As the Six Nations heads towards a thrilling conclusion in its final two rounds – Wales remain the side to beat!

Posted: March 8, 2019 in Six Nations 2019
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The tournament continues to throw the form book out the window, as in Round three we saw a French side play perhaps their best game of rugby in years, while Scotland looked a shadow of their potential. Wales’ track record leading up to their clash with England had been remarkable but they hadn’t exactly blown us away at times in the process, but in Cardiff they put in an assured and world-class performance. England blasted into the tournament at Ireland’s expense last month but their inability to adapt under pressure in Cardiff a fortnight ago, once more became a problem and with it their discipline. Meanwhile, after being written off by everyone, Italy gave Ireland an almighty scare in Rome as the Men in Green continue to look a far cry from the side that ended 2018 on such a high.

Scotland could be forgiven for their routing at the hands of the French a fortnight ago in Paris as they were dealt an injury list from hell. However, there were still a few wise heads in that Scottish squad that should and could have made more of an impact. Scotland were spirited at times, but their execution and decision-making was exceptionally poor, compared to a French team that literally sparkled. France seemed to have recovered from the debacle at Twickenham and put on a display that ticked all the boxes. Superb defence, a devastatingly effective and physical set of loose forwards, an inspired half back partnership and a back line that clicked and provided some real imagination to France’s attacking abilities. Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, as sadly that has not been France’s forte in the last few years, especially away from home. Scotland welcome some familiar faces back to the fold this weekend, but will it be enough to derail the Welsh Grand Slam express?

Wales finally put on a show that justified all the slow building hype surrounding them a fortnight ago in Cardiff, as they completely outclassed an English side that failed to adapt to Welsh tactics. We have to confess to being amongst the many, who although admiring Wales’ successful track record of late, were struggling to see what all the fuss was about as they were managing workmanlike performances at best, and while efficient they weren’t exactly blowing other teams off the park. However, against England they put in a world-class performance that has surely got alarm bells ringing for their opponents in the World Cup. England meanwhile didn’t exactly play a bad game, but ultimately they stuck with a game plan that clearly wasn’t working and was playing straight into the hands of a Welsh team that had figured them out in the first ten minutes. England have a relatively soft game this weekend against Italy, but should they fall asleep at the wheel as Ireland did a fortnight ago in Rome, a potential banana skin could await them at Fortress Twickenham – unlikely but just saying. Meanwhile Wales know that all the momentum of the tournament is with them, and although a road trip to Murrayfield is never easy, provided they play like they did against England then once again the job should get done.

Ireland will be kicking themselves for coming away with such a pitiful points haul from Rome, as once more they looked a shadow of last year’s Grand Slam champions. Italy came at them for the full eighty minutes and put in one of the best Italian performances we’ve seen in a long time. Once more the Italian defence looked solid and there is a growing sparkle to their attacking play, with scrum half Tito Tebaldi clearly being the Azurri find of 2019. Ireland by comparison looked sluggish and as the match wore on increasingly frustrated. They knew they were being given a challenge but seemed ill prepared for it, with certain key players being well off their best. There were some outstanding individual performances from a handful of Irish players but overall they are simply not firing as a team and really need to step up the ante if they are to regain the mantle of genuine World Cup contenders. With only two Tests left before the summer warm ups the clock is ticking for Ireland, and if France puts in the kind of performance they did against Scotland this Sunday in Dublin, then Ireland’s task suddenly looks a whole lot harder.

The final pecking order is starting to take shape for this year’s Six Nations, and barring any upsets this weekend it would appear that it is a three-horse race to the finish, with the Welsh clearly well out in front, England comfortably in second and the Irish bringing up the rear. But hang on it’s the Six Nations we’re talking about where literally anything could happen. So as always without any further ado, let’s have a look at what got us talking this week about the forthcoming weekend’s proceedings.

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, March 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland showed plenty of promise in the November Internationals but that was perhaps the best that could be said for it, as although they got some good results they often appeared laboured and came painfully short against South Africa. Their Six Nations campaign so far seems to have the same veneer to it. While we don’t deny for a second that losing the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg for the French game was a serious blow, there were still some Scottish veterans in Paris that day who simply didn’t show up. Furthermore, Scotland seem to be slipping back into their old ways of overly ambitious play styles without the necessary execution to back them up. Despite some brilliant individual performances, that has very much been the case this year so far, especially against Ireland and France.

