We all knew deep down that the likelihood of this year’s Six Nations proceeding uninterrupted from start to finish with the specter of COVID 19 hanging over it, was unlikely to say the least. Sure enough what should have been the fixture of the weekend in our opinion, that between France and Scotland in Paris, is now having to be put on ice till further notice. On returning from Ireland, COVID 19 appears to have ravaged the French squad causing them to have to postpone Sunday’s match. While we have no intention of pointing fingers of blame, what we have been disheartened by is the apparent lack of contingency planning by the tournament’s organizers in the first place for such eventualities. If they seriously thought that the tournament would escape unscathed for its entire seven week duration while Europe was in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic, then you really have to question levels of competency in rugby’s governing bodies. We are now left with a tournament that may not see its conclusion until possibly the autumn. The fact that there was no provision built into the schedule and agreements with the clubs and unions to allow for rescheduled matches and player releases shows serious lack of foresight and planning at the top. Providing there are no more cancellations ( wildly optimistic thinking at best), we will only have a conclusion if Wales pull off the unthinkable by achieving a Grand Slam at the end of March. If not we could be left in suspense as to who the ultimate winner is until perhaps the summer at the earliest – hardly a positive message for a tournament that likes to pride itself as “rugby’s greatest Championship”. All this aside though we sincerely hope that all the French players make a speedy recovery and are back as soon as possible to what they do best – entertaining rugby fans with their scintillating brand of our glorious sport!
So with that rant aside we can turn our attention to the main focus of this weekend – Ireland and Italy’s do or die duel in Rome and Wales and England’s showdown in Cardiff in which the Men in Red hope to keep their Grand Slam dreams alive. The fixture in Cardiff looks set to be a particularly tasty affair. Wales are riding high after two solid and gritty wins in the opening two rounds of the competition. England on the other hand have yet to really prove themselves, after an exceptionally lukewarm start to the tournament. While England managed to get a comfortable win in the end over Italy, they didn’t quite come away with the points haul they would have liked, and the Azurri were able to pierce their defenses a little to often for comfort. Nevertheless Italy are still not really the benchmark by which you measure yourselves whereas Wales in Cardiff is a much sterner Test. England failed their first serious examination at the hands of the Scots and are likely to be feeling more than a little anxious about Saturday’s encounter. Wales will want to prove that their two opening wins were not simply the luck of the draw in having to face teams with only 14 men. We think it’s a bit deeper than that and Wales are a lot more than simply a flash in the pan this year. There is still plenty of work to do and they are a long way from the finished product, but a Test against England will really show how much progress they’ve made since the dismal days of 2020.
Ireland get us started on Saturday as guests of an energetic and lively Italian side. Italy like Ireland are desperately looking for their first win in the competition, but in the process have shown us an enterprising and entertaining effort. It may still be early days yet as well as sounding liking a broken record, but we feel things are starting to look a bit more positive in the Azurri camp than they have for a long time. In Franco Smith we’d argue they have a Coach with a plan. We sadly can’t really say the same about Ireland and Andy Farrell. Their labored performances against Wales and France, leave us with an impression of a side bereft of imagination and lacking some of the core skills needed to make them a side to be wary of once more. In short, Ireland looked tired and out of ideas. The effort is still there but is sadly not producing anything to make you sit up and take notice. Opposition sides will treat them cautiously but Ireland have lost the heady aura that surrounded them two years ago.
So here’s what got us talking in the buildup to Saturday’s two fixtures.
Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 27th – Rome
Both sides have to win, and while you always say that about Italy, this time around you could be excused for thinking they might feel they could actually do it. Unlikely but definitely possible, especially if Ireland continue playing this rather possession heavy, stodgy and relatively efficient but rather unimaginative brand of rugby that sadly seems to have become their trademark. Expect to see Ireland once more dominate the possession stats at the end of the match, and spend a considerable amount of time down in Italy’s 22, where for a change they may actually be able to do something with it. Italy seem relatively comfortable everywhere else on the park, except in their own 22 where for some reason they simply stop defending. Italy unlike Ireland and courtesy of the two wonderkids in their halfback department, who are clearly on the roadmap to the next World Cup, have shown some genuine creativity in attack and Paolo Garbisi is improving as a playmaker with every game he plays. Meanwhile his scrum half partner Steven Varney has shown a real aptitude for marshalling his forwards well beyond his teenage years.
