the captains of the 6 national teams for 2013: left to right France, England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and Scotland
The first game was played on Saturday afternoon at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and saw Ireland off to a terrific start in the first half, clearly dominating a lost-looking Welsh side. The Irish team looked well-oiled and, with the legendary O'Driscoll on top form, the new hope winger Zebo showing his speed to score the first try, and the boot of Sexton on the mark to get the ball between the posts and over the bar, not to mention the always redoutable Irish scrum and defense, it looked as if the game was over at half-time, when the score stood at 23-3 for the men in green.
Decorous outfits for the Welsh supporters were not quite enough to tip the balance
Wales fought back bravely, urged on by their singing supporters, and showed lots of action in the 2nd half, scoring another 19 points despite some gritty defense from Ireland, who played very well to win 30-22 depite being short of a man twice through yellow cards. A great game of rugby.
Simon Zebo, one of Ireland's wingers, after scoring his try
The England vs Scotland game followed, later on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham. Scotland, depite a sparkling row of creative backs, were hardly favourites. England were under observation and some pressure to repeat their great performance in beating the All Blacks back in November, after narrowly losing both to Australia and South Africa. Some pundits predicted that their back row would suffer on account of the temporary loss, through injury, of Manu Tuilagi, who had played so well against New Zealand. But new cap replacement Billy Twelvetrees played a superb game, constantly pushing through the lines and showing speed and agression, as well as defending well. He well deserved his maiden try. The domination of England was impressive from the start, although they were quickly punished by the Scottish back line for losing balls in turnovers. The final score was 38-18 and could have been heavier still. It naturally remains to be seen how the English will fare against sterner opposition up front.
Billy Twelvetrees, the new England centre, makes ground once again, breaking through the tackler to score.
Man of the match was fly-half Owen Farrell who only missed one difficult kick for goal and distributed the ball with speed, intelligence and lucidity throughout the game, including a magnificent long lobbed pass that got lock forward Geoff Parling over the line. It looks like he has the number 10 seat for a while. And the pair he formed with Ben Youngs at fly-half looked very strong.
Owen Farrell kicks another one over during his impeccable performance
Most of the other players deserve a mention for their performances, with special mentions for all the back row forwards, Morgan at 8, Wood and Robshaw at 6 and 7. They totally dominated in the rucks and kept the attack moving forward. Robshaw as captain set the perfect example in this respect.
Ben Morgan at number 8 seemed unstoppable at times, and less ponderous than in past games
Chris Robshaw led from the front as captain, always available, always moving forward
The final game of the weekend was played in Rome on Sunday afternoon and provided the only real upset of the first round, since Wales had been on a losing streak for all of their four past home games played in the autumn, and their vicory in last year's tournament seems years ago. Of course France had already lost (by one point) to Italy in the last game played between the two teams in Rome, back in 2011. But then they had won all three of their autumn test matches in 2012, and in a convincing manner too, including a thrashing inflicted on Australia (who went on to beat England, it should be remembered). Their line-up was however somewhat perturbed by injuries and some playars were not used in their normal places. This could explain why their defense at times seemed not very coordinated against a very enterprising and tough Italian team. The Italian scrum and line-out also matched or bettered the French in this game. The Italians played excellent rugby, with Orquera (man of the match at number 10) inspired at times and regular with the boot as well. Parisse at 8 played a great game both as captain and as player.
Sergio Parisse goes over for Italy's first try
They were always courageous and thoroughly deserved their victory which confirms that they are now on the list of the world's best teams, capable of beating almost everyone at some point. We should remember that they were only narrowly defeated by Australia last autumn.
The Italians celebrate a well-desreved victory over France in Rome's Olympic stadium
On the strength of what I saw last weekend, Ireland and England look to be playing above the levels of the other 4 nations. Their games were cohesive and I was impressed with the new-found speed at which the ball was ejected and passed by England during their game. They looked less predictable than they have in recent years. But every game is a new challenge in rugby and one should probably beware of France as a wounded beast. This defeat in Italy will have hurt their pride and we will see how they react next weekend when they play Wales in Paris. It is a great thing for rugby to see a nation emerge on the international scene as Italy is doing. They have narrowly missed winning some major games over recent years and this victory, over a major rugby nation, is a sure sign of progress. It needs to be confirmed by others in this tournament.