Wales come to Murrayfield knowing that of late it has become a challenging venue at which to get a win, but there is no denying that they arrive brimming with confidence after a very convincing win over England. While they struggled at times in their opening two games of the Championship, their second half comeback in the opener against France was the stuff of legends. Furthermore the England victory showed a Welsh side that clearly has the wherewithal to make some noise in Japan later this year. Either way this should prove to be a contest well worthy of our attention on Saturday.

Like many of his colleagues Stuart McInally needs a BIG game on Saturday

Let’s face it the Scottish scrum got bossed around in Paris, and they will have to be at their best to contain a Welsh front row that got the better of England a fortnight ago. McInally lends a real presence to the Scottish front row which was sadly lacking in France, and in front of an expectant home crowd with an eye to the World Cup, the Scottish hooker needs a massive performance on Saturday to give the rest of his teammates the confidence that hard work at the coal face can build the kind of platform they need to unleash their backs.

The loss of Cory Hill in the second row for Wales is a bitter blow but a golden opportunity for Scotland

As regular readers of this blog know we are big fans of the Welsh second rower and feel he is a genuine contender for Wales’ World Cup campaign later this year. Even though Coach Warren Gatland seems to prefer Saturday’s starter Adam Beard, we like many fail to understand why. With Hill out injured, Beard is back in but there is no doubting the massive impact Hill had on the England game. Impact is not a term that comes to mind when watching Beard in action by contrast. Consequently, we are hoping that on Saturday the mystery will finally be resolved as to what exactly Beard’s value is to the squad. Scotland meanwhile could well profit, as provided Jonny Gray and Adam Gilchrist put in a massive shift here, Scotland could have a better day of it despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones for Wales.

Have Wales got one of the best back rows in Test Rugby right now?

We certainly think so. Reliability, panache and sheer brute force are the three key attributes of the Welsh back row turning out on Saturday. As regular readers know, we consider that Justin Tipuric should be made a patron saint of Welsh rugby, as he is one of the most reliable back rowers in the modern game and excels at getting his team of out tight spots. Meanwhile Josh Navidi appears to be back to his best both in the loose and the tight exchanges, with Ross Moriarty just being a devastatingly effective nuisance factor. While we really like the look of Scottish newcomer Jamie Ritchie and see a big role for him in Scotland’s World Cup campaign, we find it hard to believe that he and his colleagues are going to be able to rattle the Welsh justice league.

We’ll say it again but Ali Price should have started in Paris

As regular readers know we have had difficulty of late, especially with the World Cup just around the corner, in understanding Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s insistence on starting Greig Laidlaw over Price. We have raised our concerns in the past on these pages that Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw simply doesn’t provide the spark that Scotland needs, and at times is almost pedestrian in his duties. Ali Price is much more of a live wire, and we are more confident in Scotland’s chances on Saturday seeing him get the starting berth, especially alongside fellow speed merchant Finn Russell.

From 11 to 15 Wales are likely to run rings around Scotland

If you watch the Welsh performance against England a fortnight ago, the control that this Welsh set of backs imposed on the game was extraordinary. Put simply we just don’t see Scotland being able to match this on Saturday. There were some outstanding skill sets on display by the Welsh quintet against England, perhaps best epitomized by winger Josh Adams remarkable match winning try. While this Welsh group were perhaps slightly underwhelming in the opening two rounds, they came to fore as the finished product against England. Scotland has some genuine talent in Blair Kinghorn at fullback and the contest in the air between him and Welshman Liam Williams will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Verdict

