After an intriguing opening weekend of Six Nations Rugby we should start to get an idea of where the six competitors really stand as the second round of the tournament gets underway this Saturday. After being written off by many post the World Cup, Ireland surprised everyone including perhaps themselves by playing their part in last weekend’s most gripping encounter as they held tournament favourites Wales to a gruelling draw in Dublin. Although having to settle for a draw, Wales continued to show the incredible grit and depth they possess as they fought their way back from a 13-0 deficit and the loss of key play maker fly half Dan Biggar. Meanwhile, the tournament started in Paris as Italy sought to defy all the odds and produced one of their most memorable performances of the last ten years. Italy were to fall cruelly short of an epic upset, but this was clearly a side with a point to prove which they proceeded to do emphatically for a full eighty minutes. France on the other hand looked extremely promising at times but still didn’t quite gel in the way necessary to erase the painful memories of the World Cup. Nevertheless, Les Bleus looked increasingly more composed as the match wore on as they eked out a desperate win, and are surely only going to get better with every outing. Lastly, the mostly eagerly anticipated match of the weekend enabled us to have a good look at England under new Coach Eddie Jones. While there was a degree of predictability to England’s performance it still looked far more assured and structured than what we saw in the World Cup. Controversial English Captain Dylan Hartley rose well to the challenge of a very emotionally charged encounter and led his charges to a solid if not spectacular win as England sought to move on from the nightmare of the World Cup. Lastly Scotland looked as always exceptionally exciting and always a threat, but poor execution and decision making ultimately left us with the impression of different day same old problems.
This weekend should hopefully see the tournament open up and build towards a finale of last year’s epic proportions. France and England claim a shaky position at the top of the table with England arguably having the easiest route to hanging on to the top dog position as they face an exceptionally fired up Italy in Rome. England should get the better of the Azurri, but in Rome and with Captain Extraordinary, Sergio Parisse, leading the Italian charge, there are simply no certainties for England and any kind of complacency could see them slipping on a giant blue banana peel. The same could apply for the Welsh against a Scottish side still trying to figure out what they need to really harness the wealth of obvious potential they possess. Wales at home based on their form in their clash with Ireland must surely be the favorites, but Scotland pose an intriguing threat. Once more Wales epic defensive structures should ensure that whatever threat the Scottish attack poses it will be neutralized. However, any sense of complacency or lack of focus could be disastrous given the clear quality of the Scottish attacking threat especially if the Scots tidy up their execution and decision making. The weekend kicks off with Ireland travelling to Paris to take on a French team and Coach with everything to prove. Ireland turned all the predictions going into this tournament upside down as their B side held a Welsh A side to an enthralling draw. With some key Irish players coming back into the squad for the clash with France, if Ireland play with the kind of ferocity and cohesion they showed last weekend, it could be a long afternoon for France. All of a sudden Ireland find themselves in the position of being favorites as they prepare to take on France as the underdogs in their own Parisian backyard.
Fixtures this weekend
France vs Ireland
Saturday, February 13th
After Ireland’s heroic efforts in Dublin last Sunday and despite the quick turnaround and travel to this match, many are predicting that fortune may favor the Irish in Paris this Saturday. After the titanic struggle that took place in Dublin, we here at the Lineout have to concur that Ireland look remarkably well placed for this fixture. France are looking good with ball in hand as evidenced by their display against Italy and if they can sort out the kicking duties then they should pose a significant challenge for the Men in Green. However, we can’t help feeling that Ireland may well just squeak a win on Saturday. It won’t be easy but Ireland unlike France have a settled and shrewd Coach in Joe Schmidt who has the ability to work wonders with limited resources. France on the other hand have a new, albeit capable Coach in former Toulouse boss Guy Noves but one who is still finding his feet on only his second outing in charge of Les Bleus.
On a day where the conditions are likely to be less than perfect for expansive running rugby, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is most likely to go with a tried and tested squad for the most part who know how to make the most of a challenging weather day. After watching France’s opener against Italy, you can’t help get the feeling that Schmidt is likely to have the tactical edge over Noves with a group of players who for the most part are fine tuned to produce the kind of game he wants. Noves will not have the same luxury and I must confess to being surprised at the number of changes he made to a side that struggled at times against Italy but still showed plenty of enterprise especially in attack. French supporters must surely be looking at his selections and having flashes of déjà vu to the Saint-Andre era. I doubt this is the case but am sure French supporters are feeling just slightly nervous as to what Noves may or may not be trying to do. France’s single biggest problem to date has been continuity and this needs to be addressed quickly in this Six Nations, to the point where with three games to go after this Saturday, France will desperately need to have found a settled side.
