It’s Summer Blockbuster time as North meets South below the Equator

It can be said that the end of season tours by European teams South of the Equator are a mixed bag in terms of what we can expect from one group of rather weary players meeting another only halfway through their season. However, a year out from what could be one of the most hotly contested World Cups in recent memory, all eight teams have everything to play for in terms of laying down markers.

New Zealand and Ireland both know that this is the last time they will meet before a possible quarter final next year in France. Australia and England are also in the same boat though it is unlikely they will meet in the quarters next year. Wales meanwhile travel to South Africa, who they are highly unlikely to meet in France, and this tour is probably a bridge too far at the moment for a side that is struggling to find its form. The Springboks however, are exactly the opposite with South African sides ultimately dominating the new United Rugby Championship. They will relish the prospect of what for all intents and purposes looks set to be an excellent training run ahead of a tough Rugby Championship and end of year tour. Lastly a developmental Scotland side travel to South America for a three test tour against Argentina, which always serves to separate the men from the boys and Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend will be keen to see how his young guns withstand the punishment. The Pumas meanwhile will also have everything to prove after a dramatic dip in form since their historic defeat of the All Blacks two years ago and a Coaching change a mere year out from the World Cup, as controversial figure Australian Michael Cheika takes over in the Coaching box.

As a result with a myriad of plot lines to follow as the next three weeks play out, we doubt you’ll be bored and these tours are likely to keep you glued to your television sets. So here’s what got us talking ahead of this weekend’s first round of action.

New Zealand vs Ireland – Not quite business as usual this time around?

Ireland have a good track record against New Zealand in recent years, but have never beaten them at home. How much will Irish fatigue versus form and recent All Black struggles change the script this time around?

Encounters between these two sides since that historic victory at Soldier Field in Chicago by Ireland in 2016 have become rather tasty and feisty affairs. Nevertheless, victory on New Zealand soil remains the stuff of dreams for the Men in Green. There have been the odd occasions where Ireland have run their hosts close, but the Men in Black always triumph. In very simple terms, there are very few sides that can actually upset the All Blacks at home, so the problem is not unique to Ireland. However, this time around is there a chance that Irish eyes could end up smiling at the end of this tour? New Zealand as a team have not been at their best since getting knocked out of the last World Cup by England in the semi finals, and losing to Ireland and France last November. However, before you get too comfortable as an Irish supporter, the form on display by the New Zealand sides in the recently concluded Super Rugby Pacific tournament looked rather terrifying to say the least.

For Ireland, there are some alarm bells ringing as Irish and European giants Leinster fell at the final hurdle in the Heineken Cup, and Ulster and Leinster got knocked out of the URC semi finals. Leinster simply failed to adapt to their opponents while Ulster simply made too many errors under pressure. As a result Irish supporters will be hoping that Andy Farrell’s coaching staff have worked with players on their need to adapt and modify their game plan accordingly, and do it all when under pressure and develop a Plan B quickly and efficiently on the fly. A failure to do so on this tour will mean that Ireland will head home empty handed -plain and simple. There is no doubting Irish efficiency and inventiveness in the way they play the game, but there has been a reluctance to change the script if things are not going their way.

For New Zealand we’ve been scratching our heads slightly at some of the selection decisions, most notably in the scrum half department. In the front row and second rows they should be able to go toe to toe with the Irish, though we have a hunch that the lineouts will be theirs to own. In the back row we’d argue that Ireland could be the more dynamic of the two, but New Zealand should be able to provide a physicality at times that Ireland may find it hard to keep up with for three straight weeks. Aaron Smith and his deputy Folau Fakatava from New Zealand’s least successful Super Rugby side this year the Highlanders, get two of the scrum half berths and in our opinion that seems questionable. Smith is well past his best and although Fakatava is all the rage in the New Zealand pundits columns, he has yet to be tested at the International level and against one of the world’s best sides to boot. We can’t quite get our head around the fact that the Chiefs Brad Webber or Crusaders Bryn Hall didn’t get the nod, still at least the Blues Finlay Christie gets a look in. The 10 jersey is in exceptionally capable hands and looks infinitely stronger than Ireland’s even with the venerable Johnny Sexton. Lastly in the centers and back three New Zealand also looks gifted with heaps of power and pace. In short, if you’re going to watch any part of the park closely, then focus your attention on what’s happening off the back of scrums and rucks as in our opinion if New Zealand have a weakness it lies there.

For Ireland, much of the squad that has had for the most part a strong year internationally remains intact. Ronan Kelleher will be missed at Hooker though and James Ryan really needs to rediscover his form that made him such a talking point in 2018. Ian Henderson’s edginess will be missed in the second row, and the back row really need to match up to New Zealand’s physical presence and ability to slow the ball down. As much as we have concerns for the All Blacks at scrum half, Ireland aren’t on such a strong footing either. Jamison Gibson-Park is currently in a class of his own at the moment, but Conor Murray has lost form and Craig Casey is still too green. Meanwhile despite evergeen fly half Johnny Sexton being in the form of his life right now despite his age, Ireland simply doesn’t boast the depth here that New Zealand does. The Irish in our opinion have the more inventive centre pairings, even if they lack the physicality of their Kiwi counterparts, and in the back three Ireland can give as good as they get.

In short, this has all the makings of a classic Test series providing end of season fatigue and travel doesn’t get the better of the Irish in three exhausting matches. An Irish victory on New Zealand soil is certainly a possibility but a series win is probably a bridge too far. Either way it’s the one series you are definitely not going to want to miss.

Australia vs England – Is there finally a firm hand on the tiller for Australia in stormy seas while England can’t seem to ship water fast enough on their leaky boat

While Australia still struggle against traditional rivals New Zealand both at Test and Club level there are promising signs for the future in the land down under while England continue to look at sixes and sevens

Australia had a tough tour to Europe at the end of last season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Australian sides made a bit better fist of it this year in Super Rugby Pacific, and there is definitely some rapidly rising talent in the Australian ranks. Defensive systems still seem to be a problem area for Australian teams but there was still a marked improvement this year from last year. Their set piece work is improving and in the centres and backs Australia are blessed with some genuine world class talent, an area that England are really struggling with.

England meanwhile seem to lurch from one disaster to the next despite having a player base that in theory should be the envy of the world. For reasons best known to themselves England are simply not reaping its rewards. Coach Eddie Jones is under pressure in the swansong of his England career, as if anything his charges seem to be going backwards in terms of their development ahead of the World Cup. Two dismal back to back Six Nations, and some worrying signs ahead of this tour in the recent Barbarians Test, leave you wondering if the vaunted but controversial Coach really does have a master plan for England as time starts to run out in terms of preparation for the next World Cup. England’s complete lack of teeth in terms of attack is now common knowledge despite the outstanding talents of fly half sensation Marcus Smith. Given the fact that Australia love to run the ball and have some remarkable athletes to do so, England must be feeling concerned ahead of this three Test series. A series whitewash by Australia which is not beyond the realms of possibility, would leave England in a crisis of confidence heading into a very challenging Autumn Series and beyond.

For Australia their front row stocks will suffer if injuries take their toll, but from the second row onwards we like the look of this Wallaby pack. We think Australia boast an excellent set of second rowers who are likely to give England a torrid time, especially in the lineouts and their back row looks infinitely more cohesive than England’s. In the half backs, Australia also look sharp with both experience and depth, while their centre offerings led by Samu Kerevi are likely to make numerous headlines. However, what we really can’t wait to see in action is Australia’s cornucopia of talent in the back three. Tom Wright has had an outstanding season with the Brumbies, Marika Koroibete is a freight train with a Ferrari engine, Andrew Kellaway excels at finding the whitewash and Tom Banks can turn a game on its head – and that’s just to name a few. In short, lookout England in this part of the park and it’s going to be all about keeping the ball away from the Wallaby speedsters.

As for England, it’s the usual Eddie Jones muddled set list. Nothing looks particularly cohesive or complimentary despite some individual chart breaking hits in the playlist. Luke Cowan-Dickie simply has to rediscover the form that abandoned him in the Six Nations or England’s life in the set pieces will be a misery, especially at lineout time. We simply can’t see England getting traction as a unit in the second row despite the extraordinary individual talents of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. In the back row it’s the usual unbalanced and unproven set of combinations that Eddie Jones seems to insist on, with some players such as Sam Underhill so far off the boil, that Australia’s much more cohesive and potent unit must be salivating over. In the half backs, apart from the truly exceptional Marcus Smith at fly half there is little to get excited about other than the long overdue return to the fold of Danny Care at scrum half, provided he can still cut the mustard at Test level given his age. Once again we have to ask where is Raffi Quirke at scrum half? England’s center offerings look decidedly wobbly even with Owen Farrell and the back three don’t look nearly as sharp as their Wallaby counterparts with England really needing Freddie Steward at fullback to get back to the form that made him such a standout last year.

In short, we are waiting for Eddie Jones and England to surprise us, more than Australia continuing to show a good run of form on home soil. The pressure is ALL on England and Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie and his charges will revel in England’s discomfort. Sometimes though when your back is against the wall you are able to pull off a series of blinders that no-one saw coming, so given that both sides have everything to play for in this series, it should hold your interest just as much as the action happening across the Tasman Strait in green and black jerseys.

South Africa vs Wales – South Africa fresh off their success in the URC where they regularly ate Welsh teams for breakfast, look set to turn this into a David and Goliath affair as Wales brace for impact

Are the Welsh simply going to end up as canon fodder for the Springboks, in a tour which is likely to do little for Welsh confidence while providing excellent preparation for South Africa in a tough road to the end of the year and beyond.

Believe us, we really want to be optimistic about this one. However, we can’t help feeling that Wales arrive in South Africa as deer in the headlights about to be devoured by a ravenous pack of lions. South African rugby is in a gloriously happy place at the moment. A clean sweep of the latter stages of the United Rugby Championship by the Big Three – Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, capacity crowds at long last and let’s not forget that they are still the reigning World Champions. The Braais will be blazing and the beer flowing in every backyard across the country over the next three weeks. In addition to their established overseas players, the URC highlighted a raft of up and coming players to be added to the Springbok stocks in preparation for next year’s World Cup. In short, these are good times for the Springboks and their supporters.

For Wales it’s not such a rosy picture. They had a dreadful Six Nations and their provincial teams were consistently annihilated by their South African, Irish and Scottish compatriots in the URC. South Africa only managed a narrow win over Wales at the Principality in November, so there was some hope to be had from that. However, since then you could argue that South African rugby has propelled itself forward whereas Welsh rugby has gone backwards at a rate of knots. Injuries, and a general dip in skills and execution have meant that Wales boarded the plane to South Africa with a very shaky foundation to build on. Still it’s Wales and they seem to do best when everyone has written them off, so perhaps being unburdened by the weight of expectation may just be the tonic Wales need to get them through a tour that invariably punishes the bravest of the brave.

For South Africa, there is plenty to watch over the next three weeks. Which players from South Africa’s express train of young talent that we saw during the URC will stake their claim on Springbok jerseys for the World Cup and beyond? The squad that Coach Jacques Nienaber has named is daunting to say the least. Littered with World Cup winners and full throttle debutants, it’s a squad that is already showing significant promise for next year’s global showdown and defense of their title. You already know the established names in the Springbok forward pack like Eben Etzebeth, Stephen Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane (in short the list just goes on and on), but you’ll want to watch for new sensations like second rowers Salmaan Moerat and Ruan Nortje, back rowers Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw. In the backs there is the traditional first class carriage featuring the likes of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, Lukhanyo Am Damian de Allende, Makozole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe but watch for some of our fan favorites in the new boys like winger Aphelele Fassi and fullbacks Warwick Gelant and Kurt-Lee Arendse.

