This weekend was always going to be just that little better than usual as the crème la crème of sporting events got underway in Cardiff.
I speak not of the Super Bowl in Miami, but instead of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby showpiece where long-time supporters and long-suffering girlfriends (or boyfriends) alike were treated to two days of sporting festivities to rival Christmas.
Three encounters in three European cites each earned their place on a rugby-esque Richter scale from a small tremor on Saturday afternoon to a rather more ground shaking affair the next day in Paris.
Wales 42-0 Italy: Wayne’s Wales get off to the best possible start:
The Principality in Cardiff was treated to five Welsh tries in a dominant if slightly routine victory for Wayne Pivac’s men against an Italian side which lacked cohesion and structure.
The Azzuri travel home with no points registered and a Six Nations losing streak which has now stretched to 23 games as the Six Nations opener proved a barely competitive match up.
This year’s meeting between the two sides included open rugby but was turgid in its outcome, albeit the hosts struggled to add their much-needed bonus point after having a George North try chalked off by the TMO in the final quarter of the match.
North was eventually able to add the all-important fourth try as he powered over from close range with the assistance of an Alun Wyn Jones push. The battle bruised 34-year-old leading his side from the front with endless energy once again.
This was followed by a Josh Adams score at the death to take the hosts over the 40-point mark which completed the 24-year-old’s hat trick. The World Cup’s highest try scorer (seven) once again proved a vital finisher as he crossed the whitewash twice in the first half to give his side a commanding lead.
Adams’ second on the half hour mark was noticeable for Dan Biggar’s majestic pass through his legs to the winger who finished the move from close quarters to give the hosts a 21-0 lead at the interval.
There were other stand-out performances within the hosts’ ranks, including that of man of the match, Justin Tipuric who worked tirelessly in the Back Row with the ever-present Aaron Wainwright and the returning Taulupe Faletau.
Tomos Williams also put his hand up for selection in Dublin next week after a fine performance at scrum half.
Meanwhile, Franco Smith’s Italy aren’t likely to find a trip to Paris any easier as they look to brush themselves off.
They will need key players such as Tommaso Allan and Jake Polledri to be at their best if they are able to prove more challenging opponents to the French on Sunday.
Ireland 19-12 Scotland: Similar Shortcomings for Scotland as Ireland hold firm in Dublin:
Despite the pressure being heaped on Gregor Townsend and his charges, there was little expectation that Scotland would leave the Aviva Stadium with a result.
And unfortunately, but perhaps predictably for travelling fans, this hunch proved true as a strong Irish defensive performance made Scotland pay for a catalogue of missed chances and errors.
Errors which have so often put pay to the plentiful desire and skill which Gregor Townsend’s men have offered in the past and offered again in Dublin.
The Scots showed desire in bucket loads as they looked to banish the nightmare start to last year’s World Cup which had ended in an embarrassing loss to the Irish.
Townsend made ten changes from November’s loss to Japan and his much-changed side played with plenty of flair and passion, but failed to convert chances into tries.
Punters will point to a Stuart Hogg clanger as the clear and obvious error and one that could have proved a gamechanger.
In truth Hogg’s mistake was rugby’s equivalent of an open goal as the captain dropped the ball over the line after a catalogue of hard, reward less work from his forwards who were impressive throughout.
But a measured approach to this rare error from the full-back is to consider it as one of countless Scots try scoring opportunities throughout.
Eleven times the Scots entered the Irish 22 without scoring and that will worry Gregor Townsend. Perhaps this had something to do with the absence of Finn Russell. We’ll never know.
In fairness his replacement, Adam Hastings, strung a solid if not overly impressive performance together at stand-off, but maybe just maybe, Scotland needed Russell’s unyielding tenacity to unlock a prolonged and tireless Irish defensive effort.
To give them their due, Ireland defended with brutal aggression and controlled the game well, Sexton’s clinical first half finish proving crucial in an enthralling affair at the Aviva Stadium.
It was of course unfortunate that the promising prospect, Caelan Doris was forced with injury early on, but his replacement wasn’t too shabby in the form of Peter O’Mahony. A player who was at his impenetrable and streetwise best for the hosts.