In the forwards, I must confess to being really surprised at the wholesale changes Noves has made to the front row. While not exactly dominant against Italy last week, Arous and Slimani are still the most likely way forward for France in the future. I must admit to having been impressed by prop Uini Antonio and he adds some significant weight and grunt factor to the French pack. Antonio will make life exceptionally difficult for Ireland’s Jack McGrath in the scrum, but after the Irishman’s solid performance last week I feel he will cope with the challenge in Ireland’s favour. Captain and Rory Best goes head to head at hooker with his opposite number and French Captain Guilhem Guirado. Of the two, Best although new in the Captaincy role has a better knowledge and understanding of his charges than Guirado and as a result should ensure that Ireland win the battle of the front rows and lineouts. Nevertheless, Arous and Slimani are waiting on France’s bench and if Noves initial experiment in the front row doesn’t quite bear fruit expect them to come to the rescue. In the battle of the locks I am expecting Ireland to just edge out France, as Devin Toner seems to have found his feet again in an Irish jersey alongside Mike McCarthy who put in some solid work last weekend against Wales. For me Yoann Maestri didn’t quite fire in France’s lineouts last weekend and it will be interesting to see if working alongside Alexandre Flanquart, the pair can provide better stability for France in both the scrums and lineouts. In the back row battle, I just can’t see France getting past Ireland. CJ Stander was outstanding on his debut for Ireland last weekend and the return of Sean O’Brien is eagerly anticipated by many Irish supporters. Jamie Heaslip put in a huge and highly effective effort last weekend against Wales and expect to see more of the same and with flanker Tommy O’Donnell waiting on the bench, this aspect of Ireland’s game plan looks in much more capable hands than France and should see Ireland dominate at the breakdowns. France will miss Louis Picamoles at eight and while Damien Chouly had a solid game last weekend he will be put to the test playing in Picamoles place at eight and I simply can’t see the French back row partnership of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret besting their Irish counterparts.
In the halfback contests, the upper hand surely has to go once more to Ireland. The seasoned pairing of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray is a vastly more experienced unit than France’s Sebastien Bezy and Jules Plisson. Sexton seems to have found the form that has deserted him at club level this year and the same seems true for Conor Murray. Jules Plisson is an impressive talent for France at number 10, but he just doesn’t have the wisdom and experience of Sexton. Although promising, Sebastien Bezy I felt had a poor game last weekend against Italy and we won’t mention his truly woeful kicking performance. France surely will be giving those duties to Plisson for the entirety of this match. Either way Ireland’s offering in this department should comfortably outclass what France is putting on the table.
In the backs the contest starts to even out a bit more. Ireland’s centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw is for me a more effective unit than France’s Jonathan Danty and Maxime Mermoz. However, both these French players, Danty in particular have some dazzling skills. Certainly in the case of Danty these were very much in evidence last Saturday against Italy. Danty is clearly going to be a very big part of France’s new lease of life under Coach Guy Noves. Mermoz also boasts plenty of flair but as a relatively untested combination I can’t help feeling that the more established Irish partnership is likely to be more effective and ensure Irish dominance of the centre channels. On the wings however, it is another story and the two sides are likely to be evenly matched all afternoon. Ireland’s Andrew Trimble is going to have his hands full, as will most of the Irish squad, all afternoon trying to contain France’s Virimi Vakatawa. This outstanding French winger made a seamless transition from the Sevens game to 15 a side Test Rugby last weekend and was simply everywhere. A major headache for any defence to contain, Ireland are going to have to be exceptionally vigilant in ensuring Vakatawa gets very little access to the ball especially in space. However, on the other wing, despite his speed French winger Teddy Thomas simply does not have the power and defensive abilities of Vakatawa and as a result he is going to have his work cut out for him against Ireland’s Dave Kearney. While the Irishman’s form has been somewhat erratic of late, he has been key in the few performances where his club Leinster have sought to arrest their downward slide in European club competitions this year.
