With first round action out of the way, this weekend’s fixtures should give us a much clearer idea of how the standings are likely to pan out for the rest of the tournament. Wales or England will be out of the running for a Grand Slam this weekend depending on who emerges the winner, but given a tight contest should Wales win they could end up being the team to beat so far. Meanwhile should Scotland pull off another epic win against France in Paris, they will end up being more than just dark horses and emerge serious contenders for the title. France could get their Six Nations campaign back on track against Scotland but another loss would mean that this year’s spoils are likely to be out of reach. For Ireland, nothing less than an emphatic win including a bonus point against Italy will do in Rome if they are to continue to share the title of favourites with England. For Italy an almost impossible task looms against a wounded Ireland, but one they know they must be competitive in if discussions about Italy’s relevance to the competition are to be dismissed outright. In short everything to play for!
Italy vs Ireland
Saturday, February 11th
While Italy need to win this match to ensure that they restore a sense of momentum back into their Six Nations campaign, the odds sadly would appear to be against them. Ireland meanwhile after a shaky start to the tournament need to come out firing from the opening whistle and stay that way for the full eighty minutes. To get their Six Nations efforts back on track Ireland need a handsome win in Rome by a significant points margin as well as securing the much-needed bonus point. Nothing else will do – plain and simple! Ireland were awful in their opening half against Scotland, which made their title of tournament favourites alongside England almost laughable as a rampant Scottish side tore the Irish defences to pieces. A dramatically improved second half from Ireland showed that there is plenty of threat present in the Green Machine but at this level you simply can’t gift the opposition the kind of lead that Ireland gave Scotland in the opening 40 minutes. In short, a big performance is both expected and required of Ireland in Rome on Saturday. Italy looked very sharp against Wales in the first 40 minutes last Sunday in Rome but as Wales increased the intensity, Italy simply fell by the wayside. They are in serious danger of doing the same this Saturday as Ireland are likely to bring the kind of intensity the Welsh showed in the second half for the full eighty minutes. It’s going to be a real test of the character of new Italian Coach Conor O’Shea’s men and their ability to withstand pressure of the highest order.
Italy’s scrum looked solid against Wales in the first half and they should stand up well against Ireland in the shape of hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and props Andrea Lovotti and Lorenzo Cittadini both of whom had a good game against Wales. However, the Irish counterweights of Captain and Hooker Rory Best and props Tadgh Furlong and Cian Healy are immense and the Italians will struggle to keep these three in check, especially once Irish prop Jack McGrath comes off the bench. Italy will be competitive here but Ireland should have the clear edge. In the second rows it should once again be all about Ireland despite the presence of Italians Marco Fuser and the impressive South African import Dries Van Schalkwyk. Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should easily dominate the lineouts and Ryan is an exceptional destructive force and ball carrier.
It’s in the half backs where Ireland should be streets ahead, despite Irish scrum half Conor Murray having his worst game in a while last weekend at Murrayfield. Murray rarely has more than one poor performance a year, so we’ll settle for last weekend getting that hiccough out of the way for 2017. Meanwhile Paddy Jackson although not the master of game management that his mentor Johnny Sexton is, he is a more than capable understudy. As a result Italy’s Edoardo Gori at scrum half and Carlo Canna at fly half are just simply not the same quality despite an outstanding first half from Gori last weekend. Canna’s composure is improving with every match but the consistency still isn’t there. Ireland should comfortably dictate the pace of the game all afternoon.
When it comes to the backs, Ireland should continue to assert their dominance despite a very poor half from the Irish back five in the first half of the match against Scotland last weekend. We are still scratching our heads at the omission of Italian centre Michele Campagnaro from the starting XV as the pace this player brings to Italy’s attack is outstanding and was clearly evident once he came off the bench last weekend against Wales. We fully expect to Ireland’s centre partnership of Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw to click far more effectively than they did last weekend. Italy’s Luke McLean and Tomasso Benvenuti while no slackers themselves are not quite as quick off the mark and good at spotting opportunities as the Irish pair, especially Robshaw. On the wings Ireland’s Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were far less accurate and impressive than their Scottish counterparts last weekend but should easily ensure that it is Italy’s Angelo Esposito and Giovanbattista Venditti are the ones doing the majority of the defending on Saturday in Rome. Lastly Irish fullback Rob Kearney has a vast amount of experience and appears, despite some errors last weekend, to be at his charging best under the high ball once more and Italy’s Edoardo Padovani is going to be working hard all afternoon just to keep him at bay.
