What a weekend lies ahead! There is so much to play for this weekend for all the teams, and the stakes are higher than they have been in a long time at the midway point of the tournament. There are potential upsets on the cards, there are new combinations to be tried, and there are losses to be avoided at all costs. If you want high drama you’ve picked what is clearly going to be one of the biggest rugby weekends of the 2018 season. The history and passion are all there, and this weekend the ramifications for the winners and losers are perhaps bigger than even the final weekend when one team finally gets to lift the trophy.
A fascinating contest starts proceedings in Marseille between France and Italy on Friday. There are so many variables here that it is almost impossible to call. France simply have to win as do Italy, otherwise the rest of their Championship is in tatters and the sole focus becomes avoiding the wooden spoon. France due to off field disciplinary problems post the Scottish match, field a side that lacks the cohesion and spark that we have seen so far. Italy are staying faithful to a team that seems to be hitting the targets in terms of improvement that Coach Conor O’Shea is setting them. Italy will set their sights on one match and we think this is the one where they are most likely to cause an upset.
A very confident Welsh side, despite the close loss to England in Round 2, travels to Dublin for a tough encounter with an Irish side that still looks like a work in progress. While Ireland may still, along with England, be the favourites, they have yet to really convince. Lapses in concentration caught them out against Italy, and against France they struggled to break through a solid defence. Wales completely dismantled a Scottish side at the beginning of the tournament. Despite a poor opening 50 minutes against England, Wales regrouped in a spectacular fashion and proceeded to dominate the final 30 minutes. Wales do not seem phased by playing away from home. If they had put in the kind of performance they pulled out of the hat against England in the last half hour at Twickenham for the full eighty minutes, then there is no doubt they could have pulled off the first big upset of the tournament. They are settled, lean and hungry and look the part. Irish supporters will be rightly feeling more than just a little uncertain and nervous as to how this game is going pan out. Wales seem to have recovered from their injury woes but Ireland, as so often happens in the Six Nations, seem to have their injury problems mounting with each successive match. Consequently Ireland find themselves heading into such a crucial match with far more unknowns than Wales do. The Welsh leaders have been determined and are present and accounted for this Saturday. Ireland however, while having many leaders amongst them will also need to find some new role models on Saturday.
Finally it’s Calcutta Cup time! There is a danger that, just like last year, this match ends up being overhyped into the damp squib it ended up turning into at Scotland’s expense. Sure it’s at Murrayfield and Scotland’s motivation in front of a home crowd is likely be off the charts, but can they keep the emotion in check and deal with an English side that caused us to reach for a very stiff drink once the team sheets came out? It’s an English juggernaut up against a fleet-footed Scottish sports car. There are brains aplenty on both sides but this is a clinical and ruthless English side taking on an ambitious Scottish team who like to take risks. If England suffocate Scotland up front and their backs and half back combinations keep Scotland’s defences stretched thin, then it will be a long afternoon for the Scots. If on the other hand Scotland manage to keep quick ball and avoid getting bogged down in the physical battles, then they have proved that they can be very difficult to contain. Scotland are unlikely to get the better of England in the set pieces but if they can keep to a fast and loosely structured game that allows them to exercise their remarkable counterattacking ability from deep, then they might just make this a Calcutta epic we”ll all be talking about for many years to come.
So without any further ado let’s get into the head to heads for a weekend that promises some fascinating matchups!
France vs Italy
Friday, February 23rd
A truly fascinating encounter awaits us in the South of France today. By the time you read this you will probably know the result, so whatever we write may be purely academic. Nevertheless, we all can’t wait to get home tonight and spool up the tape of this one. As mentioned above both sides desperately need a win, and after the off-field shenanigans in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, France have certainly made life harder for themselves. We genuinely feel that Italy are making progress this year, and really only need to perform a dramatic overhaul of the defensive efforts by their current squad. They have had a fortnight to do it, look like a settled side and are clearly in the mood to cause an upset. France on the other hand have looked solid at times especially defensively, but an ongoing problem with discipline on and off the field mean that they only have themselves to blame for the handicap they head into this match with.
