This year’s Six Nations got off to a rip-roaring start, with the opening match between Wales and Scotland turning the form book on its head. Most of us simply did not see the turbocharged version of Wales coming, and neither did Scotland. It was a fantastic Welsh performance which completely negated Scotland’s much vaunted attacking prowess. Scotland sadly were just not allowed into the match, and Wales all of a sudden look a team with a purpose and plenty of attacking threats of their own coupled to a rock solid defense.
Next up it was Ireland’s turn to take on France in rain-soaked Paris. Ireland were clearly nervous, but much to everyone’s surprise the French turned up and their defence seemed impenetrable. To make Ireland’s problems worse France would score the only try of the match, despite Ireland dominating possession. The final three minutes of the match produced one of the most memorable Six Nations finishes in a long time. Ireland displayed extraordinary skill and calm as they managed to hang onto the ball for a staggering 41 phases before popping the ball back to Johnny Sexton for a 42 metre drop goal. The agony on French Captain Guilhem Guirado’s face as the match was snatched from France in the dying seconds while Irish players collapsed on each other in joyful celebration said it all.
On Sunday, England took on Italy in the Roman sunshine. Although many had expected England to run rings around the Azurri, many were heartened by a bold and exciting Italian performance, with Italy very much in contention for the first sixty minutes. The sea change in the quality of Italian play since the November Internationals was easy to see and must have heartened their supporters no end. England did ultimately run away with the match in the final quarter but they left Rome knowing that they had been tested, and consequently it is unlikely that Italy’s other opponents for the rest of the tournament will take them lightly. England on the other hand put in a dominant and powerful performance, with one of their newer caps, Sam Simmonds at number eight, really standing out.
With some mouth-watering matchups this weekend, let’s get straight into our look at the head to heads taking place on Saturday and Sunday.
Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, February 10th
Ireland return home to Dublin for three matches after a nervy but ultimately successful start to their campaign in Paris last weekend. Ireland will be concerned that despite concerted pressure on the French defences they were unable to cross the whitewash. They will be heartened by that incredible display of composure and control in the final three minutes, but there is no doubt they will not want to leave the rest of their games to the last minute like that. Italy will take enormous confidence from the positive rugby they played last weekend against tournament favourites England. Away from home, against an Irish side clearly needing to make a statement, it will be a tough ask of young but promising Italian team.
There will be some great battles here on Saturday, but ultimately Ireland’s experience and strength should see them win the day here. We were hugely impressed with Italy’s Simone Pietro Ferrari on the Tighthead side of the scrum last weekend and the contest between him and Ireland’s exceptional Jack McGrath will be well worth the price of admission. The rest of Italy’s scrum will be competitive but the experience of Captain Rory Best and Tighthead Tadgh Furlong should see Ireland maintain overall control. With Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Cian Healy on bench duty, Ireland’s overall superiority should be complete, though expect a solid shift from Andrea Lovotti once he makes an appearance for the Azurri.
This match sees the return of Ireland’s Devin Toner to the second row, alongside Ian Henderson. While Italy’s contribution in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd put in some good work last weekend, it is unlikely they will be able to match the Irish pair for the full eighty minutes. So once again provided Hooker Rory Best can find his mark at lineout time, Ireland should own this part of the game.
It’s here we’re expecting the biggest fireworks on Saturday. Ireland are packing what should be the dominant trio, but as we saw last weekend in Rome, Italy can really stand up and be counted here. We thought flanker Sebastian Negri had a superb game for Italy last weekend, and expect more of the same this Saturday. At number eight Sergio Parisse appears to be back to his best, and Braam Steyn is also a ferocious competitor. Italy will give Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan a run for their money in Dublin. We are delighted to see Dan Leavy get another start as he was one of the standout performers for Ireland last weekend. Furthermore, having impressed for Leinster all season we are very happy to see Jack Conan get a start. Despite Italy’s firepower here, and the relative youth of Ireland’s contingent, the Irish trio are likely to be the more clinical of the two sides. Add to the mix, CJ Stander waiting on the bench for Ireland, and there are few who would doubt Ireland’s dominance here.
Watch the last three minutes of Ireland’s match against France last weekend and, despite Italy’s pair putting in a good effort against England, it is hard to see anything other than complete dominance by Ireland here. After last weekend’s heroics Johnny Sexton’s ability to keep a calm head under enormous pressure is clearly the stuff of legends. To have the confidence in your own ability to attempt a long-range drop goal like that is a testament to what a remarkable player Sexton is. His partner at scrum half, Conor Murray, is also a master of being able to maintain composure under the most extreme pressure. Our only hope in this match is that Sexton’s replacement, Joey Carberry, will be brought on relatively early in the match for two reasons. Firstly to keep Sexton clear of potential injury, but secondly and more important in our view to give Carberry some much-needed big game time in the 10 jersey. We saw what he could do in Chicago two years ago and what he regularly produces at Leinster. Ireland really need to give Carberry as much exposure as possible between now and the World Cup.
