One of the biggest Saturdays of the rugby year is with us once more! In the last few years the final round of the Six Nations has provided excitement aplenty as rugby fans around the world brace themselves for 240 minutes of nerve-wracking competition. This year is no exception.

The opening match between Italy and France may have no impact on the title race, but the stakes for both sides are huge as Italy seeks to win their first Six Nations match since 2015, and thus avoid the resurgence of the debate as to whether or not they deserve their place in the tournament in the first place. Meanwhile, France need to prove that their ability to be a contender come the World Cup is still a reality. It hasn’t been a good tournament for them, but there have been some positives as they dismantled Scotland and gave Wales an almighty scare in the opening forty minutes of the competition. However, the implosions against England and Ireland put a dampener on any hopes of a new dawn in French rugby.

All eyes however will be on Cardiff on Saturday as the main event gets underway between Wales and Ireland. Wales have quietly and efficiently got themselves to the point where they can now taste their first Grand Slam in seven years. However, last year’s Grand Slam Champions Ireland might have something to say about that. Although Ireland only really started to show us what they are made of when they took apart France last weekend, they have a history of raining on other team’s Grand Slam parades, as England will tell you from their own experience in the 2017 Championship. Ireland are clearly up for this, but Wales have the advantage of it being home turf and a venue that has a record of not favoring the visitors in this Championship.

England will be watching the events in Cardiff with great interest before they run out onto the pitch at Twickenham in the tournament’s last game, as they face a Scottish side decimated by injury. Should Ireland upset the Welsh, then England are suddenly in the running to lift the silverware. There are still plenty of permutations around bonus points and points differences that add a layer of complexity to proceedings, but ultimately England are very much in the hunt should Ireland do them a favor on Saturday. Scotland meanwhile face an injury list from hell made worse by a trip to Twickenham. As a result the Scots travel south of Hadrian’s Wall with perhaps the biggest underdog tag they have ever worn in their proud history.

So without any further ado, and bearing in mind that this is a tournament where surprises are never out of the question, even if they may be based on nothing more than flights of fancy, let’s get into what got us talking over some heated pints this week.

Italy vs France – Saturday, March 16th – Rome

Italy may have yet to record a win so far this year, but we’d be lying if we said we haven’t enjoyed watching them at times this Championship. This is not a bad Italian team, even if results would contradict this assertion. We have been really impressed by some of the new talent Italy has unearthed this year, and were they to end their campaign with a win against a powerful but backfiring French team, the confidence this would impart to Coach Conor O’Shea’s charges would be immeasurable. It’s Italy’s last hurrah before the World Cup and they need to make it count.

France on the other hand should be so much better than their results indicate this tournament. Despite some misguided tinkering by Coach Jacques Brunel in the opening rounds of the tournament he has chosen to stick for the most part with a team that he feels he can trust, even if for this match he has once more chosen to mess with the starting order. France need to end their tournament on a high as the players clearly seem to be out of sync with management, and a much-needed win on Saturday will do much to mend fences.

We want to believe that France has a front row beyond Guilhem Guirado – but it’s hard

Once again France’s Captain extraordinaire was one of the few French players who didn’t let the side down last Sunday in Dublin. However, that front row just creaks. It’s a hard call as there is no denying the skill of rookie tighthead prop Demba Bamba, but time and again his lack of experience shows as he continues to make basic errors. He is clearly an enthusiastic and exciting player, but one who still exhibits a rawness that is costly. Italy’s offering by contrast looks slightly more settled and composed. A fascinating contest awaits but one which simply has to fire for France.

One of the best contests of the weekend – Ruzza vs Lambey

For us this is the most exciting contest between two Test rookies this weekend. We have been hugely impressed by Italy’s Federico Ruzza and once again despite the loss to Ireland, France’s Felix Lambey had a monster of a game. These two rookie second rowers are stars of the future for their respective sides and this should be one of the most exciting contests of Super Saturday.

Brunel decides to gamble yet again with one of France’s strongest assets

Although they got shown up last weekend in Dublin, France’s back row has been one of the few things French supporters have had to cheer about in the last six weeks. While to a certain extent Coach Jacques Brunel’s hand has been forced by injury, we still raised our eyes slightly at the teamsheet. Picamoles has for the most part been a monster especially against weaker opposition, and although he may not have had the best game last weekend, flanker Arthur Iturria still remains one of France’s biggest new talents. While Iturria at least makes the bench, and Wenceslas Lauret is out due to injury it is perhaps a big gamble to throw rookie Gregory Alldritt into the starting lineup despite some impressive performances off the bench, and Yacouba Camara has yet to impress. The French contingent will be up against a very dangerous looking Italian unit spearheaded by legendary number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse, who will play his last competitive game at the Stadio Olimpico. If Brunel has got it wrong this could make for a long afternoon for France, and if Italy start to get some real traction going here in front of a home crowd who will be intensely vocal this could well swing the game in the Azurri’s favor.

Antoine Dupont – France’s ultimate danger man!

If we had to name our match day Six Nations 23, the young Frenchman would be a unanimous selection. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in sheer talent. Simply put – what a player! Even in France’s dark times over the last few weeks the scrum half has consistently stood out. Italy’s exceptional Tito Tebaldi is going to have his hands full keeping up.

Despite a solid work rate, are Italy’s backs good enough to take the fight to an experienced and capable French unit

France sees centre Wesley Fofana play his last Six Nations match alongside veteran battering ram Mathieu Basteraud. With a wealth of caps between them, the centre channels should be France’s to own on Saturday. Meanwhile, their back three pack plenty of experience and pace. However, Penaud’s pace on the wing is offset by some defensive frailties exposed by both England and Ireland, as the Frenchman still appears happier in the centre channels. Italy can be competitive here make no mistake but there is a lack of consistency here that is worrying. However, despite their experience the same could be said of France so it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Verdict

Can Italy pull it off, given what is at stake for them? We have a hunch they just might. France’s away record at the moment is dismal, and Italy have put together their strongest side all Championship. It won’t be easy but as Sergio Parisse’s swan song Italy surely must have one great game in them this Championship, and our hunch is that Saturday’s contest has all the hallmarks of an Italian performance for the ages. So let’s put away all the clichés about which French side will turn up and simply wear our heart on our sleeve and hope that Italy’s run of bad luck has to end sometime, and this weekend’s contest in Rome has all the trappings of a reversal of the Azurri’s fortunes of late. Consequently a hard-fought and edgy contest, full of mistakes from both sides in the heat of the moment, but Italy to make home advantage pay and take it by two!

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, March 16th – Cardiff

What a prospect is in store for us on Saturday! This was always seen as the Championship decider before proceedings even got underway on February 1st. Although the script has not quite been followed and Ireland find themselves fighting for at best a second place finish, Saturday’s Cardiff dustup will still decide the Championship in terms of whether or not it is England or Wales who will be lifting the silverware. Ireland still is in it with a chance, but it is sadly almost too remote to think of. It would mean that they not only have to knock Wales off their pedestal, but an injury ravaged Scotland would have to do the same to England. If that weren’t enough there is the small matter of bonus points and points differentials.

That said though, Ireland rediscovered the form that many thought would take them to yet another Grand Slam, when they rolled over a dazed France last weekend in Dublin. However, that needs to be taken in context. As much as Ireland dominated, France were poor and there is no denying that Ireland have simply not come away with the points haul they’ve needed against weaker teams like France and Italy in this year’s tournament to make them genuine title contenders. However, as Grand Slam ambition wrecking balls, there are few better teams than the Men in Green. Consequently despite having to travel to the Cardiff Cauldron, Ireland are more than up to the task.

Wales on the other hand simply look the finished product. They may not be the most flash side in the Championship, but they have simply got the job done week in week out and never really looked panicked. Consequently, their sense of belief must now be off the charts coupled to an efficiency and mastery of the basics that is the envy of many of their competitors. This is a brutally efficient and workmanlike Welsh side that knows what they are doing and how to best manage the ebb and flow of Test rugby. They may not have blown us off the park with their skills or flair, but when the chips are down and they are up against it, their sense of composure in closing out difficult games has been second to none. For that reason they deservedly find themselves looking at being Grand Slam Champions this year. All that remains to be seen is what Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his men have to say about it.

Wales have been good, but we think that their front five finally meets its match on Saturday

Although Ireland misfired here in the first three rounds of the Championship, their first five are still rightly regarded as one of the best in the business. After the disastrous Sean Cronin experiment in Rome, Rory Best returned to steady the ship against France. As he ran out for his last Six Nations appearance in front of the Aviva faithful, he proceeded to put in a performance to remember. In his last Six Nations match in an Irish jersey and with so much at stake, expect more of the same. Tadgh Furlong was back to his barnstorming best and Cian Healy made a complete nuisance of himself. Meanwhile James Ryan simply hasn’t put in a bad performance in an Irish jersey – ever! Saturday sees an Irishman who is no stranger to Welsh antics, second rower Tadgh Beirne make a welcome return. Even with the mighty Alun-Wyn Jones leading the Welsh troops, we think that provided the Irish tight five continue the form they showed against France, Wales are in for the biggest Test of the last twelve months in this part of the park.

The two best back rows in Test rugby go head to head

Well in the Northern Hemisphere at least, but we imagine quite a few New Zealanders hold these two units in considerable regard. Having said that we still regard Ireland as having a few more question marks hanging over them in this department than Wales. At the forefront is Sean O’Brien’s fitness. There is no denying his pedigree but we can’t help feeling that this remarkable player just hasn’t hit the high notes that he once did. We’re all big fans here at the Lineout of the “Tullow Tank” and really hope that he will once more put in one of those performances for the ages on Saturday. However, Irish supporters will take comfort in the fact that should he falter, Jack Conan made an outstanding contribution off the bench against France, so there should be no drop in intensity. Against Ireland, Wales pack an equally impressive unit, and last week as always Justin Tipuric was a deadly Welsh enforcer when the going got tough. Like their Irish counterparts, the Welsh trio excel in the physical contests but also pack some real pace around the park. However, we just feel that provided they click into high gear and stay there for the full eighty minutes Ireland have the edge here by the slimmest of margins, especially when it comes to the ability to dominate possession.

Ireland finally find their feet when it comes to game management

Let’s face it Ireland just weren’t there for their opening game against England and faltered badly here at times all the way to Rome. It was only last weekend against France that Ireland’s half back duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton could be said to be back to their best. However, when they are at their peak there are few that can match them, and as a result the test being put to Welsh half back Gareth Anscombe is the biggest of his career to date. Like his Irish compatriots he has got steadily better as the tournament progressed but has still had to be rescued at times by the experienced Dan Biggar. Expect to see the same on Saturday should he trip up. Furthermore, if it’s a shootout between Biggar and Irish replacement Jack Carty, should Sexton pick up the kind of injuries that he has somehow miraculously avoided so far this tournament, then our money is on Biggar. With proven match winners on and off the bench this is a very tight contest and will be one of the most fascinating battles on Saturday, but we tip the Irish to have the upper hand here, as they have a track record of winning big matches like this against the odds.

Gary Ringrose may have had a chat with Brian O’Driscoll ahead of this one

While the comparisons with the legendary Irish centre are inevitable, we feel Ringrose is a player with his own unique skill set. While his remarkable line breaks bring to mind his predecessor, Ringrose is likely to stamp his own authority on Saturday’s match. A word of advice from the great man himself over the phone in the buildup to this match certainly would have done Ringrose no harm. However if he carves out his own piece of history on Saturday, then the references to his illustrious counterpart may start to play less of a role in discussion of his own talents.

Welsh defences get tested out wide but they passed the test against England

There has been a lot of talk in the press this week about Welsh vulnerabilities out wide. Many people feel there are still question marks around the defensive abilities of Welsh wingers Josh Adams and George North in particular. They did pass the test against England, but then Wales controlled the game such that the English threat out wide was nullified, given the Welsh backs limited work to do defensively. Saturday is likely to be an entirely different prospect, especially if the Sexton/Murray partnership turns the tables on Welsh game management. Irish winger Keith Earls is literally playing out of his skin at the moment, and has been one of Ireland’s most consistently reliable performers in the tournament. Add to this threat the one posed by Jacob Stockdale, and if the Welsh defences allow space to open up for these two, then North and Adams will really find out what they are made of.

Verdict

What happens on Saturday has so many repercussions for how the final table will look, that without a doubt it is THE game of the weekend. Ireland will be up for this make no mistake, and will want to use this as their first real step on the road to the World Cup. Expect an intensity and physicality to this match that is likely to surpass some already memorable contests so far in the tournament. Complacency does not seem to be an issue affecting Wales, and their focus and composure has been exemplary coupled to a seemingly watertight defence in their own 22. If Ireland are to break the Welsh defences and score tries they will need to rely on their backs to do it outside the 22, rather than get into a slugging match with Wales at close quarters. A game to remember, whatever the outcome, is on the cards. Still we are going to go out on a limb here and see a fired up Irish side once again proving that they are the masters of derailing opponents’ Grand Slam ambitions, as they sneak a win by three points.

England vs Scotland – Saturday, March 16th – Twickenham

Your heart simply has to go out to Scotland for this one. This is a promising and spirited side that can play some genuinely exciting and attractive rugby. However, it seems to be subjected to a constant stream of injuries that make it almost impossible to achieve any kind of consistency. To have to travel to Fortress Twickenham, missing some of your key game changers is a fate we would not wish on any one. However, all that being said there are some Scottish players we are genuinely excited at watching in action and a big performance from some of them Saturday will only bode well for Scotland’s plans for the World Cup. If Scotland can cut down on their errors in execution that have plagued them this tournament, then they are in with a chance – a slim one but a chance nonetheless!