If Ireland are pulling comfortably ahead by half time which we expect them to do, then their bench should cement Italy’s fate in the second half. We just can’t see anything on Italy’s bench that is likely to threaten Ireland in the last forty minutes with the exception of Michele Campagnaro. Ireland’s three forward replacements of prop Jack McGrath, lock Ultan Dillane and the exceptional flanker Josh van der Flier are all ultimate weapons in the Irish arsenal and Italy’s discipline and fatigue are all likely to count against them as they try to keep this trio in check in the final quarter.
Ireland were poor last weekend, but it was more likely a case of opening night nerves on the road than an actual genuine dip in form. They will be seeking to silence their critics in no uncertain terms on Saturday and sadly Italy are likely to be the sacrificial lambs in the process. Make no mistake Italy will be exceptionally competitive, but this is just too big a challenge and Ireland have too much to prove. Ireland to dominate across the park and their powerful bench will ensure Ireland run riot in the last quarter and thus take the match by 23 points!
Wales vs England
Saturday, February 11th
Wales at home are never easy and we saw glimpses last weekend in Rome of how good a side they can be when all the pieces line up and they have a clear idea of the kind of rugby they want to play. The arrival of fly half Sam Davies in the second half transformed the Welsh attack and they ran rings around the Italians. Consequently apart from a weaker front row compared to England, we are surprised at the number of people writing off Wales’ chances this weekend in their own backyard. There is no question that England were poor for the first sixty minutes last weekend against France, and it is highly unlikely that they will stutter out of the blocks a second time around. However, Wales at home are always a challenge and they seem to have put the sketchy performances of the Autumn Internationals behind them. They will want to keep the momentum going and will have spotted clear weaknesses in England’s defenses that were becoming apparent in the Autumn Internationals. It should be much closer than many are predicting and England are clearly not underestimating what is likely to be a grueling contest especially in the physical department.
As mentioned above we are predicting a punishing physical encounter and the only weakness we see here for Wales is in the front row, which ultimately should swing the overall forward battle in England’s favor but only just. England’s front row just look the more familiar and experienced unit in the shape of props Dan Cole and Joe Marler with Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley backing up the experience. The Welsh offering of props Tomas Francis and Rob Evans just don’t have the same pedigree even if Hooker Ken Owens needs little if any introduction and can be a try scoring machine in his own right. Marler’s discipline and scrumming technique remains for us a potential liability for England and there were clear signs of that last weekend against France, though how anyone stands up under pressure to the massive bulk of French prop Uini Atonio is debatable so it is perhaps unfair to judge Marler on those grounds. However, the battles in the rest of the forward pack will level out very quickly from the second rows onwards. England should just maintain dominance in the second row with the lock partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. Wales’ Alun Wyn-Jones is a massive inspiration to his troops but his partner Jake Ball doesn’t lend the same weight, meaning England should be dominant for the most part here. In the back rows the competition gets even more fierce with a battle royale between Welsh flankers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and England’s Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford. For us the battle should be won here by Wales despite the presence of one of last year’s best Test players, England’s Maro Itoje. Warburton’s sheer indestructibility and Tipuric’s superhuman abilities in both attack and defence should ensure that Wales just edge out England in the loose. Make no mistake Clifford and Itoje’s abilities are likely to impress all afternoon but they just don’t have the game time together that the Welsh duo have. At number eight it’s the battle of the youngsters in England’s Nathan Hughes and Welshman Ross Moriarty, who was one of the few players who consistently stood out in Wales erratic Autumn Internationals. We may be wrong but in front of a home crowd we think Moriarty may just win the day here for Wales on Saturday.
An intriguing half back battle awaits but we think that England, if they can dictate the game early on, should just have the edge here. There is no question that scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford had a poor game last weekend against France but we find it unlikely that they will suffer from the same lack of finesse this weekend, despite the poor form of their respective clubs this year. However, if they can’t dictate the game for England early on they will be up against it if Welsh fly half Sam Davies comes off the bench early in the second half, with Gareth Davies injecting some tried and trusted gas at scrum half off the bench for the Welsh. England will be relying on Youngs and Ford to establish some early dominance for England, and given their abilities on this front allied to the exceptional Owen Farrell in centre field we feel they are more than capable of getting the better of Welsh fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Rhys Webb.