Italy’s Marcello Violi and Tommaso Allan played well for Italy last weekend, but we just can’t really seeing them getting the measure of Sexton and Murray, with Carberry and Marmion waiting on the bench to do more damage.
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki provided plenty of powerful ball carrying last weekend in Paris as well as shutting down countless French attacks. Although the Henshaw/Aki partnership seems to favor a more direct style up the middle as opposed to the weaving and darting of the Henshaw/Ringrose pairing, there is no denying the potency of the threat they pose. In addition Aki’s ability to stop runners dead in their tracks will come in useful against Italy’s powerful pair of Tommasos, Castello and Boni. Castello is one of Italy’s most exciting new talents and we liked much of what we saw from Boni last weekend. However, Ireland’s unit should be the more effective of the two and as a result Ireland should be comfortably in charge here.
Once again there were two revelations from Italy here last weekend in the form of winger Tommaso Benvenuti and fullback Matteo Minozzi. Minozzi in particular ran some fantastic lines on Sunday in Rome, and we are looking forward to seeing him in action again this weekend. In short, with Mattia Bellini on the opposite wing, it’s a good Italian back line and the Irish defences will need to be on their guard, especially as Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale was found wanting in defence at times last Saturday in Paris.
However, Ireland once again are packing the higher pedigree in the shape of winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney. These two highly experienced Test veterans for Ireland should ensure that they are able to be the dominant side in this part of the park on Saturday. Earls ability to find and make space and Kearney’s exceptional abilities under the high ball, will keep Italy guessing all afternoon. One of the talking points of the weekend will be how well Jordan Larmour will respond to his first callup in an Irish jersey off the bench, having set the Pro14 and European Champions Cup alight.
In Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections for this match, it is clear that Ireland are approaching Italy with the utmost caution, and after the close shave they had in Paris last weekend, nothing is being left to chance. In a tournament that may well come down to points differences, Ireland will not be satisfied with anything less than four tries and a bonus point. They have the personnel to do it, especially in front of a home crowd and although Italy will make them work for it, it is hard for us to imagine anything other than an emphatic Irish win. Consequently, Ireland to be more effective than they were last weekend in Paris in breaking down Italian defences and to take the match by 24 points!
Wales vs England
Saturday, February 10th
While there are plenty of entertaining fixtures this weekend there is no doubt that this is the BIG one. After Wales’ complete demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side last weekend, there should be plenty of drama on offer at Twickenham this Saturday. With both sides knowing that a potential Grand Slam will be on for only one of these two sides after the final whistle, this should be a match of the highest intensity.
This will be one of the most fiercely contested battles on Saturday afternoon. The Scarlets front three for Wales of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee were rock solid last week against Scotland, and we expect them to be just as good against a much stronger English trio. England’s Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola and Dylan Hartley have been a very reliable platform for England, with the two props in particular turning out consistently strong performances. We actually think the Welsh unit could have the edge here, simply based on their familiarity of playing together at club level, and something which translates well to Test level. Very close but it is the sheer power of Mako Vunipola for England which we think will ultimately tip a very tight contest ever so slightly in favor of the Men in White.
Another titanic struggle awaits here, but one which England should ultimately get the better of. Cory Hill had a superb game for Wales last weekend, but taking on the English partnership of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje is a very daunting prospect, even when you are supported by Captain Remarkable for Wales, Alun-Wyn Jones. The English pair though should provide more spark in attack, and their ball carrying abilities and skill at mastering the art of the turnover are second to none. England to have the clear edge here despite some ferocious Welsh opposition, especially with George Kruis waiting on the bench for England.
This is where we think the battle swings ever so slightly in favor of Wales. Flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi were immense last weekend against Scotland as well as during the November Internationals, with no slouch in the shape of Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench. Add Ross Moriarty into the mix at number eight and this is a very potent and gritty Welsh back row. Navidi and Shingler’s ability to break the gain line coupled to their absolute nuisance factor at the breakdown will mean that England will have their work cut out containing these three.
England still field a phenomenal unit, with relative newcomer Sam Simmonds really stepping up to the plate in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola. For us Simmonds is England’s find of the season. An absolute tiger in attack and defence we think he will get the better of his feisty opposite Welsh number Moriarty, especially at Twickenham. On the flanks Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes need no introduction, and bring a vast body of Test experience. However, we still think Lawes is ultimately more comfortable in the second row. Despite the experience of these two English veterans, we just think the Welsh pair are likely to be more explosive and unpredictable. Close battle to be sure but one in which we think Wales may get the upper hand.