England on the other hand have no such problems. Fighting fit and boasting a full complement of world-class players, the Men in White must surely feel more than just a little confident about proceedings on Saturday. Should the Irish have done them a favor a few hours earlier in Cardiff, then expect them to regard the Scots as lambs to the slaughter as England go for the maximum points haul that would secure them the title. The squad picked by Coach Eddie Jones simply oozes quality and is one that is likely to feature in England’s big games in Japan six months from now.  With absolutely no disrespect to Scotland, they face an absolutely massive mountain to climb on Saturday, something which England are probably not completely oblivious to.

England’s back row should be dominant but this is one area where Scotland could prove awkward

Don’t believe us, then watch the absolutely massive and almost game changing impact Scotland’s Hamish Watson had coming off the bench last weekend against Grand Slam favorites Wales. He really got under their skin and threw their defences completely off kilter at times. So for that matter did impressive newcomer Magnus Bradbury and what’s more he did so for the full eighty minutes. England are putting out a balanced, powerful and exceptionally capable back row – something they didn’t have last year. It should get the measure of Scotland but expect the Scots to use Watson in particular to seek out the chinks in its armor with devastating effect. England will have to keep Watson in check if they are to keep their structures intact in this part of the field.

Scotland’s half back pairing simply HAS to cut down the basic errors

Once again we are happy for Scotland to see Ali Price start over Greig Laidlaw at scrum half. The energy and pace Price brought to the position against Wales had been clearly lacking in Scotland’s efforts in the tournament up to that point. Furthermore, he combines well with the rapid fire thinking and unpredictability of fly half Finn Russell. These two together could make their English rivals look downright pedestrian by comparison. However, therein lies the problem, in their desire to try to play the game at ninety miles an hour right from the get go, their execution invariably starts to go by the wayside. Scotland will need them to bring some composure under pressure to proceedings on Saturday. Risks will need to be taken if Scotland stand any chance of pulling off the upset of the tournament, but they will need to be measured.

England’s World Cup centre pairing?

Now that Manu Tuilagi seems to have put his injury problems to rest, there is no question he has looked the threat he has been built up to be. Meanwhile Henry Slade has finally come of age, and the two of them on Saturday are likely to be well beyond the reach of Scotland’s Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg. We expect to see these two be the architects of a lot of the big points on the board that England will be chasing on Saturday, with Scotland sadly being completely outclassed here. Furthermore, a good showing by the two Englishmen should see them get the nod for the starting positions in England’s big games six months from now in Japan. We wish Scotland well in this part of the park but fear it is going to be a bit of bruising.

Whatever happens on Saturday – a big performance from Darcy Graham will hopefully be something to celebrate

The Scottish winger’s performance against Wales was a real eye opener for us. Scotland seem to be able to produce electrifying backs with ease and Graham is a prime example. While he still may have a lot to learn, there is no denying that this is a star in the making and a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. If he puts in a big performance on Saturday, then Scotland will definitely have something to cheer about heading to Japan, as yet another youngster proves he can rise to the occasion.

Elliot Daly – England’s unsung hero

We confess that we tend to stand by certain players through thick and thin, and England’s Elliot Daly is a case in point. We regard him as one of England’s most underrated players, but hope that his performances this tournament will change that, as well as his efforts last November. While he may not always get it right, we regard him as a safe and reliable pair of hands that can consistently get England out of trouble. Continued exposure in high pressure games is simply making him a better player. We think he offers a broader range of skills to England than many of his predecessors in the position, and let’s face it he has an exceptionally handy boot to add to the package. Expect him to shine on Saturday and finally remove some of the doubts that occasionally detract from him being considered as England’s first choice for the 15 jersey.

Verdict

England go into this match, with the demons of Cardiff well and truly exorcised. However, although unlikely Scotland could still prove a banana skin in waiting, should England let their guard down once they think the job is done. At the end of the day, there is no overlooking the fact that Scotland have not won at Twickenham for 36 years. With a team ravaged by injury, it is almost impossible to consign a record like that to just a piece of history – such is the task faced by Scotland on Saturday. Extraordinary upsets of that magnitude simply don’t happen very often in our glorious game. So as much as we would like to dream and see Scotland give us something to talk about for the next 36 years, we just can’t see them getting past a very slick and well oiled English machine running at full capacity. Consequently England to take the spoils by 16 points after wrestling with some serious Scottish spirit!

 

 

 

 

 

The tournament continues to throw the form book out the window, as in Round three we saw a French side play perhaps their best game of rugby in years, while Scotland looked a shadow of their potential. Wales’ track record leading up to their clash with England had been remarkable but they hadn’t exactly blown us away at times in the process, but in Cardiff they put in an assured and world-class performance. England blasted into the tournament at Ireland’s expense last month but their inability to adapt under pressure in Cardiff a fortnight ago, once more became a problem and with it their discipline. Meanwhile, after being written off by everyone, Italy gave Ireland an almighty scare in Rome as the Men in Green continue to look a far cry from the side that ended 2018 on such a high.

Scotland could be forgiven for their routing at the hands of the French a fortnight ago in Paris as they were dealt an injury list from hell. However, there were still a few wise heads in that Scottish squad that should and could have made more of an impact. Scotland were spirited at times, but their execution and decision-making was exceptionally poor, compared to a French team that literally sparkled. France seemed to have recovered from the debacle at Twickenham and put on a display that ticked all the boxes. Superb defence, a devastatingly effective and physical set of loose forwards, an inspired half back partnership and a back line that clicked and provided some real imagination to France’s attacking abilities. Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, as sadly that has not been France’s forte in the last few years, especially away from home. Scotland welcome some familiar faces back to the fold this weekend, but will it be enough to derail the Welsh Grand Slam express?

Wales finally put on a show that justified all the slow building hype surrounding them a fortnight ago in Cardiff, as they completely outclassed an English side that failed to adapt to Welsh tactics. We have to confess to being amongst the many, who although admiring Wales’ successful track record of late, were struggling to see what all the fuss was about as they were managing workmanlike performances at best, and while efficient they weren’t exactly blowing other teams off the park. However, against England they put in a world-class performance that has surely got alarm bells ringing for their opponents in the World Cup. England meanwhile didn’t exactly play a bad game, but ultimately they stuck with a game plan that clearly wasn’t working and was playing straight into the hands of a Welsh team that had figured them out in the first ten minutes. England have a relatively soft game this weekend against Italy, but should they fall asleep at the wheel as Ireland did a fortnight ago in Rome, a potential banana skin could await them at Fortress Twickenham – unlikely but just saying. Meanwhile Wales know that all the momentum of the tournament is with them, and although a road trip to Murrayfield is never easy, provided they play like they did against England then once again the job should get done.

Ireland will be kicking themselves for coming away with such a pitiful points haul from Rome, as once more they looked a shadow of last year’s Grand Slam champions. Italy came at them for the full eighty minutes and put in one of the best Italian performances we’ve seen in a long time. Once more the Italian defence looked solid and there is a growing sparkle to their attacking play, with scrum half Tito Tebaldi clearly being the Azurri find of 2019. Ireland by comparison looked sluggish and as the match wore on increasingly frustrated. They knew they were being given a challenge but seemed ill prepared for it, with certain key players being well off their best. There were some outstanding individual performances from a handful of Irish players but overall they are simply not firing as a team and really need to step up the ante if they are to regain the mantle of genuine World Cup contenders. With only two Tests left before the summer warm ups the clock is ticking for Ireland, and if France puts in the kind of performance they did against Scotland this Sunday in Dublin, then Ireland’s task suddenly looks a whole lot harder.

The final pecking order is starting to take shape for this year’s Six Nations, and barring any upsets this weekend it would appear that it is a three-horse race to the finish, with the Welsh clearly well out in front, England comfortably in second and the Irish bringing up the rear. But hang on it’s the Six Nations we’re talking about where literally anything could happen. So as always without any further ado, let’s have a look at what got us talking this week about the forthcoming weekend’s proceedings.

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, March 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland showed plenty of promise in the November Internationals but that was perhaps the best that could be said for it, as although they got some good results they often appeared laboured and came painfully short against South Africa. Their Six Nations campaign so far seems to have the same veneer to it. While we don’t deny for a second that losing the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg for the French game was a serious blow, there were still some Scottish veterans in Paris that day who simply didn’t show up. Furthermore, Scotland seem to be slipping back into their old ways of overly ambitious play styles without the necessary execution to back them up. Despite some brilliant individual performances, that has very much been the case this year so far, especially against Ireland and France.

Wales come to Murrayfield knowing that of late it has become a challenging venue at which to get a win, but there is no denying that they arrive brimming with confidence after a very convincing win over England. While they struggled at times in their opening two games of the Championship, their second half comeback in the opener against France was the stuff of legends. Furthermore the England victory showed a Welsh side that clearly has the wherewithal to make some noise in Japan later this year. Either way this should prove to be a contest well worthy of our attention on Saturday.

Like many of his colleagues Stuart McInally needs a BIG game on Saturday

Let’s face it the Scottish scrum got bossed around in Paris, and they will have to be at their best to contain a Welsh front row that got the better of England a fortnight ago. McInally lends a real presence to the Scottish front row which was sadly lacking in France, and in front of an expectant home crowd with an eye to the World Cup, the Scottish hooker needs a massive performance on Saturday to give the rest of his teammates the confidence that hard work at the coal face can build the kind of platform they need to unleash their backs.

The loss of Cory Hill in the second row for Wales is a bitter blow but a golden opportunity for Scotland

As regular readers of this blog know we are big fans of the Welsh second rower and feel he is a genuine contender for Wales’ World Cup campaign later this year. Even though Coach Warren Gatland seems to prefer Saturday’s starter Adam Beard, we like many fail to understand why. With Hill out injured, Beard is back in but there is no doubting the massive impact Hill had on the England game. Impact is not a term that comes to mind when watching Beard in action by contrast. Consequently, we are hoping that on Saturday the mystery will finally be resolved as to what exactly Beard’s value is to the squad. Scotland meanwhile could well profit, as provided Jonny Gray and Adam Gilchrist put in a massive shift here, Scotland could have a better day of it despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones for Wales.

Have Wales got one of the best back rows in Test Rugby right now?

We certainly think so. Reliability, panache and sheer brute force are the three key attributes of the Welsh back row turning out on Saturday. As regular readers know, we consider that Justin Tipuric should be made a patron saint of Welsh rugby, as he is one of the most reliable back rowers in the modern game and excels at getting his team of out tight spots. Meanwhile Josh Navidi appears to be back to his best both in the loose and the tight exchanges, with Ross Moriarty just being a devastatingly effective nuisance factor. While we really like the look of Scottish newcomer Jamie Ritchie and see a big role for him in Scotland’s World Cup campaign, we find it hard to believe that he and his colleagues are going to be able to rattle the Welsh justice league.

We’ll say it again but Ali Price should have started in Paris

As regular readers know we have had difficulty of late, especially with the World Cup just around the corner, in understanding Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s insistence on starting Greig Laidlaw over Price. We have raised our concerns in the past on these pages that Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw simply doesn’t provide the spark that Scotland needs, and at times is almost pedestrian in his duties. Ali Price is much more of a live wire, and we are more confident in Scotland’s chances on Saturday seeing him get the starting berth, especially alongside fellow speed merchant Finn Russell.

From 11 to 15 Wales are likely to run rings around Scotland

If you watch the Welsh performance against England a fortnight ago, the control that this Welsh set of backs imposed on the game was extraordinary. Put simply we just don’t see Scotland being able to match this on Saturday. There were some outstanding skill sets on display by the Welsh quintet against England, perhaps best epitomized by winger Josh Adams remarkable match winning try. While this Welsh group were perhaps slightly underwhelming in the opening two rounds, they came to fore as the finished product against England. Scotland has some genuine talent in Blair Kinghorn at fullback and the contest in the air between him and Welshman Liam Williams will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Verdict

One thing Scotland do have going in their favor is their bench on Saturday. We are not necessarily saying it’s better than the Welsh offering, but it has a few key individuals who if they turn up can really give Wales some grief. Saturday sees the welcome return of flanker Hamish Watson from injury, and fly half Adam Hastings needs no introduction. However it is the X-factor of Byron McGuigan we are most excited by. Nevertheless with the likes of Dan Biggar among others, it is still a pretty impressive Welsh bench that should feel comfortable with whatever Scotland can throw at them. In short, this is Wales game to lose and it is going to take a pretty special Scottish performance to rain on the Welsh parade. Scotland have a good team, make no mistake but it looks badly shaken in terms of confidence, something which Wales seem to have in abundance. Provided Wales don’t produce the kind of underwhelming displays that characterised their initial efforts in the Six Nations, Wales should emerge the winners and a step closer to lifting the trophy and even a possible Grand Slam. A fascinating encounter but one in which a more assured Welsh side are likely to take the spoils by six points!

England vs Italy – Saturday, March 9th – Twickenham

England were on a roll until their encounter with Wales a fortnight ago. Consequently they will be looking to get their campaign back on track and hoping that Scotland do them a favor in the process. If that were to happen, it will reinforce the need for England to rack up as many points as possible against Italy who traditionally are the weakest side in the tournament. We are fairly certain that Ireland approached their game with the Azurri a fortnight ago with the same mentality but were given an exceptionally rude awakening. Italy may have struggled so far this year, and there is no question that Ireland were well off the mark in Rome, but to still hold the second best team in the world to only a ten point margin deserves some credit. Furthermore, for large chunks of the match Italy were able to exert extraordinary pressure on Ireland which made an already misfiring performance from the Men in Green even more difficult. Lastly the Italian defence has come along in leaps and bounds since November, which will no doubt get in the way of England’s ambitions points wise.

