In the final weekend of this year’s Six Nations it is up to France to derail the English Grand Slam Express, as the middle of the table looks wide open!

Posted: March 18, 2016 in Six Nations 2016
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While it may not have quite the edge of the seat aura that last year’s Championship had, there is no question that this Six Nations has finally got the energy and excitement that were so conspicuously absent in the first three Rounds.  England have quietly but assuredly rebuilt themselves from the ruins of the World Cup, and it will require an extraordinary effort from France in Paris on Saturday to deprive England of a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam.  England already have the Championship sewn up, and while there have been moments of doubt in their campaign, the England of 2016 looks an infinitely more structured and focused side than the 2015 edition.  Wales will have to somehow forget a match against England a week ago that had they played with the same level of intensity they showed in the final ten minutes, it could well be Wales competing to lift the trophy this weekend.  Either way they should finish a strong second.

It’s the middle of the table where it is all up for grabs.  France themselves have shown some considerable promise at times this Championship and infinitely more enterprise and intent under new Coach Guy Noves than we ever saw under his predecessor Phillipe Saint-Andre.  However, France’s crippling domestic structure has left the national squad with a talented but ultimately exhausted group of individuals.  There is always the chance that in front of a home crowd France will lift themselves to produce their one extraordinary performance of the tournament as they always seem to manage to do, but it is a big ask and would also have to assume that England could be caught off guard for a full eighty minutes.  England were completely caught off balance by Wales last weekend for ten minutes, but it would seem unlikely that they haven’t prepared for such an eventuality against France and how to contain it.

However, it is the match up between Ireland and Scotland that is probably the most eagerly anticipated fixture of the weekend as these two duke it out for third place.  Ireland showed last weekend against Italy what a joy they are to watch when they are given space and allowed to run the ball.  Scotland meanwhile have managed to do this all tournament and as shown against France have honed it to a fine art, with probably the most dangerous strike runner of the tournament in the shape of fullback Stuart Hogg.  Saturday’s contest in Dublin will hopefully be a showpiece of expansive running rugby, and do much to answer questions regarding the gulf between Northern and Southern Hemisphere playing styles.  Lastly, Italy looks destined to hold aloft the wooden spoon this year as they take on Wales in Cardiff.  Italy have shown some genuine promise at times in this year’s tournament, however under pressure from better sides they have sadly imploded dramatically in the second half.   With a raft of injuries affecting Italy’s final fixture in this year’s tournament, it is hard to see a break from this pattern taking place on Saturday.

Wales vs Italy
Saturday, March 19th
Cardiff

With absolutely no disrespect to Italy of all the fixtures this weekend this is the easiest match to predict.  Wales pretty well have second place sewn up barring some sort of miracle in Paris on Saturday.  Italy on the other hand are in the same position for cementing their grasp on this year’s Wooden Spoon.  To avoid it they would have to put in a performance akin to the Second coming in front of a packed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.  While Italian Captain Sergio Parisse is renown for inspiring his charges to produce the unexpected, such a reversal in Italian fortunes on Saturday would require a truly superhuman effort.  Wales meanwhile will be licking their wounds from only showing up to spoil England’s Six Nations party last weekend in the last ten minutes.  Only a massive score line against the unfortunate Italians will help ease the pain of that error in judgement last Saturday.  As a result, Italy will as always be brave but ultimately sacrificial lambs to a Welsh team looking to erase the memory of last weekend in a red rage.

Up front even without the likes of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones and Sam Warburton, Wales has more than enough power to push Italy all over the park.  The Welsh front row although coming uncharacteristically unstuck against England last weekend, should easily have the edge over an Italian unit that has rarely fired this tournament.  The Welsh front row of Rob Evans, Samson Lee and Scott Baldwin needs little introduction and is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of last week.  This platform should be the blunt and highly effective edge of Wales forward dominance on Saturday.  In the second rows, once again it should be all about Wales.  Wales’ Bradley Davies alongside Luke Charteris should dominate the lineouts and Italy’s offerings in Quintin Geldenhuys and Valerio Bernabo are simply not of the same calibre.  In the back rows the contest is slightly more even, let’s face it Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been no slackers this tournament, but up against Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate who comes in to replace the injured Sam Warburton as Captain they will be pushed hard.  For me Justin Tipuric is one of Wales most underrated players and whenever he is on the pitch Wales develops an extra set of teeth as he is fast, agile and seemingly tireless in getting Wales turnover ball.  This Lydiate/Tipuric axis with the superb Taulupe Faletau backing it up at number eight should give Wales total dominance in the back rows, at the breakdowns and in any resulting loose play.  Italy’s Sergio Parisse at number eight will be a constant thorn in Wales side and alongside Zanni and Minto is a clear threat but just not quite of the same stature and reliability as the Welsh three.