Despite the slightly unsavory nature of English Coach Eddie Jones’ attacks in the press on Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell during the course of the week, it is ultimately mind games and we doubt that the Welsh youngster has risen to it. Patchell had a fantastic game against Scotland and showed a wisdom in terms of controlling the game well beyond his years and experience. Consequently, we expect more of the same despite the fact that it is a much bigger challenge. Scrum half Gareth Davies as many know is actually our Welsh scrum half of choice despite Rhys Webb being considered Wales’ finest. Consequently, if Patchell can keep his cool as he is likely to be targeted all afternoon, then Wales should be able to run a tight game here.
Having said that though, we still feel that England have the edge here, despite the X-factor we saw from Patchell last weekend. Danny Care at scrum half and George Ford at fly half need no introduction, and in a game like this Care’s inclusion in the starting XV may well prove decisive. Care is a great sniping runner, and his speed of delivery could be just what England need on Saturday. George Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre has proven to be a lethal combination for England, and we expect Sunday to be no different. It will really come down to which side establishes the most dominance by the time the replacements come on for the two scrum halves, as we actually think Wales may pack more surprises in the shape of Aled Davies than England’s Richard Wigglesworth. Despite some fierce competition here we can’t help feeling that England will ultimately exercise greater control over proceedings here.
Wales’ centre partnership of Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes were lethal last weekend and devastatingly effective at shredding Scottish defences. England’s Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph will have to bring all of their considerable Test experience to bear to contain these two. It’s that experience that we feel will ensure that England get the better of the two Welsh firecrackers. With Ben Te’o on the bench for England, the Men in White should be able to wrestle the game away from Wales here in the last quarter once the control needed has been established by Joseph and Farrell.
Welsh youth and exuberance meets English bedrock in this part of the field on Saturday. This is not to say that Wales is without its own calm head in the shape of fullback Leigh Halfpenny. However, the sheer speed and pace of the two Welsh youngsters last Saturday was a joy to watch. England’s Jonny May is now an established part of England’s back line and boasts a remarkable turn of pace coupled to an increasingly smart and accomplished game. Meanwhile on the opposite wing Anthony Watson showed off some blistering pace and strength in attack and defence against Italy. Add to the mix, the in your face attitude of Mike Brown at fullback for England, and this English trio is likely to cause Welsh defences all kinds of problem as well as Brown likely getting under the skin of the Welsh youngsters.
There were question marks around Welsh winger Steff Evans defensive capabilities during the November Internationals, but that has clearly been worked on but we still feel that it is going to be sorely tested against a very experienced and dangerous English offering. Evans is going to have to step his game up and then some to contain his opposite number Watson. Furthermore we just feel that away from home Welsh winger Josh Adams despite his obvious talents is just still too green to contain the likes of England’s Jonny May. In the fullback battle we prefer the calm head and more measured response of Wales’ Halfpenny in contrast to Brown’s bulldog approach to the game, and let’s not forget the value of the Welshman’s kicking game. However, overall we just feel that the experience of the two English wingers will see that in terms of the backs it’s going to be England’s day.
This should be one of the best games of the whole tournament, especially if Wales bring the kind of shift they put in against Scotland last weekend. If they do, the game should swing back and forth in a thrilling contest. However, it’s home advantage and England’s greater levels of experience at this level that should see the Men in White through a nail biting encounter. England to once more demonstrate their proven finishing abilities in a very close game, and the Men in White to seal the deal at the death by four points!
Scotland vs France
Sunday, February 11th
Scotland no doubt limped into Murrayfield earlier this week after the comprehensive hiding they were given by Wales last Saturday. However, a week is a long time in Test rugby. Sure the hype surrounding Scotland got put into perspective in no uncertain terms, but it still doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a very good Scottish team that is blessed with some remarkable talent. The likelihood of this Scottish team not turning up, in front of a delirious home crowd is in our opinion rather remote. Scotland may struggle on the road, but Murrayfield has definitely become a happy hunting ground for them this past year. Furthermore, we just don’t believe that Scotland can be as bad as they were last weekend. Lessons will have been learnt and some hard work done on the training pitch this week.
France travel to Scotland suffering from scars of their own both mental and physical. To have victory snatched from them at the death is hard for any team to take, especially when you’d been written off heading into it. Their performance against Ireland in difficult conditions took everyone, including Ireland, completely by surprise. Their defence was the stuff of legends and they were able to wrong foot the Irish defences to the point they were the only side to cross the whitewash. The question remains though – is this yet another false French dawn? We certainly hope not as the Six Nations without a strong French challenge just isn’t the same. A fascinating contest awaits for two sides with everything to prove.
