Josh van der Flier felt Ireland were in control during their vital 24-14 Six Nations victory over Wales on Saturday.

Ireland's performance in a narrow win over Scotland last week prompted questions over their championship credentials, but they ran in four tries in an impressive home triumph in Dublin.

They have now won 17 of their last 18 Tests at the Aviva Stadium after ending Wales' hopes of winning back-to-back Grand Slams.

Van der Flier and Andrew Conway scored tries in the second half as Ireland built on a 12-7 half-time lead given to them by Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Furlong, with Andy Farrell's men claiming a bonus point.

"We did a lot of things we said we wanted to do and I thought we controlled the game," flanker Van der Flier told RTE.

"In defence we slipped off a lot of tackles last week and were probably a bit soft in the contact area. It gave Scotland easy yards and we knew we couldn't do that against Wales.

"I thought our attack looked pretty fluid and our backs were exceptional. It was great to get the win over last year's Grand Slam champions, they are an incredible team and we saw last week how good they are."

Ireland were inspired by number eight CJ Stander, the man of the match for a second consecutive week, and they now have a break before travelling to Twickenham for a clash with England on February 23.

Van der Flier added: "The break will do us good, but we are building up a nice momentum. In the dressing room we focused afterwards on the good things we did.

"We know we have much to work on for the England game, but we will look at those learnings when we get back into camp." 

Wing Jacob Stockdale, meanwhile, believes Ireland will only get better as they continue to adapt to new head coach Farrell.

"It's going to take a few weeks to get into the new coaching structure and new ideas but I thought we did it really well," he said.

"Our physicality was brought to the next level but in all fairness to Wales they came and pushed us hard. They fired a few shots early on.

"It's great to get the win. We are always looking for the kicks in behind and we know the 15s like to get quite high early. It worked out really well.

"We know how good we can be when we are on it with our carrying and at the breakdown. Once we started to do that, the tries started to come."

There were winds of change in Dublin on Saturday as ferocious Ireland denied Wales a record-equalling ninth consecutive Six Nations victory with Storm Ciara fast approaching.

Wales crossed the Irish Sea braced for an almighty arm wrestle after an emphatic defeat of Italy on the opening weekend of their first tournament since Wayne Pivac replaced Warren Gatland.

The defending champions were second best in the battle of the 2018 and 2019 Grand Slam winners, failing to match their best winning run in the tournament at the Aviva Stadium – such a fortress for the men in green.

A highly anticipated showdown was expected to be badly affected by high winds and torrential rain, yet it was Ireland doing the damage in the first half to lay the platform for a magnificent 24-14 win.

Unconvincing in a win over Scotland at the start of the Andy Farrell era last weekend, this was much more like the Ireland side that was crowned champions under Joe Schmidt two years ago and topped the world rankings.

So uncompromising up front, with CJ Stander outstanding at number eight to claim a second successive man-of-the-match award, Ireland were magnificent in defence and clinical in attack.

The pressure finally told midway through the first half when the nimble-footed Jordan Larmour pierced a hole in the Wales defence, Nick Tomkins unable to haul the full-back to the ground before he touched down.

Johnny Sexton made a mess of the conversion attempt and Wales were in front against the run of play after Tomos Williams rounded off a slick move following great work from Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones.

Tadhg Furlong ploughed his way over at the other end as Ireland continued to batter away at the Wales pack and Josh van der Flier gave them breathing space when the holders were unable to halt a driving maul.

Hadleigh Parkes had a try ruled out before huge roars echoed around the ground when Wales were penalised at a scrum close to the Ireland line, prompting Farrell to leap up and punch the air. 

With the wind gusting at an increasing speed, Wales were much more of a force in the second half but Andrew Conway's try gave ruthless Ireland the bonus point.

Justin Tipuric crossed right at the end, but the damage had already been done as Ireland, led so well by Sexton, made it two wins out of two.

Wales also lost in-form wing Josh Adams and Biggar to injury as the Rugby World Cup semi-finalists suffered a first Six Nations defeat since losing to Ireland in Dublin two years ago.

Ireland handed Wales a first Six Nations defeat in nine matches as they ran in four tries for an impressive 24-14 bonus-point victory in Dublin on Saturday.

Andy Farrell's side were laboured in their win over Scotland on the opening week, but this time tries from Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway secured a morale-boosting triumph.