His team’s opposition could have learned a thing or two from his intelligent manipulation of referees at the breakdown where a long absent Rory Sutherland and debutant Nick Haining impressed amongst Townsend’s charges.
Ireland will host Wales in a battle of the best defences while Scotland will need to work on their streetwise factor when they host England on Saturday.
France 24-17 England: French flair overwhelms Eddie’s England:
Even after crossing the English Channel, Eddie Jones’ England looked lost at sea for large parts of their championship opener in Paris.
Le Crunch is always an event not to be missed and its inclusion in the opening round this year added an extra dimension to an already mouth-watering match-up.
England have enjoyed an illustrious five years under Jones. Two Six Nations titles have spent time in Twickenham’s trophy cabinet and three months ago Jones’ men were 80 minutes away from winning a second World Cup.
Cheslin Kolbe’s scintillating footwork and a South African team full of passion to the brim stopped prevented a second Webb Ellis trophy from returning to West London, but England had received many a coin for some absorbing performances in Japan.
These included a rarely witnessed performance of the utmost dominance against New Zealand after France had travelled home after a calamitous second half display against Wales in the Quarter-Finals.
And yet France were expected to prove tough opposition to a more experienced, more successful, but perhaps more predictable English side.
That being said, no one surely expected the 80 minutes which followed Nigel Owens’ first blow of the whistle in a cauldron like Stade de France which never quietened.
Vincent Rattez kick started the onslaught, taking an intelligent inside pass from Romain Ntamack to cross from close quarters on five minutes. A Manu Tuilagi injury did little to help in the aftermath of this opening, as his team mates’ white shirts became splattered with blood and mud in the light drizzle.
Then on 19 minutes Charles Ollivon took advantage of a moment of English confusion and crossed for their second. Jonny May et al thought the 26-year-old captain had knocked on in the build-up to the try and stopped in their tracks.
His team looked shell shocked, distraught and lost amongst the cacophony of sound provided by French supporters starved off success and the changing rooms couldn’t come quick enough for their visitors who found themselves 17-0 down at the break.
This was most unexpected from a French side which were significant in their youth and dominance in recent under 20 world championships. Led by a captain who had never previously started in a Six Nations match and with a commanding lead this was quickly becoming their game to lose.
However, the hosts’ collapse against Wales in similar conditions in last year’s opener will have been playing on the more conservative of French supporters’ minds. Last year they had been leading 16-0 at half time. The final score? A Welsh win by 21-16. They were far from winning it yet.
After an improved England were able to finally throw some punches, the visitors soon found their nightmare becoming worse. A strong French lineout was followed up by direct running from the ever-present Antoine Dupont who set up Ollivon for his second to give France a 24-0 lead after the conversion with 25 minutes remaining.
Surely, they had won it now and would settle to hold their opponents to nul points? That of course isn’t the French way and in all fairness to England they regained some of their shape at scrum time which improved tenfold after the inclusion of replacements like Ellis Genge.
Then Jonny May scored two ingenious tries, the winger creating nothing from something on both occasions, dragging his comrades to almost within striking distance of the French in just eight minutes.
For the first May somehow weaved his way between countless French defenders with the use of his boot after performing an outrageous chip and chase in the little room he had to play with on the right wing.
The second was almost equally as impressive as the 29-year-old ripped the French defence to shreds, using his lightening pace to gas Virimi Vakatawa from a similar position. The visitors had brought it back to 24-14 with 15 minutes remaining. Was another epic comeback on the cards at an increasingly nervous Stade de France?
Despite this the hosts’ defence remained resolute against stout English attack and the world cup runners up were unable to come away with anything more than an injury time penalty. The visitors claimed a losing bonus point through the boot of Owen Farrell who had spent the previous 80 minutes looking slightly off colour.
One round in and all bets are off already. Although, French odds will surely be higher in a Six Nations in which they could finally prove their potential is worth something more than a bottom half finish and will be big favourites to beat Italy on Sunday. The task is more stark for their English counterparts who travel to Scotland far from assured of a win.