In the halfbacks it is great to see Tommaso Allan make a return for Italy as he was one of Italy’s standout players for me in last year’s tournament and the World Cup.  He along with Carlo Canna is clearly the way forward for Italy at number ten.  However, he and Italy’s Kelly Haimona are still no match for the Welsh all star pair of Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, with the latter turning the game dramatically around for Wales last weekend when he came off the bench.  At scrum half, continuing injury problems mean Italy is more than up against it on Saturday, as newcomer Guglielmo Palazanni is simply no match for Welsh danger man Rhys Webb and his bench replacement Gareth Davies.  Expect total dominance by Wales in this department on Saturday.

In the backs, if Wales play with any kind of purpose here as they did in the final ten minutes at Twickenham last Saturday, then expect them to run riot over the Italians.  Welsh winger George North was on fire last weekend and expect to see him shredding Italian defences if given the green light.  The centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are tried and trusted and when the former was allowed to really cut loose last weekend he added an enormous amount of variety to an otherwise far too predictable Welsh game plan.  Expect more of the same on Saturday.  Italy has the chance to challenge with Leonardo Sarto and Mattia Bellini on the wings though Sarto’s defensive skills last weekend were highly questionable at times.  Gonzalo Garcia is always a threat in the centre and a strong ball carrier but Italy will feel the absence of arguably their best player of the tournament Michele Campagnaro, with his replacement Andrea Pratichetti having to fill an enormous pair of boots.  At fullback David Odiete has impressed me for Italy in his first season with the Azurri but is no match for Wales’ Liam Williams especially under the high ball.  Italy can compete in the backs but given the sheer pedigree of the Welsh offering, and without the superb Michele Campagnaro Italy are likely to be playing catch up rugby in this department all afternoon.

In short, I fear a rather one sided contest in Cardiff, with Wales potentially running away with a cricket score.  If Italy start losing control of the match by the first quarter, which tired and dispirited as they now are is highly likely, this should be Wales day by at least 25 points.  I hope for Italy’s sake that they can dig deep and find some pride and hopefully keep themselves just in touch for the first quarter, but Wales have everything to prove on Saturday as they set their sights on a truly daunting tour of New Zealand in two months’ time.  Anything less than a clear display of total dominance by Wales on Saturday will have many wondering if it won’t be Wales who like Italy this Saturday will end up sacrificial lambs on the altar of World Rugby in June.

Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 19th
Dublin

Grand Slam aspirations aside by England later in the afternoon, we have to be totally honest and admit that this is the fixture we are looking forward to the most this weekend.  Even though Italy were very poor last weekend, Ireland were an absolute joy to watch as they ran in nine superb tries.  Scotland against France also provided us with examples of sheer brilliance at times and are definitely the ‘flair’ side of the tournament matched to a set of basic skills and decision making that has finally come of age under Coach Vern Cotter.  With superb conditions forecast for Dublin on Saturday, we are hoping for a contest of free flowing and expansive rugby akin to what our Southern Hemisphere rivals are able to dish up on any given Saturday.  While we are always wary of hyping up a contest in this competition lest it degenerate into a tedious defensive slugfest, we can’t help feeling that Saturday’s tussle in Dublin should be a fascinating spectacle that should keep us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes.  Whoever you may be supporting Saturday, we doubt you will leave feeling you haven’t just watched something slightly special.

Up front two very solid and experienced front rows go up against each other.  Ireland’s Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross are clearly the more experienced trio, but Scotland’s WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford showed France who was boss last weekend.  However, in front of an Aviva Stadium in full voice at every scrum, I can’t help feeling that Ireland are just going to get the better of Scotland at times on most occasions here.  In the second rows, Ireland should also have the edge at lineout time with Devin Toner rediscovering some much needed form and Donnacha Ryan rapidly becoming a key component of a strong Irish challenge for the future.  Scotland’s Ritchie Gray and Tim Swinson are an impressive unit but they will miss Ritchie’s injured brother Johnny who has been instrumental in Scotland’s stellar rise in the last few months.  While I am delighted to see Ireland’s Tommy O’Donnell back in the back row mix for Ireland, and think the Irish flanker is clearly part of the enormous depth Ireland is developing in this area of the game, he and outstanding newcomer CJ Stander are going to have their work cut out for them trying to contain Scotland’s back row pair of John Barclay and John Hardie.  Scotland’s duo has been outstanding all tournament and are devastating in the loose and in defence, with a tackle rate that is off the charts.  Ireland will compete here make no mistake and this will be one of the most fascinating match ups of the afternoon, but I am giving the Scottish pair a slight degree of dominance here.  Lastly at number eight, Jamie Heaslip had one of his best days out for Ireland in recent memory last Saturday.  However, Scotland also seems to have a depth of talent in this position as well.  Ryan Wilson has impressed me in this tournament, and his bench replacement Josh Strauss is of equal calibre, though I am pleased to see Ireland having Ultan Dillane on their bench who has been outstanding every time he has come on for Ireland and another bright star for the future. I still can’t help feeling that Scotland’s back row is just that more ferocious and edgier than Ireland’s.  Close call to make but Scotland might just have a slight dominance in this area of the park on Saturday.