Ireland are still a very good team with some exceptional players – make absolutely no mistake. However, as a unit they seem incapable of harnessing their raft of individual talents into a cohesive team performance. If you look at their efforts in the last few months you can sense that the players are desperate to throw off the shackles of former Coach Joe Schmidt’s very structured and initially highly successful approach to the game. On the few occasions this Championship when Irish players have sought to throw the playbook out the window (assuming they actually have one), and just act on individual initiative they have got results. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Hooker Ronan Kelleher’s try off a botched Irish lineout against France a fortnight ago. Ireland will need a lot more of those “carpe diem” moments and players seizing the initiative if they are to get their 2021 season back on track.
The Jukebox is back!
The Jukebox or Mayor of Wexford as he is alternatively known amongst his colleagues makes his return to front row service in Ireland’s starting lineup for Saturday’s match. While Tadgh Furlong has made appearances of late for his club Leinster, the big bruising prop has been sorely missed due to injury by Ireland. Instrumental to Ireland’s successes in their Grand Slam year in 2018, expect to see Furlong put in hit after hit for as long as Andy Farrell deems to keep him on the pitch. Ireland can look to some real strength in this part of the park on Saturday, with the increasingly impressive Ronan Kelleher at Hooker and Munster prop Dave Kilcoyne which will showcase Ireland’s depth in the front row. With an equally terrifying front row bench of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter and Rob Herring, Ireland’s road map to the next World Cup in this department is plain to see.
Is this the future of the Irish Captaincy and Coaching direction?
Watch these two very carefully over the next year. Second rower James Ryan no matter what kind of performance Ireland has on the pitch that day, always comes out with an honorable mention. His mentor former second rower and Irish Captain extraordinaire Paul O’Connell needs no introduction. Since being brought into the Coaching department, Ireland’s work in the set pieces and especially the lineout improved dramatically, and was clear for all to see in the game against France. O’Connell may not be interested in the top job, but his influence in the Coaching box and as a talisman to his charges should be taken advantage of to the full. Ryan is clearly Ireland’s World Cup Captain in the making and we sincerely hope for Ireland’s sake that O’Connell’s role grows exponentially within the team over the next few years.
Italy’s reliability factor
Italy’s Zimbabwean import has been one of Italy’s most consistent performers of the last few years, and if you watch any Italian performance in detail you will see that the big back rower gets through a mountain of work but rarely gets the praise he deserves, especially as he so often operates in the shadow of the outstanding Jake Polledri. With Polledri out injured, Negri is really coming to the fore and expect him to have lots to say in Rome on Saturday. The contest between himself and Ireland’s latest addition to their exceptionally healthy back row stocks, Will Conors, should be outstanding entertainment.
New World Chianti
Ioane’s try against England, ably assisted by Maestro Garbisi, showed just how dangerous this new adventurous Italian attacking spirit can be. Ioane was always looking for work against England and the winger has a real turn of speed and ability to keep defences guessing. He will be up against Ireland’s Jordan Larmour who perhaps embraces that individual creativity better than any Irish player since the legendary Brian O’Driscoll. Larmour’s defence has been called into question, but we’d argue it’s got better in the last year especially at club level, but he’ll need it to keep Ioane in check.
The more we see the more we like
So we’ll give Irish Coach Andy Farrell some credit. In sticking with Hugo Keenan at fullback, he’s making the right call. Keenan still has a lot to learn but he is becoming so confident under the high ball and so enthusiastic in his running and kicking game, that in an otherwise rather lifeless Irish side he’s a pleasure to watch. Jordan Larmour is an equally talented and exciting fullback, but Saturday sees him start on the wing and Keenan keep the 15 jersey. It’s the right decision and one of the few steps towards building a new Irish back line that appears to be working. Keenan consistently puts in maximum effort and his execution is getting better with every outing coupled to a work rate that is exemplary. If he keeps it up, he’ll definitely be on our shortlist of the most up and coming players of 2021.
