Archive for the ‘Six Nations 2016’ Category

After the nightmare of the World Cup England emerged triumphant in a Six Nations that rarely caught the imagination.  Even though all the sides were undergoing transformations of some sort since the events of last September/October, it would appear that England have made the most progress.  While few of us here were expecting any side to take the Grand Slam, England surprised us and did just that.  While England may not have been the most exciting team in the tournament, they certainly looked the most polished with a clear sense of purpose and direction.  The other teams had moments of brilliance, especially the three Celtic nations but inconsistencies and poor execution at times let them down at various stages of their campaigns.  Meanwhile France showed some promise as they started a new life under Coach Guy Noves despite a domestic structure that is clearly crippling the national side.  Lastly, Italy as expected took the Wooden Spoon as they prepared to say goodbye to Coach Jacques Brunel and sadly got progressively worse as their campaign wore on leaving many people once more questioning their place in the tournament.

Wales vs Italy
Final Score – Wales 67/Italy 14
Cardiff

As exhilarating as it was to watch Wales in full flight, in the grand scheme of things Wales were already assured of second place and Italy the Wooden Spoon before the match had even begun.  Italy looked demoralised for much of the match whilst the Welsh just looked angry and with a point to prove after their loss to England the previous weekend which ended their title hopes.  Yes, Wales ran in nine tries just as Ireland had done the week before against Italy but it seemed a hollow victory against a side who were more spectators than participants.

The Jonathan Davies try against Wales below is a perfect summary of the match.  Italian defences which were for all intents and purposes nonexistent for the last sixty minutes of this encounter, allowed Wales to run Italy ragged for the last three quarters.  There was simply no need for the physical approach preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland and which has often stifled Wales’ creative talents out wide.  Wales were allowed to run free all afternoon with Italy offering very little in the way of an obstruction.

The first half was a torrid affair for the Italians and was not helped by continuing injury problems causing winger Mattia Bellini and center Andrea Pratichetti to leave the field.  Italy occasionally showed some brave defence but it was rarely enough to contain a rampant Welsh team.  Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb, who so cruelly missed the World Cup, made a brilliant return to a Welsh shirt and showed that despite a strong performance by Gareth Davies in his absence the competition for the scrum half berth in Wales will be keenly contested over the coming months.  Webb would open the scoring for Wales despite there being clear evidence of Welsh players being offside from a kick from fly half Dan Biggar.  While it certainly may have made the Italians feel that refereeing decisions were perhaps going to go against them, it still would not have changed the nature of the significant thrashing the Azurri would ultimately get over the next seventy minutes.  Wales would steadily ramp up the pressure on Italy causing their defensive structures to disintegrate and with it their discipline.  Dan Biggar would make sure that his boot would keep the scoreboard ticking over while continuing to keep Italy under pressure.  Despite some poor execution at times from Wales in the opening twenty minutes they were still the more composed and better organised team.

Dan Biggar would get Wales’ next try followed soon after by centre Jonathan Davies as mentioned above who would score one of the best tries of the tournament.  Italy were clearly out of ideas and inspiration, even the legendary Sergio Parisse seemed at his wits end.  With Wales in a commanding lead at 27-0 as referee Romain Poite blew for half time, you felt it was only going to get worse for Italy as there had been little on display to think otherwise.  Italy looked crestfallen while Wales looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

It would be George North’s turn to be the linchpin of Welsh play as the second half got underway.  A superb offload by the winger would set up centre Jamie Roberts for Wales early in the second half.  Soon afterwards the Welsh winger would emulate Jonathan Davies efforts in the first half as he sliced huge holes through the Italian defence to score Wales’ fifth try.  This seemed to galvanize Italy into action at long last and some positive pressure from them in the Welsh 22 would see scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani profit from a solid Italian rolling maul and get Italy’s first five pointer.  The change in fortunes was short lived however, as Welsh fullback Liam Williams would get Wales’ sixth try.

