From stalling Ireland to super Slade – and a game of two halves, we reflect on the opening round of the 2019 championship
Ireland’s slow starts a worry for World Cup
Ireland were on a run of 12 successive wins and hadn’t lost a Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium under Joe Schmidt, but England taught the defending champions a harsh lesson in this year’s first round.
Schmidt pointed to the power England brought to Dublin, saying: “It was the simmering physical intensity they collectively delivered made the pitch a fairly suffocating place.”
The visitors dominated the gain-line and out-thought Ireland aerially, meaning the defending champions couldn’t get any momentum.
CATCH UP ON THE GOINGS-ON OF ROUND ONE OF THE SIX NATIONS…
Two tries from Henry Slade in last quarter…
Wales trailed 16-0 at half-time but came back…
What is most significant going forward, however, is the fact Ireland continue to start campaigns slowly. It was something mentioned in the build-up to this match as people pointed to the last-gasp drop-goal needed to win in Paris last year, the defeat by Scotland the season before and the draw with Wales in 2016.
So it came to pass again against England – and it raises big concerns ahead of the World Cup. Ireland face Scotland in their opening game and cannot stall in the blocks in Yokohama if they are to fulfill their ambitions of topping the pool.
Schmidt said: “I’m frustrated because we do tend to start slow and we can’t afford to. Looking to the World Cup, we’ve got to hit the ground running. We’ve tended to finish the Six Nations strongly. But we have to be able to start better.”
England centre Henry Slade slays self-doubt
Eddie Jones said it almost as an aside in his post-match press conference, but he provided a telling insight into Henry Slade’s mindset.
The outside-centre’s two tries in Dublin were key to England’s win over Ireland, but Jones believes the Exeter Chief has not always had the requisite self-belief at international level.
“Every game he’s getting better,” said England’s head coach. “At first I think he thought he wasn’t good enough to play for England. Now he’s thinking about how good he can be.”
Slade didn’t look like he was beset by self-doubt at the Aviva Stadium. His two tries were significant but his all-round game impressed too.
He’s been moved around positionally by club and country, playing at ten, 12, 13 and even 15. He now seems to have found his niche at outside-centre, where his distribution and vision are able to come to the fore without the time pressures players face when further infield. He’s a decent defender, too, and offers another kicking option.
And could the combination of Owen Farrell-Manu Tuilagi-Henry Slade be the midfield to take England through to the World Cup? It certainly proved effective against Ireland and if the trio replicate that form throughout the championship it could solve an selection issue that has existed since the end of the Mike Tindall-Will Greenwood era in 2004.
Should Dan Biggar start for Wales?
Gareth Anscombe’s performances in the Wales No 10 shirt in November saw him given the nod to continue at fly-half in the opening Six Nations match against France – but he struggled in Paris.
Warren Gatland didn’t ‘do an Eddie Jones’ and replace him after 30 minutes, but he did bring Dan Biggar on in the 53rd minute. In fact, the coach replaced both half-backs at that time, with Gareth Davies coming on for Tomos Williams.
It’s true the miserable weather did not work in Anscombe’s favour, but you felt the more experienced and pragmatic Biggar would have dealt with the slippery ball better, particularly in territorial terms with his boot.
In the build-up to Louis Picamoles’ try, Anscombe overran in defence, opening up the gap for the France No 8 to run through, while the fly-half’s kicking and general game management were below par.
Next up for Wales are Italy in Rome. In reality, whether Anscombe or Biggar start at No 10, Wales should win comfortably. However, that selection could be crucial in terms of the England game in round three.
Does Gatland give Anscombe another go? Or does he revert to Biggar? Whoever he thinks should start against England, should start against Italy.
The best and worst of France – in one match
We all try to avoid using clichés but the one about not knowing what France team will turn up rang true on Friday night in the opening game of the 2019 championship. In fact, two French teams showed up – a smart, skillful one in the first half; a mentally fallible, error-strewn one in the second.
Wales may have been favourites before the game but they were poor in those first 40 minutes in Paris while France dominated the breakdown and showed slick handling despite the wet conditions. The hosts’ reward? A 16-0 lead – and it probably should have been more.
Yet that composure deserted France in the second half as their own errors delivered two tries on a silver platter for George North and Wales secured a historic 24-19 comeback win.
So it may be a cliché to say you don’t know what sort of performance France will produce – but it is an accurate one. In this first round they showed both the good and the bad. If they can maintain the good for a full 80 minutes, expect them to upset the odds later in this championship.
Scotland switch off in defence
Scotland produced some exceptional attacking rugby to secure a bonus-point win against Italy at BT Murrayfield, but poor discipline in the final ten minutes allowed the visitors to score three tries themselves.
We all know Scotland have dangerous players, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg pulling the strings and, on Saturday at least, Blair Kinghorn scoring the tries, but they need to maintain their focus for a whole game and stay patient when they don’t have the ball.
A repeat against a better team – Ireland this coming weekend for instance – could cost them the match rather than a few stern words from the defence coaches.
Gap in Women’s Six Nations growing
Even before the Women’s Six Nations kicked off in Dublin on Friday evening, the general consensus was that the England v France match at Doncaster on Sunday 10 February would determine this year’s winners.
Related: Women’s Six Nations fixtures
However, what the first round of matches has shown is just how far ahead those two sides are from the rest of the chasing pack. England and France both notched more than 50 points in beating Ireland and Wales respectively – and such one-sided scorelines are not good for the competition.
The RFU have supported the women’s team by giving the players professional contracts while French players are semi-pro. Until that investment is matched by the other countries and they are able to better develop their women’s programmes, England and France will continue to stride ahead while the other teams challenge each other for third place in the Six Nations table.
And finally… the fans’ championship
It’s the supporters who make the Six Nations so special, whether they’re in the stadium, down the pub or on their sofa – and a new Guinness advert celebrates that fact.
‘The Purse’ tells the story of brothers David and Gareth, who were instructed by their late mother to use her inheritance to follow Wales in the championship. Watch it here…
It was disappointing to see empty seats at the Stade de France for the opening game – the snow meaning some Welsh fans couldn’t make it and recent French apathy to rugby also affecting sales – but BT Murrayfield and the Aviva Stadium were full. And we can expect more buzzing stadia throughout the rest of the tournament.
If you’ve got any interesting fans’ tales or photos from the Six Nations, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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