Fortunately for France the off-field antics a fortnight ago have not affected the composition of a very reliable and solid French front row. Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, and props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot all return to front line duty having impressed in the first two rounds. By the same token so have Italy’s offering of the experienced Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and props Simone Ferrari and Andrea Lovotti. The disciplinary weak links are Poirot for France and Ghiraldini for Italy. Expect an even battle here, but France’s experience and the inspirational presence of Guirado should give les Bleus the upper hand here.
The presence of Sebastien Vahaamahina alone should ensure French dominance here, especially if he can keep his discipline together. He has been a real enforcer for France this tournament, and with Guirado being solid at the lineout this is one area where the French should dictate proceedings. There will be a fiesty Italian challenge in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd, but a powerful French unit should see the men in Blue have the edge.
This is the one area of the park, where by the narrowest of margins, we think Italy has the edge. Italy are fielding a very strong back row with the legendary Sergio Parisse being the talisman at number eight. Flanker Sebastian Negri has really impressed so far this tournament and his colleague Maxime Mbanda is a ferocious tackler. It’s a solid French unit in the shape of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret, but Marco Tauleigne up against the legendary Sergio Parisse is a big ask. Mbanda’s relentless tackling, Negri’s elusiveness and Parisse’s inspiration should see Italy get the better of proceedings in this part of the field today.
There is no question that France are struggling with selection and consistency here, despite a wealth of talent at their disposal. We were very surprised to see Lionel Beauxis get the nod again against Italy at fly half. We thought he had a very poor game against Scotland. Maxime Machenaud brings plenty to the table for France at scrum half, but his opposite number Marcello Violi has also caught the eye so far this tournament. Meanwhile Italy’s Tommaso Allan has been a firm favorite of ours for a while now. Italy are blessed with two quality fly halves in the shape of Allan and Carlo Canna who awaits on the bench. On the other hand we cannot understand the choice of Francois Trinh-Duc as a bench replacement for Beauxis. To us this smacks of desperation and a clear lack of imagination from French Coach Jacques Brunel. Machenaud’s replacement Kelian Galletier is a very exciting prospect, but the transition from Top 14 superstar to Test Rugby is a big ask, especially given what’s at stake for France in terms of pressure today. Italy, to have the more level head here.
With the exciting Geoffrey Doumayrou from La Rochelle and Toulon’s Mathieu Basteraud, this French centre pairing needs no introduction. However, as impressive as Doumayrou has been at club level we don’t really feel that he has found his feet at Test level yet. Add to this we are not sure that he and Basteraud will gel today, and once more we actually fancy Italy’s chances here. Basteraud may be a bruising ball carrier and devastating tackler, but he is rather easy to read and get the measure of defensively as well as not being the fastest defender if you are able to wrong foot him. We think Italy’s centre pairing of the two Tommasos looks far more dangerous. If Boni has fixed his defensive liabilities and improved his basic skill set then he could be a real threat to France. However, it is Castello who has been the real eye opener for Italy this tournament and the contest between him and the rather predictable Basteraud should be fascinating, with the Italian creating more opportunities and being harder to read. Italy to be more creative here, especially if Boni has really done his homework over the last two weeks.
Having not watched any of the Top 14, we simply don’t know enough about France’s back line other than fullback Hugo Bonneval to really comment. We’ve heard good things about the wingers Remy Grosso and Benjamin Fall but don’t really know what to expect of them as a Test unit. Italy on the other hand, especially in the shape of Matteo Minozzi at fullback, have looked spectacular at times. Tommaso Benevenuti has got some real speed out wide and Mattia Bellini is an ever improving prospect on the wings. Once again if Italy have done their homework here especially on defence out wide, they could spring some real surprises here today. We’ve seen this Italian back line in action and really like the look of it, so on the basis of familiarity and the caveat of them having done their homework regarding defence, we’re giving it to Italy by the slimmest of margins.
It’s France at home, albeit in Marseille, which with its proximity to the Italian border should mean that there is a larger Italian presence in the stands then had this been played at Stade de France. Consequently, although France are benefitting from home advantage, it’s perhaps less of an advantage than some would think. France will be motivated make no mistake, as the ramifications of a loss today are too painful to contemplate. However, we just think the Italian squad is more cohesive and familiar with each other. If they have done their homework this could be their one big match of the tournament, especially as they have shown they have some genuine talent at their disposal and in our opinion are packing a better bench. As Italy showed against Ireland, they actually played their best rugby in the final quarter, which will put them in good stead against a French team facing questions about their fitness. A messy affair at times, but one in which Italy will cause the bookmakers grief and steal it by one point!
