New dawn? Or a bit of a yawn?
I am not really sure what stance to take after the first round of games in this year’s Six Nations tournament.
In last week’s column I hoped that the teams would react to their collective failure at the World Cup and start to show greater ambition in their play and for the tournament to excite whilst increasing its competitiveness.
The games were certainly close with all six teams in contention to win their opening fixture right up to the last seconds.
But after watching all three games, I am unable to convince myself that there were sufficient signs of improvement or that anything has really changed.
Perhaps there was a greater intent to use the ball and attack space.
But those positive intentions were undone once again by poor skill levels and an inability – or reluctance – to create fast attacking possession at the breakdown.
Too often it felt there was a reversion to safety-first tactics such as box-kicking or kick-chase rugby.
Trying to remain positive, each team had its moments but they were fleeting rather than consistent.
The French had the most noticeable change in approach with intent to involve all 15 players in a fluid game.
There were times when they lost their way but Les Bleus always had the easiest route to improvement after years being stuck in a tactical coma.
A quick tap-penalty led to a try – a move which under the previous regime would have seen the perpetrator promptly dropped and marched to the Bastille – whilst their biggest signal of improvement came in the number of offloads completed during the 80 minutes.
They managed 22 in total which was significantly greater than any of the other five teams over the weekend.
Italy too looked like they were in the mood for change. They had 11 offloads of their own with new fly-half Canna and centre Campagnaro showing more creativity in 80 minutes than the Italian backline has shown in at least the last five years.
Unfortunately for Italy, their weak goal-kicking and game management came back to haunt them and France took the win.
Yes the first up tackling wasn’t the best, the number of penalties conceded was on the high side and there were spells of aimless kicking but overall both teams appear to have taken a step in the right direction.
Offload Count: France 22 Italy 11. Try Count: France 3 Italy 2.
If this was the new script then unfortunately it hadn’t been read in Edinburgh.
The Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield – as has been the case of many years now – was a drab affair.
Eddie Jones clearly took a pragmatic approach to his first game in charge of England whilst Scotland probably still wouldn’t have scored a try if they were still playing now.
Jones approach is understandable given that trying to evolve this England team on the back of an opening loss would not have been easy.
No doubt his influence on making England a more collective threat will develop as the tournament continues.
But England’s second try at Murrayfield showed that a cutting edge behind the scrum exists, whilst quick front-foot ball was secured time and again as the power of England pack overwhelmed Scotland.
Scotland were the real disappointment of the opening weekend.
If England were getting to know their new coach, the Scots should have been slick and ready to rock.
However they were bullied by the heavyweight England ball carriers and bizarrely were guilty of deliberately slowing down their own ball in attack.
The fact that their best opportunity to score a try came from an interception – which to add insult to injury was then kicked away – highlighted their struggles.
Defences were certainly more robust than they were in Paris but with the visiting pack ascendant at the set-piece it was a match where attacking optimism slowly dissipated as England assumed control.
Offload count: Scotland 4 England 1. Try count: Scotland 0 England 2.
Suffocation of a different type was on display in Dublin where two watertight defences ruled the day.
Both Ireland and Wales showed signs of wanting to play in the wider channels but with neither side getting much change out of that approach they both soon reverted to trying to outmuscle each other at closer quarters.
On the odd occasion that either side did find space, basic handling errors let them down or an inability to hold attacking depth gave defenders an easy read to shut down opportunities.
This match was high on intensity and in certain aspects was the highest-quality match of the round.
But if both sides spent as much preparation time on attack – as they clearly do on defence – then we might have had more of a spectacle.
Offload count: Ireland 2 Wales 3. Try count: Ireland 1 Wales 1.
Brave new world?
We will see but for now the jury remains out.