Hopefully, by now you’ve regained your breath after last weekend’s thrilling opening encounters in Australia and South Africa. It was vintage Test rugby, and the South Africa/England match, in particular, was an epic that will last in our collective memories for a long time. New Zealand’s opening match gave us plenty of entertainment, but as it was provided for the most part by just one team it didn’t quite capture the imagination in the same way the dustups in Brisbane and Johannesburg did. Wales also put in a solid shift against Argentina, which should set up an intriguing contest this weekend. Canada, as seems to be par for the course these days, put in a valiant effort against Scotland but sadly were taught a rather harsh lesson on the scoreboard in the process.

New Zealand and France got the proceedings underway last Saturday, and although the All Blacks looked decidedly rusty in the first half, they seemed to effortlessly find their ruthless rhythm once more and put a bewildered looking French team to the sword. As seems the norm these days, whenever the All Blacks are involved, the match was not without its controversy, but the sight of French winger Remy Grosso leaving the field with a fractured skull put a definite damper on the proceedings. As they always do on these end of year tours, France looked tired and disorganised in the second half as New Zealand simply headed off into the stratosphere. France will no doubt be more focused this weekend, as well as motivated to put on a good show for the injured Grosso, but it will still be a very tall order to remain in touch with a seemingly untouchable All Black team.

Australia and Ireland then went at it, and as we predicted this proved to be a hugely physical encounter, and one in which Australia’s menacing back line and centre partnership ended up giving Ireland a very stern examination. The Wallaby back row of Pocock and Hooper put Ireland under all kinds of pressure at the breakdown, to the point where the Men in Green were unable to exert their traditional stranglehold on possession. There was no question that Australia were the dominant force as Ireland struggled to keep them in check. It was a game of enormous pressure from both sides, that provided plenty of big hits with Australia putting in tackles across the park that had us reeling back from our TV screens. It was a fantastic Test match that, despite the relatively low scoreline, had us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes.

We always had the sneaking suspicion that the opening match of a three Test series between South Africa and England was an epic in the making and we were certainly not disappointed. It had everything – drama, excitement, comebacks and sheer all out spectacle. It may be hard to repeat that wow factor in the remaining two Tests, but last weekend’s try fest has certainly set up an enthralling series. There was that horrible feeling of deja vu in the opening quarter as South Africa suddenly found themselves 24 points down on the scoreboard. However, their comeback over the next forty was simply breathtaking and showed that Springbok rugby is far from going the way of the dodo. Much has been said of England’s loss, much of which we feel is unjustified. Despite the fact that they blew a 24 point lead and had one of their most purple periods in a match for a long time, people seem to forget that in such a humdinger of a match they only ended up losing by three points, and for the last ten minutes were pushing South Africa very hard. We very much doubt they will be such a walkover this Saturday, and it remains to be seen how much more the Springboks can raise their game.

Wales, after a scrappy win in Washington against the Springboks the week before, can feel well pleased with their efforts in Argentina last Saturday. Some of the younger players really stood up and were counted, and a certain flanker by the name of James Davies had everyone talking. As an exercise in depth development for Wales, they came away with full marks. Argentina on the other hand are clearly struggling to find their way with national Coach Daniel Hourcade, after the same group of players blossomed over the last six weeks in Super Rugby with their Coach and former Puma Mario Ledesma. Despite their disappointing showing in San Juan last weekend and the concerns around their chemistry with Hourcade, this is still a very talented group of players, who are likely to make life very difficult for Wales this Saturday as they have everything to play for.

Scotland showed that they also have some remarkable depth, as they trounced a spirited but ultimately error strewn Canadian side sadly lacking in the skills and execution needed at this level, barring one or two key players. Canada are sadly a long way from where they need to be and a further slip down the World Rankings once this June series is over seems inevitable. Canada is not without players of promise, make no mistake, but it is painfully obvious that the entire structure of rugby management in Canada needs a complete shakedown before they can realistically aspire to be a top Tier 2 nation capable of the odd big scalp once more. Perhaps the most telling example of what is wrong with the Canadian rugby is that we have struggled to find any coverage whatsoever in the press here of Canada’s Test against Russia this weekend. Matters are made worse by the fact that it would appear there is likely to be absolutely no television or Internet coverage of the match in Canada. Consequently, as much as we would like to, we are not offering any comment on the match as we simply know NOTHING about it, and will have to settle for offering the Canadian team that runs out on the pitch in Ottawa our heartfelt support.

A gripping weekend awaits, with the matchups in Australia and South Africa being the most eagerly anticipated contests of a fascinating Saturday. A series decider is on the line for both Australia and South Africa, while Ireland and England seek to set up a thrilling winner takes all third Test. Who knows maybe even France will end up surprising us as they seek to carry the torch for fallen teammate Remy Grosso and settle a few scores with the All Blacks in the process. So without any further ado, let’s get into the head to heads.

New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 16th
Wellington

France will be looking for redemption this Saturday in Wellington, especially as they are more than likely feeling slightly aggrieved that some of the calls didn’t quite go their way last weekend. To add insult to injury, the loss of such a key player as winger Remy Grosso in a brutal double tackle that ended his tour and left him with a fractured skull will have left a sour taste in the mouths of the Men in Blue. They’ll be out for revenge and to prove that Grosso’s unfortunate injury was not in vain. However, despite the motivation and the fact that some key players have joined the squad after the Top 14 final, there is still no denying that they are going to have their work cut out for them on Saturday.

New Zealand on the other hand look the part. There is no question that it took them forty minutes last weekend to blow the cobwebs off since the last time they were together, but once they did it was business as usual for the number one team in the world. Admittedly France lost the plot in the second half, but New Zealand looked frighteningly good, and for their opposition it is downright disturbing how quickly they gel as a unit. With an unchanged side from last weekend expect more of the same in Wellington this Saturday.

Front Rows

It’s no surprise that New Zealand aren’t tinkering with something that clearly worked last weekend, as props Owen Franks and Joe Moody retain their spots as does Hooker Codie Taylor. We were surprised however to see France stick with the same front three. In their defence we felt Hooker Camille Chat and Prop Danny Priso held up well, and we were impressed with Priso’s efforts in particular. However, we stand by what we said last weekend, prop Uini Atonio brings little to the table for France especially up against the likes of New Zealand’s Joe Moody. However, we are interested to see Atonio’s replacement Cedate Gomes Sa in action as we feel he has a bright future in the blue jersey, having caught our eye with Racing 92 in the recent European Champions Cup final. However, this New Zealand front row is so capable and established we fully expect to see the All Blacks ruling the roost here.

Second Rows

Once again New Zealand see no change from Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett who dominated proceedings in this part of the park last Saturday, but France’s selections once more leave us scratching our heads. We though Paul Gabrillagues was very competitive last weekend especially in the lineouts and consequently are surprised to see him on the bench, and the South African import Bernard le Roux in his place. We’re also still not convinced that Yoann Maestri is the best option for France and in general thought he had a poor game last weekend. Once again with Vaea Fifita on the bench for New Zealand, the All Blacks should comfortably have the upper hand in this part of the park all afternoon.

Back Rows

We don’t know enough about flanker Mathieu Babillot for France, but are heartened to see Kelian Galletier and Kevin Gourdon in the back row for les Bleus. Number eight Kevin Gourdon is one of France’s finest and although he looked tired towards the end of the match, expect him to be at his best for this encounter. Flanker Galletier has impressed all season for France and Montpellier. New Zealand still pack the more accomplished trio, in the shape of flankers Sam Cane and Liam Squire, who both dominated proceedings last Saturday along with a promising start from Luke Whitelock. With New Zealand wonder weapon waiting on the bench in the shape of flanker Ardie Savea, France will have to find something rather special to keep in the hunt on this part of the park on Saturday.

Half Backs

New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith were the master class last weekend and France’s Anthony Belleau and Morgan Parra were the apprentices, despite the enormous Test experience of Parra. The All Black pair may have looked a little rusty at the beginning but they soon hit their strides as the Frenchmen struggled to be competitive. We still like the look of the French bench here in the shape of Baptiste Serin and Jules Plisson, but once again feel they will struggle to compete or have much say in proceedings in comparison to New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie, even though the latter is likely to come on as a fullback rather than a fly half replacement. Nevertheless from the moment he came on last weekend, McKenzie was cutting the French defences to pieces. New Zealand are so polished here that despite the remarkable experience of French scrum half Morgan Parra, we just can’t see France having too much to say here.

Centres

It’s unchanged for both sides in midfield, but once again New Zealand had all the gas last weekend while France were running on fumes for much of the match in this part of the park, even replacement centre Gael Fickou had little if any impact on the match. New Zealand’s Anton Liennert-Brown and Ryan Crotty on the other hand were electric, and as readers of this blog know, for us this is our preferred combination at centre for New Zealand, especially with an eye to the World Cup, much to the dismay of Sonny-Bill Williams fans. As they showed last weekend, Crotty has the strength and vision, while Liennert-Brown has the speed and exceptional ball handling skills that make this such a lethal and unpredictable combination. France’s Mathieu Basteraud and Geoffrey Doumayrou possess similar talents, they are just not as explosive or polished, and judging by last weekend not nearly as fit. New Zealand’s Ngani Laumape also justified all the hype surrounding him, when he came off the bench last weekend and expect more of the same this weekend. Once again, New Zealand to be masters of France’s undoing here.

Back Lines

While Teddy Thomas proved problematic for New Zealand at times on the wing last weekend, we still doubt that between himself, Benjamin Fall at fullback and Gael Fickou on the other wing, there is enough here to really unravel the All Black defences. Fall comes highly rated but we haven’t seen enough of him to really judge the threat he poses. Thomas’ skills are well documented and we got more than a few glimpses of that last weekend, but for us Fickou is not a Test wing and at best an average centre. New Zealand on the other hand have gas to burn here in the shape of wingers Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith along with fullback Jordie Barrett. With Ioane running in tries from all over the park, Smith’s remarkable all round skills and vision and Barrett’s strength in defence and attack, this is going to be a unit that should be practically impossible for France to break down. As we said above, add the truly remarkable Damian McKenzie into the mix off the bench and it is likely to be fireworks central at the “cake tin” in Wellington on Saturday night. In short, New Zealand to be all over this part of the park like a rash!

Verdict

Will France show up for this one? We think so, and certainly hope so, to the point where we think this is likely to be the best Test of the series. France always manage to put in one big performance on tour in New Zealand and after last weekend, they will be up for this in no uncertain terms, with more than just a point to prove. With France having beaten New Zealand in the ongoing Under 20s Championship currently taking place in France, and securing a spot in the finals, it is clear that while France may be struggling at present at the senior level there is a wealth of up and coming talent. Nevertheless it is still hard to imagine France in their current state really getting to grips with this well oiled All Black machine on Saturday in Wellington, and as a result New Zealand should wrap up the match and the series by 23 points!

Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 16th
Melbourne

Plain and simple that was a classic Test match last weekend, but the real takeaway that Australia clearly got the better of Ireland was made even more remarkable by the fact that this Wallaby side had only been together for six days prior to kick off! That’s quite an achievement against the team ranked number 2 in the world. As a result, a showdown of epic proportions awaits in Melbourne on Saturday as Australia seek to clinch the series while Ireland seek to tie it and set the tone for an epic finale in Sydney a week later. This was and is Test rugby at its best and we can’t wait for kick off on Saturday morning.

Don’t get us wrong, Ireland played well last weekend, but Australia were just more effective at turning what few genuine opportunities they had into big match points. Ireland had plenty of possession, as they invariably do, but just couldn’t turn it into enough points on the board. They were hampered by the extraordinary breakdown skills of Wallaby flanker David Pocock who seems to have come back even more dangerous than he was prior to his enforced sabbatical. Australia’s defence was exceptional, and they put in some truly massive hits that left many an Irishman wondering what universe he was in. Australia’s scrum has gone from being the laughing-stock of Test rugby to being a highly reliable platform, and it is clear that the 2018 edition of the Wallabies is already looking in rather robust health at such an early stage in their campaign.

Ireland meanwhile were just not at their best on the day, although in fairness they weren’t far from it. We thought Joey Carberry had a respectable game as starting fly half, and to be honest felt he played better than a slightly bewildered looking Johnny Sexton once he came off the bench. However, key areas where they just didn’t have the same edge as Australia were in the back row and in the backs. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is clearly aware of what is at stake this weekend, despite the equally pressing need for the development of depth in the Irish squad, and is going with a starting XV that should be able to match the execution and intensity of their Wallaby counterparts. It’s going to be a riveting encounter with everything on the line, so make sure you don’t miss this one!

Front Rows

The big guns are all here for Ireland on Saturday, the only familiar face that is missing is Rory Best at Hooker. However, in our opinion we think that this is one area where Ireland really need to take the plunge and develop some depth at all costs. To that effect we are happy to see Niall Scannell starting, with Rob Herring on the bench. We thought Herring put in a solid shift, especially at lineout time last week, but Scannell, after some solid Six Nations performances, is also capable of stepping up to the plate when Ireland needs him. Scannell had a solid Six Nations in 2017 and we are looking forward to seeing him in action again. With Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy propping up Scannell, and Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter on the bench, Ireland’s work at the coal face should be highly productive and stable enough to hold their own whatever Australia throw at them.

Australia stick with a unit that stood up remarkably well last weekend and there are clearly no major concerns with Wallaby stability or technique in the front row. Furthermore, they seemed to have no problem soaking up the pressure which Ireland is famous for applying come scrum time. It may have been Hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa’s debut, but he seemed completely unphased by the occasion. Meanwhile his partners outside him, Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio, continued to build on the improvements in Wallaby scrumagging prowess that we had begun to see last year.

Despite the Wallabies ability to soak up the pressure, we still hold that the Irish are likely to be more dominant than they were last week, and the front row battles to ultimately just swing in their favor this Saturday.

Second Rows

Once again Australia see no change with Adam Coleman and Izack Rodda, who had a solid outing last weekend, with Coleman in particular continuing to impress. However, it was Ireland’s Jack Ryan who stole the show in this part of the park last weekend, and was arguably Ireland’s best player. As he approaches legendary status at the age of only 21, expect more of the same this weekend. Paired up with the wise head of Devin Toner, and with the much vaunted Tadhg Beirne due to get his start off the bench, Ireland should once more run this part of the park, especially come lineout time.

Back Rows

We just felt that the Irish back row didn’t have the edge it needed last Saturday in Brisbane. Sure CJ Stander had some of his usual barnstorming runs, and courtesy of some stellar Wallaby defence he was unlucky to not score a try, but overall the Irish trio just did not make the headlines the way Michael Hooper and David Pocock did for Australia last weekend. Peter O’Mahony was productive in the lineouts but was, along with Jordi Murphy, clearly having the show stolen from him at the breakdowns by Hooper and Pocock. Consequently, we are delighted to see Dan Leavy get a start in the number 7 jersey, as he was immense in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this year, as well as Leinster’s European glory. Expect the Irish trio to ramp it up another couple of notches to not only work at keeping Pocock and company in check, but also create some momentum of their own. Leavy versus Pocock is likely to be worth the price of admission in itself. Consequently, in a contest that it is almost impossible to call, we’re banking on a slight degree of controlled Irish fury to just swing the battle in Ireland’s favor.

Half Backs

Although Mr. Sexton may have looked slightly bewildered when he came on for Ireland as a substitute, we doubt that we will see the same facial expressions this Saturday. Alongside his scrum half partner, the irrepressible Conor Murray, as good as Will Genia and Bernard Foley were for Australia last weekend, we expect to see the Irish pair dominate proceedings. With Joey Carberry likely to have less pressure off the bench, the understudy to Sexton is likely to improve on what we thought was a solid performance for the most part under the bright lights last weekend. Australia will play a good game here make no mistake, but Sexton and Murray are likely to provide a degree of control that will be more effective in pressuring Wallaby fly half Bernard Foley and scrum half Will Genia into making mistakes. The Wallaby pair caved under that kind of pressure on several key occasions last year and have yet to be tested to the same degree this year. Furthermore we just can’t see Nick Phipps coming to the rescue, so as a result we’re handing this fair and square to the Irish.