Italy would make one more spirited attack in a brief interlude of positive play from the Azurri, and centre Gonzalo Garcia who has been one of the few shining lights in Italy’s Six Nations campaign would get Italy’s only other try.  From then on till the final whistle Wales simply took the game by the scruff of the neck and it was all about the Men in Red.  Flanker Ross Moriarty who replaced the injured Justin Tipuric would go on to score two more tries for Wales as Italy for all intents and purposes simply ran out of gas and gave up.  Scrum half Gareth Davies would end the match with Wales ninth try and a reaffirmation that, despite a fine return to the Welsh shirt by his rival Rhys Webb, he is still a force to be reckoned with in the number nine jersey.

While there was plenty of excitement in this match from a Welsh perspective it was ultimately a very one-sided contest.  Wales were in a league of their own while Italy failed to make any statement whatsoever.  Although it was an impressive comeback by Wales after the debacle at Twickenham the week before, against such inferior opposition it was hard to say what it really means in terms of where Wales find themselves after this Six Nations and with the prospect of an extremely challenging tour of New Zealand awaiting them in June.  Against better opposition Wales seem to revert to type and the adventurism we saw, albeit too late against England, and clearly on display against Italy gives way to a more conservative physical approach seemingly favoured by Coach Warren Gatland.  While Wales may be sound defensively which will stand them in good stead in New Zealand they will need to have the attacking confidence they showed in the last ten minutes of the England game and in this match if they are to make any kind of an impression against the All Blacks.  When given freedom Wales suddenly look very exciting but they seem reluctant to use their obvious attacking potential especially in space and out wide.  Wales are without doubt a good team and one, as we saw in the World Cup, who can hold their own against the Southern Hemisphere sides when they are allowed to be creative.  However, without this creativity they look exceptionally predictable and one dimensional, two traits that New Zealand will exploit to the full resulting in a potentially painful four weeks for Wales this June.  A New Zealand squad fresh off the rounds of Super Rugby will be an exceptionally difficult proposition for a Welsh side at the end of a very long domestic and international season.  Creativity will be the key, but under pressure Wales may be effective but not imaginative enough to ultimately get results – we wait and see.

As for Italy, it is back to the drawing board for them as Coach Jacques Brunel leaves and Conor O’Shea takes over.  Italy need to build on some of the skills of their younger players who showed some promise in this Six Nations, and learn to rely less on Sergio Parisse to constantly bale them out of trouble or create that initial go forward spark.  It is hoped they can tighten up their execution and decision making under a new coaching regime and play as a more cohesive unit.  The next few years will see Italy under the microscope of International Test Rugby as calls for other European emerging nations such as Georgia and Romania to take their place in the Six Nations will grow.  Italy desperately needs to show some real progress as the results since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000 are few and far between.  I still think it is early days to perhaps talk of relegation even though post the World Cup I did put forward the idea of such a system in the Six Nations.  However, if Italy holds onto the Wooden Spoon again next year then I can’t see how they can argue against it.  As a result, the pressure on them is enormous but hopefully it will be a positive catalyst for change and improvement.  Italy clearly has talent of that there is little doubt, but they need a structure and the support to help them realise this potential.  It won’t be easy but I still think they have a core of younger players who have shown the hunger and the basic skills needed to help get them there in the future.  There have been some promising developments in the management structure of Italian rugby in the last few weeks, and it is hoped that the foundations needed to finally get Italy living up to its potential are slowly starting to be put in place.

Ireland vs Scotland
Final Score – Ireland 35/Scotland 25
Dublin

Ireland may have won the game but once again it was Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg who stole the show.  This game lived up to the hype surrounding it as both sides played with ambition and flair.  Ultimately though, Ireland’s better organisation and execution would see them come out on top.  Scotland challenged to the end, but once again we saw some of the basic errors creeping back into their game that have haunted them at crucial times in the last year.  Scotland have made enormous progress under Coach Vern Cotter in the last twelve months and are without a doubt one of the most exciting sides to watch in the Northern Hemisphere.  However, it is a lingering lack of finesse that seems to get the better of them in big games such as this one.  Ireland may not have been as exciting to watch in open play, but everything they did was just slightly more clinical than the Scots.  The match provided plenty of thrills and spills but Ireland clearly pulled away in the last quarter and took charge.  Scotland have had a fabulous Six Nations and scored some spectacular tries, but have sadly just not found that consistency yet in the basics.  They are clearly better at the end of this tournament than when they started and the progress has been there for all to see but there is still a way to go before they can really take the bigger teams to task on a regular basis.

