A slight departure from the norm here for the Lineout, as family and work pressures over the last week have left little time to watch as much rugby as I would have liked. So no match reports from last week and just previews of this weekend’s fixtures with reference obviously to the two games last weekend.
This is a big weekend for the Six Nations countries as they all have one final match before the World Cup starts in a fortnight. In an epic clash at Twickenham, Ireland line up against England who are desperate to rectify the dismal performance of a fortnight ago in France. For the vast majority of Irish supporters, a win would be a great confidence booster but perhaps of more importance is emerging from this game with all their star players fit and injury-free. Meanwhile, Scotland and France do battle in Paris with both sides brimming with confidence after their previous two outings against Italy and England respectively. Scotland in particular have got better and better with each warm-up game and with both sides fielding very strong line-ups it should be a great contest. Lastly, Italy take on Wales in Cardiff and will be looking to find some inspiration after a fairly dismal series of warm-up games against Scotland as well as being boosted by the return of their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse. Wales on the other hand will be seeking to make a statement as they field essentially the same side that dispatched Ireland last weekend, but for many Welsh supporters the concern will surely be to avoid injury against an often ill-disciplined Italian side. As a result many supporters have questioned the decision by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland to use so many of his World Cup starting XV players for a game Wales should win comfortably.
Fixtures this weekend
England vs Ireland
Saturday, September 5th
The weekend starts off with a game that many are eagerly anticipating but if you’re like me, also slightly dreading. While it is important for both sides to get a result, and in many ways probably more so for England, the game has been so hyped up that both coaches seem to be urging their teams to put in the type of performance akin to a Six Nations decider. While this may produce some great rugby for the spectators I can’t help feeling concerned that if both sides really go hammer and tongs at each other there is a definite danger of an unnecessary injury count which could prove seriously detrimental to both sides’ World Cup chances so close to the start of the global showdown in a fortnight. Therefore if you’re like me you’ll probably be breathing a lot easier if the medics have little to do on Saturday.
For England there are essentially only a few changes to the side that got eaten alive by the French in Paris a fortnight ago. The main exception being Brad Barritt coming in at centre and Anthony Watson coming back onto the wing. The halfback pairing of Ford/Young remains the same and the much vaunted English pack, which was completely overpowered for much of the match against France, remains unchanged with the exception of Ben Morgan coming in at number eight, Geoff Parling replacing Joe Launchbury at lock and James Haskell being replaced by Tom Wood at flanker. The front row remains unchanged from the game against France, and Coach Stuart Lancaster will be keen to see a real improvement from his front three as they were completely outclassed in the scrum and in the lineouts. English supporters should be happy to see the return of Ben Morgan at number eight for a game which seems to have so much significance to England’s World Cup preparations. However, Morgan has only just returned from injury and if this game proves to be as physical as some are predicting there will be concerns in this area regarding Morgan. For me he has so much more to offer England in the eight jersey than Billy Vunipola and I really hope for his sake and England’s that he emerges with a clean bill of health from this match.
For Ireland, they are also fielding for all intents and purposes, with one or two key omissions, their starting XV for the World Cup and just like England will be praying that the medics have a quiet afternoon at Twickenham. The back row sees significant change from the game against Wales, with Simon Zebo replacing first choice fullback Rob Kearney. This will be the ultimate test for Zebo in terms of his defensive skills. While brilliant on the counter attack he has often been cited for poor coverage in defence especially in the fullback position and with the likes of Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Johnny May coming at him all afternoon, Zebo is going to have his work cut out for him. Furthermore England flyhalf George Ford will probably be testing him under the high ball on a regular basis as well. On the wings Ireland return to the traditional strengths of Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney, while the centerfield sees the return of Six Nations pair Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne. Ireland’s world-class halfback pairing of Sexton and Murray returns and despite some rustiness on the part of Sexton in the game against Wales last weekend, by the end of it these two were once again starting to click nicely. Irish supporters’ biggest concern will be Sexton’s willingness to put his body on the line especially against such an old rival as England and given his crucial importance to Ireland’s World Cup aspirations, an injury to Sexton at this stage in Ireland’s preparations could be catastrophic!
Ireland’s forward pack is to a letter the eight gentlemen we expect to see starting for Ireland in the World Cup and this obviously reflects Ireland’s ambition to attack any weaknesses in England’s pack as evidenced in the game against France in Paris a fortnight ago. If Ireland keep their discipline, they should be able to push England around up front in much the same way as the French did. If England have not fixed their problems in the scrum and even more critically their issues in the lineout then this Irish forward pack could make it a very long and frustrating afternoon at Twickenham for the Men in White.
In short, if Ireland play well but conservatively in order to avoid injuries then England should just edge this game in front of a Twickenham crowd who will demand a big performance from the home team in their last outing before the World Cup. As an Irish supporter, my fear is that Ireland end up going hammer and tongs against England in a match that is ultimately still a sideshow to the main event in a fortnight and pick up a raft of unnecessary injuries. England will have the same concerns but in front of their home crowd may just have to throw caution to the wind that much more. It surely will be a fascinating and entertaining game but the question on everyone’s lips is at what cost? If you’re like me you will be eagerly anticipating the final whistle in this match and as long as a good performance has been put in by all, won’t be overly concerned about the result, particularly if the medics have had a holiday. Nevertheless, England by 5!
