We are in for a rather exciting Saturday this weekend, as Ireland attempt to sew up the Championship by Round 4. However, it won’t be that simple as in order to do so they have to get past a Scottish side buoyed by their recent epic win against England a fortnight ago. Ireland will be counting on home advantage, and Scotland’s traditionally poor record away from home, as extra strings to a bow that is likely to leave little to chance. Meanwhile England travel to a wet and rainy Paris to take on a French side, who despite only just starting to show signs of emerging from a long dark period, are likely to still manage to turn it on for this match between these two traditional rivals. In their last few outings England have not looked the side that seemed unbeatable since their horrific exit from the last World Cup, and although they still are a formidable side they look vulnerable and France will be keenly aware of this.
The weekend kicks off with a potentially thrilling encounter, as current tournament favorites Ireland take on Scotland. Ireland are the only team left in the running for the Grand Slam, but after Scotland’s superb win against England a fortnight ago, Scotland are still very much in the hunt for the title if they can buck the bookmakers predictions and beat Ireland in Dublin. Ireland have been masters of hanging onto the ball this tournament, but Scotland have excelled in turning more limited possession into try scoring opportunities. Scotland have been fantastic out wide and the Irish defenses will have to be absolutely clinical on Saturday in denying Scotland quick ball and the split second chances they thrive on. However, Scotland traditionally struggle on the road in this tournament and it remains to be seen if they can turn the history books upside down on Saturday.
England travel to Paris where they take on a French side that has shown some real promise at times in this tournament, and whose defence certainly looks the part. Like many, we have felt that ever since the November Internationals England has looked a tad ordinary after their barnstorming run of back to back victories post the last World Cup. They have the talent of that there is no doubt, but it has all looked just a little flat and thin on creativity of late. France meanwhile, certainly look more robust than they have in a long time, and while they may only have one win to their credit in the tournament, we still can’t help feeling that there is one big game to come from them before this year’s Six Nations wraps up next weekend, and we have a hunch that this will be it.
On Sunday, a Welsh team that has impressed in all three of their matches, despite having only one win to their credit take on an Italian side, who are once more clearly on their way to brandishing the wooden spoon. Italy travel to Cardiff knowing that the odds are definitely against them, and despite some positives this tournament for the Azurri, there is still a mountain of work to get through before they can realistically aspire to finishing in the top four of the Six Nations table. Although Wales are out of the hunt for the silverware this year, the chance of a very strong second place finish is most definitely on the cards for them, so expect them to show no mercy to their Italian visitors as they go on the hunt for the maximum amount of points possible. A solid second place for Wales would be an excellent testament to how well their World Cup preparations are progressing, as a wealth of new talent has really stood out for them since November.
So as always let’s get into the head to head matchups.
Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 10th
So the big question is, can Ireland make it 4 from 4 and head off to Twickenham next week with the Championship sewn up and simply a Grand Slam to chase? Or will Scotland upset the party and prove that the form they showed against England can also be replicated on the road? Either way a potentially thrilling encounter is in prospect and this will clearly be THE game of the weekend. Scotland stick with the side that blew England away at Murrayfield with only one enforced change on the wing. Ireland meanwhile welcome the return of centre extraordinaire Gary Ringrose, and scrum wrecking ball Tadhg Furlong.
Scotland put on a blinding display that favored their open and fast running game a fortnight ago under sunny skies at Murrayfield. This Saturday, the ground will be slicker due to rain and unlikely to offer the kind of fast pitch on which Scotland so clearly excel. In many ways it will favor Ireland’s patient and clinical dominance of possession, with the forwards being quick to snuff out any opportunity for Scotland to exploit gaps in defence. It’s Ireland’s legendary speed at the breakdown, along with the talents of probably the best half back combination in Test Rugby outside of New Zealand, that will mean Ireland should have the upper hand in terms of controlling the game and the pace at which they want to play it. Scotland are likely to have few chances on Saturday, but when they do they are more than capable of turning the tables in their favor. Provided Scotland show up unlike their opening encounter in Wales, this duel between Ireland and Scotland could be one of the most exciting of the Championship.