Centres

Australia were nothing short of extraordinary here last weekend. Samu Kerevi clearly has no defensive frailties and was literally smashing Irish players into the ground, while his partner Kurtley Beale was constantly pulling white rabbits out of his hat that were wrongfooting the Irish defences. Beale has literally become the magician in the Wallaby side and his creativity and vision left his Irish counterparts clutching at straws on more than one occasion. Beale is a very gifted player who we thoroughly enjoy watching, and imagine we are not alone in that view no matter who you support. Ireland didn’t have a poor game here last weekend, but the Wallaby defence was so good that despite some good ball carrying by Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw for Ireland, it all looked rather predictable and one-dimensional. As a result, enter Gary Ringrose this weekend for Ireland. While he may not have Beale’s experience and repertoire of magic tricks, Ringrose can singlehandedly shred the best defences on the planet, so expect plenty of sparks here on Saturday. Still, despite the talent on offer from Ireland, we think that defensively and on home ground, it’s going to be Australia dominating the front pages in this part of the park when we’re reading it about in the Sunday papers.

Back Lines

Once again Australia looked red-hot here last weekend and we expect them to be no different this Saturday. We were surprised at the complete omission, even from the bench, by Irish Coach Joe Schmidt of Irish winger Jacob Stockdale in his selection for Saturday’s Test. While we accept that some have accused the young Irish try scoring machine of being suspect in defence, we beg to differ after his try saving tackle last Saturday. Nevertheless, veteran Keith Earls who is probably having one of his best seasons ever returns with another veteran of aerial warfare under the high ball, Rob Kearney at fullback. Kearney had a solid game last weekend, but Israel Folau clearly got the better of him for Australia in the aerial contests and we expect more of the same for Australia this weekend. Andrew Conway gets a start for Ireland, and he is going to have his hands full trying to contain the explosive and hard-hitting Marika Koroibete who was once again sensational for Australia last weekend. This is a good back line for Ireland, make no mistake and with the X-factor of Jordan Larmour on the bench the Men in Green will be clearly competitive. However, we just feel that this will be Australia’s day once again in this part of the park with an alarmingly fast and powerful back three, who are also not shy in defence.

Verdict

Australia on paper and at home look set to clinch the series, but we can’t help feeling that Ireland are simply not going to hand it to them so easily in Melbourne. Once more this should be an epic Test match, which if anything will rely less on the set pieces and physical battles as the turf in Melbourne seems incapable of coping with being churned up under that kind of pressure. As a result, it is likely to be even more of an open game than last week’s spectacle. Despite the seeming superiority of the Australian backs, we feel that Ireland’s game management will be better and more composed on the day, allowing their own backs and loose forwards to seal the deal for Ireland on the scoreboard. It is going to be incredibly close, but Ireland to just squeak the win by two points!

South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 16th
Bloemfontein

Last weekend’s opening dustup in Johannesburg between these two sides was one for the history books, and destined to become a video classic. The ten try epic left us exhausted just watching it. It had everything you could want from a classic Test match, an opening try blitz from England, followed by a super human come back from South Africa and ending with a nail biting final ten minutes where both sides fought tooth and nail for ascendancy. Consequently it is going to be pretty hard to top it as a spectacle when South Africa and England meet in Bloemfontein, with the Springboks looking, like their Wallaby counterparts, to seal the series. England are likely to have none of it, and while the press went ballistic in their dismissal of Coach Eddie Jones and his charges as they suffered another defeat in what is clearly proving to be a difficult year, we felt the criticisms were unduly harsh. Sure England lost, and the fact that they threw away a 24 point lead after 20 minutes is worrying to say the least, but the press made out that South Africa had run away with the game by a massive scoreline. Reality check – at the final whistle there were only three points in it!

Agreed, England looked frail defensively out wide at times and their back row organisation was once again a shambles which South Africa had a field day with. To add insult to injury their halfbacks were completely outclassed by the South African pair with Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk making a mockery of the English game plan. Lastly England’s lock partnership had moments of brilliance but failed to fire, with Maro Itoje lacking discipline and newcomer Nick Isiekwe looking out of his depth defensively. South Africa on the other hand, in the shape of RG Snyman unleashed a nuclear missile assault on the English defences, while he and lock partner Franco Mostert dominated the lineouts. However, while England may have been lucky to finish as close as they did, you still can’t get away from the fact that at the final whistle they hadn’t been blown off the park by SouthAfrica.

This weekend, this new look Springbok side will be full of confidence and an infinitely more settled unit than the one that ran out for the first twenty minutes of last weekend’s opening match. However, with some positive changes so will England. While we have to confess to finding the logic of having the English base camp at sea level in Durban to be hard to fathom when you consider their two critical opening Tests are to be played at altitude, we doubt the English will be as ill prepared as they appeared in that middle forty minutes of last weekend’s match. Wiser and meaner, expect these two sides to literally throw the kitchen sink at each other in eighty minutes, and while it may not quite be the try scoring spectacle of last week we doubt it will lack in entertainment and excitement.

Front Rows

There are very few changes here from both sides. South Africa looked the better side under pressure last weekend, and we expect more of the same, especially with Prop Tendai Mtawarira receiving his 100th cap. The “Beast” may be coming to the end of an illustrious career for the Springboks but in the process is putting in some of his finest appearances to date. England are likely to be much more competitive here, especially as we feel that Frans Malherbe is a bit of a weak link for the Springboks. Despite the presence of “the Beast”, we’re nodding our head in favor of England here, especially as Mako Vunipola had a solid game for England last weekend. However, depending on how much dominance England may get initially they are likely to be up against it, once the respective benches come into play. We like Luke Cowan-Dickie for England as a replacement Hooker, but Joe Marler has liability sadly written all over him, especially in a tense encounter like this. South Africa’s bench have the incomparable “ginger ninja” Steven Kitshoff and the promising Akker van der Merwe, and if they’re not careful England could well blow any kind of edge they may have gained over South Africa in the opening stages.

Second Rows

England will be delighted to see Joe Launchbury return to the second row, after the failed experiment with Nick Isiekwe, but Maro Itoje will need to step up his game much more than the one opportunistic try he scored last weekend. His discipline was poor and he just wasn’t the force we have come to expect from the English second rower. Nevertheless, we still feel that England, especially at altitude are going to struggle to get to grips with RG Snyman and Franco Mostert for the Springboks. Snyman in particular was devastating last weekend, and Mostert’s abilities are extremely well documented for both the Springboks and his Super Rugby side the Lions. The South African duo were head and shoulders above their English counterparts last Saturday, and even with Launchbury fighting the good cause for the Men in White, we still expect to see South Africa dominate this contest.

Back Rows

Have England and Coach Eddie Jones finally got it right in this part of the park, with their selections for Saturday? The proof of the pudding will be in the eating but we certainly think it is a step in the right direction. We really liked what we saw from flanker Tom Curry last weekend and thought he was one of the bright points in England’s performance. Brad Shields looks electric in Super Rugby, and despite his move to England, we expect him to be a real asset to the English cause and consequently can’t wait to see him and Curry attempt to bring some long overdue stability and energy to a long-faltering English back row. On that note, you could argue that the return of Billy Vunipola at number eight should complete the transformation. However, he looked seriously out of puff for most of last weekend’s encounter, something the Durban air is unlikely to help with in Bloemfontein. Consequently, we feel the best is yet to come from this exceptional player, but so soon from his return from injury we doubt we’ll see it this tour. Given the continued experimentation by England here, it will be tough for them to get the better of the powerhouse trio of the Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. Although du Toit may be playing out of position, he has proved himself equally versatile in his preferred position of lock and as a flanker, which is where he will play on Saturday. South Africa once again provide a powerful bench with Jean-Luc du Preez and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, and as a result we expect to see South Africa dominate proceedings despite a much tighter looking and potent English offering than we have seen up to now.

Half Backs

With South African scrum half Faf de Klerk being one of THE talking points of last weekend, it is hard to see much being different this weekend, other than England being slightly wiser to his lightning quick reflexes and decision-making. We don’t think it’s going to be enough for England to get the better of him and fly half Handre Pollard. We didn’t really see much from English scrum half Ben Youngs that made us take notice, and although fly half George Ford looked a bit sharper towards the end of last weekend’s opening Test, doubts remain for us that this is really the best England can offer in this department. Either way we can’t see them creating the same kind of chaos that de Klerk offers, and Ford having the measured boot at altitude that Pollard possesses. Provided the South African pair can go the distance and help build a dominant lead for South Africa then this part of the park should be in safe hands for the Springboks. However, if it is an even contest, things could turn out differently once the benches come into play. We still don’t rate replacement fly half Ivan van Zyl for South Africa but feel he is a safer bet than Elton Jantjies at Test level, but Danny Cipriani finally gets his long-awaited chance to show what a potential game changer he could be for England. South Africa will need to hope that when he does get it, it will be too late. A big gamble but one which should favor South Africa.

Centres

Despite the fact that we really liked what we saw from Lukhanyo Am last weekend for the Springboks, our doubts around Damian de Allende as a genuine Test centre have not changed. As a result we hand this contest fair and square to England. Owen Farrell is a proven commodity of the highest calibre and his partner Henry Slade is in our opinion the way forward for England, even if he may be struggling at times to get up to speed in the Test arena. We are not even convinced that Jesse Kriel can do much to help South Africa’s fortunes here off the bench. So this should be England’s contest to control comfortably even if Farrell and Slade were perhaps not at their best last weekend.

Back Lines

It will be close here, and despite the critics we thought Elliot Daly had an excellent game for England last weekend at fullback, and wingers Mike Brown and Johnny May also performed well in the opening and final quarters despite a truly purple patch in the middle. However, South Africa’s trio really caught the eye. Fullback Willie le Roux came bursting back onto the Test stage with a vengeance after a clearly productive spell in England. Meanwhile, the new caps on the wings S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi, really made us sit up and take notice. Despite struggling defensively in the opening quarter, they soon seemed to get a handle on this aspect of their game and clearly benefitted from le Roux’s experience. Given the fact that this trio are likely to be much more familiar with each other come this Saturday, this is a genuinely potent strike threat from the Springboks, which at altitude we feel England are still going to struggle to contain. We didn’t see much from the replacements last weekend that really stood out on either side, even though Warrick Gelant at fullback has genuine promise for South Africa. We feel that although South Africa may have less overall experience than England in their starters, with the obvious exception of le Roux, they are likely to be more dangerous with ball in hand. Once more a tight contest, but a bit more X-factor is likely to be available to South Africa to keep the English defences guessing.

Verdict

Another close call here, and one which has caused much debate amongst us, but we think that England may well end up regretting training in Durban this past week. England are highly unlikely to come unstuck for forty minutes like they did last weekend, but we still think they are going to be up against it in Bloemfontein. Consequently in front of a very noisy home crowd and at altitude, South Africa are likely to throw England off guard once more in a lower scoring game which they will win by six points and clinch the series!

Argentina vs Wales
Saturday, June 16th
Santa Fe

Wales must be feeling exceptionally pleased with the results of their end of year travels. They have two wins under their belts in difficult circumstances and in the process have learnt a great deal about their depth. They will head into this final Test brimming with confidence, and are likely to be satisfied even if they end up taking a narrow loss. Argentina are clearly struggling to translate their recent successes in Super Rugby, under Coach Mario Ledesma, into results on the Test stage under beleagured Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade. While some may be calling for Hourcade’s head, we would consider it sheer folly to make such a wholesale change at this stage in Argentina’s preparations for next year’s World Cup in Japan. Argentina may clearly want to involve Ledesma more closely in the buildup to Japan, but it is still important to remember that it is Hourcade who took Argentina to the semi-finals of the last World Cup. Hourcade may need to adapt but so will the players, and Saturday’s contest should be a genuine recognition of this by both parties and which hopefully translates into the results the Pumas so desperately need. Either way we doubt the Pumas will be as lacklustre as they were last weekend.

Front Rows

Wales shuffle their front row to a mix of personnel that have appeared in the previous two Tests this June. A shuffle it may be, but based on performance, one that should not overly concern Welsh supporters. Wales have looked exceptionally solid at scrum time against both South Africa and Argentina. By contrast Argentina looked decidedly shaky, particularly in terms of discipline last weekend in this part of the park. Nevertheless, we all know the talent this Pumas front row has. Pride is likely to come into play and with the inspirational Agustin Creevy front and centre, we expect Argentina to reassert some traditional dominance here. Consequently, Wales to give as good as they get but a more polished Pumas front row to gradually get the upper hand in this part of the park.

Second Rows

The Welsh second row held their own against a very potent Pumas offering that on paper should have outmuscled them twice over. Consequently, Wales sees no change here with Adam Beard and Cory Hill up against Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti. Nevertheless, in front of a passionate home crowd, and provided Lavanini can keep his discipline, we’re handing this contest to Argentina, especially with Matias Alemanno on the bench.

Back Rows

Wales surprised us all with flanker James Davies last weekend who put in an outstanding shift in the red jersey, while number eight Ross Moriarty was back to his bruising best. Ellis Jenkins returns as blindside flanker after acquitting himself well in Washington against South Africa. On paper though, that Argentinian back row looks utterly devastating. It didn’t quite fire last weekend, but we can’t help feeling that will change this weekend. Wales will be exceptionally competitive here, but we expect the Jaguares firm of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio to really deliver, especially with the added support of Tomas Lezana off the bench. Expect a very physical contest here with the Pumas to make slightly more of getting go forward ball despite a very spirited Welsh challenge.

Half Backs

Pumas Coach Daniel Hourcade has gone with his trusted combination of scrum half Martin Landajo and fly half Nicholas Sanchez. Once again we know the quality of this pairing it just needs to find the rhythm it clearly lacked last weekend, and the composure that under Ledesma and the Jaguares has produced such solid results. Rhys Patchell has been very impressive this tour for Wales at fly half and he should continue to deliver on Saturday as should Aled Davies at scrum half. We also feel the Welsh bench of Gareth Anscombe at fly half and Tomos Williams at scrum half also adds more in the way of surprises than Argentina. So despite Argentina’s experience in their starting pair, Wales are likely to weather the storm and ultimately come out as the more composed platform in this part of the park.

Centres

There is some genuine power here for Wales in Scott Williams and Owen Watkin, and Argentina are going to have to be at their best on Saturday to keep these two in check. Nevertheless, we are handing this one to Argentina in the shape of Matias Orlando and Jeronimo de le Fuente. Although relatively quiet by their standards and lacking in the execution needed last weekend, we expect them to be much better this Saturday and the more creative pairing.

Back Lines

Despite the presence of George North on the wing for Wales, we still feel that the Pumas trio are likely to be the standouts on Saturday. Hallam Amos has consistently impressed on this tour at fullback, but Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli is genuinely world-class as are his two partners on the wing Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano. Given space these three can carve up huge areas of the park, with Moyano in particular having a real intimacy with the try line. Wales weren’t found wanting here last weekend, but the Pumas trio are likely to step it up a few gears on Saturday and we just have the feeling that they are likely to leave the Welsh youngsters in their dust despite the experience of George North.

Verdict

Sure we got it wrong last weekend, but we just can’t see the Pumas being that out of sorts again. As a result, Wales are likely to run Argentina very close, but we expect to see the Pumas get themselves warmed up for the Rugby Championship in August and eke out a gritty but more composed performance and thus the win by four points!

So the barbecues are getting hauled out and multiple runs to the beer store are being made between now and early Saturday morning, as the June Test window kicks off in earnest this weekend. There is a ton of action, but perhaps the two most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the weekend are Ireland’s opening Test against the Wallabies and England’s series opener with South Africa. Since the last match of the 2017 Six Nations, Ireland have looked unstoppable and will want to cap off a remarkable season with a series win in Australia. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has assembled a formidable force and Australia will surely relish the challenge of going up against the side currently ranked number 2 in the world.

New Zealand take on France, and although French touring sides since 2009 have often been dispirited affairs, there is a sense that there might be something different in this year’s offering. While most, ourselves included, find it hard to imagine New Zealand coming away with anything less than an emphatic series win, there is a genuine belief that somewhere in this series there is likely to be one Test match that shows off the magic that has happened in the past when these sides met.

English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled an impressive squad for England’s three Test series in South Africa, but despite the talent there is no denying that England has simply failed to inspire this year, and desperately needs to do so on this tour. This time last year England were deservedly occupying the number 2 spot in the world, but it has been frustrating for players and fans alike to see how far they have fallen in the space of a mere twelve months. South Africa meanwhile got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to a shaky start in Washington last weekend as they fell at the last hurdle to Wales. This opening Test in Johannesburg has the weight of a nation on it in no uncertain terms, as Springbok supporters hope that it will mark a new dawn in South African rugby which till now has given them little to cheer about.

