The first weekend of the RBS Six Nations 2014 produced some gripping rugby as nations competed for opening day bragging rights.
A confident Italy gave Wales a good run for their money in Cardiff. The Azzurri proved they're to be no push-overs in this year's competition, with new faces lending their support to the imperious Sergio Parisse.
England came within a whisker of an impressive win against France, who started strongly but then allowed England to score 18 unanswered points. A moment of complacency from England and skill from France put youngster Gael Fickou over in the corner as the French stole a win at the death.
Perhaps the only disappointment were Scotland, but even they had their moments against a nervy Ireland side in Dublin. The Scots enjoyed the lion's share of possession early on, but a lack of penetration let Ireland back into the game.
Who will make the largest improvements this weekend to stake their claim to the Six Nations crown? Here we present the biggest talking points ahead of Matchday Two.
Ireland ran in three tries against Scotland last Sunday, but they lacked the level of invention shown in their narrow defeat by New Zealand late last year. In struggling to win possession against the visiting Scots, Ireland couldn't get their backline flowing, and it wasn't until around the 60-minute mark that the Irish found some fluency.
Ireland could struggle to get the ball out wide against a stronger Wales defence in Dublin this weekend. Wales coach Warren Gatland has spoken of a need for his side to run hard and straight, per the Daily Telegraph:
We have to be very direct. And I mentioned to the players about Northampton’s performance against Leinster. They [Northampton] were embarrassed at home and then you see a turnaround in performance the following week. I think that is a pretty good blueprint of how to play against Ireland.
If Wales insist on barreling through the middle, will Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton have the opportunity to get the ball moving and bring his backs into play? If he can't, it's going to be a gruelling afternoon of slugging it out with the Welsh pack.
He is the talisman of Welsh rugby and captain Sam Warburton has recovered from a shoulder injury to make the starting line-up against Ireland in Dublin this weekend.
The Cardiff Blues flanker will have an impact on Wales in two key ways. Firstly, his work at the breakdown will be invaluable against an aggressive Irish back row. Despite losing Lion Sean O'Brien to injury late last year, Ireland have an effective unit in Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip. Warburton's tenacity will be crucial to disrupting the Irish pack.
Secondly, Wales will benefit from Warburton's undoubted leadership qualities. He returns as captain and, after a minor scare against a determined Italy last Saturday, Wales will be happy to have his calm hand back on the tiller.
The only question is whether or not Warburton can stay fit for the whole match and the rest of the tournament. If Wales lose their captain to yet another injury, it will be a tough blow to take.
Dropped by coach Warren Gatland for the final Test of the Lions tour of Australia last summer, Brian O'Driscoll will line up for Ireland to win his 130th cap on Saturday. But does the veteran Ireland centre have an axe to grind with Gatland, who faces O'Driscoll this time in his capacity as Wales coach.
Welsh players and management have been quick to heap praise on the Leinster man this week. Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards called O'Driscoll "very, very professional", while scrum-half Mike Phillips told the Irish Times:
Brian O’Driscoll has been an icon of world rugby and is a gentleman off the pitch. My early memories were of him scoring that try against Australia for the Lions (in 2001) and I eventually went on to play alongside him, which was a massive honour for me. He’s scored some big tries in his career, and a couple against us as well.
Whatever the levels of mutual respect, O'Driscoll was not happy at missing the final Lions Test and, with this his final year before retirement, the Irish legend may feel he has to show Gatland what he missed.
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell returns to the fray this weekend after missing the win over Scotland with a chest infection. Like Warburton for Wales, expect O'Connell's presence to inspire confidence in his teammates.
Coach Joe Schmidt named O'Connell his full-time captain when he took the Ireland job last year. The lock is a battle-hardened leader and his return will boost a pack already shorn of star flanker Sean O'Brien.
Ireland looked nervous as they got away with a win against a weak Scotland last Sunday. Wales won't roll over so easily this weekend, so the sight of the giant O'Connell taking to the field will certainly boost the men in green.
The young Exeter winger had an, at times, barnstorming game for England against France last weekend, but there were signs of immaturity in the debutant's game.