For Wales they will need the big names in the forwards like Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau to really step up, though without exceptional back row Superman Justin Tipuric, Wales just aren’t the same. Newcomers like back rower Taine Basham and Hooker Ryan Elias who showed so much initial promise need to find their groove again and fast. In the backs fly half and Captain Dan Biggar will really need to lead with confidence and ensure his kicking at altitude is spot on. The Welsh scrum half trio could cause some panic for South Africa providing they can keep their nerve under the pressure of a physical onslaught they simply won’t be used to. Meanwhile Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams will have to show the speed and panache out wide they are known for while running a tight defensive ship, ably assisted by veteran Liam Williams and his world famous boot at fullback.

Like we say we really want to be positive about this tour for Wales, but the signs are already looking rather ominous. Bravery will be the word of the day and in that respect there are few teams that possess as much of this essential quality as Wales. However, the Springbok juggernaut looks rather unstoppable and on home ground in front of their rapturous fans thrilled to be able to watch their heroes in full stadiums once more, we have a hunch that this may be some of the longest three weeks this group of Welsh players will face in their playing careers. Either way you won’t want to miss it no matter who you support!

Argentina vs Scotland – Touring South America is never something for the faint hearted and it will be an excellent test of character for Scotland’s young guns ahead of a challenging eighteen months, while Argentina seek to get back to form with Michael Cheika

Argentina are far better than their recent form would suggest, and under new Coach Michael Cheika they will be looking to teach Scotland’s youngsters some hard lessons, while the Scots will hope to emerge with some much needed depth and ability at the end of it all

This has the potential to be a really interesting series and we have to admit one that could have huge significance on next year’s World Cup pool stages. Given England’s current wobbles, a strong series against Scotland and Rugby Championship, as well as a good end of year tour could see Argentina as genuine contenders to possibly win their pool. Admittedly their form of late has made that seem more of a pipe dream than a possible reality, but Argentina has some seriously gifted players especially those plying their trade in Europe.

For Scotland, they are the wild card in their pool come next year’s showdown in France. Their current form much like Argentina’s means that the likelihood of upsetting either South Africa or Ireland would seem remote but it’s not impossible. Consequently a strong tour to South America as well as solid Autumn and Six Nations campaigns could suddenly put Scotland back in the mix for at least a quarter final spot. However, to get there Coach Gregor Townsend will need to know that some of his younger players can really mix it with the best, and not simply rely on the mercurial and inconsistent playmaking abilities of the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. As a result he’s taken a relatively young and green squad to the Pampas. Get through this and endure the physical punishment always involved in a visit to the Pumas homeland, and Townsend and his charges can look forward once more with confidence after a Six Nations campaign that promised much but delivered nothing.

For Argentina, the big news in the forwards is new Coach Michael Cheika announcing the return of veteran Hooker and former Captain Agustin Creevy to the squad. Although 37, Creevy has been tearing it up this year with English Premiership side London Irish, whilst Julian Montoya in the same position was instrumental in ensuring that Leicester Tigers were able to lift the Premiership title. Montoya will keep the Captain’s armband but it will be fascinating to see the passionate old warhorse Creevy in action again. It’s a phenomenal forward pack for the Pumas and provided the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini can keep their discipline in check then it could be a long three weeks for Scotland. In the backs there may be concerns about form in the halfback department but we still think Santiago Carreras is the long term answer for the ten jersey. Out wide Argentina have plenty of pace and power and in the middle look out for the sensational Santiago Chocobarres, while at the back the increasingly reliable Emiliano Boffelli, who helped ensure that Edinburgh will be Scotland’s representative in next year’s Heineken Cup, is back to his best along with one of the most powerful right boots in the modern game.

For Scotland, we’ll be completely honest and admit that we almost breathed a sigh of relief when we saw fly half Finn Russell’s name absent from the tour party team sheet. Russell may be a genius but a team player we feel he is not, and his maverick spirit has let Scotland down more often than not at crucial moments in recent times. We’d argue the one to watch in his place is Ross Thompson. If he can prove reliable on this tour, then Scotland may have fixed one of their biggest problems in terms of consistency under pressure in relation to decision making. Elsewhere it’s time for Canadian born Hooker Ewan Ashman to rediscover his form that at times took our breath away on his debut last year. Pierre Schoeman was outstanding in the front row for Edinburgh, while impressive newcomer Rory Darge will ably complement Hamish Watson in the back row. In the backs look for Ben White at scrum half to make a name for himself this tour, and winger Rufus McLean to do the same. There’s also the usual roster of stars out wide with Duhan van der Merwe to bring his South African physicality to match the Pumas out wide and Darcy Graham to operate at full throttle.

This series could be a lot more hotly contested than some of the pundits are predicting and as a result should be well worth your time. Argentina’s decline has to stop at some point, they simply have too much natural talent and the same could be said of Scotland. Scotland may relish the opportunity to play as a team without the likes of Russell and Hogg attempting to create plays that in reality have neither the execution or support to back them up. Both sides have everything to prove and identities to create – it should make for excellent viewing.

The URC, November 5th and beyond

Yes we can see the puzzled looks on faces with this headline, but all of a sudden the competition has come down to Ireland vs South Africa, and a foreshadow of this November’s Test between the two countries and their ultimate showdown in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup. The action that will unfold over the coming weeks in the URC between the top three Irish and South African provincial sides will give us a fascinating insight into what we can expect when the players don their respective national jerseys come the fall and next year’s World Cup.

Despite some initial false starts the tournament has blossomed this year into a top quality international competition dominated by sides from the two countries. In a short space of time it has become a genuine feast of North/South rugby. For Ireland it is the kind of preparation they could have only dreamed of in the past, and for South Africa it is exposure week in week out to Northern Hemisphere rugby and how to navigate it come the World Cup. For the South African sides there is the added risk of how to balance what is essentially 12 months of club and international rugby without a break for their players, and the risks to player welfare that are inherent with such a schedule whilst still remaining competitive at the highest levels.

In short South African and Irish players are going to get to know each other very well over the next 18 months at both club and International level. Preparation which will be invaluable as both countries seek to emerge the dominant side from next year’s World Cup Pool B.

It’s one small step for Irish provincial rugby but a giant leap for the national side in terms of depth and experience

As a result of their success in the URC and the Heineken Cup, the depth that Ulster, Munster and Leinster bring to the National Squad’s talent banks is enormous

Ireland are clearly benefitting from the fact that in the case of all four provincial teams, players are contracted first and foremost to the IRFU and from there to their clubs. This helps provide a clear separation of duties from club and country, as well as a constant centrally managed conveyor belt of young talent coming through the ranks. It is that steady supply that has provided the national squad with such a wealth of talent and depth. With the three big Irish sides, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, having been so dominant this year in European competition, the national side is set to reap the harvest as Ireland prepares for next year’s World Cup in France.

Look at any of the top three Irish sides and count the number of faces aged 25 and under who have been their teams’ leading points scorers this year both at URC and Heineken Cup level.

Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien, Dan Sheehan, Ciaran Frawley, Max Deegan, Scott Penny, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Ronan Kelleher, Tommy O’Brien, David Hawkshaw.

Munster: Ben Healy, Jack Crowley, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes,Fineen Wycherly, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Sullivan, Shane Daly, Josh Wycherly, Liam Coombes, Diarmuid Barron.

Ulster: Nathan Doak, Robert Baloucoune, Ethan Mcilroy, Michael Lowry, James Hume, Declan Moore, Tom Stewart, Angus Curtis, Marcus Rea.

Add to that a veritable busload of top flight experienced internationals and on any given day, Ireland will have no problem fielding a matchday 23 able to go toe to toe with the best. Ireland’s blend of exuberant youth and established Test veterans is probably the envy of most International Coaches.

For Leinster their quarter final opponent will be either Edinburgh or Glasgow, but a South African opponent will most likely await them in the semis. Leinster ran the top South African side the Sharks close in South Africa, only losing by 5 points, but at home South African sides have struggled to come to grips with the men from Dublin. Leinster’s two week tour of South Africa saw them beaten twice, by both the Sharks and the Stormers, but even against the Stormers and with their so called “B-” side they still managed a losing bonus point.

Munster too have been an invincible nut for South African sides to crack at home, and even on Munster’s two week tour to South Africa the Bulls and Lions were lucky to squeak out narrow wins against the men from Limerick’s “B-” squad. Meanwhile Ulster have also had a similar track record, but will have been frustrated with their rather hefty loss to the Bulls in Pretoria. They have yet to play their opponents for this weekend the Sharks, and with the men from Durban in such red hot form at the moment, there are no doubt a few nerves floating around Kingspan stadium in Belfast this week.

Whatever happens the groundwork laid by Irish sides in the coming weeks will have a huge bearing on preparation for Ireland’s encounter with South Africa come November 5th and ultimately their Pool B encounter at next year’s World Cup with the Springboks, which most likely will decide who wins the Pool and their route through the knockout stages. In terms of getting to know your most critical opponent in the opening stages of next year’s global showdown Ireland, as a result of the URC, have been given a golden opportunity.

South Africa finds itself in the best of all possible worlds in terms of exposure to the best of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby, but the risks of player fatigue and burnout have never been greater!

The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls all had a slow start in the URC but the last three months have seen them light the afterburners allowing them to sit at the head of the table alongside Leinster, Munster and Ulster

South African sides had an exceptionally slow start to life in the URC. So slow that the initial impressions were that a mistake had been made in bringing South African sides into a competition that is so vastly different to Super Rugby and how it is played. 6 months later and we couldn’t be singing a different tune if we tried. Admittedly South African sides have benefitted in the last two months from playing at home and often against slightly undercooked Irish sides, but their meteoric rise up the table standings can only be described as impressive.

The South African URC teams have put on some truly stunning displays of attacking rugby in the latter half of the competition, and their inclusion in next year’s Heineken Cup in addition to the URC is a mouth watering prospect. Their competitiveness in Europe has made them so attractive that they are starting to lure back some big names, Eben Etzebeth signing with the Sharks is the first of many we expect to see over the years.

However, with South Africa still committed to playing the Rugby Championship till at least 2025, the question of player welfare starts to become problematic. Let’s take the example of a star player like winger Makazole Mapimpi of the Sharks for 2022. He will have been playing in the URC since January. The Sharks are likely to get to at least the semis of the competition which will take them up to early June. It’s a short break and then straight into a tough 3 Test tour against Wales back in South Africa. He’ll roll straight out of that and into the Rugby Championship, opening with 2 tough tests against New Zealand. While all that’s going on, there is the start of the 2022-23 URC season and the first round of matches in the Heineken Cup in September and October. To top it all off, there are then the November tours featuring a challenging encounter with Ireland on November 5th, followed by France and England. He’ll end the year with another couple of rounds of Heineken Cup action. In January he’ll roll straight into more URC/Heineken Cup and ultimately the Springboks’ preparation for the World Cup culminating in their Pool B clash with Ireland for Pool top honors on 22 September next year – burnout anyone????

South Africa will be competitive across the board make no mistake, but the management of the national team now becomes a major headache. They don’t quite have the conveyor belt of talent that Ireland seem to be producing, so in a challenging year ahead of them, it seems they almost need two different Springbok sides. One that can take on the lesser mortals of teams like Wales, Italy, Australia and Argentina and another higher level squad to manage teams like New Zealand, Ireland, France and England. You could argue that any other team has similar issues, but at least for Ireland, their players get a break in August whereas many of South Africa’s URC stars will be up to their armpits in combating New Zealand that month. Both squads will need to cut it at international level but one will definitely need to be quicker at going from zero to hero and lasting the full eighty minutes both at home and on the road, and we haven’t even figured in the injury factor.

