SIX NATIONS BLOG: Ireland's draw with Wales leaves an odd taste but drama levels fittingly high on opening weekend
As a rugby union fan, the start of the Six Nations is a glorious and stressful time of the year.
The first game is a chance for your international team to signal their intent for what is always an enthralling championship.
There is so much to be gained, and so much to lose, from the very off.
You can scarcely afford to get off to a poor start, with just the five games to play, and ordinarily at least three serious title contenders.
So taking on Wales, many pundits’ favourites, in the first weekend, is a high stakes occasion.
As an Irishman, Wales and England have been the games to relish most in recent years.
Wales, because we’ve won the last four championships between us, and England because everyone loves to beat them.
It’s no secret, the rest of the Six Nations take huge pride from knocking over the men in white.
You’re brought up to believe, rightly or wrongly, that English arrogance is what makes them the enemy on the rugby pitch.
Living in England for 15 years, I’ve tremendously enjoyed Ireland’s nine Six Nations victories over the nation I now call home.
But those six victories have come at a cost of some serious mocking.
Ireland have won the past two Six Nations titles, so it’s fair to say they’re a big scalp in 2016 – even in the face of a disappointing World Cup.
You know that a victory over Ireland will give your side a big chance of taking the title, or playing a major part in where it goes.
Add former coach and current Wales supremo Warren Gatland, his history with the Irish and the needle that must exist between the two parties, and this year’s Six Nations were set up for an explosive start.
There were indeed early fireworks, Ireland looking clinical in initial attacks and resolute in defence.
Wales, however, roared back and looked sure to clinch victory in the latter stages, only for Jonathan Sexton – Ireland’s talismanic, world class fly-half – to seal a draw with a penalty before he trudged off injured.
The Welsh fly-half, equally as important to Gatland’s team, had limped off after an early injury.
It was a game of huge significance, and the physicality and tension it produced were fitting, if at times uncomfortable.
Both sides were left counting the cost, injury wise.
But who is happiest with a draw?
I’d argue neither side will be thrilled.
Drawing in the Six Nations is as anticlimactic a result as you can get, especially in one of the bigger games.
The match itself was as entertaining as you’d expect, but the result left an odd taste.
Ireland will feel they should have forged on after taking a 13-0 lead and made the game safe.
Wales came on so strongly towards the end of the first half, and for most of the second, that they’ll be sorely disappointed not to win.
And looking at the tournament table, both Ireland and Wales are already a point behind England and France, who picked up victories on the first weekend.
England will probably have come out of the first round of fixtures with the most positives, even if they didn’t look the finished article against Scotland.
France didn’t look like a side who could come out on top against one of the favourites, and would have lost had Italy’s legendary Sergio Parisse’s bizarre drop goal been successful.
It was a moment of madness from the flanker, and had he kept his head, and the ball in hand, Italy might well have got into a position to set up a much better three-point attempt, or won a penalty.
All in all, there was more than enough drama and intrigue to suggest this will be another thrilling Six Nations.
Anyone who can confidently pick a winner at this stage is a braver man than I.
Ireland and Wales may not have won, but they didn’t lose and get a rare chance to start all over again with a relatively clean slate next weekend.
England will be quietly confident, or as quiet as an English side can be.
France need to up their game and face the Irish next Saturday, having failed to beat them in the Six Nations since 2011.
Italy will know they’re up against it against Eddie Jones’ England, but are always capable of throwing a spanner in the works for the more established nations, and Scotland will need to produce something miraculous to derail the Welsh.
The Six Nations is back, and it’s as glorious and stressful as ever.