That being said though, this is a home game for England, and Twickenham appears to have regained its Fortress status, making the challenge a daunting one for Italy. While the result is not really in doubt, what remains to be seen is how much of a confidence boost the game against Ireland has given Italy. If they can at least keep the scoreline relatively honest and not get completely blown away by England, then they will be well set for their final home game of the tournament against a mercurial French side. England however would appear to be taking no chances with Italy as a potential banana skin. This is a quality England side, and after the Welsh nightmare England will be looking to reassert to their supporters and the rugby world at large that they are back and mean business, not only in this tournament but also in Japan in six months time. Italy were not the sacrificial lambs everyone thought they would be against Ireland, but this is a much different prospect. We hope for their sake that like a fortnight ago, it is not the result that matters but the performance.

England’s front row should really have no problem, but Kyle Sinckler’s discipline needs work

Sinckler’s value to this England setup is not in doubt, but there is no question that he revels in testing referees’ and opposition’s patience and at times this can be a liability for England. In a contest with a side that is also renown for their own discipline problems this could all get out of hand on Saturday. However, as a player who can break the gainline seemingly at will, England will see him as a key component in their quest for maximum points on Saturday, provided he can keep his mind on the task at hand. However, if he does lose the plot England couldn’t ask for a better replacement than Dan Cole.

It’s an interesting call but both Coaches would appear to expect their second rows to go the full eighty minutes

We were surprised given the mobility of both sets of second rows, to see little or no cover for them on the benches. We’ve already mentioned that we regard Italy’s Federico Ruzza as one of the Azurri’s finds of the year, and Dean Budd covered a lot of the park against Ireland. Both Joe Launchbury and George Kruis need no introduction for England, but have had their fair share of injury problems. Having to contend with a fast and physical Italian unit for a full eighty minutes, may be something English Coach Eddie Jones may have underestimated, especially if injury niggles start to set in. Definitely watch how much attention the medical staff give to these four players on Saturday, as it may be one of the more interesting subplots of the match.

The Brad Shields question for England

Yes we get it Mark Wilson can’t be expected to start every game despite being one of England’s top finds of the last twelve months, and Brad Shields desperately needs some game time. However, we’ve seen little from him either at club or Test level that has really made us sit up and say, “so that’s why Eddie Jones was so keen to entice him away from New Zealand”. Quite frankly we think there are better players in England and as a result an opportunity in developing some long-term depth for the World Cup and beyond may have been missed.

Ben Youngs vs Tito Tebaldi – we can’t wait!

This year the Lineout could also be called the “Tito Tebaldi supporters club,” especially after the match against Ireland. For a side that desperately needed something to cheer about Tebaldi has provided it by the bucketload. In the heat of the moment his execution can occasionally leave something to be desired, but there is no doubt he plays a much faster and more explosive game than England’s Ben Youngs who looks downright conservative by comparison. Youngs is a solid player make no mistake, but if Italy don’t get annihilated by England then imagine Tebaldi to be the most talked about number nine in the English papers on Sunday unless Eddie Jones finally decides to use Young’s replacement Dan Robson for more than 90 seconds a match.

England out wide – look out!

Jonny May had a remarkably quiet game a fortnight ago in Cardiff by his own exceptional standards, and that was also a testimony to how effective Wales were in denying the English speed merchant the space and opportunities he thrives on. On Saturday, he is also joined out wide by England’s secret weapon Joe Cokanasiga. He may be English by long association but his rugby playing chemistry is pure Fijian magic. England are clearly looking to these two to get an endless stream of big points on the board and this is likely to be Italy’s biggest defensive test of the tournament.

Verdict

Just like the Azurri’s match against Ireland a fortnight ago, the result here is not really in doubt. England should emerge comfortable winners and having watched Ireland labor to a difficult win against this feisty and exuberant Italian side, England will be leaving nothing to chance. The Wales mishap is likely to have provided England with the wake up call they needed to avoid falling into the trap of complacency, which almost seemed inevitable after their blistering start to the tournament against Ireland and France. Italy bring an exciting team to Twickenham, but it is unlikely to have the traction it got against Ireland. It’s Twickenham, and should Scotland derail the Welsh Grand Slam express earlier in the day, England will be even more motivated to use this match to get them the points differential they need to keep them in with a shot at the title. England to win by eighteen points despite a spirited performance from Italy!

Ireland vs France – Sunday, March 10th – Dublin

No we are not going to start this preview with the usual clichés about France, but there is no question that after their last performance against Scotland a fortnight ago, Sunday’s encounter in Dublin poses lots of interesting questions for both sides. Ireland have simply not been the form team that everyone made them out to be going into the tournament. Meanwhile France showed against Scotland that this is a squad that can deliver with some raw talent that seems much more comfortable under the big lights than many would have given them credit for. It was certainly one of the best French performances we’ve seen in a long time and light years away from the shambles we saw at Twickenham and that historic defeat to Fiji back in November. If they are able to pull it off again in Dublin then all of a sudden France could just be getting their house in order at the right time, especially if they can pull off two solid performances on the road in these last two rounds of the Six Nations.

Ireland meanwhile know they need to put on a big show in Dublin on Sunday – a very big show. We are really battling to understand where last year’s Grand Slam champions have been so far in 2019. Lacking their customary composure, finesse and ability to manage games right down to the last detail, Ireland have looked less than flash this year to say the least. Sure after the horror show against England they got themselves back on track against Scotland even if it looked labored at times. However, against Italy they were awful and only managed to eke out a mandatory win in an error strewn and lacklustre performance. Their number one playmaker, fly half Johnny Sexton has been so far from his legendary form that alarm bells must surely be ringing ahead of the World Cup. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the remainder of the tournament, Coach Joe Schmidt is more than likely just a tad uncomfortable as Ireland only have two Tests left before preparations begin in earnest for the World Cup in August. However, it’s not just Sexton who has been off the mark, other veteran players are also not hitting their customary heights as well. In short, it has been a frustrating and disappointing tournament for Ireland so far, and their supporters will be looking to Sunday’s proceedings to mark the real kick-start to Ireland’s World Cup preparations.

Ireland’s front row need to stamp their authority on the game from the get go but France may have other ideas at long last

Ireland’s front three, despite their experience have not quite hit the mark so far this year, with Irish wonder weapon Tadgh Furlong being rather quiet to say the least. The three Irishmen will know that France’s Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado will travel to Dublin seeking to avenge that narrow defeat last year in Paris. After their exploits a fortnight ago it would appear that France finally have a competitive front row, and Guirado’s role as a talisman to the rest of his team is well documented in much the same vein as Italy’s Sergio Parisse. Ireland will need to have their front three back to their 2018 form for the full eighty minutes and Rory Best’s dart throwing skills will need to be at their very best, unlike the horror show the unfortunate Sean Cronin experienced in Rome a fortnight ago.

The first in a long line of raw French talent that is improving at a rate of knots – Felix Lambey

What a game the fiery Frenchman had against Scotland a fortnight ago. He may lack experience at Test level, but against the Scots he was an absolute menace and Ireland’s Ian Henderson and James Ryan will have their hands full with the Frenchman. Sebastian Vahaamahina is also no walk in the park for the Irish and if Ian Henderson’s ongoing battles with injury come back to haunt him, then Ultan Dillane is in for another ultimate test off the bench. Ireland are going to have to keep their wits about them here especially at lineout time.

It’s a good Irish back row but once again France have looked the business here for much of the tournament

Ireland are at home and CJ Stander is back and as a result it is a solid Irish back row that heads out on to the pitch at the Aviva on Sunday. However it needs to be as this is one area of the park the French have looked good in all tournament, barring one or two exceptions. Louis Picamoles has been nothing short of remarkable and as regular readers know we rate newcomer Arthur Iturria VERY highly indeed. With Wenceslas Lauret this is the same French back row that took apart Wales for forty minutes in the opening game of the tournament. If they can keep it up for eighty minutes this time then Ireland could have a real match on their hands here. In terms of an opportunity to shine off the bench and lay down a marker for the World Cup, Irish replacement number eight Jack Conan could ask for no better opportunity.

No more Johnny-come-lately please!

Ireland know they need fly half Jonathan Sexton to get back to his best and quickly. Sunday’s game has to be the match where we see last year’s World Player of the Year get his groove back. He looked decidedly frustrated in Rome and there was no question that it was bringing the rest of the team down with him, such is his intrinsic value to Ireland and how well they perform on the day. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the rest of the tournament, Ireland need to get their fly half resources firing again on all cylinders. Sunday’s match sees Connacht’s Jack Carty get another opportunity from the bench, but it was clear that at times he was rather overwhelmed with the sense of occasion in Rome. On Sunday he will be up against some alarmingly good raw French talent in the shape of Romain Ntamack, who partnered exceptionally well with Antoine Dupont at scrum half and who is also likely to give Conor Murray a run for his money.

Irish reliability should bring them home

Ireland’s two most reliable players of the last twelve months, winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney have been the cornerstones of Ireland’s shaky successes so far in this tournament. Earls in particular is playing out of his skin and one almost breathes a sigh of relief any time the ball ends up in his or Kearney’s hands. Match saving tackles, extraordinary calm under the high ball and outstanding line breaks are the order of the day from the Irish duo when Ireland need them most. France looked very good in the backs against a weakened Scottish side, but on Sunday they will be up against one of the best back quintets in the business as Ireland welcome back Gary Ringrose to the centre channel and we all know what winger Jacob Stockdale can do when Sexton is firing on all cylinders. France looked good here a fortnight ago, but provided Ireland find their missing mojo on Sunday, the French could be in for a torrid time here.

Verdict

Ireland have to kick into high gear at some point as they simply have not become a bad team overnight. Furthermore although they are not exactly top of the charts right now, they still have won their last two matches and sit in third place just one point behind England. If Scotland have done them a favor the day before in Murrayfield this could just be the spark to get Ireland back into the tournament with a vengeance. Ireland may have struggled to hit the high notes so far this year, but we very much doubt it is a permanent condition. Consequently, expect plenty of fireworks on Sunday and this is a match you wont’ want to miss. However, we just can’t help feeling that Ireland are about to arrive back with a very loud bang, and this may well be just the match in which it happens to give them confidence for a very challenging trip to Cardiff next weekend. As a result, despite facing what should be some excellent French resistance, Ireland to arrive late in the Six Nations with a real flourish and take the match by 11 points!

Endnote

Sadly our good friends Steve and Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube have clearly been wrapped up by their new affiliation with New Zealand’s Sky Sports into covering Super Rugby at the moment. As a result it would appear they have been unable to spare the time for their usual Six Nations coverage. But we’re sure they will be back and will keep you posted as soon as they are able to put something out.

There is no denying that all eyes this weekend will be firmly focused on the events taking place in Cardiff this Saturday. Wales as the only other unbeaten team in the tournament, know that if England’s seemingly inevitable march to a Grand Slam is to be halted then it has to happen at the Principality Stadium on Saturday. If Wales were to win, they still have the challenge of Scotland and Ireland to face but if England come out on top, then a soft encounter with Italy and a final home game against an injury ravaged Scotland should see the Men in White comfortably through to a Grand Slam. However, first of all there is the little matter of the dustup in Cardiff to be dealt with before any such talk can be taken seriously. Also in a tournament that has dished up its fair share of surprises in the last few years, nothing is certain until referee Paul Williams blows the final whistle of the tournament at Twickenham on March 16th.

Before the main event in Cardiff, Scotland will have travelled to Paris to take on a French team which seems to be in complete disarray. However, beating the French in Paris is no simple matter regardless of what the form book says about the national team heading into the contest. While like many we have little faith in Coach Jacques Brunel, France at home, especially in the Six Nations is always a tricky proposition. Furthermore, Brunel has at least assembled a group of talented players even if he still insists on playing many of them out of position. Against a fleet-footed Scottish squad even without the likes of Stuart Hogg, this could once again prove to be a costly mistake. However, there is also the problem of Scotland’s traditionally poor form away from home of late, and their track record in Paris is singularly bad. Either way a fascinating encounter awaits and one that is extremely hard to call.

Lastly on Sunday, a beleaguered Italy play host to Ireland, who started the tournament as favorites. However, after a serious bruising from England the Irish know they need Wales to do them a favor in Cardiff to keep their title hopes alive. Furthermore to keep them in the mix as potential contenders should England slip up on Saturday, Ireland know they will need to use the Italian match as an opportunity to rack up as many points as possible. Italy have struggled in the opening rounds but their defence at least has shown some resolve. Nevertheless, overall Italy have rarely looked the part in the tournament so far, and know they will need to be at their very best on Sunday to avoid a potentially embarrassing scoreline.

As always in this midway juncture of the tournament, this weekend’s action raises the stakes for all the teams perhaps more than any other. Whoever wins or loses this weekend, especially in the encounter in Cardiff, will give us more than just a few clues as to how the final pecking order may look on March 16th!

So as always without any further ado, let’s have a look at what got us talking this week about the weekend’s proceedings.

France vs Scotland – Saturday, February 23rd – Paris

Whichever way you cut it this has been a dreadful tournament so far for France, apart from their opening forty minutes against Wales in the first round. Thereafter it has been a disaster. First they threw away a seemingly unassailable lead against Wales, then travelled to Twickenham and looked completely lost at sea against a ferocious and well-drilled English side. Plagued by bizarre selection decisions that throw inexperienced players in at the deep end, whilst putting experienced support players out of position, France appear rudderless. For French supporters this must be agonising to watch, especially as there is some genuine talent available to Coach Jacques Brunel if only it was coached and managed properly. As regular readers of this blog know, we have very little faith in Brunel as a Coach, having been singularly unimpressed with his time as Italian Head Coach. So far in his tenure with France we have yet to see anything to make us revise our opinion.

