THE only thing that is certain on the opening weekend of a Six Nations tournament, is that it could spring at least one shock result – and sure enough, this came at an ecstatic Murrayfield, where Scotland, who have been quietly rebuilding under head coach Vern Cotter, came from behind to crush fancied Ireland’s hopes of a Grand Slam at the first hurdle, with a stunning 27-22 victory in the final ten minutes.
“This would have to rank as the best win of my time in charge,” a smiling Cotter said after watching his troops battle through, despite being under the cosh in terms of possession and territory for much of the 80 minutes – man-of-the-match, Stuart Hogg, staking an impressive claim for a spot on the British and Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand in the summer.
Another shock seemed to be on the cards a couple of hours later at Twickenham, where a re-galvanised France also threatened to prematurely end the title favourites’ hopes of a back-to-back Grand Slam, before England scrambled to an unconvincing 19-16 victory at the end, their 15th in succession.
Their head coach, Eddie Jones, described the performance as “awful”, though he did add that he had always been confident they would prevail, despite trailing for most of the match.
The Wales players watching on TV in their Rome hotel while preparing for their banana skin encounter with outsiders Italy the next day, would have taken careful note of Scotland’s vivid reminder that nothing can be taken for granted at this level – and also that there really is everything to play for in this year’s championship.
The message would have been forcibly conveyed by their abrasive new skipper, Alun Wyn Jones, who had been described by a national newspaper scribe as “resembling a warrior from the Visigothic age” for his resolute commitment on the field; while Wales’ defence coach Shaun Edwards has said of him– “he is a man you want to follow into battle”.
And so it proved, with the big Osprey leading as always from the front, as the heavens opened and the rain poured down at Stadio Olympico, on Sunday, Wales avoiding a second shock result by beating off a determined challenge to launch their Six Nations campaign with a convincing 33-7 victory.
Mind you, it didn’t look that way in a first half that saw the typically rugged Azzurri, reanimated under new management and perhaps still basking in their shock autumn win over South Africa, take the game to Wales and threatening to dominate up front, led by veteran skipper Sergio Parisse, severely testing the Welsh defence – while the men in red, to their credit, also sought to add more subtle, but controlled variety, despite the slippery conditions.
Chances went a-begging though as errors mounted and when play switched to the other end, fierce Italian pressure eventually told with a converted push-over try, almost followed by another moments later.
Thankfully, Wales full back, Leigh Halfpenny, then narrowed the deficit with a penalty, to make the half time score 7-3.
As the Welsh players trooped off to the dressing room for a slice of lemon and a lecture, they knew they had come off second best, and the proverbial banana skin loomed large, with the the tails-up Italians scenting another opening weekend shock.
The picture changed dramatically after the interval, with the arrival of young outside half Sam Davies, who replaced injured Ospreys’ club mate Dan Biggar, and front row replacements Rob Evans and Tomas Francis, when it was the turn of the Italians to come under sustained pressure.
Within minutes of the restart, Halfpenny had landed two quickfire penalties and when the struggling Azzurri were penalised for the 12th time, he struck again to take a suddenly transformed Wales into a 12-7 lead they never looked like relinquishing.
A yellow card added to Italy’s woes as Wales stepped up the pressure, which saw Jonathan Davies touch down for a try easily converted by Halfpenny (19-7) and when the home side were penalised yet again, a wonderfully executed handling movement was capped by flying wing Liam Williams for a second try, converted by that man Halfpenny, to take a now totally dominant Wales out of sight.
With three minutes to go, it was fellow wing George North’s turn to race fully 60 yards for a converted try under the posts, despite struggling with a leg injury. Liam Williams almost put the icing on the cake with a bonus point, narrowly failing to ground the ball as the whistle blew for full time, and a job well done.
That second half 30 points display should put the camp in great heart as they now turn their attention to the ‘big one’ – Saturday’s home clash against powerful England, and they have every reason to feel confident following that “awful” showing against France.
Typically, Eddie Jones had taken “full responsibility” for the team’s performance, saying he had “got some things wrong and had a lot of homework to go over”.
However, a win was a win and it was “onwards and upwards... It’s England versus Wales in Wales next week. The test record shows 60 per cent have been won by Wales and 40 per cent by England, so mentally there are things that go on,” he admitted.
“I have been to the Principality Stadium and it is just another ground, so we will just have to work out why England don’t play well in Wales. Maybe it’s something to do with crossing the Severn River!”
No doubt, the straight-talking Aussie had in mind that even more “awful” evening in Cardiff, when another Grand Slam seeking England side were sent back over the Severn licking their wounds, on the end of a 30-point epic defeat.
While that is unlikely to be repeated under Eddie Jones in the heat of the Principality cauldron on Saturday, Welsh morale will have been hugely lifted and confidence will surely be high following their heartening fight-back and impressive second half display in Rome.
If this can be maintained and England again under-perform, as they did in narrowly overcoming a French side still trying to find their way back to the elan of old, the Welsh camp know they have every chance to more than match the threat from the formidable men in white.
They will undoubtedly go into Saturday’s game as underdogs – a role Welsh sides are traditionally comfortable with – and a golden opportunity awaits for the players (and the under-pressure coaches) to make a powerful statement that will send more shock waves through the RBS Six Nations championship – and beyond to the watching Warren Gatland as he pencils in names for his Lions’ tour squad.
There is no doubt that with growing self-belief, Wales have the talent and durability to do just that. What a prospect to savour!