One thing Scotland do have going in their favor is their bench on Saturday. We are not necessarily saying it’s better than the Welsh offering, but it has a few key individuals who if they turn up can really give Wales some grief. Saturday sees the welcome return of flanker Hamish Watson from injury, and fly half Adam Hastings needs no introduction. However it is the X-factor of Byron McGuigan we are most excited by. Nevertheless with the likes of Dan Biggar among others, it is still a pretty impressive Welsh bench that should feel comfortable with whatever Scotland can throw at them. In short, this is Wales game to lose and it is going to take a pretty special Scottish performance to rain on the Welsh parade. Scotland have a good team, make no mistake but it looks badly shaken in terms of confidence, something which Wales seem to have in abundance. Provided Wales don’t produce the kind of underwhelming displays that characterised their initial efforts in the Six Nations, Wales should emerge the winners and a step closer to lifting the trophy and even a possible Grand Slam. A fascinating encounter but one in which a more assured Welsh side are likely to take the spoils by six points!

England vs Italy – Saturday, March 9th – Twickenham

England were on a roll until their encounter with Wales a fortnight ago. Consequently they will be looking to get their campaign back on track and hoping that Scotland do them a favor in the process. If that were to happen, it will reinforce the need for England to rack up as many points as possible against Italy who traditionally are the weakest side in the tournament. We are fairly certain that Ireland approached their game with the Azurri a fortnight ago with the same mentality but were given an exceptionally rude awakening. Italy may have struggled so far this year, and there is no question that Ireland were well off the mark in Rome, but to still hold the second best team in the world to only a ten point margin deserves some credit. Furthermore, for large chunks of the match Italy were able to exert extraordinary pressure on Ireland which made an already misfiring performance from the Men in Green even more difficult. Lastly the Italian defence has come along in leaps and bounds since November, which will no doubt get in the way of England’s ambitions points wise.

That being said though, this is a home game for England, and Twickenham appears to have regained its Fortress status, making the challenge a daunting one for Italy. While the result is not really in doubt, what remains to be seen is how much of a confidence boost the game against Ireland has given Italy. If they can at least keep the scoreline relatively honest and not get completely blown away by England, then they will be well set for their final home game of the tournament against a mercurial French side. England however would appear to be taking no chances with Italy as a potential banana skin. This is a quality England side, and after the Welsh nightmare England will be looking to reassert to their supporters and the rugby world at large that they are back and mean business, not only in this tournament but also in Japan in six months time. Italy were not the sacrificial lambs everyone thought they would be against Ireland, but this is a much different prospect. We hope for their sake that like a fortnight ago, it is not the result that matters but the performance.

England’s front row should really have no problem, but Kyle Sinckler’s discipline needs work

Sinckler’s value to this England setup is not in doubt, but there is no question that he revels in testing referees’ and opposition’s patience and at times this can be a liability for England. In a contest with a side that is also renown for their own discipline problems this could all get out of hand on Saturday. However, as a player who can break the gainline seemingly at will, England will see him as a key component in their quest for maximum points on Saturday, provided he can keep his mind on the task at hand. However, if he does lose the plot England couldn’t ask for a better replacement than Dan Cole.

It’s an interesting call but both Coaches would appear to expect their second rows to go the full eighty minutes

We were surprised given the mobility of both sets of second rows, to see little or no cover for them on the benches. We’ve already mentioned that we regard Italy’s Federico Ruzza as one of the Azurri’s finds of the year, and Dean Budd covered a lot of the park against Ireland. Both Joe Launchbury and George Kruis need no introduction for England, but have had their fair share of injury problems. Having to contend with a fast and physical Italian unit for a full eighty minutes, may be something English Coach Eddie Jones may have underestimated, especially if injury niggles start to set in. Definitely watch how much attention the medical staff give to these four players on Saturday, as it may be one of the more interesting subplots of the match.

The Brad Shields question for England

Yes we get it Mark Wilson can’t be expected to start every game despite being one of England’s top finds of the last twelve months, and Brad Shields desperately needs some game time. However, we’ve seen little from him either at club or Test level that has really made us sit up and say, “so that’s why Eddie Jones was so keen to entice him away from New Zealand”. Quite frankly we think there are better players in England and as a result an opportunity in developing some long-term depth for the World Cup and beyond may have been missed.

Ben Youngs vs Tito Tebaldi – we can’t wait!

