Six Nations: Sloppy England undone by French resistance
Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Any suspicions that England may suffer a World Cup hangover bore some pretty ripe fruit in Paris at the weekend, with a rejuvenated and youthful French side downing the tournament runners-up 24-17 as the 2020 Six Nations kicked-off – having led 17-0 at the break.
Elsewhere, Ireland overcame a gallant effort from a Scotland side feared to be in disarray following the Finn Russell debacle, running out 19-12 winners in Dublin. And Wales got their first post-Warren Gatland campaign off to a flying start with a 42-0 dismantling of Italy in Cardiff. Here’s how all three clashes played out…
It was a fairly positive start from England, building phases and playing with a pace that was creating space. But Les Bleus soon found a path through the white wall, Teddy Thomas racing into a gap and hauled down 15 metres out. And when they recycled wide, a lovely reverse pass from flyhalf Romain Ntamack sent Vincent Rattez into a hole created by a decoy runner, and the home side had the lead.
Debutant fullback George Furbank could have hit back for England when he hit a terrific line off a sublime cut-out pass from George Ford, only to drop it cold as he saw the headlines. But France were in the mood, maintaining pressure with some testing kicks that brought reward when England infringed and Ntamack opened up a 10pt lead.
Already vocal, the parochial Stade de France crowd were in ecstasy by the end of the first quarter. A poor chip and chase by Furbank was returned with interest, with another up-n-under sending the ball loose from an aerial battle between Charles Ollivon and Courtney Lawes. Rattez claimed the pill and fired it back for Ollivon to run into the corner. although replays suggested a potential knock-on from the French skipper. However, the TMO ruled the ball had come off Lawes and the try stood.
The error rate from England was reaching uncharacteristic heights. They were dropping balls, coughing up turnovers at the lineout and on the rare occasions they entered the red zone, were second best under the high ball, and sloppy at the tackle contest. Skipper Owen Farrell was strangely off-colour, letting two passes fall to the floor himself, while Kyle Sinckler conceded a short arm penalty at the lineout for closing the space, despite having just been warned by referee Nigel Owens. The early exit of Manu Tuilagi to injury wasn’t exactly a shot in the arm either.
They desperately tried to work themselves an opportunity to get something on the board before the break. But despite constructing multiple phases they were unable to bend the line, France’s new system under former Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards doing a sterling job to thwart every thrust and force another turnover, and they enjoyed a dominant 17-0 lead as they went to the sheds.
A superb rangefinder from Ford after the restart had the visitor’s straight on the front-foot, a situation immediately strengthened when France botched the lineout and gave England possession five metres out. Again the French resistance was on point, forcing England to crab across field with precious few inches gained, with successive penalties for offside their only reward. Both times they took the scrum, both times they came away empty handed.
That profligacy came back to bite them in the 54th minute. Elusive scrumhalf Antoine Dupont swerved his way through traffic to find an outside break, and he had Ollivon tracking on his inside to slide home for his second. Cue handbags from both sides as England’s frustration came to the boil, but the melee of bravado did finally rouse them from their slumber.
It was going to take something special for them to breach their fired-up opponent’s defence, and they got it through the magic of Jonny May. The Leicester winger chipped over the top with precious little room down the sideline, outpaced one defender to grubber into the in-goal, and beat a second to the ball to dot down.
A raft of forward replacements for both sides on the hour brought with it a momentum shift at scrum time, England’s experience and power forcing their youthful combatants backwards twice in a row to provide a platform from penalties. And they used it to strike again, shifting it along the line and back into the hands of danger man May, who cut in off his wing and shredded all and sundry for his 18th try in his last 22 tests to make it 24-14.
England continued to enjoy the greater possession as they tried to sustain the fightback, And French hearts were in mouths when George Kruis hit a short ball from Willie Heinz and carried three blue jerseys under the posts, only for the trio to combine to hold him up. The resulting five-metre scrum from in front gave them another chance, only for Heinz to knock-on thanks to a thumping tackle from his impressive opposite no. Dupont.
The scrumhalf then blotted his copybook by bizarrely smashing the ball into the crowd a full minute before full-time, which gifted England another scrum. But they had run out of time to turn things around, and having won another penalty after the siren, they took the pragmatic approach of pointing to the posts for Farrell to get them within seven and a losing bonus point. It was scant return on an afternoon they’ll want to forget.
FRANCE 24 (Charles Ollivon 2, Vincent Rattez, tries; Romain Ntamack 3 cons, pen) defeated ENGLAND 17 (Jonny May 2 tries; Owen Farrell 2 cons, pen) HT 17-0 at Stade de France, Paris
Given the off-field dramas that plagued Scotland in the build-up to their first match – starman Finn Russell dropped from the squad by coach Gregor Townsend for a breach of team protocol – their chances of success against Ireland in Dublin were afforded scant optimism. But the visitor’s started were positive and accurate from the opening whistle, and were rewarded by a penalty dispatched by Russell’s stand-in Adam Hastings, after just four minutes.
