As the 2015 RBS Six Nations enters its first break, the competition is still wide open. Warren Gatland and his Welsh troops will be disappointed, however, at how they have started their campaign. The opening match of the tournament saw England visit the Millennium Stadium on a Friday night, and the theatrics put on before the match were spectacular even if nothing else was, with a combination of lasers, flashing lights, fire and blaring music.
There was also an argument over the closing of the roof and a standoff in the tunnel, both of which heightened the tension even more. Despite a great start to the game, as Wales went 10-0 ahead, the men in red will be immensely disappointed with how England took a stranglehold of the match in the second half, dominating all aspects as the Welsh scrum was well and truly eviscerated, whilst Wales’ attacking prowess was stunted in a pointless scoring half.
After their English disappointment, Wales travelled to Murrayfield looking for a response. Despite getting the result in the end, with the score 23-26, the win had as much to do with referee Glen Jackson’s shameful performance as it did Wales’ good work. Scotland played well, and it was only really a 15-minute spell at the start of the second half that Wales dominated. Jackson in the second half allowed Wales to repeatedly give away penalties on their own try-line with no sign of a yellow card until they won the ball back. He also disallowed a perfectly good try for Scotland after an alleged high-tackle by Rhys Webb, yet still there was no sin binning.
To compound his display, Jackson blew for full-time when there should have been time for a re-start with the game tantalisingly poised. This meant that Wales therefore got away with this one and will need to perform a lot better in Paris next time out.
After their impressive win in Wales, England faced Italy at home and despite the seemingly comprehensive 47-17 score-line, if Italy had a man who could kick, rather than Kelly Haimona who proved that he definitely cannot, then they would have led at the start of the second half and the game might have turned out differently. England conceded three tries to unquestionably the worst team in the competition, and it took a dubious refereeing decision concerning Billy Vunipola’s supposed grounding to get them into the game. A win in this fixture was the minimum expected and the defensive frailties of Lancaster’s side will concern him ahead of a trip to Dublin.
In the previous week, Ireland had been to Rome and eventually churned out a 3-26 victory, with tries from the ever-improving Conor Murray and late open-side replacement Tommy O’Donnell. The win was secured after a near heroic defensive effort from the Azzurri, who staggeringly made over 200 tackles.
Scotland were the visitors in Paris in the first week, and despite going down 15-8 to Les Bleus, Vern Cotter and his players will know that they should really have won the game. Stuart Hogg looked world class at full-back, whilst the Glasgow midfield axis of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett was both exciting and industrious. A special mention also has to go to Finn Russell, who on his Six Nations debut was fearless in the number 10 shirt and deserved to be on the winning side. France looked distinctly average and Camille Lopez’s left-foot apart, there were next to no plus points for them to take from the match. Scotland got into the right situations but a failure to take chances combined with giving a host of needless penalties away cost them dearly.
Defending champions Ireland are in a good place going into the break. After getting the job done in Italy, their win at home to France saw them reach nine test match victories in a row. With returning stars Jonathan Sexton and Sean O’Brien performing impressively, Ireland beat France with good control despite a nervy last 10 minutes. Sexton proved what an important player he is for Ireland and much will rest on his performances this year, it would seem. The French once again were poor for the majority, and it is almost unfathomable at this stage why Philippe Saint-Andre insists on playing South African-born Scott Spedding and Rory Kockott ahead of natural French talent such as Brice Dulin and Morgan Parra.
Looking ahead, it seems at the moment that much will rest on the outcome of the two remaining undefeated sides, when Ireland face England on the 1st March in Dublin. Whichever side were to win this would be in a great position to go on and claim the Grand Slam. Although, with Ireland still to visit the Millennium Stadium and France still to go to Twickenham, it could yet come down to points difference again this year. Regardless, the loser of France-Wales in Paris will certainly be out of the running this year, defining it too as a crucial fixture ahead of the showdown at the Aviva.
Analysis: the aerial battle
In round one of the 2015 RBS Six Nations, Wales were second best in almost every department as they fell to Stuart Lancaster’s side in a 16-21 loss. One side of their game that let them down hugely was their competition in the air under the high ball, something that in the past Wales have been superb at, especially with the ever reliable Leigh Halfpenny who will always put his life on the line for his country.
However, even Halfpenny struggled against the English as Wales lost most of their aerial duels to their counterparts, with Mike Brown being the stand out receiver for England, as he has been for some time now. This was also hindered by how loose Wales’ kicking game was in the match and in the week that followed it was surely something Warren Gatland and his staff would have looked at.
This was evident as Wales were much improved for their trip to Murrayfield, most noticeably under the high ball as most of the Welsh backline were praised for their bravery and commitment as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell struggled to win any aerial battles with Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Dan Biggar being singled out as especially ruthless. Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards described the trio as “fearless”. He went on to talk about how Jamie Roberts’ size gives him an advantage but with Dan Biggar he draws comparisons to his former rugby league team mate Steve Hampson, saying, “He [Hampson] wasn’t a massive man, but he used to leap in the air just like Biggs.”
In the game against Scotland, there were problems for referee Glen Jackson as he struggled to referee the aerial battles between the two sides and seemingly resorted to a no contest rule as Jonathan Davies was controversially sin binned for a legitimate attempt to catch the ball. Finn Russell, however was not so innocent as he up-ended Dan Biggar as the Osprey fly-half leapt twice as high as his Scottish counter part and came off much worse, but still made sure he kept the ball nonetheless. As Russell realised he was beaten to the ball, he backed out of the challenge which resulted in him charging his shoulder into the legs of Biggar as he tumbled, resulting in a yellow card for the Scotsman who has since been cited for the incident.
Next for Wales, they must expect the unexpected from Phillipe Saint-Andre’s French side who will be without captain Pascal Pape who has been banned for the rest of the Six Nations due to his knee to the back of Jamie Heaslip, who will also miss the tournament with three broken vertebrae.