Ireland should ultimately get the job done in Rome, and comfortably if they have learnt from their mistakes of the first two rounds. Whether or not that learning ability is there in the Coaching box however remains questionable. This is a good Irish squad but it seems a bit rudderless in terms of direction at the moment. Italy will know this and fancy their chances at causing an upset. With some of their young mavericks willing to take risks they could just pull it off. However, it’s a tall order and Ireland need to find their mojo once more and are no doubt looking at Italy as the springboard to get them back in the groove. Even though Ireland’s squad is vastly more experienced than Italy’s we don’t think it’s a dead rubber, even if the outcome is most likely in Ireland’s favor. There should be some sparks in this contest and one we have a hunch will be worth a few hours of your time on Saturday morning.
Wales vs England – Saturday, February 27th – Cardiff
English Coach Eddie Jones is correct in his assertion that this is one of the biggest fixtures of the Northern Hemisphere calendar. The rivalry between these two sides is intense and at the moment Wales look the more composed of the two. England are simply not clicking the way you would expect a recent World Cup finalist to, and a good but unbalanced and at times poorly led team make the trip to Cardiff needing to silence their critics and get 2021 back on track. Although England easily got the better of Italy despite an initial scare, it never looked all that convincing and rarely developed a rhythm. With George Ford directing affairs from the fly half berth we finally got to see an English side willing to attack, but at times the execution was slightly haphazard and England have yet to find the kind of clinical efficiency that got them the Championship last year. Most teams seem to have figured out England by now better than they have themselves.
Wales meanwhile will walk into the Principality grinning from ear to ear. Along with France they find themselves as one of the only two teams still left with a shot at a Grand Slam. If you’d asked them that at the beginning of the tournament, they may have been flattered but muttered politely about this year being one of rebuilding. Well that process seems to be going swimmingly so far. While there still have been question marks about how good this Welsh team are against a 15 man side, we think that’s a cheap shot and although Wales may not be the most polished or exciting team out there right now, winger Louis Rees-Zammit excepted of course, they are definitely one of the most gritty and resilient. There is a new found spirit of optimism and confidence in the Welsh camp and Coach Wayne Pivac finally seems to be enjoying his job. They will feel that England are there for the taking and will be hard to break down even in a Principality Stadium lacking its usual deafening atmosphere created by fervent Welsh supporters.
A player who has suddenly come of age
Wales’ front row just didn’t look settled last year, but this year they have looked solid and this man in particular is really standing out. We always thought he was good, but this year he has really taken it to another level. Man of the Match in Wales’ Six Nations opener against Ireland, and followed up with another superb performance against Scotland a week later, Wyn Jones along with Ken Owens and Tomas Francis completes a very solid and dependable Welsh front row. They’ll fancy their chances against an English offering that somehow just isn’t quite at the races. Mako Vunipola looks increasingly like a lumbering dinosaur, Jamie George is just not hitting his straps this year and Kyle Sinckler while exceptional is prone to being England’s disciplinary wild card. If Wales keep their wits about them Saturday this is an area where they could really unsettle England.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s common knowledge that we spend a great deal of time puzzling over England Coach Eddie Jones’ selections. This week was no exception. Given that England’s back row is unbalanced and clearly not working the persistent omission of Exeter back rower Sam Simmonds continues to amaze us, particularly given Jones’ penchant for an increasingly ineffective Billy Vunipola. Simmonds continues to light up the English premiership with Exeter Chiefs yet somehow seems to be of no interest whatsoever to Jones. That Simmonds doesn’t even get a look in on the bench simply confounds us further. All eyes will be on Billy Vunipola on Saturday and if he fails to make his mark yet again then surely Simmonds will suddenly appear on Jones’ speed dial list. That English back row still looks unbalanced to us with Tom Curry and Mark Wilson having to spend too much time covering for Vunipola to make them really effective. Wales bring a powerhouse offering in Josh Navidi, the incomparable Justin Tipuric and Talupe Faletau, with the latter pair playing at their best this year and we fear that once again England will fail to make much of an impression here.
