It’s the halfway point of the Six Nations, and for many the meeting of England and Ireland in Dublin on Sunday is being seen as a potential Championship decider. Meanwhile, the Italians travel to Murrayfield feeling more optimistic after their showing against England a fortnight ago. Finally, Wales take on a French side that is slowly starting to build some momentum in front of a French crowd hungry for results and a much-needed boost to national pride. There should be plenty of drama and intensity this weekend as the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby hierarchy for 2015 starts to take shape.
Fixtures this weekend
Scotland vs Italy
Saturday, February 28th
Scotland enjoy the luxury of another home fixture this weekend ahead of a very tough trip to Twickenham. Scottish fans are dying to see the promise shown by Scotland at the end of 2014 deliver some results in this year’s Six Nations. While Scotland were impressive against France and Wales, in both instances these were games they should and could have won. If anything despite the scoreline being as close as it was against Wales, Scotland seemed to take a step backwards when compared to their efforts against France a week earlier. Their discipline let them down too many times, and Wales simply were more effective in taking the chances they were able to create. Scotland created some good opportunities against Wales yet failed to capitalise on many of them.
Italy on the other hand, stepped up their game against England, and although the scoreline reflected a resounding English victory, there were many aspects of the Italian performance that were encouraging. However, like Scotland it was discipline and a lack of finishing that ultimately let them down against England. Nevertheless, expect this Italian side to once again prove problematic for Scotland, particularly if they can pressure them up front. Furthermore, Italy’s defence if it keeps its discipline is hard to crack.
Where Scotland most likely have the edge over Italy is in the half back battle. Although the dynamic if inexperienced Finn Russell is serving a two-week disciplinary ban after the match against Wales, Scotland are still able to call on the services of Peter Horne who along with Russell has been instrumental in Glasgow Warriors success in the European Champions Cup this year. Match this up to the superb work rate of Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw who also supplies some great kicking support, and Scotland easily have a more stable platform than Italy. Italy’s flyhalf Kelly Haimona has yet to impress this year and is still finding his feet in the Italian camp, whilst scrum half Edoardo Gori all too often lacks the finesse needed in the position.
In the back line, once again Scotland is boasting more pedigree overall than Italy can muster. Stuart Hogg at fullback has shown he can be dangerous given space anywhere on the park. Alex Dunbar, Sean Lamont and Tommy Seymour have all shown that they have the capability to make the opposition gainline when given quick ball. The question remains will Scotland’s back line make better use of the chances their forwards and half backs provide them than they did against Wales. With a bit more composure and patience I would argue the answer is yes. The Italians however, have also shown that they have some serious attacking flair and just as he was against England expect Italian centre Luca Morisi to be a serious danger man for the Scottish defence.
In the forward battle, I see there to be a fairly even contest between both sides. The key here for both sides will be discipline. In front of a noisy Scottish crowd, the pressure on the Italian forwards could all be too much and we have seen Italian hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini lose his cool too often already in this tournament. Ultimately whoever wins the battle of temperament and thus discipline in this match will emerge the victor, and on this occasion my money is comfortably on Scotland. Expect a feisty challenge from the Italians and Scotland will have to work hard, but ultimately get the job done. If Stuart Hogg and company can bag a few early tries, I’ll give this match to the Scots by 10 points.
France vs Wales
Saturday, February 28th
Despite the fact that France have often seemed to be floundering without ideas in recent months, as evidenced against Australia in November, this is a team that can get it right. Although their game against Ireland a fortnight ago was not particularly attractive, especially in the last twenty minutes and with the appearance of scrum half Morgan Parra, France seemed to gain a new sense of purpose and injection of energy. Some Gallic flair once more seemed to be creeping back into their game, rather than simply passing the ball to centre Mathieu Bastareaud and expect him to bullock his way through opposition defences on the off-chance that some of his other back line colleagues may seize an opportunity. France once more looked in the business of creating opportunities.
Wales will be more than aware of this, and no doubt endless debates will have been held in training sessions as to whether or not the sleeping giant that France can be is once more stirring. In the game against Scotland, Wales showed plenty of enterprise and executed some superb tries, with Jonathan Davies superlative effort being the killer blow. Expect more of the same. Given Wales’ intense physicality from all of their players, forwards and backs, France will not want to get bogged down in grinding battles at the breakdown. If they do, then the game is there for Wales to take. I very much doubt that France will let themselves get locked into such corners on Saturday, despite the efforts of Welsh fly half Dan Biggar to pin them into such contests. Wales have their own running game, and against Scotland looked much less one-dimensional in attack than they have of late. With the electric Rhys Webb at scrum half, expect Wales to cause France all kinds of problems on attack.
