir, Traille and Rougerie they have but a few names to potentially devastate opponents, notwithstanding the growing talents of Francois Trinh-Duc and Maxime Medard.

Indeed France may forego a second clean sweep thanks only to their own mindset. Notoriously prone to bouts of Gallic indifference and fabled bad travellers, consecutive trips to Ireland, England and Italy could prove their stumbling only block.

Yet as it stands they remain the highly prized scalp of an already fascinating competition, and one that will require huge effort to take. Ireland need to drastically improve, England are looking steady, but France need only to remain focussed.

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