1. The thinking man’s method of scoring.
There was a concern ahead of this Championship that it may be dominated by cards, red or yellow, which would then decide the outcomes of the matches. It didn’t happen, at least on the opening weekend, which saw just the two yellow cards, one to Wales, one to France, neither of which affected the outcome of the matches. If there was a common thread running through the three Tests at the weekend it was the ubiquitous nature of the kick-pass, so much easier than relying on brute force, if a little riskier. France used it twice to score, firstly when full-back Thomas Ramos pounced on a mistake by Ange Cappuozzo and then when winger Ethan Dumortier got on the end of a perfectly weighted kick-pass to score on debut. Both times the ball was expertly delivered by fly-half Romain Ntamack. At Twickenham, Marcus Smith found acres of space for Max Malins to score using the same delivery method although the England winger still had to launch himself to catch the ball on the full. In Cardiff, Ireland replacement fly-half Ross Byrne attempted the exact same move with the last kick of the game and Mack Hansen might have scored if the ball had sat up nicely for him. Finn Russell marginally overcooked one kick-pass to Kyle Steyn but Sione Tuipulotu’s clever grubber was perfect for Huw Jones. With four on the opening weekend we have an early contender for the theme of this 2023 Six Nations, tries from kicks.
2. Grate … didn’t it.
Something about Owen Farrell rubs people up the wrong way. I know perfectly reasonable folk who are driven to apoplexy by the mere mention of his name even if the majority of them are not English. Farrell must have something about him or he wouldn’t be England’s captain but he always has plenty to say for himself when the wind is in his sails so you have a smidgen of sympathy for Finn Russell’s actions after Duhan van der Merwe scored his glorious 55 metre try at Twickenham. As the big winger is scoring, Russell’s arcing run well behind play takes him past his opposite number. On the way Russell gives Farrell a good shove from the side and then gives him a mouthful. I don’t know what he said but I don’t imagine that Russell is offering Farrell his most sincere condolences. So far so be it, but you have to wonder what might have happened, especially if the Englishman had fallen over, and he might just do so next time. An eagle-eyed TMO could decide that the shove was equivalent to a tackle off the ball or simply severe provocation and wipe off van der Merwe’s cracking score for a piece of mindless stupidity. Russell needs to rise above the provocation rather than add fuel to the fire.
3. Soft tissue an issue for Ireland.
Not only did Ireland’s superlative performance underline their position at the top of the rankings but they are now firm favourites to win the Six Nations. It is early days, obviously, but Ireland have strength in depth in many positions and it’s just as well because they needed it on Saturday. Not only has Robbie Henshaw been missing with a hamstring injury for many months having last played on 12th November, but the classy centre was joined on the sidelines by Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and Jamison Gibson-Park. The former had a calf injury which he is struggling to shake while the latter two have also injured their hamstrings. Ireland are incredibly well conditioned as a squad, that much is obvious, but the soft tissue injuries are beginning to mount and there are whispers, in and around the squad, questioning the workload that Andy Farrell has imposed upon the players. Let’s see who else falls by the wayside before what looks like a key clash against France next weekend?
4. Two cheers for the big men.
It is easy to forget the sheer volume of work that tight five forwards get through with all the heavy lifting they are expected to do for 80 minutes and yet two winning tries, for Scotland and France, would not have occurred without the handling skills from two grizzled veterans of the game. Duhan van der Merwe scored the winning try for Scotland only after Scotland’s Richie Gray took and gave a pass in a split second. He is under intense pressure from England’s Max Malins who attempts to grab man-and-ball but the big fella gets it away to Matt Fagerson who sends Duhan over the line. According to Sage, who measure the ‘smart-ball’ stats, the reload time (how long the ball is in a player’s hands between catching and delivering a pass) was 0.2 seconds, which made it the quickest reload of the match.. Meanwhile, in Rome it is another veteran, 32-year-old Romain Taofifénua, who stretches out a bear-like paw to secure a pass that is perhaps one metre behind him before offloading beautifully in contact to send fellow replacement Matthieu Jalibert over the Italian try-line for the winning score. Furlong is not the only big man with soft hands.
5. Three most important things … discipline, discipline & discipline.
There are several ways of interpreting what happened in Rome. France won despite playing poorly for long stretches of the game. Italy surpassed expectations … again. Italy’s spirit was good but France should have ended the contest inside half an hour. France went there expecting to win more easily than they did but having scored three tries in the opening half hour, it would have been four had Charles Ollivon managed to ground the ball, they must have thought the game was all but over. Then France lost any form of discipline and that, as much as any fighting spirit, kept Italy in the game. The match finished with France conceding 18 penalties to Italy’s seven. A team in the modern game will aim for single figures and Scotland conceded just nine at Twickenham, two at the set-scrum, compared to 10 by England. Any side that concedes 18 penalties will almost always lose the game. So France won despite playing poorly for the final hour and hopeless indiscipline. They won’t win in Dublin next Saturday if they concede 18 penalties, that much is certain.
6. Gatland is defending a proud record.
What would you do if you were in Warren Gatland’s shoes … apart from resign? ‘Gats’ has famously never lost to Scotland while coaching Wales and I think he will see enough in the footage of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup to give him some hope of extending that flawless record next weekend. Scotland were undone twice in the wider channels with Max Malins the lucky winner on both occasions. Scotland’s defence was simply caught too narrow, probably expecting England to use their big forwards to bash their way over the line, and it happened more than once. While Andy Farrell’s forwards seemingly scored at will against Wales from short range (Caelan Doris, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier) its not obvious that Scotland has the players to execute as Ireland did. If he survives the inevitable cull, George North will relish a one on one against Huw Jones in the 13 channel. Moreover, Wales’ backline created one brilliant try for Liam Williams and inside-centre Joe Hawkins looks the part at the tender age of 20. Scotland should win against Wales on Saturday but not by much.
And one bonus thought because it was such an enjoyable weekend …
A quick glance at the player stats after round one makes for happy reading for several Scots, especially when it comes to tackling. The Scots were on the defensive for much of that Twickenham game but they put their hands up, especially Matt Fagerson. The workaholic breakaway made 26 tackles in all … five more than the next busiest player in any team (Taulupe Faletau since you ask). Fagerson is down as missing just one all afternoon … perhaps when Ellis Genge crashed over for a try. Fagerson didn’t miss the tackle but the physics meant he was unable to stop the England prop in his tracks. Other Scots to shine include Luke Crosbie (20 tackles, 0 missed), Richie Gray (17 tackles, 0 missed) and Pierre Schoeman (16 tackles, 0 missed). Incidentally, the tally for Finn Russell reads 11 made, 6 missed but, I think we can agree, the fly-half contributes in other ways.