France break English hearts in Paris
A fantastic late try from Gael Fickou was enough to see off a valiant comeback from England, and secure a dramatic 26-24 win for France at the Stade de France. Les Bleus got off to the perfect start when a combination of clinical French attack, and a lucky bounce of a ball, allowed Yoann Huget to dive over in the corner, with the game just 32 seconds old. The home side used this early momentum to their advantage, and soon raced into a 16-3 lead, leaving England fans fearing the worst for their youthful side, who struggled in all areas for the first 30 minutes of the game.
The English comeback started just before half-time, when Danny Care took a quick tap penalty, catching the French defence flat-footed, and found Mike Brown in enough space for the fullback to nimbly work his way over, cutting the deficit to eight. Points from the boots of Owen Farrell, Care, and Alex Goode, and a debut try from Luther Burrell, gave England a 24-19 lead with just seven minutes left to hang on.
With the momentum England were playing with, it seemed as if they had done enough to take an invaluable win back home, but the aforementioned Fickou try stole the game at the death, and gave French coach Philippe Saint-Andre some much-needed breathing room. Yannick Nyanga may have stolen the show for France, but there were certainly noteworthy performances from Joe Launchbury, Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Farrell, and England can hold their heads high going into round two of the championship.
Wales rattled but victorious in Cardiff
Although we are reminded every year not to underestimate Italy, a host of pre-match predictions that Wales would run away with this game suggest that that advice is not always taken, and a resilient performance from the Azzurri in their 23-15 loss to Wales will have given Warren Gatland a lot to ponder this week. The home side did get off to the perfect start however, with Alex Cuthbert going over for an early try, as he exploited the inexperience of debut wing Angelo Esposito, in a try very similar to the one Huget scored for France. Centre Scott Williams added a second try later in the first half for Wales, and fears that Italy could be blown away were beginning to resurface, as the home side took a 17-3 lead into the halftime interval.
Fortunately for the neutral onlookers however, the Azzurri turned in a superb second half performance led, surprisingly, not by talismanic captain Sergio Parisse (who was still excellent), but by young centre Michele Campagnaro. The Treviso centre scored two tries, the first a chase through from a Leonardo Sarto kick, and the second an intercept, after he picked off Leigh Halfpenny – of all people.
Despite the heroics of Campagnaro, it was not quite enough to pull off a memorable victory for the visitors, but they should be pleased with their performance, and look forward to kicking on next week against France.
Wales meanwhile have a lot to work on ahead of their trip to Dublin, but the class in their XV is undeniable, and this game against Italy could simply have been a case of shaking off the rust before they move up the gears later in the championship. Taulupe Faletau’s dominance at the breakdown, Rhodri Jones’ late impact in the scrum, and Richard Hibbard’s manful defence were all significant positives for Wales.
Ireland comfortable against Scotland
Ireland turned in the most dominant performance of the opening weekend, as they cruised to a 28-6 victory against Scotland, although much of the disparity between the two teams can also be attributed to the shortcomings of the Scots in Dublin. Scotland did defend resolutely in the first half, but were also unable to get anything going in attack, and an Andrew Trimble try late in the half meant that Ireland took an 11-3 lead into the interval.
Ireland moved through the gears in the second half and the visitors just couldn’t live with them, and a try from Jamie Heaslip early in the second half ensured that the home side were well and truly in the driving seat. Any slim chances of a Scottish comeback were then put to bed when Rob Kearney powered his way through for Ireland’s third and final try of the game. Ireland can now focus on the challenge of Wales, but the performances of Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry and Jonathan Sexton will have done wonders for Irish self-belief, and they will be quietly confident when the defending champions come to town on Saturday. Scotland meanwhile will have to pick themselves up and prepare for a clash with England at Murrayfield, and unless they can turn in a much-improved performance in six days time, they could be in for another long day at the office.
Gael Fickou’s late winner against England is the Try of the Week, not only because it was a fantastic team try, but also because of the situation in the game, and the composure shown by the young centre. Credit must also go to Yannick Nyanga for starting the move, and Dimitri Szarzewski for holding onto the ball just long enough to draw his man, before executing the simple pass to Fickou.
Hero of the Week is Michele Campagnaro. At just 20 years of age, the centre stole the headlines at the Millenium Stadium, turning in a well-rounded and polished performance. Not only did he score two tries for the Azzurri, but he was also at the heart of their defensive effort, and played with a maturity which belied his young age. Honourable mention must also go to Nyanga, who was head and shoulders above every other Frenchman on the field at Stade de France, and was critical to ensuring Les Bleus emerged victorious on the day.
Stuart Lancaster is the Villain of the Week for his use of the bench against France. With England leading, and controlling the tempo of the game, Lancaster took off some of his most impressive performers in Care, Lawes and Vunipola, and the disruption and loss of tempo seemed to open the door for the French, who took full advantage of the opportunity. Using the bench in the right way has become a real art in recent years, but unfortunately for England, Lancaster’s use of it on Saturday seemed misguided to say the least. Ross Ford deserves a mention for his abject performance against Ireland, as the hooker struggled throughout the game with his lineout throwing and hooking at the scrum, and was a real Achilles heel for the Scots at the set-piece.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images