Scotland take on Canada in Edmonton, and with the Scots fielding a side of impressive new talent, Canada will need to dig deep into its limited resources to field a credible challenge – something they have struggled to do under their third Coach in as many years. Lastly Wales travel to Argentina to take on a rather intimidating looking Puma side fresh from some spectacular Super Rugby exploits which will see them full of confidence.

So strap yourself in and let’s take a look at some fascinating matchups ahead of us this weekend.

New Zealand vs France
Saturday, June 9th
Auckland

While for many, the result may be a foregone conclusion especially on the holy ground of Eden Park, there should still be an interesting Test match here. It’s the All Blacks first outing of the year, and traditionally it takes them a game or two to find the ruthless efficiency that they have become renown for in the last decade. France may be fielding a tired team at the end of a long hard season, but there is no denying there is some impressive talent in the squad that Coach Jacques Brunel has assembled, and if New Zealand take them lightly they could find themselves with just a little more than French flair to deal with.

Front Rows

Sadly for France we think they are going to get destroyed here. Without the inspirational presence and skill set of Guilhem Guirado who misses the tour due to injury, France’s front row are going to struggle to get to grips with an established All Black unit. We have seen little from prop Uini Atonio that has made us sit up and take notice, and while we like Hooker Camille Chat and prop Danny Priso, after their exploits with Racing 92 and La Rochelle this season respectively, we just can’t see them getting the better of an All Black front row comprising the formidable talent and experience of props Owen Franks and Joe Moody alongside Hooker and Dane Coles’ understudy Codie Taylor. France have got some hope on the bench in the shape of prop Rabah Slimani, but we expect New Zealand to comfortably dominate proceedings here.

Second Rows

The battle evens out a bit here, but with the experience of All Black lock and Captain Sam Whitelock alongside impressive newcomer Scott Barrett, New Zealand should still be in charge here especially at lineout time. France pack some genuine talent in the shape of Paul Gabrillagues, but his partner Yoann Maestri is just too hot and cold for us as well as suffering from a lack of discipline. New Zealand should cement the dominance created by their front row here, especially with last year’s sensation Vaea Fifita on the bench.

Back Rows

Despite the formidable talents of France’s Kevin Gourdon at number eight, we once again struggle to see France gaining much parity with New Zealand here. With flankers Liam Squire and Sam Cane looking to dominate the breakdowns and loose play, France will have to be at their best defensively to keep this part of the field in check. Although France’s defence was rock solid for much of the Six Nations, they are without a few key players from that campaign in this part of the park, and as a result we can’t help feeling that it is going to be a long day at the office for France here. Once again it’s that All Black bench which is likely to compound French misery here in the shape of Ardie Savea.

Half Backs

Probably the only team in the world that can hold a candle to New Zealand’s supremacy in this part of the park is Ireland. As a result we are not expecting too much from France here, and plenty of genius from New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half Beauden Barrett. France bring some serious experience in the shape of scrum half Morgan Parra and the raw but gifted talent of fly half Anthony Belleau, but we just can’t see them being able to consistently outwit the New Zealand pair. France do have a good bench offering here in the shape of scrum half Baptiste Serin and fly half Jules Plisson, but once again New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and Damien McKenzie possess a set of skills only just short of their starting counterparts Smith and Barrett. France to have some real enterprise here at times, but New Zealand to still run the show.

Centres

It’s here and on the wings where we really expect to see some sparks fly. We think New Zealand have the more cohesive unit in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Liennert-Brown, but France’s offering, especially in the shape of Mathieu Basteraud, is something to fear. The French centre has become a much more creative player than his battering ram persona of the past used to suggest. His partner Geoffrey Doumayrou also has the potential to turn heads, something he does regularly at his club La Rochelle. The experience of the All Black duo, especially Crotty, should ultimately see New Zealand come out on top in this part of the park, but there should be some genuine surprises and close calls created by the French pair. Ngani Laumape is an exceptionally exciting player for New Zealand off the bench, and someone we feel can ultimately offer more than Gael Fickou who often goes missing for France.

Back Three

With Rieko Ioane who was one of the talking points of 2017 for all the right reasons, and the legendary Ben Smith who can both create and score tries from anywhere on the park, it is hard to see France getting much traction on the wings on Saturday. But hold that thought – enter left and right for France Remy Grosso and Teddy Thomas. We think Grosso is superb and Thomas proved to be a try seeking missile during the Six Nations. Barring Ioane’s X-factor and Ben Smith’s sheer all round ability on attack and defence, this would be an even contest. We just give New Zealand the nod here, but like in the contest between the centres, there should be some real sparks and flair on show here on Saturday if France can get some quality go forward ball. New Zealand should ultimately come out on top but expect some entertainment from the Men in Blue here. Maxime Medard has produced some epic displays against New Zealand in the fullback position in the past, but we can’t help feeling that he is perhaps past his sell by date when compared to the up and coming Jordi Barrett for New Zealand. An interesting contest here where a wise French head meets one that is perhaps slightly older than its years and experience might suggest. Most entertaining part of the park on Saturday, but one which ultimately New Zealand should dominate.

Verdict

France are likely to struggle to find their feet on their first outing in New Zealand, especially at the noisy hallowed ground of Auckland’s Eden Park. There should be moments of French brilliance and if they can put up the kind of defensive solidity they showed in the Six Nations, New Zealand may find them a slightly harder nut to crack than they imagine. However, France still haven’t gelled they way they need to and without their inspirational leader Guirado, we can’t see them getting past an already slick-looking All Black outfit. France will seek to put on a show at times, but New Zealand to be the more clinical of the two and ultimately run away with it in the final quarter by 20 points!

Australia vs Ireland
Saturday, June 9th
Brisbane

We’ll wear our heart on our sleeves here and say that of all the June tours this is the one we are looking forward to the most. Australia may be going through tough times in terms of its rugby identity right now, but there is no denying that Coach Michael Cheika has put together a team that if it fires, could be absolutely lethal this month. Ireland meanwhile have catapulted themselves into the number 2 spot in the world rankings in the last 12 months, and unlike in years gone by, they look the part both in terms of organisation and depth. They are going to be hard to beat and are blessed with the ability to finally absorb injuries and still field a daunting match day 23. These two sides are going to go at each other hammer and tongs over the next three weeks, and we can’t wait for it to start.

Front Rows

Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has chosen to start with a less experienced front row than he could have chosen with the exception of Jack McGrath. Hooker Rob Herring and prop John Ryan are not new to the Irish cause, but will no doubt relish the opportunity of a starting berth in a Test of such magnitude. Australia are fielding the more experienced trio with the exception of new cap and Hooker Brendan Paenga-Amosa. Props Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu need no introduction and were a big part of the turnaround in Australia’s scrum fortunes last season. Consequently, we expect to see Australia have the upper hand in proceedings here in the early stages of the match. However, come the last quarter and provided Ireland have been competitive, Australia are likely to come dramatically unstuck as Ireland bring on their super hero bench. Hooker Sean Cronin and props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are the stuff of forward coaches’ worst nightmares. Cronin seems to have an intimate relationship with the try line, while Healy and Furlong are just as dangerous in the loose as they are at the coal face. Australia’s early comfort in this part of the park is likely to evaporate very quickly once the Irish bench have had their say come the latter stages of the match.

Second Rows

One name stands out here, and it’s Irish – James Ryan. In discussions about what the complete second rower should look like, Ryan’s name has been front and centre for most people all year with the disturbing fact that the green shirted giant is only 21, making his utter dominance of the position so much more remarkable. The man is like a combination of the greatest aspects of New Zealand’s Ian Jones, Australia’s John Eales, England’s Martin Johnson and Ireland’s Paul O’Connell all rolled into one. Although not grabbing the headlines to the same degree of his partner, Ian Henderson has also become an exceptionally solid and reliable performer, meaning that Australia’s Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman are going to have to be at the very top of their game to keep the two Irishmen in check. Having said that we have to confess to being huge fans of Australia’s Adam Coleman and feel that he has a very illustrious career ahead of him in the Wallaby jersey, and his partner Rodda has also impressed. While we think the sheer presence and ability of Ryan may well swing it in Ireland’s favor, there is going to be a battle royale going on here especially at lineout time.

Back Rows

Michael Hooper and David Pocock, two of the games best flankers bring some real pedigree and threat to Australia’s challenge in this part of the park. So much so that we feel this is one area of the field where Australia are likely to have the edge. The only potential weak link in the chain is new cap and number eight Caleb Timu. Ireland’s offering is nothing short of stellar but we feel that CJ Stander at number eight and flanker Peter O’Mahony have not quite hit the heights we are accustomed to seeing them at this season. Jordi Murphy has really stood out at club level with Leinster, but once again we are not sure that his performances in the green jersey alongside O’Mahony are of the calibre of the Australian pair. It’s Ireland’s threat on the bench that perhaps is Australia’s biggest concern, in the shape of replacement number 8 Jack Conan. We feel he is one of Ireland’s most underrated players, and expect the bruising ball carrier to have a great deal to say in the final twenty minutes especially if the scores are close. Nevertheless, it’s the Hooper/Pocock axis which we feel may swing this contest in Australia’s favor for the majority of the match.

Half Backs

While some may see it as a gamble we applaud the decision by Irish Coach Joe Schmidt to give Joey Carberry the start at fly half for such an important game. Ireland know they have a year in which to develop some real depth and experience to support Jonathan Sexton for the World Cup, and this tour and the development of Carberry will be absolutely critical to that process. Furthermore, the youngster has proven himself in key matches such as the historic Irish defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. Carberry has talent by the bucketload, he simply needs more game time. With Irish scrum half Conor Murray alongside him Carberry will have plenty of experience and support, with Sexton waiting on the bench to restore order should stage fright get the better of Carberry. Australia’s offerings here are certainly nothing to sniff at, though we can’t help feeling that Bernard Foley at fly half, is potentially one of Australia’s weakest links if his form of last year is anything to go by. However, like Carberry he has the wise head of Will Genia alongside him, although like Foley, Genia seemed to struggle to find consistency last season – brilliant one match and then a disaster the next – it remains to be seen what the 2018 version of Will Genia looks like. Consequently, on paper despite the much-needed risk taking by the Irish coaching staff here, we still feel that Ireland are packing a superior set of skills and game management ability in this part of the park.

Centres

This is one area of the park where Australia really could lay down some markers. Kurtley Beale was fantastic last year for Australia, and Samu Kerevi really grew into the position, especially once he sorted out his defensive shortcomings. Exceptionally creative and unpredictable these two are likely to cause problems all afternoon for Ireland. Irish centres Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have impressed all year for Ireland, but we just don’t feel they have the speed and quick thinking of the Australian pair. Consequently, it will be close but Australia are more likely to outwit Ireland in this part of the park.

Back Threes

Ireland possess the Six Nations leading try scorer here in winger Jacob Stockdale, but overall we can’t help feeling that once again, especially on home soil, Australia look more dangerous here. Fullback Israel Folau has been absolutely immense in the air in this year’s Super Rugby and should Ireland fall into the trap of peppering high balls deep into the Australian 22, they could end up courtesy of Folau coming horribly unstuck. Dane Haylett-Petty is in our opinion an exceptional winger and his colleague Marika Koroibete was one of last year’s Rugby Championship talking points. Ireland possess two feisty competitors in winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney, but with the exception of Ireland’s Stockdale we feel that Australia possess more of the X-factor in this part of the park. The battle of the fullback replacements will provide another fascinating contest as Australia’s Reece Hodge and Ireland’s Jordan Larmour should bring plenty of excitement to the proceedings, and Hodge brings with him the addition of a rather remarkable boot when it comes to kicking duties. Tough to call but overall Australia look the more dangerous here.

Verdict

On paper and with home advantage we are tempted to swing this Australia’s way. However, there are a couple of key talents in this Irish side allied to a very tactically astute Coach which make us believe that, although it will be close, ultimately Ireland are just going to squeak the opener. Australia may get across the whitewash more, but the steady hand and boot of Sexton and that Irish replacement front row in the final quarter will see the Irish wrestle control back from a free running Wallaby side. Consequently Sexton and the bench to restore order, and much as he did in Paris earlier this year, see the Irish home by three points!

South Africa vs England
Saturday, June 9th
Johannesburg

South Africa may not have got life under new Coach Rassie Erasmus off to the kind of start they wanted last weekend in Washington against Wales, but it wasn’t without promise. Let’s face it while not the prettiest of games at times, a South African side boasting a record number of new caps, still managed to come back in the second half with a vengeance, and with four minutes to go were about to record a win against a side that came second in this year’s Six Nations. Furthermore they lost the match by a mere two points. Sure the Springboks and especially their new caps made a bucketload of mistakes but they certainly were competitive, especially in the second half.

England arrive in South Africa reeling from a lack of confidence after a season that has so far failed to ignite the imagination, as well as have us believe that until only a few months ago this was supposedly the second best side in the world. Something is clearly not right with English rugby, but being short of talent is not one of the problems. The starting XV which will run out at Ellis Park on Saturday boasts an enviable mix of raw young talent and seasoned Test veterans. In short, it’s a good side with some absolutely world-class players like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly to name but a few. There is absolutely no reason that this shouldn’t be a successful tour for the Men in White, and while there are some issues to resolve, get some confidence and self-belief back into this side and the rest of the world will once more have to be on their guard when England comes calling.

Front Rows

Apart from “the Beast”, Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira, we are not convinced by South Africa’s front row. Although England’s may by comparison be slightly greener, with the exception of prop Mako Vunipola, we feel that their scrummaging technique is likely to be more disciplined than South Africa’s. The English youngsters Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler will really need to make a big impression on this tour, but Hooker George is likely to make the number 2 jersey his own, heading into the countdown to the World Cup. If Sinckler can hold his own against “the Beast” then England should be able to dictate proceedings here. If England are going to run into problems up front they are likely to surface once South Africa’s bench comes into play. Prop Steven Kitshoff is superb and really stood out in Washington and expect him to cause England all kinds of problems. We like the look of replacement Hooker Armand van der Merwe despite his lack of experience, and prop Wilco Louw is likely to only get better with each successive outing in a Springbok jersey.

Second Rows

We simply don’t know enough about England’s Nick Isiekwe and South Africa’s RG Snyman to make much of an informed opinion here. We know the Englishman performed well on the tour to Argentina last year and that Snyman has looked good with the Bulls in Super Rugby. However, their partners need no introduction. England’s Maro Itoje was one of the Players of the Year last year, and despite his form being somewhat up and down this year, we are expecting him to be back to his best on this tour. South Africa’s Franco Mostert is in much the same boat as Itoje, a quality player but whose form has been hot and cold at times in the last twelve months. Tough to call here but we are going with Itoje to find his groove on Saturday and really spur his partner on to the heights needed for England to get the edge here.

Back Rows

England’s back row has been their biggest Achilles Heel this year and they really need to find some answers quickly on this tour. Sadly we are not sure they will on Saturday. While there are lots of question marks surrounding South Africa’s selections, there is no question about their experience and if they come out of the blocks firing this is a fearsome trio. While Captain Siya Kolisi has not quite demonstrated the form in 2018, that made him one of the biggest talking points in South African rugby last year, perhaps the Captain’s role will bring out the motivation needed to get him back to his best. His number 8 Duane Vermeulen is also in much the same boat. We saw little of him this year at Toulon that really fired the imagination, but perhaps being back in South Africa and the Springbok jersey will bring out the best in a player that had made a real contribution to South African rugby prior to his departure to France. However, we feel that flanker Jean Luc du Preez is a real commodity to be reckoned with and provided his back row partners click, it’s South Africa who should have the upper hand here in the cauldron of Ellis Park. We’ve heard nothing but good things about English flanker Tom Curry, and perhaps in conjunction with Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, this is the back row unit that finally works for England. Robshaw brings experience and Vunipola brings an indestructible ball carrying ability coupled to a wealth of experience. However, Vunipola’s fitness has been an ongoing concern and Ellis Park is not the place you really want to be tested so soon on your return from injury. Consequently, despite the question marks surrounding South Africa’s trio we’re handing the contest to them, especially with the bench offering of Sikhumbuzo Notshe. We’re not convinced by England’s bench of Nathan Hughes, and New Zealander Brad Shields first outing in an England jersey, even though the Kiwi is likely to find the stature during the course of the tour that made him so impressive in Super Rugby this year.

