Perhaps it was fate that the Six Nations billed as the most competitive in history would begin with a clash of extreme imbalance. Saturday’s tournament opener in Dublin was an immediate display of Ireland’s title credentials, a decisive dismissal of a hapless Wales. But for some uncharacteristic red-zone profligacy and indecision in at-times challenging conditions the winning margin would have better reflected a contest that only one side were ever in.
Ireland’s evolution can be more definitely assessed after what will surely be a sterner challenge against France next week, but this was another performance of positives. Andy Farrell continues to build through a ninth successive win.
It was Mack Hansen, who briefly trained as an electrician in his native Australia, who sparked Ireland on debut. With his first touches in international rugby, the wing pounced upon a fortuitous ricochet to make easy metres down the left, before setting up Bundee Aki with a lovely lifted pass inside the first five minutes, and impressing thereafter.
The great strength of this Ireland side is its ability to pose different offensive questions. With Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose pulling the levers, and a group of forward distributors the envy of any other nation too, they were able to pull the Welsh defence out of shape, accentuated by Hansen’s potent, intelligent injections before the interval. Hansen offers a different dimension to the Irish attack – he is a natural ball-handler and footballer who provides considerable roaming threat.
“He’s a good guy, which is the most important thing,” Johnny Sexton effused of new teammate Hansen, whose Irish ancestry was supposedly discovered in part due to a friendship with the son of Connacht coach Andy Friend struck in a Canberra bar that paved the way for a move to Galway.
“He’s bedded in really well into the group and his performance speaks for itself. He’s got a game which is made for international rugby, so hopefully he continues to grow with us. It’s a great start for him.”
It was a chastening afternoon for the visitors, whose frustrations were best exemplified by Josh Adams’ impudent shouldering of Sexton moments after Jaco Peyper had awarded a first penalty Wales’ way just short of the 50-minute mark. Adams looked incongruous in midfield, an excellent edge defender unable to sift through the heavy inside traffic that Ireland so expertly employ, like a lollipop lady in an airport control tower.
Stripped of great sections of their veteran vertebrae due to injury, the Welsh looked short of spine. Without a moment of misplaced magnanimity from Tadhg Beirne in the final minutes, Wales would have been deservedly nilled for the first time in the Six Nations. While sole try-scorer Taine Basham impressed as he fought increasingly lone battles, the hope that he and Ellis Jenkins would be able to disrupt Ireland’s speed of ball at the ruck did not manifest – the home side won 120 of 122 rucks and retained the up-tempo animation of the autumn.
How quickly the Six Nations wheel can turn. Much of the Welsh support has never quite warmed to Wayne Pivac despite last year’s triumph in their absentia, and his selection gambles did not pay off. The defending champions started each half slowly, conceding inside the first five minutes of both.
“We can’t go back in time in terms of the players missing, we need to learn our lessons from today and this is the squad we’ve got,” said Pivac.
“We talked about what we needed to do in that game from the outset and that was to match them physically and our discipline needed to be spot on. We didn’t achieve that. We let them into both halves very cheaply.”
A defeat in Dublin short of so many key players may not be cause for extreme panic but is symptomatic of greater structural problems. There has been growing disquiet in Wales about the long-running lack of investment in the nation’s professional pathways and clubs even during periods of international success.
The clash with Scotland next week takes on greater importance. Those wider questions may not be most prominent on the terraces of a sold-out Principality Stadium ahead of kick-off but fall at home to Gregor Townsend’s would-be contenders and the choir of critics could swell.
France vs Italy
As for Ireland, a trip to Paris is an unenviable second course. France had to really battle to shake the rust off against a dogged, defensively sound Italy but eventually pulled away in less-than-ideal conditions. Having had so much of their squad in isolation ahead of the tournament, and lost head coach Fabien Galthie to a positive Covid on Friday, it was never likely to be France at full tilt against Italy but the manner in which wings Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere particularly seized the contest shows how the French mentality has shifted. Previous iterations might have turned the fixture into a real trudge.
To bill their meeting with Ireland as a clash of styles underplays the rounded nature of both sides but certainly the match-up between Ireland’s ability within structure and France’s skill outside of it tantalises. It would be premature to suggest this clash as a title decider with so much of this unpredictable tournament yet to come, and Scotland likely to have their say, but second weekend meetings rarely come any bigger.
Scotland vs England
Talking of shifts in mindset, has a 21st century Scottish collective ever shown such belief? Picking a single standout from another triumph rather betrays a real team performance, but a word for rock-solid number eight Matt Fagerson, who led an immense defensive effort and quietened a few dissenting voices.
Eddie Jones’ decision to remove Marcus Smith just after the hour has been heavily criticised, and looks curious in hindsight given how the Harlequins playmaker had grown into his first away England start. There may have been logic in the decision to bring an experienced fly-half in George Ford into a tight game, particularly given the outstanding domestic form that had helped force Ford back into Jones’ thoughts, but Smith has an uncanny knack for a fairytale finish and had begun to bend an even contest slightly England’s way.
Of concern for the England head coach should be his side’s inability to again truly seize the advantage in a game they at times controlled. Injuries have obviously exacerbated the problem, but England’s selection looked short of power carriers, particularly outside of Smith. It is something to be addressed against Italy and beyond – Manu Tuilagi was back amongst things for Sale and may just come into Jones’ thoughts when he refreshes his squad on Tuesday, though England can’t keep waiting for the centre’s increasing fleeting periods of fitness.