There is no denying that all eyes this weekend will be firmly focused on the events taking place in Cardiff this Saturday. Wales as the only other unbeaten team in the tournament, know that if England’s seemingly inevitable march to a Grand Slam is to be halted then it has to happen at the Principality Stadium on Saturday. If Wales were to win, they still have the challenge of Scotland and Ireland to face but if England come out on top, then a soft encounter with Italy and a final home game against an injury ravaged Scotland should see the Men in White comfortably through to a Grand Slam. However, first of all there is the little matter of the dustup in Cardiff to be dealt with before any such talk can be taken seriously. Also in a tournament that has dished up its fair share of surprises in the last few years, nothing is certain until referee Paul Williams blows the final whistle of the tournament at Twickenham on March 16th.
Before the main event in Cardiff, Scotland will have travelled to Paris to take on a French team which seems to be in complete disarray. However, beating the French in Paris is no simple matter regardless of what the form book says about the national team heading into the contest. While like many we have little faith in Coach Jacques Brunel, France at home, especially in the Six Nations is always a tricky proposition. Furthermore, Brunel has at least assembled a group of talented players even if he still insists on playing many of them out of position. Against a fleet-footed Scottish squad even without the likes of Stuart Hogg, this could once again prove to be a costly mistake. However, there is also the problem of Scotland’s traditionally poor form away from home of late, and their track record in Paris is singularly bad. Either way a fascinating encounter awaits and one that is extremely hard to call.
Lastly on Sunday, a beleaguered Italy play host to Ireland, who started the tournament as favorites. However, after a serious bruising from England the Irish know they need Wales to do them a favor in Cardiff to keep their title hopes alive. Furthermore to keep them in the mix as potential contenders should England slip up on Saturday, Ireland know they will need to use the Italian match as an opportunity to rack up as many points as possible. Italy have struggled in the opening rounds but their defence at least has shown some resolve. Nevertheless, overall Italy have rarely looked the part in the tournament so far, and know they will need to be at their very best on Sunday to avoid a potentially embarrassing scoreline.
As always in this midway juncture of the tournament, this weekend’s action raises the stakes for all the teams perhaps more than any other. Whoever wins or loses this weekend, especially in the encounter in Cardiff, will give us more than just a few clues as to how the final pecking order may look on March 16th!
So as always without any further ado, let’s have a look at what got us talking this week about the weekend’s proceedings.
France vs Scotland – Saturday, February 23rd – Paris
Whichever way you cut it this has been a dreadful tournament so far for France, apart from their opening forty minutes against Wales in the first round. Thereafter it has been a disaster. First they threw away a seemingly unassailable lead against Wales, then travelled to Twickenham and looked completely lost at sea against a ferocious and well-drilled English side. Plagued by bizarre selection decisions that throw inexperienced players in at the deep end, whilst putting experienced support players out of position, France appear rudderless. For French supporters this must be agonising to watch, especially as there is some genuine talent available to Coach Jacques Brunel if only it was coached and managed properly. As regular readers of this blog know, we have very little faith in Brunel as a Coach, having been singularly unimpressed with his time as Italian Head Coach. So far in his tenure with France we have yet to see anything to make us revise our opinion.
Scotland on the other hand have looked impressive but are simply not clicking when they need to. Although they completely outplayed a weak Italian side in the opening round, alarm bells rang as in a ten minute spell towards the end of the match they appeared to fall asleep and let in three tries from the Azurri, and almost let the Italians back into the match in the process. Against Ireland, they started brightly but their discipline and decision-making eroded rapidly once Ireland started to get the measure of the match. With their confidence clearly rattled, Scotland know that despite the seeming disarray the French find themselves in, there will be everything to prove for both sides with little quarter given. Throw into the mix Scotland’s traditional difficulty of getting a win in Paris, the last time being 20 years ago, and Scotland know they are up against it this Saturday. As France’s last home game of the tournament, Scotland will have to be at their best against a French side having one last chance to give the Stade Francais faithful something to cheer about.
