The first weekend of the 2007 Six Nations was a mixed bag – two no contests and one of the most intense international matches for many years.
So what happened?
- Italy 3 – France 39
First match of this year’s tournament and a complete mis-match. The Italian coach – legendary French scrum-half Pierre Berbezier – got his team selection and his tactics completely wrong. As a result, what should have proved a tricky opening encounter for a reportedly fragile and vulnerable French team was in reality nothing more than a training run. Prior to the match Berbezier had criticised French Bernard Lapaorte for continually failing to get the best out of his team – Saturday’s match was pretty much a classic case of “pot and kettle”. Italy left the core of the team that performed so strongly in the Autumn friendlies on the bench and paid a heavy price. By the time they were introduced in the second half the match was over as a contest. France were never tested in attack or defence and Sebastian Chabal earned himself man of the match in his best performance for France so far. However, we learned nothing of use about either team in what was a poor opening match.
Verdict: Both can do so much better and on these performances both will struggle in the tournament. France still have much to prove, to themselves as much as other teams.
- England 42 – Scotland 20
The hype before the match surrounding the return of Jonny Wilkinson went into overdrive after the final whistle following his match-winning performance. The fly-half claimed a “full house” in what proved another disappointing no contest (although he owed his try to a very generous video ref). Even this one-eyed Welshman was pleased to see him come through largely unscathed, it is a credit to Wilkinson that he performed to such a high level and took the plaudits with such genuine modesty. But the hype tends to mask another lack-lustre match. The Scots simply didn’t build on their progress of the last 12 months and allowed England to ease to a comfortable victory – a 15-minute first-half spell aside, Scotland failed to take the game to an English side struggling for form and confidence. There were echoes of 12 months ago at Twickenham when the then Six Nations champions Wales suffered a 40-point drubbing by England. The result flattered England, who struggled badly for the rest of the tournament and through the summer and Autumn friendlies. Another disappointingly one-sided encounter that gave new real clues about form – other than the return of England’s talismanic outside-half.
Verdict: Far too early to talk of an English recovery, sterner tests are likely to come in the next few weeks. The Scots need to rekindle the spirit that saw them defeat England last year.
- Wales 9 – Ireland 19
It would be wrong to talk about this match deciding the championship, but the fact that Ireland survived one of the most intense international matches for years will boost their confidence as they seek a Grand Slam. Wales performed far better than this particular Welshman expected and the match was decided by silly mistakes – Ireland capitalised on some basic Welsh errors; Wales failed to find the killer instinct to punish Irish nervousness. The Welsh pack matched their more illustrious Irish counterparts and the difference was in the experience of the back-line. Wales created space out wide on numerous occasions and failed to capitalise – the main culprit was Hal Luscombe, who once again proved he is not an international class winger. On the other hand Ireland had a sniff of the try line on four or five occasions and scored tries from three of them to keep Wales out of reach. Arguably the match hinged on the decision not to award at least a penalty to Wales when winger Chris Czekaj was tackled without the ball five metres out after kicking ahead – there were only a handful of points between the sides at that stage. But Ireland deserved their win for taking their chances and Wales lacked the killer instinct provided in recent years by the likes of Shane Williams, Tom Shanklin, Gareth Thomas and Mark Jones – all missing either injured or suspended. The 2007 tournament finally came to life with a rousing and high quality encounter.
Verdict: Ireland can count themselves slightly lucky but are now rightly firm favourites to take the 2007 title and possibly secure a Grand Slam. Wales can take a lot of positives from defeat, but need a cutting edge.