This year the Lineout could also be called the “Tito Tebaldi supporters club,” especially after the match against Ireland. For a side that desperately needed something to cheer about Tebaldi has provided it by the bucketload. In the heat of the moment his execution can occasionally leave something to be desired, but there is no doubt he plays a much faster and more explosive game than England’s Ben Youngs who looks downright conservative by comparison. Youngs is a solid player make no mistake, but if Italy don’t get annihilated by England then imagine Tebaldi to be the most talked about number nine in the English papers on Sunday unless Eddie Jones finally decides to use Young’s replacement Dan Robson for more than 90 seconds a match.

England out wide – look out!

Jonny May had a remarkably quiet game a fortnight ago in Cardiff by his own exceptional standards, and that was also a testimony to how effective Wales were in denying the English speed merchant the space and opportunities he thrives on. On Saturday, he is also joined out wide by England’s secret weapon Joe Cokanasiga. He may be English by long association but his rugby playing chemistry is pure Fijian magic. England are clearly looking to these two to get an endless stream of big points on the board and this is likely to be Italy’s biggest defensive test of the tournament.

Verdict

Just like the Azurri’s match against Ireland a fortnight ago, the result here is not really in doubt. England should emerge comfortable winners and having watched Ireland labor to a difficult win against this feisty and exuberant Italian side, England will be leaving nothing to chance. The Wales mishap is likely to have provided England with the wake up call they needed to avoid falling into the trap of complacency, which almost seemed inevitable after their blistering start to the tournament against Ireland and France. Italy bring an exciting team to Twickenham, but it is unlikely to have the traction it got against Ireland. It’s Twickenham, and should Scotland derail the Welsh Grand Slam express earlier in the day, England will be even more motivated to use this match to get them the points differential they need to keep them in with a shot at the title. England to win by eighteen points despite a spirited performance from Italy!

Ireland vs France – Sunday, March 10th – Dublin

No we are not going to start this preview with the usual clichés about France, but there is no question that after their last performance against Scotland a fortnight ago, Sunday’s encounter in Dublin poses lots of interesting questions for both sides. Ireland have simply not been the form team that everyone made them out to be going into the tournament. Meanwhile France showed against Scotland that this is a squad that can deliver with some raw talent that seems much more comfortable under the big lights than many would have given them credit for. It was certainly one of the best French performances we’ve seen in a long time and light years away from the shambles we saw at Twickenham and that historic defeat to Fiji back in November. If they are able to pull it off again in Dublin then all of a sudden France could just be getting their house in order at the right time, especially if they can pull off two solid performances on the road in these last two rounds of the Six Nations.

Ireland meanwhile know they need to put on a big show in Dublin on Sunday – a very big show. We are really battling to understand where last year’s Grand Slam champions have been so far in 2019. Lacking their customary composure, finesse and ability to manage games right down to the last detail, Ireland have looked less than flash this year to say the least. Sure after the horror show against England they got themselves back on track against Scotland even if it looked labored at times. However, against Italy they were awful and only managed to eke out a mandatory win in an error strewn and lacklustre performance. Their number one playmaker, fly half Johnny Sexton has been so far from his legendary form that alarm bells must surely be ringing ahead of the World Cup. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the remainder of the tournament, Coach Joe Schmidt is more than likely just a tad uncomfortable as Ireland only have two Tests left before preparations begin in earnest for the World Cup in August. However, it’s not just Sexton who has been off the mark, other veteran players are also not hitting their customary heights as well. In short, it has been a frustrating and disappointing tournament for Ireland so far, and their supporters will be looking to Sunday’s proceedings to mark the real kick-start to Ireland’s World Cup preparations.

Ireland’s front row need to stamp their authority on the game from the get go but France may have other ideas at long last

Ireland’s front three, despite their experience have not quite hit the mark so far this year, with Irish wonder weapon Tadgh Furlong being rather quiet to say the least. The three Irishmen will know that France’s Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado will travel to Dublin seeking to avenge that narrow defeat last year in Paris. After their exploits a fortnight ago it would appear that France finally have a competitive front row, and Guirado’s role as a talisman to the rest of his team is well documented in much the same vein as Italy’s Sergio Parisse. Ireland will need to have their front three back to their 2018 form for the full eighty minutes and Rory Best’s dart throwing skills will need to be at their very best, unlike the horror show the unfortunate Sean Cronin experienced in Rome a fortnight ago.

