With two weekends left in this Six Nations, there is quite literally everything to play for. Ireland have a challenging match away from home in Cardiff to keep their Grand Slam ambitions on track, against a Welsh team determined to spoil their party. Meanwhile a wounded English side sees the return of lineout giant Courtney Lawes as they look set to put a Scottish side brimming with talent but lacking in results to the sword at Twickenham. Lastly can the Azurri and their truly inspirational Captain, Sergio Parisse, cause upset number two of the tournament by beating another chopped and changed French side in Rome? Either way there is heaps to look forward to this weekend as we take a look at the action that all kicks off in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon.
Fixtures this weekend
Wales vs Ireland
Saturday, March 14th
Without question this is THE big fixture of the weekend. Ireland are on a roll in this Six Nations tournament, despite the fact that they have not been high on the try scoring statistics. This has led many to level accusations at them of being boring. Furthermore many critics are asking if the X factor of Jonathan Sexton is removed then does their success merely become an illusion? I would argue that while they may not have perhaps played the most spectacular rugby of the tournament, they have been the most clinically effective. The Six Nations is a unique tournament, and every match is literally a knockout stage and as such must be played as such. The adventurous play that leads to multiple tries often has no place in the tactical battles that unfold in the Six Nations, where margins and point differences can ultimately mean the success or failure of your campaign. Some may call this boring, but like most people I found this tactical struggle as evidenced in the Ireland vs England game a fortnight ago both fascinating and just as exciting. Yes I agree that the nature of Ireland’s performance changed dramatically once Sexton left at the 55 minute mark, but after a purple patch of 15 minutes, Ireland had re-established their authority by the 70 minute mark. It all came down to discipline and all the players knowing exactly what was expected of them. Expect more of the same in Cardiff this Saturday.
To say that this Welsh team is up for the challenge would be an understatement and Ireland will have to play just as well if not better than they did against England, especially when they have to factor the Millenium stadium crowd into the equation. Wales are still very much in the hunt for the Championship and derailing Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions in front of an ecstatic Welsh crowd would be the sweetest of victories for them. For Warren Gatland and his men this is no doubt the biggest game they will play between now and the World Cup.
While Wales may not have the awesome forward firepower of England, they perhaps have a more effective and mobile forward pack that is able to challenge physically anyone who comes at them. The Welsh first eight is powerful, mobile and totally committed and features the impressive new form of Samson Lee who will no doubt put his opposite number Mike Ross under enormous pressure while veteran Gethin Jenkins will make sure that he makes it hard for Jack McGrath to stay honest. Scrum for scrum I can’t help feeling that these two sides are equal, with some equal heavyweights holding them up. The key will be the accuracy and ferocity at the breakdown and here I think Ireland just has the edge provided they are able to keep their discipline.
In the half back pairings, Wales are no slackers in the form of fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Rhys Webb who have shown much of the same electricity and pace that we have seen from their Irish counterparts Sexton and Murray. However, the similarity stops there, they may be fast, particularly Webb and have a good kicking game, but when it comes down to split second accuracy and feel of how play is unfolding and how to act on it, Ireland’s Murray and Sexton are rapidly proving to be in a league of their own. Murray’s superb kick under pressure to Irish centre Robbie Henshaw in the match against England was sublime and was definitely one of the tries of the tournament. Murray’s offloads in general are more accurate and when an offload is not on, he has shown time and again how effective he can be in making the hard yards for the rest of his pack to pick up on, and in this area he is clearly superior to Rhys Webb. Meanwhile, Sexton is rapidly proving to be one of the master tactician’s of the modern game and will no doubt provide Wales’ impressive Dan Biggar with a few valuable lessons this Saturday. As I say, this is not to detract from Biggar’s skill set and he has impressed me all tournament but Sexton’s vision is just that much better.
In the back line, Ireland and Wales are relatively evenly matched, but with the pedigree of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney in the backroom engine, Wales will have to work hard and Leigh Halfpenny will have a very busy afternoon as Kearney and Sexton provide him with a continuous aerial bombardment. Meanwhile the new Irish centrefield pairing of Henshaw and Payne continues to gel and Henshaw in particular is rapidly proving that Ireland’s concerns about the lack of a Brian O’Driscoll at centre is not quite the end of the world. As I have said, Henshaw is not and never will be O’Driscoll Mk II, they are very different players but as evidenced so far this tournament Ireland are adapting well to the skill set Henshaw gives them and are using it increasingly effectively. Meanwhile Simon Zebo on the wing is becoming much better at answering his defensive critics and when given quick ball and space to work with the guy has got pace – there is no question about it. However, Wales also have their strengths here even though George North perhaps has not had his best tournament on the wing for Wales. Nevertheless, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams have both proved that they are hungry for tries and have the results to show for it.
In short, as essentially two full strength sides match up against each other in a do or die match, I have a hunch we are perhaps in for the game of the tournament. When both of these teams get to play the game they want to play they have plenty of exciting rugby to offer, even though we have perhaps seen it less from the more cautious but devastatingly effective Irish. If you look at how these two teams match up for a potentially fast paced running game of rugby the odds are actually very good as they are relatively equal in strengths man for man. Ultimately though, I think Ireland will just out think the Welsh at the end of the day, and under such circumstances we have seen Wales cave in the last ten minutes. An exciting game in prospect for any rugby fan with huge amounts at stake for both sides. If I was to hedge my bets though despite me getting every prediction wrong for Round 3, I am going with Ireland taking this one by five points and a close contest all the way to the end.