However, I can’t help feeling, based on the last twenty minutes of the Ireland/France game, that France have one or two big games in them this tournament and I have a suspicion that this will be one of them. In front of a home crowd, I expect to see a more composed Camille Lopez at fly half, making any Welsh indiscretion an easy three pointer as well as more confidence and reliability in his kicking game overall. In Dublin, Lopez seemed rattled and made too many uncharacteristic mistakes. French coach Philippe Saint-Andre whose head is on the chopping block for most of the French press, has wisely chosen to stick with the experienced Morgan Parra at scrum-half. Parra’s arrival at the sixty minute mark in Dublin, added an instant spark and diversity to the French attack that had been sorely lacking for the first three-quarters of the match. Once again expect more of the same.
If Wales are to win on Saturday in Paris, then their forwards will have to outplay their French counterparts and on paper I think Wales have the edge here. The battle of the half backs will be fascinating and will be a test of who has the cooler heads. Meanwhile, the Welsh back line has poise and experience up against a French back line that has pace and strength but perhaps lacks the gel that makes their Welsh counterparts work so effectively. If you are to look at this one on paper then you would be hedging a Welsh win. However, I am putting it down to passion and on the day I think France will suddenly reinvent themselves and surprise us all. It will be close, it will be tense and above all a fascinating encounter, but ultimately I can’t help feeling that the French will finally stand up and be counted as in days gone by. I may be wrong, but my heart is telling me France by two or three – either way let’s hope for a vintage performance from both sides.
Ireland vs England
Sunday, March 1st
And so we come to the BIG ONE! The anticipation around this match has been growing since the beginning of the Championship. Ireland as defending champions face off against the only other unbeaten side and rivals for the Six Nations crown – England. Despite much criticism in the last year, England are finally looking the finished product heading into a World Cup on home soil. Of all the teams so far in the Championship, England have been the one who has impressed the most. Ireland has had two credible outings but have yet to really show us that they are capable of anything truly special, and the lack of tries against France a fortnight ago must be of some concern to Irish management, especially as they face an English back line containing a certain Jonathan Joseph.
Ireland are a good side and superbly coached, but so far in the Six Nations, it is the first time that we are perhaps seeing the absence of the O’Driscoll intelligence and magic in centrefield. As Ireland seek to find a centre pairing that works, they are up against an increasingly settled English back line with some real magic in the form of Jonathan Joseph. As of writing this, the Irish and English teams have yet to be announced, so the speculation for this match is even greater.
A serious concern to Ireland will be the absence of influential number 8, Jamie Heaslip after he fractured three vertebrae in the match against France. As of yet there is no word who will step in for him, meanwhile England will no doubt be fielding the superb Billy Vunipola who as we saw in the match against Italy will no doubt seek to make huge inroads into the Irish defensive lines. On paper I must say this English side looks good. Their forward prowess is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and Ireland will have to stand firm here. I thought the Irish scrum looked vulnerable at times in the match against France and they will have a serious challenge on their hands in the form of England. I expect the battle of the hookers to be ferocious, especially if it is England’s Dylan Hartley up against Ireland’s Cian Healy. Both these two are potential disciplinary time bombs. For Ireland, Mike Ross will have to hold up better than he did against France to avoid frustration creeping in and yellow cards being handed out in equal measure to Healy and Hartley. If it does come down to this though I still expect to see Dylan Hartley leading the charge on disciplinary lapses, despite many commending him for supposedly wearing his heart on his sleeve – like many others I just see it as a lack of discipline and big match temperament which may well serve Ireland well on the day.
If Ireland can contain the English forward juggernaut then their half back partnership of Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray should get enough opportunities to create and find space for their back line. However, once again on paper England’s centrefield pairing is starting to look more polished than Ireland’s experimental efforts. In the back three, especially in the form of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney Ireland are equally the measure if not better than England, however Simon Zebo may be hard pressed by England. Nevertheless, with a sound tactical approach Ireland should be able to get the measure of England here, especially with Sexton directing the run of play.
So in short, Ireland will have to try to contain a rampaging and devastatingly effective English forward pack. Their half back partnership of Sexton/Murray should manage to outperform England’s George Ford and Ben Youngs, though I like most have been impressed with George Ford’s increasing ownership of the England 10 shirt with every outing and he has added an element of composure and control to England’s game that was rarely seen last year. In centrefield, England will be exceptionally dangerous and I would say easily have the edge over Ireland. If England’s Jonathan Joseph is not shut down for the full eighty minutes then it will be a very difficult day for Ireland. Under the high ball though I’ll give Ireland the edge through Bowe and Kearney. In conclusion, two sides almost at the top of their game, though I can’t help feeling that England is showing just a bit more polish and solidity than Ireland right now. As a result, an epic encounter awaits us that hopefully will have us all on the edge of our seats till the final whistle. As to who will emerge the winner, is almost impossible to call, but as much as the Irish supporter in me is riling at this call, I am afraid to say that I think England just may edge out Ireland on Sunday. For both sides this will be the biggest game they will play between now and the World Cup. England has the goods to get the job done – Ireland has the talent but it remains to be seen if they also have the brains to ultimately outthink one of the most daunting physical sides in International Rugby right now.