Ireland were clearly the better organised team in attack and defence in the first half and Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton’s boot would keep the Scots in check as Ireland led 6-0.  However, some sterling Scottish defence was effectively blunting the Irish attack and keeping the Men in Green at bay.  Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw would see the Scots get on the board with a finely taken penalty kick and after a frenetic first fifteen minutes and considerable dominance of possession by the Irish the score was only 6-3 in favour of Ireland.  Sexton would bag another penalty and the score seemed to be creeping inexorably in favour of the Irish, especially as they were playing the territorial game so well and having the majority of possession.  Then this happened and reinforced just how dangerous Scotland have become.

To say that Stuart Hogg is perhaps a force of nature is rapidly becoming an understatement.  Give the man the ball anywhere on the field and he is more than likely to do something spectacular with it.  Not only is he possessed with an exceptional skill set he is now probably one of Test Rugby’s greatest entertainers and in our opinion, along with many others, has been the best fullback of the tournament.

Scotland were now ahead 10-9 and you sensed that this match was about to really open up.  However, sadly Scotland would suddenly find themselves slipping back into their old ways as discipline and decision making would get the better of them.  Flanker John Barclay was sin binned and a man down Scotland found themselves having to defend a ferocious Irish assault on their lines, which ended in Irish flanker and ball carrying sensation CJ Stander pole vaulting over a pile of Scottish bodies on the white line to get Ireland’s first try.  Minutes later a clever kick from Sexton would see two Scottish defenders have a communication breakdown as the ball went loose allowing winger Keith Earls to scoop it up and dot down Ireland’s second try.  Scotland would have the last laugh in the first half from a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw to restore some respectability to the score line as Scotland trailed 21-13.

The second half would see Scotland essentially try to contain a confident Ireland who clearly had the measure of how to rattle their opponents and play on their perceived weaknesses in decision making and discipline.  Scrum half Conor Murray would, as he does so often, spot the tiniest of tunnels in the pile of Scottish bodies defending the line and squirt through to score Ireland’s third try early in the second half.  Scotland would hit back quickly through Ritchie Gray and some well worked pressure in the Irish half as the big lock would saunter over between the posts and keep Scotland well in touch of the score line trailing 28-20.  Scotland looked well in contention until a moment of disciplinary weakness would see them get a second yellow card as centre Alex Dunbar would make a pointless tip tackle on Irish fly half Johnny Sexton, even if it was milked for the cameras slightly by the Irishman.  As the game ebbed away, a tired and weakened Scotland finally started to cave.  Ireland would capitalise on them being a man down and lock Devin Toner would crash over from a lineout for Ireland’s fourth and final try.  Scotland still tried to make the most of a bad situation till the final whistle but those costly lapses in discipline and execution had once more proven to be their Achilles Heel and Ireland simply played a more comprehensive game which would see them worthy winners at 35-25.

It was a solid performance from Ireland and capped off two good displays at the tail end of the tournament which showed what Ireland is capable of.  While it was always going to be unlikely if not impossible for Ireland to lift the title for a third consecutive time, a strong finish in third place sets the tone nicely for a challenging tour to South Africa in June.  As Coach Joe Schmidt contemplates his future after the South African tour going into 2017, he surely must be pleased with the talent he has at his disposal should he choose to remain in charge of the Men in Green for the World Cup in 2019.  Flanker CJ Stander’s work rate and athleticism has been a marvel to behold all tournament, while Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier had impressive starts in the green shirt in the back row.  I still must confess to being disappointed at not seeing more of Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey in this tournament but hopefully the South African tour will redress this.  Meanwhile prop Jack McGrath was outstanding and it was good to see Donnacha Ryan and Tommy O’Donnell back in action in the forwards and they will be key resources going into the future. Ireland may be rebuilding, but there is more than enough potential to see them return to the lofty heights they reached last year.  I personally feel that with the disarray in the Springbok coaching department at the moment, the Irish trip to South Africa could be a profitable one.  South Africa will still be an immense challenge and a country bursting with talent but the possible candidates for the Springbok coaching job don’t leave us with much optimism, leading us to believe that Ireland could sneak more than just the one win most are predicting they will get.  Either way it should be an excellent opportunity for Coach Joe Schmidt to set the team he or his successor will need to work on building as they start the long road to Japan in 2019.

