The first round of the 2017 Six Nations is in the books and it’s fair to say it caused mixed emotions for the teams involved.
Scotland finally dispelled the long-standing narrative they had of promising so much in the build-up to a tournament and then failing to deliver once the championship arrives, beating Ireland, 27-22, in a gritty and resourceful performance at Murrayfield.
England notched up their 15th straight win, eclipsing the record previously held by Martin Johnson’s 2003 side, but stuttered, spluttered and almost keeled over on their way to it, edging out a much-improved France, 19-16, at Twickenham.
Finally, Wales looked on the cusp of a surprise defeat at half time in Rome but rallied after the interval and flashed the potential they have as they cantered away to a 33-7 victory at the Stadio Olimpico.
Some pre-tournament assertions have been laughed off, others have been reinforced, but now that the opening round has come and gone, we have a better understanding of where all six teams stand in the tournament hierarchy.
So, what does each side need to do from here to ensure it is they who lift the trophy at the end of the championship?
Rob Howley’s men currently sit atop the table thanks to the points difference their win over Italy gave them, so it’s as logical a place to start as any.
One of the stark differences in their first and second half performances was the tempo and width they were able to play with, thanks in large part to the introduction of Sam Davies at fly-half. Any team that is able to create quick ball at the contact area can, in theory, play with width and tempo, but it is making the correct decisions when you do so that separates the good teams from the average teams.
Davies was able to put runners like Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies through holes in the defence, sold dummy passes to decoy runners and ran and passed with an urgency that just wasn’t there in the first half. He put down a big marker as to the potential of the Welsh back line with him at the helm.
Another area that Wales initially struggled in but found themselves improving in as the game in Rome went on was at the scrum. The arrivals of Rob Evans and Tomas Francis at loosehead and tighthead respectively saw Wales begin to turn the tables on the Azzurri pack, that had previously seemed to have their number.
On more than one occasion, Francis completely locked out the Italian loosehead, allowed Evans to go to work on the other side of the scrum and referee JP Doyle was forced to award Wales penalties.
If Wales can play with the same tempo they did in the second half against Italy and shore up their scrum, there’s no reason why they cannot keep their spot at the top of the table.
Is the scrum the pivotal weapon it once was in rugby? Given the struggles Wales and Scotland had in that area early on in their games and the fact they currently occupy the two top spots in the championship, maybe it isn’t.
Regardless, the scrum is an area Scotland will need to bolster if they are to contend this year. Loosehead Allan Dell was given a torrid time by Tadgh Furlong and granted, Furlong may be the most destructive tighthead Scotland will face this season, but a significant improvement in this area and they will have another platform to unleash the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg.
Going hand-in-hand with the desire to create another platform for those players, Scotland also need to do a better job of ball retention. There is no point creating a foundation for these players to perform if they are then at risk of losing the ball in the early phases.
Scotland’s 13 turnovers conceded was tied for the second most in the opening round, falling just shy of France’s 14.
Improved ball handling, better contact area support in the wider channels and improved judgement on passes will all be high on Scotland’s list of priorities moving forward.
With the Vunipola brothers both missing and James Haskell limited to a bench role as he aims to complete his injury rehabilitation, England’s overriding fault at Twickenham was their inability to break the gain line with any kind of regularity.
Finding new sources of gain line success is a must if England are to retain their title.
Nathan Hughes started brightly on Saturday but faded away as the game went on and it wasn’t until Haskell, Ben Te’o and Jack Nowell were all brought on that England were finally able to consistently pierce France’s defensive line and all three of those players made big gain line successes in the four phases prior to Te’o going over for the game-deciding try.
The absence of the 2016 starting back row of Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola also had a significant effect on England’s work at the contact area.
So much of England’s success in that area last year came as a result of the work of Robshaw and Haskell on the clear-out, as well as players such as Dan Cole and Maro Itoje offering plenty of help from the tight five. With Itoje moved to blindside and Tom Wood getting on the wrong side of referee Angus Gardener’s whistle, England looked laborious at the breakdown Saturday.
