Match 1 – Wales 23 Italy 15
Wales were handed supposedly the least difficult fixture to start off with, Italy at home, but still struggled to break down the impressive Azzuri.
The game started well enough: Alex Cuthbert was gifted the opening try when Italian debutant Angelo Esposito let a simple grubber kick slip through his fingers, which meant that the Welsh winger was able to gratefully pick up and stroll into the corner, with Halfpenny converting. The rest of the half was rather stale, with the two sides trading a single penalty each, though Sergio Parisse was unlucky in not putting the Italians in front when a TV replay showed that he had knocked on when gathering a crossfield kick before diving over. However, in the 38th minute, Jamie Roberts powered through and offloaded to Scott Williams who scored to give Wales a 17-3 lead at halftime.
Just after the break, Italy were able to score a great if controversial cross-field try, when Leonardo Sarto chipped over the Welsh defence and Michele Campagnaro gathered to score. There were doubts over whether a pass in the build-up was forward or not but the referee gave the Italians the benefit of the doubt, with Tommaso Allan pulling the conversion wide. From that point onwards, the game turned scrappy, with both kickers missing penalties, before Halfpenny slotted one between the posts in the 65th minute, which seemed to put the game beyond the Italians’ reach. However, soon after, Campagnaro doubled his account for the match with an opportunistic interception try, making the score 20-15 and ensuring a tight last few minutes. Halfpenny, the player who threw the poor pass that was intercepted, made slight amends by scoring a further penalty in the 72nd minute to give Wales an 8 point lead which they managed to hold on to as the game fizzled out.
Wales will disappointed with their sluggish start to their defence of the title, but coach Warren Gatland will appreciate the fact that a win is a win and that on another day with slightly more discipline the winning margin would have been much greater. Nevertheless, massive improvements will need to be made to defeat a strong Ireland side in Dublin in their next match. Italy, on the other hand, will take great heart from their performance, and will know that they have at least a chance of competing against an inexperienced French side when the two sides meet next weekend.
Top Points Scorer: Leigh Halfpenny (Wales) – 13pts
Man of the Match: Michele Campagnaro (Italy)
Match 2 – France 25 England 23
A late French try broke English hearts and ended a rousing second-half comeback in the pouring Parisian rain at the Stade de France.
Les Bleus were handed the perfect start when, after only 32 seconds, Yoann Huget profited from a fortuitous bounce of the ball and Mike Brown’s untimely slip to dive over in the corner. However, Jean-Marc Doussain pulled his conversion and England hit back quickly with a Farrell penalty. Following this, the match tightened up, with neither side really getting anywhere, before France accelerated away with a penalty followed by another try for Huget, with Doussain missing again from out wide. Doussain then put over a penalty, making the score 16-3, but England gave themselves hope with a Mike Brown try that dragged the score back to 16-8 at half-time.
The visitors raced out of the blocks in the second half, having a try controversially denied and scoring a penalty, before Luther Burrell, debutant at centre, scored under the posts which, with Farrell’s simple conversion, gave England a 16-18 lead. The next twenty minutes saw an abject France and a rejuvenated England, who were slightly unlucky that their only reward to show for their dominance was a drop-goal from scrum-half Danny Care that made the score 16-21. With 10 minutes to go, France won a penalty on the English 22 which substitute Maxime Machenaud promptly converted, but England hit back immediately when Alex Goode, deputising for the injured Owen Farrell, booted England back into a 5 point lead with only 8 minutes on the clock. However, England’s brave efforts were thwarted in the 77th minute when a tired defence let 19 year-old Gael Fickou break through their lines and score under the posts. The try was easily converted, and France survived a final English barrage to come away with a victory.
England will be bitterly disappointed that they let their lead slip away in the final few minutes and that their Grand Slam hopes have fallen at the first hurdle, but will be happy with great comeback (including scoring 18 unanswered points) and will know that, as Wales demonstrated last year, a team that loses its first game can go on to win the title. France, who endured a torrid 2013, can now rightfully call themselves one of the favourites for the championship, although they will realise that for most of the match they were the poorer side and that Doussaint’s several missed kicks could cost them if they were to go begging again in future matches.
Top Points Scorer: Yoann Huget (France) – 10pts
Man of the Match: Yoann Huget (France)
Match 3 – Ireland 28 Scotland 6
Ireland set out a strong warning message to its challengers for the Six Nations title by producing a dominant performance to overcome a disappointing Scotland side in Dublin.
The first half was, for the most part a tense, tight affair with Ireland’s Jonny Sexton kicking two penalties to Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw’s one. 3 minutes from the break, Sexton slipped through several tackles to run half the length of the pitch before passing to Jamie Heaslip, who was unlucky not to score as he was just tackled into touch a metre from the line. However, from the resulting line-out, Ireland nicked the ball and spread it across the field for David Trimble to score an easy try.
After half-time Greg Laidlaw scored a second penalty to give Scotland hope but Ireland ruthlessly countered with a try from a driving maul, scored Jamie Heaslip. Jonny Sexton scored a further penalty to make the score 21-6, before full-back Rob Kearney wrapped up the match by muscling his way through the tired Scottish defence in the 71st minute
Ireland will be very pleased with their performance, and will be confident ahead of next week’s crucial clash against Wales, especially as they will retain home advantage, although they will want to overcome the early nerves that troubled them in this match. For Scotland, it is the same old story: some promise but no result. They will need to improve their set-pieces and build a more secure defence if they are to avoid another wooden spoon battle this year.
Top Points Scorer: Jonny Sexton (Ireland) – 10pts
Man of the Match: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)