Ireland garnered a five-metre lineout a few minutes later, a platform that garnered 75% of their tries in last years tournament. But on this occasion, after the initial maul was quelled, they pulled something off the training paddock, fullback Jordan Larmour providing the decoy run that several Scottish defenders bit on, and Johnny Sexton hitting a line in behind to run through and celebrate his first Six Nations test as captain with a try.
Scotland were mixing their game up nicely by comparison to the predictability of a lot of their efforts in Japan, with Hastings and new captain Stuart Hogg on point with the boot. The forwards – led by the tireless Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson, were also putting in a fine shift, and it was a scrum penalty that allowed Hastings to close the gap back to a point.
But the son of Scottish legend Gavin then missed an opportunity to edge the visitors in front from long range, and when Ali Price needlessly disrupted Conor Murray from an offside position, Sexton made it 10-6. When Gray came in from the side to cough up another cheap penalty he could have made it 13-6 from a similar position, but instead produced a rare mishit that sailed wide. He made no mistake a few minutes into the second half however, as Scotland’s discipline continued to falter.
The visitor’s almost hit straight back with a five-pointer, an intercept from an alert Larmour needed to stop a run-in from no.8 after good work from centre Huw Jones. And they should have been celebrating in the 50th minute after continuous pressure finally opened the door out wide for Hogg, only for the normally reliable fullback to incredibly fluff his lines by dropping it cold as he grounded.
Play was called back for an earlier infringement to give Hastings a chance to grab 3pts for their efforts. But a strong carry from Tadhg Furlong soon got Ireland back on the front foot and led to another penalty, dispatched by Sexton for 16-9.
Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney came on for a below-par Murray on the hour, and immediately started to show why there was such clamour for him to don the starting jersey with his crisp passing and accurate kicks, Ireland showing a more expansive side to their game under the auspices of incoming head coach Andy Farrell.
That didn’t stop a fired-up Scottish side from narrowing the gap again from another Hastings penalty, only for another needless penalty from Sam Johnson at the other end to gift Sexton the opportunity to cancel it out for 19-12.
A line break from replacement Stuart McInally and the effervescent Watson got the visitors back in range in the closing moments as they looked to secure at least a draw. But after hammering the Irish line with pick and go’s for 20-plus phases, a superb turnover from the excellent CJ Stander brought a penalty, a giant roar from the Aviva Stadium, and an opening day victory for the hosts.
IRELAND 19 (Johnny Sexton try, con, 4 pens) defeated SCOTLAND 12 (Adam Hastings 4 pens) HT 10-6 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin
The Welsh faithful had already had a glimpse of the post-Warren Gatland era under Wayne Pivac, with a thrilling attacking display against the Barbarians back in November. But the clash with Italy was a chance to pack out the Principality Stadium and roar on their heroes in earnest in their first real test.
While Pivac had selected a sprinkling of new faces in his matchday squad – including former Crusaders utility back Johnny McNicholl, it was one far more familiar that controlled proceedings from the off, with flyhalf Dan Biggar oozing confidence as he guided his side around the Cardiff turf.
Italy were also under new management, with former Cheetahs and Treviso head coach Franco Smith taking the reins on an interim basis. And one of the priorities he will need to work on over the next few weeks is discipline, as Biggar punished a succession of infringements in the opening 15 minutes with his lethal boot to build a handy 9-0 lead.
Buoyed by the scoreboard the home side began to run free, and just before the end of the first quarter they struck the first damaging blow. Working off a lineout they used several decoy runners and wide passes to allow Leigh Halfpenny to send the predatory Josh Adams away down the sideline, and the predatory winger doesn’t waste those opportunities.
To their credit, Italy too were trying to play some footy but failing to threaten the Welsh 22, but that ill discipline was allowing their hosts to keep the foot on their throat. However, Wales’ second try was all their own making, and was a perfect illustration of the ‘play what’s in front of you ‘ mentality espoused by Pivac and assistant Stephen Jones, with Biggar throwing a no-look pass back through his legs for Adams to find the corner for a double.
It was a better opening from the Azzurri after the break, enjoying greater levels of possession and some rare time in the red zone. But as usual this Welsh defence is a tough nut to crack – a legacy left behind by the French-bound Shaun Edwards. And after a third quarter dominated by Italy with no reward, Wales needed just one opportunity on the hour to rubber stamp victory, replacement Nick Tompkins racing through for a try on debut.
George North thought he had his 40th try in national colours when he then ran onto a Tompkins pass to dot down, only for the score to be chalked off for an earlier knock-on. But with a traditionally vocal crowd starting to get frustrated at the lack of a bonus point in lieu of their side’s dominance, it was North who eased the tension with a powerful surge for the line off a short ball in the 76th minute.
Victory was cemented after the siren, Adams hitting a hard line to smash his way over the chalk for his hat-trick to wrap up a comfortable, if not error-free 42-0 victory. But considering they racked up just 10 tries whilst lifting the Grand Slam last season, this will do nicely for starters.
WALES 42 (Josh Adams 3, Nick Tompkins, George North tries; Dan Biggar 4 cons, 3 pens) defeated ITALY 0 HT 21-0 at Principality Stadium, Cardiff