Lastly at fullback I am going to give France the nod over Ireland. Although perhaps not the best defensive player, France’s Maxime Medard has plenty of flair and when on form is an exceptionally difficult player to contain as we saw last week against Italy. Ireland’s Rob Kearney has a superb reputation but has sadly not had the form necessary to justify it in the last year. Although good under the high ball, he has looked rather predictable and slightly pedestrian at times recently, whereas these are not labels that could be applied to Medard. We all know what Kearney is capable of but at the moment are seeing very little evidence of it, so am giving the fullback contest to France and Medard’s potential element of surprise in attack.
In short, the balance sheet would seem to stack up in Ireland’s favour. With an established and tactically astute Coach who knows exactly what to expect from his charges, Ireland will clearly have the benefit of experience on Saturday in Paris. French Coach Noves is still getting to know his players and how they operate as a unit and as a result is still developing the platforms and combinations necessary to restore some much needed success to French rugby. At times last week, although exciting France did look as though they were only marginally more cognizant of a game plan than they were under Philippe Saint-Andre. I am confident that France are going to address a lot of the issues plaguing the side in the last four years, but it is probably unlikely that we will see results much before the end of this Six Nations tournament. Ireland on the other hand surprised us all against Wales, but perhaps we really shouldn’t have been so taken aback. Irish rugby is certainly healthy and despite the disappointment of the World Cup I don’t really think any alarm bells are ringing. Ireland came bouncing back last weekend and expect them to do the same again this Saturday. As a result, I’m sticking my neck out and giving this match to Ireland, in a tight contest by 5 points.
Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, February 13th
If anyone thinks Scotland are a pushover after their disappointing performance at times against England last weekend, they are sorely mistaken. Agreed Scotland has heaps of potential but also serious issues when it comes to realizing that potential in terms of execution and decision making, but I still hold that this is a good team. The will is there along with the ability, they just need to be a bit more diligent in their preparation. Scotland has an excellent Coach in Vern Cotter and one who although frustrated at times, still believes wholeheartedly that this group of individuals can rectify the woes experienced by Scottish rugby in the last ten years. Wales meanwhile have proven time and again what they are capable of and the depth of character they possess – what is needed is the ability to demonstrate this consistently. Having said that though it is hard to see anything other than a Welsh win at home in this fixture. Scotland are likely to provide a stern test, but as we saw from the Welsh last weekend against Ireland, even if Scotland streak ahead Wales’ ability to doggedly claw their way back into a match and turn it around in their favor is quite exceptional.
Despite their ability Scotland’s front row were clearly second best against England last weekend and I can’t see it being much different this weekend against Wales. The Welsh front row is more than a match for Scotland, and Scottish Hooker Ross Ford clearly struggled with the lineouts last weekend against England. The Welsh front row was able to absorb almost everything the Irish could throw at them, whereas the Scottish front row creaked against England. Welsh Hooker Scott Baldwin had a more reliable afternoon throwing to the lineout than Scotland’s Ross Ford. Consequently, unless Scotland has some surprises up their sleeves the front row battle should easily swing in Wales favor. Although Scotland’s Johnny and Richie Gray form an impressive unit, Wales Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn-Jones are in a league of their own. There will be some feisty battles here make no mistake, but with the rampaging figure of Alun Wyn-Jones serving as a mascot to the rest of the Welsh team, Scotland are going to have a hard time keeping up and Wales should comfortably come out on top in the locks department. In the back row, the experience and power of Sam Warburton and the ferocity at the breakdown of Justin Tipuric give Wales a clear advantage here. Tipuric is a master at securing turnover ball for Wales and I expect to see him causing havoc again this Saturday. Scotland have their own powerful combination in John Hardie and John Barclay but the two have neither the experience or finesse of their Welsh counterparts. Scotland do have Blair Cowan on the bench and given his ability at securing good turnover ball for Scotland last year, I am surprised he is not being used more. Lastly David Denton at number eight had a very quiet and rather unproductive afternoon for Scotland against England, and he will really have to up his game if he is to have any chance against Taulupe Faletau who was outstanding for Wales last Sunday against Ireland.
