New Ireland head coach Andy Farrell was in awe of the way captain Johnny Sexton carried his side in his first appearance for club or country in almost two months.

As former assistant Farrell takes on the senior coaching role following Joe Schmidt's post-Rugby World Cup departure, Sexton is now the Ireland skipper after Rory Best retired.

And the Leinster fly-half was at his influential best on Saturday to secure a 19-12 victory at home to Scotland in their Six Nations opener, scoring all of Ireland's points - including the only try of the match.

Sexton had been out of action since a 45-minute shift in the European Champions Cup against Northampton Saints on December 7, and he has played just three times for Leinster in total this season.

Farrell told ITV: "He's not played for a long time, Johnny. It says a lot about a guy when he's passionate about being captain of his country in the Six Nations for the first time.

"He's trained with us for the last 10 days and that's the only real time he's been involved with team rugby, and he goes out and puts a performance in like that. He was outstanding, for me."

Sexton's team-mates did not look quite so convincing in a match that ended following a nervy stand in front of the Ireland try line, but Farrell was delighted with the team's spirit.

"There's always going to be things to work on, things we're trying to implement that are going to take time," he said. "Some of them were good, some of them were bad.

"Decision-making was up and down at times. I thought we looked quite fluent at times, but sometimes we got a little carried away with our decision-making. It's a start.

"But we asked the players all week to make sure they stand for something, and boy did they stand for a bit of grit.

"They were under the pressure in the first half on their own line quite a few times. And then you culminate that with what the last five minutes said about the team, I think it's there for all to see really."

Captain Johnny Sexton led by example with all 19 Ireland points in head coach Andy Farrell's 19-12 debut win over a wasteful Scotland in their Six Nations opener.

Talisman Sexton and former assistant Farrell were both adjusting to new roles at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday following the post-Rugby World Cup departures of Rory Best and Joe Schmidt.

But the Leinster fly-half ensured it was a winning, if not wholly convincing, start to a new era for Ireland in Dublin, where new Scotland skipper Stuart Hogg fumbled when he looked certain to score in the second half.

It was Sexton who scored the only try of the match in the first half and his boot thereafter maintained an Irish advantage on a frustrating day for Scotland, with four Adam Hastings penalties proving to be in vain

Gregor Townsend's men came flying out of the blocks and Hastings – replacing Finn Russell after he was punished for a breach of team discipline - kicked the first points with five minutes played, albeit after a lengthy stoppage as home debutant Caelan Doris had to make an early exit with a head injury.

But Ireland rallied in impressive fashion and led through Sexton's try, the new skipper stepping through a gaping hole in the visitors' defence to go over after 10 minutes.

A second Hastings penalty checked Ireland's momentum, but continued spells of Scotland pressure were not rewarded with a try, Farrell's side standing firm time and again in front of the posts.

Sexton's pinpoint penalty restored some daylight on the scoreboard, although a further missed effort moments later gave Scotland a lift heading into the break.

Optimism in the away ranks soon mellowed as the continued concession of penalties allowed Sexton to swiftly add another three points from 15 metres.

And Scotland passed up a huge opportunity with just under half an hour remaining, skipper Hogg mishandling in the corner unchallenged when a try looked inevitable.

The play was instead pulled back for a penalty, which Hastings dispatched, and the Scotland number 10 then responded to Sexton's third successful penalty with his fourth to keep his team in contention.

But an inability to cross the try line to breach a stoic defence, and Ireland's sole try was enough as Sexton again kicked well when Sam Johnson foolishly barged Andrew Conway off the ball, before a dramatic late stand sealed a scrappy victory.


O'Mahony, Henshaw show Irish depth

Farrell was dealt an early blow as he lost the uncapped Doris after just five minutes, the new man having made a bright start. But the depth of talent in this Ireland squad was evident as they could instead turn to Peter O'Mahony.

The 65-cap star won one vital turnover in front of the home try line, as Robbie Henshaw also came off the bench after an injury to Garry Ringrose.

Scots not nearly clinical enough

While 2019 will not be remembered especially fondly by Scotland fans, they did enjoy one scintillating second half in an epic draw away to England - inspired by Russell, notably absent here.

Townsend's side tore through England at will that day but badly lacked the same ruthlessness this time. A try-less first half really should have been followed by a Hogg score and they knocked out on the door in the closing stages without reward.

What's next?

Ireland are at home again next week for a mammoth clash with 2019 Grand Slam winners Wales. Scotland's task does not get any easier as they welcome World Cup runners-up England to Murrayfield.

