The Six Nations produced a fascinating first weekend full of surprises and drama.
Here, we examine five things we learned from round one.
1. Chinks in the champions’ armour
Only the final-quarter arrival of the cavalry from the bench swept England past France in an ugly start to their title defence. Despite the 19-16 win setting a new national record of 15 successive victories, vulnerabilities were exposed at Twickenham – inconsistency chief among them. Eddie Jones has taken responsibility for the worst display of his reign and Saturday’s opponents Wales will sense weakness.
2. Wales threat to England tough to gauge
Wales posted an emphatic 33-7 victory over Italy in Rome but trailed 7-3 at the break, making hard work of dispatching weak opponents in poor conditions. A final-quarter flurry of tries carried them clear, but there was little here to worry England and it is hard to know what to expect from Rob Howley’s men.
3. Scotland on the march
It was not enough to significantly improve their prospects of winning the Six Nations in the eyes of bookmakers – they are fourth favourites – but Scotland’s victory over Ireland sent shock waves through the tournament in its opening game. The 27-22 win at Murrayfield could prove to be a coming-of-age performance for Vern Cotter’s side, the question now is whether they can sustain it into the latter rounds.
4. Lions selection begins to take shape
Scotland could provide their biggest British and Irish Lions contingent for some time with Stuart Hogg at the top of the order after staking an early claim for the Test full-back jersey. Few Irishmen covered themselves in glory, but Owen Farrell shone for England against France and Elliot Daly’s versatility could prove alluring, while there were tentative signs that Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies could be returning to form.
5. Rampaging Picamoles
World rugby is overflowing with high-calibre number eights and Louis Picamoles is among the very best, a one-man wrecking ball whose strength, footwork and athleticism caused England endless problems at Twickenham. The Frenchman is a clever player and while he is guilty of fading in and out of matches, he is sure to be one of the stars of the tournament.
The Six Nations is back and ahead of England’s showdown with France at Twickenham, Ben Rothwell and Xavier join us to analyse their team’s chances ahead of the contest.
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BEN ROTHWELL (ENGLAND)
ENGLAND LINE-UP: M Brown (Harlequins); J May (Gloucester), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), E Daly (Wasps); G Ford (Bath, B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), M Itoje (Saracens), T Wood (Northampton), N Hughes (Wasps).
PREDICTION: England to win by 7-10 points.
FRANCE LINE-UP: S Spedding (Clermont Auvergne); N Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne), R Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne), G Fickou (Toulouse), V Vakatawa (French Rugby Federation); C Lopez (Clermont Auvergne), B Serin (Bordeaux-Begles); C Baille (Toulouse), G Guirado (Toulon, capt), U Atonio (La Rochelle), S Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne), Y Maestri (Toulouse), D Chouly (Clermont Auvergne), K Gourdon (La Rochelle), L Picamoles (Northampton).
PREDICTION: England 15-20 France.
This year’s Six Nations has an air of comforting familiarity about it, with an “arrogant” England side the strongest in the tournament, and by definition the villains of the piece, and the rest of Europe’s finest each possessing attributes to knock Eddie Jones’ smug grin a little out of shape.
The southern hemisphere may look on with indifference towards a rugby, where set-pieces are sacrosant commodities and laser-like goalkicking a pre-requisite for success, but while it can sometime aesthetically struggle to inspire, it still retains it’s charm and promises to be an open, fluctuating contest.
Where do England improve?
This isn’t to say they’re a perfect team, far from it. But within the confines of the Six Nations, are Jones’ team capable of raising their already high levels on 2016?
Aspects can be refined, from scrummaging to goal-kicking – there is always an extra 5-10 per cent – while there defensive concerns remain. But, based on Jones’ comments in December, the fundamental facet England need to improve on is with the individual.
“There is not one player who would be automatically be picked in a World XV – that is worldclass,” he claimed.
It’s a mighty standard but fair comment and Jones will be looking to his most talented: Maro Itoje, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Launchbury to deliver man-of-the-match displays across their five matches.
How significant is Sexton?
An obvious point but so integral is Johnny Sexton to Ireland, both how he dictates tempo and territory with the ball in hands and keeps the scoreboard ticking over with boot, it’s impossible to ignore.
The No10 misses today’s match at Murrayfield and will likely be out of next weekend’s trip to Rome. Two ties Ireland should win and Paddy Jackson has an opportunity to prove he can be the heir to the throne after precious gametime since his debut in 2013.
The Ulster No10 is nowhere near the goalkicker of Sexton, nor carries the same presence when in possession. He is a more varied creator and capable of mazy linebreaks, but once Ireland get to the business end, they surely need Sexton back in the saddle.
‘Warren-ball’ or bust?
With Warren Gatland on Lions watch, Rob Howley takes charge of a talented Welsh team but lacking the reliability of the past.
But the absence of Gatland can be a cathartic exercise for a team which had become predictable: Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar’s boot upfield; forward pressure; crash runners through the middle; rinse and repeat.
That can be part of the past if Howley can preach a more flexible approach and maybe go with a few rogue selections like playmaker Sam Davies (where being the main question), flanker Thomas Young or rapid wing Ashton Hewitt.
Results are paramount in such a short tournament, but it could also turn into in something special.
How will France play?
On the one hand, Guy Noves has built Les Bleus around defence-first and a stoic gameplan rarely seen in sides past.
But on the other he makes claims like: “We are driven by our will to create, to play fast flowing rugby.” That may well be his ultimate aim, but performances in 2016 and the players he has at his disposal imply a safety-first approach.
French strength lies in forward beasts like Louis Picamoles, Yoann Maestri and Damien Chouly and the relentless work of front row ferrets Guilhem Guirado and the injured Eddy Ben Arous.
Noves has the talents of Gael Fickou, Noa Nakaitaci and the potential wildcard pick of Baptiste Serin at scrum-half but, for now, it looks like France must play to their best and most reliable attributes.
How good are Scotland?
From front to back, this is potentially Scotland’s most talented team since the early 1990s.
With Glasgow Warriors impressing in Europe, Vern Cotter has unsurprisingly drawn heavily from that pool of players and if the likes of Zander Fagerson, Finn Russell and Alex Dunbar can replicate their club form internationally, Scotland have a very good change of shaking up the expected order.
Today’s match against Ireland will be an excellent guide.
Does O’Shea give Italy hope?
The Azzurri could do with the kind of campaign that kills any debate over their credibility in the competition.
Wooden spoonists in two of the last three editions, they will target home games against Wales and France to avoid such a fate.
With Conor O’Shea in charge, the Irishman will be required to extend 60-minute displays, into 80-minute performances. An improved defence is a necessity plus Sergio Parisse must stay fit but there is, for once, some optimism.