Ireland vs Wales
Saturday, February 25th
If you’re an Irish supporter you are no doubt feeling more than just a little nervous about the proceedings in Dublin tomorrow. If you’re a Welsh supporter you could be forgiven for feeling more than just a little optimistic about your team’s chances. Of one thing we can be sure, it is likely to be a titanic struggle with both sides desperately hoping that the physical toll it is likely to inflict will not add to their respective injury woes. Ireland as a result of injuries are being forced to take more of a gamble, whereas Wales welcome back from injury some key players and consequently field a team that is a proven entity and rapidly developing into the form team of the Championship.
Ireland are without the services of the extraordinary Tadgh Furlong at Tighthead Prop, and although his replacement Andrew Porter is an impressive performer for Leinster, to really cut your straps at Test level in a match of such extraordinary intensity is a very tall order. He will be ably supported by Hooker and Captain Rory Best and fellow Prop Cian Healy, but Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them in containing the Welsh front three. Props Rob Evans and Samson Lee with Hooker Ken Owens have been outstanding so far this tournament and are going to put enormous pressure on the Irish new boy. Consequently, we see Wales getting the upper hand here for the first hour. However, once Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath come off the bench the pendulum should swing back in Ireland’s favor. Nevertheless, if the Welsh trio manage to wreak enough havoc in the first 60 minutes than Wales should have this contest sewn up.
It’s the X-factor of Ireland’s James Ryan which will determine the outcome of this contest. Since that is almost impossible to predict at this stage we give the battle to Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Corey Hill, both of whom have been immense for Wales in the tournament so far. Wales have been consistent at the lineouts, and if Rory Best’s throwing is off the mark for Ireland under pressure then expect the Welsh to have a field day with disrupting Ireland here. Ryan is clearly the smoking gun for Ireland that could turn proceedings upside down, but he is only just back from injury so we wait and see. We feel the benches are weak for both sides in this department so it will really depend who gets the upper hand by the hour mark, and we fancy Wales here until we see what Ryan brings to the party for Ireland.
One of THE contests of the weekend without a doubt, and probably where the game is going to be won or lost. Impossible to call and with such talent swelling the ranks on both sides, including the bench, we give this to Ireland by the slimmest of margins and simply on the basis of home advantage. The Welsh partnership of Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi has been spectacular since the November Internationals and just gets better with every outing. Add to this the mighty Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and this is a really fearsome unit. Ross Moriarity at number eight is rapidly getting back to his best and these four Welshmen are going to make their Irish counterparts sweat for the full eighty minutes. Ireland have an exciting mix of seasoned veterans and blazing young talent in their offering. CJ Stander continues to be the talk of post match statistics, while Peter O’Mahony’s commitment to the cause and work rate are consistently reliable. Leinster’s Dan Leavy has relished his call up to the Test Arena at openside flanker, and his clubmate Jack Conan has been extraordinary in Leinster’s European Champions Cup campaign. So simply far too close to call, with the only possible deciding factor being home advantage which causes us to give it to Ireland by the slimmest of margins. However, Ireland cannot afford to fall off the boil for fifteen minutes here as they have in their opening two rounds of the Championship.
Like most Irish supporters we will be breathing huge sighs of relief if Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray emerge at the final whistle without any injuries. This is going to be a hugely physical encounter and one where these two Irishmen will be clearly in the sights of the Welsh back row all afternoon. The Welsh back row have no doubt been practising against tackle bags with Sexton and Murray’s faces painted on them all week. Wales know that they face one of the best half back partnerships in Test Rugby, equal to New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith. Sexton and Murray are masters of their respective trades plain and simple. Dan Biggar returns to the Welsh fold at fly half after injury, but he will need to find his feet again fast. Although brilliant at times, his reputation for having the odd seriously wobbly performance is well documented. His partner Gareth Davies at scrum half is no stranger to the try line and excels at catching opposition defences off guard especially from deep. The benches are solid for both sides, with Wales’ Gareth Anscombe looking particularly good against England a fortnight ago. However, we just think that Ireland pack so much X-factor in Joey Carberry that given Sexton and Murray’s pedigree Ireland should have the clear advantage here tomorrow.