Scotland got pushed around up front in Cardiff last weekend, and we can’t see much changing here on Sunday on Murrayfield. The French front row last weekend against Ireland were superb and Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado put in an inspirational performance. Consequently the French trio of Rabah Slimani, Guirado and Jefferson Poirot should use this experience to get the better of a relatively untried Scottish front row in the shape of Stuart McInally, Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan. Reid is no stranger to Test Rugby but his two partners are still finding their feet at this level. As a result despite feisty challenge from the Scots we expect France to win the day here.
Scotland’s second row just didn’t fire last weekend, but we expect it to do better on home soil, and feel that Grant Gilchrist is likely to make more of an impact than Ben Toolis. The French second row of Arthur Iturria and particularly Sebastien Vahaamahina caused Ireland all kind of problems last weekend, Vahaamahina in particular. However, despite his clear role as France’s enforcer, Vahaamahina fell foul of the referee’s whistle on numerous occasions last Saturday in Paris. Expect Scotland to push the French second rower here, and Gilchrist and Jonny Gray should be more effective in getting under the French pair’s skin while at the same time maintaining the upper hand from a disciplinary standpoint. A tight contest but one where Scotland on home ground should have the edge.
France are without the services of Kevin Gourdon here who had such an influence on proceedings last weekend in Paris against Ireland. As a result we hand this to Scotland fair and square. Even though they were rather flat last weekend in Cardiff, this is a world-class Scottish back row in the shape of flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson. We just can’t see them failing to turn up two weeks in a row. One of Scotland’s weak links last weekend was their number eight Cornell du Preez, but in Ryan Wilson this week we feel they have a far stronger contender. Consequently, the Scottish back row this weekend should reestablish the authority over loose play and the breakdown that characterised so many of their performances in November. France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara will be competitive but it will be a tall order for them to better a Scottish back row of this caliber at home and with a point to prove, even with Louis Picamoles on the bench for France.
We are still scratching our heads a bit on this one in terms of Scottish selections here. We would have thought that Ali Price’s remarkable speed and elusiveness would have ensured that he got the starting berth at scrum half, as opposed to the much more conservative Greig Laidlaw. However, in a game Scotland simply cannot afford to lose, we are assuming that Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend is opting for the reliability and leadership factor Laidlaw brings to the squad, with the X-factor of Price coming on in the final quarter once dominance has been established. France rely on two veteran players and that is perhaps what has shaped Townsend’s decision-making. Lionel Beauxis and Maxime Machenaud are no strangers to Test rugby, though Beauxis hasn’t played at Test level in almost six years. Scotland should establish control over proceedings here, but will have to be on their guard once the bench gets called into play, and here France may have the edge in Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau. Caution will definitely be the better part of valor here especially in the dying stages of the game. Scotland to have the upper hand for much of the match but France to push them hard in the final quarter.
Scotland at home should come out on top here, as they have an excellent centre pairing in Huw Jones and Peter Horne, though we felt the latter had an off game at times when he came off the bench last weekend. Chris Harris was simply put in the shade last weekend by Wales and hence he finds himself on the bench this weekend, but in front of the Murrayfield faithful he should have much more traction than he did last weekend when he does come on.
France however pack some serious firepower in the shape of Remi Lamerat and La Rochelle sensation Geoffrey Doumayrou. In our opinion if these two click then they are likely to prove more of a strike threat, however it is Huw Jones blinding pace and ability to spot gaps for the Scots, especially at his preferred position of outside centre that makes us think Scotland are likely to have the edge here.
So this week we are not going to fall into the trap we did last week by getting carried away by the supposed prowess of Scotland’s back line. Sure it is definitely there, but as was shown in Cardiff it can be contained. France showed in Teddy Thomas they have a player who can be a game changer, and his fellow winger Virimi Vakatawa is a proven strike threat. Add to that the fact that France’s back line put in a very solid defensive effort and Scotland despite their obvious prowess here will need to use their full bag of tricks if they are to score tries.
This week Scotland have Sean Maitland on the wing and we were surprised to not see him get a start in Cardiff. Alongside Tommy Seymour this is a fearsome attacking unit and Thomas and Vakatawa will have to be at their defensive best for France, especially as Seymour is unlikely to be as flat as he was in Cardiff. Geoffrey Palis gave a good account of himself against Ireland for France at fullback. However, trying to contain the flying form of Stuart Hogg at home and with a point to prove is probably too much of an ask for the young Frenchman. Scotland’s renowned pace and prowess in this part of the park should live up to its justified reputation at France’s expense here on Sunday.
Very much a do or die match for both sides so expect them to throw everything at it. Scotland simply can’t be as lifeless and inept as they were last weekend. France on the other hand will want to prove that French rugby has returned with a vengeance to the Test arena, so expect the sparks to fly on a day where the weather should favor a fast and free-flowing game from both sides. It will be close and plenty of drama should be on offer. Nevertheless, home advantage should give Scotland the slightest edge here and take the contest by four points, in a game that is likely to hang in the balance till the final five minutes!
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