Ireland have now won 17 of their last 18 Tests at the Aviva Stadium and will travel to play England – the only team to beat them in that marvellous run - on matchday three with a 100 per cent record in this year's tournament.

Wales' hopes of winning back-to-back Grand Slams and equalling their best-ever run in the competition, a run of nine victories that ended in 1973, were ended as new head coach Wayne Pivac suffered his first defeat.

Tomos Williams and Justin Tipuric scored a try in each half for the defending champions, but Wales have still not enjoyed a Six Nations win in Ireland since 2012.

Ireland made the early running and while a gutsy decision to go for the corner with a penalty did not pay off, the hosts did get a 19th-minute breakthrough.

After the forwards made impressive ground, Larmour seized an opening as he cut inside and fought his way past Nick Tompkins before powering over, although Johnny Sexton shanked a dreadful conversion wide.

A frustrating start for Wales got worse when in-form wing Josh Adams was lost to injury, though they struck out of the blue after 27 minutes when Williams went over after capitalising on a superb exchange between Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones.

But Williams made a costly knock-on just four minutes later to present Ireland with an attacking scrum and Furlong forced his way across the line, with Sexton this time adding the extras to give his side a 12-7 half-time lead.

A stolen lineout gave Ireland momentum just after the restart and, after they kicked a penalty into touch, Van der Flier rolled over the line as part of a driving maul, with Sexton extending the advantage to 12 points.

Hadleigh Parkes was inches away from getting Wales back into it, but the TMO ruled he had just lost control of the ball with a powerful reach forward to the try-line.

Another big chance went begging when Ireland forced a scrum collapse under their own goalposts, a pivotal moment the home forwards celebrated like a match-winning try.

Conway made sure of the victory and a bonus point five minutes from time as he charged in down the right after being released by Larmour, with Tipuric's late stretch over the line at the other end only proving a consolation.

The opening round of fixtures in this year's Six Nations did not disappoint.

Wales served up a feast of tries to kick things off, the defending champions showing a cutting edge as they thrashed poor Italy 42-0 in Cardiff.

The score was far closer at the Aviva Stadium, though, as Ireland edged out Scotland. New captain Johnny Sexton was the hero for the hosts, scoring all their points in a hard-fought 19-12 triumph. Next up: Wales.

England, meanwhile, got their just deserts following a shocking start against France. Failing to score a point in the opening half of a game in the tournament for the first time since 1988 left Eddie Jones' side with too much to do in Paris, Les Bleus delighting the home crowd by holding on for a 24-17 win on Sunday.

So, what will be on the menu for the second week? With help from Opta, we whet your appetite for the upcoming games.

 

Ireland v Wales

- Wales have lost just one of their last five Six Nations games against Ireland (W3, D1). However, their solitary defeat in that spell came the last time they travelled to Dublin in the tournament (2018).

- As for Ireland, they have an outstanding home record, losing just two of the last 22 Tests they have played in front of their own fans (W19, D1). Those defeats? Against New Zealand (November 2016) and England (February 2019).

- Wales gained the most metres (563) of any side in last weekend's opening round, ahead of Ireland (413). Wales also topped the charts for clean breaks (12) and defenders beaten (26, level with Scotland and France).

- Ireland's Jordan Larmour made the most carries (19) and metres (138) of any player last weekend, while Wales' Leigh Halfpenny ranked second in both categories (17 carries, 107 metres).

- Josh Adams crossed for a hat-trick against Italy, taking him to 13 tries in Test rugby since the beginning of 2019. That tally is two more than any other player has managed over that same period of time.


Scotland v England

- Scotland are unbeaten in their last two Six Nations matches against England (W1, D1), this after losing seven in a row before that. Not since 1982-1984 have Scotland gone unbeaten in three straight Calcutta Cup fixtures (W2, D1).

- Only once since 2000 have England suffered successive defeats to open a campaign (2005), but they have lost five of their last seven away outings, including the last two.

- England won 17 of their 18 lineouts in the defeat to France, their 94 per cent success rate the best of any side. In contrast, Scotland's 78 per cent success rate was the worst out of the nations.

- Stuart Hogg beat eight defenders against Ireland, more than any other player in week one. Team-mate Jonny Gray excelled in defence, ending as the joint-top tackler (22, level with Bernard Le Roux).

