Ireland 16 – Italy 11
England 19 – Wales 26
Scotland 6 – France 27
If the build up to the 2008 Six Nations was characterised by uncertainty – new coaches, old players, different styles – then the first week was afflicted by nerves and hesitancy.
From the dour opening match in Dublin – an unconvincing Ireland ground out a win over an uninspiring Italy – to the drama of Twickenham and the surprising Welsh fightback against the English, quality rugby was in short supply on Saturday.
On Sunday, when the Scots entertained the French, there was also little reason to cheer in terms of quality. The drama was in equally short supply as the Scots failed to live up to their pre-match billing as favourites.
Back to Saturday and the tension in Dublin was evident from the kick-off. The players felt it, the coaches felt it, the supporters felt it and so did the commentators and pundits.
Ireland’s under-performing “golden generation” had a massive point to prove following their abject World Cup failure last year and the opening exchanges didn’t do much to ease furrowed brows. The match was an edgy, ugly affair and the final whistle couldn’t come soon enough for an Irish side that realistically never looked like losing against an Italian side that lacked the ambition and ability to capitalise on their host’s frailties.
Yet the sigh of relief was audible at the final whistle, the scowls on the faces of players and coaches told the unhappy story. Apparently there is a lot of antagonism and finger-pointing going on in Irish rugby at present and it showed.
There was little in the way of jubilation, but plenty of fear and loathing.
Over to Twickenham, where the World Cup finalists welcomed another of the tournament’s under-achievers. After gaining a surprising but deserved Grand Slam in 2005, Wales have spiralled downwards at a rapid rate.
The latest Great Redeemer from a far off land – a new messiah called Warren – promised back-to-basics rugby and strength against a beefy pack of English bullies. By half-time sections of the English crowd were chanting “We want 50” as the Welsh gifted the home side all 16 of their points and without some desperate last ditch defence could have conceded 10, 15 or 20 more.
The first 5 or 10 minutes of the second half suggested those chanting for 50 might get their way. But then something happened – Wales caught a kick-off, they secured ball, they ran with it, moved forward and hey-presto scored some penalties of their own.
That was when England started to wobble and Welsh confidence grew. In the final 30 minutes Wales scored 20 unanswered points and took an unlikely win. Fear, trepidation and hesitation overtook an English side, whilst the Welsh surged with a sense of self-belief that was sadly lacking for the first 40 minutes.
There is a strong argument to be made that Wales made England look good in the first half thanks largely to their plethora of mistakes and inability to play rugby. In the second half, Wales showed a lot more evidence of the side they actually are – and so did England.
Boris Johnson, Timmy Mallet, Sir Cliff Richard, Jimmy Tarbuck! Your boys took a hell of a beating!
Not quite. I don’t subscribe to the “as long as we beat the English” attitude of many of my fellow Welsh supporters. It is that kind of mentality that makes us a bit of a joke in the professional era.
The most heartening post-match comment came from new Welsh captain Ryan Jones. When asked about the extent of his team’s after match liquid celebrations, he shook his head and said the side was off home to bed early as they had training on Sunday.
I genuinely hope he was telling the truth as it would signal a more professional approach, although I fear old habits might die hard.
Indeed, the Welsh win at Twickenham will only really count if they beat Scotland next week and that is never a certainty.
So what of the Scots? They had a decent World Cup, making the quarter finals without really threatening to cause anyone an upset.
But still it meant they entered this season’s 6N with more optimism than in previous years, a stable squad and a good coach. First up was the French, still hugely disappointed not to at least make the final of the World Cup they hosted and with a brand new coaching set up and a raft of new players.
Would the Scots pick up where their World Cup campaign left off? Would the new-look French team pick up the gauntlet and play a brand of free-flowing rugby to excite and appease their demanding supporters?
The answer to both was no, not really. The Scots huffed and puffed for the first 10 or 15 minutes and then fell back into bad old habits. The French tried hard to inject some pace and excitement but the game was littered with too many basic errors.
The French will be delighted with a fairly emphatic win, especially as they were far from their best. The young and inexperienced players drafted in did well, although it was the older heads in the French team who were the catalyst. The mix of experience and young enthusiasm might just see the French secure another championship.
For the Scots it feels a bit like one step forward, two steps back.
Any progress and positives they took from RWC ’07 – and from the strong showing of Edinburgh and Glasgow so far this season – had evaporated by half-time. The pack failed to compete effectively for 80 minutes and the backs showed little attacking threat, a familiar criticism in recent years.
The favourite tag sat badly with them and the Scottish supporters are left fearing another wooden spoon after only one match.
It all sets up next week nicely, however, with England and Scotland in particular looking for redemption against Italy and Wales respectively.
The France – Ireland clash could, even at this early stage, decide the 2008 tournament. But if Wales can follow up the heroics of Twickenham with a win at home to Scotland, then the 6N will stay wide open.