Scotland on the other hand have looked impressive but are simply not clicking when they need to. Although they completely outplayed a weak Italian side in the opening round, alarm bells rang as in a ten minute spell towards the end of the match they appeared to fall asleep and let in three tries from the Azurri, and almost let the Italians back into the match in the process. Against Ireland, they started brightly but their discipline and decision-making eroded rapidly once Ireland started to get the measure of the match. With their confidence clearly rattled, Scotland know that despite the seeming disarray the French find themselves in, there will be everything to prove for both sides with little quarter given. Throw into the mix Scotland’s traditional difficulty of getting a win in Paris, the last time being 20 years ago, and Scotland know they are up against it this Saturday. As France’s last home game of the tournament, Scotland will have to be at their best against a French side having one last chance to give the Stade Francais faithful something to cheer about.

We had little faith in Brunel with Italy and even less with France

As mentioned above we have not been fans of the French Coach since his days with Italy. Often seeming detached and aloof from his players, Brunel could not appear more disinterested in his job if he tried. So far this tournament he has excelled at providing himself with multiple swords to fall on, perhaps none more so than his selection policies. Playing Damien Penaud on the wing last weekend instead of at centre was a complete disaster, and expect Scotland to test his defensive frailties out wide and under the high ball just as much as England did. Furthermore to place the inexperienced Romain Ntamack in the starting berth at fly half for a match of such magnitude almost seems cruel, while sticking with the one-dimensional Bastareaud at centre beggars belief, especially up against a highly mobile, albeit inexperienced Scottish unit.

Despite Guilhem Guirado’s heroics we still have no faith in this French front row

France’s hooker and Captain has the utmost respect from us and despite the misery in the French camp he continues to stand out as an exceptional player. However one man does not make a front row no matter how good he is. While there is plenty of spark in the rookie Demba Bamba, we are just not convinced by Jefferson Poirot and Bamba’s lack of experience proved costly against England. Scotland are packing a solid unit, even with their injury problems, and we can’t help feeling that France are going to have a hard time keeping it an even contest in this part of the park.

If France are to win this match it will take place in the back row

It was that French back row that got so much traction against Wales in the first half that made us feel that France were going to be something special this tournament. Unfortunately it was short-lived as, apart from Louis Picamoles, France lost the plot in the second half. However, what we did see in the first half was a very accomplished unit, with Picamoles at his absolute best and Wenceslas Lauret and Arthur Iturria in particular as devastating support players. We expect more of the same from the French trio this Saturday, especially now that unlike the England match Lauret has been returned to the fold. It’s a potent but relatively inexperienced Scottish back row, with the exception of Josh Strauss, and if the French three get the upper hand and the crowd gets behind them, it could well swing the match, especially if they can keep it up for eighty minutes.

While he may be Captain Fantastic for Scotland we’d have preferred to see Ali Price start at scrum half

Yes given the esteem in which he is held by Scottish supporters we realise that we may just have set the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons, but we stick with our gut feeling. We felt Laidlaw had a poor game against Ireland and at times his decision-making was questionable and almost appeared stubborn and reckless. As for his rather sullen assessment of the officiating, we’ll leave that for others to debate but it didn’t exactly help his cause either and certainly won’t help him with the Paris crowd on Saturday. Ali Price has the kind of fizz and speed that France’s Antoine Dupont will bring to proceedings on Saturday, and Scotland may rue the rather more pedestrian approach favored by Laidlaw. If we were in Coach Townsend’s shoes we’d bring Laidlaw in at the end to restore order if that is what is needed, should France start like they did against Wales, but in the meantime favor the unpredictability of Price to keep the French defences guessing.

There is a strong likelihood that France’s back three are once more in for a world of hurt

Even without Stuart Hogg that Scottish back line looks lethal. Blair Kinghorn didn’t quite have the kind of display he did against Italy, but in his defence he was up against one of the world’s best in the shape of Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Against weaker opposition Kinghorn is clearly a force to be reckoned with and one who is only going to get better, to the point we think he could potentially even give the great Stuart Hogg a run for his money. France looked at sixes and sevens in the back three against England. The out of position Penaud appeared to be at sea defensively and Huget simply forgot to how to hang onto a rugby ball as he struggled to come to terms with the demands of the fullback position, considering he normally plies his trade on the wing. Thomas Ramos replaced him at half time but we are struggling to remember if we can recall anything he did in the forty minutes he was on.

Verdict

As France’s last home game of the tournament there is the off-chance that they may produce the “one big performance” les Bleus usually manage to put together every year. However, we simply haven’t seen anything from them so far that leads us to believe that this is likely to be the case. Scotland on the other hand are a hard beast to judge. Yes they obliterated Italy at Murrayfield but then were given a rough schooling by Ireland the following week. This is not a first string Scottish side taking to the pitch in Paris, but they have also shown that there is some exceptionally promising depth there that is only going to keep getting better. Consequently in a tough match to call, Scotland still appears to be the more cohesive and motivated side, despite their traditionally poor form in Paris. As a result it should be a fascinating contest, which is likely to see the most consistent French performance of the tournament, but a better organised Scottish side to take the spoils by two points!

Wales vs England – Saturday, February 23rd – Cardiff

Most of us know exactly where we’ll be when Jaco Peyper blows the whistle on the most anticipated match of the tournament this Saturday, after the opening fixture between Ireland and England turned the form book upside down. The only two sides left with a shot at the Grand Slam go head to head in what should be an epic encounter. If England come out on top it’s hard to see them not going all the way for a Grand Slam. If Wales come out on top then the tournament gets cracked wide open, with the Welsh still having a difficult trip to Scotland ahead of them and a potential tournament decider against Ireland back in Cardiff. In short, a very challenging fixture for both sides with the highest possible stakes.

England annihilated a shambolic French outfit a fortnight ago at Twickenham.  Wales got the job done in Italy, but looked less than convincing in the execution, even if it was only a second or third string Welsh side. Perhaps that is the biggest conundrum for us with Wales so far this tournament, they just haven’t looked convincing and at times have appeared distinctly average. While we agree that they produced a spectacular comeback against France in the second half, that first half was exceptionally poor from a side that many were tipping as dark horses for not only Six Nations, but also World Cup glory. In short, we just haven’t seen anything from Wales that would leave any of the big teams quaking in their boots.

England on the other hand are building momentum at a rate of knots, and we fear that unless they have something up their sleeves on Saturday that we have yet to see, Wales are going to find it very hard to match the English in their present condition. England took Ireland on at their own game, turned up the intensity another couple of levels and left the Irish in their dust. Beating the world’s second best side on their home turf, clearly imbued England with some highly justifiable confidence that then saw them destroy a clueless French side at Twickenham a week later. The contrast between this current England outfit and the one that bumbled its way through last year’s tournament could not be more glaring. England have finally got the balance they struggled to find last year, and as a result this team is veritably humming from 1 to 15. Cardiff may be a cauldron and Wales’ unbeaten form there is signficant, but England are going to be a very difficult side to bring down in their current state.

If Wales can get some ascendancy at scrum time it will be a tonic for the crowd that England will find hard to cope with

Two very accomplished front rows seek to do battle on Saturday in Cardiff, and this will be one of the tightest contests on the field. There is no denying that if Wales get the upper hand here the crowd will increasingly help to swing the contest in their favor. In short, they will be one of the best tests of character for their English counterparts. Ben Moon impressed for England in the loosehead role in November in the absence of Mako Vunipola who has once more been sidelined with injury. If the English trio can hold their own then Wales will struggle, as their set piece play has looked rather lacklustre so far this tournament. Wales have the front row to do it, of that there is no question, but prior to the World Cup and barring their final Six Nations match with Ireland there will be fewer bigger tests.

If ever there was a time for Welsh second rower Cory Hill to stand up and claim his second row starting berth for the World Cup – then this is it!

We are delighted to see Cory Hill back in the number four jersey for Wales, as we thought he was one of the finds of last year’s summer tour to Argentina, and much prefer him to Adam Beard. We have been slightly baffled at Coach Warren Gatland’s preference for Beard over Hill, but think that ultimately Hill is likely to get the nod for Wales come the World Cup. If he puts in a convincing performance on Saturday, then we’d argue his case his made, especially as Beard has done little to impress so far this Six Nations.

If you want physicality and a Battle Royale that will more than justify the price of admission, look no further than the back row

This is the contest we are most looking forward to on Saturday. Wales have some real firepower in “Mr. Reliable” Justin Tipuric, a menace with ball in hand in Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty’s ability to get under the skin of the opposition. Up against them England are finally offering a finished and balanced back row, with Tom Curry being England’s find of the year, provided he can keep his discipline in check. Couple that to the devastating go forward ability of Billy Vunipola who appears to be back to his best after a long spell of injuries. What has impressed us the most though is England’s Mark Wilson who seems to get better with every match. Six highly contrasting players but all equally fearsome in their own right, and if they all show up on Saturday this is likely to be where the game will ultimately be won or lost.

The pressure is ALL on Gareth Anscombe

Dan Biggar simply didn’t fire against Italy in a game he should have excelled in. Consequently, Saturday sees Gareth Anscombe get the nod as Wales’ starting 10. However, he fluffed his lines badly in Wales’ opening encounter against France and needed Dan Biggar to save the day. What will happen on Saturday is simply anyone’s guess. If Anscombe can run a tight game, then surely the race between him and Biggar for Wales’ first choice fly half for the World Cup is on. It’s a gamble by Coach Warren Gatland, but if Anscombe can handle the pressure of a match with so much riding on it and deliver, then Wales should be in an excellent position heading into the World Cup.  Something which is clearly high on Gatland’s agenda. We hope it pays off, but fear he will be up against it, especially with England’s Owen Farrell at the top of his game.

England’s Henry Slade’s best chance to really show how he has come of age

We felt that some of the criticism the young English centre received last year was unjustified. Sure he may have had some teething troubles settling into the English setup, but there is no denying that his place in any starting England lineup is now a given. Mesmerizing against Ireland and solid against France with his defensive abilities having dramatically improved in the last twelve months, Slade is clearly the finished product and repaying the confidence invested in him. In a game of this magnitude if he ends up stealing the limelight from Wales’ Jonathan Davies on Saturday then his apprenticeship will be complete.

Verdict

There is no denying that Cardiff is a hard place to play and any contest there between these two historic rivals evokes passions in the crowd that are daunting for any visiting English team to overcome. However, you cannot dismiss the momentum this English side has built up since the tournament started, while Wales have been steady but have been well short of spectacular. We’ve seen what England can do and how difficult it is becoming to gain any sort of ascendancy over them, as they play with a physicality, organisation and intensity that is hard to match. Sadly we simply haven’t seen the same kind of qualities from Wales so far this year, unless as many suspect they have been keeping it in reserve for what they appear to regard as their biggest game of the year to date. We sincerely hope for their sake that turns out to be the case, but if not then it is hard to see the English Grand Slam express getting derailed on Saturday. For the sake of keeping the tournament open and up for grabs till the final weekend, we would love nothing more than a Welsh victory, but our heads are telling us we may well not get what we wish for. England look a very daunting prospect in their current state and it will take a very special and committed Welsh team to beat them. Consequently based on England’s seemingly unstoppable momentum and outstanding form at the moment, we give this one to England by five!

Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 24th – Rome

Ireland travel to Italy with the sole objective of racking up as many points as possible, given the fact that the actual result of the match is not really in question. With the Grand Slam off the table and also probably the silverware, unless Wales do them a favor tomorrow in Cardiff, Ireland know that in order to secure a strong second place finish they need to maximise their points haul in Rome on Sunday.

Knowing that, our heart genuinely goes out to Italy in this match, as they are seen by most as nothing more than sacrificial lambs to Ireland’s cause. Italy’s Six Nations campaign has given them little to cheer about other than a brief flourish against Scotland and some solid defence against a lacklustre Welsh side. A hungry Irish team, eager to get their World Cup momentum back is a completely different proposition. Italy have a couple of players, most notably lock Federico Ruzza who we are really looking forward to seeing in action, and hopefully the quality of the opposition will inspire Italy to put in the kind of performance needed to avoid a complete drubbing in their pool of death in Japan later this year.

Italy’s troubles will begin in the front row as Ireland’s Sean Cronin gets a golden opportunity to start

As regular readers of this blog will know, we are HUGE fans of the Irish Hooker and feel he is going to have a massive part to play in Ireland’s World Cup efforts later this year. Consequently we are delighted that he is getting a start against Italy. Get the turbocharged hooker anywhere near the try line and you can almost guarantee he’ll cross it. If you’re looking to rack up the big points on Sunday, this player along with Jacob Stockdale in the backs is the man to do it. Italy’s scrum has looked decidedly wobbly along with their lineouts, and expect Cronin and company to be absolutely ruthless here.

Something for Italy to cheer about – Federico Ruzza

For us this player has been the biggest positive of Italy’s 2019 Six Nations campaign. Powerful, fast and highly mobile with a brilliant set of hands, Ruzza is someone we are really looking forward to seeing in action. While he will be up against it when dealing with Ireland’s Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, we still hold that he is Italy’s biggest secret weapon and as a result really hope he rises to the occasion on Sunday.

Are Ireland’s Murray and Sexton getting game time simply because they are off the boil of late or is this a genuine push for maximum points?

There is no denying that the Irish all-star half back duo have not been playing with their customary assurance in this year’s Six Nations. While they got the job done against Scotland and started to look more their old selves as the game wore on, there was no question that they were decidedly off-color against England. Given their importance to Irish World Cup ambitions, Coach Joe Schmidt knows he needs to get the pair back to their very best and is running out of game time in which to do it. Normally, even with the need for points on Sunday, against Italy we would have thought that Joey Carberry would have got the starting berth at fly half and John Cooney at scrum half. However, if the two Irish veterans do click on Sunday then expect to see the numbers on the scoreboard start to fly.