We had little faith in Brunel with Italy and even less with France
As mentioned above we have not been fans of the French Coach since his days with Italy. Often seeming detached and aloof from his players, Brunel could not appear more disinterested in his job if he tried. So far this tournament he has excelled at providing himself with multiple swords to fall on, perhaps none more so than his selection policies. Playing Damien Penaud on the wing last weekend instead of at centre was a complete disaster, and expect Scotland to test his defensive frailties out wide and under the high ball just as much as England did. Furthermore to place the inexperienced Romain Ntamack in the starting berth at fly half for a match of such magnitude almost seems cruel, while sticking with the one-dimensional Bastareaud at centre beggars belief, especially up against a highly mobile, albeit inexperienced Scottish unit.
Despite Guilhem Guirado’s heroics we still have no faith in this French front row
France’s hooker and Captain has the utmost respect from us and despite the misery in the French camp he continues to stand out as an exceptional player. However one man does not make a front row no matter how good he is. While there is plenty of spark in the rookie Demba Bamba, we are just not convinced by Jefferson Poirot and Bamba’s lack of experience proved costly against England. Scotland are packing a solid unit, even with their injury problems, and we can’t help feeling that France are going to have a hard time keeping it an even contest in this part of the park.
If France are to win this match it will take place in the back row
It was that French back row that got so much traction against Wales in the first half that made us feel that France were going to be something special this tournament. Unfortunately it was short-lived as, apart from Louis Picamoles, France lost the plot in the second half. However, what we did see in the first half was a very accomplished unit, with Picamoles at his absolute best and Wenceslas Lauret and Arthur Iturria in particular as devastating support players. We expect more of the same from the French trio this Saturday, especially now that unlike the England match Lauret has been returned to the fold. It’s a potent but relatively inexperienced Scottish back row, with the exception of Josh Strauss, and if the French three get the upper hand and the crowd gets behind them, it could well swing the match, especially if they can keep it up for eighty minutes.
While he may be Captain Fantastic for Scotland we’d have preferred to see Ali Price start at scrum half
Yes given the esteem in which he is held by Scottish supporters we realise that we may just have set the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons, but we stick with our gut feeling. We felt Laidlaw had a poor game against Ireland and at times his decision-making was questionable and almost appeared stubborn and reckless. As for his rather sullen assessment of the officiating, we’ll leave that for others to debate but it didn’t exactly help his cause either and certainly won’t help him with the Paris crowd on Saturday. Ali Price has the kind of fizz and speed that France’s Antoine Dupont will bring to proceedings on Saturday, and Scotland may rue the rather more pedestrian approach favored by Laidlaw. If we were in Coach Townsend’s shoes we’d bring Laidlaw in at the end to restore order if that is what is needed, should France start like they did against Wales, but in the meantime favor the unpredictability of Price to keep the French defences guessing.
There is a strong likelihood that France’s back three are once more in for a world of hurt
Even without Stuart Hogg that Scottish back line looks lethal. Blair Kinghorn didn’t quite have the kind of display he did against Italy, but in his defence he was up against one of the world’s best in the shape of Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Against weaker opposition Kinghorn is clearly a force to be reckoned with and one who is only going to get better, to the point we think he could potentially even give the great Stuart Hogg a run for his money. France looked at sixes and sevens in the back three against England. The out of position Penaud appeared to be at sea defensively and Huget simply forgot to how to hang onto a rugby ball as he struggled to come to terms with the demands of the fullback position, considering he normally plies his trade on the wing. Thomas Ramos replaced him at half time but we are struggling to remember if we can recall anything he did in the forty minutes he was on.
