Six Nations winners and losers

Date published: February 4 2008

Three games, two predictable results and one almighty upset. That, in a nutshell, was the opening weekend of the Six Nations. Take the time to delve below the surface however and you will find a great deal more that.

Three games, two predictable results and one almighty upset. That, in a nutshell, was the opening weekend of the Six Nations. Take the time to delve below the surface however and you will find a great deal more that.

Despite a continued struggle to find form, Ireland unearthed a new star in Eoin Reddan. England finally realised Iain Balshaw is not a Test player and the French discovered they have a very bright future ahead of them.

It all started in Ireland, where Eddie O'Sullivan opted to give his World Cup flops a second chance, and Italy began life under Nick Mallet. Of the two it will be Mallet who left Croke Park the happiest, although he has plenty to do in terms of giving the Azzurri a second dimension.

If, as expected, the ELVs are enforced worldwide then Italy could be in a spot of bother. It has taken them the last few years to master their driving maul, their only meaningful weapon at present, and a frightfully efficient one at that. Yet under the new laws it will be redundant as teams will be able to drag it down before it has even got going, leaving serious questions as to where they will go then.

The Italian back-line has, in previous years, lacked a cutting edge. The arrival of Andrea Masi at fly-half could signal a changing of the guard in that respect and it will not be before time. Speaking of time, that is exactly what will reveal the answers concerning Italy under Mallet, a coach who could finally provide the keys to unlocking the Italian potential if afforded enough of that precious time.

What of Ireland then? Well in all honesty they carried on where they left off in France, showing glimpses of their potential without ever realising it. It will be interesting to see if O'Sullivan continues to keep faith with a side who are clearly not clicking at present. The one bright point on an otherwise bleak afternoon was the performance of Reddan at scrum-half.

His time at Wasps has been hugely beneficial and he gave a performance unlike any we have seen from Peter Stringer down the years. Yes, Stringer and Ronan O'Gara formed a formidable partnership but it was often a rather predictable one. With the injection of Reddan's pace, defences can no longer get lazy around the fringes: two searing breaks on Saturday proved that. Why O'Sullivan hauled him off in favour of Peter 'all I do is pass' Stringer will remain a mystery.

With Ireland on their way, albeit only just, the attention turned to England and Wales – two sides in contrasting situations. England, World Cup finalists, were looking to prove their form in France was not a fluke, while Wales were looking to put their form in France firmly behind them. And they did just that, winning at Twickenham for the first time in twenty years.

How refreshing it was to hear a coach admit, after winning, that there was still plenty to do and that while his side won it was not all a bed of roses (More a bin full – Ed.).

Warren Gatland knows it could have been a bleak outcome had England managed to convert their chances in the first half, but ultimately it was Wales who took their chances and silenced Twickenham.

England will look to the injuries they suffered, which admittedly had an affect on their fluidity, but at international level that alone does not cut the mustard as a reason for losing. The implosion in the second half was catastrophic and Iain Balshaw was at the heart of it; at least now Brian Ashton may finally take off the blinkers and bring either Matthew Tait or Josh Lewsey back. Balshaw is a top-class club player but that is as far as it goes.

No doubt Gatland, Edwards and Howley will be hailed as legends back in Wales, but don't get carried away just yet. The hard work comes now. With the public's expectations raised after Saturday's win any defeat will not be taken well. But as Gatland has stressed, Wales, as a nation, needs to be patient and understand it will take time to develop the final product. But Saturday was a mighty tonic for their World Cup hangover.

Finally to Murrayfield where Scotland's inflated hopes were burst in sensational style and France showed there is a bright new life ahead of them. You could hear the groans as Dan Parks' kick-off sailed out on the full and they only grew louder as the game wore on.

At one stage the crowd booed a refereeing decision, but it was their team they should have been booing. You can't afford to make as many simple errors as Scotland did on Sunday, debutante Nick De Luca the guiltiest of a bad bunch. It was a rude awakening for De Luca who felt he was ready to make the progression to Test rugby, his display was anything but progressive and it may be a while before he gets another chance.

On the other hand France, who many fancied would spend most of the game frustrated as their new-look side bedded in, were a revelation. Full of running and attacking intent they showed enough to suggest the bookies had it spot on labelling them as favourites. The back three of Vincent Clerc, Cédric Heymans and Julien Malzieu were nothing short of superb.

One hopes that Marc Lièvremont opts for more consistency in his selections than Bernard Laporte ever did, as whilst they didn't dazzle on Sunday, the likes of François Trinh-Duc, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Loïc Jacquet all did enough to suggest they are suitable long-term options in French shirts.

So whilst we are only one round into Europe's most prestigious tournament there are already several areas of concern for all the coaches, although perhaps it is Brian Ashton who has the most to worry about. With an away trip to Italy next on the cards could it be set to get worse?

Let us know what you made of the opening weekend

By Marcus Leach