From Scotland’s point of view, it has been an encouraging tournament, but lingering doubts remain as to how much Scotland have managed to fix some of their core problems.  This is an exceptionally talented team guided by a visionary Coach in the shape of Vern Cotter.  However, the sea change in Scottish playing styles has been so dramatic since Cotter took charge that there are still some kinks left to be ironed out as the team still struggles to adapt at times.  Scottish execution and decision making still remains a problem even though as evidenced in the game against Wales and especially against France and Italy there have been wholesale improvements in this area.  In the game against France for example Scotland finally put in the complete performance they have been searching for since Cotter took charge.  If they can replicate that kind of effort and composure for the rest of the year, then Scottish fortunes on their tour of Japan and in the November Internationals look promising indeed.  Scottish supporters will no doubt feel frustrated that their team is so close but still relatively bereft of results, but I would argue that they are clearly getting there.  This tournament following so close after a tumultuous World Cup campaign for the Scots has been a very positive learning curve and there is plenty to take heart from.  Scotland possess one of the most exciting back lines in Test rugby, a solid and promising halfback partnership that blends youth and experience and a forward pack that is rapidly developing into a powerful and highly agile unit.  All the ingredients are there for success.  Furthermore, look at the increasing depth on the Scottish bench in any of the Six Nations and the future looks bright indeed.  Scotland know what they need to do, simply tighten up the discipline, maintain their composure and decision making under pressure and finesse their execution.  If they can do this consistently then a very exciting future awaits.  While it didn’t quite come to fruition in this Six Nations we saw more than enough evidence that it is surely not very far away!

France vs England
Final Score – France 21/England 31
Paris

We’ll be completely honest while we never really expected England to take the Grand Slam we had little or no doubt that they would be the side to lift the Six Nations trophy on March 19th.  As the tournament wore on England’s steady march to the ultimate prize seemed inevitable.  Wales looked like they might have derailed the English Grand Slam express at the death, but ultimately it was too little too late, despite English supporters wincing in the stands at Twickenham in the final ten minutes.  After that match it was left to France to try and produce some miracles in Paris, and they certainly made the effort but by this stage England were simply unstoppable.  If you have to look for a complete team display over five matches then England for the most part gets the nod, despite the defensive horror show of the final ten minutes against Wales and a seeming inability to really assert any kind of authority over Italy in the first half in Rome.  Disciplinary issues still remain, but Captain Dylan Hartley who has been a disciplinary pariah in the past, led admirably from the front in this department and worked hard at bringing his charges into line.  England looked good for the most part but are also aware that they let many opportunities slip past them.  A fact that Australia will be keenly aware of as they prepare to meet them in June.  Meanwhile France have made a relatively positive start to life under new Coach Guy Noves, but clearly have a long way to go before they can once more claim to be a dominant force in the Six Nations.  Captain Guilhem Guirado has been a revelation for France this tournament and was clearly one of the most inspirational Captains of this Six Nations, his work rate and never say die attitude has provided France with some solid leadership in a challenging campaign.  Winger Virimi Vakatawa has proved to be the danger he was built up to be, but his prowess in breaking open defences was often a solo effort in this tournament as the rest of his teammates struggled to catch up with him and his blistering speed and strength.  Vakatawa is a clear threat for France but his team has yet to figure out how to use him effectively, but once they do he should be the spark that sets alight some promising back line players.  Up front France is competitive but without that powerhouse front row of Guirado, Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous, they often looked vulnerable.  In short, plenty to work with but for now France is very much in the design stages.

The score line in this match perhaps doesn’t do justice to how hard France made England work for the full eighty minutes, and they surely must take heart from this performance even though they lost and sadly scored no tries, despite pressing agonisingly close on numerous occasions.  England on the other hand held their nerve, were the more clinical of the two sides and, just as they have all tournament, demonstrated just how far they have come in the three months since new Coach Eddie Jones has taken over after the World Cup debacle.  England were clearly the best side in the tournament and deserve all the accolades they have received in the last two months along with the Grand Slam.  Whether they are good enough to take apart Australia in two months, only time will tell but the foundations they have built in this tournament will certainly put them in good shape to make a serious impression on their Antipodean hosts.

