In this weekend’s third round of the Six Nations, England and Wales seek to consolidate their position as the two contenders for top honors in this year’s competition. Meanwhile France get their first proper test of the tournament and we get to see how much the massive underdog label suits Ireland at Twickenham. Lastly the two traditional competitors for the Wooden Spoon, Italy and Scotland do battle in Rome.
England clearly have it all to prove in their sternest test to date under new Coach Eddie Jones in front of a Twickenham crowd demanding excellence at the highest level. Ireland, partly as a result of injury, are forced into playing at long last some of their promising provincial up and coming talent, most noticeably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey. Despite wearing the underdog’s shirt, it’s still a solid looking Irish side which under Coach Joe Schmidt is more than capable of upsetting the English band wagon, even at Fortress Twickenham. Meanwhile in Cardiff a Welsh side that needs no introduction takes on a French team that is finally looking like it is settling and has the potential to enable French rugby to finally rise from the ashes of the last four years. Wales although put through their paces in no uncertain terms by a feisty Scottish side two weeks ago still showed that they have a remarkable ability to regroup and turn a game around when it matters most and this Saturday should be no exception. In Rome, Scotland have it all to do and finally prove that the clear potential they keep displaying is now more than just that with an emphatic win over the side that gave them the Wooden Spoon last year. This is a Scottish team boasting some serious talent and in the game against Wales their execution and decision-making was finally starting to show some of the finesse and polish it so desperately needs. For Italy, home advantage and the rampaging form of Captain Sergio Parisse will as always provide them with more than enough inspiration. Italy have looked extremely good at times this tournament with some superb emerging talent. However, a number of injuries to key players for this weekend’s fixture may cause them to come unstuck against a full-strength and highly motivated Scottish side desperate for a win.
Wales vs France
Friday, February 26th
Wales will be wanting to seal an emphatic win on Friday in Cardiff to really prepare them for a tough assignment away against England in a fortnight’s time at Twickenham. Although they got the run around from Scotland a fortnight ago, the character and composure in Wales at the moment ensured that they never really looked as if they felt the game was slipping away from them – stirred but definitely not shaken! France meanwhile look like they are finally starting to settle as Coach Guy Noves in only his third outing appears to have the nucleus of the squad he wants to work with this year. That stability and consistency is an ingredient French rugby has lacked for far too long. Admittedly there is still some tweaking going on, but for the most part we have a much better idea of the type of France that will turn up in Cardiff and for the rest of the tournament than we ever did under Noves’ predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre.
France have chosen to try and replicate the front row that rescued France against Ireland a fortnight ago with Captain and Hooker Gulheim Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani, but without Eddy Ben Arous they will be hard put to match up to Wales here. Arous is unavailable for this game and in his place is Jefferson Poirot, who did little to impress against Ireland a fortnight ago. The minute he was replaced by Arous in that match, France’s fortunes in the front row improved dramatically. Given a solid and experienced Welsh front row boasting the likes of Samson Lee and the more than capable young talent of Rob Evans, Wales should easily dominate the war of the front rows. In the locks it is more of an even contest especially as Wales are without Luke Charteris who has had an outstanding tournament so far. However, with the talismanic figure of Alun Wyn-Jones bludgeoning his way through the forwards and towering over the lineouts, Wales should have the edge over France here. However, I do like the look of France’s new second row partnership and definitely think there is a sound platform here for the future in the shape of Alexandre Flanquart and Paul Jedrasiak and these two will certainly provide plenty of problems for their Welsh counterparts on Friday. In the back row, Wales should have the edge here with Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate being tireless workhorses for Wales with some seemingly indestructible physicality. If Lydiate can’t cope, then Welsh superman Justin Tipuric is waiting on the bench to add to French nightmares. France’s Wenceslas Lauret is getting better with every outing, and Antoine Burban is a quality player, but for me they just don’t have the pedigree of their Welsh opposite numbers. Lastly in the number eights, Taulupe Faletau is playing out of his skin for Wales at the moment, and Damien Chouly although no slacker for France just doesn’t have that same intensity. As a result, up front I expect it to be an exceptionally tough day at the office for France with Wales calling all the shots.