Another welcome return for Italy – Tito Tebaldi

We were very impressed by the Benetton scrum half against Scotland, and as a result are delighted to see him back for this match where he will be up against arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world in the shape of Conor Murray. What better way to test your credentials ahead of a very difficult World Cup? While we doubt that he and Federico Ruzza can make enough of a difference to cause the upset of the year, watching them have a go will make for some genuine entertainment and cause for celebration amongst Italian supporters and neutrals alike.

Sunday may not be much fun for Italy but if they play their cards right there is the possibility to lay the groundwork for a positive end to their 2019 campaign

Before you raise your eyes heavenwards and ask how that is even possible, given that Italy’s next assignment is a trip to Twickenham and a date with a rampant England, move past that fixture to their final match of the tournament – a home game against a French side that is struggling to fire as much as the Azurri are. If France get knocked over by Scotland this weekend, and Italy don’t get a cricket score put on them by Ireland, and continue to show the kind of resolute defence that troubled Wales a fortnight ago, then there is definitely a chance for Italy to end their campaign with a bang. France are vulnerable and not travelling well. If Italy can lay some solid groundwork this weekend they could well end their Six Nations on a positive note and a much-needed confidence boost heading into the World Cup. If that’s not motivation enough to put on a good show this Sunday even if you know that victory is probably out of the question – then we don’t know what is. If ever there was a match where the performance is more important than the result – then this is it.

Verdict

Like we say, the result on Sunday is sadly not up for debate. Ireland will continue to build momentum to finish the Championship with a flourish. They will have the added motivation of knowing the result in Cardiff before they take to the field, which if it has gone against England, will mean that they are right back in the hunt for the silverware. Either way they are likely to take no prisoners on Sunday in Rome, and as a result Italy will have to be at their best defensively and in terms of discipline to avoid the scoreboard overheating and blowing a fuse. It will be a superb test of character for the Azurri in front of their faithful and ever optimistic fans. That said, we still can’t help feeling that Ireland arrive in Rome extremely focused on the task at hand, and there are few teams as efficient as the Men in Green in terms of setting a goal and achieving it. Italy to show great heart at times but Ireland to go for maximum points and seal proceedings by 31 points!

Endnote

As we will be doing at the end of every round of the Six Nations we’ll end our musings with the expert analysis provided from our favourite YouTubers, Steve and Gareth from The 1014. Enjoy and make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to keep their excellent content coming.

What a weekend that was! Surprises galore and expectations shattered – but as a spectacle we couldn’t have asked for a better opening weekend. We had been wary of England but they ended up being the star performers of the weekend. Wales went missing completely in the first half of their match in Paris, while the French did the same in the second half. Meanwhile Scotland as expected did the business in Edinburgh, but as they tend to do fell asleep for fifteen minutes once they thought the game was comfortably won allowing Italy to come storming back into proceedings. However, perhaps the biggest shock of all was how tournament favourites Ireland, were denied the opportunity to play by a rampant England who played them at their own game but then took it to another level. How much the tone for the rest of the tournament has been set, especially by England remains to be seen but it was definitely an opening weekend that gave us plenty to think about heading into Round 2.

The opening match in Paris as France took on Wales had us speechless by the end of the first forty minutes. Where were Wales and what was this brutally physical and free-flowing French team, that combined a new-found aggression with their flair of days gone by? France dominated a Welsh side that appeared completely unprepared for what they were facing. Once Wales did figure it out, it was France who faded into obscurity in the second half, made worse by the kind of errors in execution that have sadly become part and parcel of French efforts in the last few years.

As predicted Scotland put in a mesmerizing display of attacking rugby against an Italian side that all too quickly conformed to expectations. However, Scotland fell asleep dramatically in the 65th minute, and all of a sudden for the next thirteen minutes the match was all about Italy as they ran in three unanswered tries in quick succession. In the process they highlighted some players that could definitely catch the eye this year and show that there is perhaps more to the Azurri than meets the eye. While Scotland were clearly the dominant side for the majority of the match and looked well organised and absolutely lethal in any kind of space, they will know that the kind of lapses in concentration they showed in the final quarter of the game,will see them put to the sword by a wounded Ireland this weekend.

As riveting as the two openers were, there was no denying that all eyes were ultimately drawn to the weekend’s main event – the clash between Ireland and England in Dublin. England had shown in November that they were back and mean business after the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations campaign. Meanwhile as Grand Slam champions and an All Black scalp to boot, Ireland were the team to beat. What we witnessed was perhaps one of the most impressive English displays in a very long time. In reality it wasn’t just a masterful display by England, it was one of the most complete Test performances by any team since the last World Cup. England took Ireland on at their own game, and simply played a better and more masterful version of it. Ireland were simply not expecting it, and as a result failed to adapt and for much of the match looked bereft of ideas. They had become so reliant on their own brand of devastatingly effective and efficient rugby, that to have someone else take the blueprint and throw it back at you at twice the intensity, clearly left the Men in Green shell-shocked to say the least.

Ireland were soundly beaten by an English side that were masters of everything they tried their hand at in Dublin last Saturday. If England can build on this momentum and adapt it to the play styles of different sides in the competition, there is no doubt that the title of front-runner is probably theirs to hang onto, at least heading into this weekend. As for Ireland, they have may have received a much-needed and timely shock to the system, but to write them off after only one upset would be folly of the highest order. They still possess a strength in-depth that is the envy of most teams, and with one of the sharpest minds in the International game in the shape of Coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland are likely to come storming back with a vengeance this weekend in Edinburgh. Down but definitely not out!

So without further ado, let’s look ahead to the action this weekend and what has got us talking this week.

Scotland vs Ireland – Saturday, February 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland apart from a ten minute blip, albeit one which leaked 3 tries, looked sharp last weekend. Ireland on the other hand did not look so sharp, with several of their key playmakers looking decidedly undercooked. Ireland’s loss to England at home in Dublin in front of the Aviva faithful would have stung, and Scotland know they will have to face the wrath of a wounded Ireland.

Scotland’s free-flowing attacking rugby was a joy to watch last weekend, but it is highly unlikely that Ireland will give the likes of fullback Stuart Hogg and company the kind of space and freedom that Italy allowed them to operate in last Saturday. Scotland winger Blair Kinghorn stole the show last weekend with his hat trick of tries but this week sees him confined to the bench and a more experienced set of wingers attempting to contain the menace of Ireland’s Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale, even though the two Irishmen were somewhat off the boil last weekend.

Scotland know that if they walk away with a win, against what is expected to be a much more convincing Irish performance, then they could well be in contention for a shot at the title. However, that is assuming they can handle two tough away assignments against England and France and dispatch a Welsh side that didn’t exactly inspire a sense of shock and awe last Friday in Paris.

Ireland meanwhile know that anything less than an emphatic victory at Murrayfield means that their Six Nations is all but over this year, with only the promise of the World Cup to look forward to. However, heading into the World Cup after a poor Six Nations is not exactly the best tonic for a team, that faces the threat of elimination once more in the quarter finals should they not get past either New Zealand or South Africa. Ireland know they need to finish this tournament strongly, and a loss tomorrow would put any such aspirations beyond reach at least in terms of the Six Nations. In short, we are set up for one hell of a contest and probably THE game of the weekend!

Scotland’s front row stood up well and Ireland’s needs to do the same this week

It’s been a rare sight in recent times to see Ireland’s front row bossed around, but that is precisely what happened against England last week. Meanwhile Scotland held up well against Italy, but with no disrespect to Italy the Azurri are not renown for their scrummaging prowess and this weekend will be a much different prospect. We can’t imagine that Ireland will take the lessons of last weekend lightly and expect to see props Furlong and Healy back to their bruising best this Saturday. Add to that a gritty Irish bench to take over in the front row and much of what happens here will give us a clue to who will be in the ascendancy. Despite what happened last weekend, all signs would appear to favor the Men in Green. If Scotland get the better of them here, then it will perhaps be the biggest statement of intent in terms of their title aspirations. In short a key contest on Saturday.

The Rory Best question

We almost felt disloyal last week in some of our concerns regarding Rory Best. However, after watching the instantaneous impact that Sean Cronin had last Saturday when he came off the bench, the concern still holds. The question is not about Best’s efforts and leadership, but more as to how soon in this match Cronin will make an appearance. Ireland’s lineout throws got tighter and Ireland simply looked more dynamic in their driving mauls once Cronin came on. Given the role that Cronin is likely to play in the forthcoming World Cup, the need to give him more and more big game time such as a match like this is becoming ever more pressing.

Ireland takes a gamble in the second row

While James Ryan was one of the few Irish players who stood out against England, the loss of Devin Toner was a genuine blow even if the giant lock didn’t have one of his best games. Consequently, it will be a big Test to see if Quinn Roux can bring his stellar form at Connacht to the Test arena, but if he does it will tick yet another depth box for Coach Joe Schmidt. Roux is bolstered from the bench by his fellow Connacht teammate Ultan Dillane, who would also appear to be getting back to his best after a long battle with injury. The Irishmen will be up against one of Scotland’s finest in the form of Jonny Gray, and with Ryan likely to last the full eighty minutes it will be a golden opportunity for the boys from Connacht.

Scotland have found a real gem in Jamie Ritchie and as a result a back row that may give Ireland some grief

The loss of John Barclay due to injury was a bitter blow to the Scots, but we were exceptionally impressed by Jamie Ritchie last weekend as well as in November. Scotland have found a genuine talent, albeit still slightly raw, but a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. Ireland’s offering in the back row should be able to cope, but while perhaps not as much as last weekend it will still be stretched. Josh Strauss had a stellar game for Scotland last weekend and Ryan Wilson needs no introduction.

How will Scotland’s silky centres face up to the bruising physicality of Ireland in the centre of the park?

Tomorrow’s centre battles have a real beauty and the beast tinge to them. Scotland’s Huw Jones and Sam Johnson ran some exquisite lines last weekend, but Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell provide some bruising go forward ball that is very difficult to bring down. Which style has the ascendancy tomorrow will say much as to how this match ultimately plays out.

Verdict

It is hard to see Ireland taking two back to back losses in this year’s Six Nations. However, two years ago Murrayfield was not a happy hunting ground for them. If their confidence is rattled and Scotland get the upper hand early, especially with the crowd in full voice behind them, Ireland could see history repeat itself for them and their Six Nations campaign be all but over before it has really begun. Scotland have their tails up and are fielding an exceptionally capable team which, if it holds its nerve, could cause Ireland all sorts of problems especially if they are allowed to run the ball. However, Ireland still would seem to have too much pedigree behind them to slip up twice. It should be a cracker with Ireland looking to shut down Scotland’s back line and neutralise fly half Finn Russell from the outset. Consequently, it may not be the highest scoring game, but one in which we expect Ireland will just have a slightly better big game temperament. A tight and edgy game, with moments of brilliance from both sides, but one which Ireland should just get the upper hand in by four points!

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, February 9th – Rome

Italy sadly appeared to be the only team true to the form books last Saturday in Edinburgh. There was that glorious ten minute burst in the second half where they caught the Scots napping not just once but three times. However, they were chasing a lead that despite that brilliant passage of play was still utterly beyond their grasp. Wales on the other hand, had us wondering what all the fuss was about in terms of them being genuine title contenders when referee Wayne Barnes blew the half time whistle, and Wales found themselves staring at a 16-0 score line in favor of the French. Wales did make a remarkable recovery in a game of two halves, but even then they didn’t exactly blow the French away. There were some brilliant Welsh performances in the second half, make no mistake, but one still can’t gloss over that complete first half capitulation to the French. Wales looked beyond ordinary in the first half and on the basis of that, plus a relatively inexperienced side, Italy may just fancy their chances at home and given that remarkable passage of play by them last weekend in Edinburgh which showed us that there is still plenty of life left in the Azurri jersey.

Wales need some big points on Saturday, but we are not sure they have picked the team to do it.

Italy have stuck with a side that at times showed some genuine spark last weekend, and at home that could easily get ratched up a few gears. Wales however, have gone with a more experimental flavor. Is this over confidence that could end up backfiring on them or a necessary investment aimed at furthering Welsh depth for the World Cup? There are some notable omissions which we find hard to justify even if the belief is that Italy remains a soft target. Given a rather lacklustre performance last weekend which saw Wales come short on the points haul, teams invariably tend to use their fixture with Italy to help their points difference on the table. It’s a gamble from Wales but we are not convinced that it may pay off ,even though we side with the view that the match is theirs to win.

Where is Justin Tipuric?

Given that he was arguably the best Welsh player on the field last Saturday for the full eighty minutes, we find it remarkable that he doesn’t even make the bench for this match. While we appreciate that a player of such value perhaps needs to be rested, is now the right time to do it, especially as it means he will be without game time in three weeks before Wales’ crucial encounter with England. We feel this is a decision Wales could well regret especially if Italy suddenly turn into a banana skin.

Rattle Dan Biggar and Italy could profit, but if not expect the scoreboard to tick over continuously

It was interesting how much Biggar settled Wales last weekend once he came on, however, we also hold that get under his skin, throw him off his game and Wales start to come unstuck rather easily. Italy have a forward pack and a back row who can clearly do that with Sebastian Negri and Sergio Parisse, expert practitioners of the dark arts, and should this work it remains to be seen how much Gareth Anscombe can be relied on to rescue the cause, as he himself was clearly rattled by France’s stifling physicality last weekend.

If the big points are to come for Wales it will be through Josh Adams and Liam Williams

Williams stood up and was counted last weekend, but we felt Wales missed Adams. The dynamic young winger impressed us throughout 2018, and expect him to make similar statements on Saturday. Williams made some fantastic yards last weekend and ran some outstanding lines, so expect more of the same this weekend with the Welsh pair dominating the big points count.