As France’s last home game of the tournament there is the off-chance that they may produce the “one big performance” les Bleus usually manage to put together every year. However, we simply haven’t seen anything from them so far that leads us to believe that this is likely to be the case. Scotland on the other hand are a hard beast to judge. Yes they obliterated Italy at Murrayfield but then were given a rough schooling by Ireland the following week. This is not a first string Scottish side taking to the pitch in Paris, but they have also shown that there is some exceptionally promising depth there that is only going to keep getting better. Consequently in a tough match to call, Scotland still appears to be the more cohesive and motivated side, despite their traditionally poor form in Paris. As a result it should be a fascinating contest, which is likely to see the most consistent French performance of the tournament, but a better organised Scottish side to take the spoils by two points!
Wales vs England – Saturday, February 23rd – Cardiff
Most of us know exactly where we’ll be when Jaco Peyper blows the whistle on the most anticipated match of the tournament this Saturday, after the opening fixture between Ireland and England turned the form book upside down. The only two sides left with a shot at the Grand Slam go head to head in what should be an epic encounter. If England come out on top it’s hard to see them not going all the way for a Grand Slam. If Wales come out on top then the tournament gets cracked wide open, with the Welsh still having a difficult trip to Scotland ahead of them and a potential tournament decider against Ireland back in Cardiff. In short, a very challenging fixture for both sides with the highest possible stakes.
England annihilated a shambolic French outfit a fortnight ago at Twickenham. Wales got the job done in Italy, but looked less than convincing in the execution, even if it was only a second or third string Welsh side. Perhaps that is the biggest conundrum for us with Wales so far this tournament, they just haven’t looked convincing and at times have appeared distinctly average. While we agree that they produced a spectacular comeback against France in the second half, that first half was exceptionally poor from a side that many were tipping as dark horses for not only Six Nations, but also World Cup glory. In short, we just haven’t seen anything from Wales that would leave any of the big teams quaking in their boots.
England on the other hand are building momentum at a rate of knots, and we fear that unless they have something up their sleeves on Saturday that we have yet to see, Wales are going to find it very hard to match the English in their present condition. England took Ireland on at their own game, turned up the intensity another couple of levels and left the Irish in their dust. Beating the world’s second best side on their home turf, clearly imbued England with some highly justifiable confidence that then saw them destroy a clueless French side at Twickenham a week later. The contrast between this current England outfit and the one that bumbled its way through last year’s tournament could not be more glaring. England have finally got the balance they struggled to find last year, and as a result this team is veritably humming from 1 to 15. Cardiff may be a cauldron and Wales’ unbeaten form there is signficant, but England are going to be a very difficult side to bring down in their current state.
If Wales can get some ascendancy at scrum time it will be a tonic for the crowd that England will find hard to cope with
Two very accomplished front rows seek to do battle on Saturday in Cardiff, and this will be one of the tightest contests on the field. There is no denying that if Wales get the upper hand here the crowd will increasingly help to swing the contest in their favor. In short, they will be one of the best tests of character for their English counterparts. Ben Moon impressed for England in the loosehead role in November in the absence of Mako Vunipola who has once more been sidelined with injury. If the English trio can hold their own then Wales will struggle, as their set piece play has looked rather lacklustre so far this tournament. Wales have the front row to do it, of that there is no question, but prior to the World Cup and barring their final Six Nations match with Ireland there will be fewer bigger tests.
If ever there was a time for Welsh second rower Cory Hill to stand up and claim his second row starting berth for the World Cup – then this is it!
We are delighted to see Cory Hill back in the number four jersey for Wales, as we thought he was one of the finds of last year’s summer tour to Argentina, and much prefer him to Adam Beard. We have been slightly baffled at Coach Warren Gatland’s preference for Beard over Hill, but think that ultimately Hill is likely to get the nod for Wales come the World Cup. If he puts in a convincing performance on Saturday, then we’d argue his case his made, especially as Beard has done little to impress so far this Six Nations.
