Saturday 16 December 2017

Game on as we await the big guns of the Six Nations

Lessons all around as the teams bed in for the battles ahead

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

By any standards, it was an instructive opening to the Six Nations. Lesson one for the game's chief administrators - they may have changed their name from IRB to World Rugby, but the issue of concussion has remained the same, and followed them to their new headquarters without missing a step.

Lesson two for Warren Gatland - one-out, same-way rugby doesn't work against defences that are well organised, fit and every bit as physical as you are. He is now on the back foot with a spin up to Murrayfield coming next on the Championship list, and the World Cup down the road. England are in their pool in the autumn and have a leg up after this one.

Lesson three for Joe Schmidt - more a bit of revision of something previously learned than a brand new lesson, perhaps, but if you are minus a clatter of starters, and you're away from home, a rock-solid set-piece is your trump card. In Rome two years ago, Ireland won just five of nine lineouts on a calamitous day of injury. Yesterday, they had an unnerving upset with the loss of Seán O'Brien at the end of the warm-up but, in the game itself, they were 12 from 14 out of touch with a 100 per cent scrum return and a penalty count of 7-11 in their favour.

Lesson four for Philippe Saint-André - pre-match, the rugby press told him that another dud contribution in the Championship would have consequences before the World Cup rather than after it. Post-match, he looked like a man happy to live another day. He won't be able to survive on Camille Lopez (five out of six successful shots last night) kicking penalties.

The story from the weekend that will run a bit was yet another botched concussive episode. After Wales's defeat, Warren Gatland said: "The medical team definitely wouldn't have allowed him back on the field unless they were 100 per cent confident he was ok."

Evidently, he looked fine by that stage, which misses the point. It was clear in real time that he had been sparked before recovering quickly. If viewers on television could pick it up as it happened, why couldn't the medics?

There is a facility for this now - having someone track the tv footage for signs of injury - so this was a blunder which could have had serious consequences for North. Subsequently, the WRU issued a statement reiterating that the player was symptom-free and had passed the head-injury assessment when he was taken off temporarily.

As we've learned, that procedure is now in tatters, but World Rugby issued a statement yesterday asking for a full report from Wales on whether or not correct procedure was followed. It can't be long now until all these incidents are being replayed in a court of law, with rugby itself in the dock.

For Ireland, Saturday should see the return of another concussion victim in Johnny Sexton, while Rory Best will be following concussion protocols as well, after coming off yesterday.

Going to Rome, Schmidt opted for Ian Keatley ahead of Ian Madigan, which told you something of how Ireland would play - an hour of conservative rugby followed by a bit more ambition as the spaces opened up. Which is pretty much how it turned out. Keatley was five from five off the tee and pretty nervous out of hand. It was good for him to finally get Six Nations action - and from the start as well - but he is not one of those players who can walk in on day one and look like he's born for this. A run of games and he would have looked far more comfortable, but that's not going to happen.

At least Ireland looked comfortable, if dull. Mike Ross repaid Schmidt's faith in spades with a fine scrummaging performance, and Conor Murray was the only clear candidate for the man of the match award.

Sometimes, though, the opportunity presents itself to widen the scope of attack without sending the risk factor through the roof.

Too often Ireland's carriers went back into the traffic, which may have taken a bit out of Italian legs but did little to shorten their defensive line, which might have given opportunity to Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo.

From the moment Murray squeezed over to put Ireland 17-3 ahead - 19-3 with Keatley's conversion - you could sense not only the inevitability of it all, but also that Ireland would show nothing thereafter that might come back to haunt them against the bigger guns.

The first of those will be coming to the Aviva on Saturday. Philippe Saint-André's side couldn't score a try against the Scots in an end-to-end contest in Paris last night, but they will bring far more pace than the Italians.

Their forwards were very good and will hope for more than just two put-ins in Dublin. Their line-out was strong however, losing two of 20 throws, and they kept the penalty count down to eight, while overall, at 15, they had the highest offload count of the first round.

If the weather is decent and Ireland come out to play, it could be a cracking contest.

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