South Africa is clearly a World Cup favorite, but in a nation faced with slightly more challenges than most, balancing it all will be a fine juggling act that will require the utmost skill from players and management alike.

How all of this pans out, will no doubt become clearer as the next few weeks of fascinating URC action unfolds for both Irish and South African sides. We have a hunch that it is likely to be one of the hottest topics of debates in bars and pubs across the lands in the two countries. Make sure you don’t miss it!

Super Saturday will summon the faithful for a Six Nations showdown of note!

It’s been a glorious four weekends of International Test Rugby and one of the best Six Nations we can remember for a while, but like all good things it must come to an end – but what an ending we have to look forward to on Saturday. France look essentially unstoppable on their march to their first Grand Slam since 2010. The only team who can stop them is an English side who simply haven’t fired this tournament – and to top it all off they have to attempt the impossible in Paris. Assuming that before the dustup in Paris, Ireland are able to dispatch an increasingly confused looking Scottish outfit in Dublin, then every Irish supporter will be watching events in Paris with bated breath, and for 80 minutes find themselves perhaps being even more ardent English supporters than the English themselves. Super Saturday starts however in Cardiff as Wales look to pull off a surprisingly good finish given their form and injury list heading into the tournament, while Italy attempt to finally prove that they have turned a corner in terms of their ability to compete.

In short, as rugby fans we’re in for a treat this Saturday. With France hosting the next World Cup a mere 18 months away, the stakes couldn’t be higher and every team as a result has a point to prove. While campaigns may be over for some of the participants there is still everything to play for with an eye to what lies ahead. While this tournament may be drawing to a close for another year the tone it sets for preparations for Rugby’s ultimate prize next year will be critical for all the teams.

Unfortunately work has kept us far busier than we would have liked of late, so instead of a piece on each match, we’ve condensed them into one and a key summary of what to look for this weekend.

Wales vs Italy

Wales have not lost a Six Nations match against Italy since 2007, and never in Cardiff. Consequently the Azurri have a massive mountain to climb on Saturday. While the desire to win and pull off one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history will be at the back of their minds, it will be more important to build on the competitiveness they showed against Scotland last weekend. This young Italian side looks promising in a way that is genuinely different compared to years gone by.

Wales meanwhile, will want to salvage some pride and respect from a tournament that in many ways had everything stacked against them, but nevertheless they have defied the odds and done rather well. Apart from that horrific opener against Ireland, they have been exceptionally competitive and in two of their three losses they have only lost by less than a converted try. In addition they made both France and England sweat to the final whistle. A bonus point win in Cardiff with a hefty points haul against Italy could see Wales leapfrog both Scotland and England if results go against both on Saturday in Dublin and Paris.

The return of a legend

The ultimate Welsh Lion Alun Wyn Jones makes another remarkable comeback from injury

He may not be wearing the Captain’s armband on Saturday, but lock and Wales’ most capped player of all time Alun Wyn Jones’ presence will be felt by every man on the pitch in Cardiff on Saturday. He is Wales’ ultimate talisman and in terms of rallying the troops there are few who can match him. His seeming indestructability is officially the stuff of legends and Italy will respect him as much as they fear him on Saturday. Whether or not he will have the puff to last the full eighty minutes is another question, but there is no doubt that whether on or off the field, Wales will be a better team with him amongst their ranks. He is clearly, like Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton in the swansong of his career but the impact he can still bring to a Welsh charge can be game changing. If he can weld the Welsh forward pack into a cohesive platform that can build the base for Wales’ halfback pairing of Gareth Rees and Dan Biggar to unleash the likes of Josh Adams and Louis Rees Zammitt out wide, it could be a very long afternoon for Italy.

Speed that Ferrari would be proud of!

Although he looks like he’s barely out of mini rugby, fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo left us speechless during his stint against Scotland off the bench

One thing you can definitely say about Italian rugby this year is that it is full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest was new fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo who in his 35 minutes on the pitch scored two superb tries against Scotland and looked in danger of scoring more every time he got the ball. Once we’d checked his birthdate and found out that he genuinely is 22 and not 12, we were amazed at the diminutive fullback’s pace and complete disregard for his own safety. He threw himself into contact, and although his stature didn’t quite help his tackle success rate he never shied away from chucking himself into the fray. Italy has sought an answer to the injury cursed but supremely gifted Matteo Minozzi at fullback and in Capuozzo they may well have found it, provided he too doesn’t get broken.

There is little doubt that in front of a fervent home crowd demanding nothing less than a strong finish to a troubled campaign, and with a talisman such as Alun Wyn Jones on the pitch this is a match that Wales should win comfortably. However, if Italy can make them work for it like they did Scotland, then they themselves, although leaving the tournament with yet another Wooden Spoon, can feel that there is a hint of promise for a long awaited brighter future.

Ireland vs Scotland

Ireland are on track for an exceptionally strong finish and the Triple Crown. Their only stumbling block so far this tournament was the narrow loss to France in Paris which saw them out of the running for a Grand Slam. They started superbly against Wales, came unstuck by the slimmest of margins in an epic arm wrestle with France and then proceeded to dispatch Italy and England. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing. There were moments in both the games against Italy and England where Ireland looked slightly undercooked. In the win over Italy they looked genuinely sloppy at times and almost as if they weren’t sure how to play a fifteen man game against essentially a rugby league strength side – it was almost as if there was too much space for them to deal with. Against England last weekend, once again they looked bent out of shape against a side down to fourteen men and seemed genuinely taken aback by England’s heroic resistance in the set pieces. In both matches, Ireland regained their composure to put in two clinical finishing last quarters, but the purple patches in between and the almost complete lack of discipline at times against England will have been worrying to the Coaching staff. However, if you ask us it’s better for Ireland to have those doubts and areas to work on now. Rather that than, as they have in the last few World Cup cycles, peak 18 months too early and arrive at the World Cup on a downward trajectory.

As for Scotland, we’re really scratching our heads as to where and how it’s all gone so wrong. In actual fact however, we can’t help feeling that the brains trust of Coach Gregor Townsend, mercurial fly half Finn Russell and Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg are in for some uncomfortable questions. Our frustration, no doubt shared by Scottish supporters, with Finn Russell’s almost reckless approach to the game, Townsend’s odd selection choices and tactics at times and Hogg’s seeming inability to wrestle his troops into line and lead from the front when it’s most needed is reaching epic proportions. These are highly talented and capable individuals who just aren’t delivering at the moment and taking the rest of their teammates down with them.

Sometimes there’s just no substitute for experience

Ireland Captain Jonathan Sexton shows no signs of slowing down despite announcing his retirement after the World Cup in France next year

We have to be honest and say that we have questioned the decision by Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton to keep playing, especially given the fact that by the time Ireland kick off against Spain in their World Cup opener on September 9th next year he’ll be the tender age of 38. However, seeing the Irish Captain and fly half in action this past six months, it’s hard to argue against the opinion that he is perhaps playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious career. In short, there certainly looks like there is more than enough gas in the old warrior’s tank to get him and his team across the finish line. If he can remain injury free between now and then he will be a force for the rest of the rugby world to reckon with. Now that he seems to have come to terms with the scope of the number of playing days left to him, he seems to be playing with a calmness, focus and assuredness that was perhaps lacking until recently. He’s back on song and when he is so is Ireland.

Is frustration with Russell forcing Townsend’s hand or is this the future?

As a fullback or winger we know Blair Kinghorn’s abilities well – but is Townsend’s growing experimentation with him at fly half yet another example of the Coach’s lack of understanding of the talent he has to choose from in Scotland or a stroke of genius?

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that Scotland’s starting fly half for Saturday, Blair Kinghorn shouldn’t be in the squad, but we really are scratching our head over his positioning. He’s fast and capable under the high ball so why not put him where those talents can be used best either at fullback or out wide on the wing. Given that you’re never going to displace Stuart Hogg, we felt that he should have got the starting berth for the Left Wing instead of Kyle Steyn. Scotland’s Six Nations campaign would appear to be well and truly over, as a win against a full strength Irish squad in Dublin chasing the Triple Crown and possibly the Championship is unlikely to say the least given their current form. Therefore wouldn’t it have been more prudent to look towards next year and the World Cup by giving either Adam Hastings or up and coming Glasgow fly half Ross Thompson a shot a match of this stature? Playing Kinghorn is a gamble – he has played well in the position for Edinburgh and the fact that he can move to the back line once Russell comes on if Steyn or Hogg are not firing, is perhaps the reasoning behind it. However, we’re still sad to seen neither Thompson or Hastings getting a look in, considering experimentation seems to be the order of the day for Scotland on Saturday. What is obvious is that Finn Russell would appear to living on borrowed time once more with Townsend, and in that respect we can’t say we blame him as we haven’t been impressed with Russell at all so far this tournament, apart from against England in their opener.

Ireland should be in the driving seat in this one, but there are a couple of niggles hanging over them from their games against England and Italy that Scotland could possibly exploit and pull off a shock win and hand France the Championship. It’s all a bit far fetched for us to be honest, and in the process Scotland may also be missing out on some opportunities to learn and build for the future. Consequently our money is on Ireland to unpack Scotland with relative ease and wait with bated breath for the outcome in Paris.

France vs England

And so it comes to this – a Championship and Grand Slam decider in the venue that will also see who ultimately gets their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy in eighteen months time. It’s hard to argue against France wrapping it all up on Saturday, and we are rapidly coming to terms with the fact that the end of the tournament could well see us with egg on faces, as we were adamant at the outset that a Grand Slam would not be seen this year. The really big question is can France keep it going in five consecutive matches? In the last 12 years there has always been a banana skin lying in wait for them somewhere in the Championship, and often when they least expect it. However, they just look like they are so much better prepared week in week out since Galthie took over as Coach and especially in the last 9 months as France’s buildup to next year’s World Cup starts to gain significant momentum. They did look a bit rattled against Wales last weekend and that will have been picked up by England. Nevertheless, when it mattered most France were able to hold their nerve and that almost watertight defensive system they have put in place allowed them to stay the course.

As for England, much praise has been rightly heaped on last weekend’s squad who so nobly battled against a ferocious Irish assault, and held their own until the final quarter. However, in the euphoria about England’s character, the fact that England has no attacking game whatsoever got glossed over. Once Ireland broke them down in the final quarter they ran in two fairly straightforward tries in quick succession. Furthermore, England have not scored any tries since their points fest against Italy in Round 2. When it comes to tries they sit fourth on the table with only 3 more than Italy and two more than Wales, making a paltry total of 7. Compare that to Scotland’s 10, France’s 14 and Ireland’s 20. It makes for alarming reading and a mockery of Coach Eddie Jones’ assertion of making England a genuine contender for World Cup glory next year. They have character make no mistake and we saw plenty of it last weekend. In fly half Marcus Smith they also have more attacking potential than they know what to do with. Therein lies the problem however, in that they simply don’t know how to use his exceptional talents.

Is there a target on his back?