The Cheetahs heaped further misery on struggling Southern Kings on Saturday, triumphing 45-0 at Toyota Stadium to make it back-to-back Pro14 wins over their South African rivals.

Joseph Dweba crossed twice as the Cheetahs ran in seven tries against opponents who are stuck firmly at the bottom of Pro14's Conference B with just seven points to their name.

They had prevailed in a tense finish in the previous round, clinching a last-gasp 31-30 victory at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.

However, there was no drama in the return fixture in Bloemfontein.

Dweba's brace sandwiched a try for Chris Massyn in the first half, with Jasper Wiese then securing the bonus point by touching down in the 56th minute.

The Kings crumbled in the closing stages too, not aided by Elrigh Louw spending 10 minutes in the sin bin, with Clayton Blommetjies, Rhyno Smith and Louis Fouche all going over amid the late carnage.

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.

The Crusaders commenced their Super Rugby title defence with a convincing victory over the Waratahs, while the Sunwolves stunned the Rebels on Saturday.

Crowned champions back in July, the Crusaders looked every bit the team to beat in a dominant 43-25 triumph in their opening outing at Trafalgar Park in Nelson.

Will Jordan crossed in the 16th minute before Braydon Ennor and Leicester Fainga'anuku ran in tries to establish a 24-6 half-time advantage for the hosts.

Teenage debutant Mark Nawaqanitawase scored a quickfire double - the second from an intercept - to give the Waratahs fleeting thoughts of a second-half fightback, but Ennor, Jordan and Luke Romano touched down to extinguish those hopes.

Alex Newsome crossed for a late consolation to give the Waratahs another minor boost in their first fixture since Rob Simmons replaced Michael Hooper as captain.

The Sunwolves began their Super Rugby swansong in style by claiming a surprise 36-27 win over the Rebels.

Due to be culled from the competition at the end of the campaign, the Japanese outfit proved they will not limp to the finish line thanks in large part to a blistering start in Fukuoka.

Early tries from Keisuke Moriya and Jaba Bregvadze laid the foundation for the Sunwolves, winners just twice last season, to record their maiden victory over the Rebels.

Anaru Rangi and Dane Haylett-Petty touched down either side of Tautalatasi Tasi to trim the margin to 22-13 at half-time, only for James Dargaville and Garth April to respond with fine tries that put the hosts in a commanding position.

Andrew Kellaway and Andrew Deegan went over in the closing stages to add some respectability to the scoreline but the Rebels failed to ease the pressure on head coach Dave Wessels, who recently admitted he considered quitting last season.

When Gregor Townsend signed a contract extension in 2018, he declared Scotland were entering a "crucial and exciting time".

Townsend added that he expected "improvements across the board" after being handed a new deal just over a year after replacing Vern Cotter as head coach.

Yet on the eve of their Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin, Scotland fans could be forgiven feeling more than a modicum of apprehension over what is to come in the next six weeks.

There was no shortage of excitement at Twickenham when Townsend's men conjured up a stunning second-half fightback to hold fierce rivals England to an incredible 38-38 Calcutta Cup draw last March.

A glance at the Six Nations table offered a reality check ahead of the Rugby World Cup, though, given Scotland finished second-bottom - their only victory coming against perennial wooden spoon recipients Italy.

There was much more misery to come when a defeat in a do-or-die clash with hosts Japan sent Scotland crashing out of the World Cup with a whimper after failing to make the quarter-finals.

Townsend was backed to stay on despite that early exit and defiantly stated "there's a lot more in this team". 

That team was already shorn of talismanic captain and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw following his international retirement, so there would be even more onus on Finn Russell to be at his mercurial best.

But as the squad stepped up their preparations for their showdown at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday, Russell was pulling the strings for Racing 92 in a Top 14 victory at Castres last weekend.

Disciplined for a breach of team protocol following an incident at the team hotel, it is not clear whether the brilliant fly-half will play any part in the Six Nations. 

Townsend, also without injured in-form wing Darcy Graham, has put his faith in Adam Hastings to fill Russell's huge shoes against an Ireland side that beat Scotland 27-3 in the World Cup just over just over four months ago.

There was plenty of positive talk from the former Glasgow Warriors boss this week despite turmoil even before the first ball is kicked.

"I don't know if we have a point to prove. What I can say is that the team have prepared really well, the intensity levels and communication in training have been excellent." he said.

"Things have gone well, but we know mindset has a big part to play in high-level sport."