Half Backs

If fly half Handre Pollard and scrum half Faf de Klerk click on Saturday, we feel they will be the combination to beat, especially given home advantage. De Klerk has been electric for Sale Sharks this year, and Pollard is slowly regaining the form that made him one of South Africa’s most promising talents in the last few years. England’s Ben Youngs and George Ford, at 9 and 10, on the other hand have shown little form this year and if anything their problems and lack of confidence on the big stage seem to be getting worse. South Africa’s undoing however could end up being their bench. Elton Jantjies is simply not a Test fly half and both he and Ivan van Zyl at scrum half had a shocker last weekend in Washington. If South Africa’s starting pair are able to hold their own for the full eighty minutes this should be South Africa’s day in this part of the park.

Centres

England should start to feel much more comfortable in this part of the park. Owen Farrell is a master of his trade despite a relatively poor Six Nations by his standards, and his partner Henry Slade is some magic waiting to happen. Despite his form at the Stormers, as most readers of this blog know, we regard Springbok centre Damian de Allende as one of the most overrated players in South African rugby, and sadly do not know enough about his partner Lukhanyo Am. We have heard great things about Am, but not having really seen him in action are not in position to judge what kind of impact he is likely to have on Saturday. De Allende on the other hand concerns us, predictable and ill-disciplined we fear he may be too much of a liability for South Africa, and consequently we are handing the contest here to the English, especially with Farrell’s experience.

Back Threes

This should also be England’s part of the park to rule, even though we are questioning the inclusion of Mike Brown on the wing, instead of his usual position at fullback. For South Africa, with the exception of fullback Willie le Roux, who is also a master of blowing hot and cold, we know so little of the South African wingers that we are not in a position to comment. However, it’s the presence of Elliot Daly in the side and speedster Johnny May on the wing that are causing us to tip our hats England’s way in this area of the field. May has X-factor by the bucketload, and Daly is such a versatile and gifted player that South Africa will really need to produce something special to keep the two Englishmen in check. South Africa have Warrick Gelant on the bench as fullback cover, but despite rave reviews we didn’t see much from him in the Washington match that really made us sit up and take notice.

Verdict

It’s a tough game to call, but we think in front of a fanatical home crowd South Africa will have more to prove and consequently rise better to both the occasion and the infamous altitude. England are likely to be competitive and dominate key areas of the park, but the Springboks are likely to throw the kitchen sink at them and consequently wear them down. Once fatigue sets in England are likely to start unravelling in the thinner Johannesburg air, with the better acclimatised Springboks just pulling away by 2 points! England will play the more attractive rugby but South Africa are likely to be more determined even it may not be as pretty at times.

Argentina vs Wales
Saturday, June 9th
San Juan

Unfortunately we only got the team sheets for this match just as we were going to press, so will have to do a brief overview on what we think might happen.

In short, we have one word for Wales after looking at the Pumas team sheet – Ouch!

A bruising Pumas front row should make short work of a Welsh front row that was clearly getting bossed around by the Springboks in Washington in the second half. With Agustin Creevy in the mix for Argentina at Hooker, you know that the Pumas are going to be exceptionally fired up. We can’t see the Welsh second row getting much traction over the towering Pumas unit of Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini who have looked so impressive on the Jaguares last six outings, with Lavanini finally being able to see colors other than yellow and red.

Perhaps more than anything though it’s that Pumas back row which we feel is going to cause Wales the most heartache. Pablo Matera is a devastating loose forward and his partner Marcos Kremer is having a blinder of a Super Rugby season. Welsh number 8 Ross Moriarty will give as good as he gets and really stood out in Washington, but we feel he will be fighting a losing cause against Argentina’s fast, mobile pile-driving trio of Matera, Kremer and Desio.

It’s a dynamic Welsh pairing of Rhys Patchell and the return of Gareth Davies at scrum half, but Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez and Gonzalo Bertranou have lots of match winning experience together in Super Rugby recently. This should be a relatively seamless transition from the Jaguares to the Pumas for the Argentine pair, and it’s that recency and home advantage that should see them run this part of the park for the Pumas to Wales’ disadvantage.

Lastly, the backs should be able to lay waste to Welsh defences, which looked porous in Washington at times. The Pumas are essentially fielding the back five which has proved to be so lethal for the Jaguares recently in Super Rugby. Once more the familiarity of playing together and their proven strike threat should see the Argentinian quintet just get the better of their Welsh counterparts. Expect some sparks from Hadleigh Parkes and George North for Wales, with Hallam Amos providing some surprises of his own. However, we just feel that the talent present in the Argentinian backs and their recent form should give the Pumas the edge.

In short, a bruising encounter, which is probably going to add to Wales’ already significant injury woes. A very competitive game, which ultimately should favor a confident Pumas side by 4 points!

Canada vs Scotland
Saturday June 9th
Edmonton

As of going to press we still don’t have the team sheet for Canada, so sadly this is too much like crystal ball gazing for us to have any kind of in-depth look at the match.

Like we say without the team sheet for Canada it’s hard to have much of an informed opinion. Furthermore we’ve heard that ticket sales haven’t been great, leaving an already demoralized Canadian team playing in a half empty stadium against a young but very accomplished and well coached Scottish side. Scotland may not be fielding their biggest names, but there is a clear hunger and obvious talent in Coach Gregor Townsend’s charges to really make a mark and build a platform for a worthy challenge to the Pumas at the end of the month.

Canada know they have it all to do, but with a poor track record going into this match, and confidence at an all time low, they will be hard pressed to contain a strong well-organized set of Scottish forwards and fizzy backs. Add rain into the mix, which is on the forecast, and Canada’s already poor handling skills and sloppy defence will mean that it’s likely to be a tough day at the office, despite the presence of Canadian superheroes like the legendary winger DTH van der Merwe.

Canada as always will put up a brave fight and we’ll be cheering in front of our TV screens, but realistically it’s hard to see anything less than an 18 point winning margin for Scotland on Saturday in Edmonton!

Yes it’s Test time again! This month will provide us with a bumper crop of great contests, but this weekend sees just the one match between Wales and South Africa on neutral ground in Washington DC. Both sides are fielding plenty of new caps, and it will be an excellent opportunity for both teams to gauge the quality of depth they have ahead of a challenging assignment for Wales in Argentina and a gruelling three Test series against England for South Africa. Furthermore, it’s South Africa’s first outing with their new Coach Rassie Erasmus, so there will be plenty of motivation to get this new era in Springbok rugby off to a flying start. Wales meanwhile, will want to settle their new charges with some solid experience ahead of a daunting two-week trip to Argentina and having to deal with a rather dangerous looking Pumas side.

So without any further ado let’s get into the matchups emanating from some interesting selections from both Coaches.

South Africa vs Wales
Saturday, June 2nd
Washington, DC

It’s going to be hot and humid in Washington on Saturday, as two experimental sides face up against each other. A strong chance of thunderstorms will mean in addition to the heat and humidity, a greasy ball will be on offer. Both sides will be fielding some experience sprinkled in amongst a group of relative newcomers, which should help to settle the nerves in what should be a challenging and edgy encounter. While both sides will be keen for a win, a solid performance under pressure in which the newer caps are really able to make a statement is likely to be higher on each Coach’s list of priorities this Saturday.

Front Rows

We think Wales are going to struggle here, and that seems to be a general consensus. From PRO 14 and Super Rugby, South Africa’s offerings are all fairly familiar, and we have to confess to being a fan of tighthead prop Wilco Louw, and feel that he has enormous potential. Alongside Louw, is Ox Nche on the loosehead, and with the experience of Chiliboy Ralepelle at Hooker this should prove to be a traditionally workmanlike Springbok front row. Nche has caught the eye on several occasions with the Cheetahs this year, and should be able to provide some much-needed X-factor as he is no stranger to the try line. For Wales it is hard to know what to expect here. The form of the three relatively inexperienced front rowers for Wales at PRO14 level has been noteworthy, but we feel that the cut and thrust of Super Rugby and exposure to the Rugby Championship the South African trio bring, should edge the contest in the Springboks favor. Perhaps more than anything it is the duo of replacement Sharks Hooker Armand van der Merwe and Stormers and Springbok loosehead Prop Steven Kitshoff (the “ginger ninja”), that are likely to really make life difficult for Wales in the final quarter, particularly if South Africa’s front three have already gained some dominance. We’re interested to see how Wales holds up here but think this should be South Africa’s front office all afternoon.

Second Rows

There is no denying there is some significant Test experience in the Welsh second row, but we are just not convinced that it is a combination to really cause South Africa too many problems. Bradley Davies has significant Test experience for Wales, but he has never really stood out for us. His partner Cory Hill, can be an exceptional player but has tended to blow hot and cold in his fifteen appearances for Wales. South Africa on the other hand have the exciting young talent of newcomer Jason Jenkins and the experience and bruising ball carrying skills of Pieter-Steph du Toit, who Captains the side and needs no introduction. The bench replacements for Wales and South Africa are both uncapped, but on the basis of his efforts with Super Rugby’s Lions, we are giving Springbok debutant Marvin Orie the edge here. The Springbok Captain is likely to have a huge impact at the breakdown and in the lineout, and consequently we once more give the nod to the Springboks here.

Back Rows

A certain gentleman by the name of Kwagga Smith gets a long overdue first call up to the Springbok jersey, and for us who will be lucky enough to attend this match in person, his presence on the pitch alone makes this match worth the price of admission. We have been wanting to see Smith in a Springbok jersey for almost two years now and are delighted that Coach Rassie Erasmus has seen the explosive raw talent of the flanker and given him the break he so deserves. If you don’t believe us watch this footage of Kwagga in action for the Barbarians against the All Blacks last year.

Probably South Africa’s most potent weapon on the park at RFK stadium on Saturday, expect plenty of fireworks from this character, and we can’t wait to see him in action. The rest of South Africa’s back row contingent are also impressive, especially the Sharks Daniel du Preez, and we feel that Teboho Mahoje is a player with potential even if he hasn’t quite found his groove yet in a Springbok jersey. Wales will be no slouches here, but will have their work cut out trying to contain Smith, so much so that we doubt they will be able to steal the show. We have to confess to seeing Welsh Coach Warren Gatland’s choice of flanker Ellis Jenkins as Captain, a huge leap of faith with only six caps. A bold choice but there is no denying that he has looked exceptional with Cardiff Blues in both the PRO14 and in Europe, but he really is going to have his hands full with Kwagga Smith. We’ve always been fans of Welsh number eight Ross Moriarty provided he can keep his discipline in check. Once again Wales will be competitive here but we feel that given the Springboks experience and the absolute X-factor of Kwagga Smith, South Africa should be able to dictate the pace of proceedings in this part of the park.

Half Backs

Well we’ve talked about X-factor, but in this part of the park, despite our complete lack of knowledge about Welsh scrum half and debutant Tomos Williams, we are handing the contest to Wales in the shape of Gareth Anscombe. We were exceptionally impressed with his performances in the Six Nations, which got better and better as the tournament progressed. South Africa also field an uncapped scrum half in the shape of Ivan van Zyl, but sadly we feel that Elton Jantjies is the weak link in the chain for South Africa at Test Level, despite a solid track record in Super Rugby with the Lions. Consequently, we expect Wales to be the more clinical at running the game with a few surprises up their sleeves, especially with Rhys Patchell waiting in the wings to come on for Anscombe in the final quarter, along with scrum half Aled Davies.

Centres

George North at centre instead of on the wing for Wales is always a surprising choice, but there is no denying that if he brings his A game to Washington on Saturday, South Africa are going to be in big trouble. Since his return to Wales after a stint in England, North’s form certainly seems to be coming back to him, so expect plenty of sparks here. His partner, Owen Watkin, is a bit of a unkown for us so we can’t really comment too much here. However,on the bench Wales have Hadleigh Parkes, and for us he has the kind of ability that can singlehandedly turn a game on its head. South Africa have the veteran skills of Jesse Kriel, but the Bulls player is renowned for being hot and cold as well as slightly predictable. South Africa are putting in a debutant Andre Esterhuizen alongside him and we just can’t really see the Springboks getting too much of an advantage over Wales, especially with North and Parkes seeking to cause havoc.

Back Threes

South Africa’s starting wingers Travis Ismaeil and Makazole Mapimpi are sadly unknowns to us, having not watched enough of this year’s Super Rugby, and the fact that both players are earning their first caps for the Springboks. Nevertheless we’ve heard that Mapimpi is quite the pocket rocket and are looking forward to seeing him on the Test stage. Fullback Curwin Bosch is set to be a big part of the Springboks buildup to the World Cup, and the Sharks youngster will really need to stamp his authority on this match and the position. Nevertheless, much as with the centres battle, we can’t help feeling that this is Wales contest to win. It’s good to see Hallam Amos get a start at fullback for the Welsh as we feel he is a player with considerable promise but who has suffered from a lack of game time. Meanwhile on the left wing, Steff Evans is just getting better and better, especially as he appears to have fixed his early defensive frailties. South Africa does have one potential game changer though waiting on the sidelines for them in the shape of Warrick Gelant. A powerful runner that can carve up huge parts of the park, Gelant is a player that South Africa are likely to put a lot of emphasis on in the build up to the World Cup. Despite this though we still hand the contest to Wales, given the greater experience of their back three.

Verdict

A tough one to call, but despite the Welsh talent in the backs and their greater experience, we still think that South Africa’s overall physical presence and the X-factor of Kwagga Smith will see them win the day, provided they can cope with the sauna like weather conditions expected. It will be close and should provide a match of contrasting styles and hopefully some good running rugby, but South Africa to ultimately outmuscle a spirited and wily Welsh challenge by four points.

First of all apologies to all for the long silence, but it’s been a very hectic few months since the wrap up of the Six Nations for all of us up here in the slowly thawing frozen North. Furthermore, with our resident scribe in the midst of a job change there hasn’t been much opportunity to put pen to paper regarding the oval ball. However, fortunately there is a well-timed breathing space over the next few weeks, just in time for the June Tours.

After a long hard season, the Six Nations competitors seek to span the globe and wrap up their year with three tough weeks of touring. England, after a disappointing Six Nations campaign, face the daunting prospect of a three-week tour of South Africa and three Tests against a Springbok side keen to prove themselves under a new Coach. A French side reeling from the trials and tribulations of club rugby’s longest and most grueling competition the Top 14, haul themselves onto the long flight to New Zealand to take on the seemingly invincible All Blacks. Ireland, who seem unbeatable so far this year, both at club and International level, travel to Australia for a three Test series against a Wallaby side likely to be far better than what their current Super Rugby form would suggest.

Italy have a brief two-week tour of Japan which should give them a taste of what to expect in terms of atmosphere come the World Cup next year. Scotland have a three-week tour of the Americas which should start with an easy encounter with Canada but get progressively harder as they take on the US and ultimately Argentina. Finally, the Welsh travel first to the US for an intriguing encounter with the Springboks in Washington. They then make the long trek South for two potentially bruising encounters with a Pumas side that will seek to capitalize on the recent stellar performances of their Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares.

It’s definitely going to be an exciting three weeks, and by the end of it we should have a much clearer idea of where the Six Nations competitors stand in the global pecking order. All six teams will have different aspirations and goals for their June Tours and what success over the coming weeks will mean. Consequently, here’s our attempts at crystal ball gazing and what we think they’re looking to get out of their upcoming travel plans.

England

England need some answers this tour and quickly. With just over a year to the World Cup, time is rapidly running out for Coach Eddie Jones to gel a world-beating side. 2018 has been a horrible year for England, with a Six Nations campaign that really failed to fire with humiliating losses to Scotland, France and Ireland. The cracks in England’s armor started to appear with their loss to Ireland in last year’s Six Nations and which brought to an end a long winning streak.

So what’s gone wrong for England and what do they need to fix on this tour? Some of the more tried and trusted veterans have failed to show up for duty at key moments in the last year. Meanwhile some of the youngsters have understandably struggled to keep pace with the demands of a side that until recently seemed destined to be New Zealand’s most troublesome opposition. So the old has to gel with the new and the two really become a seamless unit, with some of the younger players really developing into leadership roles. England’s front row has managed to hold its own for the most part but their last few outings have left a lot to be desired, so really matching up to the physical presence that South Africa traditionally provides will be definitely on Eddie Jones to do list next month. England’s second row combinations have not stamped the type of authority that we have come to expect from them of late. But perhaps England’s biggest problem is their dysfunctional back row. Players out of position, and certain players being asked to do too much seem to be the root cause of England’s problems at the moment. There is some world-class talent available to Eddie Jones, of that there is no doubt, but the continued experimentation here particularly at seven and eight really needs to be resolved this tour.

