The opening round of this year’s Guinness Six Nations saw history made, with three bonus-point away wins being registered for the first time in the Championship. In fact, three away wins in a weekend is rare, having only happened on three occasions in the Championship before this year (round two in 2005, round five in 2006, and round four in 2022).
Our experts from OptaJonny dive into the data from the opening round to see where each game was won and lost…
Wales 10-34 Ireland
Warren Gatland won a Grand Slam in his first Guinness Six Nations campaign in charge of an underachieving Wales side in 2008. If Welsh fans had any hopes of a similar revival under the most successful coach in the Championship’s history, they will have had those dashed after the opening half hour in Cardiff when Ireland sailed to a 27-3 lead.
Wales would rally early in the second half with Liam Williams getting over the whitewash to give his side a glimmer of hope, but they couldn’t capitalise on any of the promising attacking opportunities that came their way afterwards. Ireland put the final nail in the coffin to secure a bonus point with less than 10 minutes remaining, the first time Ireland had scored four (or more) tries away to Wales in a Five/Six Nations game since 1991.
Ultimately it was Ireland’s dominant first half that was key to victory, so it’s important to look at that period of the game. Watching the encounter, it may have seemed like Ireland were dominating the breakdown, but the two sides were remarkably similar for average ruck speed with Ireland fractionally quicker at 3.01 seconds compared to Wales at 3.03 seconds, while Wales had a slightly higher ratio of rucks under three seconds than Ireland (73%-70%).
The difference, though, was in the intention of the defending teams at the breakdown. Ireland rarely attacked the breakdown when they were defending in the first half, not committing a single player to 38% of Wales’ attacking rucks and 84% seeing no more than one player get involved at the breakdown. This meant that Wales had a ruck speed that matched Ireland’s, but Andy Farrell’s men were never really caught short in the defensive line. Despite this they also managed as many jackal turnovers as Wales in the first 40 minutes in Cardiff (one).
After the break Wales were a lot better in defence, but their attack didn’t quite click as they squandered several good attacking opportunities. They conceded nine turnovers in the second half alone, with five of those coming inside the Irish 22 – Italy (three) were the only other nation to concede more than one turnover in the opposition 22 at the weekend. As a result, Wales made 11 entries into the Ireland 22 but averaged just 0.91 points per entry. Every other team averaged over two points per entry in the opening round.
One silver lining for Wales is that they can only get better. Gatland has had very limited time with his squad and as a result went for the tried and trusted players who delivered him so much success over the years.
However, some of Wales’ brightest performances at the weekend came from their younger players and once Gatland gets to spend more time observing the less experienced players in training he may well throw them into his squad to inject some fresh impetus into the team.
England 23-29 Scotland
There was a sense of déjà vu following Scotland’s Calcutta Cup victory over England, given that it’s the third year in a row that Gregor Townsend’s side have beaten their rivals in round one of the Guinness Six Nations. Once a fixture in which Scotland had forgotten that winning feeling, now it’s England who are starting to forget what the Calcutta Cup looks like.
Scotland have now won three in a row against England for the first time since the early 1970s and have recorded back-to-back wins at Twickenham for the first time ever – the last time they won consecutive games away to England was a six-game streak between 1899 and 1909, a run that ended in 1911 in their first ever meeting at the newly-built Twickenham.
Put simply, Scotland were more efficient than England on Saturday. Townsend’s team had just seven entries into the opposition 22, the joint-fewest in the round (level with Italy), but they came away with four tries and a penalty, averaging a round-high 4.1 points per entry.
Scotland were ruthlessly efficient from their line breaks too – they made six in total and all four of their tries came following a break. In fact, they made two line breaks in the build up to their winning try, meaning that only one break came to nothing (and even then they probably should have scored, Scotland knocking the ball on following a Kyle Steyn break up the touchline).
The only other team to see at least half of their line breaks result in a try was England (50%) and that was because they only made two breaks in the game – coming up against a miserly Scotland defence that was one of the best in Test rugby last year.
90% – @Scotlandteam recorded a 90% tackle success rate in 2022, the best rate of any Tier 1 nation, while in attack they beat the most defenders per game of any side (24.3). Thistle.— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) February 1, 2023
Check out our @SixNationsRugby team previews on the @OptaAnalyst ⬇️https://t.co/fsM0SEX9JD
Like Wales, England need time to get better, with Steve Borthwick having limited time with his men since taking the reins and there were signs that improvements could be on the way. However, Scotland were worthy winners, and they will now turn their focus to round two.
Whilst it’s true that Scotland have now beaten England in each of the last three editions of the Six Nations, the Scots have seen that work undone a week later with defeats against Wales in 2021 and 2022. Yet again, Scotland face the Welsh in round two this year, but they’ll be looking for a very different outcome.
Italy 24-29 France
Previous trips to face Italy in Rome on round one have proved to be a banana skin for France in the Guinness Six Nations and for much of the second half on Sunday it felt like the Azzurri might end any French Grand Slam hopes at the earliest stage possible in 2023.
There is a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Italian rugby after a positive 2022, but after the opening half hour, with France crossing for three tries and looking comfortable, many might have questioned whether it was a false dawn. However, Italy rallied with a try from Ange Capuozzo before a penalty on the stroke of half-time from Tommaso Allan took them to within five points of France at the break.
It got better for the Azzurri in the second half, a penalty try and a penalty goal putting them in front with less than 20 minutes to go. But France sparked into life soon after with Jalibert scoring the winning try. Italy continued to apply pressure until the final moments of the game though, with France defence coach Shaun Edwards admitting his side were hanging on at the end.
It was disappointing for Italy to come so close, but they are continuing to improve – as are their U20s who had a similarly heartbreaking defeat to France on Friday evening – and if they maintain their level of performance throughout this Six Nations, they will give themselves a huge chance to avoid the Wooden Spoon for the first time since 2015.
Discipline played a huge part in this fixture. France conceded 18 penalties – their most since 2014 (also 18 versus Italy) while the last time they conceded more in the Championship was 20 years ago (20 vs. Italy in 2003).
18 – France conceded 18 penalties against Italy, their most in any Test match since conceding 18 against Italy during the 2014 Six Nations; the last time they conceded more in a Six Nations game was in 2003, also against the Azzurri (20). Unruly. pic.twitter.com/NieYksCD8v— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) February 6, 2023
Meanwhile, Italy conceded just seven – the last time they conceded fewer in a Six Nations game was in 2019 against France (five). That meant a differential of 11 penalties; only six matches in Six Nations history have seen a bigger gap in the number of penalties conceded by each team and only two of those saw the team who conceded more penalties go on to win the game, just like France did at the weekend.
France will feel slightly fortunate to have come away from Rome with not only the win, but also with a try bonus point and they will need to be better if they are to beat Ireland in Dublin in round two. However, France are on a record winning run – 14 games and counting – and four of the last five have been won by margins of just five points or fewer.
Winning is a habit and France know how to do just enough to come out on the right side of the score line.