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Sunday, 3 February 2019

Week 1 - 6 Nations Roundup

Six Nations opening weekend: we learned a lot

Very often “what we learned” pieces are just a way to focus on a single aspect of a game and provide an overall round-up of the action. For instance, we learned last year that Scotland need Greig Laidlaw for a semblance of control. It was proved again in the last 15 minutes against Italy in this round but it wasn’t something that most viewers learned. We also already knew that England would probably be contenders at the RWC in Japan, even if we didn’t know what their game-plan would be. We knew that George North will score if you give him the slightest chance. We didn’t learn those things this weekend.
But I think we really did learn a lot of things over the opening round of this Six Nations. Here are a few that stand out.

Ireland are beatable at home
Until this game, Ireland had never lost a home game in the Six Nations under Schmidt, who is now in his fifth tournament. They didn’t lose a single game at home in 2018. Back in November, they beat New Zealand without Conor Murray, arguably one of their most important players. England, meanwhile, only won two games away from home last year – against Italy and a dead rubber in horrendous conditions against South Africa. There was every reason to think that Ireland could make it through 2019 unbeaten at home, given their home fixtures after this. That England beat them in Dublin 20-32 with a try bonus point is a big deal.

Hiring John Mitchell was a smart choice by England 
We knew that players like Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi could have a major impact. We knew England had class in the backs and exciting forwards. We didn’t know whether paying a reported £150,000-£225,000 during a public belt-tightening phase to buy John Mitchell out of his contract at Bulls would be worth it. It was. England’s rush defence was outstanding, pressuring Ireland into making mistakes as well as giving England chances to attack. It wasn’t the only factor in England’s victory in Dublin but it was a big one and it was down to Mitchell. Finishing fifth last year cost England around £2 million in prize money so this one win alone was probably worth the cost of hiring him. 

France are France again
There have been few more boring clichés in recent years than “you never know which France will show up”. The squad selections were rarely the same so we maybe we didn’t know which players were going to show up but the performances have been predictable for a long time now. Heavy forwards who looked like they’d never met a conditioning coach combined with turgid attacking play to drag nearly every other team into the mud with them, both literally and metaphorically. It made them miserable to watch. The opening game against Wales, though, was peak France in so many ways. They were glorious in the first half, bold and creative, and they went in at half-time fully deserving their 16-0 lead. And then they were terrible in the second half, throwing away the biggest lead in Six Nations history. Both versions of France showed up here – and it’s not obvious which one we’ll get next time. France are back.

Wales might be getting used to winning
The Stade de France is not an easy place to win, no matter how poor France may have been lately, and being 16 points adrift at half-time is also quite the challenge. Wales could have lost their nerve. Almost certainly, in previous years, Wales would have lost their nerve, especially in the opening game. This Six Nations looks even tougher than usual, with even Italy making great strides, but after this comeback Wales will believe they can beat anyone, anywhere. That’s not a mentality that has often been obvious in the Wales camp. If it lasts, it will add yet another fascinating dimension to this tournament.

For all their progress, Scotland and Italy have familiar flaws
This was more of a reminder than a lesson but both Scotland and Italy have received a lot of praise for their recent progress – and deservedly so. However, both sides showed here they still have some way to go. After 70 minutes, Scotland were winning 33-3, having butchered at least three more possible tries. Italy just had no answer to the lovely Scottish attacking game, no matter how hard they worked. Then, after Scotland had emptied their bench, Italy pounded the Scottish line, Simon Berghan went to the sin-bin for repeated infringements, and Italy scored three tries in seven minutes. Italy only seem able to compete when their opponents have taken their foot off the gas; Scotland have depth issues. Let’s hope we see something different from both of them next week.

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