In the half backs George Ford really needs to find his groove and if he can’t someone other than Owen Farrell has to come to light on this tour. Farrell can play the position with ease and a great deal of skill but he is also just as useful in the centres, meaning that Jones needs to secure a solid backup number 10, especially if George Ford continues to falter on this tour.

In the backs, England is blessed with a wealth of world-class talent but it really is time for England to move away from veteran fullback Mike Brown and really develop some depth for the future. The centre partnership also really needs to go under the microscope on this tour and some long-term combinations, particularly in terms of depth, settled on. Across the backs, England also needs to give some of their younger players a real chance to shine in the pressure cauldron that South Africa provides.

In short, this tour has to be about really solidifying the experience of some of the younger talent and matching it to the skill set and composure of some key older players. If England can do that successfully and emerge with the nucleus of 30 or so players who they can build towards the World Cup, then whatever the result in South Africa it can be considered a success. As for what they are likely to come away with in terms of results? To be honest, despite the misfortunes of South African rugby since the last World Cup, we feel that under their new Coach Rassie Erasmus they will be a harder nut to crack than many are giving them credit for. Consequently we find it hard to imagine a series win for England. They are more than likely to win one Test, most likely the second match in Bloemfontein, having acclimatised to the altitude the week before in Johannesburg. It will be a close series and if England answer their own questions and find the players and combinations they need, then all parties concerned should be pleased with a job well done – even if it means a narrow series loss.

France

Let’s face it despite the inevitable doom and gloom surrounding France’s up coming tour to New Zealand, the Land of the Long White Cloud has produced some epic French miracles in days gone by. While much of this may now look like ancient history to some, France invariably seem to find one big game in them when on tour to New Zealand, and we feel that this tour just might reproduce a bit of history in that regard. France, as they always are at the end of a long hard domestic season, will be putting some used and abused players on the long flight to Auckland, but by week 2 of the tour, we expect to see a real willingness to put some pride back in the French jersey and give the rest of the rugby world a few talking points.

To be honest it hasn’t been that bad of a year for France. Their first Six Nations under new Coach Jacques Brunel, saw them almost rob Ireland of an eventual Grand Slam at the beginning of the tournament, as well as some solid wins over Italy and their old nemesis England. Despite losing to Scotland they still managed to give the men from North of Hadrian’s wall a fright. Finally in a tense match in Cardiff they were unlucky to be the losers by a mere point.

Where France are likely to struggle most on this tour is in the forward battles as many of the standouts in the Six Nations will be absent on this tour. There are still some key names like prop Rabah Slimani, lock Paul Gabrillagues and back rower Kevin Gourdon who will cause New Zealand some problems but overall as a unit, it is likely to be exposed under the most intense pressure. France in the process will learn a great deal about the kind of depth it has up front, and consequently this alone makes the tour an important event for France’s buildup to the World Cup, regardless of the results on the scoreboard.

However, all is not lost as Les Bleus will be fielding some exciting half back partnerships and some serious strike threats in the backs. There is an interesting mix of experience and raw young talent in the half back offerings, and in the backs Teddy Thomas has shown himself to be a try scoring machine. Add to that some superb centres and France has plenty of potential to strike from deep and keep the New Zealand defences on their toes especially out wide. France will be dangerous here make no mistake, and if an upset is on the cards then it will come from this part of the park.

France will see this as an excellent opportunity to take a serious look at some of their up and coming players under intense pressure. While French touring teams have traditionally looked fatigued and rudderless at the tail end of their season, they traditionally seem to find a bit more of a sense of purpose in their final overseas tour before the World Cup. We were always skeptical of Coach Jacques Brunel’s abilities while he was in charge of Italy, but something positive is clearly starting to take place under his tutelage with France, and New Zealand will be the ultimate litmus test of how much progress really has been made. While we are predicting a clean sweep of the series by New Zealand, we also feel that there is going to be one hell of a Test match in there somewhere, and an upset is much less beyond the realm of possibility than it has been in recent years.

Ireland

In selecting his touring party for Ireland’s three Test series in Australia, Coach Joe Schmidt has very clearly laid out his intentions – an emphatic series win. While a three Test whitewash may be too much to ask, given the talent at his disposal and the form of Irish rugby so far this year, it’s hard to see Ireland coming away with anything less. Australia will be no pushover on home soil, but they looked less than stellar on tour during the autumn series last year, and so far Australian Super Rugby sides have failed to impress in this year’s competition. To be honest we would have thought the overriding objective of this end of season tour for the Irish would have been squad development of some of the younger players on a challenging assignment away from home, and thus really solidifying the depth that is clearly emerging in Irish rugby. By doing this you would also rest key senior players like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, among others, and not jeopardise the runup to the World Cup with unnecessary injuries. Nevertheless, you can understand the desire to finish off a season where Ireland have simply looked unstoppable at both Test and club level, with one more crowning glory.

Given that a series win in Australia is a clear and eminently achievable ambition for Joe Schmidt and his charges, there are a couple of things we hope to see happen on the tour, even if it may seem unorthodox. In short, have your newer players form the bulk of your starting XV for each of the three Tests, with the senior players coming on as impact substitutions in the final quarter if things are starting to unravel.

This will be particularly important to develop some real depth under pressure for the half back positions. At fly half this should be Joey Carberry’s tour with Sexton there in a supporting role, and the same could be said of Keiran Marmion with Conor Murray providing similar backup in the scrum half role. In the forwards, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jack Conan, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Beirne should all be getting the maximum amount of game time. Meanwhile, Andrew Conway and Jordan Larmour should also feature heavily in Joe Schmidt’s starting selections for the backs.

It’s going to be an interesting tour, and while it could be Ireland’s bridge too far at the end of a remarkable season, we somehow doubt it. As mentioned earlier we doubt it’s going to be a whitewash for the Men in Green, but they should clinch the series by winning two of the Tests, and in the process provide us with perhaps the most closely fought and exciting of all the Northern Hemisphere tours South of the Equator. In short if you only get to follow one of the June series, this is probably the one you’ll want to catch.

Italy

Italy have had moments of brilliance this season, but sadly the wins have been too few and far between. Consequently, it is perhaps with a sigh of relief, that Italian Coach Conor O’Shea finds himself with a two Test series against Japan instead of any of the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional heavyweights. As a result it should be an excellent opportunity to build some confidence in the side as well as get an understanding of what it will be like playing in front of Japanese crowds next year in the World Cup.

Japan have become increasingly competitive since the last World Cup, and it will be a real test of Italy’s abilities to cope a long way from home, with a team and environment that they are not overly familiar with. We feel that this will end up a tied series, and will provide some entertaining rugby from both sides. If Italy can run Japan close in the first Test and pull off a convincing win in the second, then they are likely to feel that they have both learnt a great deal about themselves and restored some long overdue confidence. Thus if they keep their expectations realistic and focus on learning some valuable lessons, this upcoming fortnight in Japan could be the most productive thing Italy end up doing all season.

Scotland

Scotland, can perhaps feel slightly aggrieved that they haven’t quite got the exposure to some of the Southern Hemisphere giants that they should be getting at this stage of their preparations for the World Cup. However, having to take on a Pumas side on their own turf, who are likely to have just caused Wales a multitude of problems, is certainly a daunting task for any team as their final match of the season.

Consequently this tour will be all about development plain and simple. Scotland have named six uncapped players for this tour, with a significant number of the touring party having less than 10 caps to their name. Two confidence boosting wins over Canada and then the US, should set them up nicely for a tricky showdown with Argentina in Uruguay. If Argentina are able to play to the same level of the recent exploits by the Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares, Scotland’s young charges will face a superb test of character as their final match of the season. While it may simply be too much for them to manage, it should still provide them with an excellent learning experience on which to build for the World Cup.

In short a useful tour allowing the development of some genuine depth for Scotland, culminating in a daunting challenge from Argentina’s Pumas.

Wales

Wales have their work cut out for them in no uncertain terms on their June travels. They start off in the unfamiliar environment of Washington DC, where it is expected to be 30 degree Celsius on match day, against a familiar but untested opponent this year, South Africa’s Springboks. From there, it’s the long flight down to Argentina where they take on a rather menacing looking Pumas outfit. To make matters worse, the Welsh forward contingent has been plagued with injuries, and two of their most valuable players of the season, flankers Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler have been ruled out of the touring party. There’s some definite spark in the backs, but we fear that the lack of any real Welsh forward power compared to the juggernaut that Argentina will be bringing to this part of the park, will mean that Wales will struggle to give their backs much quality ball.

Consequently, much like Scotland, Wales will be really testing for depth especially in the forwards on this tour. They are likely to run all of their opponents close, but with the exception of a possible win against an uncertain Springbok side, we find it hard to see them getting the better of Argentina in their two encounters with the Pumas. If they do manage to get some traction through their forwards against Argentina, then their most likely shot at glory South of the River Plate will be in the first Test in San Juan. However, for us this tour should not necessarily be seen in terms of results but how much this troop of relatively inexperienced players are really able to hold their own against top quality opposition. If Wales are able to be fully competitive in all three Tests and even win at least one of them, then Coach Warren Gatland should end the season having a sound knowledge of what he has to work with in terms of depth in the all important build up to next year’s World Cup. Given Wales current injury list, that would surely be regarded as a much-needed job well done.

Endnote

We’ll be back to our previews of all the big Tests happening next month, and will be starting with a look at the upcoming match in Washington this Saturday between Wales and South Africa.

The final Saturday of the Six Nations, or “Super Saturday” as it is now commonly referred to, has in recent years provided a thrilling climax to a classic tournament. This year looks set to be no different. Scotland start us off in Rome, needing a 65 point winning margin at least, and a favorable turn of events in Cardiff to keep them in the hunt for second place. Their opponents Italy, even with a win would still once more maintain their traditional place of wooden spoon holders. Next up it is without question one of THE biggest Tests of the year. Ireland travel to Twickenham having already won the Championship last weekend, but as a result of being undefeated seek only their third Grand Slam in the tournament’s history. However, to get there they need to play well away from home against a wounded and angry English side seeking revenge for Ireland spoiling their own party on exactly the same terms in Dublin this time last year. To add insult to injury for the English, Ireland have also pipped the Men in White to the number 2 spot in the world rankings. England may have lost the Championship but barring the World Cup they have rarely had so much to play for. Lastly, France travel to Cardiff for a battle royale with Wales, with both sides hoping Ireland will do them a favor and see either of them home to a second place finish. Many had predicted that, despite injury problems, Wales would end up the dark horses of the tournament and finish second, but few ourselves included ever imagined France to be in such a position of strength.

Unfortunately, due to our kids all being out on March break from school here in Canada, we simply have not had nearly as much time as we would like this week to sit around over a few pints and discuss the finer points of what should be an epic weekend. So apologies, and not because we think the matches in Rome and Cardiff are of any less importance, but sadly we can only give a brief overview of those two matches and what we think might happen, and reserve our usual head to head breakdowns for the Grand Slam decider between England and Ireland. So in we go!

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, March 17th
Rome

Like we say we don’t underestimate the importance of this match by any stretch of the imagination. Scotland are clearly in the hunt for a strong third place finish, as well as a continued climb up the world rankings – so in short plenty to play for. Italy, are resigned to their status as wooden spoon holders, for yet another year but it doesn’t mean their Six Nations leaves them with nothing to play for this Saturday. Italy have shown some enormous promise at times in attack this tournament, so there is plenty to be excited about and they will certainly give it their all to finish on a high against Scotland.

So having said that who’s most likely to pull it off? No matter which way you cut it, it’s hard to see anything other than a Scottish victory, and probably a fairly comfortable one at that. Scotland will be thinking points, points and more points and they easily have the strike force to rack them up. The execution that was lacking in the match against Ireland last weekend is unlikely to be repeated. Furthermore, although Italy will also be able to attack and punch holes in Scottish defences, the Italian defence has been consistently weak this tournament, and they are going to struggle to contain the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg, to name but a few of the Scottish speed merchants. Once the Scottish backs cut loose they are likely to make the Italian defence look like a massive piece of Swiss cheese. Scotland do have defensive liabilities of their own but nothing close to the problems that Italy has faced. Add to this Italy’s famous disciplinary problems once the panic mode sets in, and Scotland’s devastating pack of loose forwards and jackals are likely to have a field day.

Expect some massive performances from Italy courtesy of the usual suspects such as Sergio Parisse at number eight. Once more the talismanic Captain will inspire his charges and one of his loose forwards Sebastian Negri will provide enormous firepower to Italy’s cause and has rightly been their player of the tournament. We’ve also been massively impressed by Italy’s attacking prowess in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and centre Tommaso Castello. Once again two exceptional players for the Azurri and a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, just look at that Scottish lineup! Fix the errors seen against Ireland and this team could literally run rings around the Italians. Although Scotland have rung a significant amount of changes to the side that came unstuck against Ireland, especially in the forwards, it is still a formidable unit. The sheer presence of Hamish Watson and John Barclay alone in the back row for Scotland should see them home, as these two exceptional jackals ply their trade to the max. They also boast for the most part an excellent disciplinary record at the breakdown. Once the hard work is done up front, then expect Scotland’s phenomenal set of backs from 9-15 to just let rip. The names sound like an honor roll of attacking rugby in this year’s Six Nations, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. Add the reliability and composure of scrum half Greg Laidlaw’s boot to keep the scoreboard ticking over for the inevitable Italian disciplinary lapses and the match should be signed, sealed and delivered for Scotland.

Verdict

It still should be a good game and well worth our interest. There is plenty to play for for both sides. Honor for Italy and a considerable shot in the arm regarding world standings for Scotland are all on the line. Italy has played some beautiful attacking rugby at times, so expect more of the same. However, despite the progress that Italy has made this tournament, this match perhaps more than any other will test their weak defensive structures to the limit. Consequently, we expect Scotland to ultimately pull away with it, especially if they find their rhythm and cut out the errors. As a result Scotland to get the result they need to put them in place for a strong third place finish and get the win by 25+ points!

England vs Ireland
Saturday, March 17th
Twickenham

Sit down, strap in and assume the brace position! That’s the way we’re looking at this clash of Titans on St.Patrick’s day at English rugby HQ Twickenham. Test matches really don’t get much bigger than this – plain and simple. Can Ireland pull off a Grand Slam, or will England deny them the prize just as the Irish did to England a year ago in Dublin? England’s last two outings in the Championship have seen them enter a dizzying free fall from the heights of success that had been their trademark up to that point. However, it’s England at home, and we just can’t see the slide continuing. Whether or not in the space of a mere week they can fix the fundamental problems that have been exposed, to the point where they can derail the Irish, remains to be seen. However, we can’t see them playing as poorly as they did on the road against Scotland and France. England at Twickenham is a whole different kettle of fish. Add to that the fact that Ireland’s away record is always in question and suddenly, despite England’s recent woes, it is very much a case of game on!

So this is the one match where we’ve had a chance to pick apart the team sheets and see how they match up.

Front rows

England see some important changes here after the upset in Paris. Kyle Sinckler comes in at Tighthead Prop for Dan Cole who reverts to the bench, with Dylan Hartley returning from injury at Hooker and as Captain. Mako Vunipola remains at loosehead, in a front row trio which really needs to assert the kind of authority that was lacking in Paris. However, sadly for England we just don’t see it happening with the possible exception of a greater success rate in lineout throws. The Irish trio of Props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong and Hooker Rory Best have been immense this Championship with the props in particular dominating proceedings in this part of the park. When you have the likes of Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath waiting on the bench to carry on the good fight, then Ireland find themselves in exceptionally robust health here. England are also packing a solid replacement unit with Dan Cole and Jamie George, but we still hold that Joe Marler is likely to prove the weak link in the chain, especially given the emotions likely to be at stake. It will be gritty and a tad uncomfortable here at times, but Ireland to be in the driver’s seat.

Second rows

What a contest is in store here between these two sides. We’d argue that at home England have the edge. Expect Maro Itoje to be completely fired up and his partner George Kruis is capable of some massive performances. It’s home advantage that will really tell here, and despite the fact that Ireland’s James Ryan has been one of the stars of the tournament this will be the youngster’s first real taste of the kind of off the charts pressure that such matches provide. His partner Ian Henderson will provide a bit more experience but we just think it’s the English pair who are more likely to be the dominant force. With Joe Launchbury waiting on the bench for England the deal should be sealed, despite the experience that Devin Toner brings to the contest for Ireland.

