The 2016 RBS 6 Nations started on the weekend with two new coaches, and they both got the lollies in their debut games.
The first round of Six Nations is always interesting because the players cut through all the nonsense of pre-season previews and the pundits can recalibrate before they release their next opinions.
The first two matches were interesting, but the third was a battle of gladiators showing skill and endurance ; it left spectators scarcely less exhausted than the warriors themselves – or so it seemed to me.
“Bardon”, “Kevin O” and I report on the three games.
France 23 — Italy 21
By “Lee Grant”
In the 82nd minute the Italy chief cook and bottle-washer, Sergio Parisse, tried a drop goal near the 40-metre line to win the match at Stade Français; but it wasn’t even close and France won.
New crowd favourite, Virimi Vakatawa, plucked from the France Sevens’ team, scored the first try of the match after Italy had potted a field goal.
The offloading of France looked smart and fellows like new centre Jonathan Danty made metres, but when Italy raided they scored after a shift drive from a lineout. It was Parisse, and Italy led 8-5 at 25 minutes.
Then France caught Italy napping with a tap-and-go. and flanker Damien Chouly scored wide out.
No conversions or penalty goals have been mentioned because all five were missed; and some were easy.
Half-time score France 10 – Italy 8
Virimi Vakatawa – impressive debut from test rookie
Italy flyhalf, Carlo Canna, slotted the first goal of the match from the tee, and then scored a try after Parisse (who else) took the ball up, just short. Canna was on fire as he kicked the conversion also, for Italy to lead 18-10; but there were 34 minutes left and France made the most of them.
Near the hour mark two Italy defenders were attracted to one runner and Hugo Bonneval scored on the wing opposite to where he was playing. Flyhalf Jules Plisson took over the goal kicking and nailed the conversion from touch.
France were just one point behind and after penalty goals were swapped, Plisson slotted a long one for France to lead 20-18 with five minutes left.
With France defending like Goodie-Two-Shoes there was no chance of a penalty goal attempt; so Parisse took his chance with the field goal, and missed.
Sergio Parisse trying that kick – not a great drop
Italy gave as good as they got, and France played wide as new coach Guy Novès said they might. One expected Italy to fall in a heap at some stage but they didn’t.
With twelve debutants playing in the match there were several lost opportunities and fluffed moves, but despite that it was a good game to watch and there was tension at the end.
The Game Changer – There were two: it was a tale of two kicks. At 75 minutes 10 Jules Plisson kicked a penalty goal like a rocket from half-way, and on the tram track. Parisse missed his drop goal attempt after the siren.
GAGR Man of the match – Sergio Parisse
France 23 (V. Vakatawa, D. Chouly, H. Bonneval tries; J. Plisson 2 pens, con) def. Italy 21 (S. Parisse, C. Canna tries; Canna pen, con, drop; K. Haimona pen)
ESPN match details.
George Kruis – try scorer for England
England 15 — Scotland 9
England set up camp in the Scotland half right from the off. When Nowell chased his own chip into the Scotland 22 he forced Hogg back over his own line. From the subsequent 5-metre scrum England struck.
Billy Vunipola made ground from the back of the scrum. A quick recycle saw George Kruis shrug off the tackle of Richie Gray and then stretch for the line. England 7 Scotland zip after 15 minutes.
Scotland responded quickly through a Laidlaw penalty to make it 7-3 coming up to the 20 minute mark.
England bossed the first quarter largely through accurate kicking that forced mistakes from the Scots. They then looked to run the ball with Nowell, Watson and Joseph all willing runners.
The second quarter saw the accuracy of England’s kicking deteriorate and with it Scotland took the initiative. They found themselves in the England 22 for much of the remainder of the half. Handling errors coupled with England’s defence meant they couldn’t cross the line.
Shortly before half time an England infringement allowed Laidlaw to make the score 7-6. Scotland could have gone into the break ahead but for a missed penalty and drop goal effort.
Greg Laidlaw – kicked all points for Scotland
England struck again ten minutes into the half. A barnstorming run for Billy Vunipola deep into the Scotland 22 sucked in defenders. Brother Mako then showed lovely soft hands in delivering an out the back-door pass to Ford who put Nowell over in the corner for 12-6.
As we entered the final quarter Farrell landed a 45-metre penalty to stretch England’s lead to 15-6.
In the set piece honours were even in the scrum while Scotland struggled to retain their own throw at crucial times in the lineout.
Scotland needed to respond and they closed the gap to six points with ten to go after Lawes was pinged for offside.
England then set about closing the game out ably assisted by scrum dominance once the benches were emptied.
Scotland haven’t scored a try against England at for twelve years. They were so toothless in attack that they could have played on for another twelve and still not scored.
Big yardage man Billy Vunipola – made a nuisance of himself
GAGR Man of the Match – England no. 8 Billy Vunipola made yards at will and also made a nuisance of himself at the breakdown.
Game Changer – England’s second try gave them a six-point lead and Scotland came no closer for the rest of the game.
England 15 (G. Kruis,J. Nowell tries; O. Farrell pen, con) def. Scotland 9 (G. Laidlaw 3 pens)
ESPN match details.
Conor Murray scoring only Ireland try
Ireland 16 — Wales 16
For the first time since 1991 there was no winner in an Ireland and Wales fixture, as two exhausted teams battled their way to a 16-all draw.
The match started off at a relentless pace as both teams looked for early dominance. Ireland got out to a 13-point lead half-way through the first half. The loss of Dan Biggar after 20 minutes was no worry for the Welsh with Priestland playing a pivotal role in thei comeback as they closed the gap to just three points at half-time.
The second half was a brutal reflection of two equal teams slogging it out looking for the win. The Welsh can feel unlucky as they dominated the territory and possession after the break but were unable to break down the Irish defence for a second try. Both teams traded penalties in the final ten minutes but were unable to break the deadlock.
CJ Stander – official man of the match on debut
CJ Stander was immense on his first outing for Ireland getting the official Man of the Match. I thought he looked right at home at this level and will be even better when he plays his natural position at no. 8. He had 23 ball carries as Ireland were missing the regular work horses in O’Brien and Healy.
GAGR Man of the Match – Wales’ inside centre Jamie Roberts was excellent in defence, rushing up from the his defence line and halting the Irish attack on more than one occasion. He racked up an whopping match-high 21 tackles at inside centre as well as several bruising runs in attack.
A special mention for my pick of the Ireland players goes to loosehead Jack McGrath who played more like a flanker when needed, at times.
One of these two teams should go on to win the tournament as it’s hard to see any of the other four sides being good enough to beat them. Both teams would be walking away from this one thinking they let the win slip and now only one piece of silverware up for grabs for these teams.
Ireland 16 (C. Murray try; J. Sexton 3 pens, con) drew with Wales 16 (T. Faletau try; R. Priestland 3pens, con)
ESPN match details
Jamie Roberts – GAGR Man of the Match
In boxing parlance Round 1 probably has England ahead on points. Already France and England are the only teams who can win a Grand Slam, but nobody is on the ropes let alone down for the count.
Eddie Jones may be smirking the smirk because England goes to Rome eight days after Murrayfield: It’s tough at the top of the RBS 6 Nations ladder.
Guy Novès won’t be cowed meeting Ireland at Stade Français either, one day to the good.
And Vern Cotter, the Scotland coach, won’t be too upset at Wales ‘six-day turnaround against his lads, just quietly; though he will deny it at the next press conference.
The best predictions are true when you make them.