England expects but French still fancied

The Six Nations is back, which is excellent news. Wheel out Catherine Jenkins and dust-off Brian Moore. We are currently in the depths of winter, but the tournament will emerge in Spring with Championship deciders on the 11th of March. The tournament offers top-class entertainment, and makes the Tri-nations look manufactured and monotonous. The crowds for the Six Nations were, on average, higher last year than for any other sporting event in the world, topping 70,000. To put this in perspective, that’s more than the NFL, and an average of 30,000 more than the World Cup in South Africa. Southern Hemisphere rugby might be of an embarrassingly better standard, but would you ever witness an established international flanker starting at scrumhalf (2009), or Scotland’s comedy cock-up which gifted Italy three tries in the first 7 minutes at Murray in 2007?

What can we tell from the opening weekend? Wales and England kicked off on Friday night in front of an expectant Cardiff crowd, whipped into frenzy by a male voice choir singing some Tom Jones hits. Warren Gatland was under pressure. Wales haven’t won an international match since beating Italy last spring. The New Zealander responded by ruffling a few feathers in the media beforehand, a stunt which has become something of a ritual – claiming the Welsh hate the Irish in 2009, roof-gate with Andy Robinson last year, and Hartley-slating this time around. Both sides had a lengthy injury list, with the significant loss of Wales’ Lions props as well as Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes. In the event, the game wasn’t won by England’s superior front row, but by a tight all round performance. Toby Flood put in his best performance in an England shirt, offering an attacking threat, accurate distribution off both hands, astute game management, and peerless goal-kicking. And this was on a day when his half-back partner Ben Youngs was decidedly off-colour. Wales threatened, but in the latter stages never seriously looked like overcoming the cushion that England so professionally maintained for the majority of the match. Their selection in the backs bafflingly failed to match their tactics. Warren Gatland picked two sledgehammer centres, and then failed to get them running hard at the England midfield. James Hook was meant to play a floating role, but was unable to inject any real dynamism to a back division which ran laterally for the duration. In comparison, England’s attacking play was punchy. Ben Foden looked a constant threat, who offers searing pace as well as physicality- just ask Stephen Jones, who seemed unable to regain his composure after an early blow from the Northampton fullback. Wales ongoing malaise is a worry for their supporters, and their players won’t look relish away trips to Edinburgh and Rome.

Before the tournament started, Scotland’s campaign seemed to depend on confidence. The domestic season has been a damp squib, with Edinburgh and Glasgow failing to impress in the Magners League and Heineken Cup. The match against the All-Blacks was an embarrassment, but there was significant improvement against South Africa and Samoa. Get off to a good start in this tournament, and they clearly had the game plan to record some significant victories. Lamentably, they began away to France in Paris, possibly the most daunting trip in the Six Nations. The French were under pressure after their disastrous autumn campaign, but pulled a sublime performance out of the bag. Saturday night saw French rugby back to its best. Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc provide an influential mix of exuberance and authority, and have the capacity to link a hard-nosed forward pack to a three quarter line filled with pace. Based on this performance, the French have the talent to record another Championship victory, but will be tested mentally as well as physically at Twickenham on the 26th of February. The Scots can take heart from a match in which they scored as many tries in as they did in the entirety of last year’s championship (a measly three). In Andy Robinson they have the best coach in the tournament, Johnnie Beattie is still to come back from injury, while Joe Ansbro looks ever more confident and threatening at outside centre. Their three homes games against Wales, Ireland, and Italy should not be out of reach.

Sandwiched in between these two matches, Italy took on Ireland in sun-drenched Rome on Saturday afternoon. On paper, Ireland has one of the best teams in the tournament, despite a long injury list: sublimely gifted outside backs, a back-row that mixes subtlety with rampaging ball carrying, and an adequate front five. Johnny Sexton has wavered between flaky and mercurial since inheriting the starting No.10 spot from Ronan O’Gara, but crucially, Declan Kidney has the veteran fly-half to call on in case things go wrong. Indeed, this was the case as O’Gara was hauled off the bench to record a 78th minute drop goal. The Italians had a serious chance to win this game, but when they needed to close it out, they lacked the requisite mentality. Their pack is formidable as always: Sergio Parisse would get into any side in the world, and against Ireland their backs showed some sort creativity for a well taken try. Andrea Masi, Gonzalo Canale and Mirco Bergamasco all play for top French sides, so Italy clearly have the players to employ more than just a competent spoiling game. For Ireland, it was a worrying continuation of the autumn’s hapless performances. Crucially though, this Ireland side has not lost the art of winning. Their experience proved to be the difference, and should they record another Triple Crown or Championship, this stuttering start will be forgotten.

The first weekend’s action is over and pre-2005 service has resumed. England and France top the table. Too early to predict a winner? Possibly not. In the Six Nations, fortune favours not the brave, but the home team, and England’s three consecutive matches at Twickenham should see them enter the final weekend with a Championship, if not a Grand Slam, at stake, even if they are below their best in between. Incidentally, England’s last Grand Slam in 2003 also ended in Dublin, with a 42-6 hammering of a much-fancied Ireland side. And we all know what happened later that year.