In the half backs, quality meets quality once more.  Johnny Sexton is back to his best as we saw last weekend against Italy and Conor Murray has rediscovered much of the confidence he has lacked at club level this year by playing alongside his Irish halfback partner Sexton.  Although Scotland are missing the exceptionally talented Finn Russell at fly half due to injury, his replacement last week Peter Horne proved to be an exceptionally capable replacement and I must confess to being surprised to not see him start this weekend.  Admittedly he is on the bench and Duncan Weir provides a certain X-factor at times to Scottish play, so Scotland are certainly fielding some quality in this department.  At scrum half Greg Laidlaw may not have the adventurism of Conor Murray but is more than reliable and a calm head when needed.  His replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne however has more of the ability to break a game up than Ireland’s bench warmer for Conor Murray in the shape of Eoin Reddan.  Still given the sheer Test quality of the Sexton/Murray partnership, it should be Ireland’s day in terms of game management on Saturday.  Off the bench though I would argue Scotland has the edge here, but should Ireland have a commanding lead by the time Hidalgo-Clyne and Horne come on then it should be Ireland’s day.

In the backs, no matter who you support there can be little question that everyone is looking forward to seeing Scottish fullback and playmaker Stuart Hogg in action once more this Saturday.  In terms of X-factor and the unexpected the contest between him and Ireland’s Simon Zebo should be one of the most entertaining match-ups we’ll see all Championship.  The Irishman is full of dancing feet and remarkable offloads, but Scotland’s Hogg has been consistently outstanding for Scotland all tournament.  Both players are exceptionally skilled but Hogg’s abilities in defence as well as in attack just give him the clear advantage here.  His decision making and eye for an opportunity is just that much better than Zebo’s so Scotland should get the better of this duel.  On the wings I can’t help feeling that Scotland’s Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour have twice the fizz, spark and speed that their accomplished Irish rivals have in the shape of Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble.  Given also that the Irish pair are prone to injury I can’t help feeling that Scotland will be running the touchlines just that bit better on Saturday.  It’s in the centres that the contest swings back in Ireland’s favour, even though I must confess to being very disappointed to see Ireland’s new rising star Stuart McCloskey once more not even make it onto the bench.  However, Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw has been outstanding for Ireland all tournament.  A ferocious tackler and exceptionally strong and fast with ball in hand he is going to be a complete handful for Scotland all afternoon.  His partner Jared Payne has also had a strong campaign for Ireland and this pair at home should give Ireland the edge they need.  Scotland’s offering in the centres of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor put in a superb body of work last weekend against France and will provide a potential nightmare defensively for Ireland’s Henshaw and Payne, but I feel that the Irish pair’s defensive abilities are more than up to the task, whereas the Scots may struggle to contain the Irishmen in this area of the park.

In short, Ireland should win the battles up front even though they will be exceptionally close at times, but linked to Ireland’s tried and trusted halfback pairing of Sexton/Murray, the Irish platform should prove slightly more reliable under pressure than Scotland’s.  In the backs it really is open season and could go either way, with Scotland’s Stuart Hogg being such a danger that I actually feel that in terms of the running rugby we’ll see on Saturday, Scotland will actually be the better team.  However, that Irish defence coupled to the Schmidt/Sexton brains trust should just get Ireland home on the day.  It is going be close, ever so close and have spectators bouncing in out of their seats for the full eighty minutes, but Ireland to come out on top by three points.  Either way here’s hoping that it truly ends up being the spectacle it is being billed as!

France vs England
Saturday, March 19th
Paris

While France vs England matches these days may not quite have the aura of “Le Crunch” that they had in years gone by, they are always a fixture on the Six Nations calendar that is eagerly anticipated.  There is always the possibility of the element of surprise in this fixture with France usually providing it as they somehow manage to rise to the occasion.  France are not the Six Nations force of old as they struggle with a domestic structure that has hijacked the national cause, but in this match they still somehow manage to raise their level of intensity and produce their one ‘big’ game of the tournament.  It is hoped that this Saturday will be no different.  England have won the title and now only France stands in the way of their first Grand Slam in 13 years which seems hard to believe.  England while perhaps sticking to tradition in not being the most exciting team to watch in this tournament have clearly been the most effective and well structured.  Under new Coach Eddie Jones, they have a clear sense of purpose and the basic tools to get results.  While they almost dramatically imploded against Wales last weekend in the final ten minutes, the wake up call that provided is unlikely to be repeated in Paris on Saturday.  England look confident though not arrogant, and must clearly be the favourites to finish a strong Six Nations in style in Paris and reflect on a successful resurgence after the horrors of the World Cup.  England may not be the finished product yet that they need to be if they are to challenge the Southern Hemisphere sides on a regular basis but of all the sides in this year’s Six Nations, along with Scotland they have made the most progress in getting there.