Back rows

England clearly are scrambling for answers in this part of the park, hence the wholesale changes made for this match. Two World Cup veterans for England line up together in the shape of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, and the experiment of playing Courtney Lawes out of position has been shelved, with newcomer Don Armand in as a bench replacement. Sam Simmonds starts at eight for England, and despite some calls to the contrary we still hold that this dynamic player is the way forward for England even though there is clearly work for him to do to fully develop into the role. In short it looks like a more sensible English back row.

However, up against them is an Irish trio who have become masters of the breakdown and keeping possession for Ireland. Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander need no introduction, but newcomer Dan Leavy has really stood up in the absence of Sean O’Brien. Stander meanwhile has produced some phenomenal statistics this tournament, and somehow we just can’t see England on current form being able to better these three. Add to this the fact that Jordi Murphy, who we think is one of Ireland’s most underrated players awaits the call from the bench and England are going to have to be smarter, quicker and more effective than Ireland here for the full eighty minutes – something we just haven’t seen so far this tournament from them unlike the Irish who have been masters of their trade here. A titanic struggle on the books here but one that Ireland should just edge.

Half Backs

This match sees Owen Farrell return to the number 10 jersey which in our opinion is a massive boost for England. Ireland may have arguably the best half back partnership in the world right now in the shape of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but Farrell is in a class of his own. While he has been exemplary for England at centre, he adds some intelligence and decision-making to the fly half position which has been absent for England so far this tournament. His half back partner at scrum half Richard Wigglesworth is no stranger to Test rugby but we just can’t put him in the same league as Ireland’s Conor Murray. It will definitely be a battle of minds at ten between Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and England’s Owen Farrell, and almost impossible to call. However, Sexton is probably having one of his best seasons ever in the green jersey and allied to Murray’s remarkable talents we just feel that Ireland will be the more clinical here. The battle of the benches in this part of the park has led many to favor England, with Danny Care and George Ford. However, we should point out that it was Ireland’s replacement at scrum half Keiran Marmion who was on duty in place of the injured Conor Murray when Ireland derailed the English Grand Slam juggernaut last year. Also we feel that despite his inexperience Ireland’s Joey Carberry has much more X-factor than a clearly out of sorts George Ford these days. Tight contest at times but one which Ireland should ultimately run comfortably.

Centres

Ireland’s Gary Ringrose burst back onto the Test stage last weekend after a lengthy layoff from injury, and left us speechless. Ireland have lost two world-class centres this tournament and seem none the worse for wear. Ringrose’s partner  Bundee Aki was accused of being slightly one-dimensional and overly physical at first, but even his game has evolved in the last few weeks to the point where Ireland are running perhaps the strongest centre platform in the tournament, even with the enforced changes. At the risk of upsetting English supporters we just don’t see the fascination with Ben Te’o, despite some isolated examples of brilliance. Jonathan Joseph appears to have been hot and cold this year, though with Farrell pulling the strings at fly half we expect to see him being more productive. England may surprise us here but based on form, it’s pretty easy to hand this to Ireland.

Back lines

It’s in this part of the park where once more we feel the contest evens up considerably and may well favor England. There is the small matter that Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale as the tournament’s leading try scorer is up against a very fast but occasionally defensively suspect Jonny May for England. However, Stockdale himself has had more than a few defensive mishaps this tournament, and away from home it could all get a bit much for him so that he and May cancel each other out in terms of their effectiveness for their respective sides. It’s Elliot Daly on the left wing for England that we feel should get English supporters more than a little excited. We’re huge fans of Daly and feel he adds a very versatile and reliable skill set to England in both attack and defence. Admittedly he’s up against Ireland’s Keith Earls who appears to be auditioning for a role in the next instalment of a Marvel Super Heroes action film, but Daly is a smooth operator and brings some real class and intelligence to this English side. Lastly at fullback, Ireland’s Rob Kearney has been outstanding but we think that England’s Anthony Watson packs more in the X-factor department as well as being a powerful strike runner. The bench battle will be fascinating with English bulldog Mike Brown being expected to save the day should things be going awry for England at that point up against Ireland’s Jordan Larmour. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has kept faith in giving Larmour another shot at the big stage and we think it’s merited. If things are going well for Ireland at that point he could make a real difference. It’s still a tall ask though and to be honest overall, perhaps to everyone’s suprise given their recent fortunes, we are giving the edge to England here, mainly on the basis of home advantage.

Verdict

An exceptionally difficult game to call and one we are almost reluctant to predict. Ireland don’t have a good track record away from home under this kind of pressure, but this would appear to be a rather special Irish team who seem to get better with each outing. However, they’re up against an English team with more than a few points to prove in front of a home crowd who will be expecting them to take no prisoners whatsoever, whatever the body count at the final whistle. As a result this is going to be one of the most physical and intense Tests of the year. While England may be lacking a certain degree of creativity at the moment, the team they have chosen to do battle on Saturday is one exceptionally well placed to snuff out any that Ireland may seek to provide. We see a tense and relatively low scoring affair unfolding at Twickenham, although if tries are to be scored we favor Ireland’s chances slightly more.

However, we feel that Ireland are the more structured and cohesive unit, whose collective rugby brain is likely to be sharper than England’s on the day. The pressure doesn’t come greater than this with the exception of possibly a World Cup final or semi-final, and it will be a real test of how far Ireland’s big game mentality has come in preparation for next year’s showdown in Japan. England have one absolutely MASSIVE game in them this tournament and we always thought it would be this match despite their recent mishaps. Whether or not it will be enough to overcome an Irish side that seems to have hit overdrive remains to be seen, even with home advantage. Consequently with a fair degree of trepidation we are throwing the history books out the window on this one and giving Ireland the win by two points!

Wales vs France
Saturday, March 17th
Cardiff

The tournament ends with a fitting flourish as Wales and France, depending on the outcome of the previous dustup between England and Ireland, duke it out for second place. Despite the resurgence in French rugby that would appear to be taking place, albeit tentatively, we can’t help feeling that upsetting an exceptionally strong and stable looking Welsh team in Cardiff is a bridge too far. There will be sparks aplenty but we are of the opinion that this Welsh side has made such remarkable progress despite the injuries they faced at the beginning of the tournament, they will simply be too hard to turn over on their own turf. Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they now have and how to use it, something which France, as evidenced by their selections for this match, have yet to really determine.

For reasons we can’t really fathom the French front row has undergone a complete overhaul with Jefferson Poirot the only survivor. Rabah Slimani is due to make his weight felt from the bench, but the rest of the French replacements in the front row are simply too much of an unknown quantity for us to see anything other than clear and utter dominance from Wales here, both in the starting selections and from the bench. While Poirot put in some very hard graft against England, he benefitted from the leadership of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani packing down beside him. Without these two figures, and under the kind of intense pressure we expect from Wales we fear his discipline may well go out the window. Wales pack an outstanding front row that has really come into its own in this tournament and their bench looks solid enough to back up any gains made here.

It’s in the second and back rows where the contest evens out and we expect to see a large part of the action on Saturday. France pack a very capable second row and their back row has been quite the revelation this tournament. The back row trio of Marco Tauleigne, Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara have been outstanding and expect them to be exceptionally competitive in Cardiff. Wales however are equally strong and when you can boast names like Alun-Wyn Jones in the second row then there is no question that there will be some tireless physicality on hand from Wales. However, it’s Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau who should strike fear into the hearts of a very capable and competitive French back row. Throw in Aaron Shingler off the bench and we can’t help feeling that Wales are almost unstoppable in this part of the park despite a stiff French challenge.

In the backs and at half back Wales also look rather frightening to say the least. A solid half back partnership exists between Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies, with Davies surely the number one Welsh choice at scrum half building towards the World Cup. From 11-15 Wales just look more lethal than France for this encounter and their performances in this tournament would back up that assertion. France have some real power in winger Remy Grosso who had an absolutely massive game against England, but overall from 9-15 for this match there is not the same tried and trusted platform in blue jerseys that Wales have managed to develop over the last seven weeks. Mathieu Basteraud at centre for France has had perhaps the two best games of his career in his last two outings against Italy and England, but we still feel that with some imagination and creativity Wales will find a way to work around him. If Grosso and Basteraud end up being the game changers they were against England for France, then Wales could have a very difficult afternoon, but we just can’t help feeling that away from home and with the composition of the rest of France’s efforts in the backs slightly disjointed, Wales will have a field day with them here.

Then there’s the small matter of a Welsh bench which has impact and X-factor written all over it, and it is hard to see France being competitive in the final quarter of the match if it has got away from them by that point on the basis of their own bench.

Verdict

Much has been said about home advantage in this tournament and rightly so. This is one match where we feel that it will come to the fore. This is a good French team, albeit perhaps not as balanced as last week’s squad, but taking on a Welsh team that is on the cusp of a very strong finish at home is a very significant undertaking. Wales dismantled Scotland and Italy in their other two home matches, and we see the trend being set to continue this Saturday. France will be exceptionally competitive especially in the loose, but we expect to see Wales start to pull away once the bench starts to come into play. Consequently a tense and very closely fought encounter for the first hour, but Wales to pull away by 9 and a bonus point in the last quarter!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we have done all tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

We are in for a rather exciting Saturday this weekend, as Ireland attempt to sew up the Championship by Round 4. However, it won’t be that simple as in order to do so they have to get past a Scottish side buoyed by their recent epic win against England a fortnight ago. Ireland will be counting on home advantage, and Scotland’s traditionally poor record away from home, as extra strings to a bow that is likely to leave little to chance. Meanwhile England travel to a wet and rainy Paris to take on a French side, who despite only just starting to show signs of emerging from a long dark period, are likely to still manage to turn it on for this match between these two traditional rivals. In their last few outings England have not looked the side that seemed unbeatable since their horrific exit from the last World Cup, and although they still are a formidable side they look vulnerable and France will be keenly aware of this.

The weekend kicks off with a potentially thrilling encounter, as current tournament favorites Ireland take on Scotland. Ireland are the only team left in the running for the Grand Slam, but after Scotland’s superb win against England a fortnight ago, Scotland are still very much in the hunt for the title if they can buck the bookmakers predictions and beat Ireland in Dublin. Ireland have been masters of hanging onto the ball this tournament, but Scotland have excelled in turning more limited possession into try scoring opportunities. Scotland have been fantastic out wide and the Irish defenses will have to be absolutely clinical on Saturday in denying Scotland quick ball and the split second chances they thrive on. However, Scotland traditionally struggle on the road in this tournament and it remains to be seen if they can turn the history books upside down on Saturday.

England travel to Paris where they take on a French side that has shown some real promise at times in this tournament, and whose defence certainly looks the part. Like many, we have felt that ever since the November Internationals England has looked a tad ordinary after their barnstorming run of back to back victories post the last World Cup. They have the talent of that there is no doubt, but it has all looked just a little flat and thin on creativity of late. France meanwhile, certainly look more robust than they have in a long time, and while they may only have one win to their credit in the tournament, we still can’t help feeling that there is one big game to come from them before this year’s Six Nations wraps up next weekend, and we have a hunch that this will be it.

On Sunday, a Welsh team that has impressed in all three of their matches, despite having only one win to their credit take on an Italian side, who are once more clearly on their way to brandishing the wooden spoon. Italy travel to Cardiff knowing that the odds are definitely against them, and despite some positives this tournament for the Azurri, there is still a mountain of work to get through before they can realistically aspire to finishing in the top four of the Six Nations table. Although Wales are out of the hunt for the silverware this year, the chance of a very strong second place finish is most definitely on the cards for them, so expect them to show no mercy to their Italian visitors as they go on the hunt for the maximum amount of points possible. A solid second place for Wales would be an excellent testament to how well their World Cup preparations are progressing, as a wealth of new talent has really stood out for them since November.

So as always let’s get into the head to head matchups.

Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 10th
Dublin

So the big question is, can Ireland make it 4 from 4 and head off to Twickenham next week with the Championship sewn up and simply a Grand Slam to chase? Or will Scotland upset the party and prove that the form they showed against England can also be replicated on the road? Either way a potentially thrilling encounter is in prospect and this will clearly be THE game of the weekend. Scotland stick with the side that blew England away at Murrayfield with only one enforced change on the wing. Ireland meanwhile welcome the return of centre extraordinaire Gary Ringrose, and scrum wrecking ball Tadhg Furlong.

Scotland put on a blinding display that favored their open and fast running game a fortnight ago under sunny skies at Murrayfield. This Saturday, the ground will be slicker due to rain and unlikely to offer the kind of fast pitch on which Scotland so clearly excel. In many ways it will favor Ireland’s patient and clinical dominance of possession, with the forwards being quick to snuff out any opportunity for Scotland to exploit gaps in defence. It’s Ireland’s legendary speed at the breakdown, along with the talents of probably the best half back combination in Test Rugby outside of New Zealand, that will mean Ireland should have the upper hand in terms of controlling the game and the pace at which they want to play it. Scotland are likely to have few chances on Saturday, but when they do they are more than capable of turning the tables in their favor. Provided Scotland show up unlike their opening encounter in Wales, this duel between Ireland and Scotland could be one of the most exciting of the Championship.

Front rows

Scotland’s much publicised injury woes affecting their front row prior to the tournament seem to have caused them little if any difficulty after their disastrous opening against Wales. The turnaround in a mere week was nothing short of remarkable, and in so doing unearthed a depth of talent in this part of the park that few thought Scotland had. While Ireland may have the more cohesive and experienced overall unit, Scotland will be extremely competitive here. Props Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan are exceptional scrappers and Hooker Stuart McInally has been outstanding. They’ll give as good as they get against Irish props Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Captain and Hooker Rory Best. However the combined experience of the Irish trio is much greater at this level, and if Best can find his mark at lineout time then Ireland should just have the upper hand here. We’re also excited about the battle of the benches in this part of the park as both teams pack a complete front row replacement, with Ireland’s perhaps having a bit more of the wow factor in the shape of Andrew Porter and the experience of Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath.

Second rows

We like the look of both units here, but once again think Ireland has the slight edge. Devin Toner has the experience paired up with the remarkable James Ryan, with the youngster demonstrating a phenomenal work rate. Scotland are no slackers here in the shape of the exceptional Jonny Gray, but the jury is out for us as to whether or not Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist is of the same calibre as the Irish pair, despite a very strong showing at times against England a fortnight ago. Once again though it is the Irish bench which packs the killer punch in the shape of Ian Henderson, even though we have been fans of Scotland’s Tim Swinson for a while now, and think he is one of Scotland’s most underrated players.

Back rows

Ireland’s forward dominance should continue here, but once again is likely to be put to the sternest of Tests by Scotland. Flankers Hamish Watson and John Barclay have put in some blinding performances in Scotland’s last two outings, and expect more of the same. Ryan Wilson at number eight will be troublesome, but it is unlikely he will be able to match Ireland’s CJ Stander whose ball carrying statistics so far this tournament are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy will be a solid counterweight to the jackaling abilities of Watson and Barclay, and we just feel that the Irish unit is the more powerful of the two, even at the expense of being more predictable. With Jordi Murphy on the bench for Ireland, they too should be able to throw in their own degree of X-factor and while like most we rate Scotland’s replacement number eight David Denton, for overall composure and big match temperament under pressure, the contest should be Ireland’s to win.

Half backs

Can Finn Russell display the master class he put on against England a fortnight ago? One thing is for certain we know the Irish pair of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray can – and then some! Greg Laidlaw brings the experience and wisdom needed at this level to the scrum half position for Scotland, and should help steer his younger partner through the pressure hurdles he’ll be up against. Add to the Laidlaw equation a reliable source of points through the boot and Scotland will pose a threat make no mistake. However, we just feel that Sexton and Murray are so clearly at the top of their game right now that Ireland should have this aspect of proceedings comfortably sewn up. Ireland know that Russell can be easily rattled and will be seeking every opportunity to ensure this happens, and if it does Scotland’s game management suddenly looks full of holes and rather rudderless. Poise and class in the shape of Ireland meets reliability and X-factor in the shape of Scotland on Saturday, and in our opinion it’s the former that will triumph on the day, especially with Joey Carberry on the bench for Ireland. However, before Irish supporters can get too relaxed Scotland pack their own bench weapon in the shape of scrum half Ali Price.