Rediscovering their snarl on the ground, as well as their discipline, will be key for England and that could prompt a rejig of the English pack, especially if Haskell is deemed fit enough to start.
It’s a very difficult thing to alter mid-tournament, but Les Bleus need to find a way to improve their conditioning if they are to build on an encouraging tournament opener against England.
The behemoth French pack, Louis Picamoles and Kevin Gourdon aside, wilted considerably in the second half at Twickenham. They did not look like a team built to play 80 minutes of rugby and it showed, with England finishing strong and doing enough to steal away what would have been an impressive French victory.
Guy Novès’ side also need to work on their exit strategies, which frequently gifted England unpressurised possession and the ability to have more control over the territorial contest than the hosts’ overall performance should have allowed.
The two kicking options in the French squad – Camille Lopez and Scott Spedding – was a stark contrast to the four of England – George Ford, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and Mike Brown – and it was that versatility to be able to kick from anywhere in the back line that really helped England over the line.
Where France’s kicks were often aimless and poorly chased, England targeted Virimi Vakatawa and were able to keep him relatively bottled up with a good chase from the likes Jonny May and Itoje. If France are in more close, one-score games over the remainder of the championship, they risk continuing to lose them if they cannot execute in this area.
Pre-tournament optimism evaporated quickly for Ireland in Edinburgh on Saturday and though they picked up a losing bonus point, it was the manner of the defeat which proved most troubling.
After an impressive November, Ireland’s midfield not only lacked production against Scotland, in terms of breaking the gain line and keeping Ireland on the front foot, it was also sorely missing direction. Jonathan Sexton is a fly-half that is constantly looking for work and often re-injects himself into the same phase of play after he has made his initial pass and for all Paddy Jackson’s merits, of which there are many, that is not one he shares.
With Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose used as strike runners on the strings of Sexton’s passes, Ireland have had a lot of success but as a combination with Jackson it looked flat and ineffective. Getting Sexton back from injury will be the quick fix for Ireland but if he continues to miss games, they need to re-evaluate how their centres are to operate.
Whilst other teams need to bolster their scrums moving forward, Ireland’s is in fine fettle. Their set-piece issues are centred around the lineout.
Statistically, Ireland only lost two of their 14 lineouts but that masks a performance of errant throws, poor chemistry between hooker and jumpers, little quick ball off the top and a lack of a consistent driving maul that we have come to expect from Ireland.
Joe Schmidt’s side is built upon a finely-crafted game plan that requires excellence in the set-piece and impeccable discipline and if they are to put this opening loss behind them and take a run at the title, they need their lineout to look like a well-oiled machine.
Can just two improvements to key areas really turn Italy into contenders? Honestly, the answer is no, but it can at least turn them into a far more formidable opponent for their remaining games.
Chief among their priority fixes will be their discipline. They got a rough ride from JP Doyle, most notably with him penalising captain Sergio Parisse for shouting at him, but a Welsh player aiming an expletive at him – we all heard it – went unmentioned.
There were also 50/50 decisions that seemed to swing in Wales’ favour but that is not enough to mask the 16 total infringements Italy clocked up, most of which were avoidable. Offences like going off their feet at the ruck and standing in an offside position were particularly prominent and the Azzurri are not a team that can survive a handicap like that.
Everyone has been calling for it and it would seem time for Conor O’Shea to move Michele Campagnaro to the starting XV.
The Exeter Chiefs outside centre has been in fine form for his club of late and offers a more incisive attacking threat in the midfield than anyone Italy have at present. His defence isn’t too bad, either, as evidenced by his late try-saving tackle, a piece of effort and determination which denied Wales a try bonus point.
Improved discipline and the introduction of Campagnaro are not going to turn Italy into a tournament winner but they will help provide a more solid platform for Italy to progress on from under O’Shea.