There is no denying that French fullback Melvyn Jaminet despite blasting onto the International scene last year during the tour to Australia, got a serious case of the wobbles against Wales under the high ball

You really can’t find any faults in this French squad plain and simple. So on that note we’ve really had to trawl the tapes to find one. After doing so the only thing we could pick on was Melvyn Jaminet at fullback who really seemed to struggle at times under the Welsh aerial assault. For us that was the more worrying aspect than France seeming to only want to throw the ball to lock Cameron Woki when it came to lineout time. Although it was highly predictable, because Woki is so good at what he does France were able to get away with it. However, Jaminet was clearly not comfortable at times and England will make sure that he feels the same way on Saturday. England’s fly half Marcus Smith is more than capable of making sure that Jaminet experiences that kind of pressure. French fullback Brice Dulin blew France’s shot at a Grand Slam last year and England will be hoping that such a sense of deja vu will get the better of Jaminet on Saturday night.

Get your deckchairs out lads

You really have to wonder how English scrum half Ben Youngs’ slow and pedestrian approach to his duties can answer the speed, pace and eye for opportunity possessed by his opposite number France’s Antoine Dupont

England Coach Eddie Jones’ selection decisions once more confound any sense of logic for Saturday’s match. Every forum we’ve read has had English supporters up in arms about Ben Youngs’ selection for this match. France have Antoine Dupont who thinks and reacts faster than most computer processors, while England are choosing the slow and steady route. Youngs may be England’s most capped player but that’s not exactly a glowing advertisement these days. England look ponderous off the back of rucks and mauls under his watch, and against a side like France whose forwards are just as enterprising and quick witted as their backs we fear it is going to cost them dearly. Ally that to the fact that England has no attacking platform whatsoever and it doesn’t bode well for the future. Harry Randall who has looked so impressive at scrum half despite his diminutive size, is what England needs if they are genuine about developing an attacking platform that will serve them well next year in the World Cup. Instead, to try and save face Jones has decided to not run the risk that Randall poses in terms of an experiment for such a high pressure match. The youngster makes the bench but the mountain he may have to climb by the time he comes off it may simply be too much and potentially shatter his confidence in the long term.

Jones has also tinkered with the rest of his squad, and once more there is that sense that it’s an unbalanced side lacking cohesion that heads to Paris to take on probably the best organized side in Test Rugby at the moment in the shape of France. England’s backs are against the wall and the thought of them finishing fifth on the table for a second year running will be a huge motivator, as well as the satisfaction of denying France a Grand Slam in front of 70,000 French fans in Paris. In short it won’t be easy for France, make no mistake but the idea that this final hurdle is France’s banana skin in waiting in this year’s Championship looks increasingly unlikely. France will have had the wake up call they needed last weekend in Cardiff. As long as nerves don’t get to them in what is without a doubt their biggest game since the 2011 World Cup Final, we have a hunch that the end of this year’s epic tournament will be bathed in blue!

A look at how the Six Nations has unfolded so far and how it’s setting up for what should be an epic finale!

So after three rounds of vintage Six Nations rugby we have a look at how the final two weekends look to be shaping up and how the teams are faring now we’re past the the halfway point.

In short, there have been few suprises as France have turned their status as pre tournament favourites into a seemingly inevitable reality. Ireland very much look the part of finishing as strong runners, up while England definitely have the look of a quality side but one in transition and struggling at times to determine their shape and identity. Wales have proved, as they always do in this tournament, that they are extremely difficult to beat at home as well as the fact that you just can’t write them off when it comes to the Six Nations regardless of their form heading into the competition. Scotland despite getting off to a rip-roaring start against England, have simply looked off the mark against France and Wales and once more just not lived up to their promise. Although Italy look comfortably en route towards their traditional Wooden Spoon, there is definitely something different about the Azurri this year. They still may not win any matches in the 2022 edition but they look more competitive than they have ever done in the twenty years they’ve been in the tournament, and that competitiveness and the set of skills that go with it look to increase dramatically in the coming years if they can keep it up.

So without further ado let’s look at where the six participants stand with the two penultimate rounds left to go!

Francethe sleeping giant has finally woken up!

International Rugby’s new Brain Trust – French scrum half and Captain Antoine Dupont and Coach Fabien Galthie

We have a hunch that we may well have egg on our faces when referee Jaco Peyper calls time on the last game of the Championship in a just over two weeks time in Paris. We insisted that a Grand Slam was not in the offing this year for any of the six teams, but having watched France in the first three Rounds, it’s going to take an exceptionally special team to get past them. As talented as England and Wales are, we have a hard time believing that either one is the team to put the brakes on France’s juggernaut.

France are so cohesive at the moment, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a team with such a clear understanding of the game they want to play and how to implement it. Every player on the pitch seems to have an intricate knowledge of their role in France’s approach to a given opponent. It is fantastic to watch and they make it all look so effortless. Gone are the traditional French lapses in concentration or discipline at key moments. We’re not saying they are perfect but they’re not far off from being the finished product and so far appear to be light year’s ahead of any of their Six Nations rivals. Their forward pack from one to eight works seamlessly, their halfbacks expertly link the work between the backs and forwards together, and their centre and backfield units are a joy to watch.

French flair is very much alive and well but it is all so clinically organized at the moment. Defensively across the park they are watertight and on attack they have a precision that is absolutely lethal. Their matchday 23s are now a star studded cast and while there are numerous standout players, there are few if any weak links. In their front row Hooker Julien Marchand has been a revelation, while in the second row Cameron Woki is fully justifying all the hype we gave him heading into the tournament. Gregory Aldritt is arguably the best number eight in the modern game – while the halfback combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack share a PhD in game management. In the centres Gael Fickou is a defensive and attack field marshal while Damian Penaud is the definition of a world class winger. But this is simply naming but a few of France’s exceptionally talented roster and to single them out almost does injustice to a team that as a whole just works so well together.

Wales may be a possible banana skin in the Cardiff cauldron, but as evidenced against Scotland, France are now a team that travel just as well as they play at home in front of the Stade de France faithful. Provided things go well for France this weekend in Cardiff, England face the equivalent of parting the Red Sea when they face off against les Bleus in the French capital and try to deny them a Grand Slam in the tournament’s final game.

Ireland – a new standard that just might finally peak at the right time for the World Cup

Irish Captain Jonathan Sexton continues to defy all the odds regarding his age while Coach Andy Farrell continues to weld together a squad that just might give Ireland a fighting chance at long last come the World Cup

Whether it’s by necessity or choice, one of the most refreshing things about Irish Coach Andy Farrell is his willingness to embrace new talent and look to the future. While we may have had our doubts about him in the past, those have all been put to bed as he is rapidly putting together a squad that blends youth and experience and a way of playing the game that maximizes the potential of both. Meanwhile his Captain, the legendary Jonathan Sexton is playing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 36. While Ireland still need a long term answer to his replacement, there is little reason to doubt that one of Ireland’s biggest rugby icons of the last twenty years still has a very important contribution to make to next year’s World Cup campaign.

Ireland’s opening two games were impressive efforts despite the narrow Round 2 loss to France in Paris. Ireland’s slightly bizarre game against an Italian side essentially playing with one hand tied behind their backs, was a valuable but frustrating exercise. However, what Ireland have shown us is their enterprise and imagination in how they play the game these days, backed up by a talent bank that is rapidly becoming the envy of many rival coaches. Ireland were ultimately able to hold their own against tournament darlings France in Paris and the end result was never a certainty until the final whistle, with Ireland mounting a solid comeback in the second half. Despite some uncharacteristic sloppiness against Italy, Ireland ultimately breezed past the Azurri but were perhaps taken aback by the ferocity with which a severely handicapped opponent fought back.

However, despite the fumbles against Italy and the narrow loss to France, Ireland are definitely on song at the moment and the only real challenger to France’s seemingly inevitable crown. Their final two games against England at Twickenham and then at home to a misfiring Scottish outfit, should see them finish a strong second. Their front row has taken some hits with the loss of Hooker Ronan Kelleher to injury along with Prop Andrew Porter. However in Dan Sheehan they have found a more than capable understudy for Kelleher. In the second row, Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely immense both in the set pieces and the loose, while Ireland’s back row stocks have been arguably the richest in the tournament. Lingering questions remain about the future of the halfback berths but with fly half Sexton and even Gibson-Park at scrum half being in such rich form there is not too much to worry about in the short term. Meanwhile Gary Ringrose is a constant thorn for opposition defences in the centre channels and the back three are blessed with talent out wide and at fullback.

In short, Ireland despite some injury concerns heads into these last two rounds in exceptionally rude health and have every reason to feel as confident as France about their last two matches. They’ll be watching proceedings in Cardiff this Friday with huge interest, but first there is the challenging of getting one past an England side that despite lacking Ireland’s cohesion will pose a huge threat at Fortress Twickenham.

England – The tinkering continues with a side that could be so much more

Eddie Jones clearly rates his sensational next generation fly half Marcus Smith but seems unable to figure out how to use him to full effect

The new look England that Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to unleash, certainly has potential but it still remains a lumpy unbalanced unit that at times seems unsure of how to use the array of talent at its disposal. England sit just a point behind Ireland on the table in third place after one loss and two wins, however they have only managed to score six tries all tournament. Ireland have scored 16 and tournament favorites France 13. Given that France and Ireland are England’s last two opponents, that will make for troublesome reading for Jones and his charges as it basically says that England have no real attack. Marcus Smith may be a genius but he can’t singlehandedly provide England with the attacking platform they are so clearly lacking at the moment.

England and Jones seem to be obsessed with the possible return of centre Manu Tuilagi to provide them with the catalyst on attack that they seem to be struggling to find. However, as we and many others have said Tuilagi is simply not a long term option for England as his consistent problems with injury shatter one false dawn after another. Despite Smith making his best efforts to unpick opposition defenses, without an effective centre pairing complimenting his abilities there seems little to work with, and England look woefully bereft of ideas out wide without the likes of Jonny May. In short, England just look blunt in the backs and we find it puzzling given the talent in their ranks such as Jack Nowell, Freddie Steward, Henry Slade and Max Malins. They also seem to be struggling to assert themselves in areas of traditional dominance such as the forwards, even if they finally seem to be starting to develop a more balanced back row. Once again there is a raft of talented individuals putting in huge shifts like Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt but as a unit it’s just not clicking and in the set pieces in particular appears average at best.

What the answer is to England’s dilemma would appear to beyond them for the moment and unfortunately time appears to be running out as the World Cup rapidly looms over the horizon. The next two games will be critical in terms of how England emerges from this Six Nations with an eye to the future. If they can acquit themselves well against arguably the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere over the next two weekends, then they may well start to find answers to the questions that seem to be eluding them. Either way it certainly won’t be for want of talent.

Scotland appear to be heading for the door with a whimper

It all started so well against England for Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend and Captain Stuart Hogg but since then the wheels have started fall off quite dramatically

Scotland looked to be on a roll after that opening game against England which saw them claim back to back Six Nations victories over the Red Rose. Since then though it has all started to go rather pear shaped. As we feared injuries have not helped their cause, but there is also a level of frustration with Scotland when it comes to execution and consistency – qualities we thought they had got a handle on last year. Scotland much like England are blessed with some extraordinary individual talent but at times lack the shape and cohesion necessary to make them the force they could and should be. Their decision making particularly from Captain Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russell is not always the best, and for us Russell continues to force the game at times which results in multiple costly errors that simply hand momentum back to the opposition.

As they head into their final two games, they simply have to tighten up their game and rein in the propensity for recklessness that is Russell’s Achilles Heel and with it the team’s. Against France and Wales they rapidly lost shape, and in the French game in particular they appeared to take no cognizance of how superbly well organized France are defensively. In short they looked more and more desperate as the game wore on. Italy as we’ve seen in adversity will be no pushover in Rome and Ireland in Dublin will be a decidedly painful lesson if Scotland haven’t tightened up their game management and decision making. Despite the initial promise this could well be a Six Nations that Scotland will want to forget in a hurry.

