By Nicola Kenton
- Despite all their injury concerns, Wales thrashed Scotland at the Principality
- Jonathan Sexton kicked a last-minute drop goal for Ireland to win in France
- Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds scored two tries each to help England triumph over Italy
NATWEST SIX NATIONS – The start of the 2018 Six Nations saw England and Wales earn bonus point victories over Italy and Scotland, whilst Ireland’s win came in a hard-fought battle against France.
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The opening matches provided different levels of entertainment and drama. While two of the matches saw the winning sides earn bonus-point victories, the other match came down to a missed penalty and a 45-metre drop goal. Here are the take-away points from the weekend’s games and what we should look forward to seeing this weekend.
Scotland still can’t win away
Even though Scotland have improved their scoring ability on the field, if they don’t pick up points away from home they will never win this championship. Fixtures are based on a two year cycle, ensuring that each team plays one another both home and away over two Six Nations tournaments.
Last weekend’s defeat at the Principality continued Scotland’s poor away form. They have not won in Cardiff since 2002 and in last year’s tournament they lost both of their away games against England and France. Although Murrayfield may have become more resilient in recent years, it is the troubling away form that Scotland need to improve to have a greater chance of success.
Gregor Townsend will continue to encourage his side to play their quick and aggressive style, which earned them success in the Autumn Internationals. However, they must be able to understand how a team changes when they play in their home stadium and adapt their own style to gain the best results.
What injury crisis?
Much of the build-up before the tournament was in relation to the amount of injuries in certain squads, specifically England and Wales. However, this did not disrupt either team from gaining a bonus-point win over Italy and Scotland, respectively.
In the weeks before the first game, Wales’ injury crisis deepened and Warren Gatland named a relatively inexperienced side. Although that included ten Scarlets players, who are at the top of their division in the Pro 14 and secured a home quarter-final in the European Champions Cup. The mixture of youth and experience worked well and they thrashed Scotland by a score line of 34-7. As a result, Gatland has named an unchanged starting XV for this weekend’s match against England – the only change being the addition of George North to the bench.
When speaking to the BBC, the Wales coach said: “It’s great to name an unchanged starting XV, the players deserve that for a very good performance on the opening weekend. We know how tough it is going to be against that huge English forward pack. They are really going to test us. England have been in great form the last couple of years so we know the challenge we face but we have had a good couple of weeks in camp and we are looking forward to going up to Twickenham.”
Similarly, England had many players missing but proved that they are able to overcome a tough away game. However, they lost scrum-half Ben Youngs early in the game after he ruptured his MCL in his left knee. Eddie Jones only named two scrum-halves in his original squad and has called up Richard Wigglesworth, who has not played a test since 2015.
When is a HIA, not a HIA?
There was some controversy in the France vs. Ireland match, as two French players were seemingly tested for HIA (Head Injury Assessment) when their injury on field looked to be with their knee. What is the difference you may ask? When a player goes off the field with a HIA, a replacement is allowed to come on as the HIA protocol takes 10 minutes and it is possible that the player may return. However, if a player goes off injured and all substitutes have been used then there is no injury replacement.
During the match Matthieu Jalibert and Antoine Dupont went off with what seemed like knee injuries, and this has been confirmed with Dupont suffering a season-ending cruciate ligament tear, but at the time the independent doctor called for both players to need a HIA and as such, a replacement was allowed. This was key in the case of scrum-half Dupont, as the injury occurred late in the match, it meant that starting scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was allowed to return to the field for some key pieces of set-play.
On Sunday, it was announced that the Six Nations HIA Review Processor was looking into the incidents involving both players. In last year’s tournament France was reprimanded for not following the HIA protocol correctly in their match with Wales, but the Untoward Incident Review Group also stated that “there was no clear evidence that there was any intent to obtain a competitive advantage.”
Sexton saves the day (again)
The opening result of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign came down, once again, to the boot of Johnny Sexton. With France having kicked a penalty wide in the remaining moments of the match, Ireland gained and kept possession until they were into a position where Sexton was able to launch a long-range attempt. It was successful and they won the game, with celebrations bursting out all over the pitch.
However, it was not the most thrilling of games. Ireland didn’t score a try, while it took France 70 minutes to score theirs, and it was Sexton who provided all the points. Playing away from home is difficult and France proved this once again, turning Stade de France into a fortress; they maintained their discipline and forced the Irish into putting their trust into their fly-half, but does this happen too often?
It’s all good and well having territory and possession, but putting that to good use and taking the maximum points out of situations is the key. If Ireland are to succeed they must be able to have a plan B for when they are unable to break a defensive line; however, relying so heavily on Sexton may not be the answer.
England show their pace
Sunday saw England put in an impressive performance against Italy, with the reigning champions put seven tries past the home side. Anthony Watson and Sam Simmonds both scored two tries each, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Jack Nowell grabbed the others with Farrell adding the extras. What was most evident from this game was the pace that England had when the space was available.
Watson is renowned as being quick, playing either as a full-back or a winger, but the pace of back-row forward Simmonds may have surprised some people. The Exeter Chief has improved vastly in the past two seasons and showing the speed in the Premiership is one thing, but putting that into practice on the international stage is another. His statistics from the match were something to behold with 14 carries, 80 metres, 23 tackles, three clean breaks and of course his two tries. Many thought England would miss Billy Vunipola but Simmonds stepped into his shoes with ease and is being tipped to start at seven when Vunipola returns from injury due to offering Eddie Jones a different kind of threat.
The second round begins on Saturday as Ireland host Italy and Wales travel to England, while in Sunday’s game France take a trip to Murrayfield.
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