Of course, an element of that is to be expected when a 20-year-old is thrust into the international arena, but Saturday's Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland will not be a place for the faint-hearted.
Nowell and fellow first cap-winner Luther Burrell endured a baptism of fire in Paris, but it was the Northampton centre who looked more assured in the Test environment. The stocky Burrell imposed himself on the match with hard running that resulted in a second-half try.
Nowell looked nervous, knocking-on from the kick-off and then slipping to allow Yoann Huget to dive over unopposed. The youngster was targeted by France, who drove him back in the tackle on several occasions.
England coach Stuart Lancaster has shown his faith in Nowell by selecting him to face Scotland. But the men of Murrayfield won't be going easy on the winger. Will he be man enough for the challenge?
Stuart Lancaster has made a habit of bold selections during his time as England coach and he goes into this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with only one out-and-out fly-half in his matchday squad.
Owen Farrell will line up against Scotland for his 21st cap knowing he is vulnerable to attack. Lancaster has released George Ford and Freddie Burns, allowing them to return to Bath and Gloucester respectively. That leaves part-timers Billy Twelvetrees and Alex Goode as fly-half cover for Farrell.
The young Saracens stand-off ended last Saturday's defeat by France with severe cramp in his calf muscles. The Murrayfield pitch is likely to be soft and cut-up, making hard-running difficult, thus tiring legs faster.
If Scotland can hit Farrell with a few heavy tackles, he could find it difficult to get back to his feet. Losing him would be a major blow to England's championship hopes.
He was the man-of-the-match in a losing England side away to France last weekend, yet scrum-half Danny Care only played an hour of the game.
Making mass substitutions is fashionable among international coaches. Such is the ferocity of Test rugby, players tire faster and must be replaced before the opposition barges through a fatigued defence.
But Care was spectacularly good in Paris. He was lively around the breakdown, energetic in open play and looked determined to claim it as his day. As Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph notes:
Care went knifing through the French defence and drove the team on to within sight of victory. Pity England took him off after 61 minutes in favour of Lee Dickson: a substitution Care accepted with grace, however unjust it must have felt to the player.
Lancaster has defended his substitution policy, per the Daily Express: "I will make substitutions the way I always have, based on my intuition and the way I see the game unfolding."
But if Care reaches the same stellar heights against Scotland, it will be a brave man who takes him off at the hour-mark.
The home of Scottish rugby has taken a battering in recent months, suffering from a parasitic worm infestation which caused the surface to cut-up badly during last year's autumn internationals.
With two heavyweight sets of forwards packing down on it this weekend, spectators can expect to see plenty of scrums re-set and players slipping onto their backsides.
Giant men such as England's Billy Vunipola and Scotland's Richie Gray are sure to leave their mark on the hallowed Murrayfield pitch. If it disintegrates, the match could turn into a slug-fest between two tiring packs. Both sides could find it difficult to work the ball out wide, meaning we could be in for an attritional afternoon.
For so long Italy have seemed like a team of 14-men playing in support of captain Sergio Parisse. But last weekend against Wales, the Azzurri looked to have finally unearthed some hidden talent to complement the Stade Francais No. 8.
Those players came in the form of backs, an almost unheard of Italian commodity in recent times. Specifically, centre Michele Campagnaro went over for two tries in only his third Test.
It even looks as if Italy might have solved their problems at fly-half. A handful of players have worn the No. 10 jersey since the great Diego Dominguez retired, with none of them staking a particularly strong claim to the shirt. But 20-year-old Tommaso Allan took the position with authority against Wales, suggesting Italy might have a player who can orchestrate things behind Parisse's pack.
The four strongest sides in this year's competition—England, Ireland, Wales and France—have very little to separate them. All four look capable of beating each other.
But was France's win over England in Paris last weekend a demonstration of their strength or merely a fluke? The French were certainly lucky with the bounce of the ball for their first two tries. And they went on to let England score 18 points without reply in the Stade de France.
Les Bleus face Italy in Paris this weekend, a fixture that did not end well for them last year. Italy put in a gutsy performance against Wales, so if France can steamroll their way over the Azzurri, we'll know they mean business. If they labour like Wales did, France could be in for a difficult campaign.