Centres

It’s here that Scotland starts to look the more threatening proposition. Watch the replays of centre Huw Jones in action against England if you don’t believe us, especially as after a full sprint halfway across the field he manages to drag two English defenders across the try line with him. Clearly a contender for World Player of the Year if ever there was one. His partner Peter Horne will have his work cut out for him trying to contain the dancing feet of Ireland’s Gary Ringrose, but this is the Irishman’s first return to Test duty after a lengthy absence with injury so it remains to be seen how effective Ringrose is. If he does have his full game legs with him then expect plenty of action from one end of the field to the other from Ringrose and Jones. In short a thrilling contest in this part of the park, with Ireland’s Bundee Aki clearly having the defensive Test of his career as he tries to contain the exuberant Jones. We were just so in awe of Jones’ performance against England and unsure of Ringrose’s fitness post injury, that we hand this contest to Scotland.

Back lines

Another epic tussle awaits in this part of the field between two exceptionally talented back lines. On the wings Ireland look devastating in the shape of Jacob Stockdale and veteran Keith Earls. Earls is having the tournament of his career, and we are still rerunning the tape of his extraordinary 60+ metre sprint to make a try saving tackle in the Italian match. In short no concerns about his level of fitness or defensive capabilities. Stockdale is the tournament’s leading try scorer, despite Scotland’s Huw Jones snapping at his heels, and expect plenty of fireworks from the Irish speedster in front of a delirious home crowd. Consequently, out wide we’re handing it to Ireland, despite some questions around Stockdale on defense. Scotland field the untried Blair Kinghorn on the wing and it remains to be seen if his remarkable performances on the PRO14 circuit can be replicated at Test level. Sean Maitland will put Keith Earls’ defensive abilities to the sternest of Tests, but we just feel the Irish pair look the more dangerous and accomplished. It’s at fullback where Scotland should cause Ireland all kinds of difficulties in the shape of that man Stuart Hogg. Elusive, fast and with an exceptional eye for opportunity we just feel he is a vastly more dynamic player than Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Kearney may be great under the high ball and in his defense he is having one of his most competitive seasons in a while, but Hogg’s sheer X-factor makes him the more difficult to manage of the two.

However, overall we feel it’s Ireland’s strength on the wings which should get them through. Furthermore, while we talk of X-factor, we have to make mention of the benches and Ireland’s in particular. While we agree that Jordan Larmour didn’t quite have the Test debut against Italy we had hoped for, and was clearly a liability in defence, we feel he is such a talent in the making that he will have learnt a great deal from that opening outing in the green shirt. So much so, that players that sharp are unlikely to make the same the same mistakes again. Consequently, in a match of such key importance, we salute Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s decision to give the youngster another shot at glory off the bench. If that isn’t faith in your preparations leading up the World Cup then we don’t know what is!

Verdict

We agree with most punters out there that this is Ireland’s game to lose and Scotland’s to win. We haven’t seen enough consistency from Scotland on the road, especially when it comes to the Six Nations to see them suddenly turning the form books on their head. Sure they were the underdogs against England, but they were at home. While they are the clear underdogs here, overturning an Irish side that for the most part is humming along nicely and looks exceptionally well-drilled, will be a very tall order away from home. Not impossible but clearly a challenge that is yet another step up from the one they faced at home against England a fortnight ago. All that said though it should be a barnstormer of a match, and one that is likely to keep both sets of supporters on the edge of their seats, but Ireland to ultimately pull away by seven and with a bonus point!

France vs England
Saturday, March 10th
Paris

A game that England has to win in order to stay in the hunt for the title, and a game that France will desperately want to win to show that they are back and mean business once more. England find themselves in an awkward position where after having been the dominant force in Northern Hemisphere rugby for the last two years, it would appear that their competitors are catching up to them and in some cases moving past them. England appear rather static at the moment, and their brutal efficiency in grinding out wins no longer seems sufficient as other teams appear smarter and more creative. That was clearly in evidence a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, as England found themselves with more questions than answers as a smart and fleet-footed Scotland outwitted them across the park. Some have said that England have peaked too early and that Coach Eddie Jones is a one-trick pony. We don’t believe either assertion. Jones is one smart operator, just see how he dismantled South Africa with his Japanese charges against all the odds in the last World Cup. Furthermore, England are blessed with the kind of depth of talent that most teams can only fantasize about. If England can use the final two matches in the tournament to really find that missing spark of creativity, then it should be back to full steam ahead for their World Cup preparations.

France have shown promise at times during the course of the tournament. They have a defence that is rock solid for the most part, and a bruising forward pack that can put in the hard yards. As we saw in the match against Italy, their backs also have some real potential and given the right opportunities can be a potent attacking weapon. As we’ve said all along France have one BIG game in them this tournament, especially at home and we have a hunch that Saturday’s fixture may just be that match.

Front rows

England’s trio should have the ascendancy but it is going to be close, especially in front of an exceptionally vocal French crowd. However, the presence of Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole who have been consistently reliable for England should be the calm heads under pressure that England needs in such a volatile encounter. We’re fans of England Hooker Jamie George but he is going to have to be at his best to get the better of French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado. Nevertheless we still feel that Jefferson Poirot is the one weak link in terms of discipline for France and Dan Cole will be seeking to exploit it to the full. Rabah Slimani is outstanding at tighthead but going up against Vunipola is a big ask even at home. The benches look relatively even but we still fancy England’s chances here to assert some real dominance for the full eighty minutes, despite the disciplinary liabilities posed by England’s Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler.

Second rows

Once again providing they fire, we think the English duo of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje should get the better of a very good French pair in Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues. Vahaamahina can be a real enforcer for France and clearly responds well to a home crowd. Although the English pair have looked slightly flat at times this tournament, we still feel they have the higher pedigree and should get the better of the contest.

Back rows

This is a tight battle but, perhaps against the grain, we feel that France at home could have a better day here. England, as has been well documented, look unbalanced in this part of the park, whereas France seem to have developed a settled and effective unit. We’ve been impressed by the two French flankers Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret. They’re aggressive and just seem more comfortable in their roles than England’s out of position Courtney Lawes, and a valiant but overworked Chris Robshaw. Furthermore, Marco Tauleigne at number eight for France, although relatively new to the squad, had put in some big shifts. Much was expected of Nathan Hughes in the match against Scotland by England, but even he seemed out of place at times. This is France’s part of the park to dominate and we feel they might just pull it off on Saturday. The only real ace up England’s sleeve is Sam Simmonds off the bench, a player we feel is the way forward for England at number eight.

Half backs

England are not firing here for some reason, with Danny Care at scrum half appearing too impulsive at times and fly half George Ford just not hitting the high standards we have come to expect from him. France are not much better off as they seem devoid of a suitable fly half at the moment, and consequently scrum half Maxime Machenaud is left doing all the hard work. Machenaud is a fine player and boasts some serious experience, but he is being asked to do a great deal – too much in our opinion. Consequently, we feel that despite their problems England are better placed to run the show here on Saturday. France’s choice of Francois Trinh-Duc leaves us scratching our heads as there surely must be better options given the resources available to France. Add to the mix, the fact that England pack a much more experienced bench replacement in the shape of Richard Wigglesworth, and France are going to have to work too hard here on Saturday unless England have a complete implosion.

Centres

Owen Farrell may be one of the best all round players in the modern game but he needs a unit and partnership to work with, something he seems to be lacking at the moment. His partner for Saturday, Ben Te’o is an impressive operator but we just don’t see the two of them gelling all that well together. Farrell is also unlikely to be happy about the fact that French battering ram Mathieu Basteraud will be running at him all afternoon. France’s other centre Geoffrey Doumayrou has been a star at La Rochelle, and seems to have made a comfortable transition to the Test arena. Consequently, we feel that France are likely to get under the skin of the English pair giving rise to yet another unsettled performance. Jonathan Joseph is on the bench for England and, despite some dips in form, he is still a potential game breaker given the right opportunities. However, we just feel that France at home may cause the English pair too much grief in this part of the park to really establish any kind of rhythm or the control that Farrell is synonymous with.

Back lines

This is where England should come to the fore despite some significant French opposition. This match sees the return of Elliot Daly on the left wing, which is a huge boost for England, as in our opinion he is one of the Men in White’s finest all round players with some exceptional versatility. Jonny May has one of the most blistering turns of speed in Test rugby, even if lingering concerns exist about his defensive abilities. Anthony Watson switches to fullback in place of Mike Brown, and we can’t help feeling that we are likely to be seeing this more and more as England build towards the World Cup. Mike Brown has been a valiant and feisty servant of English rugby, but is usually only as good as the opposition allows him to be. In reference to that spark of creativity that England are lacking we can’t help feeling that Brown is falling behind in this department. France will be competitive here, and we have been exceptionally impressed with winger Remy Grosso and expect him to cause all kinds of problems for England on Saturday. His fellow winger Benjamin Fall is a good player but we feel that England’s Daly will easily have his measure. Lastly, France’s Hugo Bonneval is a solid fullback but we feel that England’s Watson is a more powerful strike runner. Some tight battles here and hopefully some enterprising play from both sides, but England are packing a more proven unit.

Verdict

It’s going to be rainy and windy in Paris on Saturday, conditions that on paper should suit the grinding effectiveness of England’s game plan better than France. However, France in recent years have been less about flair and more about a bruising physical challenge – one they look set to deliver on Saturday. Consequently, we feel this match is likely to be much closer than many are predicting. France will be up for this in front of a home crowd baying for a result against their biggest traditional rival. However, it is precisely that emotion that ultimately may get in the way of the measured and composed performance needed from France on Saturday. England are wounded but have yet to stumble twice in a row since Eddie Jones took charge. As much as France will push them, we can’t see England slipping up a second time, even away from home. It may not be pretty at times but it still should be a gripping contest, with England grinding out a victory by five points!

Wales vs Italy,
Sunday, March 11th
Cardiff

At the time of writing this, only Wales’ squad for this match had been announced, so as a result we can’t do much more than speculate in general terms. However, let’s be honest the result on Sunday is not really in doubt. Wales are fielding an outstanding side that showcases the best of the new talent they have unearthed since November.

Italy have looked promising at times, but defensively they are still a shambles. There is the nucleus of a squad developing for Italy under Coach Conor O’Shea’s tutelage that could well be competitive come the World Cup, but it would appear that sights are more firmly set on the 2023 edition of the tournament. In the meantime, Italy will strive to improve their skills in high level tournaments such as this, but it is still probably a year too early for us to see any real improvements in Italy’s standing in the Six Nations. There are some genuinely exciting backs in the team in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and Tommaso Benvenuti, while at centre Tommaso Castello looks the real deal. Flanker Sebastian Negri has been one of the finds of the tournament, not just for Italy but as a spectator favorite. However, beyond that many of Italy’s problems seem consistent, especially in terms of discipline and defence.

Wales on the other hand look as bright as a button and are showcasing some world-class talent that will serve them well come the World Cup. They have a veteran front row that have held their own for much of the tournament, together with a competent and committed second row. However, it’s that Welsh back row and Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler in particular that has been one of the talking points of this Six Nations. Intensely physical and devastatingly fast and powerful in the loose, the Welsh pair have turned heads on more than one occasion and are going to be a real threat when Wales turns up in Japan in eighteen months time.

Wales in our opinion are more than comfortable without Rhys Webb at scrum half, as Gareth Davies has been one of the most dynamic players of the tournament and has a real eye for the try line. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe are exceptional fly halves in the making and we feel will soon eclipse the incumbent Dan Biggar. Add some real pace out wide in Liam Williams and Steff Evans coupled to some bruising physicality and speed up the middle in Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams, and Wales look in frighteningly robust health in the backs. To add insult to injury for opposition teams, Leigh Halfpenny is back to his best since his return to the Welsh fullback position after his time in France. To seal the deal, Wales are now able to boast a bench with plenty of experience and raw young talent. Although Wales won’t be lifting any silverware next Saturday, they’ve learnt a great deal about themselves and the depth they have available over the last seven weeks, and as a result they and their supporters can feel more than happy with the fact that Wales are still in contention for a very strong second place finish.

Verdict

It’s not hard to predict a fairly emphatic Welsh victory in front of 70,000 of the Welsh faithful in Cardiff on Sunday. Italy will be brave but this is a daunting environment in which to make the kind of statement that has been sadly lacking in their campaign so far. Wales simply have been so much more successful in building the kind of competitive squad they want for this tournament and beyond to the World Cup, for it to be anything other than a maximum points haul for the Welsh. Wales to use this as the points grab they need to set themselves up nicely for a strong second place finish next week – and as a result Wales by 23!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we have done all tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

 

What a weekend lies ahead! There is so much to play for this weekend for all the teams, and the stakes are higher than they have been in a long time at the midway point of the tournament. There are potential upsets on the cards, there are new combinations to be tried, and there are losses to be avoided at all costs. If you want high drama you’ve picked what is clearly going to be one of the biggest rugby weekends of the 2018 season. The history and passion are all there, and this weekend the ramifications for the winners and losers are perhaps bigger than even the final weekend when one team finally gets to lift the trophy.

A fascinating contest starts proceedings in Marseille between France and Italy on Friday. There are so many variables here that it is almost impossible to call. France simply have to win as do Italy, otherwise the rest of their Championship is in tatters and the sole focus becomes avoiding the wooden spoon. France due to off field disciplinary problems post the Scottish match, field a side that lacks the cohesion and spark that we have seen so far. Italy are staying faithful to a team that seems to be hitting the targets in terms of improvement that Coach Conor O’Shea is setting them. Italy will set their sights on one match and we think this is the one where they are most likely to cause an upset.

A very confident Welsh side, despite the close loss to England in Round 2, travels to Dublin for a tough encounter with an Irish side that still looks like a work in progress. While Ireland may still, along with England, be the favourites, they have yet to really convince. Lapses in concentration caught them out against Italy, and against France they struggled to break through a solid defence. Wales completely dismantled a Scottish side at the beginning of the tournament. Despite a poor opening 50 minutes against England, Wales regrouped in a spectacular fashion and proceeded to dominate the final 30 minutes. Wales do not seem phased by playing away from home. If they had put in the kind of performance they pulled out of the hat against England in the last half hour at Twickenham for the full eighty minutes, then there is no doubt they could have pulled off the first big upset of the tournament. They are settled, lean and hungry and look the part. Irish supporters will be rightly feeling more than just a little uncertain and nervous as to how this game is going pan out. Wales seem to have recovered from their injury woes but Ireland, as so often happens in the Six Nations, seem to have their injury problems mounting with each successive match. Consequently Ireland find themselves heading into such a crucial match with far more unknowns than Wales do. The Welsh leaders have been determined and are present and accounted for this Saturday. Ireland however, while having many leaders amongst them will also need to find some new role models on Saturday.

Finally it’s Calcutta Cup time! There is a danger that, just like last year, this match ends up being overhyped into the damp squib it ended up turning into at Scotland’s expense. Sure it’s at Murrayfield and Scotland’s motivation in front of a home crowd is likely be off the charts, but can they keep the emotion in check and deal with an English side that caused us to reach for a very stiff drink once the team sheets came out? It’s an English juggernaut up against a fleet-footed Scottish sports car. There are brains aplenty on both sides but this is a clinical and ruthless English side taking on an ambitious Scottish team who like to take risks. If England suffocate Scotland up front and their backs and half back combinations keep Scotland’s defences stretched thin, then it will be a long afternoon for the Scots. If on the other hand Scotland manage to keep quick ball and avoid getting bogged down in the physical battles, then they have proved that they can be very difficult to contain. Scotland are unlikely to get the better of England in the set pieces but if they can keep to a fast and loosely structured game that allows them to exercise their remarkable counterattacking ability from deep, then they might just make this a Calcutta epic we”ll all be talking about for many years to come.

So without any further ado let’s get into the head to heads for a weekend that promises some fascinating matchups!

France vs Italy
Friday, February 23rd
Marseille

A truly fascinating encounter awaits us in the South of France today. By the time you read this you will probably know the result, so whatever we write may be purely academic. Nevertheless, we all can’t wait to get home tonight and spool up the tape of this one. As mentioned above both sides desperately need a win, and after the off-field shenanigans in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, France have certainly made life harder for themselves. We genuinely feel that Italy are making progress this year, and really only need to perform a dramatic overhaul of the defensive efforts by their current squad. They have had a fortnight to do it, look like a settled side and are clearly in the mood to cause an upset. France on the other hand have looked solid at times especially defensively, but an ongoing problem with discipline on and off the field mean that they only have themselves to blame for the handicap they head into this match with.

Front Rows

Fortunately for France the off-field antics a fortnight ago have not affected the composition of a very reliable and solid French front row. Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, and props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot all return to front line duty having impressed in the first two rounds. By the same token so have Italy’s offering of the experienced Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and props Simone Ferrari and Andrea Lovotti. The disciplinary weak links are Poirot for France and Ghiraldini for Italy. Expect an even battle here, but France’s experience and the inspirational presence of Guirado should give les Bleus the upper hand here.

