So where are we now after the first weekend of the Six Nations? We can’t draw too many conclusions at this early stage.
Leinster will be without flanker Josh Van Der Flier for the rest of the season. We have a lot of cover in that position, but it horrible to see those twisted knee injuries happen. With any luck Sean O'Brien will be back in both the blues of Leinster and greens of Ireland sooner rather than later.
Scotland cannot defend - at least there always is a weakness around the ruck between the forwards and the backs. Wales exploited this space multiple times to devastating effect. So much for Scotland being a dark horse. It’s not the first time they’ve entered the competition with this label, nor is it the first they have completely failed to live up to it in game one.
Don’t look at the Wales injury bench. They have a sufficient roster of talent to worry any international team, even without some of their missing experience. With Lee Halfpenny back to his excellent best kicking and defending, and adding some try scoring into the mix, Wales look like they are out to spoil the Saint Patrick’s Day party for either England or Ireland.
Ireland did not get a single clean line break against the French, at least that's the official match statistic, and a worrying statistic at that. While the French continuously slowed down the ball at the ruck, giving their defense plenty of time to readjust to the next phase, it took until the second half for Ireland to start to deal with it. Their increased aggression at ruck was never so clear as in the last forty-one phase drive up the pitch.
The statistics show Ireland won 162 out of 166 rucks - an amazing number for an international match. Given the amount of possession they had maybe not surprising. But almost forty of these happened in the last drive up the pitch to set up Sexton’s drop goal. The sheer effort of will to make this happen was immense and as Johnny summed up afterwards, the legs of a few of the forwards were getting wobbly towards the end.
I think we should have put in this kind of grueling effort sooner! A score from concerted drive like that earlier in the game would have had the French doubting themselves. Sure they could still turn on the magic and produce a Teddy Thomas try from nowhere, but once you have them going backwards, they sometimes buckle. Until that last drive, the only way Ireland made serious forward progress was by kicking over their heads.
Ireland kicked well, and less than the French. They used it to establish field position and exert pressure. But the fifty-fifty nature of box kicks in particular always worries me. I'd rather keep possession and go backwards ten or twenty meters than give the ball away. The box kick at best will win you back possession and maybe twenty or thirty meters of territory, but it risks giving them the ball and a counter attacking position right on the gain line.
Murray’s box kicks were as close to perfect as they get, giving plenty of opportunity for chasing wings to make an impact on the ball. It just seems like a gamble to me every time. Once or twice per half would be my preference.
England lived up to their favourites tag, but we didn’t learn too much from the Italy game. As expected the men in white have a great set piece and scintillating back three, completing the game with some great scores. Perhaps Italy exposed a few weaknesses close to the ruck, but could not really capitalise on them. Italy could not contain England’s number eight Simmonds, who scored twice from scrums and also set up another try.
It’s never good to see a player get injured, and it looks certain that Ben Youngs will miss the remainder of the competition. For England, this is going to be a huge worry with international experience for this position low at the moment. Still Ben’s hardship is someone else’s opportunity. The vast conveyor belt of talent that is the England club system should provide a new star sooner or later. But England will miss the experience Youngs that belies his name.