France vs Scotland
Saturday, September 5th
Another really intriguing contest here. France have suddenly found some structure at just the right time, while Scotland are getting better with every outing. This should be a really good game, though much like the game at Twickenham, Scottish and French supporters will be hoping that both sides stay clear of injury.
France looked good against England a fortnight ago in Paris – really good! If they bring that kind of intensity to the World Cup then once again the tag of dark horse, as it seems to every World Cup, will surely be theirs. The French forward pack that effectively ate their English counterparts a fortnight ago in Paris for breakfast, lunch and dinner essentially remains unchanged. However, of the two changes made, Alexandre Flanquart at lock and Thierry Dusatoir at flanker, it is the latter that is the big talking point. Dusatoir’s return as Captain will only add some extra power and inspiration to an already impressive French forward effort. The Scots will be very hard pressed to contain this pack of heavyweights, and with Dusatoir and Picamoles being exceptionally effective in the loose it will be a real test of Scotland’s defenses and skills at the breakdown. The halfback pairing of Frederic Michalak and Sébastien Tillous-Borde remains unchanged and if Michalak maintains his composure and form of a fortnight ago Scotland will have to maintain their discipline at all times. Meanwhile, I was really impressed with Tillous-Borde in the game against England and he should continue to maintain the intensity generated by France’s forwards as seen a fortnight ago in Paris. In the backs France remain unchanged from the game against England and expect plenty of fireworks from Huget, Nakaitaci and Fofana, while one man wrecking ball Bastareaud wreaks havoc in centerfield. Lastly at fullback Scott Spedding was superb against England and adds a very powerful long-range boot to France’s counterattacks and goal kicking duties.
Scotland are fielding a side that seems to take into account the kind of game they are expecting France to play. The only notable exception for me is Stuart Hogg being left out at fullback. However, by the same token he is one of Scotland’s wonder weapons for the World Cup and I can understand them wanting to rest him for the main event. Nevertheless, there is enough physicality in the Scottish back line, particularly in the form of Tim Visser and Matt Scott that they should be able to put up some solid resistance to whatever dashes of French flair they may get to see on Saturday. The return of both Gray brothers to the forward pack gives Scotland plenty of opportunity to compete at the breakdown and the contest between prop Alasdair Dickinson and his French opposite number Eddy Ben Arous should be one of the game’s most interesting head to heads. The big talking point in Scotland this week has been the omission from Scotland’s World Cup squad of flanker Blair Cowan who has been instrumental in getting Scotland turnover ball in the last year. His replacement John Hardie, a controversial choice for many will certainly feel under the spotlight on Saturday, and as good as he is, really will have a point to prove to justify him getting the call up over Cowan – a decision I can’t help feeling Scotland may end up regretting come the World Cup.
In short, this is a capable and competitive Scottish side, but if the French show any of the form of a fortnight ago and with Thierry Dusatoir leading them on, this should be France’s day in Paris. Barring any key injuries, it should be a fast flowing and potentially exciting game, but France at home should come away the winners by 10 points!
Wales vs Italy
Saturday, September 5th
In short, the only surprising aspect about this game is the fact that Welsh coach Warren Gatland has chosen such a strong side for a game Wales should win comfortably. This is said in no disrespect to Italy who field a strong team, boosted by the return of their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse. However, in their two warm-ups against Scotland, Italy have looked weak and could struggle to clinch anything more than third spot in their pool when the World Cup starts in a fortnight.
Wales on the other hand, looked very good against Ireland last weekend, and although the Irish put them under serious pressure at the end of the game in the rain in Dublin, they were clinically well organised in defence so that just as in the Six Nations Ireland were ultimately unable to find their way through. Leigh Halfpenny at fullback is probably one of, if not the best fullbacks in the world right now, and Justin Tipuric at flanker had a devastating game for the Welsh against Ireland. Tipuric for me has been one of the real standout forwards of these warm-up games along with Iain Henderson of Ireland and Louis Picamoles of France.
Leigh Halfpenny’s game saving move on Sean Cronin’s last gasp crossing of the Welsh line at the death for Ireland, showed the fullback’s vast experience under pressure and helped ensure that Wales would hang on to an edgy win in Dublin. I doubt he will be required to provide the same amount of heroism this weekend in Cardiff, and as is the case for all the supporters this weekend, the Welsh will be hoping that this last burst of game time before the big event will not result in any injuries to such a key player. Justin Tipuric having proved his worth ten times over during the course of August, gets the luxury of the weekend off and in his place Sam Warburton will be looking to make sure he gets as much starting time as Tipuric come the middle of September.
As mentioned above for all intents and purposes it is a full strength Welsh side barring a few omissions taking on what is likely to be Italy’s starting XV come the World Cup. I doubt very much that Italy will be as poor as they have been in August and they are fielding a team with plenty of talent but perhaps a bit short on organisation and finishing. They will be competitive make no mistake and Captain Sergio Parisse should help them find a lot of the finesse and inspiration that was lacking in their previous two outings, but the Welsh team they are up against simply has too much class and experience and is already tipped as a possible quarter finalist come the World Cup. Italy will look to put in a strong performance that might serve to make the French nervous should they be unable to repeat their form against England when they take on Scotland this weekend. Nevertheless Wales should take this match comfortably and barring any injuries to key players, emerge the winners by at least 10 points!