In the halfbacks, once more Wales has the edge and then some. French fly half Jules Plisson is a bright prospect for the future but for now he is simply nowhere near the quality of Wales’ Dan Biggar. Meanwhile Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies is simply too quick off the mark and able to cover so much of the park that there shouldn’t be much of a contest here either. The Welsh partnership of Biggar and Davies is now so well-honed under pressure that the French offering of Plisson and the impressive Maxime Machenaud at scrum half should really be no contest despite the talent the French possess here.
In the backs, I don’t regard it such a one-sided contest in Wales’ favour as some pundits are predicting. The French backs are all proven commodities with the exception of winger Djibril Camara. Fullback Maxime Medard is back to his dangerous best, winger Virimi Vakatawa is rapidly proving to have Jonah Lomu like tendencies as defences struggle to bring him down and centre Jonathan Danty has impressed me so far in a French jersey. However, it’s that Welsh partnership of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts both of whom have played in France and have a good idea of what they’re up against that for me should give Wales the edge on Friday coupled with a George North on the wing who appears to be back to his very best. Wales’ proven commodities under pressure should get their side the advantage over some impressive French flair in the contest of the backlines.
In short, it should be another interesting and at times genuinely exciting look at a French side that seems to be emerging quite well from the wreckage of the last four years. There are still many questions to be answered in French rugby over the coming months but there is clear progress and France are well and truly out of the intensive care ward and showing signs of a genuine recovery. Meanwhile Wales just look settled and with a crystal clear idea of what it is they want to do and how to get the job done. It’s this experience and ability to really pull together as a well-oiled machine that is making me give this match to Wales by 12 points!
Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, February 27th
Scotland travel to Rome desperate to seek revenge on a side that has so cruelly ended up leaving them with the Wooden Spoon in the previous year’s tournament. Last year’s loss at the final whistle to Italy at home in Murrayfield was clearly something that Scotland will want to forget as quickly as possible. Scotland’s execution and decision making against Wales a fortnight ago was for the most part superb, and they only really lost it in the final ten minutes. If they can take that kind of intensity and focus into this match, then it is most likely going to cause a spirited Italy all kinds of problems. Italy are certainly buoyed by their performances in this tournament despite coming into this match on the back of two losses. However, injuries to key players especially the up and coming fly halves Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna, mean that Italy despite their best intentions will be hard pressed to get one over a full-strength Scottish side with an axe to grind.
Italy has a ferocious and gritty forward pack and Scotland will have to really up their game from that against Wales to match up to it, especially if Italy keep their discipline. At times especially as the match wore on against Wales, Scotland looked in trouble up front with the scrums and lineouts unravelling quite dramatically at key moments. If Italy can hold their own here for the full eighty minutes Scotland will struggle to release their devastating backs. I’d actually go as far as saying that the front rows are completely evenly matched, but if Scottish prop W P Nel can have a slightly more productive afternoon than he did in Cardiff then Scotland could just get some dominance here as the game wears on. It’s the lock partnership where I don’t really see so much of a competition especially if Hooker Ross Ford can get his lineout throwing for Scotland to work properly unlike a fortnight ago against Wales. The Gray brothers for Scotland are real quality and are more than a match for Italy’s Joshua Furno and Marco Fuser. It’s in the locks where I think it once more becomes a completely level playing field. Francesco Minto and Alessandro Zanni have been absolutely immense for Italy this tournament, but John Hardie and John Barclay have been the same for Scotland with Hardie tackling everything that moves. It’s at number eight where Italy should on paper have the clear edge. Captain Sergio Parisse is a proven force of nature, while Scotland’s David Denton is impressive but was strangely quiet in Cardiff a fortnight ago. Denton will really have to up his game against a Parisse who has more motivation and energy than an entire Roman legion would know what to do with. On form alone the contest is clearly Parisse’s.