While expectations may be limited, Scotland must show the fight Townsend has called for without the soft centre that has been exploited all too often during his reign.

Scotland have proven they can be great entertainers in the Townsend era, but they must make the case for the defence or the 46-year-old's tenure could be cut short.

Andy Farrell set his stall out when he named "a hell of a team" for his first game as Ireland head coach against Scotland in the Six Nations on Saturday.

There had been much debate over who would get the nod at the start of Farrell's reign following the agony of Ireland's Rugby World Cup failure.

Just over three months after Joe Schmidt's reign ended with a 46-14 World Cup quarter-final drubbing at the hands of New Zealand, Farrell showed he is ready to do things his own way when revealing his hand for the clash at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.

The dual-code international put his cards on the table ahead of schedule, handing a start to uncapped number eight Caelan Doris with Ronan Kelleher poised to make his debut off the bench.

Conor Murray kept his place over the in-form John Cooney, with Johnny Sexton leading the side following Rory Best's retirement.

While the names in the 23 were always going to be the main topic of discussion, Farrell very much made a statement with his tone and timing of the delivery.

He has had plenty of time to consider his approach to being a head coach after serving as an assistant, having been named as Schmidt's successor in November 2018.

Asked about naming his first team earlier than expected, the straight-talking Englishman replied: "I'd rather just get it out there and get on with the week."

The 44-year-old added: "There is a little bit of paralysis through analysis. You can look too much into things the whole time.

"It doesn't bother me about putting a team out there because that's all I’m bothered about, our team. Backing ourselves. You've got to make a decision and we've got a hell of a team going into Scotland."

There has been talk around the Ireland camp about a freshness that Farrell has brought after Schmidt's glorious spell in charge came to an anticlimactic end.

Ireland headed into the World Cup on top of the rankings and it is only two years since they won the Grand Slam.

Although they were unable to live up to expectations in Japan, you only have to look at the bench for the showdown with Scotland to see the strength in depth Farrell can call upon.

Peter O'Mahony, Cooney, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Conway and the recalled Devin Toner are among the replacements.

Farrell has spoken of his intention to take Ireland in a "new direction", and there is surely no doubt he has the experience and passion to make a seamless step up to the top job.

S'busiso Nkosi and Sanele Nohamba ran in second-half tries as the Sharks overturned a half-time deficit to kick off their Super Rugby campaign with a 23-15 victory over the Bulls.

The Sharks had failed to win any of their previous nine meetings with their South African rivals and trailed 9-6 at the interval in Friday's clash at Kings Park.

But Nkosi got the first try of the evening five minutes into the second half, and the hosts, who finished four points behind their opponents last term, added a second late on through Nohamba.

Morne Steyn, making his first Super Rugby start since 2013, kept the Bulls in contention throughout with four penalties and a drop goal, but the second Sharks try made the game safe.

Debutant Nohamba scuttled through to seal the win in the closing seconds, with Curwin Bosch - the supplier of 13 points with the boot - adding the extras.

The Brumbies and the Chiefs produced impressive second-half fightbacks to begin the new Super Rugby season with respective victories over the Reds and the Blues.

The Reds went into half-time at GIO Stadium with a 17-7 lead after Bryce Hegarty converted Henry Speight's try and then one of his own either side of a successful penalty attempt, overturning Irae Simone's fourth-minute opener.

Tom Wright reduced the deficit seven minutes after the restart and the Brumbies pulled level when Folau Fainga'a went over off a driving maul.

Tom Banks then dotted down and debutant Noah Lolesio booted a penalty with five minutes remaining to send the hosts 10 points clear.

Harry Wilson crossed after good work from James O'Connor to set up a tense finale, but the Reds were forced to settle for a losing bonus point in a 27-24 defeat.

The Chiefs closed a 14-point deficit to run out 37-29 winners against the Blues at Eden Park.

Rieko Ioane's first-half double helped the Blues take control in Auckland, but the Chiefs came roaring back after new boss Warren Gatland made four changes at the interval.

Samisoni Taukei'aho crossed for the second time and the visitors were level when Pita Gus Sowakula touched down in the 51st minute.

Karl Tu'inukuafe nudged the Blues back in front but Aidan Ross and Solomon Alaimalo put the Chiefs out of reach, with Aaron Cruden - returning to Super Rugby after a two-year stint at Montpellier - adding a drop goal for good measure.

George Furbank will make his England debut in their Six Nations opener against France at full-back following an injury to Anthony Watson.

Watson was not considered for selection due to a calf issue he entered England's training camp with and Eddie Jones has given Northampton Saints back Furbank the nod.