The team that just refuses to quit

Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac and Captian Dan Biggar seem to relish defying all the odds stacked against them

Wales had everything against them as the tournament got underway, an injury list from hell and a thumping at the hands of Ireland that made them appear a spent force from the outset. Then came the gritty home win against the Scots followed up by a second half performance at Twickenham that gave England the fright of their lives. Wales could have won that game and if they had we would all be looking at them in rather a different light. As it is now they head back to Cardiff to face the tournament’s red hot favorites France. As we saw against England there was clearly a hint of one genuinely big performance to come from this Welsh side and in front of the Principality faithful it could be this Friday against France. France have yet to prove that they can take their seemingly invincible track record now at the Stade de France on the road with them. They blew apart an inept Scotland a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, but Cardiff will be a veritable cauldron of noise and Wales will be hoping they can be the banana skin that France invariably encounters somewhere along the road in a Six Nations Championship.

Wales are clearly not the force they were in years gone by, but to write them off against France despite the odds stacked against them, would be foolish to say the least. If they do pull off the unthinkable Friday, then all of a sudden a respectable third place finish could be in their sights. In a tournament where nothing is ever a given we can’t wait to see how the the Welsh dragon’s fortunes pan out.

The Wooden Spoon may be inevitable but this is a very competitive and resilient Italian side

Kieran Crowley appears as frustrated at times as any of his predecessors, but Captain Michele Lamaro and his charges have shown some admirable resilience this year and there could yet be a sting in the tail from the Azurri for either Scotland or Wales

Italy are likely going to end up clutching the Wooden Spoon once again this year, but, provided they can put in two solid performances in their final two games, we genuinely feel that we’ve seen a different Italy this year and one which bodes well for the future. Put aside that 57-6 thumping at the hands of Ireland, but we found ourselves taking our hats off to them for the way they approached a match that from the 20th minute on they had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Shorn of two players for the entire match and towards the end down to 12 against 15, they still played with huge character and heart and despite the scoreline Ireland didn’t exactly have things all their way. Italy managed to deny England the points haul the Men in White so desperately needed, and in their opener against France they nobly demonstrated the fact that France never start well managing to hold their own against Les Bleus until the second half.

Captain Michele Lamaro has shown a maturity and degree of leadership well in excess of his 23 years on this planet. In short Italy have a leader who will be able to carry this team for at least the next three World Cups. Italy still have an enormous amount of work to do, and losing their Hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi who has really risen to the task for the rest of the tournament is a hammer blow. However, there is a real belief in this exceptionally young but talented team. Now with the pointless debate about their place in the tournament seemingly dead and buried, we feel that Italy could finally start to get the breathing room to develop into a side that could actually start to hand the Wooden Spoon to somebody else in years to come.

Whichever way you cut it these final two rounds of this year’s Six Nations should be some of the most fascinating we’ve seen in years with points to prove for all!!!

England head to Rome wary of an Italian side that is showing some promise at long last!

Most of the weekend’s thunder will be emanating from the Stade de France on Saturday, but Sunday’s encounter between Italy and England provides us with plenty of intrigue. It’s a potentially fascinating encounter, and Italy’s duel with tournament favorites France last Sunday in Paris was well worth watching. We’ve all said it a thousand times before in the past, but Italy really do look genuinely competitive this year and as a result their journey through the 2022 tournament could be refreshingly different. While we still have trouble seeing them recording a win, we certainly can’t dismiss the idea that they are in with a chance to pull off an upset.

It’s unlikely though that Italy will get that elusive win against an English side smarting from two successive losses to Scotland. Furthermore, the game last weekend at Murrayfield hung in the balance for the longest time. England looked good albeit not as cohesive as they would like. However, we think it’s fairly safe to say that this year England are likely to improve dramatically on their disastrous 2021 Six Nations campaign. England’s opening night nerves in Murrayfield are likely to settle as the tournament wears on, and the crop of new talent England is now banking on for the future start to mesh more effectively with the veterans.

We have to admit that we are looking forward to this one and fascinated to see how well Italy bear up against yet another stern Test. We won’t say much more than that lest we blight their progress with a commentator’s curse. England know what they need to do and look more than capable of getting the result required to get their campaign back on track. So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking looking at the lineups.

Italy finally have a decent second row

Coupled to the dynamic Federico Ruzza, Niccolo Cannone is making sure that Italy’s prowess in the second row is building nicely

The 23 year old Benetton lock grows in stature and ability with every performance in an Azurri jersey. Alongside one of our Italian favorites, Federico Ruzza, Cannone looked impressive last weekend against France. A lot of the statistics pertaining to the set pieces in last weekend’s duel in Paris paint Italy in a fairly positive light. His work rate and tackle count were impressive, while he was particularly effective for Italy in the lineouts. He wasn’t fazed by France’s Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse last weekend and we see no reason that he shouldn’t fare just as well against England’s Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe. If Italy can gain some parity in the set pieces courtesy of Cannone and Ruzza, that level of competitiveness that is clearly Italy’s end goal in terms of development from this tournament will be assured.

Does Eddie Jones really not know what to do with Itoje?

Without any shadow of a doubt, Itoje is one of the most important components of England’s engine room, yet he rarely gets the recognition from Coach Eddie Jones that we feel he deserves in terms of a leadership role

Search YouTube for a clip of Maro Itoje’s 30 second motivational speech to his teammates in the England changing room following their narrow defeat to Scotland last weekend. Once you’ve watched it you’ll understand our conundrum. While we are delighted to see Tom Curry get a shot at wearing the Captain’s armband we have been consistently puzzled by England Coach Eddie Jones continuing reluctance to offer the same honor to Itoje. Itoje has the necessary experience and is such a talismanic figure in the England camp that, at a time when England needs some wise heads speaking from experience, it’s remarkable Itoje is not given more of a leadership role.

If that’s not enough then imagine our surprise at seeing him moved from his traditional role in the second row, to pair with current Captain Tom Curry in the back row. Is he moved there simply to negate the influence of Italy’s highly motivated young Captain Michele Lamaro? We have a hunch that it may well be the case allowing Tom Curry to steal the limelight as Captain of the day. Still we much prefer Itoje in the second row, a role he seems much more effective in. Sunday’s starting Hooker Jamie George has struggled of late with his lineout throwing for England, and is used to having Itoje as an easy target where he expects him to be. Just as England finally looked like they had a balanced back row for the Scotland match, Jones decides yet again to tinker with it. Against Italy he can probably afford to do so, but we still question the logic. Sunday will be the judge, but at least with Itoje you know he will rise to the occasion whatever is asked of him.

Rising to the challenge

At only 23 Italy Captain Michele Lamaro is adapting exceptionally well to the challenge of leading his beleaguered nation

Talking of leadership, we have to take our hat off to Italy’s newest Captain and back rower, Michele Lamaro. Watch a replay of the anthems at the Stade de France last Sunday, and it would be hard to find a more motivated leader, despite the obvious challenges that Italy continues to face in the Six Nations in their struggle to be competitive. He simply looks like a natural and his team respond well to him. He seems to have ditched some of the emotions that tripped him up last year, and now appears a remarkably calm and efficient operator in the heat of battle. In short, he may be young but is operating at a maturity level well above his years, and is a quality Italy have desperately needed since the departure of the legendary Sergio Parisse. Like Parisse, Lamaro has a phenomenal work rate and put in 21 tackles last weekend and played the full eighty minutes with no let up in intensity. He still has work to do in terms of technique and won’t be happy with the four tackles he missed, but there is no denying that he is rapidly putting his stamp on Italy’s emerging future. His contest with England’s Maro Itoje on Sunday, will be a genuine coming of age for Italy’s young but inspirational leader.

Chance for a whizz kid to shine

Scrum half Harry Randall brings a level of flair and pace to the position that is a refreshing change from regular incumbent Ben Youngs’ rather pedestrian approach to the role

England’s baby faced warrior Harry Randall is the most exciting thing that’s happened to the scrum half role in the English camp for a very long time. While Ben Youngs has been a reliable servant, there is no denying that the kind of fizz that Randall brings is exactly what England need to be competitive against the likes of France’s Antoine Dupont. While he may still be too raw and inexperienced to take on such heavyweights during the course of this year’s Championship, a golden opportunity to test his skills against the likes of Italy and Wales is exactly what England need to fast track him to the point where he can be a genuine option come the World Cup. His duel with Italy’s own fresh faced number nine barely out of his teenage years, Stephen Varney, should be one of the highlights of the afternoon. Varney looked very much the schoolboy against France last weekend, and Randall must surely fancy his and England’s chances in Rome on Sunday as a result.

The future of their respective countries is in both their hands

In the continuing theme of the battle of the fly halves that will dominate this year’s Championship, the future of both England and Italy lie with Marcus Smith and Paolo Garbisi

Yes we know we talked about Marcus Smith last weekend, but we have a hunch that it will be a recurring theme this Six Nations. The same can probably be said about Italy’s Paolo Garbisi. With both fly halves well shy of their 25th birthdays, the future is bright for both of their countries. Last weekend, despite moments of absolute genius, England’s Marcus Smith was nevertheless the apprentice to Scotland’s seasoned Finn Russell. After watching Squidge Rugby’s analysis of the dustup at Murrayfield, we found ourselves understanding to some extent Coach Eddie Jones’ reasoning for pulling Smith off the field. At times the pressure was getting to him and he was making some rather uncharacteristic schoolboy mistakes which his opposite number Finn Russell was capitalizing on. Still, we couldn’t help feeling that George Ford didn’t really add much to the equation to reverse England’s fortunes when he came on, and as a result it might have been better to keep Smith on and allow him to learn from his mistakes. Like many we felt that would have been the more prudent course of action, even if we could understand Jones’ reasoning. Shortly before Smith went off he scored a crucial try for England and seemed to be mastering the situation he found himself in and as a result it might of been better for his future development to let him stay the course on the field.

Much the same could be said of his Italian counterpart this weekend, Paolo Garbisi. Garbisi is vital to Italy’s future plans but had a real 50/50 game against France last weekend. His kick to put winger Tommaso Menoncello was exquisite, but he like Smith at times was guilty of schoolboy errors under pressure. However, much like England it is simply not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater at this stage. Unlike with Smith and England, Italy and Coach Kieran Crowley appreciate that they simply have no option other than sticking with Garbisi and helping him through his mistakes. It’s the right approach as Garbisi’s talent is there for all to see and given the fact that at the age of 21 he already has 14 caps to his name, he is only going to get better. He has already been fast tracked out of necessity much more than Smith and although the Englishman is the more naturally gifted of the two, Garbisi is more familiar with the big pressure moments that Sunday’s game will bring. It is going to be a fascinating contest between two world class youngsters. Smith may have the better setup behind him in terms of nurturing his development, but Garbisi’s star will keep rising and England will have to continue to keep him under pressure on Sunday.

While it’s hard to disagree with yet another loss for Italy and an emphatic win for England, this is still a match that holds plenty of interest for both supporters and neutrals alike. Italy could well end up being someone’s banana skin further down the road if they continue on their present trajectory. England meanwhile will want to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and will be aiming for a maximum points haul against a traditionally easy target. However, we have a hunch that Italy may not be quite the pushover that England may be expecting them to be this time around.

Ireland have it all to do if they are to stop the French juggernaut in Paris this Saturday!