Scotland’s much publicised injury woes affecting their front row prior to the tournament seem to have caused them little if any difficulty after their disastrous opening against Wales. The turnaround in a mere week was nothing short of remarkable, and in so doing unearthed a depth of talent in this part of the park that few thought Scotland had. While Ireland may have the more cohesive and experienced overall unit, Scotland will be extremely competitive here. Props Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan are exceptional scrappers and Hooker Stuart McInally has been outstanding. They’ll give as good as they get against Irish props Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Captain and Hooker Rory Best. However the combined experience of the Irish trio is much greater at this level, and if Best can find his mark at lineout time then Ireland should just have the upper hand here. We’re also excited about the battle of the benches in this part of the park as both teams pack a complete front row replacement, with Ireland’s perhaps having a bit more of the wow factor in the shape of Andrew Porter and the experience of Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath.
We like the look of both units here, but once again think Ireland has the slight edge. Devin Toner has the experience paired up with the remarkable James Ryan, with the youngster demonstrating a phenomenal work rate. Scotland are no slackers here in the shape of the exceptional Jonny Gray, but the jury is out for us as to whether or not Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist is of the same calibre as the Irish pair, despite a very strong showing at times against England a fortnight ago. Once again though it is the Irish bench which packs the killer punch in the shape of Ian Henderson, even though we have been fans of Scotland’s Tim Swinson for a while now, and think he is one of Scotland’s most underrated players.
Ireland’s forward dominance should continue here, but once again is likely to be put to the sternest of Tests by Scotland. Flankers Hamish Watson and John Barclay have put in some blinding performances in Scotland’s last two outings, and expect more of the same. Ryan Wilson at number eight will be troublesome, but it is unlikely he will be able to match Ireland’s CJ Stander whose ball carrying statistics so far this tournament are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy will be a solid counterweight to the jackaling abilities of Watson and Barclay, and we just feel that the Irish unit is the more powerful of the two, even at the expense of being more predictable. With Jordi Murphy on the bench for Ireland, they too should be able to throw in their own degree of X-factor and while like most we rate Scotland’s replacement number eight David Denton, for overall composure and big match temperament under pressure, the contest should be Ireland’s to win.
Can Finn Russell display the master class he put on against England a fortnight ago? One thing is for certain we know the Irish pair of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray can – and then some! Greg Laidlaw brings the experience and wisdom needed at this level to the scrum half position for Scotland, and should help steer his younger partner through the pressure hurdles he’ll be up against. Add to the Laidlaw equation a reliable source of points through the boot and Scotland will pose a threat make no mistake. However, we just feel that Sexton and Murray are so clearly at the top of their game right now that Ireland should have this aspect of proceedings comfortably sewn up. Ireland know that Russell can be easily rattled and will be seeking every opportunity to ensure this happens, and if it does Scotland’s game management suddenly looks full of holes and rather rudderless. Poise and class in the shape of Ireland meets reliability and X-factor in the shape of Scotland on Saturday, and in our opinion it’s the former that will triumph on the day, especially with Joey Carberry on the bench for Ireland. However, before Irish supporters can get too relaxed Scotland pack their own bench weapon in the shape of scrum half Ali Price.
It’s here that Scotland starts to look the more threatening proposition. Watch the replays of centre Huw Jones in action against England if you don’t believe us, especially as after a full sprint halfway across the field he manages to drag two English defenders across the try line with him. Clearly a contender for World Player of the Year if ever there was one. His partner Peter Horne will have his work cut out for him trying to contain the dancing feet of Ireland’s Gary Ringrose, but this is the Irishman’s first return to Test duty after a lengthy absence with injury so it remains to be seen how effective Ringrose is. If he does have his full game legs with him then expect plenty of action from one end of the field to the other from Ringrose and Jones. In short a thrilling contest in this part of the park, with Ireland’s Bundee Aki clearly having the defensive Test of his career as he tries to contain the exuberant Jones. We were just so in awe of Jones’ performance against England and unsure of Ringrose’s fitness post injury, that we hand this contest to Scotland.