In the halfbacks though the day belongs wholeheartedly to Scotland and should be the difference that ensures the Scots are able to dictate the flow of play all afternoon. Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw and Finn Russell are a superb blend of youthful energy and experience. Finn Russell has some exceptional skills and as he continues to mature the Scottish fly half’s playmaking ability improves in leaps and bounds. Laidlaw at scrum half is a reliable if not extravagant workhorse of Scottish rugby and his boot at penalty time means that Italy will pay dearly for any indiscretions. With Sam Hidalgo-Clyne waiting on the bench Scotland should have this aspect of the game nicely sewn up. Italy’s Kelly Haimona has done little if anything to impress me at fly half and I sadly am expecting little change on Saturday. Meanwhile, Eduardo Gori is a feisty and increasingly skillful scrum half for Italy but still has a way to go before he can match up to the quality Scotland will have on offer on Saturday.
It’s in the backs where the wheels are likely to fall off quite dramatically for Italy as they come up against Scotland’s racing slicks. While I like what I see in Italy’s backs with Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia and Leonardo Sarto providing some real edge to the Italian attack they are going to have a tough afternoon containing the likes of Scottish speedsters Tim Visser, Mark Bennet, Duncan Taylor and Tommy Seymour. Seymour was exceptional under the high ball against Wales two weeks ago and the Scottish winger is going to be a big problem for Italy. Add to the mix the form of fullback Stuart Hogg, as he spends the afternoon slicing through opposition defences from all corners of the park and Italy are probably going to end up running out of pace by the last quarter from simply having had to try and contain Scotland’s backs for sixty minutes.
If Scotland execute as well as they did against Wales and show the kind of decision making that was often lacking at times last year, then they should run in comfortable winners in Rome on Saturday. Italy will continue to put up a significant challenge and no doubt will see this as a game they have every chance of winning. However, Scotland under Coach Vern Cotter simply has too much talent. If the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour are given any kind of space to work in then Scotland should have built up a comfortable lead by the last quarter. Italy’s bench just won’t have the power to bring them back from the edge and therefore it should be Scotland’s day by 10 points.
England vs Ireland
Saturday, February 27th
For many this is England’s first real test under new Coach Eddie Jones. Ireland may not be the force of the last two years anymore but they possess enough talent and shrewd tactical nous in Coach Joe Schmidt to upset England’s initial Six Nations celebrations. Ireland are clearly the underdogs, if anything this is more England’s game to lose than Ireland’s to win. England should win this match and I must confess to being in the camp that agrees with that prediction. Ireland however, will have some surprises up their sleeves and if new Irish cap and centre Stuart McCloskey keeps his head and wits about him in such an auspicious debut, it could be a very exciting afternoon of rugby. England are still likely to emerge the victors and continue the solid work being done to recover from the pain of the World Cup. However, Ireland hopefully will start to have a performance to get genuinely excited about in terms of the future of Irish rugby regardless of whether they win or lose.
The Irish scrum and front row hasn’t always looked the best this Six Nations and their lineout work still has room for improvement, whereas England are starting to look increasingly dominant in this area. English Hooker and Captain Dylan Hartley seems to be adapting well to the leadership role and motivating those around him. Meanwhile Dan Coles is becoming a real workhorse in the scrums as well as in the contact areas. I still feel that Joe Marler is the weak link in the English front row and a potential liability. Ireland’s Rory Best and Jack McGrath are sound opposition up front, but Mike Ross could be as much of a cause for concern for Ireland as Joe Marler. Tough battle but England should still just have the edge here. In the locks, it should be England’s day. There is nothing wrong with Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan and they will be more than competitive but England’s George Kruis and new cap Maro Itoje are just looking outstanding at the moment and are more than likely to outshine the Irish duo on Saturday. However, in the flankers my money is on the Irish offering of C J Stander and Josh Van der Flier. The South African import Stander, alongside Van der Flier who is getting his first cap Saturday, are real class through and through while being absolutely devastating ball carriers, especially in the loose. England’s Chris Robshaw and Jeff Haskell may be the more experienced pair, but offer far less in sheer explosive power and unpredictability. Expect to see Ireland on the front foot here with England struggling to contain the Irish pair. At number eight as much as I admire his work rate and ability Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is no match for a barnstorming Billy Vunipola who seems to have rediscovered some spectacular form this year. Ultimately though despite the headache that Stander and Van der Flier should cause England, it is likely to be Ireland reaching for painkillers in the forward battles more than England on Saturday.