It’s all about the future in Wales
Like his French counterpart Fabien Galthie, Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac recognises the need to blood young talent early on for big occasions and not just a year out from a World Cup. Something his English counterpart Eddie Jones may do well to start emulating sooner rather than later. To give rookie Keiran Hardy the starting berth at number 9 for such a big match is a bold move, but one which we salute and given his more than competent performance against Scotland a fortnight ago, fully justified. In the England camp Jones has decided to go with the increasingly pedestrian Ben Youngs over Dan Robson. Every time Robson has come on England have really started to fizz, and against a Welsh side who appear unafraid to take risks Jones may well rue his conservative approach, especially as Youngs is unlikely to make the World Cup if his current form continues. Wales appear to be relishing change while England appear almost afraid of it.
A question of loyalty under pressure
As Eddie Jones continues to come under ever greater scrutiny for his selection decisions, the debate has almost reached fever pitch over his ongoing loyalty to Captain and fly half/center Owen Farrell. Ever since that ill fated World Cup final 18 months ago Farrell has simply not been the player and Captain that Jones repeatedly insists he is. Farrell does seem better suited to the centre role while George Ford takes over the playmaker duties and adds an attacking edge that England increasingly seems to miss under Farrell, ironically much as Ireland does under his father’s tutelage. Is Farrell a good player? Yes. Is he in the same class as New Zealand’s Dan Carter thus justifying Jones’ almost blind loyalty? No. As a Captain as we have already said on numerous occasions he leaves a lot to be desired. Increasingly petulant and rubbing referees the wrong way in much the same vein as Ireland’s Jonny Sexton, Farrell struggles to lead from the front under pressure and has a worrying tendency to seem almost invisible when things are not going his or his team’s way. In short we just don’t get the fascination. We’re not saying that Jones should drop him from the team, but a change in England’s leadership could be the tonic they would appear to need right now, while at the same time releasing Farrell from a burden he appears to be struggling with. Once freed from the pressures of the Captaincy we may well see Farrell back to his best. Unfortunately for him, the lights will be shining very brightly in Cardiff on Saturday and another off color performance will only increase the mounting calls for a change in leadership.
Not all there
In a way we feel rather sorry for England fullback Elliot Daly. We don’t think he’s that bad a player, but is he England’s long term fullback? The answer to that question increasingly appears to err on the side of no. The English media is clamoring for his removal, or at least moving him to the wing. Much like the Farrell debate we would argue against dropping him completely but in the fullback role it would appear that England needs to and can do better. If Wales are willing to risk a rookie scrum half for such an important match, then surely the time for boldness on England’s part is now and Max Malins should get the nod for a start in the 15 jersey. In Eddie Jones view it would seem not. Once again Malins sits it out on the bench and against Italy we were left dumbfounded as he sat out the entire match on the sidelines. Wales do have the last line of defence well covered by Liam Williams, and that could be the reason Jones is going with the more experienced fullback. However in terms of development for the World Cup and even next year’s Six Nations we feel it’s yet another chance gone begging by Jones and England.
It should be a terrific match on Saturday and even without the Welsh sixteenth man, the famous Cardiff crowd, we’re tipping Wales to continue to build towards that fairytale Grand Slam and catch England unawares. There are some terrific contests in store across the park and perhaps none more tasty than that between two of Test Rugby’s most exciting wingers at the moment, England’s Jonny May and new Welsh sensation Louis Rees-Zammit. We see a tight contest in store but one we think Wales are going to have the final say in. While England won’t be suffering from a lack of motivation, Wales clearly have the momentum right now. A fascinating battle of wits awaits and it’s one you won’t want to miss – and now without the France/Scotland game, the showpiece of the weekend.
Stay safe everyone, enjoy what should be some quality Six Nations action this weekend and let’s hope that the much anticipated France/Scotland game can still happen within the window of the current tournament’s time frame.