The sooner Italy get Federico Ruzza onto the pitch the better

Italy’s find of 2019 for us by a country mile. We thought he really stood out last weekend from the minute he came on. A big mobile forward with some outstanding handling skills, we are expecting to see increasingly more of the Italian youngster as the tournament progresses. Definitely one to watch!

Verdict

We were not exactly blown away by Wales last weekend, but apart from ten minutes, the same could be said of Italy. If Wales don’t step it up quite a few gears, with a slightly experimental squad it could end up not being the Roman holiday in the sun they are expecting. That being said, we think that Wales are still the smoking gun in this tournament and are likely to start building some real momentum sooner rather than later, despite last weekend’s hiccoughs. However, Italy will be up for this and heartened by Wales’ first half implosion against France. At home the Azurri will be just that more fired up, and as a result a handful for Wales at times. Nevertheless, it still should be Wales’ day in the end, though with this squad by perhaps not as much as they would have liked or needed in the long run. Wales to emerge comfortable winners but only by 15 points!

England vs France – Sunday, February 10th – Twickenham

England obliterated Ireland last weekend in Dublin, in what was one of the most masterful performances by any Test side we’ve seen in a long while. England took Ireland’s playbook, adopted and improved on it, made it their own and ultimately denied Ireland any kind of foothold in the match. As a neutral you simply had to admire the clinically well executed nature of England’s approach to what had rightly been billed as an exceptionally difficult challenge. England looked completely assured in everything they did, while Ireland began to look increasingly desperate and frustrated as they sought to outthink a style of play that until then had almost been the exclusive preserve of the Men in Green.

France meanwhile will be kicking themselves, that after making such a highly rated Welsh team look downright ordinary in the first forty minutes, they then threw away a 16-0 lead in the second half and ended up losing a match which they had firmly in their grasp. France are clearly not an eighty minute team at the moment, and against such a brutally physical and efficient team as England, it is hard to see them making too many inroads this Sunday at Twickenham. However, this match invariably seems to produce something special in les Bleus, as one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries once more takes centre stage. France, albeit at home in Paris, played a big part in derailing England’s Six Nations campaign last year, and England are unlikely to let them do so again this year.

Demba Bamba gets his baptism of fire

As readers of this blog know we are not huge fans of French prop Uini Atonio, even though his physicality came in useful at times last weekend. However, his scrummaging technique would appear to be a constant liability for France. Bamba on the other hand packs both in equal measure, and in the loose and with ball in hand is a complete live wire. Inexperienced he may be but there is a big game somewhere in this tournament for the youngster and will this be it? There is no question that he is up against one of the most frightening opposite numbers in the world right now in the shape of England’s Mako Vunipola, but if he makes a statement on Sunday then the jersey could well be his for the rest of the tournament.

Another one to watch for France – Felix Lambey

Yes it would appear that our biggest interest in this match is the test of France’s newbies. We’ve already talked about Bamba, but Lambey is another player who we think has a very big future ahead of him in a blue jersey. Inexperienced he may be, but there is no denying he rose to the occasion when he came on against Wales last weekend and was instrumental in giving France some fight back in an otherwise flawed second half. Definitely one of France’s danger men against a formidable and very experienced English second row.

The battle of the back rows will be the best contest of the afternoon

England’s back row last weekend was absolutely outstanding, but by the same token so was France’s even if they fell off the boil a bit in the second half against Wales. We still think that England are the stronger offering, but if this French back row can play for eighty minutes, then England will need to be at their best. Louis Picamoles was absolutely devastating and Arthur Iturria completely justified our faith in him, but then so did England’s Tom Curry even with his yellow card. Billy Vunipola is back to his best for England and the battle between him and Picamoles should be the highlight of the afternoon. Perhaps more so than any other part of the park, this will be where Sunday’s match is won or lost.

Owen Farrell

We feel we owe Farrell an apology after last weekend. He excelled in the Captain’s role despite some of the doubts we had about him in the position. If he can continue to bring that kind of composure and maturity to the rest of the tournament, then we will take back everything we’ve ever said and gladly eat humble pie. Farrell was outstanding against Ireland but clearly had the upper hand over his rivals. We still remain to be convinced that he has the big match temperament once things are not going his way. France have a habit of not playing to expectations, so this Sunday’s game should be an excellent opportunity to see how Farrell copes in the Captain’s role if things are clearly not going to plan.

Henry Slade take a bow!

We had been patiently waiting for the English centre to arrive, something he did with trumpets blaring in Dublin. Some had been critical of the English youngster, but we were firmly of the belief that get him more big match time and he would ultimately shine. Therefore, as you can imagine we were delighted by his stellar performance against Ireland – it was truly world-class. Now he has that experience under his belt, expect him to go from strength to strength. If France cannot contain him on Sunday, and we are not sure Geoffrey Doumayrou is the man to do it, then it could be a very long day at the office for Les Bleus. Slade has come into his own on the Test stage and although the Frenchman is a proven talent he is still not the finished product that the Englishman was in Dublin last Saturday.

Verdict

England are on a roll and then some! France showed some real class last weekend, but against a Welsh side that failed to show up for half the match. England were an outstanding 80 minute team last Saturday in Dublin, whereas France were a good opportunistic team for only 40 minutes, with occasional flashes of brilliance marred by woeful execution in the second half. On the basis of last weekend, therefore it is hard to see anything other than an emphatic English victory, especially in the comfort of fortress Twickenham. France may surprise at times and are likely to be far less predictable than the Irish which will inevitably throw England off their game. Furthermore, France always seems to find something special for this match, one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries, though more often in Paris than Twickenham. Nevertheless, we just can’t see England being undone by France on Sunday, and despite an epic tussle at times, especially in the back row, England to take it by 8 points!

Endnote

As we will be doing at the end of every round of the Six Nations we’ll end our musings with the expert analysis provided from our favourite YouTubers, Steve and Gareth from The 1014. Enjoy and make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to keep their excellent content coming.

One of the great rugby highlights of the year gets underway on Friday. Last year’s Six Nations was an absolute thriller and this year looks set to be even more of a roller coaster. With less than nine months to go before the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations will tell us much about what we might expect in terms of how the global showdown may play out in Japan come September. There are favourites, dark horses, underdogs and a million and one questions to be answered over the next eight weeks.

Ireland have been labelled the favourites this year, and it is hard to dispute that on the basis of form. However, back to back Grand Slams could well be too much to ask for, based on the quality of the opposition this year. One thing Ireland does seem to have more of than anyone else though is depth, and in a tournament which inevitably takes such a heavy toll injury wise on your player base, Ireland looks in very rude health in this department. Superbly coached, well-drilled and perhaps the most cohesive team heading into the tournament, Ireland will be very hard to beat, especially if like last year they keep building momentum as the tournament progresses.

Wales are clearly the team most likely to give Ireland a run for their money this year. Coming off a nine match winning streak, and blessed with some exceptional young talent that seems to have bedded very well into the national side, Wales can certainly field a very strong match day 23. The question remains however, as to how much depth there still is as the tournament wears on and injuries start to take their toll. Many are billing Wales’ final match with Ireland in Cardiff on the last Saturday of the tournament as the Championship decider, however, if Wales’ stocks have been depleted by injury by that stage Ireland are likely to have more seasoned reserves to draw on. If Wales can keep the injuries down, then there is no question that they like Ireland are going to be one of the hardest teams to beat this year especially at home.

England seem to have recovered from the horror show that was their 2018 Six Nations and saw them finish fifth. After a successful November campaign which saw them take Australian and South African scalps and run New Zealand to within a point, England are clearly on the mend. How far they have come remains to be seen, and there are no easy games for them this year, especially as they have to play the two teams most likely to be in the running for top honors, Ireland and Wales on the road.

Scotland continue to look threatening, and their club form in Europe this year has been quite spectacular. With Murrayfield now a fortress for the Scots, they have been blessed with a fixture list that sees them with the advantage of getting to play Wales and Ireland at home, but two difficult trips to Twickenham and Paris will also need to be dealt with. On their day Scotland can potentially beat anyone, but a lack of depth once the injury list starts taking its toll and a lack of big game temperament away from home, means that Scotland will still be wearing the underdog shirt more often than not.

France continue their hot and cold form, but as always one cannot simply judge them on form as this tournament always seems to bring out something special in them, even if they fail to replicate it for the rest of the year. “Le Crunch” match with England regained its notoriety last year, and they managed to give Wales a torrid time in Cardiff as well as coming agonizingly close to scuppering Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions at the very outset of last year’s tournament. While it may be a well-worn cliché – to write the French off simply based on form alone would be suicidal. Always difficult to beat in Paris, and more than capable of producing an upset away from home, France are unlikely to be contenders for the trophy but are likely to spoil a few of the other teams’ parties along the way.

Lastly it looks like Italy will once more be bringing up the rear this year. While there have been some promising developments at club level, most notably Treviso, Italy are still a long way from where they need to be to really make a dent in the competition. Nevertheless they are a team who plays with their hearts on their sleeves and as such are always entertaining to watch. Although plagued by lapses of concentration, they at least did seem to find the ability to last the full eighty minutes last year, and came close to tripping Scotland up on the final day of the tournament. It’s hard to see them having anything other than the wooden spoon to hold again this year, but their endeavour and commitment will continue to make them worthy competitors. We’re struggling to see where that one elusive win might be on offer this year, but for their sake we sincerely hope they can pull off a much-needed upset.

So now the preamble is out of the way, let’s get into the details, as we raise five talking points for each match that we’ve been mulling over during the last week.

France vs Wales – Friday, February 1st – Paris

France proved they were difficult to beat at home in the Championship opener when they hosted eventual Grand Slam winners Ireland last year. Furthermore the last time they met Wales in Cardiff there was only one point in it favoring the Welsh. After a November campaign that showed promise but ultimately did little to inspire, after their shock defeat to Fiji, France have everything to prove. However as we have mentioned earlier this tournament invariably brings out the X-factor in France, and Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled a side that could pack some nasty surprises.

Wales arrive in Paris feeling confident after nine straight wins. They are clearly challengers to Ireland’s throne and will want to make the boldest of statements in Paris on Friday that such ambitions are completely justified. Possessing a bruising set of forwards, a smart and quick thinking half back duo and some highly skilled backs, Wales definitely arrive as the complete package, while there are considerably more question marks surrounding the French team they will face.

One player does not make a front row, no matter how good they are

As regular readers know we have the utmost respect for French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, so much so that he made our team of 2018. However, despite his superhuman efforts, we feel he is the only strong link in an otherwise weak French front row. We are just not convinced by the scrummaging technique of his colleagues Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio in particular. The Welsh unit leaves us with no such concerns and despite Guirado’s best efforts we feel that France are going to get pushed around here on Friday. France will hope that Guirado can go the full eighty minutes and French sensation Demba Bamba get on early enough to make an impact, provided he is not overwhelmed by the occasion of his first Six Nations. How well the veteran and the youngster team up, if they are allowed to do so, could change the course of how the front row battles shape up, especially once Wales call in their bench.

One of the best contests of the afternoon – Vahaamahina vs Wyn-Jones

In the second rows there should be plenty of fireworks between the Welsh veteran and France’s Vahaamahina. These two giants’ lineout battles should be worth the price of admission alone. The Welshman will excel at getting his teammates to get under France’s skin and disrupt the set pieces, while the Frenchman showed some exceptional poaching abilities in the air last year, as well as being highly destructive in the loose. A fascinating battle of contrasting styles, and whoever gets the upper hand here is likely to give us an idea of the balance of power in the match.

The back row battle should be one of the weekend’s closest with France’s Arthur Iturria potentially grabbing the headlines

We must say we really like the look of both back rows. Wales field one of our favourite workhorses in the shape of the indomitable Justin Tipuric. If you’ve read our musings in the past you know we cannot rate the tireless Welshman highly enough. Meanwhile it’s great to see Josh Navidi back in a Welsh jersey after missing the November Internationals. Ross Moriarity completes a fearsome Welsh back row that should cause havoc for French defenses. Having said that though, we are really looking forward to seeing French flanker Arthur Iturria in action as we think he is likely to be one of the standout players of the tournament. He was one of the few French players to really catch the eye in the November Internationals. Wenceslas Lauret also impressed throughout the year, and veteran Louis Picamoles is back to his best. In short, this is a French unit that is more than capable of absorbing Welsh horsepower and dish out its own fair share of heartache.

Warren Gatland’s leap of faith

There is no question that Welsh youngster Tomos Williams will have everything to prove as he gets the starting nod over the much more experienced Gareth Davies at scrum half. In such a key match that is likely to set the tone for the rest of Wales Six Nations campaign, one has to admire Coach Warren Gatland’s faith in the youngster, especially given that he and his fly half partner Gareth Anscombe are up against a highly experienced French unit in the shape of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. However, it would appear that Gatland is banking on a fairly frantic first 50 minutes which will suit Williams playing style more, and then bring in the big guns Davies and Biggar to settle the nerves and the match for the final quarter as France are likely to start throwing caution to the wind, especially in conditions that are expected to be wet and slippery.

Meanwhile Jacques Brunel does the same with Romain Ntamack

As a Test debut it doesn’t get much bigger than this, but the Toulouse centre has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately at Club level and it was only a matter of time before he got his first Test cap. As a baptism of fire his opposite number is Welshman Jonathan Davies who is simply one of the world’s best. If Ntamack comes out of this in a positive light then there will be no better testimony of his skill and the role he is likely to play in the build up to France’s World Cup campaign. He will have the advantage of being partnered with the exceptional Wesley Fofana, and if it works this combination could really catch Wales napping – unlikely with Davies in the mix but definitely one of the most interesting contests on the park on Friday.