- Owen Farrell is 20 points away from reaching 900 for England in Test rugby. His highest haul in an international match came against Scotland in 2017, as he landed seven conversions and four penalties to finish with 26.


France v Italy

- France have won 18 of their 20 clashes with Italy in the Six Nations (L2) – scoring victories in each of their 10 home games in that run. They have averaged four tries per game against the Azzurri in the Championship, too.

- Italy hold an unwanted record, having now lost their last 23 Six Nations games. No other side has lost more than 17 consecutive games in Five or Six Nations history.

- France were not flush with possession in the match against England, yet they conceded the fewest metres (224) and clean breaks (6), as well as making the most tackles (182).

- Only England's Maro Itoje (44) hit more rucks in the opening round of this year's Six Nations than France duo Gregory Alldritt (43) and Charles Ollivon (37, level with Peter O'Mahony). Alldritt hit the most defensive rucks of any player (25) and slowed the opposition ball down on 16 occasions at the breakdown.

- France are beginning a Six Nations campaign with two successive home games for the first time since 2016, which also happens to be the last time they began with back-to-back victories.

Nick Tompkins will make his first Wales start against Ireland in the only change from their opening Six Nations victory over Italy.

Wayne Pivac saw his reign as head coach begin in style with a dominant 42-0 win at the Principality Stadium and has opted to keep the majority of the same line-up for the tricky trip to Dublin.

Tompkins scored a fine solo try on his Wales debut last week and is set to partner Hadleigh Parkes in midfield, while George North moves from centre to a more familiar role on the wing.

Johnny McNicholl drops to the replacements to accommodate that alteration, but Wales are otherwise unchanged in the starting XV.

Gareth Davies, back from a groin injury, Rhys Carre, Owen Williams and Adam Beard come into the matchday squad at the expense of Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Rob Evans and Cory Hill – the latter missing out with a leg complaint.

"We've made just one change after a winning start last weekend," Pivac told the Welsh Rugby Union's official website.

"Nick comes into the side, I thought he played exceptionally well when he came on last week so he deserves the start. George, who played really well last weekend at centre, moves back out to the wing.

"On the bench we have a few players back available. Rhys Carre impressed at the Rugby World Cup and he comes back in. Adam Beard comes in for Cory Hill who picked up a leg injury earlier this week, Gareth is fully fit and Owen Williams comes onto the bench and gives us a bit more cover.

"Momentum is important in the championship. It was nice to get a good winning start under our belts and hopefully we can build on that through the tournament."


Wales team to face Ireland: 

Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Nick Tompkins, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: 

Ryan Elias, Rhys Carre, Leon Brown, Adam Beard, Ross Moriarty, Gareth Davies, Owen Williams, Johnny McNicholl.

Wales can approach Saturday's crunch clash against Ireland with confidence and the result will go a long way to determining their hopes of winning the Six Nations, according to James Hook.

There was plenty of encouragement for Wayne Pivac in his first match as head coach as Josh Adams' hat-trick inspired Wales to a dominant 42-0 win over Italy at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

A trip to Dublin to face Ireland, who themselves have a new man at the helm in the form of Andy Farrell, is sure to provide an altogether sterner challenge for the defending champions.

Ireland started their own campaign with a tense 19-12 beating of Scotland and Wales great Hook, who earned 81 caps and played in three Rugby World Cups for his country, is backing Pivac's men to flourish.

Speaking to Omnisport, the versatile Ospreys back said: "It's obviously going to be a much bigger test. 

"Ireland at home are always strong anyway. They've got some experience there, we know they're powerful, especially at the 22 line so they'll test Wales there. 

"But I think Wales will be full of confidence, they're enjoying playing under the new coaches, it seems to be quite a relaxed environment so I think the boys will thrive and give it a good go."

Hook, who won the Six Nations three times with Wales including Grand Slam triumphs in 2008 and 2012, says the result will provide a strong indicator of where the team is at in terms of their championship aspirations.

"I think they've obviously had a great start," he added. "But this is going to be a big Test out in Dublin and it will go a long way to seeing how we go in the championship.

"We've got plenty of confidence. It's going to be a much bigger test and after the weekend we'll know where we are."

Last month, Hook announced he will end a professional career that started in 2004 playing for Neath at the end of the Pro14 season.

