France in the driving seat
February 8, 2010
Wales' Alun-Wyn Jones stole all the headlines for all the wrong reasons © Getty Images
Ireland and England may find themselves on top of the Six Nations table after the opening round of action but it was France who set the standard on a mixed weekend.
The opening exchanges in the battle for the northern hemisphere crown were not exactly the greatest advert for the game and at times it was painfully obvious that these sides had not taken to the field in anger for a couple of months. But thankfully the kick-fest that some had predicted failed to materialise and there was enough creative flair and attacking endeavour to offer hope of better games to come.
The curtain was raised on this year's Championship in Dublin where the defending Grand Slam champions Ireland played host to perennial Wooden Spoon contenders Italy. Anyone expecting a vintage performance from Declan Kidney's side against an Italian team stripped of their best player, the injured Sergio Parisse, were sadly mistaken as the Irish laboured to a 29-11 win. They began brightly enough with No.8 Jamie Heaslip crossing after a superb move featuring half a dozen players and some slick handling.
Then as Italy continued to self-destruct, scrum-half Tomas O'Leary darted over for his first try in an Ireland shirt. But that was as good as it got for Ireland and the capacity Croke Park crowd with both sides conspiring to produce a dull second half that the Sunday Times' Peter O'Reilly called, "one of the worst periods of 40 minutes in Championship history." Anyone who sat through it would perhaps take exception to his claim - insisting that the Championship has never sunk so low. In a word - turgid.
Ireland's failure to capitalise on their dominance in terms of territory and possession will be a concern but Kidney will not be losing sleep over his veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara. Only the Ireland coach knows whether Jonathan Sexton would have been handed the No.10 shirt had he been fit but O'Gara took the opportunity to remind him, and anyone else who may have forgotten, that he is a class act. He delivered a superb all-round display and in the process broke the 500 Championship points barrier before being forced out of the game with a knee injury which may hand Sexton the chance to audition for the role once more when Ireland travel to Paris this week.
Italy coach Nick Mallett put a brave face on his side's latest Six Nations reverse but truth be told they were very poor. They may well have defended stoutly at times but they failed to create anything of note - with their try coming from a charge down - and even their much-vaunted front row failed to assert any authority against a rejuvenated Irish pack. And they did not help themselves, with centre Gonzalo Garcia upending Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and earning a yellow card in the first-half. The outlook for Italy is bleak with a rejuvenated England heading to Rome where the home side will need the Flaminio factor more than ever. Ireland will also need to raise the bar against France.
Thankfully, England's clash with Wales at Twickenham offered a chance to erase the memory of Crock Park and the game was immeasurably more entertaining as a contest even though it also fell some way short of its billing in terms of quality. With both sides struggling to find their best form it was always likely that the game would turn on an error and so it proved with Alun-Wyn Jones' trip on England hooker Dylan Hartley costing Wales the game. The 17 points that the visitors leaked in his absence meant they had a mountain to climb and although they made a bold attempt to scale it they eventually ended up on the wrong end of a 30-17 score line.
England manager Martin Johnson had hinted at a more open approach from his side and they did appear to play with more freedom but there was never going to be a miraculous turnaround from the largely dour offerings served up in November. Man of the Match James Haskell and Danny Care were the beneficiaries as England rediscovered their try-scoring touch but they failed to close the game out and were almost made to pay by a James Hook-inspired Wales who closed to within range only to gift Haskell his second try that sealed the visitors' fate. The relief amongst the England camp was clearly evident at the final whistle - this game was a huge test of their credentials.
Wales only have themselves to blame for their latest reverse, with some poor kicking not helping their cause, but in Hook they have a real creative weapon who has possibly found a permanent home at outside-centre. But the pressure is growing on Wales coach Warren Gatland and there is not much time for him to right the wrongs and lift morale before Scotland visit Cardiff next weekend.
It is true to say the best was saved for last, but make no mistake France's victory over Scotland will not rank among the classics. It was a clinical display from a French side that was ruthlessly dismantled by the All Blacks in their last outing and in doing so they showed their European rivals that it is possible to produce a polished performance in week one. A fitting tribute to the 'voice of rugby' Bill McLaren preceded the game and the legendary commentator would have surely relished what was a brutal encounter from the opening whistle with French winger Aurelien Rougerie smashing into Scotland flanker Kelly Brown before launching himself into another head-on challenge that ended his game with barely two minutes on the clock.
Power, pace and precision make for awesome bedfellows and they carried France to an 18-9 win but the result does not do their performance justice. They dominated proceedings up front, dished out a lesson at the scrum, bossed the Scots at the lineout and smothered much of the home side's attacking endeavours with a finely executed blitz defence. Scotland are no pushovers but they were made to look just like that by a fired French side who were not firing on all cylinders.
As they did in the autumn, Scotland defended resolutely but they must find a cutting edge if they are to be anything other than also-rans in this year's Championship. They rarely troubled the French defence and were it not for a couple of try-saving tackles and the metronomic boot of Chris Paterson the scoreboard would not have been so flattering to them.
With the second round of matches fast-approaching there is no time for major over-hauls but in some cases fine-tuning is not going to solve the problem. With defeat the pressure grows on some but victory brings an equally daunting prospect - expectation. Stay tuned for the latest action this weekend.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies