The Six Nations got up and running again this weekend with Warren Gatland looking to steer Wales to a history-making third consecutive title.
The opening weekend is always hugely significant in setting the tone for the remaining four fixtures and ahead of Ireland’s clash against Scotland on Sunday afternoon, the other four sides were all looking to get off to the best possible start on Saturday.
We were treated to a duo of intriguing opening encounters, as the Welsh overcame a stubborn Italian side 23-15, whilst France and England played out a thriller in Paris, which saw Les Blues come out on top 26-24.
But who were the heroes during these opening exchanges? And what sides will be seeking big improvements in Week 2?
In practice, taking on the Italians at home is the most straightforward fixture to get your Six Nations up and running. So Wales would have been delighted to start out with what is essentially a home banker.
But they were more than matched by the Italians for long spells during this game. Some sloppy play from Italy gifted the Welsh a very early lead, and ultimately that was to prove the difference in this one. From that point on they outplayed their illustrious opponents and a 17-3 half-time lead certainly flattered the Welsh.
But after the break, the Italians were definitely the better side. Michele Campagnaro stunned Cardiff with a brace of second half tries and with the score at 20-15, Welsh fingernails would have been getting chewed anxiously.
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Eventually a Leigh Halfpenny penalty late on helped alleviate any nerves, but the Italians can hold their heads high after a wonderful effort.
It was a performance that certainly suggests they'll cause some problems in their remaining four ties.
France relinquished a handsome lead to England before a late rally saw them come out on top in their Six Nations opener in Paris.
A last gasp try from Gael Fickou broke English hearts after the visitors rallied from 16-3 down to lead 24-19 with just four minutes to go. But they failed to hold out under waves of late French pressure, with Fickou running in a try and touching down in front of the posts. Maxime Machenaud added the conversion and France secured a thrilling win.
FRA 26-24 ENG: Lancaster's young guns learn a hard lesson in Paris as France score late to snatch it #rbs6nationshttps://twitter.com/search?q=%23rbs6nations&src=hash">#rbs6nations> pic.twitter.com/MhrpswEK2s&mdash'>http://t.co/MhrpswEK2s">pic.twitter.com/MhrpswEK2s— RBS 6 Nations (@rbs_6_nations) February'>https://twitter.com/rbs_6_nations/statuses/429690250298785793">February 1, 2014
England will surely take heart from a stirring fightback—if they’d held out it would have been their biggest ever comeback win in the Six Nations—but the French will be given an enormous boost for the remainder of the competition after a win in such dramatic circumstances.
The rugby they played in the first quarter of the game was magnificent at times, and whilst they dropped their level a little in the second period, it’s to be expected in the first game of the tournament.
The spirit and desire they showed when falling behind—combined with the class they showcased in the opening exchanges—certainly bodes well for a prosperous tournament for the French.
All the talk prior to the tournament getting underway was about this Wales side making history with a third successive outright win. But when the Italians pulled to within five points of the holders in the second period, it looked as though there could be a major shock on the cards.
Whilst some experience and a bit of class saw Wales through in the end, Warren Gatland will be hoping for a much-improved performance in their next outing. They’ll have to be, as you suspect a performance similar to the one served up here will not be good enough to get them over the line when they travel to face Ireland in Dublin in round two.
There were some basic handling errors from the Welsh and their all-round play was uncharacteristically sloppy. Gatland will be hoping the magnitude of next weekend’s clash against the Irish will spur them on to a better performance next time out.
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