If you want physicality and a Battle Royale that will more than justify the price of admission, look no further than the back row
This is the contest we are most looking forward to on Saturday. Wales have some real firepower in “Mr. Reliable” Justin Tipuric, a menace with ball in hand in Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty’s ability to get under the skin of the opposition. Up against them England are finally offering a finished and balanced back row, with Tom Curry being England’s find of the year, provided he can keep his discipline in check. Couple that to the devastating go forward ability of Billy Vunipola who appears to be back to his best after a long spell of injuries. What has impressed us the most though is England’s Mark Wilson who seems to get better with every match. Six highly contrasting players but all equally fearsome in their own right, and if they all show up on Saturday this is likely to be where the game will ultimately be won or lost.
The pressure is ALL on Gareth Anscombe
Dan Biggar simply didn’t fire against Italy in a game he should have excelled in. Consequently, Saturday sees Gareth Anscombe get the nod as Wales’ starting 10. However, he fluffed his lines badly in Wales’ opening encounter against France and needed Dan Biggar to save the day. What will happen on Saturday is simply anyone’s guess. If Anscombe can run a tight game, then surely the race between him and Biggar for Wales’ first choice fly half for the World Cup is on. It’s a gamble by Coach Warren Gatland, but if Anscombe can handle the pressure of a match with so much riding on it and deliver, then Wales should be in an excellent position heading into the World Cup. Something which is clearly high on Gatland’s agenda. We hope it pays off, but fear he will be up against it, especially with England’s Owen Farrell at the top of his game.
England’s Henry Slade’s best chance to really show how he has come of age
We felt that some of the criticism the young English centre received last year was unjustified. Sure he may have had some teething troubles settling into the English setup, but there is no denying that his place in any starting England lineup is now a given. Mesmerizing against Ireland and solid against France with his defensive abilities having dramatically improved in the last twelve months, Slade is clearly the finished product and repaying the confidence invested in him. In a game of this magnitude if he ends up stealing the limelight from Wales’ Jonathan Davies on Saturday then his apprenticeship will be complete.
There is no denying that Cardiff is a hard place to play and any contest there between these two historic rivals evokes passions in the crowd that are daunting for any visiting English team to overcome. However, you cannot dismiss the momentum this English side has built up since the tournament started, while Wales have been steady but have been well short of spectacular. We’ve seen what England can do and how difficult it is becoming to gain any sort of ascendancy over them, as they play with a physicality, organisation and intensity that is hard to match. Sadly we simply haven’t seen the same kind of qualities from Wales so far this year, unless as many suspect they have been keeping it in reserve for what they appear to regard as their biggest game of the year to date. We sincerely hope for their sake that turns out to be the case, but if not then it is hard to see the English Grand Slam express getting derailed on Saturday. For the sake of keeping the tournament open and up for grabs till the final weekend, we would love nothing more than a Welsh victory, but our heads are telling us we may well not get what we wish for. England look a very daunting prospect in their current state and it will take a very special and committed Welsh team to beat them. Consequently based on England’s seemingly unstoppable momentum and outstanding form at the moment, we give this one to England by five!
Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 24th – Rome
Ireland travel to Italy with the sole objective of racking up as many points as possible, given the fact that the actual result of the match is not really in question. With the Grand Slam off the table and also probably the silverware, unless Wales do them a favor tomorrow in Cardiff, Ireland know that in order to secure a strong second place finish they need to maximise their points haul in Rome on Sunday.
Knowing that, our heart genuinely goes out to Italy in this match, as they are seen by most as nothing more than sacrificial lambs to Ireland’s cause. Italy’s Six Nations campaign has given them little to cheer about other than a brief flourish against Scotland and some solid defence against a lacklustre Welsh side. A hungry Irish team, eager to get their World Cup momentum back is a completely different proposition. Italy have a couple of players, most notably lock Federico Ruzza who we are really looking forward to seeing in action, and hopefully the quality of the opposition will inspire Italy to put in the kind of performance needed to avoid a complete drubbing in their pool of death in Japan later this year.
