The Guinness Six Nations finally got underway at the weekend, and it did not disappoint, as Ireland, Scotland and France overcame Wales, England and Italy respectively.
Andy Farrell’s men triumphed 29-7 over Wayne Pivac’s side at the Aviva Stadium, showing off their title credentials as they won their ninth consecutive Test – dating back to Round 2 of last year’s Championship.
BT Murrayfield then enjoyed a taste of history, as Scotland won back-to-back Calcutta Cup matches for the first time since 1983-1984 with an impressive 20-17 win over Eddie Jones’ team, coming back from 17-10 down midway through the second half.
And on Sunday, France were made to work hard for their 37-10 win over the Azzurri, with Gabin Villière the star of the show, as he scored three of France’s five tries, and in doing so became the first French player to score a hat-trick in the Guinness Six Nations since Vincent Clerc in 2008.
Villière hat-trick fires France past Italy
With all of that action, you would imagine there was plenty to discuss, and the pundits gave us plenty of quality insight over the weekend.
Starting up in Dublin, where former Ireland captains Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best and former Wales skipper Gareth Thomas spoke very highly of Ireland’s ruthlessness on ITV.
O’Driscoll said: “We talked about the need for them to be patient and not to get frustrated and they were very clinical at times.
“The accuracy in pretty difficult conditions created about four or five scoring chances and they took four of them. Individuals are playing well, but it’s how they’re combining as units that is perhaps the most impressive, there is real fluidity.
“There is a huge amount to be pleased about and to be honest not much you could pick holes in.”
Best echoed his former Ireland teammate, saying: “I think the most pleasing thing was that they took that second half to Wales, they dominated territory and possession.
“A couple of times, the advantage in the 22 allowed Johnny Sexton to throw that pass or Jamison Gibson-Park to throw that pass, but their execution was exceptional.
“I think it’s the speed they do things with, if you look at the Ringrose try, it’s just about skill and decision-making.
“Andy Farrell has talked a lot about wanting the players to come out of this structured system and into being good decision makers.
“For me that was one of the big differences between the two teams, Ireland made very smart decisions every time they were on the ball.”
While Thomas went even further in his assessment of Ireland, comparing them with the very best teams in the world.
“To go from defence to attack so quickly is so impressive,” he said.
“I sit here as a Welshman, you watch that and if Wales were playing New Zealand there and Ireland were wearing black jerseys, you’d be saying that’s why they’re the best team in the world.
“Because they were that clinical, they had that offensive mindset even when defending that we usually attribute to the best teams in the world. I really feel like Ireland proved all that today.”
Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match Fagerson on “harum-scarum” Calcutta Cup finale
And on RTE’s coverage, former Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip believed that the team’s winning record spanning nine matches will have a big effect on the Ireland camp.
He said: “It creates a kind of flyweight effect; in terms of the way they’re playing. The guys were talking in the comms box there about the way they’re playing, about the way they’re building something together.
“That’ll have an effect again, because this team is winning, it’s the best win they’ve had over Wales ever and all those things will have an effect in camp.
“They’ll come bouncing in on Monday in what is a massive week, but credit where credit is due, they were very patient, very disciplined, didn’t give a penalty away till the 54th minute.
“We talk about how you can get better, it’s those marginal things that they’re doing.”
Up in Edinburgh, the feelings towards Scotland’s landmark achievement were similar to that of Ireland, although the BBC commentary team’s final moments of coverage were tinged with a hint of sadness as Brian Moore’s last game as a co-commentator in the Championship came to an end.
Former Scotland full-back Chris Paterson said: “What a victory for Scotland on home turf, it’s a victory for defence, it’s a victory for guts and determination to stay in a game you had no right to.
“Not only that but it’s a victory for getting the big moments right.”
While Moore agreed with his co-commentator and thanked everyone after twenty years on BBC commentary: “For a game that we thought beforehand could have been rain affected, it could have been a dour game, it turned out to be exciting and had a thrilling finish.
“I’ve just got two words to leave you with – Thank you.”
And the BBC’s team of pundits at BT Murrayfield John Barclay, Sam Warburton and Martin Johnson were also impressed with Scotland.
Former Scotland captain Barclay said: “It could have gone either way, you’ve got to be honest, we talked pre-show about evolution in Scotland’s game and talking about how they won games.
“That game was won on defence, we saw some moments of magic from Finn Russell and there was some superb play, but it was a really gutsy performance by Scotland.”
While two-time Guinness Six Nations winning captain Warburton said: “Without putting too much pressure on Scotland, I thought they had to win today.
“They’ve proved to themselves that Scotland have a heck of a team, they’ve been building it ever since 2018 and I thought Scotland did what they had to do.”
England’s World Cup-winning skipper Johnson was impressed with Eddie Jones’ side despite defeat and sympathised with a fellow forward after Luke Cowan-Dickie’s sin-binning proved to be a pivotal moment.
Scotland retain Calcutta Cup with tense victory
He said: “I think England had a lot of improvement in them, I think they dominated large parts of that game and that actually will be thinking, we can be a good percentage better next time we play.
“When they get over the disappointment, they’ll say hey guys, we could have won that game, and we can get a lot better from here on in.
“When they got to 17-10, Scotland were always going to take their chances, it’s just unfortunate for Cowan-Dickie really to be there, that’s not where you want to be with the ball in the air, he gets sin-binned, and it makes it very difficult for England there on in.”
And Warburton summed up the competitiveness of the Championship this year, speaking about just how hard it will be for any side to win any game.
He added: “In the past five years there have been two or three dominant teams, the thing with the Guinness Six Nations this year is that two very good teams are going to come fourth and fifth.”
On Sunday, the ITV team of Benjamin Kayser, Maggie Alphonsi and James Hook were full of praise for France – and one individual in particular.
Kayser began by saying: “I was impressed with them (France) and I think Fabien Galthié and Raphaël Ibañez will be happy.
“It’s the opening game of the Championship, at home and they get a bonus-point victory, what else can you ask for.
“I think potentially the rain played into it and they would have been happier if the leaders found solutions a little bit earlier than they did, but overall a lot of satisfaction.”
Former Welsh utility back Hook thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Villière, who was awarded Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match with an eye-catching hat-trick.
“He was incredible, I think defensively he was fantastic, early on in the first half he was very good in tough conditions,” said Hook.
“He’s an out and out finisher and that’s a really good finish for the first try.
“His second all comes from Alldritt and then Villière showed his support line and his sevens prowess and it’s another good finish, he shows good pace to get on the end and score that try.
“You could see he was itching for his third try, France right at the death shift it wide and as I say he was itching for that try, he was looking for it and he got it.”
Kayser joined his fellow pundit in praising the Toulon winger as he said: “I think Fabien Galthié absolutely adores his attitude, like he said, he has the defensive ability, his overall work rate and ability to back himself in tough conditions.”
And, although it was to be France’s day, England legend Alphonsi was impressed by Italy.
She said: “It was a hard-fought win for France, but I was actually really impressed by Italy, they really stayed in that game and their fitness has improved.
“Kieran Crowley will be really happy with the way Italy have put in that performance, their discipline did start to slip a couple of times, but even to the last minute they were fighting.”