Hook has played top-tier rugby in Wales, England and France – having also represented Perpignan and Gloucester in a distinguished career – and plans to continue working in the game.

The 34-year-old also has a new career venture, though, with the release of a series of children's books based around a young player's dreams to forge a top-level rugby career.

Hook was inspired by a visit to a book fair with his son Harrison and the opening title of the series, 'Chasing a Rugby Dream: Kick Off', will be released at the start of July.  

"I've got a few things going on. I'm hoping to do a bit of coaching, I'm just trying to sort a few things out with that," he said. 

"Obviously, I've got the books stuff going on, the children's books, which I'm enjoying doing at the moment. 

"I'm just trying to finish the season strong personally, then looking forward to the next chapter and going into post-rugby."

Expanding further on the books, Hook said: "It was a couple of years ago in Gloucester, my eldest boy Harrison wanted a children's book and there was a book fair at his school and he couldn't find a good rugby book, there wasn't any sort of children's rugby books there. 

"So, I just came up with a few ideas based on my rugby career and just my life basically and put that into a story through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. 

"I got in touch with an author from Swansea who I know has written children's books and it went from there. 

"It was an idea that came from there, then we wrote the book together, got in touch with a publisher, he liked what he saw, and he gave us a series."

Wales have added two uncapped forwards to their squad to face Ireland in the Six Nations on Saturday.

The defending champions have drafted in Ospreys hooker Dewi Lake to provide cover for Elliot Dee, who has been dealing with a rib injury ahead of the key contest in Dublin.

Coach Wayne Pivac also added Dragons flanker Taine Basham to his pool on Wednesday, as Wales look to build on their emphatic 42-0 home win over Italy that opened their campaign.

Youngster Lake captained Wales at the World Rugby Under 20 Championship last year, while fellow 20-year-old Basham had been part of Pivac's first squad for the match against the Barbarians in November.

Both players have been training with the squad over recent weeks, but they are now available for selection. 

Dee, Owen Watkin and Gareth Davies are in contention to face Ireland having returned to training, though Josh Navidi (hamstring), Owen Lane (hamstring) and Liam Williams (ankle) are among Wales' injured players.

Wales full-back Liam Williams is set to miss the Six Nations matches against Ireland and France as he continues to be troubled by an ankle injury.

The British and Irish Lion full-back has been out of action since he was injured in training before the Rugby World Cup semi-final against South Africa last October.

Leigh Halfpenny donned the number 15 shirt in the absence of Williams in a 42-0 thrashing of Italy at the Principality Stadium last weekend and could get the nod again for a huge clash with Ireland in Dublin.

Wales will be hoping Williams is fit to return when they face World Cup runners-up England at Twickenham on March 7.

"He’s struggling a bit at the moment," Wales defence coach Byron Hayward said of Williams.

"It's probably a bit too early for Liam. We're looking at the fourth and fifth game in the Championship for when he'll be available.

"Certainly not [as soon as the defending champions hoped], but the boys went well last weekend, Leigh had a great game at full-back, though it would be nice to get Liam back, obviously."

Hayward did not rule out Williams getting some game time with Saracens before making an international comeback, saying in a news conference: "That will be governed by the medical team in terms of where he's at and how he progresses in the next couple of weeks. It's a possibility, certainly."

Robbie Henshaw and Peter O'Mahony come into the Ireland starting line-up to face Wales in the Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, while Max Deegan could make his debut off the bench.

Centre Henshaw will play alongside Bundee Aki after Garry Ringrose suffered a hand injury during a 19-12 victory over Scotland on the opening day of the tournament last weekend.

O'Mahony gets an opportunity in the back row, with Caelan Doris ruled out due to the head injury he suffered on his debut in Dublin against Gregor Townsend's Scots.

CJ Stander switches to number eight in the absence of Doris, with Josh van der Flier named at openside.flanker.

They are the only alterations to Ireland's starting XV for the clash with the defending champions.

The uncapped Max Deegan and vastly experienced wing Keith Earls feature among the replacements named by head coach Andy Farrell, who stuck to his approach of making an early team announcement.

Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Max Deegan, John Cooney, Ross Byrne, Keith Earls.

Ireland centre Garry Ringrose will miss the Six Nations matches against Wales and England with a hand injury.