France got the upper hand in the opening quarter of the match, as a lack of English discipline allowed scrum half Maxime Machenaud to put France ahead and he would continue to remain a reliable source of points with the boot all match for Les Bleus.  France looked the more enterprising of the two sides as they were ambitious and the more dominant of the two sides in attack.  After England’s Owen Farrell leveled the scores with a penalty kick France looked promising with some fine work from winger Virimi Vakatawa who was proving to be a handful for the English defences though sadly his colleagues were having trouble keeping up with him.  However, it was England and scrum half Danny Care who would ultimately make the statement as to how this game was going to unfold.

I have always found Ben Youngs to be a more reliable scrum half for England, but there is no question that Danny Care adds an X-factor that Youngs perhaps lacks.  With a keen eye for opportunity Care took advantage of a hole in the French defences that you could have run a legion through.  With only French prop Jefferson Poirot there to stop him there was really no contest.  Continuing English ill discipline especially in the scrums continued to cost England as France’s Machenaud kept them in touch.  However, England were increasingly getting the better of territory and possession despite French fullback Scott Spedding and winger Virimi Vakatawa’s efforts to the contrary.

It would be prop Dan Cole who has been a real part of the bedrock of England’s success in this tournament who would get England’s second try after some determined efforts by the English pack deep in the French 22.  England ended the half in charge at 17-12 but repeated incursions by the French had ensured that Machenaud were keeping France in the game.  As the teams headed into the tunnel it was still anyone’s game, especially if the French were able to keep up their obvious enthusiasm for the task at hand.

France certainly started the second half full of intent and had the English defences scrambling to contain them.  A penalty battle ensued in the first quarter with both sides trading accurate shots on goal and the score line remaining so tantalisingly close for both teams.  If anything it looked like France were getting the upper hand in attack despite some alarming errors starting to creep in as the frenetic pace of the game started to catch up with a French squad who were clearly not as well rested as their English opponents.  However, it would be Mr. Reliable, scrum half Ben Youngs who would come to England’s rescue after some solid ball carrying from Billy Vunipola.  The scrum half made a clever little break and then put a perfectly weighted grubber kick through for winger Anthony Watson to pounce on.  The winger held off France’s Wesley Fofana who himself was playing out of his preferred position at centre, much to the dismay of French supporters.  France however still managed to keep themselves in the game as another English indiscretion allowed Machenaud to bag France’s seventh penalty. The scrum half was proving to be spectacularly accurate with the boot and surely that has answered one question for Coach Guy Noves about who gets the kicking duties in the future.

English supporters would hold their breath as Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley was taken off the field with twelve minutes to go, and given the fact that he had hit every target all night in the lineouts the concerns were valid. English centre Owen Farrell would boot one of the longest penalty attempts of his career and seal France’s fate as the game closed out in England’s favor at 28-21.   However, France suddenly seemed to run out of steam and as French replacement forward Xavier Chiocci headed to the sin bin the writing was clearly on the wall.  Farrell landed another penalty and as referee Nigel Owens blew for full time the relief and joy for England was there for all to see.  It seems hard to believe that this is the first Grand Slam in 13 years for England, but as a result it will be one of the sweetest they are likely to get for a long time.

Whether an England fan or not, you cannot deny that for the most part they were the best team by a country mile in a competition that often left us wanting for so much more.  England played with enough ambition and adventure to lay down the marker for other teams to beat in the Northern Hemisphere and while they may not have had as much flair as the Celtic nations at times, they were brutally effective when it mattered most.  Coach Eddie Jones has more than enough to work with as he prepares to be a tourist in his native land in June.  The second row combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is a bright beacon for the future while Jack Nowell proved his weight in gold on the wing.  England’s scrum still creaks somewhat but Hooker Dylan Hartley as Captain has been outstanding.  England’s back row still remains a problem, as they are essentially having to ask too many questions as to who really is their number seven?  However, with the burden of the Captaincy removed from his shoulders Chris Robshaw has really come back into the fold as one of England’s most reliable and experienced assets. However, Billy Vunipola at number eight is playing some of the best rugby of his career and as seen against Ireland is akin to a one-man panzer division.  Questions still remain around the halfback partnership with Danny Care and Ben Youngs having equal amounts to offer to the number nine jersey, but the questions surrounding George Ford’s lack of form in this tournament in the fly half berth need to be answered before England make the journey to Australia.  Owen Farrell, Mike Brown, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are all proven commodities but the question of what England’s centre pairing really should look like still remains up in the air.  In short, England are in a very good place as they look ahead to an exciting tour to Australia and a full slate of top drawer Internationals in the Fall.  The progress that Eddie Jones has made in three short months is remarkable and England look in very good health.  However, before England and their supporters get too carried away, it’s only once the Australian tour is over will we really know how far England has come, but so far the omens look good.