Once again as a result of injury Ireland are being forced to experiment here, whereas Wales have the advantage of consistency since November. The loss of Robbie Henshaw for Ireland was a bitter blow, and with electric centre Gary Ringrose, not quite fit enough after injury Ireland have more questions than answers here right now. Consequently it’s an untried combination of Connacht centre Bundee Aki and Munster’s Chris Farrell. Both these players remind us more of Springbok centre partnerships of old, comprising of bruising ball carriers than the dancing feet of the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. They will be a good match for the physical combination of Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams. Parkes in particular is fast and physical and, as seen in his performances with the Scarlets in the European Champions Cup and PRO14, can carve opposition defences wide open. Hard to read defensively we feel there is just a bit more proven complexity to Wales in the middle of the field than Ireland’s untried offering. Consequently, Wales should have the upper hand unless the Irish duo turn out to be the revelation of the tournament.
Fast and furious are the words that come to mind here. Wales look good here make no mistake but we think home advantage and some genuine pace and unpredictability out wide favor Ireland. Rob Kearney will field whatever high balls come his way and provide strong fullback cover for Ireland, while Leigh Halfpenny’s positional awareness for Wales is second to none, allied to a boot that rarely misses. Two experienced fullbacks with differing skill sets will provide a level playing field here. However, it’s the contest on the wings that is likely to provide the most excitement. Ireland’s Keith Earls is having probably the best season of an impressive career, and newcomer Jacob Stockdale is able to cross the try line with alarming regularity. Question marks remain about his defensive abilities, but then the same could be said of Wales’ Steff Evans who is also rapidly making a name for himself on the Test circuit. Liam Williams is a proven performer for Wales and his ability to attack from deep is the stuff of legends. Two very good back lines go head to head here, but we think that Wales might just have the edge here, especially if they expose any defensive weaknesses in Ireland and George North makes a telling impact off the bench. However, it’s home advantage and Earls’ reputation for try saving tackles and Sexton’s ability to put him in the right place at the right time, along with Stockdale’s try scoring ability that should see Ireland just get the upper hand.
Ireland should win, but we can’t help feeling that this Welsh team looks the more complete unit. Consequently we’re bucking the bookies predictions and calling it in favour of Wales. It is going to be a clash of Titans, and we like many are anxious about the potential body count come the final whistle, especially given how this could ultimately influence the fortunes of these two teams for the remainder of the tournament. One of the biggest matches of the Championship without a doubt, but a more confident and settled Welsh side to just squeak it in a hugely physical and close match against the odds by 2 points!
Scotland vs England
Saturday, February 25th
If you have’nt been rushed off to the hospital for heart surgery after the Ireland/Wales game, then another epic encounter awaits you in Test Rugby’s oldest fixture – the annual Calcutta dustup between England and Scotland. England are clear favorites despite the match taking place north of Hadrian’s Wall this year. England simply look too polished and focused, and they are masters of being able to grind out hard victories. Scotland will put in a highly spirited challenge in front of an exceptionally vocal home crowd, but so far we just have’nt seen that killer instinct from them, despite them almost getting a shock win over the All Blacks in November. There are few, ourselves included, who doubt Scotland’s ability to cause an upset tomorrow, but it is going to require a super human effort against a very frightening looking English team. So keep those defibrillators to hand as we go through the head to heads.
Scotland showed against France that despite their injury concerns they can be exceptionally competitive up front with Hooker Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan being some genuine good news for Scotland. Add into the mix seasoned terrier Gordon Reid and there is plenty of potential for Scotland to be competitive here. However, that English front row has looked alarmingly solid for a long time now. Dylan Hartley continues to justify his spot at Hooker and Captain, while Props Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole just consistently get the job done with ruthless efficiency. England pack a frightening looking bench to continue their efforts, and while it is great to see Scotland’s WP Nel back from injury, we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction up front. England to comfortably dominate proceedings at the coal face here.