Ringrose was replaced at half-time in Ireland's 19-12 victory over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday with a suspected broken finger.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) confirmed the Leinster back has since undergone a procedure on his hand and will not be available for selection until they face Italy in Dublin on March 7.

However, the IRFU said Ringrose will "stay connected with the squad as a member of the leadership group".

Uncapped back-rower Will Connors has been added to the Ireland squad ahead of the clash with reigning champions Wales on Saturday.

Tadhg Furlong's fitness will be monitored after he complained of calf tightness against Scotland, while Dave Kilcoyne and Caelan Doris will follow graduated return to play protocols as part of the HIA process.

 

Ireland squad to face Wales:

Backs: Will Addison, Bundee Aki, Billy Burns, Ross Byrne, Andrew Conway, John Cooney, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Stuart McCloskey, Luke McGrath, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.

Forwards: Will Connors, Max Deegan, Ultan Dillane, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Dave Heffernan, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Jack McGrath, Jack O'Donoghue, Peter O'Mahony, Tom O'Toole, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier.

Wales coach Wayne Pivac has described Josh Adams as one of the best players in the world after his hat-trick in the 42-0 Six Nations win over Italy.

It was Adams and fly-half Dan Biggar who accounted for all of Wales' points in the opening 40 minutes as they effectively sealed victory thanks to the former's first-half brace.

Nick Tompkins added a try on his debut and, after having one ruled out by the TMO, George North touched down to clinch a bonus point, before Adams completed his hat-trick after the 80th minute.

Adams was the top try scorer at the World Cup in Japan last year and Pivac is no doubt that he is among the very best on the planet.

"On the biggest stage in world rugby he was the top try scorer, so he has got to be right up there," Pivac told a media conference. "That record speaks for itself.

"What I liked was his last try and he could have easily just parked up on his wing, but he came close to the ruck and scored late on.

"With Stephen Jones running our attack and the way we want to play the game, wingers get more opportunity potentially, so I think he will enjoy the way we play."

Pivac also praised replacement centre Tompkins, saying: "Nick showed the time he was on the field he has a lot of talent and ability. A lot of people know now who Nick Tompkins is."

Biggar pulled off a stunning pass between his legs for Adams' second try, much to the delight of Pivac.

"It just shows the confidence he has at the moment," he said. "Dan is a very confident guy and he knew exactly where his wing was and the situation, and he had the skill to execute it brilliantly. I was very pleased with Dan all around and he had a very good game.

"He was one of the guys who was leading our line speed and I thought he had a pretty good all-round game."

Italy's interim head coach Franco Smith was full of praise for Wales' display and had no complaints with the result.

"Wales are a top side," he said. "It's a pity that we had to have our first start in this way against them.

"But then again, I'd rather lose against the best the way we did than maybe just lose against another team that is not in the same form that this team is. I think Wales rugby can be proud of this group of men they've got here."

Josh Adams scored a hat-trick as Wales eased to a routine 42-0 win over Italy at the Principality Stadium in Wayne Pivac's first Six Nations game in charge. 

Playing in their first tournament game since their fourth-place finish at the World Cup last year, Wales always had too much for the Azzurri, interim coach Franco Smith's side offering little resistance in a one-sided contest.

It was Adams and fly-half Dan Biggar who accounted for all of Wales' points in the opening 40 minutes as they effectively sealed victory thanks to the former's first-half brace.

Nick Tompkins added a try on his debut and, after having one ruled out by the TMO, George North touched down to clinch a bonus point, before Adams completed his hat-trick after the 80th minute.

Italy's indiscipline put them on the back foot in the opening stages and three Biggar penalties gave Wales control.

Wales tightened their grip on the contest with a wonderful opening try of the tournament, putting the ball through hands to send Adams free down the left before the wing finished clinically in the corner.

If that was impressive, the set-up for Adams' second was nothing short of incredible as Biggar sent him over in the same area of the field with an instinctive pass through his legs.

After missing his first conversion attempt, Biggar made no mistake with the second to make it 21-0 at the interval.

Tompkins raced clear after a superb sidestep for his first international try on the hour mark and Wales did not take their foot of the gas.

North was denied after the TMO spotted a knock-on in the build-up to his 63rd-minute effort, but the centre secured maximum points for Wales when he worked his way over from close range.