Verdict

This should be an excellent match and a fitting start to what promises to be a riveting Championship. France at home will be difficult with their supporters expecting and demanding a significantly more dynamic French team than the one on display in November. An intensely physical contest in which Wales should just have the edge especially in the front row, but expect plenty of surprises from France especially if they can find space for their backs to go to work in. Ultimately Wales’ form of late just looks too convincing allied to a tried and trusted group of players. Consequently France to keep Wales on their toes for the full eighty, but Wales to edge it by 6!

Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, February 2nd – Murrayfield

While it may not have the aura around it that the encounters in Paris and Dublin this weekend have, this still should be an exciting game especially if Scotland really put on the afterburners. Italy have some pace as well, though the loss of last year’s sensation, fullback Matteo Minozzi, to injury is a bitter blow for the Azurri. Italy have lost their last 17 Six Nations games so whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to feel optimistic about their chances this year. However, let’s not forget they pushed Scotland hard in Rome last year and almost caused a notable upset. Nevertheless Scotland’s speed merchants in the backs and a bruising forward pack coupled to home advantage make it hard to see anything other than a convincing win for Scotland.

While we may not follow Italian club rugby closely we have to confess to not seeing too many familiar faces

Sure there are some of the usual suspects there such as Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Michele Campagnaro, but the rest have had us scrambling to YouTube to catch up on who’s who in Italian rugby these days, especially when it comes to the bench. What we have seen has given us some cause for optimism, but we still can’t imagine it troubling a Scottish side bursting with talent, even if some of it is still a bit raw.

Laidlaw vs Price for Scotland

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at seeing Greg Laidlaw starting for Ali Price in a match that should be a relatively straightforward exercise for Scotland. Laidlaw has more than enough experience and perhaps would have been better kept in reserve for Scotland’s first big encounter with Ireland next weekend. The only thing we can think of is the fact that the last time Italy won a Six Nations match it was at Murrayfield. Consequently it must be Coach Gregor Townsend trying to deal with “opening night nerves” and not leaving anything to chance by putting in the experienced Laidlaw to ensure that Scotland keeps the scoreboard constantly ticking over in the first 60 minutes to put Italy out of reach, and avoid any potential banana skins.

In Sergio Parisse’s last year who will take the mantle from Italy’s most legendary player

The great man will not see another World Cup, and Italy really need to use this year to find a suitable understudy and a similar talisman for the team. While it may be premature, his back row partner Sebastien Negri shows many of the qualities of his great mentor. Expect to see the flanker at the heart of everything that Italy does well this year. Negri was one of the few genuine standouts for Italy in last year’s Six Nations and expect him to make even more of a statement this year. The Captaincy may ultimately pass to Campagnaro, but Negri is a very worthy understudy in the making.

Blair Kinghorn to really make the headlines for Scotland this year

Just look at what the energetic winger is doing at Edinburgh and you’ll see why we can’t wait to see him in action this year. When allied to a superb Scottish back line boasting the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour, Kinghorn could really set pitches alight over the next few weeks.

Scotland will really hope the injury gods are kind to them in their Six Nations opener

We really like the look of the match day 23 going out against Italy on Saturday, but have to confess to be just a tad worried for the Scots as to how much depth there is in the tank for the remainder of the tournament. While a Scottish win on Saturday is not really in doubt, one could argue that a conservative win that avoided putting bodies at risk would be preferable to a high scoring match of reckless abandon, despite the spectacle this would provide for the Murrayfield faithful. Of the match day 23 running out on Saturday there is not much depth beyond it if the body count starts racking up in this opener, with every contest thereafter being that much more physical and demanding.

Verdict

We really don’t mean to be down on Italy, and would love to see them get a win, but sadly we just don’t see it happening on Saturday. This is a Scottish side with just far too much proven explosive talent, especially in the backs up against a relatively unknown Italian commodity. With Sergio Parisse in the mix, expect Italy to be no pushover, but Scotland to eventually open up the floodgates in the final quarter, albeit with an eye to the injury risk and walk away comfortable winners. Because of that though don’t expect a huge scoreline, but Scotland to take it by 13 points!

Ireland vs England – Saturday, February 2nd – Dublin

While the contest in France has a great deal of interest, there is no denying that this is the BIG one of this weekend. Perhaps England’s biggest grudge match at the moment, getting one over Ireland on Saturday, especially in Dublin would really set the tone for where England are headed in this Championship. Having said that however, England know they are up against it. Ireland are on a roll unprecedented in Irish rugby history, and it just seems to go from strength to strength. Since the last World Cup they have beaten New Zealand twice, won a Grand Slam and seem to have reinvented the definitions of organization and depth. Add to that the fact that England have only won in Dublin twice in nine trips to the Irish capital since 2003, and England would seem to have the bigger job on their hands. However, they also ran New Zealand exceptionally close in November, and in general had a superb month as long as you don’t mention that first half against Japan. The stage is set for one of Test rugby’s greatest rivalries to resume and expect no prisoners to be taken by both sides.

Rory Best vs Sean Cronin – the great internal debate

As the Irish Captain looks set to retire from Test rugby after the World Cup, 2019 will tell us much about the speed of ascendancy into the number 2 jersey of Sean Cronin. While few, ourselves included, would doubt the value that Best brings to the squad as a whole and his leadership, there is no denying that Cronin has had to wait in the wings for a very long time, and his statistics this year for Leinster are simply off the charts. Like Jacob Stockdale in the backs for Ireland, Cronin can almost be guaranteed to score a try in every match at club level. His work rate is legendary and his lineout throwing is often more accurate than Best’s. How Coach Joe Schmidt uses the pair of them in a match of such stature is likely to tell us much as to how their respective roles will play out this year.

England finally have a back row that works – for the most part

It’s been England’s bug bear for so long now it’s almost become a bit of a bad joke – especially given the player resources England have at their disposal. However, the November Internationals saw the nucleus of a unit that worked with Mark Wilson proving to be one of the finds of the year. This year Billy Vunipola returns and while we wish him all the best, we are not holding our breath as to the likelihood of him seeing out the tournament injury-free even though he appears to be back to his phenomenal best at club level. The loss of Sam Underhill for the entire tournament due to injury is a huge loss. Nevertheless for this match England’s back row offering looks solid with Vunipola, Wilson and a player we think has a massive future ahead of him for England, Tom Curry.

Talking of back rows, it’s a make or break year for Ireland’s Sean O’Brien

Everyone knows the value of the great man to Ireland, however injury has not been kind to him, and much like England’s Billy Vunipola, whether or not the Irish flanker will make it through the tournament unscathed is a big question mark. With Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy providing exceptionally healthy and robust competition for his jersey, O’Brien really needs to make this Six Nations his. However, Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of the injury risk in a match that is likely to be intensely physical, and as a result Josh van der Flier gets the nod over O’Brien as a starter for this match. The number seven jersey is likely to be Ireland’s revolving door in terms of selection this tournament, and it will be fascinating to see who emerges the clear owner come March 16th.

Owen Farrell – asset or liability?

Last November saw the England fly half be classed as hero and villain in the same breath by rugby supporters around the globe, including a fair number of English supporters. Some see him as a liability, and despite his genius on the field, ability with the boot and skill at game management, we tend to fall more into the liability camp when talking about the Farrell question. His committment to his team and overall ability is not in question, but we do not feel the Captaincy role is one that he is suited for. Furthermore, we have noticed that his defensive positioning is often out of kilter at critical junctures in matches, forcing him into last-ditch desperate tackles and we all know how that went in November. His decision-making also leaves a great deal to be desired at times and on numerous occasions he has turned down easy points on offer, electing to kick to the corner against teams England are struggling to establish any kind of dominance over. Add to that a slightly impetuous nature, short fuse and challenging relationship with officials, and perhaps it is better to keep him out of the Captaincy role. His value to the team is not up for debate as that is a given. It is more a question of in what role and how to best use him. Something England have yet to nail down and which perhaps this Six Nations will finally provide in time for the World Cup.

The Robbie Henshaw experiment

Yes we know he used to play fullback for Connacht, but we were still surprised to see him get the nod over Rob Kearney for such a crucial game. Even more so considering that Henshaw has not played at fullback for Ireland and instead plies his trade in the centre channels when wearing the green jersey. Will England target him with the high balls that Kearney is traditionally so comfortable under? Or is Schmidt banking on Henshaw’s physicality to break down the attacks from the English back line? The contest between him and England’s Elliot Daly will be one of the most fascinating of the afternoon. Daly is a proven commodity and possesses an exceptionally handy boot, and between him and wingers Jack Nowell and Jonny May they should be able to provide Henshaw with plenty of work. Ireland have Jordan Larmour on the bench as solid cover, but his defensive skills still need some work. In the aerial battles on Saturday, we have a feeling that England may just get the better of Ireland, so how Ireland adapt their game to ensure that doesn’t happen will be something to watch for.

Verdict

Either way this will be an exceptionally fitting end to what should be a great opening weekend of Six Nations rugby. This should be a much better English side than the one Ireland faced at Twickenham last March. Two powerful packs go head to head, complemented by some back lines that can put on a show. It should be a thriller and one that it is likely to keep us on the edge of our seats. However, when it’s all said and done, we have to side with the form and history books. England are once more on the rise, but Ireland have already put in the hard graft in getting their structures and organisation right. Ireland have a better understanding of the game they want to play while England are still putting the finishing touches on theirs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of upsetting the odds, but we can’t help feeling is too much of a tall order on opening night. Consequently in a hard-fought match, Ireland to handle the basics better and walk away the winners by four points!

Endnote

Yes our favorite YouTubers are back Steve and Gareth from the 1014 and look set to have a ton of outstanding content lined up for this year’s Six Nations. Make sure you give them your support and subscribe to help them keep up their excellent ouput. We’ll be ending all our updates with one of their top-notch videos.

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

South Africa – 8/10

Some of you may be wondering why we’ve chosen to give South Africa such a high rating when they lost 7 of the 14 Tests they played in 2018, and thus had a winning ratio of only 50%. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks a lot more rosy. First of all it was a clear turnaround from the disastrous years under former Coach Allister Coetzee after the last World Cup. Secondly of those 7 wins 3 were on the road, something the Springboks have struggled to do in recent years. Lastly of those 7 defeats, 3 of them were by less than 3 points. In short, the renaissance that South African rugby experienced in 2018 and the pride that was restored to the jersey, made it fairly easy for us to give them such a high scoring on sheer effort alone. There was an undercurrent of consistency in both team selection and performance that we hadn’t seen for a long time, and as a result we feel they thoroughly deserved the praise we heaped on them last year, along with the recognition they got on the international stage as a force to be reckoned with once more.

South Africa got their 2018 campaign off to an interesting start in an exhibition match in Washington DC, in June against Wales. Although the attendance could have been better, we still counted ourselves fortunate to be part of the enthusiastic crowd that showed up for the match. The first half was a rather dire affair from both sides to say the least, and both teams lacked the necessary precision at times for a match of this calibre. However, by the end of the match it had turned into an exciting contest. A poorly executed kick from behind South Africa’s goal line at the end saw Wales take full advantage and crash over for a simple try to rob South Africa of the lead they had fought so hard to gain in the second half.

South Africa returned home to host England in June for a three Test series. Many key players who regularly ply their trade overseas returned home as well to lend their support to the cause. The result was a Springbok side that positively hummed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was a thrilling Test match, but its opening twenty minutes saw England run in three tries, and the new-found optimism that Coach Rassie Erasmus had given Springbok supporters appeared to evaporate quickly, as fans had a horrible sense of deja vu. However, the next 20 minutes produced some truly stunning rugby from South Africa as they hit back with four tries of their own and headed into halftime with a narrow 29-27 lead. The second half was a tense affair of give and take, but South Africa found their big match temperament and held on for an historic 42-39 victory. The next match in Bloemfontein was a gritty affair, but once again the Springbok pack ground England into submission and allowed South Africa to claim the series. The final Test in Cape Town, saw England find their groove at sea level and in poor conditions they were clearly the better side. However, South Africa had won the series on the back of two solid performances that gave grounds for plenty of optimism heading into the Rugby Championship.

South Africa’s opening fixture in the Rugby Championship against Argentina, built on the success of the England series as they came away with a convincing win over a Pumas outfit that was just coming to terms with life under new Coach Mario Ledesma. In the return fixture in Argentina a week later, that transition process was clearly complete, and the Pumas got the better of a rather disjointed Springbok performance and one which seemed to confirm fears that South Africa may be a side to fear on home soil, but on the road they were continuing to struggle.

South Africa headed to Australia, knowing they needed to shake off the mantra that they were a team that still battled to look convincing away from home. They looked much sharper than they did against Argentina, but still failed to capitalise on some key opportunities and let the lead slip away from their grasp once more. Australia simply took what little chances were on offer more effectively and in a tight tussle the Wallabies got the better of South Africa by 23-18.

Consequently, by the time they reached New Zealand, many had already written them off, especially as the last time they were in New Zealand they experienced their worst ever defeat to the All Blacks by 57-0. Instead what happened was a piece of Springbok history but this time clearly in their favor. As mentioned before in previous posts it was a Test match for the ages and one that brought out all the best qualities of one of International Rugby’s greatest and fiercest rivalries. There were tries galore from both teams and some truly heroic defence from South Africa in the final 15 minutes. They emerged the deserved winners and finally managed to shake off the curse of being unable to win big games on the road. The pride in the jersey on all the players’ faces at the final whistle was perhaps most emphatic in flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit’s tears.

