The two pre-eminent title contenders – Ireland and France – met in perhaps the most anticipated opening night in the Championship’s history. However, Ireland’s victory turned out to be the most comprehensive of the weekend, with two closely fought matches following on the first Championship Saturday of 2024.
Ireland seems to have picked up where they left off in last season’s competition, but the Championship at large has continued its form in providing unparalleled entertainment and drama – the hallmarks of Guinness Men’s Six Nations rugby. Ireland went to Marseille with a job to do and a plan to do it. A true statement of intent early in the Championships, insights provided by Sage and the Smart Ball elucidate Ireland’s dominance. The men in green eclipsed Les Bleus in terms of both passing metres and territory gain from the boot, making over 300 more metres of the latter. Their focus on field position was a marked change from their style in 2023, making 199 more kicking metres last weekend than they averaged in their Grand Slam campaign. This approach was one part of a strategy which saw Ireland contrast France’s meandering performance with clinical precision.
Ireland’s territorial advantage was driven by the boots of Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe. Individually, Lowe made more territory than any other player in Round 1: he won a total of 365 metres of forward progress for his team. Gibson-Park made 186 himself but – seemingly now the focal point of Ireland’s attack – also made a round-high 621 passing metres. This was another area in which Ireland dominated France, making 1,014 passing metres in total to the home side’s 638. Experienced campaigners, this quality of this axis will be difficult for opponents to disrupt this season.
Another scrum-half driving his team to a Round 1 victory away from home, Alex Mitchell’s control of the game was enough to see England defeat Italy. England look to be persisting with their contestable kicking strategy: they made 36% more contestable kicks than any other team last weekend. Leveraging the precise kicking games of Mitchell and Danny Care, England both made the most box kicks – 14 in total – and had the premier rate of box kick retention in Round 1 (29%). This kicking strategy was not at the expense of the evolution of England’s attacking game though, with England’s average passing depth surpassing the other five nations at the weekend. This intent to attack from deep indicates a potential change in philosophy from England’s World Cup campaign. However, will that materialise into a game plan capable of defeating arch-rivals Wales at Twickenham this weekend?
Wales’ second-half comeback – from being 20-0 down at half-time – was a marvel. Despite a narrow loss at the final whistle, the ordeal of the opening 40 minutes galvanised a young Welsh side to produce a relentless performance in the second period. Over the full 80 minutes, Wales eclipsed Scotland’s total passing metres, making 1,155 to their opponents’ 764. This demonstrates the intensity of their attack when chasing the game, eventually dragging the margin to just one point. Another example of this was Tomos Williams’ assist of Rio Dyer in the early stages of the Welsh resurgence: he whipped the ball 17.2 metres at a rapid 29.1 mph. By the arrival of the 80th minute, Wales had shown the fight and determination which has typified their Guinness Men’s Six Nations campaigns in the past, and will now doubt rise to another level against England.
However, despite the Welsh comeback, Scotland did secure an away win in Round 1, dazzling with some of their instinctive attack early in the match. As in the Scots’ opening match last season, Duhan van der Merwe scored a wonder try from deep. Finn Russell’s incisive offload was delivered to van der Merwe 46.5 metres from the Welsh try line, with the giant winger providing a devastating turn of his pace to reach the corner. His consistent try-scoring potency is certainly impressive, could he and James Lowe be the pick of the bunch for British and Irish Lions honours next year? The sparkle shown by Scotland turned dull very soon after though, with the visitors conceding 13 consecutive penalties in the second half. This piggybacked a re-energised Wales a total of 258 metres downfield – over two and a half pitch-lengths of territory conceded due to ill-discipline. In spite of moments of brilliance in the first half, Scotland will breathe a sigh of relief that full time met them when it did.
Another team that (uncharacteristically) struggled to dominate territory in Round 1 was France. Last season, France kicked long and backed their counterattack, averaging the most territory gain per kick (31 metres). However, their 704 metres of kicking distance against Ireland was 27% lower than their 2023 tournament average, and 386 fewer than Ireland outright. This may be one of the key areas in which Les Bleus are yet to adapt in the absence of the stellar Antoine Dupont. As the apex of the French tactical game, Dupont averaged 7.6 kicks per match last season with an average distance of 37.5 metres; Lucu made three with an average distance of 32.7 metres in Round 1. However, France were not the perfect team under Dupont. A fragility in the backfield – exposed by South Africa in the Rugby World Cup – was similarly interrogated by the Irish last weekend.
In the build-up to Dan Sheehan’s try, Jack Crowley released a high ball with an enormous hang time of 4.5 seconds. France’s failure to claim this in the air led to a try which took the game from their reach. Italy – whose three-point losing margin last weekend was their narrowest ever against England – made as many contestable kicks as Ireland in Round 1, perhaps signalling a more mature game plan than we’ve seen from them in previous seasons. This weekend they will be under the same Irish microscope as the French were last weekend. How will the Azzurri respond, after coming so close to an opening round win, when they face Ireland in Round 2?