In the halfbacks, Scotland has heaps of potential in the young Finn Russell but his youth and experience often result in poor decision making as evidenced last weekend in his wasting a golden opportunity for Scotland when a try was there for the taking. I like Russell and think he will improve dramatically over the next year or so, but his obvious talent is just a bit too raw at the moment and lacks polish as a result. Scrum half Greg Laidlaw is a solid and talented servant of Scottish rugby but as we saw last week, he tends to err on the side of cautious and conservative slightly too often. I, like many, think that Scotland need to start using Sam Hidalgo-Clyne more often if they genuinely want adventure and risk-taking in the scrum half department and I hope to see him come off the bench sooner rather than later in this match. Compare these two to the Welsh offering of fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Gareth Davies and the shine is clearly on Wales. Biggar is rapidly becoming one of the best fly halves in International rugby whilst Davies crisp service and sniping runs off the backs of his forwards are a potent weapon in the Welsh attack with Davies being no stranger to the try line. Consequently, as much as I like Russell and Laidlaw, for me the Welsh pair are much more likely to orchestrate the killer blows when Wales needs them most than their Scottish counterparts.
It’s in the backs where Scotland has so much potential if they can manage to hang onto the ball in the contact areas. Wales managed a staggering 28 phases in attack at one point last weekend in Dublin, whereas I think the most Scotland managed were 5 or 6. Unless this is fixed the considerable talent of the likes of Scottish center Mark Bennett, winger Tommy Seymour and the exceptional fullback Stuart Hogg will amount to little in the grand scheme of Scottish fortunes. Time and again quality ball got coughed up by Scotland after some superb line breaks from these three last week against England. Wales have class, pedigree and most importantly experience in their centers, wings and fullback. Centers Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are a powerful combination for Wales that most sides will struggle to contain. Winger George North once given the space he is so often denied at club level with Northampton can find gaps in any defense while his partner Tom James made a credible showing in his first outing in a Welsh jersey last weekend. Last but not least in the fullbacks, although Wales’ Liam Williams is a quality player he just doesn’t have the X-factor that Scotland’s Stuart Hogg has in abundance. In the contest of the backs I feel it should be Wales’ day. If Hogg can create opportunities for his teammates and they can keep the momentum he creates going forward Scotland could well have the edge over Wales here. However, as mentioned above without the finesse needed in execution Scotland are going to struggle to get past the more settled and experienced Welsh backs.
In short, it should be a challenging but ultimately successful afternoon for Wales. They will surely have settled after their epic tussle with Ireland last weekend, and in front of a home crowd in full voice they will want to put their bid for top honors in this Six Nations on an exceptionally sound footing. Scotland will make them work hard for it and I for one believe that we are likely to see a vastly improved Scottish performance from last weekend. However, Wales after last Sunday are in our opinion still likely to end up being the team to beat, and to try and beat them at home is likely to prove impossible. Therefore, in a match that should live up to its billing as a highly entertaining contest, we still expect to see Wales take the spoils by 7 points!
Italy vs England
Sunday, February 14th
The days of an easy win in Rome are long gone and if Italy play like they did last weekend in Paris, England will be right to treat this match as a giant banana skin waiting to upset their tournament aspirations should they take the challenge put forward by Italy with anything less than 100% commitment. While both sides can be pleased with their performances last weekend, there can be no doubt that England look to be in a stronger position going into this match in terms of the basics. Italy were inspirational last week but lacked some key finishing touches that England had clearly mastered. England will not be caught napping as France were, especially in the battle of the forwards. This is a seasoned English pack up against a feisty and talented Italian outfit but one which ultimately lacks the experience and composure of their English counterparts. As always with Sergio Parisse directing Italy’s efforts anything is possible for the Azurri especially at home, but England is probably too much of a lofty target. England will need to build on the solid forward effort they put together at Murrayfield last week, and the focus this week should really be to get the back line firing. The relationship between the English halfbacks, George Ford and Ben Youngs, and center Owen Farrell will be the essential key here. If it clicks England could prove deadly both out wide and through the inside channels.
The Italian new look front row proved to be a formidable unit in Paris last weekend and certainly found the measure of their vaunted French counterparts. Buoyed by that performance I fully expect them to match up to England’s front row contingent this Sunday, especially in front of a home crowd. Mako Vunipola comes into the front row in place of Joe Marler who did little to impress last week in Scotland while Vunipola had a barnstormer of a game from the minute he came off the bench. Dylan Hartley on his first outing as Captain performed admirably and certainly from a discipline perspective silenced his critics. Meanwhile, Dan Cole was solid and reliable in ensuring that England had clear dominance come scrum time. Despite Italy’s ability to match the French up front they are likely to struggle a bit more with England’s more experienced unit. As a result, as they did last weekend, England should clearly have the ascendancy in the front row. In the locks England’s Courtney Lawes and George Kruis are pure pedigree and are going to make life exceptionally hard for Italy especially in the lineouts. This should ensure that England gets some solid possession and turnover ball as well as huge hits being the stock and trade of the English defense. In the locks though I feel that Italy could really spark some surprises. Italian lock Francesco Minto was one of Italy’s standout players in Paris and alongside Alessandro Zanni these two should be able to match anything that Chris Robshaw and James Haskell can throw at them, while at the same time creating some great opportunities for Italy. Lastly the battle between Italian Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse and England’s Billy Vunipola is the stuff of rugby fantasy leagues. Given the fact that Parisse will be also managing his young and exuberant charges, a distraction that the rampaging Billy Vunipola will not have, I am just giving the edge to the English number 8 – still what a contest awaits!
