We take a look at nine things that fans and coaches will have learnt from the opening round of matches in the 2015 Six Nations…
1.Italy need to start investing in their grassroots game urgently
Over the last few years we have seen a steady decline in Italy’s competitiveness which is culminating in them being on the receiving end of multiple hammerings both home and away in the Six Nations. Even an under-strength Ireland side were able to win by 23 points in Rome.
The problem appears to be that a number of Italy’s key players are ageing and there aren’t enough quality players coming through to replace them. In a few years time this could become a real problem so the Italian Rugby Union need to start investing in grassroots rugby now.
2.Ireland are still favourites, but injuries could derail their season
Although Ireland came away from Rome with a decent victory, for the first 60 minutes they struggled to make much of a mark on the game. Now obviously they were missing several key players which impacted on their side, but it should pose a slight concern for fans.
A fully-fit Irish side is easily the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, however without the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien they look like they might struggle. It looks like their year could be defined by the fitness of their first team squad.
3.England need to select players because of what they can do, not what they can’t
What Friday night should have proved beyond doubt to Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff is that they need to start selecting the best players available to them, rather than simply the ones least likely to make a mistake, or who follow the game plan best.
The likes of Jonathan Joseph probably wouldn’t have even been near the starting XV had it not been for injuries, however what he proved against Wales is that England can afford to include players who offer more than just a good work ethic whilst still winning.
4.The French are being stifled by their coaches
A hallmark of many of Philippe St Andre’s sides has been that despite them being packed full of undoubtedly talented players, they often play a conservative brand of rugby that does little to utilise them to the best of their ability.
If St Andre can allow his side a little more freedom to actually play rugby then there’s no doubt that they have the potential to be contenders for the Six Nations. However if they keep playing safe rugby they will continue to struggle as they did against Scotland.
5.Warren Gatland needs to take a long hard look outside of his starting XV
For some reason Gatland seems intent on persevering with a side that although undoubtedly talented, are currently struggling to perform in big games. This could be partly down to the tactics, however whatever the case, something needs to change.
How the likes of Liam and Scott Williams weren’t even given a chance off the bench when behind to England is bizarre, especially given injuries and poor form of some of the backs. Gatland therefore needs to start looking at some alternative options or continue to struggle against top sides.
6.Scotland have a very bright future, they now just need experience
What Saturday evening in France proved for Scotland, is that they have a youthful side with bags of potential that are looking ever better under the stewardship of Vern Cotter. The likes of Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Alex Dunbar all have the ability to set pulses racing.
The one key area the side lacked in though was on field leadership and experience. Whilst you have to applaud their ambition to play from within their own half, sometimes kicking for territory is the better option. The return of a few key players from injury though could soon change that.
7.Sexton and Murray are the best half back pairing in the Northern Hemisphere
The absence of Johnny Sexton from the Ireland side for their trip to Rome only helped to prove just how important he is to Joe Schmidt’s side. Although they still got the victory, they looked an entirely different prospect when he was included in the side.
Fortunately Conor Murray did his international reputation no harm after another impressive performance in an Ireland shirt. Once Ireland can once again call on the Murray/Sexton axis at half back they will be a force to be reckoned with in the Six Nations.
8.Player welfare is still an afterthought in the heat of battle
One of the most disappointing aspects of the opening round of the Six Nations was seeing the response (or lack thereof) to George North’s repeated knocks to the head. Somehow he was allowed to continue playing despite appearing to be out cold after the second knock.
Fortunately World Rugby has now intervened and demanded an explanation from the WRU which will hopefully end with more than just a telling off in order to encourage other coaches to take the welfare of their players more seriously.
9.The boot continues to rule in the Six Nations
Playing the Six Nations during the winter months tends to dictate that kicking the ball will play a significant part in the outcome of a game, however it appears the boot dominates in the Six Nations. France beat Scotland in Paris despite failing to score a try whilst Ireland’s tries came towards the end of their game.
Recent data has also shown that last year Ireland, with an average of 27.4 kicks, won the championship. England had the second highest (26.8) and finished the runners-up. Wales, with 25 kicks per game, were third, France (23.4) fourth, Scotland (22.0) fifth and Italy (17.4) last.
Do you have any other points to add?