Ali Donnelly reflects on the opening round of the women's Six Nations.
Ireland have a mountain to climb
It was clear things were going to be tough for Ireland this year.
As the last team to offer contracts to their players, they were inevitably going to be playing catch up, while missing the World Cup also robbed them of the familiarity and run of games that every other Six Nations team has clearly benefitted from.
There was a sharp reminder though in this game (which was largely one way traffic, despite a better second half) that there is no matching the standards of the English league, in which every single Welsh player is playing. It is surely not sustainable in the long run for the WRU to accept that none of their international players are playing in their own country, but right now it is doing the trick.
This means that one of the IRFU’s key jobs must be to come up with a domestic club or provincial offer which gives their top players meaningful and highly competitive games week in week out, all season long. The Interprovincials are too short, the All Ireland League is not resourced enough and the Celtic Challenge clearly lulled Ireland into a false sense of security about their progress.
Ireland looked remarkably off the boil, not just physically inferior but also lacking at times in simple organisation. It was remarkable to see the Irish defence simply switch off so often in the first half – and though inevitably Ireland’s inexperienced players will have learned plenty from this chastening 80 minutes, it is tough to see where a win will come in this Championship.
Ten years since Ireland won their only Grand Slam in this competition, they are miles away from a sniff of a repeat.
Wales are clicking
Finishing third last year, Wales returned from a tough World Cup run with credit in the bank, having experienced the best in the world by playing New Zealand twice, and benefitting from well over a year now of fulltime training.
They are probably the best example we have of what happens to a side who are given the opportunity to reach their potential through investment and better resources. They are still a work in progress – they left surely at least 20 points behind them through simple errors, and they fell away a little in the second half, but they are on the right trajectory. They’re tough, well organised and look physically stronger and in better shape than any recent Welsh side.
They also seem to have huge support behind them, with the record crowd against Ireland expected to be smashed again when England come to town.
If they can navigate an away win in Scotland next weekend, that English game will be a must-watch. They may not realistically expect to win, but at home, with their grit, determination and renewed momentum, not many teams will fancy going to Cardiff.
We should always make room for sentiment
There are some who thought that the retirement of Sarah Hunter after just one game in the Championship perhaps devalued the match and the competition – that in the cut-throat of elite sport there shouldn’t be any room for romanticism.
I disagree and anyone watching the send-off for an England captain who has given her all, surely would too. Hunter has achieved so much in her career – nine grand slams and a World Cup is an incredible return – but for me it was the way in which she pulled herself together in New Zealand after a loss in the final minutes that stood her apart. England were expected to win and given all their resources, they really should have.
The loss will have been devastating, and you could have reasonably forgiven Hunter if her post match interview was full of regret.
Instead, she spoke eloquently, seconds after the final whistle, of praise for New Zealand and own team and of how cruel sport is but also, right, of how her team had helped shaped the future of women’s rugby and how proud they could be of that. That’s leadership - and she deserved her moment in the spotlight.
France have a way to go
Perceived wisdom is that it is England, France and then a step down to the rest.
It’s true that those two sides have been a class apart in recent years, but Italy made life hard enough for France that there is a sense of a glimmer of light for the others that they might well be able to topple a French side still in transition.
Jessy Tremouliere’s cameo in the second half was a reminder of her class, but in all, France showed signs of being a team still getting to grips with new coaches, a new style and a handful of new players.
They can rely on a powerful scrum – surely presenting a big problem to Ireland next weekend who struggled in that department against Wales, but they are very much a work in progress.
Carla Arbez did well enough on debut to suggest she will keep her spot to build on her relationship with Pauline Bourdon, but France never quite shook off the dogged Italians despite their territorial dominance.
They are a quality team but you get the sense of a slip up somewhere along the way before they reach Twickenham.
Scotand's 6 Nations starts now
Scotland were never going to beat England, but there was just about enough there for them to take something into the games that really matter for them, including their next game against Wales.
Their opening ten minutes were full of heart and brilliant organization, but the effort of keeping England at bay early on seemed to take everything out of them, and they were out of the match till the last ten minutes, when they scored probably the try of the day.
Wales will travel as favourites, but Scotland can absolutely give them a game, and more – it is quite easily the pick of the games in the second round.