If England don’t get a healthy points lead early on it could be a tough afternoon as Wales, as evidenced last weekend in Rome, have some exceptional pace in the backs, and the two sides are essentially evenly balanced here. It is just the game management skills and vision of English centre Owen Farrell which we think will swing the balance in England’s favor. England’s centre partnership of Own Farrell and Jonathan Joseph needs little if any introduction even if they were exceptionally quiet by their standards last weekend, but that seemed more due to the fact that the other part of this key strike axis in the shape of Ben Youngs and George Ford just wasn’t firing on all four cylinders. Like we say we doubt we’ll see the same inconsistencies this weekend. However the Welsh centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams are more than capable of some devastating breaks if they are given some space to work with, and given England’s porous defence at times last weekend this will be a concern. Nevertheless, it is the ability of Farrell to read the game as it unfolds and some sheer X-factor that should give England the edge here. On the wings an exciting contest awaits. George North appears to be back to some of his best form in a Welsh shirt and England’s Elliot Daly will find him a handful on Saturday. However, it’s an even contest with Daly being an equally impressive opponent with the added bonus of a very useful boot from distance. Meanwhile we are pleased to see England’s Jack Nowell getting a start for this match as he was one of England’s most exciting players in last year’s tournament and on the tour to Australia. Quality through and through Nowell will be up against a player of equal quality in the shape of Wales’ fleet-footed and elusive Liam Wiliams. At fullback the abrasive form of England’s Mike Brown will ensure that he gets underneath Welsh skins all afternoon, while Wales’ vastly experienced Leigh Halfpenny is unlikely to rise to the niggles while keeping a calm head and slotting the points for Wales when required. An exceptionally close contest awaits here which should see some exciting running rugby as both sides chase the bonus point, but one which England should just get the better of by the smallest of margins due to the Farrell factor.
Both teams are packing impressive benches with both sides looking to bring on completely new front rows as the game unfolds. Wales as mentioned above have the talents of Sam Davies at fly half to call on should Dan Biggar once again be found wanting in his abilities to spark a Welsh attack. Add to that the destructive power of Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau but injury concerns regarding Faletau raise questions around how much of a saviour to the Welsh cause he may prove to be if things are starting to go sideways for Wales. England’s bench packs a raft of talented newcomers especially in the front row, but also some very experienced and dangerous strike weapons in the shape of winger Jonny May and flanker James Haskell. Haskell injected the pace that was lacking in England’s performance against France last weekend, and although doubts persist about his fitness on return from injury we could see no lack of intensity in his efforts last Saturday. Centre Ben Te’o is likely to provide some more of the magic that saved England’s bacon last Saturday and Jonny May provides an excellent turn of speed on the outside when needed. Wales are packing a solid bench but England’s was such a game changer last weekend that we think the game will be won in the last fifteen minutes again and against tough opposition England look better placed to do it.
We’re hoping for an epic contest between these two which should give us a real shakedown of where these two traditional giants of the tournament really stand this year. England were found wanting last week, but against much tougher opposition than Wales found they showed the wherewithal to dig deep and produce a result with their backs against the wall. Consequently we expect them to do the same again this weekend, by the narrowest of margins so are just handing the match to England by four points!
France vs Scotland
Sunday, February 12th
This should be another exceptionally high quality dustup between two exciting teams. Scotland got their Six Nations campaign off to an excellent start with a convincing win against Ireland which showed that they have finally mastered the art of closing out big games while at the same time putting on a scintillating display of attacking rugby. France were heartbroken by the narrow loss to England at Twickenham but surely must take heart from the fact that they put in a display which, although lacking the required finesse at times, showed that the France of old is back in no uncertain terms. Scotland will need to prove that the magic they produced at Murrayfield last weekend can be replicated on the road while France will want to show that they are once more a force to be reckoned with, and in front of a home crowd they will be hard to beat.