Italy’s troubles will begin in the front row as Ireland’s Sean Cronin gets a golden opportunity to start
As regular readers of this blog will know, we are HUGE fans of the Irish Hooker and feel he is going to have a massive part to play in Ireland’s World Cup efforts later this year. Consequently we are delighted that he is getting a start against Italy. Get the turbocharged hooker anywhere near the try line and you can almost guarantee he’ll cross it. If you’re looking to rack up the big points on Sunday, this player along with Jacob Stockdale in the backs is the man to do it. Italy’s scrum has looked decidedly wobbly along with their lineouts, and expect Cronin and company to be absolutely ruthless here.
Something for Italy to cheer about – Federico Ruzza
For us this player has been the biggest positive of Italy’s 2019 Six Nations campaign. Powerful, fast and highly mobile with a brilliant set of hands, Ruzza is someone we are really looking forward to seeing in action. While he will be up against it when dealing with Ireland’s Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, we still hold that he is Italy’s biggest secret weapon and as a result really hope he rises to the occasion on Sunday.
Are Ireland’s Murray and Sexton getting game time simply because they are off the boil of late or is this a genuine push for maximum points?
There is no denying that the Irish all-star half back duo have not been playing with their customary assurance in this year’s Six Nations. While they got the job done against Scotland and started to look more their old selves as the game wore on, there was no question that they were decidedly off-color against England. Given their importance to Irish World Cup ambitions, Coach Joe Schmidt knows he needs to get the pair back to their very best and is running out of game time in which to do it. Normally, even with the need for points on Sunday, against Italy we would have thought that Joey Carberry would have got the starting berth at fly half and John Cooney at scrum half. However, if the two Irish veterans do click on Sunday then expect to see the numbers on the scoreboard start to fly.
Another welcome return for Italy – Tito Tebaldi
We were very impressed by the Benetton scrum half against Scotland, and as a result are delighted to see him back for this match where he will be up against arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world in the shape of Conor Murray. What better way to test your credentials ahead of a very difficult World Cup? While we doubt that he and Federico Ruzza can make enough of a difference to cause the upset of the year, watching them have a go will make for some genuine entertainment and cause for celebration amongst Italian supporters and neutrals alike.
Sunday may not be much fun for Italy but if they play their cards right there is the possibility to lay the groundwork for a positive end to their 2019 campaign
Before you raise your eyes heavenwards and ask how that is even possible, given that Italy’s next assignment is a trip to Twickenham and a date with a rampant England, move past that fixture to their final match of the tournament – a home game against a French side that is struggling to fire as much as the Azurri are. If France get knocked over by Scotland this weekend, and Italy don’t get a cricket score put on them by Ireland, and continue to show the kind of resolute defence that troubled Wales a fortnight ago, then there is definitely a chance for Italy to end their campaign with a bang. France are vulnerable and not travelling well. If Italy can lay some solid groundwork this weekend they could well end their Six Nations on a positive note and a much-needed confidence boost heading into the World Cup. If that’s not motivation enough to put on a good show this Sunday even if you know that victory is probably out of the question – then we don’t know what is. If ever there was a match where the performance is more important than the result – then this is it.
Like we say, the result on Sunday is sadly not up for debate. Ireland will continue to build momentum to finish the Championship with a flourish. They will have the added motivation of knowing the result in Cardiff before they take to the field, which if it has gone against England, will mean that they are right back in the hunt for the silverware. Either way they are likely to take no prisoners on Sunday in Rome, and as a result Italy will have to be at their best defensively and in terms of discipline to avoid the scoreboard overheating and blowing a fuse. It will be a superb test of character for the Azurri in front of their faithful and ever optimistic fans. That said, we still can’t help feeling that Ireland arrive in Rome extremely focused on the task at hand, and there are few teams as efficient as the Men in Green in terms of setting a goal and achieving it. Italy to show great heart at times but Ireland to go for maximum points and seal proceedings by 31 points!
As we will be doing at the end of every round of the Six Nations we’ll end our musings with the expert analysis provided from our favourite YouTubers, Steve and Gareth from The 1014. Enjoy and make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe to keep their excellent content coming.