South Africa would then return home and get revenge for their loss to Australia, as some heroic defence once more saw them home, despite a constant Wallaby assault on the South African 22 in the final quarter. Their final match of the Championship saw them take on a New Zealand side clearly out for revenge after the upset in Wellington the previous month. It was another truly epic Test match that hung in the balance for the full eighty minutes. South Africa had once more built up an impressive lead by the final quarter, but New Zealand came charging back into the match and this time showed those devastating finishing skills that they have become synonymous with. South Africa gave as good as they got, but the All Blacks simply went through their paces with just a shade more finesse. It was a thrilling Test match that saw New Zealand sneak it at the death and win by 32-30.

South Africa finished the Rugby Championship with a strong second place, and then headed out on the road for the end of year tour to Europe with a well-founded sense of optimism. First up were England who were clearly out to avenge their series loss in June. Sadly it was a match once more marred by controversy from the officials. South Africa were dominating most aspects of the game but their execution at key moments let them down, even though South Africa would be the only side to score a try, with all of England’s points coming from the boot. A slightly controversial call from referee Angus Gardner on a clumsy tackle from England’s Owen Farrell, meant South Africa were denied a penalty kick that could have swung the match back in their favor. In the end they had to settle for a heartbreaking 1 point loss to England. Nevertheless, despite their dominance of possession for much of the game their issues with execution at times did much more to scupper their chances of a win than one simple 50/50 referee call.

South Africa’s next two outings were much more positive affairs. First up they held their nerve to snatch victory at the death from France. South Africa showed some real composure in the dying minutes of the match, and to a man looked convinced that the win was theirs for the taking which it was, through a well worked team effort resulting in a crucial try at the final whistle. From there it was off to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side that looked extremely dangerous. Once again it was another dogged and assured performance from the Springboks as they clawed out a second vital win, through some superb attacking rugby, game management from fly half Handre Pollard and some stoic defence. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them but they held firm.

South Africa’s last match of the year however, did see the inevitable cracks start to appear in a side that had had a long and tumultuous season that had its fair share of highs and lows. Against Wales, South Africa started to look a shadow of the team that had produced that famous victory in Wellington only two months earlier. With some clearly tired bodies on display, the Springboks ultimately bowed out of 2018 quietly but keen to regroup for 2019 and build on the results of a remarkable year. Wales got the better of them and South Africa, although showing the odd spark, never really looked like they would trouble their Welsh hosts to any great degree. While it may have been an anti-climax to what had otherwise been a fantastic year, there were still more than enough positives for South Africa to take away from 2018 as referee Luke Pearce blew the final whistle on the Springboks season.

In short, a season that has had far more highs than lows, especially when compared to the rather dismal state of affairs the Springboks found themselves in heading into 2018. Life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus has produced a renaissance in Springbok rugby and at the same time unearthed some genuine world-class talent. There is still plenty of work to do, but there are few, ourselves included, who would doubt the legitimacy of South Africa’s challenge for Webb Ellis glory come September. South Africa are back, make no mistake and mean business. They have an enviable balance of youth and experience, a devastating but increasingly mobile forward pack, a half back combination that finally works and a truly gifted set of backs. If any of their opponents in Japan fail to take them seriously they will end up paying a heavy price. If South Africa can build on the momentum gained in 2018 there is no reason why it couldn’t be them instead of either New Zealand or Ireland who are hoisting aloft the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd.

Player of the year – Faf de Klerk

The pint-sized scrum half was a revelation in the Springbok jersey in 2018. As regular readers know, we are huge fans of the South African number nine and his time playing for English Premiership side Sale Sharks has paid huge dividends. South Africa’s version of a rugby playing Jack Russell is completely fearless, and his ability to keep opposition defences guessing along with a lightning quick delivery was a joy to watch this year. The ability to tackle players more than twice his size and actually to bring them to the ground single-handed is the mark of a very special player, and someone able to punch way above their weight. His obvious enthusiasm for his role is infectious and clearly rubs off on his teammates. In short, expect him to be just as much a part of the South African success story in 2019 as he was in 2018.

Player to watch in 2019 – Aphiwe Dyantyi

South Africa’s try seeking missile had us mesmerised at times in 2018. An exceptionally gifted footballer with some sublime hands and feet skills, Dyantyi featured regularly in press releases about Springbok exploits in 2018 and expect more of the same this year. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing and complimenting his lethal attacking skills in space, this is a player you won’t want to miss both in the Rugby Championship and South Africa’s World Cup campaign in Japan this year.

Match of the year – New Zealand vs South Africa – Wellington – September 15th – New Zealand 34/South Africa 36

We have run out of superlatives, for what we consider to have been THE Test match of 2018. South Africa’s skill and heroics for the full eighty minutes were something to behold. As one of Test Rugby’s greatest rivalries was reborn with a vengeance, this match and South Africa’s performance in it, will be in our video libraries for many years to come.

Endnote

Well that’s it for 2018. Our focus now shifts wholeheartedly to the Six Nations for the next two months. We’ll have our thoughts on this weekend’s opening round of the classic tournament out by this Thursday night. Stay tuned and once again thanks for all the great support last year!

As we do at the end of every year and with their seasons over till February, we look back at the highs and lows of the Southern Hemisphere season and hand out our verdicts on the big four Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With less than nine months left before the biggest rugby show on earth, 2018 was a critical year for all four countries and much was learnt about the pecking order in International Rugby and what we might expect from these four heavyweights once business gets underway in Japan in September.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into 2019. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause in 2018 as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in 2019. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it.

New Zealand – 8/10

It was an interesting year for New Zealand whichever way you cut it. They are clearly still the team to beat in world rugby, but their dominance was challenged in 2018, make no mistake. While they are still a truly remarkable team, we found out this past year, that if they are put under pressure they too can join the ranks of the mortals. Ireland and South Africa put them to the sternest of Tests, and in South Africa’s case pulled off the unthinkable by actually beating the All Blacks in New Zealand – something which New Zealand’s opponents have only managed to pull off a grand total of five times in the last ten years. New Zealand’s losses to South Africa and Ireland, along with their scare from England had many making statements that the All Blacks were vulnerable or that their glory days were on the wane. To be honest from what we saw of them in action we find such statements beyond premature. New Zealand are still a formidable force and without doubt still front-runners to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan this year for the third consecutive time. Yes this year proved that they can be beaten, but it is going to take a very remarkable team to knock them out of the World Cup.

New Zealand’s season got off to an emphatic start, as expected, they put a weary touring French team to the sword, and won all three Tests of their June series. However, some of the controversies surrounding refereeing decisions in the opening match meant there was a slight cloud hanging over an otherwise emphatic victory. The second Test was a much tighter affair, but once again New Zealand were masters of composure under pressure as they sealed a convincing win and the series. In the final Test, the All Blacks put their foot flat to the floor and in the second half simply left an exhausted French team in their dust as they ran in 7 superb tries to France’s 2. It is always hard to gauge how teams stand after having played France, as Les Bleus traditionally field poor touring teams, mainly due to the fact that players are invariably exhausted after one of the longest and most gruelling domestic club seasons in the professional era. However, the second Test did see New Zealand make a host of  uncharacteristic errors, some of which could be attributed to the absence of key players such as lock Brodie Retallick and Captain and number 8 Kieran Read.

Next up it was the annual Rugby Championship, which also saw the return of Retallick and Read. The opening match against Australia, which also was the first of the three annual Bledisloe Cup matches, saw New Zealand eventually blow off the cobwebs and get back to their best. As a result it left few of us in doubt that the tournament would be theirs once more as it has been since the last World Cup. Australia then travelled to Auckland’s Eden Park where they were given a comprehensive schooling by New Zealand fly half Beauden Barrett as the number 10 ran in a remarkable four tries.

From there New Zealand played host to a feisty Pumas side who kept them honest until the 70th minute, at which point they finally managed to unlock the Pumas defences and once more hit their customary stride. A South African side that had been written off were their next visitors in Wellington, and the result was arguably THE Test match of the year. The historic and proud rivalry between these two rugby heavyweights was restored during the course of the match in an epic performance from both teams. South Africa gave as good as they got and put the All Blacks under enormous pressure which forced them into countless mistakes, as New Zealand found themselves in the rare position of having to chase an exceptionally healthy Springbok lead. The All Blacks as they traditionally do, came back with a vengeance in the second half, and for a good ten minutes of the final quarter they were up against a Springbok side down to fourteen men. In an absolutely heroic defensive display, South Africa managed to withstand a continual assault by the All Blacks and emerge the narrowest of winners by 36-34. New Zealand were clearly rattled by the defeat, but you never got the feeling that it would last for long.

Sure enough New Zealand came back firing as they travelled to Argentina and got the better of another feisty performance from the Pumas. However, New Zealand destroyed Argentina’s efforts in the set pieces. With a game to spare they now had the Rugby Championship sewn up, but were clearly keen to settle the score in the final match of the tournament, as they travelled to South Africa to face a Springbok side brimming with confidence. It was another titanic struggle that once more lived up to the pedigree of the rivalry between the two, but this time New Zealand would walk away the victors in a very tight contest at 32-30 in the All Blacks favor.

New Zealand continued their travels as they headed to Japan for a taste of what it would be like to play in the forthcoming World Cup. In the final Bledisloe Cup match they demolished a hapless Wallaby side, in front of an ecstatic Japanese crowd. Next up they took on this year’s World Cup hosts Japan. While it was a third string All Black side as the team’s heavyweights travelled to Europe, it reinforced the staggering depth New Zealand has at its disposal. Japan put up a brave fight at times but the result was never in doubt and the All Blacks ran in an emphatic victory beating their hosts 69-31.

The first match of their end of year European tour was against an English side, that much like South Africa earlier in the year, many had written off. In appalling weather conditions New Zealand once more found themselves under the kosh of a resurgent England. Once again the match was marred by controversy sparked by the officials, but New Zealand did manage to claw themselves back into a match that initially looked beyond them. It was Brodie Retallick’s complete dismantling of the English lineouts that set the All Blacks back on course. However, it had been a serious scare and the match was on a knife-edge for the full eighty minutes, and New Zealand breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle saw them emerge the winners by the narrowest of margins at 16-15. They were aware that they had been given a serious reality check ahead of one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year, their clash with the second best side in the world Ireland in Dublin the following weekend.

The dustup in Dublin did not disappoint, and was one of the year’s epic Tests. New Zealand threw the kitchen sink at a very disciplined and structured Irish outfit, but the All Blacks simply couldn’t wear them down. Furthermore, New Zealand found themselves on the wrong side of the pressure curve for the full eighty minutes. What pressure New Zealand did manage to exert was absorbed with ease by Ireland, while New Zealand where clearly finding the relentless physicality and probing of their defences by Ireland exhausting – something they simply haven’t been used to in the last four years. Ireland recorded only their second victory over the All Blacks, and New Zealand were left to lick their wounds with the prospect of a dead rubber match against Italy in which to regroup.

As expected an angry All Black side, still smarting from the Dublin defeat, put a helpless Italian side to the sword in Rome, as the hosts appeared to be the sacrificial lambs of tournaments similar to what would have taken place in the Coliseum just down the road a few thousand years ago. The 66-3 thrashing by the All Blacks clearly took some of the sting out of the loss to the Irish, but that and the loss to South Africa on home soil, had clearly given the world’s number one side some much-needed food for thought.

New Zealand are still the force to be reckoned with by everyone else if they want to judge how far they have come since the last World Cup. Watch any All Black performance this year, even their two losses, and you will still see some breathtaking skills on display. Their lofty position at the top of the world rankings for so long now, has provided an enormous incentive for the rest of the world to catch up, which it would appear to be finally doing. Ireland are clearly their biggest threat, but South Africa has also proved that they can derail the All Black juggernaut. Throw England and Wales into the mix and all of a sudden the World Cup doesn’t look so comfortable any more for New Zealand. However, we would argue that 2018 was the best thing that could happen in terms of New Zealand’s preparations for the World Cup. Gone are any illusions of complacency, even if there were any there to start with. The All Blacks have proved time and again that once the rest of the world does eventually catch up with them, they are masters at reinventing themselves all over again. Few sides are better at going back to the drawing board and fixing whatever weaknesses they have discovered about themselves and emerging twice as strong. In short, 2018 was a year in which the All Blacks saw themselves shaken but not stirred. Rugby World Cup 2019 you have been warned!

Player of the year – Brodie Retallick

Although he missed the June series against France, the return of the giant second rower for the Rugby Championship reaffirmed how important he is to New Zealand’s efforts. He made our Team of the Year with ease and quite simply terrified the opposition all year-long. He single-handedly turned around New Zealand’s fortunes at Twickenham in a match which they were struggling to assert their authority. A master of the set pieces and utterly devastating in the loose this is clearly one of Test rugby’s most dangerous commodities, and is likely to leave most opposition defence coaches with endless sleepless nights in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Jack Goodhue

We’d heard great things about the Crusaders youngster, and when he showed what he could do in the third Test against France, it was clear that all the hype surrounding the 23-year-old centre was completely justified. While those who have read our musings over the last few years know, we are of the opinion that Sonny Bill Williams is a tad over rated and slightly one-dimensional. Goodhue possesses the wrecking ball physical ability of Williams, some fancy foot work and is in our opinion a much more complete footballer. Allied to the highly experienced Ryan Crotty, Goodhue formed a lethal partnership at centre this year. Expect to see Goodhue be one of the key talking points of New Zealand’s buildup to this year’s World Cup as well as grabbing some major press attention once the tournament gets underway.

Match of the year – South Africa vs New Zealand – Pretoria – October 6th – South Africa 30/New Zealand 32

This match had just as much intensity as the one between these age-old rivals that saw New Zealand concede a rare defeat on home soil a few weeks earlier. It was another epic struggle which ensured that Tests between these two are likely be some of the most anticipated events of the Test calendar once more. When it comes to Test Rugby as a spectacle it doesn’t get much better than this! Here’s hoping that 2019 will produce similar high-octane encounters between these two.

Next up – South Africa and then into the Six Nations!