In the halfbacks, most English supporters must be breathing a sigh of relief to see half back George Ford reunited with his normal partner Ben Youngs at scrum half. I was very surprised to not see the two of them playing together last weekend given that George Ford is struggling to find form and the confidence that goes with it. The familiarity of Ben Youngs alongside him should really settle George Ford and really start to see him take greater authority over England’s game management than he did against Scotland. Italy’s Carlo Canna was a real revelation in Paris last weekend and I fully expect him to live up to the hype surrounding his role in the match this weekend. Still he is still on a steep learning curve, albeit one he is adapting to remarkably well and quickly, but this lack of experience can’t really compete with what England has to offer. A spirited and courageous performance from the young Italian fly half is to be expected with flashes of brilliance, however Sunday should be another valuable lesson in this promising Italian’s development for the future. Meanwhile, Eduardo Gori is proving to be a feisty and increasingly capable scrum half, but given Ben Youngs form at Leicester this season it will be hard for the Italian to go toe to toe with the Englishman. If Ford really clicks then Italy is going to have a very hard afternoon second guessing England’s moves, and England’s game management should ultimately be streets ahead of Italy’s.
In the backs, both sides have proved they have plenty of pace and attacking skill. Italy’s center pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro acquitted themselves exceptionally well in Paris. However, the sheer experience and game management skills of their English counterparts in the shape of Owen Farrell coupled alongside Jonathan Joseph should see the English midfield create more structured chances than Italy’s exuberant opportunism. On the wings, although relatively quiet in Scotland, Anthony Watson is a proven attacking threat provided he is given the space he needs. His opposite number Jack Nowell by contrast had a very high profile game against the Scots and has the ability to often create his own chances. Given the prowess of these two if they are really let loose they should get the better of Italy’s Leonardo Sarto, no slacker in his own right, and Mattia Bellini. Sarto is an impressive unit and when provided with quality ball he is a hard man to stop. However, he also missed a few key opportunities in Paris mainly through poor service from his colleagues, but his execution under pressure is not as assured as England’s Nowell and Mattia Bellini is still too much of an unknown quantity. Mike Brown as England’s last line of defense was busy last weekend and is usually in the thick of everything England does as he ferrets away at defenses, however he never really got the opportunity to cut loose last weekend and it will be interesting to see if he is afforded the chance to do so this weekend in Rome. Italy’s Luke McLean is a reliable fullback but doesn’t have the defensive abrasiveness his English counterpart has, plus his kicking game often leaves much to be desired. It should be Mike Brown’s afternoon in this department for England on Sunday.
In short, this will be a game worth watching for supporters and neutrals alike. It should show us a more rounded new look England than what we saw against Scotland. Meanwhile Italy, if they play with as much passion and skill as they did last weekend, will provide plenty of entertainment and give their supporters some real optimism for the future. Ultimately though this is England’s game to lose, and as a result the Men in White should make it two from two by 12 points. Italy may run them hard for the first hour but once England’s vastly superior bench starts making its impact then they should easily put the game out of sight. England’s bench, boasting the likes of Joe Launchbury among others, is exceptionally strong whereas we know little about Italy’s substitutes. England also will be calling off the bench a highly anticipated debutant in the shape of Saracens flanker Maro Itoje. I for one am really looking forward to seeing Itoje in action, and personally think if he puts in a good performance he may well get a starting spot against Ireland in a fortnight. If Itoje can shrug off all the justified hype surrounding his appearance in an England shirt, and I think he will, he could well be one of the real revelations of the tournament. The evidence is there for all to see at club level, and if Itoje can deal with the weight of expectation on his young shoulders, he is likely to be the beacon of what a new England could ultimately look like. We wish him well!