Well, how about that for a first weekend of the Six Nations? Spectacular tries, monster hits and rocking atmospheres, from a fan’s point of view the opening round of fixtures had it all.
However, for the teams competing for rugby’s oldest tournament, there will be an array of mixed feelings to digest.
I mentioned in my preview last week that this year’s Six Nations means something different for each team, and with Europe’s best players on show at the weekend, we can already start to see the foundations being built for the next World Cup.
Going away on tour with clients is definitely the best thing about being involved with Venatour, and a brilliant weekend was enjoyed by all despite an English defeat at the hands of a very strong French side.
But before I share my thoughts on England v France, I’ll dive straight into the first game of the weekend that saw Wales put on a show at the Principality Stadium as they eased to a 42-0 victory over Italy.
I feel sympathy for the visitors. It’s never nice to be “nilled” and their Six Nations schedule doesn’t get any easier next week.
One silver lining that Italy have always had was a strong core of leaders in their squad. Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alessandro Zanni and Sergio Parisse each had over 100 Italian caps to their name and beginning a campaign without these household names leaves a huge void in an already struggling squad.
Traditionally, Italy do have a good record against France in the Six Nations. With their limited on-field resources, we have also seen the Azzurri come up with one-off maverick tactics – take the infamous ‘ruckgate’ in 2017 that almost delivered a shock upset against England and left Eddie Jones spitting feathers at half time.
We’ve seen that when their confidence is up, Italy can beat anyone. If Franco Smith can continue Conor O’Shea’s innovation, anything can happen. But really I can only see one winner at Stade de France next week – the French.
Inevitably when a team thrashes Italy, the rugby world proclaims that no real conclusions can be drawn from the match. I disagree. Test Match rugby is a different beast and it is by no means an easy task to put on such a show.
Josh Adams stole the headlines with a hattrick, continuing his terrific World Cup form, but with the emergence of Tomos Williams and Nick Tompkins, Wayne Pivac will be optimistic about Wales’s chances this year as they get ready to head over the Irish Sea to Dublin on Saturday.
Ireland put in a decent display, even if it was a little bit scrappy. Scotland put on a very impressive attacking display and they’ll be ruing their missed chances. But in the Six Nations a win is a win and it’ll be an important moment for Andy Farrell to get his first win in the job.
This sets next week’s match against Wales as a potential title decider. Given their home advantage, I’m going for an Irish win, who will then look to compete with France for this year’s title.
Scotland did play superbly well against Ireland and in all honesty shot themselves in the foot – they should have won. You can’t blame Stuart Hogg for dropping the ball over the line. These mistakes happen in rugby and Hogg more than anyone in that side has the character and ability to bounce back.
Under the full back’s captaincy, I look forward to seeing Scotland show a similar attacking flair that was shown for large parts of their game at the Aviva.
Despite a lot being made in the media about Finn Russell’s loss, Adam Hastings filled the void remarkably well and looked like a man with fifty tests to his name. I remember playing against his father, Gavin, in many a Calcutta Cup, and if he shows even half the ability of his old man then Scotland have a serious player on their hands.
I’ll make no bones about it, England have clearly been stung by France and I was gutted to walk away from the Stade de France on Sunday night without the victory.
England’s tactics were all off. If it wasn’t for the individual brilliance of Jonny May who scored two phenomenal tries from nothing, England would have been staring down the barrel of an annihilation.
There can be a lot of overexaggeration after England lose a game. The media do like to dig the knife in, and when I’m on tour with Venatour clients who have travelled to watch the game it can be disappointing to come away with a loss.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 4, 2020
But that’s not to take anything away from France who produced a fine performance in every area of the pitch.
The impact that new defence coach Shaun Edwards has made cannot be underestimated and Eddie Jones might be kicking himself after turning down the opportunity to add him to his coaching staff. Especially with Steve Borthwick, one of the best in the business, leaving to take the Leicester job after the Championship.
So how do England bounce back? With Eddie Jones, it isn’t always a logical solution.
Eddie thrives off going against the public’s perception of his sides and so I’m not surprised that after naming his squad for Scotland he has again refused to pick a no. 8 in his squad. As a proud Englishman who watches talented players such as Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds perform week-in week-out in the Premiership, it’s such a shame that they just don’t seem to get a look in.
Ben Youngs has served his country remarkably well but looked jaded at scrum half. This was exacerbated when up against a world beater in Antoine Dupont who stole the show at the Stade de France.
However, the main thing for me is game management, both on and off the pitch. Owen Farrell is a world class player, but I am still unconvinced about his captaincy skills. When England’s backs are against the wall, they crumble. This has happened time and time again under Farrell now. Maybe easing his burden and relieving him of the duties could be good for one of the best fly halfs in the world.
The off-pitch issues for me are about how England use substitutions. They were unlucky to lose Manu Tuilagi so early on, whose physical presence would have been vital to stop the human bulldozer Virimi Vakatawa in the outside centre channel.
For my money, no England forward was better than Courtney Lawes on Sunday, but he seems to be hooked off at the same moment in every game, regardless of performance. Maro Itoje had a torrid afternoon against France, giving away penalty after penalty, but I cannot recall the last time he was substituted for England.
In Test rugby, you can either be proactive and surge into the lead, or be reactive to keep in the dog fight, and England seem to be neither.
France perhaps used their substitute bench too well – almost collapsing after a surge of subs skewed the rhythm of the game and gave England a sniff at a remarkable comeback that was never to be.
International games are often decided by fine margins and it will be all about what small tweaks England can make in the week before marching up to Murrayfield.
However, it isn’t the end of the world. Far from it. When England play well, anything can happen. They are still the same side that took the All Blacks apart in Yokohama. And I cannot wait to watch them in Edinburgh this weekend with Venatour.