In the halfbacks, two different styles and evenly matched on paper but form seems to be deserting some of the key actors. English fly half George Ford has blown hot and cold this season and the same could be said of Irish scrum half Conor Murray. Meanwhile English scrum half Ben Youngs is having a fantastic season and being George Ford’s regular halfback partner should help settle the English fly half’s nerves in such a big game. Johnny Sexton is an injury worry for Ireland, with every Irish supporter becoming increasingly concerned about this outstanding servant of Irish rugby’s long-term health. However he seems to be relishing being back in an Irish jersey as well as playing his club rugby back home in Ireland. In the game against Wales and at times against France, some of the old Sexton magic was there for all to see. Murray and Sexton clearly got the better of George Ford last year in Dublin but it will be a much harder task at Twickenham. Impossible to call and we wait to see who’s got the better A-game of these two pairs on Saturday.
In the second half in Rome a fortnight ago, England’s backs were outstanding with centre Jonathan Joseph putting in a truly remarkable twenty-minute shift. In front of a home crowd expect the same. This is essentially a much more cohesive and established unit than Ireland’s and for that reason I give England the edge here. Ireland’s Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw are clearly the centre pairing of the future for Ireland and if they gel could be an exceptionally exciting prospect in international Test Rugby, however as yet they are an untried quantity together. However, if we only get a glimpse of their potential on Saturday then I think most Irish supporters will go away feeling pretty good about the future whether or not they win. For England, the centre partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is a seriously daunting combination. Joseph’s magic feet and Farrell’s eye for space and how to use it could make these two a nightmare for Ireland to contain Saturday. My money is on the experience of the English pair getting those critical margins in England’s favour on Saturday. On the wings I think the X-factor that England’s Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have in abundance is just too much for an injury prone Irish offering of Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls. The two Irishmen have plenty of spark of their own but struggle to finish out a match so it once more should be England who end up running the sidelines on Saturday. Lastly at fullback, English bulldog Mike Brown will be in his element against Ireland’s Rob Kearney with the Irishman becoming far too predictable and one dimensional in his play. Whether or not you like Brown you have to admit that the Englishman is ferocious in attack and defense and seems to have far more fire in his belly for the task at hand than his Irish counterpart seems to be showing at the moment, so England should win the battle here.
If Ireland are to win, then it will be regarded as an upset. While I think it unlikely it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. England were surprised in the first half against Italy and if Ireland can catch them off guard and keep them that way for the full eighty minutes then it could be a chance for the Men in Green to get their Six Nations campaign back on the road. However, for Ireland it is more likely going to be a case of trying to remain competitive for the full eighty minutes with a squad that is starting to show some potential for the future rather than a win at any cost. In my opinion given their circumstances after the disappointment of the World Cup that is the right approach. For England though it is important to finally break the run of being Ireland’s bridesmaid when the Six Nations trophy gets handed over next month. I would argue that at home and with Coach Eddie Jones ringing the changes England must clearly be the favourites on Saturday. If England get ahead comfortably in the first sixty minutes the quality of their bench should easily enable them to consolidate such a lead and close Ireland out for the last quarter. Whatever happens as both sides look to the future, we all hope for a close and exciting contest between these age old rivals, but one that we reckon will go England’s way by 8 points!