Many predicted that Scotland would struggle up front against Ireland’s powerhouse forward pack and the same questions are likely to be asked of the Scots by France this weekend. Despite this Scotland apart from battling at scrum time gave as good as they got up front against Ireland and we expect no less this weekend. However, the battle of the scrums should still go France’s way. France keep the same front row that gave England so much grief last weekend in the shape of props Uini Atonio and Cyril Baille and Captain and prop Guilhem Guirado. Scotland’s offering also remains unchanged with props Allan Dell and Zander Ferguson and Hooker Fraser Brown. While the Scottish unit is more than capable it is the inspirational factor that Guirado brings along with his ability to lead under pressure that should swing it France’s way. Add to that the massive bulk of Atonio and Scotland’s trio are going to battle to gain any kind of ascendancy at scrum time. In the second rows though the balance should swing straight back to Scotland in the shape of the incomparable Gray brothers. Richie and Jonny Gray were immense for Scotland last weekend and will give France’s Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina a torrid time in the lineouts and at the breakdowns. In the back row a relatively more even contest awaits between Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson and France’s Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon. However, as much we are continuously impressed with Scotland’s Barclay we can’t help feeling that the French duo are the more dangerous and as result think that France may ultimately be masters of the ball in the loose and at the breakdowns. When you add the figure of France’s Louis Picamoles at number eight we feel that the argument in favor of France in this area of the park becomes water tight. Picamoles was an absolute menace last weekend against England and Scotland’s Josh Strauss while having plenty of beast like qualities of his own will be hard pressed to limit the Frenchman’s rampaging runs.
In the half backs another intriguing but relatively even contest awaits, though Scotland’s is the more tried and tested combination. Both sides provide plenty of fizz and X-factor with French scrum half Baptiste Serin and Scottish fly half Finn Russell being two of the game’s most unpredictable players. However, it is Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw’s steady nerves that should just give Scotland the advantage here. French fly half Camille Lopez was outstanding last weekend against England but still is one of those players who can battle with consistency issues at times.
It’s in the backs where we feel that Scotland has the advantage over France. The French showed some real gas out wide in the shape of wingers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa last weekend, but their ability to keep ball in hand and finish off key passes was seriously lacking at times. This is an area where Scotland seem to have skills in abundance with the remarkable fullback Stuart Hogg leading the charge. Scotland should have the clear edge in terms of finishing out wide on the wings in the shape of Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland. France’s Vakatawa and Nakaitaci will pose a threat all afternoon but Seymour and Maitland are such excellent finishers that Scotland should rule the day here. In the centres Scotland should also come out on top with the exceptional Huw Jones, despite him being rather quiet last weekend, and Alex Dunbar. Dunbar was in the thick of everything last weekend against Ireland and expect more of the same from him this weekend. France’s offering of Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat offer plenty of excitement of their own but the skill set of the Scottish duo at the moment is so finely tuned that Scotland are likely to be more effective in centre field on Sunday. Lastly at fullback while France’s Scott Spedding was one of the standout players of last weekend’s tussle between les Bleus and England, it was Scotland’s Stuart Hogg who was one of the main talking points of the opening round of this year’s Six Nations. Hogg is a threat right across the park and as good as Spedding is he is a lot more predictable than the Scot. Spedding is a powerful runner and ball carrier but his forays rely more on brute strength and power than Hogg’s whose dancing feet are almost impossible to read. Hogg has the unique ability to create situations that suddenly open up huge areas of the park which the rest of his teammates can work with – in short he is the master of any kind of open space. Consequently the battle of the backs on Sunday in Paris will be close and should provide excitement by the bucket load from both sides but Scotland’s all round prowess should just give them the edge here.
It is the presence of the exceptional Rabah Slimani, Damien Chouly and Yoann Huget on the bench which we feel ultimately swings this match in favour of France by the slightest of margins especially at home. Slimani scored a try within minutes of coming off the bench last weekend and as a result the prop is one of France’s key secret weapons. Flanker Chouly and winger Huget have plenty of power to once more add some much-needed pace to France’s attack and defence once the inevitable fatigue of trying to contain a rampant Scottish team for eighty minutes starts to set in. Scotland have nothing to apologise for on their bench especially in the shape of flanker John Hardie and centre Mark Bennett. However we just can’t help feeling that in the final quarter home advantage and French power will count for too much. As a result a nail biting finish awaits, but one that France should just emerge the victors from by 2 points. Either way we know that we will be glued to our television screens on Sunday for what should be one of the most entertaining matchups of the weekend!