Although it’s so early in the day, Round 2 to be precise, it’s hard to not look at Saturday’s clash in Paris as a possible Championship decider. There is little doubt that both teams are red hot at the moment. However, before we all get too carried away, let’s put it in perspective. As good as Ireland and France looked last weekend, they were playing the two sides who will most likely be duking it out for the Wooden Spoon this year – Italy and Wales. To be honest, a shock win for Italy given their resistance against France last Sunday is not beyond the realms of possibility. Had France and Ireland played either Scotland or England and wiped the floor with them last Saturday, then perhaps we would be more akin to the idea of entertaining an early Championship decider. A contest of epic proportions awaits, of that there is no question, but a tournament clincher at this stage – not quite.

Ireland’s performance against a clearly faltering Welsh side last Saturday, was impressive, clinical and played at 300 miles an hour. However, it wasn’t perfect as both Coach Andy Farrell and his charges are keenly aware of. Ireland should in reality have put at least another 12 points on the Welsh last weekend. At times the weather didn’t help and this is an Irish side on fire but one which is still fine tuning its processes, while at the same time finessing some rather extraordinary new talent into the establishment.

As for France, they got off to their usual rusty start at the beginning of every Six Nations tournament. Italy had come to play and were not overly daunted by the calibre of their opponents or the deafening cauldron that a packed Stade de France provided. France’s All Stars struggled to impose themselves on the courageous Italians until the end of the first half. Much like Ireland they should have put at least 10 more points on the scoreboard. However, the engine was clearly purring by the end of the game, even if it hadn’t quite reached the full throttle roar it will need come this Saturday afternoon.

While we remain slightly skeptical of this game being billed as a Championship decider so early in the proceedings, it will without a doubt be one of the most important games of this year’s Six Nations. On that note here’s what got us talking about the potential matchups.

Two of the best at their trade and who will have a very large say in how the game unfolds

France’s Julien Marchand and Ireland’s Ronan Kelleher are rapidly becoming two of the best Hookers in the International game

Dynamic is the word that most often comes to mind when describing the centerpieces of France and Ireland’s front rows. Kelleher may be part of the more fearsome unit, but Marchand’s abilities are so impressive that he can almost carry the front row on his own. What the two have in common is their lightning quick abilities in the loose. Two very powerful ball carriers who excel in open play and pose a constant threat at the breakdowns. Marchand is central to French defense Coach Shaun Edwards’ plans while Kelleher is a brilliant jackaler of the ball. Their respective roles in ensuring who dominates the set pieces as well as getting invaluable go forward momentum will be key as to how Saturday’s game unfolds and who has the edge. Given Kelleher’s skills especially with ball in hand, we’re giving the Irishman the slight edge here, but make no mistake this will be one of the most important contests on the park in Paris on Saturday.

A clash of Titans

Two of the very best in the modern game go head to head in the shape of France and Ireland’s number 8s – Gregory Alldritt and Jack Conan

Make sure you book yourself a front row seat to watch these two remarkable players have at it on Saturday in Paris. There is very little to choose between them, and in our humble opinion there is nobody to equal them in this year’s Six Nations. Both were immense last year in their respective sides’ victories over New Zealand. Their discipline is exemplary and in terms of driving their teams forward you couldn’t ask for better. Two very technical and highly skilled players who do all the unsung work that is so crucial to establishing forward dominance. However, for us the Frenchman has the edge, and leads the two in all the statistics. They both get through the same amount of work, but somehow Alldritt just consistently pulls the higher numbers overall when comparing their seasons so far with one glaring exception – the games against New Zealand. Against the All Blacks the Irishman scored the higher numbers, as impressive as both players were in their respective matches and victories over said fabled opponent. In short, for such a big game you couldn’t ask for two better players and the contest between the two of them on Saturday is likely to have you glued to your TV screens.

A slow start but don’t let it fool you!

Antoine Dupont was clearly recovering from his bout with COVID, but by the end of the match against Italy there was no doubt that he will have spooled up nicely for Ireland

To be honest we were surprised to see French wonder scrum half Dupont feature in last weekend’s match against Italy. Having just recovered from Covid, we had doubts about his match fitness, and thought it an excellent opportunity to blood some depth for France in the position. Given the fact that Italy were able to lead France a merry dance at times, perhaps it was just as well that the pocket sized dynamo was there to restore order. It was clear to see though that at times the game was taking a toll on him physically and overall France’s superstar was not quite up to his usual mesmerizing standard. However, by game end he looked to have found his feet again and Ireland will need to be on their guard. As Sexton is to Ireland, “le petit general” is key to how well France fare on the big occasions.

A vital step on the road to life without Jonny

As valuable as Jonathan Sexton was to getting Ireland off to a dream start last weekend, Joey Carberry’s biggest start to date in an Irish jersey is equally important to Ireland’s long term plans especially with a view to the World Cup

Irish fly half and legend Jonathan Sexton was at the top of his game against Wales last weekend, despite a few goalkicking foibles. The arguments about his age were well and truly buried once more as the veteran provided yet another brilliant example of game management. However, the arguments about Ireland’s depth in the 10 jersey still linger on and Sexton’s inevitable brush with injury this week during training have made it all the more pressing. As good as Sexton is there is no guarantee he will escape injury during the course of the tournament and more importantly in the runup to the World Cup. Consequently the need to develop a reliable and consistent understudy of equal caliber has never been more pressing.

Ireland are likely to feel the loss of Sexton this Saturday in Paris, but it is a golden opportunity for Joey Carberry to resume where he left off in his bid to be the Leinster legend’s successor. To start against France who are most likely going to be your biggest threat in this year’s campaign is the ultimate Test, and if Carberry can pull it off it will stand him in excellent stead for England and Scotland should the stretcher bearers get a hold of Sexton again later in the tournament. Carberry has battled injury problems of his own, and as a result Connacht’s Jack Carty awaits on the bench. For us this is an equally important opportunity for Ireland. Given Carberry’s propensity for injury Ireland need a Plan B and if Carty can replicate his form for Connacht then Ireland could perhaps finally start to think of a “life without Jonny” when it eventually comes to pass.

As a debut it doesn’t get much better than last weekend – but now the real test begins!

Irish winger Mack Hansen had the dream debut against Wales, but France and Damian Penaud will be a completely different beast that will really determine if the Australian import is the real deal

We were blown away by Mack Hansen’s debut in an Irish jersey last weekend against Wales. It wasn’t just good it was spectacular, and a bit like Scotland’s Darcy Graham the man was everywhere, and at times seemed just as comfortable in the center channels as he did out wide. Great with ball in hand but also capable of some absolutely sublime offloads, Hansen is the most exciting thing to happen to Ireland on the wings since Jacob Stockdale. Ironically, although his dancing feet and silky hands put in a huge shift at the Aviva last Saturday, he scored no tries of his own as he was simply too busy setting up tries for everyone else. This is a really gifted footballer and coupled with Andrew Conway on the other wing, Ireland have an exceptionally potent strike threat out wide. The big Test for Hansen this Saturday will be if he can contain his opposite number the exceptionally elusive Damian Penaud who is arguably one of the best players in the world at the moment gracing the 14 jersey. Saturday’s match may be less about Hansen’s natural razzle dazzle, and more about how well his defensive skills are up to the task of containing the slippery Frenchman, who has proven that he needs only the slightest of gaps in which to carve out huge chunks of real estate for his team.

It’s set to be an absolute thriller with the weather on cue to cooperate and favor two sides who simply love to run the ball at the moment. It’s hard to argue against the odds being slightly tilted in France’s favor at home and against an Irish side missing such a key player as Sexton. Even without Sexton though this is an exceptionally capable Irish outfit that have rediscovered the joy of an open game. Ultimately it will come down to who can channel the power of two bruising forward packs and the pace of two sets of silky backs, and turn it all into points on the scoreboard most effectively. Either way you simply won’t want to miss this one, and we have a hunch that wherever you are on Saturday, it’s one you’ll be catching live as opposed to on demand!!!

Scotland arrive in Cardiff looking to add even more impetus to an impressive start to their Six Nations campaign while Wales hope that home advantage may bring some salvation!

Wales’ first of three home Six Nations games sees them having to take on a Scottish side oozing confidence after back to back Calcutta Cup victories over England. Wales are not the Championship winning side of 2021 and in many ways are a mere shadow of it. Their current form is more likely to put them in in danger of going head to head with Italy this year for the Wooden Spoon. However, playing in front of a sold out Principality Stadium crowd will be a powerful tonic for the Men in Red and as a result to write them off would be beyond foolish. Scotland will know that and come prepared. There weren’t too many positives last weekend for Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac’s men, but their cause hasn’t been helped by their ongoing injury crisis, and an opener against a red hot Ireland was never going to be a simple task. We can’t help feeling that Wales can’t get any worse than they were in Dublin and as the tournament wears on, especially now they only have one more away game left, their fortunes should improve.

Scotland will breeze into Cardiff knowing that they almost ruined Wales’ party last year, and on the basis of that controlled win over England last Saturday, they seem more than comfortable with handling big pressure moments. It also should be borne in mind that their track record away from Murrayfield in last year’s Six Nations was rather impressive as they won both of their away games against England and France no less. Barring the loss of back rower Jamie Ritchie due to injury for this match and sadly the rest of the tournament, Scotland look in rather rude health and more than up for the challenge that awaits them. There is little doubt that they are the form team of the two heading into this match, and that their Welsh opponents have it all to prove.

“Bash em Basham” – some genuine excitement for Welsh fans

Wales didn’t have much to cheer about last weekend, but flanker Taine Basham managed to lift Welsh spirits consistently and scored the Men in Red’s only try

Wales came perilously close to experiencing a 29-0 rout to Ireland last weekend. Wales looked out of sorts and clearly very few of them were aware of what kind of game they were supposed to be playing and how to execute it. However, new back row sensation Taine Basham was the exception from start to finish. Involved in every aspect of the game, he matched everything that Ireland threw at his colleagues for the full eighty minutes. He put in a staggering 22 tackles and missed none of them. He was a menace at the breakdown, made 14 carries and 34 metres, beat 2 defenders and in general was a complete handful for Ireland. In short, he was one of the few Welsh players that Ireland really had to contain last Saturday.

Unfortunately for Basham, the rest of the Welsh back row hardly fired a shot, even the impressive Ellis Jenkins. Their second row was for the most part ineffective not helped by a dismal 67% success rate in the lineouts and a scrum that simply got obliterated by Ireland’s powerhouse trio both in the the set pieces and the loose. As good as Basham is, he simply can’t be the one man Welsh forward army this Saturday that he was in Dublin. His colleagues need to follow his example as they take on what is rapidly becoming a rather accomplished and capable Scottish pack. His contest with Scottish firebrand and Six Nations player of 2021 Hamish Watson will be one of the highlights of the weekend!

Coming of age

In a Scottish back row that is rapidly gaining in stature, Matt Fagerson’s stint in the 8 jersey against England last weekend gained him a worthy Man of the Match accolade.

We had an inkling that Scottish number 8 Matt Fagerson was destined for great things when he arrived in the Scottish camp back in 2018. Since then he has improved steadily every season. However, his Man of the Match performance against England last weekend, announced his coming of age at Test Level. He may not be of the same stature and prowess as say Ireland’s Jack Conan or France’s Gregory Aldritt, but like England’s Alex Dombrandt expect Fagerson to be causing havoc from now on leading up to the World Cup. He lasted the full eighty minutes and hardly looked like he’d really broken a sweat. He got the better of English wrecking ball Sam Simmonds and if anything negated the Englishman’s presence. Fagerson was the glue that held a very solid and effective Scottish back row together. He never missed a beat especially when Jamie Ritchie had to be taken off the field with injury and if anything made up for Ritchie’s absence by doubling his already considerable efforts. We have a hunch that his composure may get the better of his more volatile Welsh opposite number Ross Moriarty this weekend.

