The first weekend of the 2010 RBS Six Nations produced six rather abject performances. England, Ireland and France got off to winning starts, but Welsh hopes of a third Grand Slam in six years were dashed.
It is fair to say the first round of the Six Nations was not the feast of rugby I had anticipated. Over seven and half million watched the ‘highlight’ of the weekend at Twickenham. Sadly it will be remembered solely for the moment of stupidity which set England on their way. 6-3 down at the break would have not been displeasing for the Welsh; however Alun-Wyn Jones’ trip of Dylan Hartley turned the match. During his ten minute sin-binning seventeen unanswered points were scored. James Haskell forced his way over for the first try. Steve Borthwick (who actually played well) then turned the ball over on the halfway line early in the second half. Quick ball was shipped through the hands of Harlequins trio Ugo Monye, Nick Easter and Danny Care as the latter dashed in. Unlike Wyn Jones, Simon Shaw went undetected when he hauled back the despairing Luke Charteris as he attempted to grasp Care. Alain Rolland missed it. Care dived over.
However, with fifteen players apiece, the Welsh actually won the game 17-13. Indeed it was only really the men in red who played any rugby. James Hook was easily the best back on the pitch and at 20-3 down he began to give the Welsh some momentum. Several phases on from the outside centre’s break, Adam Jones found himself on the try line with the ball in his hands. He finally resolved to fall over and score. Hook then blasted through for the second Welsh try and for a moment it seemed England were going to throw the game away. Yet Stephen Jones, understandably trying to force the game, threw a pass which was never on. Delon Armitage intercepted, James Haskell touched down. It was hardly the moment of English “magic” described in The Times. Jonny Wilkinson struck the ball through the posts one more time and the game was won. Both teams must improve substantially before next week. Wales must replace Gareth Cooper with Richie Rees, and hope Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees pass fitness tests. Alun-Wyn Jones will have a horrible week. Yet he remains Wales’ best lock and should retain his place. England should win in Rome, but it would be nice to see anyone other than Wilkinson and Care touch the ball in the back-line. Toby Flood, Matthew Tait, Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto were largely anonymous.
Ireland began their quest for the elusive second consecutive Grand Slam with a comfortable win against Italy. It was anything but pretty. The Irish took their shots at goal but did not offer much attacking threat. The moment of the match came from Ronan O’Gara who set Andrew Trimble away with a beautifully timed pass, ultimately leading to Jamie Heaslip scoring in the corner. The Italians twice pegged three points back before immediately granting three back to the Irish from the kick-off. The most foolish of these saw Gonzalo Garcia binned for dumping Brian O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll’s comment after the game that he could not even remember the incident further demonstrated what a waste of time this occasion was. The Irish bullied the Italians just enough to gain a 23-8 lead at the break and then stopped playing. Paul O’Connell and Leo Cullen beat the Azzurri up in the second row, simultaneously dismantling their lineout. Such a steal by Cullen on the Italian five-metre line allowed Tomas O’Leary to squeeze over. It was at this point Ireland effectively turned their thoughts to Paris next weekend. O’Connell and O’Gara left the pitch as a precaution, though both should be fine for the France game. The Italians desperately need to become anything but ‘plucky’. Without a functioning back-line that seems largely impossible; they simply won’t score any amount of tries this tournament. In fact we were largely unsurprised that their sole try this weekend came from a charge down, Rob Kearney handing Kaine Robertson the chance to flop over the white stuff. It will take a monumental forwards performance – or an English capitulation – to win next weekend.
Scotland’s New Years’ resolution was to score more tries. They failed on Sunday and never really came close. There is a grave lack of creativity in the Scottish back-line. Even Andy Robinson’s use of mini-helicopters in training does not seem to have changed this. Phil Godman has lost all confidence, Graeme Morrison is useless and Chris Patterson, well, he just kicks really. Many of the reserves are also untested at this level. Though Alex Grove and Ruaridh Jackson are highly rated they cannot be expected to suddenly run riot. In fact it was only really Sean Lamont and Johnnie Beattie who came out of this game with any credit. Beattie’s rampaging run nearly, just nearly, ended in Chris Cusiter touching down. He fumbled. Yet the return of Euan Murray – who refused to play on a Sunday for religious reasons – will strengthen them against Wales.
The French on the other hand will be relatively pleased; they never looked like losing. Mathieu Bastareaud, the 18-stone monster cousin of William Gallas, caused the Scottish midfield terrible problems, and unsurprisingly shook off several tacklers to crash over for his second, and game defining, try. Imanol Harinordoquy also produced a performance of note, turning over vital ball when Scotland cheekily threatened to put seven on the board. Marc Lievremont also somehow blooded the 71st player of his two year tenure this weekend in Luc Ducalcon. The pool of talent is certainly in place to challenge for the “Grand Chelem”.
In recent years we have become accustomed to television shamelessly dramatising top level sport. This time it was the turn of the Beeb to employ Morgan Freeman to bizarrely open its coverage with a theatrical reading of the poem “Invictus”. Quite what this was supposed to add I’m not sure. The emotion and passion surrounding the Six Nations is intense enough without Freeman plugging his new film. This weekend was no different. Whilst the skill set may not have been entirely on display, the game at ‘HQ’ was entertaining. It was just a shame the RFU thought it fit to charge fans £10 for a match day programme. We trust the rest of the competition will be better value for money.