England’s forward pack as a traditional staple has been exceptionally reliable this Six Nations.  Some new talent, most notably in the form of outstanding second rower Maro Itoje, have settled in well alongside more experienced players such as Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola and Dan Cole.  Captain Dylan Hartley has really impressed in the leadership role and has simply left his critics with nothing to say – in short job well done and a superb character transformation.  In the front row, England will have clear advantage on Saturday.  Hartley, Cole and Mako Vunipola will be evenly matched by France’s exceptional Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani.  However, for France prop Jefferson Poirot is likely to be the weak link and ultimately see England have dominance here.  Should Joe Marler be brought in for England early in the match then the contest would even up, as despite his colorful commentary in the scrum, I still think he is England’s weak link in the front row, especially in terms of technique.  In the second row, England’s offering of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is rock solid and offers some dynamism, strength and speed which France simply doesn’t have in their counter of Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart.  Meanwhile in the back row, England once again should have the edge with the experience of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, even though for me the latter is not England’s most reliable asset.  France will compete here especially in the form of flanker Damien Chouly but England should still be dictating the pace at the breakdown.  At number eight, England has all the right cards in the shape of Billy Vunipola whose one-man tank brigade assaults on the Irish lines last month are already the stuff of legends.  I doubt that French newcomer Loann Goujon will be able to match the intensity of the Englishman.

At halfback, England should clearly have the run of play, as despite his dip in form this year English halfback George Ford is more of a reliable commodity than the mercurial Francois Trinh-Duc for France.  Danny Care at scrum half is perhaps a tad quicker out of the blocks than France’s Maxime Machenaud and benefits from having a clearer idea of what the need to offload should achieve than his French counterpart.  Unless Ford gets really rattled then I would expect England to have a much better system of game management in place than France on Saturday.

In the backs, expect to see plenty of offloading by France, but the problem seems to be that it is often slightly directionless and a tad predictable as breathtaking as it can be at times.  England on the other hand are more conservative but much more reliable when it comes to running the ball and spreading it wide, with a much better sense of what they are trying to achieve with it.  Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have been outstanding for England on the wings, and Nowell in particular has really impressed in attack and defence.  France will be hoping that in their wingers Virimi Vakatawa and the superb Wesley Fofana they will have the X-factor that will keep England guessing on Saturday.  It is certainly possible with Vakatawa being a genuine force of nature.  However, doubts remain about Fofana’s place on the wing as opposed to his preferred position in the centre.  Vakatawa as devastating as he may be, has rarely had the support he needs once he cuts loose so far in this tournament, and unless France address this on Saturday, I can’t see them giving England to much to worry about on the wings.  In the centres, there are still some question marks around Owen Farrell, especially as with George Ford’s dip in form many are wondering why he is not running the fly half berth.  However, for the most part Farrell does seem to be working well with Jonathan Joseph in the centres for England.  Farrell’s vision compared with Joseph’s lightning bursts of speed make this a very hard pair to read and contain.  Gael Fickou is a quality centre as evidenced last Saturday, but for me the jury is still out on Maxime Mermoz and given the inconsistent delivery from France’s halfbacks, I can’t help feeling that England should be much more visible in centre field than France on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, Mike Brown’s cocky demeanour is likely to be in for a bit of a bruising from France’s Scott Spedding, and I actually feel that this is one area where France are likely to teach England a few lessons on Saturday.  On top of that Spedding possesses a monster boot that is able to punish any English indiscretions from deep.

However, just as against Wales this is England’s game to lose and France’s to win.  England are clearly right on target for the Grand Slam.  France could upset their party but it will require a superhuman from an already exhausted and slightly disjointed side.  French Coach Guy Noves has made remarkable progress in the space of five matches in lifting a shattered national side from the ruins of the Saint-Andre years.  However, in the case of France, it is very much a work in progress that without a corresponding change in attitudes at the domestic level is unlikely to produce the kind of dramatic results needed on Saturday.  There will be some entertainment at times on Saturday in Paris, make no mistake, but it should be England’s day and ultimate Grand Slam by 12 points!

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