Another epic tussle awaits in this part of the field between two exceptionally talented back lines. On the wings Ireland look devastating in the shape of Jacob Stockdale and veteran Keith Earls. Earls is having the tournament of his career, and we are still rerunning the tape of his extraordinary 60+ metre sprint to make a try saving tackle in the Italian match. In short no concerns about his level of fitness or defensive capabilities. Stockdale is the tournament’s leading try scorer, despite Scotland’s Huw Jones snapping at his heels, and expect plenty of fireworks from the Irish speedster in front of a delirious home crowd. Consequently, out wide we’re handing it to Ireland, despite some questions around Stockdale on defense. Scotland field the untried Blair Kinghorn on the wing and it remains to be seen if his remarkable performances on the PRO14 circuit can be replicated at Test level. Sean Maitland will put Keith Earls’ defensive abilities to the sternest of Tests, but we just feel the Irish pair look the more dangerous and accomplished. It’s at fullback where Scotland should cause Ireland all kinds of difficulties in the shape of that man Stuart Hogg. Elusive, fast and with an exceptional eye for opportunity we just feel he is a vastly more dynamic player than Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Kearney may be great under the high ball and in his defense he is having one of his most competitive seasons in a while, but Hogg’s sheer X-factor makes him the more difficult to manage of the two.
However, overall we feel it’s Ireland’s strength on the wings which should get them through. Furthermore, while we talk of X-factor, we have to make mention of the benches and Ireland’s in particular. While we agree that Jordan Larmour didn’t quite have the Test debut against Italy we had hoped for, and was clearly a liability in defence, we feel he is such a talent in the making that he will have learnt a great deal from that opening outing in the green shirt. So much so, that players that sharp are unlikely to make the same the same mistakes again. Consequently, in a match of such key importance, we salute Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s decision to give the youngster another shot at glory off the bench. If that isn’t faith in your preparations leading up the World Cup then we don’t know what is!
We agree with most punters out there that this is Ireland’s game to lose and Scotland’s to win. We haven’t seen enough consistency from Scotland on the road, especially when it comes to the Six Nations to see them suddenly turning the form books on their head. Sure they were the underdogs against England, but they were at home. While they are the clear underdogs here, overturning an Irish side that for the most part is humming along nicely and looks exceptionally well-drilled, will be a very tall order away from home. Not impossible but clearly a challenge that is yet another step up from the one they faced at home against England a fortnight ago. All that said though it should be a barnstormer of a match, and one that is likely to keep both sets of supporters on the edge of their seats, but Ireland to ultimately pull away by seven and with a bonus point!
France vs England
Saturday, March 10th
A game that England has to win in order to stay in the hunt for the title, and a game that France will desperately want to win to show that they are back and mean business once more. England find themselves in an awkward position where after having been the dominant force in Northern Hemisphere rugby for the last two years, it would appear that their competitors are catching up to them and in some cases moving past them. England appear rather static at the moment, and their brutal efficiency in grinding out wins no longer seems sufficient as other teams appear smarter and more creative. That was clearly in evidence a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, as England found themselves with more questions than answers as a smart and fleet-footed Scotland outwitted them across the park. Some have said that England have peaked too early and that Coach Eddie Jones is a one-trick pony. We don’t believe either assertion. Jones is one smart operator, just see how he dismantled South Africa with his Japanese charges against all the odds in the last World Cup. Furthermore, England are blessed with the kind of depth of talent that most teams can only fantasize about. If England can use the final two matches in the tournament to really find that missing spark of creativity, then it should be back to full steam ahead for their World Cup preparations.
France have shown promise at times during the course of the tournament. They have a defence that is rock solid for the most part, and a bruising forward pack that can put in the hard yards. As we saw in the match against Italy, their backs also have some real potential and given the right opportunities can be a potent attacking weapon. As we’ve said all along France have one BIG game in them this tournament, especially at home and we have a hunch that Saturday’s fixture may just be that match.