The first in a long line of raw French talent that is improving at a rate of knots – Felix Lambey

What a game the fiery Frenchman had against Scotland a fortnight ago. He may lack experience at Test level, but against the Scots he was an absolute menace and Ireland’s Ian Henderson and James Ryan will have their hands full with the Frenchman. Sebastian Vahaamahina is also no walk in the park for the Irish and if Ian Henderson’s ongoing battles with injury come back to haunt him, then Ultan Dillane is in for another ultimate test off the bench. Ireland are going to have to keep their wits about them here especially at lineout time.

It’s a good Irish back row but once again France have looked the business here for much of the tournament

Ireland are at home and CJ Stander is back and as a result it is a solid Irish back row that heads out on to the pitch at the Aviva on Sunday. However it needs to be as this is one area of the park the French have looked good in all tournament, barring one or two exceptions. Louis Picamoles has been nothing short of remarkable and as regular readers know we rate newcomer Arthur Iturria VERY highly indeed. With Wenceslas Lauret this is the same French back row that took apart Wales for forty minutes in the opening game of the tournament. If they can keep it up for eighty minutes this time then Ireland could have a real match on their hands here. In terms of an opportunity to shine off the bench and lay down a marker for the World Cup, Irish replacement number eight Jack Conan could ask for no better opportunity.

No more Johnny-come-lately please!

Ireland know they need fly half Jonathan Sexton to get back to his best and quickly. Sunday’s game has to be the match where we see last year’s World Player of the Year get his groove back. He looked decidedly frustrated in Rome and there was no question that it was bringing the rest of the team down with him, such is his intrinsic value to Ireland and how well they perform on the day. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the rest of the tournament, Ireland need to get their fly half resources firing again on all cylinders. Sunday’s match sees Connacht’s Jack Carty get another opportunity from the bench, but it was clear that at times he was rather overwhelmed with the sense of occasion in Rome. On Sunday he will be up against some alarmingly good raw French talent in the shape of Romain Ntamack, who partnered exceptionally well with Antoine Dupont at scrum half and who is also likely to give Conor Murray a run for his money.

Irish reliability should bring them home

Ireland’s two most reliable players of the last twelve months, winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney have been the cornerstones of Ireland’s shaky successes so far in this tournament. Earls in particular is playing out of his skin and one almost breathes a sigh of relief any time the ball ends up in his or Kearney’s hands. Match saving tackles, extraordinary calm under the high ball and outstanding line breaks are the order of the day from the Irish duo when Ireland need them most. France looked very good in the backs against a weakened Scottish side, but on Sunday they will be up against one of the best back quintets in the business as Ireland welcome back Gary Ringrose to the centre channel and we all know what winger Jacob Stockdale can do when Sexton is firing on all cylinders. France looked good here a fortnight ago, but provided Ireland find their missing mojo on Sunday, the French could be in for a torrid time here.

Verdict

Ireland have to kick into high gear at some point as they simply have not become a bad team overnight. Furthermore although they are not exactly top of the charts right now, they still have won their last two matches and sit in third place just one point behind England. If Scotland have done them a favor the day before in Murrayfield this could just be the spark to get Ireland back into the tournament with a vengeance. Ireland may have struggled to hit the high notes so far this year, but we very much doubt it is a permanent condition. Consequently, expect plenty of fireworks on Sunday and this is a match you wont’ want to miss. However, we just can’t help feeling that Ireland are about to arrive back with a very loud bang, and this may well be just the match in which it happens to give them confidence for a very challenging trip to Cardiff next weekend. As a result, despite facing what should be some excellent French resistance, Ireland to arrive late in the Six Nations with a real flourish and take the match by 11 points!

Endnote

Sadly our good friends Steve and Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube have clearly been wrapped up by their new affiliation with New Zealand’s Sky Sports into covering Super Rugby at the moment. As a result it would appear they have been unable to spare the time for their usual Six Nations coverage. But we’re sure they will be back and will keep you posted as soon as they are able to put something out.

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