Second Rows

The presence of Sebastien Vahaamahina alone should ensure French dominance here, especially if he can keep his discipline together. He has been a real enforcer for France this tournament, and with Guirado being solid at the lineout this is one area where the French should dictate proceedings. There will be a fiesty Italian challenge in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd, but a powerful French unit should see the men in Blue have the edge.

Back Rows

This is the one area of the park, where by the narrowest of margins, we think Italy has the edge. Italy are fielding a very strong back row with the legendary Sergio Parisse being the talisman at number eight. Flanker Sebastian Negri has really impressed so far this tournament and his colleague Maxime Mbanda is a ferocious tackler. It’s a solid French unit in the shape of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret, but Marco Tauleigne up against the legendary Sergio Parisse is a big ask. Mbanda’s relentless tackling, Negri’s elusiveness and Parisse’s inspiration should see Italy get the better of proceedings in this part of the field today.

Half Backs

There is no question that France are struggling with selection and consistency here, despite a wealth of talent at their disposal. We were very surprised to see Lionel Beauxis get the nod again against Italy at fly half. We thought he had a very poor game against Scotland. Maxime Machenaud brings plenty to the table for France at scrum half, but his opposite number Marcello Violi has also caught the eye so far this tournament. Meanwhile Italy’s Tommaso Allan has been a firm favorite of ours for a while now. Italy are blessed with two quality fly halves in the shape of Allan and Carlo Canna who awaits on the bench. On the other hand we cannot understand the choice of Francois Trinh-Duc as a bench replacement for Beauxis. To us this smacks of desperation and a clear lack of imagination from French Coach Jacques Brunel. Machenaud’s replacement Kelian Galletier is a very exciting prospect, but the transition from Top 14 superstar to Test Rugby is a big ask, especially given what’s at stake for France in terms of pressure today. Italy, to have the more level head here.

Centres

With the exciting Geoffrey Doumayrou from La Rochelle and Toulon’s Mathieu Basteraud, this French centre pairing needs no introduction. However, as impressive as Doumayrou has been at club level we don’t really feel that he has found his feet at Test level yet. Add to this we are not sure that he and Basteraud will gel today, and once more we actually fancy Italy’s chances here. Basteraud may be a bruising ball carrier and devastating tackler, but he is rather easy to read and get the measure of defensively as well as not being the fastest defender if you are able to wrong foot him. We think Italy’s centre pairing of the two Tommasos looks far more dangerous. If Boni has fixed his defensive liabilities and improved his basic skill set then he could be a real threat to France. However, it is Castello who has been the real eye opener for Italy this tournament and the contest between him and the rather predictable Basteraud should be fascinating, with the Italian creating more opportunities and being harder to read. Italy to be more creative here, especially if Boni has really done his homework over the last two weeks.

Back Lines

Having not watched any of the Top 14, we simply don’t know enough about France’s back line other than fullback Hugo Bonneval to really comment. We’ve heard good things about the wingers Remy Grosso and Benjamin Fall but don’t really know what to expect of them as a Test unit. Italy on the other hand, especially in the shape of Matteo Minozzi at fullback, have looked spectacular at times. Tommaso Benevenuti has got some real speed out wide and Mattia Bellini is an ever improving prospect on the wings. Once again if Italy have done their homework here especially on defence out wide, they could spring some real surprises here today. We’ve seen this Italian back line in action and really like the look of it, so on the basis of familiarity and the caveat of them having done their homework regarding defence, we’re giving it to Italy by the slimmest of margins.

Verdict

It’s France at home, albeit in Marseille, which with its proximity to the Italian border should mean that there is a larger Italian presence in the stands then had this been played at Stade de France. Consequently, although France are benefitting from home advantage, it’s perhaps less of an advantage than some would think. France will be motivated make no mistake, as the ramifications of a loss today are too painful to contemplate. However, we just think the Italian squad is more cohesive and familiar with each other. If they have done their homework this could be their one big match of the tournament, especially as they have shown they have some genuine talent at their disposal and in our opinion are packing a better bench. As Italy showed against Ireland, they actually played their best rugby in the final quarter, which will put them in good stead against a French team facing questions about their fitness. A messy affair at times, but one in which Italy will cause the bookmakers grief and steal it by one point!

Ireland vs Wales
Saturday, February 25th
Dublin

If you’re an Irish supporter you are no doubt feeling more than just a little nervous about the proceedings in Dublin tomorrow. If you’re a Welsh supporter you could be forgiven for feeling more than just a little optimistic about your team’s chances. Of one thing we can be sure, it is likely to be a titanic struggle with both sides desperately hoping that the physical toll it is likely to inflict will not add to their respective injury woes. Ireland as a result of injuries are being forced to take more of a gamble, whereas Wales welcome back from injury some key players and consequently field a team that is a proven entity and rapidly developing into the form team of the Championship.

Front Rows

Ireland are without the services of the extraordinary Tadgh Furlong at Tighthead Prop, and although his replacement Andrew Porter is an impressive performer for Leinster, to really cut your straps at Test level in a match of such extraordinary intensity is a very tall order. He will be ably supported by Hooker and Captain Rory Best and fellow Prop Cian Healy, but Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them in containing the Welsh front three. Props Rob Evans and Samson Lee with Hooker Ken Owens have been outstanding so far this tournament and are going to put enormous pressure on the Irish new boy. Consequently, we see Wales getting the upper hand here for the first hour. However, once Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath come off the bench the pendulum should swing back in Ireland’s favor. Nevertheless, if the Welsh trio manage to wreak enough havoc in the first 60 minutes than Wales should have this contest sewn up.

Second Rows

It’s the X-factor of Ireland’s James Ryan which will determine the outcome of this contest. Since that is almost impossible to predict at this stage we give the battle to Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Corey Hill, both of whom have been immense for Wales in the tournament so far. Wales have been consistent at the lineouts, and if Rory Best’s throwing is off the mark for Ireland under pressure then expect the Welsh to have a field day with disrupting Ireland here. Ryan is clearly the smoking gun for Ireland that could turn proceedings upside down, but he is only just back from injury so we wait and see. We feel the benches are weak for both sides in this department so it will really depend who gets the upper hand by the hour mark, and we fancy Wales here until we see what Ryan brings to the party for Ireland.

Back Rows

One of THE contests of the weekend without a doubt, and probably where the game is going to be won or lost. Impossible to call and with such talent swelling the ranks on both sides, including the bench, we give this to Ireland by the slimmest of margins and simply on the basis of home advantage. The Welsh partnership of Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi has been spectacular since the November Internationals and just gets better with every outing. Add to this the mighty Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and this is a really fearsome unit. Ross Moriarity at number eight is rapidly getting back to his best and these four Welshmen are going to make their Irish counterparts sweat for the full eighty minutes. Ireland have an exciting mix of seasoned veterans and blazing young talent in their offering. CJ Stander continues to be the talk of post match statistics, while Peter O’Mahony’s commitment to the cause and work rate are consistently reliable. Leinster’s Dan Leavy has relished his call up to the Test Arena at openside flanker, and his clubmate Jack Conan has been extraordinary in Leinster’s European Champions Cup campaign. So simply far too close to call, with the only possible deciding factor being home advantage which causes us to give it to Ireland by the slimmest of margins. However, Ireland cannot afford to fall off the boil for fifteen minutes here as they have in their opening two rounds of the Championship.

Half Backs

Like most Irish supporters we will be breathing huge sighs of relief if Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray emerge at the final whistle without any injuries. This is going to be a hugely physical encounter and one where these two Irishmen will be clearly in the sights of the Welsh back row all afternoon. The Welsh back row have no doubt been practising against tackle bags with Sexton and Murray’s faces painted on them all week. Wales know that they face one of the best half back partnerships in Test Rugby, equal to New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith. Sexton and Murray are masters of their respective trades plain and simple. Dan Biggar returns to the Welsh fold at fly half after injury, but he will need to find his feet again fast. Although brilliant at times, his reputation for having the odd seriously wobbly performance is well documented. His partner Gareth Davies at scrum half is no stranger to the try line and excels at catching opposition defences off guard especially from deep. The benches are solid for both sides, with Wales’ Gareth Anscombe looking particularly good against England a fortnight ago. However, we just think that Ireland pack so much X-factor in Joey Carberry that given Sexton and Murray’s pedigree Ireland should have the clear advantage here tomorrow.

Centres

Once again as a result of injury Ireland are being forced to experiment here, whereas Wales have the advantage of consistency since November. The loss of Robbie Henshaw for Ireland was a bitter blow, and with electric centre Gary Ringrose, not quite fit enough after injury Ireland have more questions than answers here right now. Consequently it’s an untried combination of Connacht centre Bundee Aki and Munster’s Chris Farrell. Both these players remind us more of Springbok centre partnerships of old, comprising of bruising ball carriers than the dancing feet of the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. They will be a good match for the physical combination of Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams. Parkes in particular is fast and physical and, as seen in his performances with the Scarlets in the European Champions Cup and PRO14, can carve opposition defences wide open. Hard to read defensively we feel there is just a bit more proven complexity to Wales in the middle of the field than Ireland’s untried offering. Consequently, Wales should have the upper hand unless the Irish duo turn out to be the revelation of the tournament.

Back lines

Fast and furious are the words that come to mind here. Wales look good here make no mistake but we think home advantage and some genuine pace and unpredictability out wide favor Ireland. Rob Kearney will field whatever high balls come his way and provide strong fullback cover for Ireland, while Leigh Halfpenny’s positional awareness for Wales is second to none, allied to a boot that rarely misses. Two experienced fullbacks with differing skill sets will provide a level playing field here. However, it’s the contest on the wings that is likely to provide the most excitement. Ireland’s Keith Earls is having probably the best season of an impressive career, and newcomer Jacob Stockdale is able to cross the try line with alarming regularity. Question marks remain about his defensive abilities, but then the same could be said of Wales’ Steff Evans who is also rapidly making a name for himself on the Test circuit. Liam Williams is a proven performer for Wales and his ability to attack from deep is the stuff of legends. Two very good back lines go head to head here, but we think that Wales might just have the edge here, especially if they expose any defensive weaknesses in Ireland and George North makes a telling impact off the bench. However, it’s home advantage and Earls’ reputation for try saving tackles and Sexton’s ability to put him in the right place at the right time, along with Stockdale’s try scoring ability that should see Ireland just get the upper hand.

Verdict

Ireland should win, but we can’t help feeling that this Welsh team looks the more complete unit. Consequently we’re bucking the bookies predictions and calling it in favour of Wales. It is going to be a clash of Titans, and we like many are anxious about the potential body count come the final whistle, especially given how this could ultimately influence the fortunes of these two teams for the remainder of the tournament. One of the biggest matches of the Championship without a doubt, but a more confident and settled Welsh side to just squeak it in a hugely physical and close match against the odds by 2 points!

Scotland vs England
Saturday, February 25th
Murrayfield

If you have’nt been rushed off to the hospital for heart surgery after the Ireland/Wales game, then another epic encounter awaits you in Test Rugby’s oldest fixture – the annual Calcutta dustup between England and Scotland. England are clear favorites despite the match taking place north of Hadrian’s Wall this year. England simply look too polished and focused, and they are masters of being able to grind out hard victories. Scotland will put in a highly spirited challenge in front of an exceptionally vocal home crowd, but so far we just have’nt seen that killer instinct from them, despite them almost getting a shock win over the All Blacks in November. There are few, ourselves included, who doubt Scotland’s ability to cause an upset tomorrow, but it is going to require a super human effort against a very frightening looking English team. So keep those defibrillators to hand as we go through the head to heads.

Front Rows

Scotland showed against France that despite their injury concerns they can be exceptionally competitive up front with Hooker Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan being some genuine good news for Scotland. Add into the mix seasoned terrier Gordon Reid and there is plenty of potential for Scotland to be competitive here. However, that English front row has looked alarmingly solid for a long time now. Dylan Hartley continues to justify his spot at Hooker and Captain, while Props Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole just consistently get the job done with ruthless efficiency. England pack a frightening looking bench to continue their efforts, and while it is great to see Scotland’s WP Nel back from injury, we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction up front. England to comfortably dominate proceedings at the coal face here.

Second Rows

Ouch! Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje – you know that is going to hurt all afternoon. Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist will put on a brave display of giving as good as they get but we just can’t see them getting the better of the English pair plain and simple, even with Tim Swinson on the bench for the Scots. Also England have George Kruis waiting to come on for some added havoc and it is likely to be a long and potentially painful afternoon for Scotland in this part of the park.

Back Rows

We know that Scotland’s flanker pairing of Hamish Watson and John Barclay can compete with the best in the world, the question is will they show up on Saturday and not have the kind of missing in action performance they had in Cardiff at the start of the tournament? We personally feel that they are the more creative unit than the English powerhouse duo of Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw. If the English simply outmuscle the Scots here and suffocate them in the loose due to their overwhelming physicality, especially with Nathan Hughes backing them up at number eight, it could well be game over for Scotland early on. Add to this the fact that Lawes is famous for destroying fly halves and, much of Scotland’s attention here will be focused on protecting Finn Russell who so desperately needs to put in a big performance for Scotland. Scotland have the talent here of that there is no doubt, we just fear they won’t be allowed to express themselves and if they get forced to hit the panic button by half time, can’t help feeling that this is where England are going to take the game away from them.

Half Backs

Scotland’s Finn Russell knows he needs to put in one of the biggest performances of his career to date tomorrow. The question is does he have the big match temperament to pull it off? England will work relentlessly on him all afternoon, and he will be aware that himself and Courtney Lawes are likely to develop a very physical relationship throughout the game. Greg Laidlaw will provide plenty of big match experience and wisdom to his young fly half, and the veteran scrum half may not be the most exciting player on the park, but his reliability in the heat of the moment is legendary. Danny Care and George Ford are clicking nicely since the Italian match and add Owen Farrell to the 10-12 axis and the results are consistently there for all to see. Russell’s key strength is his unpredictability especially in terms of getting Scotland’s back line shifting through the gears out wide. If he does manage to do this then England could be in for some very uncomfortable surprises. However, in terms of game management and control we just feel that England are better suited for the task at hand. If the game is close by the time the benches make their appearance and Scotland is not in panic mode, then the added X-factor of Ali Price could swing a tight match Scotland’s way – but it’s a big if. England simply look to polished and well-drilled here for us to think that England won’t be running the show at 9 and 10.

Centres

Scotland’s Huw Jones is one of the most exciting centres in Test rugby right now and exceptionally hard to defend against. However, that English partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is so accomplished that we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction here. The jury is still very much out for us on Scotland’s Peter Horne – we don’t think he’s a bad player, we’re just not sure that Scotland have figured out yet where best to play him. Furthermore, can Nick Grigg really make the step up to Test Rugby off the bench for Scotland in a match of this kind of intensity? A spirited Scottish challenge in prospect, but once more a clinical and rather ruthless English approach should see the Men in White determine the run of play here.

Back Lines

Scotland’s abilities to turn games on their head from this part of the park is well documented. Fullback Stuart Hogg and wingers Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour are strike runners of note, and England’s Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Mike Brown are going to have to be at their sharpest to keep these three in check especially on the fringes. As a strike threat, we think Scotland have the edge here over England, especially if Russell finds his groove and is consistently able to put the three of them in space. England’s offering of Anthony Watson and Jonny May on the wings are a superb counter, especially May’s ability to cover enormous distances at extraordinary speed. Mike Brown at fullback is an absolute bulldog and was exceptional under the high ball against Wales, though Scotland are unlikely to give him as much work as Wales did. Hard to call here, but we are going with Scotland, simply because of the element of surprise which seems such an integral part of their playing style – but only just. Also much of that will depend on what kind of game Finn Russell has. Scotland will also really have to make this unit count early on as England offer the more experienced bench in the shape of Jack Nowell over Scotland’s untried but exciting Blair Kinghorn.

Verdict

Our heart says Scotland, and we really hope that the enormity of the occasion doesn’t unhinge the Scots the way it did for this fixture last year at Twickenham. However, our heads are going with England in what should be an enthralling match. It will be close and the weather would appear to favor a fast and open game, but expect England to put the brakes on the Scottish speedsters from the get go. An exceptionally well-drilled English side to keep an exciting Scottish side in check for eighty minutes, despite home advantage for Scotland, and as a result England to take it by six points!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!