There was still time for Adams to provide further reason to celebrate as he came in from the left and barged over to complete his treble in a match that provided little indication as to how Wales will fare in next week's meeting with Ireland.

Four head coaches will take charge of their first Six Nations matches when the 2020 tournament gets under way this weekend. 

Wales start the defence of their title against Italy in the opening match of the competition at the Principality Stadium on Saturday with Wayne Pivac at the helm and Franco Smith in charge of the Azzurri on an interim basis. 

Ireland begin Andy Farrell's tenure against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium later in the day, while France start a new dawn with Fabien Galthie in command against England at Stade de France on Sunday.

Here we take a look at the prospects of each nation for the 2020 campaign.

 

ENGLAND

Who's in charge?

There was frenzied speculation over the future of Eddie Jones after England were soundly beaten by South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final.

The canny Australian stayed in the role, though, and is contracted until 2021, but it remains to be seen if he will still be in charge at the next World Cup in France two years later.

Who's the key man?

Tom Curry was outstanding on the biggest stage of all in Japan, and the back-row will have a major part to play in the England's bid to win the Six Nations for the first time since 2017.

Curry is expected to deputise from the injury Billy Vunipola against Les Bleus in the opening round, giving another example of his versatility.

What can they achieve this year?

The World Cup runners-up should be fuelled by the agony of coming so close to being crowned world champions three months ago and have been installed as favourites.

Jones is determined to make England the "greatest team ever" and he must hope his Saracens contingent are not affected by the European champions' salary-cap saga.

 

FRANCE

Who's in charge?

Former France captain Galthie was charged with the task of replacing Jacques Brunel after the World Cup and has put his faith in youth with an eye on the next World Cup on home soil. The appointment of Shaun Edwards as defence coach could be a masterstroke.

Who's the key man?

Teddy Thomas is a livewire wing who has been in fine form for Racing 92 this season and should show what he is capable after missing out on the World Cup.

What can they achieve?

It is difficult to know which France side will turn up at the best of times and, although there is an air of optimism with young players getting their chance, that could make them even more difficult to predict.

A showdown with England in Paris grants them a great opportunity to make a huge statement, but Les Bleus face a tricky trip to Cardiff after hosting Italy.

 

IRELAND

Who's in charge?

Farrell has earned his stripes as an assistant with Ireland, England and Saracens, and he will have plenty of experience under his belt for his first role as head coach after replacing Joe Schmidt.

Who's the key man?

James Ryan has been outstanding for Ireland and Leinster, and Farrell will rely on the towering lock to maintain his high standards, with powerful ball-carrying and set-piece acumen.

What can they achieve?

After the disappointment of bowing out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage and failing to retain their Six Nations title last year, Ireland will be a major danger if they can hit the ground running under Farrell.

The 2018 champions have strength in depth and should mount a strong challenge, with a home clash against Wales in the second round followed by a trip to Twickenham potentially decisive. 

 

ITALY

Who's in charge?

South African Smith stepped in for the Six Nations after a successful spell with the Cheetahs, taking over from Conor O'Shea.

Who's the key man?

Luca Bigi has been handed the captaincy with Sergio Parisse, set to make his swansong at Stadio Olimpico, retiring, and the hooker must drive the perennial recipients of the wooden spoon on and show they are up for the battle.

What can they achieve ?

A victory would be an achievement in itself given Italy have not come out on top in a Six Nations match since stunning Scotland in 2015.

 

SCOTLAND 

Who's in charge?

Gregor Townsend is under pressure to turn Scotland's fortunes around after they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Who's the key man?

Stuart Hogg has taken over as skipper, and the full-back must show the sort of form that made him a British and Irish Lion.

What can they achieve?

There is no doubt Scotland have plenty of talent to call upon and can be a joy to watch on their day, but they have been shown to have a soft centre time and again.

Finn Russell will be a big loss for the first game against Ireland after he was sent home for disciplinary reasons.

 

WALES

Who's in charge?

Pivac succeeded long-serving fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland after the World Cup, and the former Scarlets boss has a hard act to follow.

Who's the key man?

Liam Williams will miss the first match of the tournament against Italy, but the inspirational full-back should be fit for the trip to face Ireland the following week, and Wales will need him to stay fit in their quest for back-to-back titles.