Ouch! Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje – you know that is going to hurt all afternoon. Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist will put on a brave display of giving as good as they get but we just can’t see them getting the better of the English pair plain and simple, even with Tim Swinson on the bench for the Scots. Also England have George Kruis waiting to come on for some added havoc and it is likely to be a long and potentially painful afternoon for Scotland in this part of the park.
We know that Scotland’s flanker pairing of Hamish Watson and John Barclay can compete with the best in the world, the question is will they show up on Saturday and not have the kind of missing in action performance they had in Cardiff at the start of the tournament? We personally feel that they are the more creative unit than the English powerhouse duo of Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw. If the English simply outmuscle the Scots here and suffocate them in the loose due to their overwhelming physicality, especially with Nathan Hughes backing them up at number eight, it could well be game over for Scotland early on. Add to this the fact that Lawes is famous for destroying fly halves and, much of Scotland’s attention here will be focused on protecting Finn Russell who so desperately needs to put in a big performance for Scotland. Scotland have the talent here of that there is no doubt, we just fear they won’t be allowed to express themselves and if they get forced to hit the panic button by half time, can’t help feeling that this is where England are going to take the game away from them.
Scotland’s Finn Russell knows he needs to put in one of the biggest performances of his career to date tomorrow. The question is does he have the big match temperament to pull it off? England will work relentlessly on him all afternoon, and he will be aware that himself and Courtney Lawes are likely to develop a very physical relationship throughout the game. Greg Laidlaw will provide plenty of big match experience and wisdom to his young fly half, and the veteran scrum half may not be the most exciting player on the park, but his reliability in the heat of the moment is legendary. Danny Care and George Ford are clicking nicely since the Italian match and add Owen Farrell to the 10-12 axis and the results are consistently there for all to see. Russell’s key strength is his unpredictability especially in terms of getting Scotland’s back line shifting through the gears out wide. If he does manage to do this then England could be in for some very uncomfortable surprises. However, in terms of game management and control we just feel that England are better suited for the task at hand. If the game is close by the time the benches make their appearance and Scotland is not in panic mode, then the added X-factor of Ali Price could swing a tight match Scotland’s way – but it’s a big if. England simply look to polished and well-drilled here for us to think that England won’t be running the show at 9 and 10.
Scotland’s Huw Jones is one of the most exciting centres in Test rugby right now and exceptionally hard to defend against. However, that English partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is so accomplished that we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction here. The jury is still very much out for us on Scotland’s Peter Horne – we don’t think he’s a bad player, we’re just not sure that Scotland have figured out yet where best to play him. Furthermore, can Nick Grigg really make the step up to Test Rugby off the bench for Scotland in a match of this kind of intensity? A spirited Scottish challenge in prospect, but once more a clinical and rather ruthless English approach should see the Men in White determine the run of play here.
Scotland’s abilities to turn games on their head from this part of the park is well documented. Fullback Stuart Hogg and wingers Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour are strike runners of note, and England’s Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Mike Brown are going to have to be at their sharpest to keep these three in check especially on the fringes. As a strike threat, we think Scotland have the edge here over England, especially if Russell finds his groove and is consistently able to put the three of them in space. England’s offering of Anthony Watson and Jonny May on the wings are a superb counter, especially May’s ability to cover enormous distances at extraordinary speed. Mike Brown at fullback is an absolute bulldog and was exceptional under the high ball against Wales, though Scotland are unlikely to give him as much work as Wales did. Hard to call here, but we are going with Scotland, simply because of the element of surprise which seems such an integral part of their playing style – but only just. Also much of that will depend on what kind of game Finn Russell has. Scotland will also really have to make this unit count early on as England offer the more experienced bench in the shape of Jack Nowell over Scotland’s untried but exciting Blair Kinghorn.
Our heart says Scotland, and we really hope that the enormity of the occasion doesn’t unhinge the Scots the way it did for this fixture last year at Twickenham. However, our heads are going with England in what should be an enthralling match. It will be close and the weather would appear to favor a fast and open game, but expect England to put the brakes on the Scottish speedsters from the get go. An exceptionally well-drilled English side to keep an exciting Scottish side in check for eighty minutes, despite home advantage for Scotland, and as a result England to take it by six points!
Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!