Dynamic Duo

The chemistry between Scottish Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg and his playmaker extraordinaire fly half Finn Russell is plain for all to see

The eyes of the world last weekend were on the 10 and 15 jerseys at Murrayfield. To say that Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russsell understand each other, is likely to be one of the biggest understatements of this year’s Championship. Hogg clearly trusts his playmaker and despite some questionable decision making in the past, Russell seems to have finally mastered the art of consistency in how he manages a game. Gone last weekend were those hail Mary moments that had been a hallmark of Russell’s game in years gone by and would have Scottish fans holding their breath or averting their eyes.

Russell was up against a fellow magician of rather extraordinary talent in the shape of England’s Marcus Smith. As talented as Smith is, he was on Saturday to Finn Russell what Harry Potter is to Albus Dumbledore. In short, Smith still has plenty to learn but Russell has mastered the full range of magic required to compete at this level under the most intense pressure. A similar analogy could be made between England’s Freddie Steward and Scottish Captain Stuart Hogg in the fifteen jersey, as another case of Master and highly talented but still rather raw Apprentice played out in front of us. The Scottish duo clearly understand and trust each other, and with Russell’s vision and sleight of hand and foot, Hogg and his back line wizards are able to utilize their considerable talents to the full. It’s a very dangerous pairing and looks set to rattle some of the world’s best over the coming weeks.

An axis that simply has to work this week – plain and simple!

Wales chose to gamble with their center pairings last weekend and it was a complete disaster – with Tompkins and Watkin this weekend they have to get it right

Let’s be completely honest the decision to play winger Josh Adams at center last weekend was an unmitigated disaster. Adams is a great winger make no mistake, but completely at sea in the center channels. Watch any replay of last weekend’s game and defensively he is almost always positioning himself to defend out wide. Ireland read him like a book and simply ran inside him all afternoon. Allied to Nick Tompkins who was having trouble making any of his own tackles stick, Ireland found it to be open season in the center of the park – a fact that Gary Ringrose and Bundee Aki made the Welsh keenly aware of. One has to feel slightly sorry for Adams as this week he finds himself out of the match day 23.

Consequently, this weekend Tompkins needs to make sure his tackles stick and he reads the game correctly, something he failed to do on numerous occasions last weekend. His partner Owen Watkin will need to help anchor Wales’ ship in the midfield. To be honest we were rather baffled at his omission last weekend in favor of Adams. He played an instrumental part in Wales run to the semi finals at the last World Cup and although like Tompkins he is a potential liability on defense, the two can be a potent force on attack. They will have their work cut out for them this weekend as they go up against the exceptional Chris Harris for Scotland, and newcomer Sione Tuipulotu who made such an impressive debut last weekend in his cameo for the final quarter against England.

Who says size matters?

Scotland’s pint size winger Darcy Graham punched WAY above his weight last weekend and appears to have modeled himself on South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe

Winger Darcy Graham may not be the biggest man on the park but that hardly slows him down. He thrived out wide last weekend for Scotland against England, tackled like a demon and was more than willing to lend a hand in the rucks and when required by his forward pack. His try ably assisted by England’s hapless Luke Cowan Dickie sealed the deal for Scotland, along with the opening try for Scotland that he set up for Ben White. However, it was his tireless efforts for the full eighty minutes that most impressed us. His colleague on the other side of the park, Duhan van der Merwe, may have stolen the thunder at times with his bullocking runs, but the fact that Graham was literally everywhere and often doing things that a player of his stature should on paper have no business attempting, made him one of the stars of the show last Saturday. This weekend he is up against Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit who, despite clearly battling with an ankle niggle last weekend, is a player of the same caliber. However, given the fact that Darcy will be weaving chaos from every angle of the park, we fear the Welshman despite his remarkable talents may appear rather one dimensional by comparison. Either way watch that side of the park on Saturday.

It’s hard not to see a pumped up and clinically proficient Scotland, who seem to fare rather well on the road, get the better of a Welsh side clearly struggling with injuries and an identity crisis. The Principality Stadium will add lots of noise and passion, but these Scottish lads just seem far too composed right now to let it get to them. It may not have the billing of the France/Ireland game which follows it, but we can’t think of a better way to get your Six Nations Saturday started!

In a rain soaked Paris, Italy seek to be competitive against the tournament favorites France!

In the final game of the opening round of this year’s Six Nations the byword is in the tagline above – Italy simply need to try and be competitive a trait they will need to demonstrate throughout this tournament. There is literally a snowball’s chance in hell that they are going to pull one over the mighty French in a rain sodden Stade de France on Sunday. However, if they can keep themselves in the match for at least the first hour, much as they did for the first 30 minutes against the All Blacks in November, then Kieran Crowley and his charges will have started their Six Nations campaign in the vein in which they mean to continue.

As for France, they will be seeking to lay down a marker that they are the team to beat this year and then some. To that effect Coach Fabien Galthie has brought a star studded cast to the Stade de France and a fully loaded squad. Looking at the lineup there are simply no deficiencies in it and it’s a thoroughly tried and tested set of combinations. In short, nothing is being left to chance. France often start the Six Nations with a wobble and although nobody can really entertain the idea of them losing to Italy on home soil, there is no denying that a degree of rustiness is often present in the squad in their opening match of the tournament. It is precisely for that reason that Galthie has chosen to stick with his big guns for a match where had it been further into the tournament, he would probably have had the luxury of experimenting with his setups and resting some tired bodies.

While the victor is in little doubt, this should still be a fascinating contest as we get to see how competitive Italy can be and how dominant France really are, especially against weaker opposition. Like all the games this weekend, the weather will play a part and probably be more of a handicap for the Italians than the French, so don’t necessarily expect a free flowing game and instead one where both sides cautiously test their Six Nations straps.

France’s player of the tournament in the making?

While there will be plenty of attention focused on France’s all star backs and half backs, we have a hunch that utility forward Cameron Woki may end up stealing the show this Six Nations

While the media are literally fainting over France’s all star half back combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack who will feature in this match, spare a thought for utility forward Cameron Woki. He was utterly outstanding in last year’s Six Nations and against the All Blacks. Exceptionally versatile and a player who surprisingly has never played in the second row until his French callup, Woki is a massive weapon in France’s arsenal. His presence dominates lineouts, adds an unstoppable power to rolling mauls and in the loose he is devastatingly effective. In short, he is one of the most complete forward players we have seen France produce. To top it all off he is only 23. Expect to see him make the headlines week in week out this Six Nations and Italy will have their hands full keeping him in check on Sunday.

Ruzza is finally seen as a starter

It has puzzled us for the last two years how outstanding Italian second rower Federico Ruzza has always been consigned to the bench

If we can say one positive thing about new Italian Coach Keiran Crowley it is that he has, unlike his predecessors, seen the value of starting second rower Federico Ruzza instead of keeping him on the bench. This is possibly due to Crowley’s time at Ruzza’s club Benetton and a familiarity with what the feisty utility forward can contribute to his team’s efforts. Ball in hand Ruzza is a genuinely dangerous prospect and he’s also rather handy at producing turnover ball. In short, we are delighted to see the big man finally get the recognition he deserves. He’ll have his hands full trying to contain France’s wonder weapon Cameron Woki, but if he can compete it will be a telling indication of how well Italy will fare this Six Nations.

Garbisi’s biggest Six Nations to date

Garbisi’s skill set is remarkable especially given his age, and how well he is able to keep his opponent guessing will be key to how well Italy fares in what is their most important Six Nations campaign to date

There is no question that Italian fly half Paolo Garbisi has talent by the bucket load, but he has also become in the blink of an eye the talisman around which his team will succeed or fail. If Garbisi is having a good day then so will Italy. He has an aura around him almost akin to the legendary Sergio Parisse. We’re just not sure that he has mastered the art of running a game in the wet. In dry conditions, provided he can maintain his accuracy then he can be one of the Six Nations most skillful competitors. However, in conditions that don’t favor a running game Garbisi is simply not as confident or assured. If he can add that string to his already accomplished bow on Sunday, then Italian fortunes will continue to rise.

The Six Nations leading try scorer in the making?

We have a hunch that French winger Damian Penaud will be leading the try scoring statistics this Six Nations

To put it simply, French winger Damian Penaud can score from ANYWHERE! We were always slightly bemused at how he was often glossed over come selection time by former French Coaches, but under Galthie Penaud has blossomed into the superstar he was always destined to be. He’ll have a genuine match on his hands as he’ll have to keep Italian speedster Monty Ioane in check. The difference is that Penaud has mastered the ability to cross the whitewash in all conditions – rain or shine. Penaud is your all season winger and although the conditions on Sunday are unlikely to favor a free flowing game, Penaud will find a way to gain some traction and build up a head of steam in slippery conditions. Give him the ball and a chink of light in the defence and no matter what the weather is doing – he’s gone plain and simple!

A very solid last line of defense

With Melvyn Jaminet, France like England and Ireland are very secure at the back of the park

A revelation on the tour to Australia and outstanding against New Zealand in November, French fullback Melvyn Jaminet took the French rugby public by storm last year. To be honest until then we’d never heard of him, but now he is such an integral part of French planning that it’s hard to see how they ever lived without him. Brice Dulin is equally talented but somehow Jaminet has shown that he has the cooler head under pressure in a very short space of time. France’s propensity for flair has sometimes made decision making at the back less than stellar on occasion. However, with Jaminet running France’s last line of defense there is a security which the rest of his teammates can take great comfort from. In short, France like England’s Freddie Steward and Ireland’s Hugo Keenan, have reliability and sound decision making built into their fifteen jersey in the shape of Jaminet.

Like we say the outcome isn’t really in doubt and is clearly in France’s favor. However, it should nevertheless be a fascinating and important encounter for both sides and an opportunity to lay down their respective statements of intent for this Six Nations.

A perfect storm brews at Murrayfield between two sides with everything to prove and scores to settle!

Six Nations games between England and Scotland have always been packed brimful of expectation and emotion, but in recent years they have started to become the stuff of legend. Can anyone ever forget that remarkable Scotland comeback from 31-7 down in the second half in 2019 at Twickenham? Then there was last year’s heroics on the same ground as Scotland secured their first victory at England HQ since 1983. Ironically, Murrayfield doesn’t seem to produce the same level of success against the English. In their last five encounters at Murrayfield Scotland have only won one of them.

As for England, that defeat to Scotland last year at the start of the tournament on such hallowed ground stung them to the core, and in many ways set the tone for what would prove to be a disastrous English Six Nations campaign. To say that Eddie Jones and his charges are out to return the favor this time on Scotland’s home turf would be a bit of understatement. The conditions look set to be horrific and would seem to favor the grit and determination approach favored by England as opposed to the pace and skill game of Scotland. Both sides have players of enormous talent and could provide us with a thrill ride of note, but we fear that Mother Nature is likely going to put a bit of a damper on proceedings, excuse the pun. Consequently it will be more of a slog than a F1 race, and as a result the team that can endure the longest while keeping their composure and discipline will emerge the winner.