What can they achieve?

Depending on how they adapt to life under Pivac, Wales ought to mount a strong defence of their crown after securing a Grand Slam last year but face tough away assignments against Ireland and England.

Wayne Pivac on the touchline; the Principality Stadium crowd brimming with back-to-school excitement.

A new dawn was arriving for Welsh rugby as Saturday's Six Nations opener against Italy came into view.

Yet this story isn't about coach Pivac, nor new dawns, nor the fact we've reached the 20-year anniversary of the Cardiff stadium staging its first match in the championship.

Coaches come and coaches go and Pivac will have his day and leave; not even Warren Gatland was inclined to go on forever on the touchline.

And the inevitable truth is that stadiums decay, to be replaced by grander, more suitable settings for world-class sport. Which themselves will one day lose their lustre.

The St Helen's ground in Swansea and Cardiff's Arms Park used to proudly house the hallowed turf for Welsh rugby.

Some things, though, have a greater permanence. And what endures perhaps best of all in Welsh rugby is its carved-in-stone connection to the country's richly poetic and musical history, most pertinently the hymns and folk songs that permeate from Llanelli to Llanberis, Cardiff Bay to Cardigan Bay.

That time-honoured beacon of Welsh society - the male voice choir - remains as much a part of the rugby fabric as it ever was. This story celebrates the glorious communion between song and Welsh rugby.

Slated for success

In the heart of Snowdonia lies Blaenau Ffestiniog, a largely Welsh-speaking small town renowned for centuries for its vast slate mines, and home today to the Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir.

The Welsh Rugby Union invites such choirs on a rota basis to perform within the stadium before its home matches, knowing their presence rouses Cardiff crowds in such a way they become the team's 16th man.

Soon it will be the turn of Brythoniaid, seven-time winners of the National Eisteddfod. They are booked in for the match against Scotland in March.

"We've done it before," said Phill Jones, the choir secretary.

"Most of the choir are fanatical rugby supporters anyhow, so to be allowed to get on the pitch and be allowed to sing to 70,000 people is a bit of an experience."

 

Have the Welsh crowds lost their voice?

There have been questions asked recently about the atmosphere at Wales' home games.

Journalist and Pontypool rugby club media man Greg Caine argued on the Nation Cymru website that priorities were changing, and that Wales crowds had lost their voice, even at last year's Grand Slam decider against Ireland.

He wrote: "... the singing was seriously lacking, and it's almost become a cliche, but [again] many really were more interested in going to the bar than watching the match."

He pointed to a "day out" culture and added: "Whilst this isn't necessarily a bad thing – people are welcome to enjoy something they've paid for however they want – a symptom of the aforementioned attitude to the match is the general lack of singing, and it's that which I find most disappointing and demoralising when attending Wales matches."

Most surprisingly of all, Caine claimed Wales football supporters have developed a "wider repertoire" of songs and chants than their rugby counterparts.

"It does [surprise me]. I would say quite the opposite to be honest with you," Brythoniaid's Jones told Omnisport.

Such an argument could run and run; what defies debate is the sense that song is deeply ingrained within Welsh sporting culture, whatever the shape of the ball.

"The English only have one song"

"Anywhere, at any standard of rugby, you get singing in the crowd," said Jones. "We've got a local rugby team called Bro Ffestiniog, and even if the crowd might only be 50 or maybe less, they'll sing like mad.

"We'll take a choir, just to give them entertainment and help along as well, and they'll say it makes a heck of a difference.

"You'll only hear one song being sung in an English match and that's the chariot one ['Swing Low, Sweet Chariot']. You listen to a Welsh crowd and you'll get such variation. I think it's something we're very good at, and the Scottish and the French are as well."

Jones says singing in Wales has always come with a rivalry aspect.

"You go back to the days when there was real hardship," he said. "In those days, the chapels and churches were at their strongest, where you had congregations in the hundreds and singing was a part of life.

"Where we sing, there were two huge quarries with 7,000 men working, and at each level of the mine, there was a shed where they would congregate having lunch, and they used to have singing competitions between each shed.

"It was tradition back then, and that's how the choir started. Most of the big choirs in Wales are associated with areas where coal mining and chapels were very strong. There's a lot less now than there used to be.

"We're not so bad, but we used to have massive choirs; I would say 120 to 130 [people]. These days people have other things to do."