England’s trio should have the ascendancy but it is going to be close, especially in front of an exceptionally vocal French crowd. However, the presence of Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole who have been consistently reliable for England should be the calm heads under pressure that England needs in such a volatile encounter. We’re fans of England Hooker Jamie George but he is going to have to be at his best to get the better of French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado. Nevertheless we still feel that Jefferson Poirot is the one weak link in terms of discipline for France and Dan Cole will be seeking to exploit it to the full. Rabah Slimani is outstanding at tighthead but going up against Vunipola is a big ask even at home. The benches look relatively even but we still fancy England’s chances here to assert some real dominance for the full eighty minutes, despite the disciplinary liabilities posed by England’s Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler.
Once again providing they fire, we think the English duo of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje should get the better of a very good French pair in Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues. Vahaamahina can be a real enforcer for France and clearly responds well to a home crowd. Although the English pair have looked slightly flat at times this tournament, we still feel they have the higher pedigree and should get the better of the contest.
This is a tight battle but, perhaps against the grain, we feel that France at home could have a better day here. England, as has been well documented, look unbalanced in this part of the park, whereas France seem to have developed a settled and effective unit. We’ve been impressed by the two French flankers Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret. They’re aggressive and just seem more comfortable in their roles than England’s out of position Courtney Lawes, and a valiant but overworked Chris Robshaw. Furthermore, Marco Tauleigne at number eight for France, although relatively new to the squad, had put in some big shifts. Much was expected of Nathan Hughes in the match against Scotland by England, but even he seemed out of place at times. This is France’s part of the park to dominate and we feel they might just pull it off on Saturday. The only real ace up England’s sleeve is Sam Simmonds off the bench, a player we feel is the way forward for England at number eight.
England are not firing here for some reason, with Danny Care at scrum half appearing too impulsive at times and fly half George Ford just not hitting the high standards we have come to expect from him. France are not much better off as they seem devoid of a suitable fly half at the moment, and consequently scrum half Maxime Machenaud is left doing all the hard work. Machenaud is a fine player and boasts some serious experience, but he is being asked to do a great deal – too much in our opinion. Consequently, we feel that despite their problems England are better placed to run the show here on Saturday. France’s choice of Francois Trinh-Duc leaves us scratching our heads as there surely must be better options given the resources available to France. Add to the mix, the fact that England pack a much more experienced bench replacement in the shape of Richard Wigglesworth, and France are going to have to work too hard here on Saturday unless England have a complete implosion.
Owen Farrell may be one of the best all round players in the modern game but he needs a unit and partnership to work with, something he seems to be lacking at the moment. His partner for Saturday, Ben Te’o is an impressive operator but we just don’t see the two of them gelling all that well together. Farrell is also unlikely to be happy about the fact that French battering ram Mathieu Basteraud will be running at him all afternoon. France’s other centre Geoffrey Doumayrou has been a star at La Rochelle, and seems to have made a comfortable transition to the Test arena. Consequently, we feel that France are likely to get under the skin of the English pair giving rise to yet another unsettled performance. Jonathan Joseph is on the bench for England and, despite some dips in form, he is still a potential game breaker given the right opportunities. However, we just feel that France at home may cause the English pair too much grief in this part of the park to really establish any kind of rhythm or the control that Farrell is synonymous with.
This is where England should come to the fore despite some significant French opposition. This match sees the return of Elliot Daly on the left wing, which is a huge boost for England, as in our opinion he is one of the Men in White’s finest all round players with some exceptional versatility. Jonny May has one of the most blistering turns of speed in Test rugby, even if lingering concerns exist about his defensive abilities. Anthony Watson switches to fullback in place of Mike Brown, and we can’t help feeling that we are likely to be seeing this more and more as England build towards the World Cup. Mike Brown has been a valiant and feisty servant of English rugby, but is usually only as good as the opposition allows him to be. In reference to that spark of creativity that England are lacking we can’t help feeling that Brown is falling behind in this department. France will be competitive here, and we have been exceptionally impressed with winger Remy Grosso and expect him to cause all kinds of problems for England on Saturday. His fellow winger Benjamin Fall is a good player but we feel that England’s Daly will easily have his measure. Lastly, France’s Hugo Bonneval is a solid fullback but we feel that England’s Watson is a more powerful strike runner. Some tight battles here and hopefully some enterprising play from both sides, but England are packing a more proven unit.