England’s front row may creak but the glue that binds it is exceptionally strong

England Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has plenty of reasons to keep smiling

We have genuine concerns about England’s front row, particularly in terms of balance as we feel it is just not gelling. For us Kyle Sinckler is too much of liability in terms of discipline and technique at Tighthead despite his bruising abilities in the loose, and the same could be said to a certain degree of Ellis Genge on the other side. However, their man in the middle Luke Cowan-Dickie need make no apologies. In our opinion he’s the best option England have by a comfortable margin, and one that is only going to get better. England’s bench doesn’t really fill us with confidence either with the possible exception of renaissance man Joe Marler. While Scotland may also struggle with front row balance, and let’s not talk about their woeful lineout accuracy, we still feel it’s a more cohesive and effective unit. With that said though we feel it’s Cowan-Dickie’s technique and abilities in the set pieces that may ultimately give England the slight edge in the front row contests.

Scotland’s dynamic duo look set to cause havoc once more

One of England’s biggest problems on Saturday will be trying to wipe that irrepressible grin off of Scottish back rower Hamish Watson’s face

One of our favorite back row pairings in the Six Nations is back in action again on Saturday and will be up to their usual mischief. Scotland’s Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie take great pleasure in raining on England’s parade and are rather effective at it. Watson is everywhere disrupting rucks, making turnovers and generally making a massive nuisance of himself while Ritchie plays the role of enforcer in the set pieces and physical battles. The pair are ferocious competitors and take very few prisoners. They will be up against it this time as England finally look to have a settled and balanced back row, with some equally dynamic ball players. However, even if the conditions don’t allow Scotland their preferred chaos management stlye of game, much of the work done by these two will set the tone of how well Scotland will be able to cope with Plan B.

England finally decide what they want their back row to look like

“Alright mate – it’s not just a number then after all” – England Coach Eddie Jones at long last recognizes the value of a specialist number eight now that he is spoilt for choice

After seemingly denying the value of a specialist number eight, England Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to listen to his critics, and include not just one but two in his matchday 23 to face Scotland. The long suffering Sam Simmonds finally gets to start at eight in place of Tom Curry. Curry fulfilled the role with admirable efficiency at times last year, but is still much more valuable as a flanker where he now finds himself along with wearing the Captain’s armband. For Simmonds though it’s been a long time coming and very much overdue given his outstanding form at club level with Exeter. England really are spoilt for choice here as once the dynamic Simmonds starts to tire, Jones gets to bring on Harlequins demolition expert Alex Dombrandt whose presence in an England jersey was consistently called for by England supporters during the course of last year. It’s a position where we feel Scotland are really going to struggle to compete, and despite Matt Fagerson being ably assisted by Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, England may just have too much power here.

Wizarding Wars

When it comes to outrageous talent, it’s hard to beat Scotland’s Finn Russell and England’s Marcus Smith in the number 10 jersey

Of all the contests this weekend, the battle of the fly halves at Murrayfield will be the most influential. Marcus Smith may be the new kid on the block in terms of Test Rugby compared to Finn Russell who is no stranger to the roller coaster ride of the Six Nations, but the Englishman’s skill set is every bit as good as his opposite number. Both individuals are hungry for success, but we’d argue that as driven as Smith is, despite his youth he appears to have the more measured head on his shoulders. We are often in awe of Finn Russell who can produce miracles out of nothing, but all too often he loses sight of the larger picture, something we feel that Smith is better at grasping despite his lack of Test experience.

Russell is a world class 10 plain and simple, but we feel that he often only sees the game through the lenses of a fly half. Smith on the other hand, in the few Tests we’ve seen him play so far, seems to have a better eye to what the game may be looking like for the rest of his squad mates. He is a remarkable player, but despite his almost manic competitiveness he always looks like he has weighed up all his options before committing himself, even if he has done it in the blink of an eye. Although Finn Russell has become slightly less reckless in his approach to managing Scotland’s game, he is still prone to rolling the dice and hoping that luck favors the brave. Sometimes it works for Scotland with spectacular success but when it doesn’t Scotland start to unravel very quickly. We can’t wait to see who fortune favors on Saturday, but given the conditions the odds may be slightly stacked in the Smith camp.

Scotland’s Power and Pace combo may lose out to Mother Nature

It would be a great shame if we don’t get to see Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe operate at full throttle as a result of the weather

Unfortunately as talented as they are, the weather at Murrayfield on Saturday may just not favor the 100 mile an hour game that fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Duhan van der Merwe prefer. For Scotland’s fleet footed but devastatingly powerful winger raised on the hard dry pitches of the highveld, conditions may mean that we see little of him. With gale force winds predicted it’s also unlikely there will be a lot of aerial contests from which Hogg can launch his lightning fast counter attacks that can leave defenders guessing for an unbroken 50 metres. England’s Max Malins and new fullback sensation Freddie Steward can provide an equal number of thrills but we’d argue that the big English fullback is likely to be slightly better at adapting to the conditions despite his lack of Test experience. If the two Scots are allowed to run wild then England could be at sixes and sevens defensively, especially the new kids on the block in the back line. However, we can’t help get the feeling that simply may not be the case if Mother Nature has her way in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Either way it should be a cracking game and one of the most anticipated of the tournament and you won’t want to miss it. In many ways we feel that Scotland have more to prove of the two especially in front of a home crowd, and that added to the weather may mean England squeak a narrow win and level the playing field between these two sides after last year. But then nothing in this glorious tournament is ever a certainty and definitely not between these two sides, so bring on Saturday and let the game do the talking!

Ireland line up at the Aviva with a squad that looks set to take no Welsh prisoners!

And so it begins!!! The tournament that we anticipate more than any other is finally about to get underway. After the empty stadiums of the past two years, the crowds are back and will add that critical 16th man element to every home team as well as all the color and festive atmosphere the tournament has lacked courtesy of the pandemic. Covid is still likely to throw all the teams the odd curveball throughout the tournament, but with the World Cup only 18 months away and all six teams looking in fine fettle, this is likely to be a tournament to remember for many a year to come.

Ireland and Wales get us underway this Saturday, in wet and blustery conditions at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Ireland are one of the favorites to lift the trophy on March 19th, while defending champions Wales’ luck seems to have run out before the tournament has even started. But as everyone knows in recent years this is a tournament, that perhaps with the exception of Italy, the form book seems not to respect. In short, anything can happen on the day and while Ireland look an incredibly daunting prospect especially at home, to write off Wales’ before the opening whistle would be not only disrespectful but rather foolish to say the least. Wales got the better of Ireland last year in Cardiff in a hard fought encounter, and despite the conditions on Saturday expect no less in Dublin as both teams have everything to prove.

So here’s what got us talking ahead of this critical opening fixture for both sides.

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Ireland’s front row is the most feared of any side in the tournament and rightly so

Everyone who has read this blog, knows that we think Ireland’s front row stocks of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadgh Furlong are the benchmark by which all other teams will have to measure themselves against this Six Nations. They have arguably the world’s best Tighthead prop in Tadgh Furlong. On the opposite side the highly versatile Andrew Porter who can cover both Loosehead and Tighthead, is a wrecking ball of note. Add into the mix Ronan Kelleher who is probably one of the fastest and most destructive Hookers in the modern game and Ireland have it all going on up front. The only mild concern is Kelleher’s lineout throwing but it certainly looked like it had come on leaps and bounds during the November series and we’d argue Wales’ Ryan Elias has much more to worry about in that regard. Their bench are no slackers either but more on that in a minute. Wales are going to really struggle to compete with these three, especially in inclement weather. Expect Ireland to build a dominant platform up front that takes no prisoners and dictates the tone of the match from the outset.

Irelands wealth of forward riches now extend to the front row

Just when Ronan Kelleher thought it was safe to frame his Ireland 2 jersey, along comes Dan Sheehan

There is no doubt that incumbent Ronan Kelleher earned his stripes in 2021 to make him Irish Coach Andy Farrell’s first choice Hooker. However, if you’ve watched Leinster this season in the URC, young Dan Sheehan has been tearing up pitches wherever he goes. Boasting a skill set just as good as Kelleher’s, albeit with a slightly different approach to how he plays the position, Sheehan has been a revelation at Leinster. As a result we are delighted to see him get a spot on the bench for Ireland’s Six Nations opener. Ireland lose nothing other than experience by bringing him off the bench, and with an eye to the World Cup just around the corner, getting Sheehan some serious game time over the coming weeks will really strengthen Ireland’s depth and options in such a crucial position.

A crucial back row axis that despite missing some traditional firepower could well be Wales’ salvation

While Wales may be missing the likes of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins and new kid on the block Taine Basham certainly made us sit up and take notice in November.

If you’re going to be even remotely competitive against Ireland, then the battles in the back row will be key. Lack firepower here and it will be all over but for the crying. While Wales are reeling from an injury list from hell in their back row stocks, it is definitely made up for in the shape of Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham. Jenkins returned after two years out from a horrific injury to be Wales’ most impressive performer of their November campaign. Meanwhile, newcomer Taine Basham lived up to all the hype surrounding him. The two flankers will be up against it as they wrestle to keep Ireland’s Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier in check, but we fully expect to see them make a decent fist of it. Without question the battles fought in this part of the park will be the most important indicator of how Wales will fare in this match. If these two can slow down that powerhouse Irish back row and create some go forward ball of their own, then all of a sudden the bookmakers may have to start retooling their betting odds.

Just one of the many reasons that Ireland’s future looks so bright

Ireland’s Caelan Doris exceeded all expectations in his breakout year in 2021 and we can only imagine how much better he’ll be this year

One thing Ireland has become very, very good at in recent years is churning out a seemingly endless stream of world class back rowers. Caelan Doris is just one more recent example, but he could well end up becoming Ireland’s most important player this tournament. Alongside the fleet footed Josh van der Flier who is back to his very best, Doris took the rugby public by storm last year. Highly mobile, dynamic in the rucks and mauls and seemingly impossible to bring down, expect to see Doris featuring heavily in the highlights of Ireland’s exploits in the coming weeks. Alongside van der Flier and the remarkable Jack Conan, Doris could make it an exceptionally long and painful day at the office for the Welsh as this is an Irish back row that could prove next to impossible to contain.

Two Captains who suffer no illusions as to what’s at stake

Welsh fly half and Captain Dan Biggar knows like his opposite number Jonathan Sexton that your Six Nations opener will set the tone for the rest of your campaign.

Your heart has to go out to this year’s Welsh Captain Dan Biggar. How do you possibly step into the shoes of a persona as large as injured Welsh Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones? While Ireland struggles with the Sexton succession question, for now they know they simply can’t do without him. Fortunately for Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, Sexton’s recent form has proven that the wily veteran is still at the top of his game. If Biggar can figure out what some of the rabbits Sexton is likely to pull out his rather large hat might look like, he will be able to keep Wales in the match. However, in the conditions likely to plague the Aviva on Saturday afternoon your money has to be with Ireland’s man for all seasons. Like many of the matchups over the coming weeks, the battle of the fly halves will determine the outcome of this Six Nations and Saturday’s encounter in Dublin is a case in point. While every game is key in this tournament, your opener is arguably the most important in the competition. At this stage it’s a level playing field for everyone and how you succeed or fail in Round 1 can often set the tone for how the rest of your campaign will play out and how your opponents perceive you in terms of their own planning.

Conditions in Dublin on Saturday will mean that this contest will most likely be a war of attrition in the trenches amongst the forwards. It’s unlikely that we will see the speed and grace of Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit or the weaving runs of new Irish sensation and debutant Mack Hansen. As a result if that is the case it’s hard not to tip your hat in favor of the Irish for this one. Allied to Sexton’s game management Ireland are probably the better equipped side to manage such a slugfest. Either way, as an opener to the glorious festival of rugby we are about to indulge in over the coming weeks we couldn’t ask for better!