England vs Scotland
Saturday, March 14th
The annual Calcutta Cup dustup between these two sees England at home at Twickenham and excited at the prospect of the return to the fold of the mighty Courtney Lawes. Meanwhile, Mike Brown returns at fullback despite him not necessarily having been one of the form men for England this tournament and I was surprised to see Alex Goode who filled this position against Ireland and who was one of the standout English players of the match not even getting a spot on the bench. Whether or not this indicates that England are feeling rather optimistic about this outing against Scotland remains to be seen. Many seem puzzled at times by English coach Stuart Lancaster’s selections, nevertheless despite the hiccough in Dublin, one would assume there is a master plan here.
Scotland come to this match with their Six Nations campaign all but over, and only some pride left to salvage. For many this has been a rough couple of weeks for the Scots as they came to the tournament with so much to offer and sadly despite some flashes of brilliance and some exceptional performances from fullback Stuart Hogg, there is little to show for all this promise. In a big pressure cooker match like this, expect to see the Achilles heel of Scottish rugby at the moment – discipline – trip them up on numerous occasions. England know this and their big forward pack will seek to force the Scots into one disciplinary mistake after another as Scottish frustration mounts.
Scotland’s main threats will come in the form of Johnny Gray and Blair Cowan being expected to cause England some grief, and Laidlaw’s boot to get the Scots out of trouble. Other than that apart from Stuart Hogg at fullback there is not too much of a threat for England to contain on Saturday. Saturday sees the return of Finn Russell for Scotland at fly half and although he has impressed at times his inexperience at this level will be evident for all to see when matched up against the continuing improvements and growing maturity of England’s George Ford.
Given Scotland’s defensive discipline problems expect to see some good running rugby with England’s danger man Jonathan Joseph leading the charge. If Scotland’s Johnny Gray and Blair Cowan can gain some good forward ball, and Laidlaw provide some quick offloads then we can all hope to see Scotland’s Stuart Hogg weave his magic as a Scottish reply to England’s running game. However, when it is all said and done, England should easily overpower Scotland in front of the Twickenham faithful. With the likes of Stuart Hogg on the park, it is unlikely to be a runaway scoreline for England and we should benefit from a few more tries in the match than we have seen in the general run of play so far in the Six Nations. Unless Ireland come seriously unstuck in Cardiff, England should easily remain well and truly in the hunt for Six Nations silverware by the final whistle.
Italy vs France
Sunday, March 15th
The last fixture of the weekend, sees Italy at home and brimming with confidence after their away win against Scotland. The result will hopefully be another epic arm wrestle in Rome as the Azurri take on yet another rendition of a French team struggling to find some consistency. France go to Rome once again with coach Phillipe Saint-Andre chopping and changing, leading many to wonder if come the World Cup any French players will ever have played more than one game together.
One weak link in Italy’s armor has been the kicking duties performed by their New Zealand import at flyhalf, who quite frankly has failed to impress me all tournament. Kelly Haimona had a truly awful outing at Murrayfield, and there was a big sigh of relief as he was replaced by Tommaso Allan who restored some semblance of order to the position. With neither of these two available for duty this weekend due to injury scares, the task has fallen to Luciano Orquera who was instrumental in Italy’s impressive win against France in the Six Nations in Rome two years ago. Although his goal kicking can sometimes be hit and miss (although I doubt it can be any worse than Haimona’s), he is better with opportunistic kicks into space than his Kiwi rival. Although he has the odd shocker and his club team Zebre’s woeful performance in Europe would lead us to believe that not much will change for Italy in terms of their kicking game on Sunday, I must confess that whenever I have seen him in an Italian shirt Orquera seems to find another gear and has put in some stellar performances. Let’s face it, with France’s Camille Lopez demonstrating some very sloppy footwork against Wales a fortnight ago, perhaps Italy shouldn’t feel too despondent in this area.
As of writing this, the Italian team had not been announced, coach Jacques Brunel obviously keeping his cards close to his chest. What we should expect to see is essentially the same team that beat Scotland, led as always by Captain extraordinaire Sergio Parisse who in front of a home crowd will no doubt spur his teammates onto even greater heights than we saw at Murrayfield. Some say that passion is fleeting and has no place on a rugby field, but after watching Parisse in this tournament I beg to differ. The man is so inspirational in the way he keeps that passion alive for the full eighty minutes that I imagine quite a few of us would probably lace up a pair of boots and run onto the pitch if he asked us to, even if we weren’t Italian. Italy’s back line has shown that they can score tries as well as think quickly, even if the finesse required is lacking at times. Meanwhile their forwards have been consistent and superb in defence and certainly in Scotland tightened up their discipline. In short this is not a bad Italian side – France in their current state should feel more than a little concerned.
As for the French, most of us are left scratching our heads as coach Saint-Andre makes some rather outlandish and very demoralising statements to the press about his players, while at the same time accepting no responsibility himself. If you were a French player I imagine you would not be feeling all that motivated right now. One of two things will happen in Rome on Sunday. The first is that a written off French outfit will come storming out of the blocks and prove that they are still the world’s most dangerous underdogs as they seek to play as a French team of old despite the current coaching regime. The second and in my opinion more likely scenario is that faced with a stable and established Italian side who have come to really believe in themselves in the last two weeks, France will struggle to execute a coherent game plan as 22 players suddenly thrown together try to figure out how to play away from home in front of a hysterical Italian crowd.
As always with these two teams, the score will be close, but I can’t help feeling that at home Italy will ultimately emerge the victor. I am not sure that given the frustration levels and animosity in the French camp between players and coaching staff, anything other than the French team making the statement that it is time for Saint-Andre to move on will be made, much to Italy’s advantage on the day. While I doubt that the French will let the Italians walk all over them, there are issues in this French team that are larger than the 80 minutes of rugby we will see on Sunday. Either way I doubt this is going to be a boring game and one which will leave us all with much to think about.