It’s going to be rainy and windy in Paris on Saturday, conditions that on paper should suit the grinding effectiveness of England’s game plan better than France. However, France in recent years have been less about flair and more about a bruising physical challenge – one they look set to deliver on Saturday. Consequently, we feel this match is likely to be much closer than many are predicting. France will be up for this in front of a home crowd baying for a result against their biggest traditional rival. However, it is precisely that emotion that ultimately may get in the way of the measured and composed performance needed from France on Saturday. England are wounded but have yet to stumble twice in a row since Eddie Jones took charge. As much as France will push them, we can’t see England slipping up a second time, even away from home. It may not be pretty at times but it still should be a gripping contest, with England grinding out a victory by five points!
Wales vs Italy,
Sunday, March 11th
At the time of writing this, only Wales’ squad for this match had been announced, so as a result we can’t do much more than speculate in general terms. However, let’s be honest the result on Sunday is not really in doubt. Wales are fielding an outstanding side that showcases the best of the new talent they have unearthed since November.
Italy have looked promising at times, but defensively they are still a shambles. There is the nucleus of a squad developing for Italy under Coach Conor O’Shea’s tutelage that could well be competitive come the World Cup, but it would appear that sights are more firmly set on the 2023 edition of the tournament. In the meantime, Italy will strive to improve their skills in high level tournaments such as this, but it is still probably a year too early for us to see any real improvements in Italy’s standing in the Six Nations. There are some genuinely exciting backs in the team in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and Tommaso Benvenuti, while at centre Tommaso Castello looks the real deal. Flanker Sebastian Negri has been one of the finds of the tournament, not just for Italy but as a spectator favorite. However, beyond that many of Italy’s problems seem consistent, especially in terms of discipline and defence.
Wales on the other hand look as bright as a button and are showcasing some world-class talent that will serve them well come the World Cup. They have a veteran front row that have held their own for much of the tournament, together with a competent and committed second row. However, it’s that Welsh back row and Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler in particular that has been one of the talking points of this Six Nations. Intensely physical and devastatingly fast and powerful in the loose, the Welsh pair have turned heads on more than one occasion and are going to be a real threat when Wales turns up in Japan in eighteen months time.
Wales in our opinion are more than comfortable without Rhys Webb at scrum half, as Gareth Davies has been one of the most dynamic players of the tournament and has a real eye for the try line. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe are exceptional fly halves in the making and we feel will soon eclipse the incumbent Dan Biggar. Add some real pace out wide in Liam Williams and Steff Evans coupled to some bruising physicality and speed up the middle in Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams, and Wales look in frighteningly robust health in the backs. To add insult to injury for opposition teams, Leigh Halfpenny is back to his best since his return to the Welsh fullback position after his time in France. To seal the deal, Wales are now able to boast a bench with plenty of experience and raw young talent. Although Wales won’t be lifting any silverware next Saturday, they’ve learnt a great deal about themselves and the depth they have available over the last seven weeks, and as a result they and their supporters can feel more than happy with the fact that Wales are still in contention for a very strong second place finish.
It’s not hard to predict a fairly emphatic Welsh victory in front of 70,000 of the Welsh faithful in Cardiff on Sunday. Italy will be brave but this is a daunting environment in which to make the kind of statement that has been sadly lacking in their campaign so far. Wales simply have been so much more successful in building the kind of competitive squad they want for this tournament and beyond to the World Cup, for it to be anything other than a maximum points haul for the Welsh. Wales to use this as the points grab they need to set themselves up nicely for a strong second place finish next week – and as a result Wales by 23!
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 have done all 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!