By Max Mathews
- The 2020 Guinness Six Nations openers baptised numerous new regimes
- Edgy England suffer World Cup final hangover against fired-up France in rain-soaked Paris on Sunday
- Ireland squeeze past Scotland and Wales thrash Italy to nil in Saturday’s fixtures
SIX NATIONS – Les Bleus grabbed the headlines on the opening weekend of the 2020 Six Nations against England, but how did the other four sides fare after the first pool of games?
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England escape Paris with losing bonus
Eddie Jones’ England were crowned second-best team in the world exactly three months ago, when they lost the World Cup final, but on Sunday they were second best in every aspect to France. Fabien Galthie and his band of more specialised staff, in particular ex-Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards – has transformed this defence, this team and this nation.
England had more caps but seemingly less game experience, more chances in the opposition 22′ but fewer returns, more expectation but fewer points. Add to that, more possession and territory but somehow fewer tackles attempted and made, fewer defenders beaten and metres run. This was chastening, wasteful and wholly disappointing.
Not to take anything away from Les Bleus, who were superb. Roared on by by an always partisan Stade de France, the youthful squad with an average of just 10 caps apiece exposed England’s soft underbelly with the brutality Jones had demanded from his own charges before the match.
Livewire winger Vincent Rattez, a late replacement for the precocious Damian Penaud, Charles Ollivon – Louis Picamoles who? – and a Romain Ntamack penalty made it 17-0 at the break, the first time since 1988 England were scoreless at half-time in a Five or Six Nations match. Ollivon made it 24 with an opportunistic finish after a wonderful Dupont break and although England pegged back through two fine individual scores from wing Jonny May, they were miles off the pace and seemed lost in sporting translation after their Asian odyssey last Autumn.
Questionable selection hampers Jones
Debutant full-back George Furbank, 23, wilted under the pressure and it appears cannot be trusted in international rugby at this point. That, in contrast to France’s 15 Anthony Bouthier, who was solid from the first minute on his first cap.
At the back of the scrum Tom Curry – naturally a flanker – was hugely overshadowed by his opposite man Gregory Alldritt, just 22, who was Man of the Match. Alldritt was all-action and prominent in attack and defence, while Jones pushed Curry out of position to number eight and Courtney Lawes to number six to accommodate Charlie Ewels at lock. Ewels was not good.
The result was Curry – green in the art of holding the ball at the back of the scrum – losing control too many times. How not a single specialist number eight even made the squad considering the excellent domestic form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds is highly questionable.
But the biggest contrast was at scrum-half. The superb Antoine Dupont (younger, shorter, lighter, quicker, magnificent without being mercurial) massively outshone England’s most capped number nine Ben Youngs. Dupont, who has the hands of a pianist, the feet of a ballerina and the wise old head of a philosopher, killed England with a thousand cutting passes and dashing steps.
As the Rose reflects on a disappointing weekend in the French capital, coach Eddie Jones could not hide his discontent. However, as he told BBC Sport, he was complimentary of England’s conquerors, for whom he believed a performance of this ilk had been coming.
“France have been playing like that for a while, they played really good rugby in the World Cup and Shaun Edwards will make them stronger. You miss good players and the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi are difficult to replace, but we have to find ways around it. That is not an excuse for us.
“It’s a good challenge, we are disappointed today in our first-half performance but I have a lot of admiration for way we came back in the second. We have to pick ourselves up and go to Murrayfield and have a bit of fun.”
In summary a litany of handling errors in soggy conditions, no proper ball carriers without Billy Vunipola and Tuilagi – who went off a few minutes in – and silly penalties conceded proved crucial. No desire, no strategy, no success – at least until the last 20 minutes. Two classy May efforts towards the end should not paper over the gaping cracks prised open by a resurgent France. Neither should the losing bonus point England scarcely deserved. Never mind France – which England team will turn up next?
Farrell era begins with gritty win
It’s a results game. That’s what new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will have emphasised to his charges after a fairly poor showing against Scotland.
Stepping into the shoes of Joe Schmidt, Farrell missing talismanic full-back Rob Kearney and heroic captain Rory Best after retirement saw the former England player-coach bring in a host of new players – but similar problems remain for the Shamrock.
The tendency to rely on half-back pairing Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton – who both peaked two years ago – was in evidence again here. In-form Ulster nine John Cooney should have come on for Munster’s Murray sooner and should start next week.
Sexton, now 34, scored a nicely-worked move close to the line and scored all Ireland’s 19 points but he will have bigger challenges than callow opposite man in Adam Hastings, deputising for world-class stand-off Finn Russell.
What Ireland will do when he retires is a question best not thought about for fans right now, but potential replacements Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery and Billy Burns are untested at international level, mainly due to Sexton’s importance to the side.
The back-row saved Ireland. 21-year-old Caelan Doris was bright before going off injured, his replacement Peter O’Mahony played with the fury of a flanker scorned and Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander made crucial breakdown turnovers to blunt promising Scotland attacks.
In the case of the defeated Scots, it was same old, same old for Gregor Townsend. Lots of promise but a fundamental lack of nous and game understanding, with John Barclay and Greig Laidlaw retired. Without maverick totem Flying Finn, Hastings battled but missed a key kick after half an hour which would have given them the lead.
The captaincy also hung heavy on Stuart Hogg’s shoulders, as his side worked a blind-side overlap beautifully, gave him the ball a yard out, over the line with a try less beckoning than inevitable, only for him to drop it. Those mistakes do happen, but you can’t expect to win in Dublin if you make them.
Holders Wales rout Italy
New Wales coach Wayne Pivac would have been delighted with his side’s efforts for his personal Six Nations bow, with a destruction of the Italian pack that would have collapsed the walls of the Colosseum.
The man who masterminded Scarlets to a superb Pro12 victory with an all-court, free-flowing style of play will know there will be opponents made of sterner stuff than Italy, but you can only play what’s in front of you and this was a good start.
Shorn of Gareth Davies and Liam Williams through injury, a new-look backline including George North at centre, debutant Nick Tompkins on debut and hat-trick hero Josh Adams – with 10 tries in his last eight internationals – put Italy to the sword in an attacking performance to leave Wales fans drooling.
Individually, fly-half Dan Biggar – given kicking duties ahead of Leigh Halfpenny – set up Adams with a lovely through-the-legs pass, while at scrum-half Tomos Williams, and Rhys Webb on his international return had some nice moments too.
Although Pivac criticised his side for overplaying at times, the departure from direct – arguably boring – but effective rugby under Warren Gatland was stark. The real test in whether they can maintain this style of play will come against Ireland at the Aviva next up.
The 2020 Guinness Six Nations continues next weekend, as Ireland host Wales, England face Scotland at Murrayfield and France entertain Italy.
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