Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Wonderful weekend shows best of Six Nations

Everything that is brilliant about the Six Nations was on display in round one, writes Ryan Cullen…

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How many of you predicted that? The opening weekend of the 2013 Six Nations championship proved to be one of the most exciting we have seen for many years. After the fireworks of Saturday’s two home nation face-offs we could have forgiven the rugby gods had Italy v France turned into a slightly stilted affair with a predictable French victory – yet still we were treated to more. Italy showed a previously unseen flair in attack despite losing none of their established forward power. For France, it seems inconsistency will always be their greatest weakness.

After an excellent showing in the autumn, only the most optimistic of Italy fans would have stated with any confidence they would turn the French over on Sunday. With a huge pack, power and pace in the backline and a revitalised Michalak pulling the strings from 10, Italy would be looking to put in a decent performance from which they could build in preparation for their wooden spoon game with Scotland on Saturday. How wrong most of us were.

Italy buzzed with intensity. The pack stood up to the huge French eight and gained parity at the set piece. A more pragmatic approach to the breakdown delivered quick ball on many occasions and also managed to slow down a lot of French ball. The backline, excellently marshalled by Orquera at 10, showed a new abrasive edge with excellent line speed in defence and much greater variety in attack, giving the half backs far more options than we have seen from Italy before. However, without the addition of a new offloading game, France’s lacklustre performance probably would have been enough to get them over the line. Italy moved the ball like never before, passing out of tackles, changing the point of attack and breaking the game up in a way that suited them more than France. The challenge now will be to storm the Murrayfield defences and prove that this was more than just a flash in the pan, like two years ago. For France, who knows? Despite them being abject for long periods of the game in Italy they are perfectly capable of winning their remaining four games in the competition and picking up the trophy. As always with France, nobody knows.

England confirmed their continuing progress with a strong victory against a plucky Scotland side at Twickenham. Despite competing well at the set piece, Scotland simply didn’t have the necessary forward power to match England in open play and suffered at the breakdown on numerous occasions. As a result, England got a lot of quick ball and gave Owen Farrell the stage to produce his most polished performance in an England shirt to date, adding greater attacking intelligence to his undoubted goal kicking skills. Tom Wood and Ben Morgan were excellent in the back row for England, whilst Billy Twelvetrees had a strong debut, carrying the ball strongly in midfield and showing a decent passing game.

For Scotland, Stuart Hogg will undoubtedly get the majority of the plaudits north of Hadrian’s Wall, and deservedly so, yet it was Johnny Beattie and Ryan Grant’s performances that struck me as a positive step forward. Grant solidified a previously weak scrum alongside Euan Murray whilst Beattie put in a number of impressive forward runs which suggested he may be a bolter for the plane to Australia. Indeed, if Scotland could stumble upon an international standard 10 they may just be a decent side as the rest of the side is certainly capable of competing with most other international teams. Italy’s victory on Sunday will have done little to lift Scottish moods throughout this week, whilst England will know that despite a good victory, travelling to Dublin will require another step up to keep them on track for the Grandslam.

Were they clinging on or did they take their foot off the gas? Those will be the questions running through Ireland fans’ heads in the build up to Sunday’s encounter with England at the Aviva. In the first half Ireland played an exceptionally clinical, fast and aggressive brand of rugby which Wales could not deal with. O’Driscoll, Zebo and Sexton produced touches of real class, not to mention magic in Zebo’s case, yet the utter domination of the Irish forwards was the basis for victory. The much vaunted Welsh front row was bested whilst Ireland won every lineout they had. Wales were smashed at the breakdown, with Connor Murray able to sweep the ball away almost instantly time after time.

Ireland had built a 30-3 lead early in the second half and the game seemed all but over. Yet Wales produced a strong comeback, camping close to the Ireland line for large portions of the last thirty minutes, forcing three tries and squandering several other chances. Ireland defended excellently, despite being down to 14 men for half of the second period, and tackled themselves almost to a standstill. The Irish backrow in its entirety will deservedly be lauded for their performance but it was Rory Best who stood out most, producing one of his best ever performances and confirming himself as a guaranteed Lions starter. Worryingly for the Lions coach, Sam Warburton was nullified and Justin Tipuric had a greater impact in his cameo role than the Welsh captain. For Wales Andrew Coombs performed well on his debut whilst Leigh Halfpenny was as solid as ever. The performances of key men like Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies were well below what we expect, whilst Alex Cuthbert was unsurprisingly found wanting in the defensive department again. Rob Howley has a lot of thinking to do before Saturday evening in Paris.

To answer the initial question – I believe the latter to be true. Whilst Wales undoubtedly upped their game and threw caution to the wind, Ireland seemed too happy to contain rather than attacking, be that with the ball or at the breakdown and lineout. They allowed Wales to build up some confidence and momentum and almost paid the price. If it’s a lesson learned then no damage has been done- they still won the match. If not, England will likely capitalise and march round the Aviva as potential Grandslam champions. I doubt any Irish fan would want that.

Many will submit hypotheses as to what this weekend of the Six Nations proved. Some will suggest Lions contenders, others will focus on Grandslam champions – but for me it proved how bloody brilliant the Six Nations is! It may not feature the world’s best team or produce consistently high levels of attacking rugby, but no other international tournament, including the World Cup, evokes as much excitement and expectation as the annual arm wrestle against our nearest neighbours.

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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