Elliot Daly will consequently start on the left wing and Jonny May on the opposite side at the Stade de France on Sunday.

George Ford has been handed the fly-half berth with Owen Farrell named at inside centre, while Tom Curry gets the number eight spot in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola.

Luke Cowan-Dickie was scheduled to re-join the squad in Paris on Friday after being granted leave for personal reasons and was among the replacements. Uncapped prop Will Stuart was also named on the bench.

Jones said: "It has been a massively exciting week for us. It is the start of the Six Nations, the best rugby tournament in the world. We have had a great preparation in Portugal with a quality training week this week.

"We have really worried about ourselves, getting ourselves right. We have picked a strong forward pack which is part of the England way and an exciting backline with young George Furbank playing his first Test at full-back.

"France can expect absolute brutality from England, we are going to go out there to make sure they understand what Test rugby is. It is about being brutal, it is about being physical and it is about dominating the set piece."

 

England: George Furbank, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Ollie Devoto, Jonathan Joseph.

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."

This year's Six Nations represents 20 years since Italy made their debut in the competition.

The Azzurri became the first new addition to the championship since France in 1940 at the turn of the millennium, and it has been a tough ride.

With the help of Opta, we look at the statistics behind Italy's Six Nations journey before they begin the 2020 campaign at Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Will it be an anniversary to celebrate?

 

At the bottom looking up

Since joining the competition in 2000, Italy have scored a total of 133 tries. Scotland have only touched down eight more times in that time frame, while England lead the way on 299.

The Azzurri have averaged the fewest carries (97.4), defenders beaten (10.96), metres made (323.25) and clean breaks (4.5) per Six Nations game.

Given the fact they are often facing a lot of pressure, it is unsurprising they lead the Six Nations with an average of 116.99 tackles per game.

However, they miss 19.1 per 80 minutes and consequently have the worst tackle success rate of all teams at 86 per cent.

A record for futility

It is fair to say Italy have not enjoyed a great time of it recently.

The Azzurri have lost their past 22 games in the competition, representing the longest losing run in Five/Six Nations history, having last year surpassed the 17 straight defeats suffered by France between 1911 and 1920.

There had been signs of promise for Italy when they claimed the Wooden Spoon just once between 2012 and 2015, but they last year took it home for the fourth tournament in a row and 14th time overall.

Franco Smith will be hoping to end a winless streak that stretches back to 2015 and started after their second away victory in championship history, both of which have come against Scotland at Murrayfield. They face trips to Wales, France and Ireland this year.

King Parisse

While he is only expected to play home matches in his final Six Nations, Sergio Parisse has certainly left a mark on the competition.

He has made more appearances (69), carries (785) – surpassing his closest rival in that regard Brian O'Driscoll by almost 300 – and metres (3,088) than any other player in Six Nations history.

Only Alun Wyn Jones (580) has made more tackles than the Italy number eight (540), while he ranks third in turnovers (36) behind John Barclay (37) and O'Driscoll (53).

Leading scorers

Parisse's seven Six Nations tries put him joint-top of Italy's all-time list with Mirco Bergamasco, a tally Tommaso Allan is just two shy of.

Bergamasco scored 17 of Italy's 22 points when they beat France in the Six Nations for the first time in 2011 and reached 122 in the competition before making the switch to rugby league.

Only former fly-half Diego Dominguez, who booted 29 against Scotland in Italy's maiden win in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2000, has more (162).

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.

Anthony Bouthier and Mohamed Haouas will make their France debuts in the heat of a Six Nations battle with England at Stade de France on Sunday.

Montpellier duo Bouthier and Haouas will start at full-back and tighthead prop respectively in Paris at the dawn of a new era under head coach Fabien Galthie.

Charles Ollivon captains Les Bleus for the first time, while livewire wing Teddy Thomas returns to the starting line-up after missing out on the Rugby World Cup.

Galthie has put his faith in youth for the tournament, with Boris Palu and Cameron Woki hoping to make win their first caps off the bench in 'Le Crunch'.

Hooker Julien Marchand has been handed a first start and Cyril Baille joins him in the front row, with Camille Chat (calf) ruled out.

Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack form an exciting half-back pairing, while Virimi Vakatawa and Gael Fickou get the nod in midfield.

 

France: Anthony Bouthier, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements:  Peato Mauvaka, Jefferson Poirot, Demba Bamba, Boris Palu, Cameron Woki, Baptiste Serin, Matthieu Jalibert, Vincent Rattez.

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