Together, this is what we'll do

The Brythoniaid Male Voice Choir struck lucky when they were invited to perform at Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, performing 'Go West' with the Pet Shop Boys in 2014 and joining a 2017 line-up that featured The Flaming Lips and Rag'n'Bone Man.

"Because of that, we got more wanting to be involved with the choir," Jones recalls. "We were down to about 45 in the choir at one stage but we're now up to around 75, so you have to be prepared to change. Not change too much, but you've got to adapt."

Will the national anthem - Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - ring out inside rugby stadiums in 50 years' time? Will future generations still incant Calon Lan, these days a favourite of so many supporters? Might Bread of Heaven still be bellowed from the stands towards the end of this century?

Will Max Boyce's Hymns and Arias always resonate?

"I would think so, I would hope so anyway," said Jones. "The choirs are getting smaller, so you might not have the same size of choir that are taking part now. But even though they get smaller, I think they'll still go on."

Gary Morgan, secretary of the Cardiff Arms Park Male Choir, agrees.

"Those songs are there and they're not going away," said Morgan.

"Some of our choir might groan a little when it comes to rehearsing the same old hymns, but those are the ones the crowds want and they enjoy them so much. And when on match days the crowd are singing them back, it's just a moment of great pride.

"We sang at Gavin Henson's wedding last year. People always love to hear a Welsh male voice choir on a big occasion."

But not only are the choirs shrinking, they are ageing, too, which has to be a worry.

"It's a real struggle to find anyone under the age of 40 wanting to join," Morgan said. "I couldn't give the choir the commitment I do now until I retired from teaching.

"But I can't imagine the Arms Park or the Principality Stadium without those songs. They're such an vital part of Welsh rugby life."

Wales begin the defence of their Six Nations crown on Saturday as they welcome Italy to the Principality Stadium.

Having won their first title in six years in 2019, it is a new era for Wales under Wayne Pivac, who replaced his compatriot Warren Gatland.

England finished as runners up last year, and Eddie Jones' team – champions in 2016 and 2017 – start their campaign against France in Paris.

Meanwhile, this year's Centenary Quaich between Ireland and Scotland takes place in Dublin, with Andy Farrell getting his first taste of Six Nations action as a head coach.

With the help of Opta, we take a statistical look at the opening round of matches.


Wales v Italy

- Holders Wales have won 17 of their 20 Six Nations matches against Italy, including their past 12 in a row, last losing this fixture in 2007. 

- At home, Wales – who claimed a Grand Slam in 2019 – have 14 wins from their past 16 games in the Six Nations, their two defeats in that time both coming against England in 2015 and 2017.

- Italy have lost their past 22 games in the Six Nations, the longest losing run in the history of the competition, with their most recent win coming at Murrayfield against Scotland five years ago.

- Wales achieved a goal kicking success rate of 83 per cent across all their Test matches in 2019, the best rate of any Tier 1 side, while Italy had the lowest such rate (64 per cent).

- George North will start at centre for Wales and he needs one more try to become the third player to score 20 in the Six Nations, joining Brian O'Driscoll (26) and Shane Williams (22).
 

Ireland v Scotland

- Only once in the past four seasons have Ireland won their opening game of a Six Nations, going on to win the Grand Slam in the year they managed to do so (2018).

- Scotland have just seven wins in 50 away matches in the Six Nations, with five of those coming in Italy.

- Ireland have won five of their past six Six Nations games against Scotland, their sole defeat in that time coming in 2017 at Murrayfield.

Conor Murray has 19 assists to his name for Ireland in the Six Nations, the most of any player from any nation. He is also the joint-top try-scoring scrum-half in the competition, with nine.
 

France v England

- Billy Vunipola made 198 carries in international rugby in 2019, over 50 more than any other player, while was also the top metre-making forward for a Tier 1 side.

- France – who finished fourth last year – have crossed for just six tries in their past six home games against England in the Six Nations.

- Rugby World Cup runners-up England have won 10 of their past 13 Six Nations matches against France, though all three losses in that time came in Paris.

- Jones' side scored 24 tries in the 2019 Six Nations, eight more than any other side and double the amount France managed.

- However, of the 10 Tier 1 nations, only New Zealand managed a higher tackle success rate than France in 2019 across all matches.

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