As for France, they have been ambitious and exciting at times but are clearly still very much a work in progress.  Captain Guilhem Guirado has rightly been labelled one of the standout performers of the tournament and he has provided France with some exceptional leadership in trying times.  However, the problems that continue to plague French rugby are still no closer to being answered despite Coach Guy Noves’ best efforts.  Until the domestic structure allows France to rest and train a national squad in line with the demands of International Test Rugby, it is unlikely that France will achieve much more than one-off spectacular results.  The likelihood of them stringing together a set of consistent wins still looks like a flight of fancy.  On their day they soon will be at the stage where they can beat anybody but then still proceed to implode a week later.  France needs consistency and so far it doesn’t look like they are going to get it.  They face a challenging tour to Argentina in June which has already been sacrificed to the needs of the domestic competition.  Up against a Pumas side revelling in their Super Rugby exposure and champing at the bit to set the right tone for the Rugby Championship in August, this is going to be an incredibly difficult tour for an exhausted and depleted French side.  However, it could be turned to France’s advantage if they use it as an opportunity to blood a new generation of up and coming youngsters.  France at least for this year will need to learn to work in spite of their domestic structure and as a result could end up learning some interesting and perhaps encouraging lessons for the future.  There is enough talent in France that the future should be viewed with a healthy dose of optimism especially now they seem to have in Guy Noves a Coach who is learning how to work with the constraints imposed on him.  There is still likely to be more pain than gain in the French camp over the next year, but I genuinely believe that France will be back and sooner rather than later.  For a nation with such a proud tradition in the sport we hope that this is genuinely going to be the case and that the management problems plaguing France regarding club versus country debate are hopefully worked out for the greater good.

While it may not have quite the edge of the seat aura that last year’s Championship had, there is no question that this Six Nations has finally got the energy and excitement that were so conspicuously absent in the first three Rounds.  England have quietly but assuredly rebuilt themselves from the ruins of the World Cup, and it will require an extraordinary effort from France in Paris on Saturday to deprive England of a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam.  England already have the Championship sewn up, and while there have been moments of doubt in their campaign, the England of 2016 looks an infinitely more structured and focused side than the 2015 edition.  Wales will have to somehow forget a match against England a week ago that had they played with the same level of intensity they showed in the final ten minutes, it could well be Wales competing to lift the trophy this weekend.  Either way they should finish a strong second.

It’s the middle of the table where it is all up for grabs.  France themselves have shown some considerable promise at times this Championship and infinitely more enterprise and intent under new Coach Guy Noves than we ever saw under his predecessor Phillipe Saint-Andre.  However, France’s crippling domestic structure has left the national squad with a talented but ultimately exhausted group of individuals.  There is always the chance that in front of a home crowd France will lift themselves to produce their one extraordinary performance of the tournament as they always seem to manage to do, but it is a big ask and would also have to assume that England could be caught off guard for a full eighty minutes.  England were completely caught off balance by Wales last weekend for ten minutes, but it would seem unlikely that they haven’t prepared for such an eventuality against France and how to contain it.

However, it is the match up between Ireland and Scotland that is probably the most eagerly anticipated fixture of the weekend as these two duke it out for third place.  Ireland showed last weekend against Italy what a joy they are to watch when they are given space and allowed to run the ball.  Scotland meanwhile have managed to do this all tournament and as shown against France have honed it to a fine art, with probably the most dangerous strike runner of the tournament in the shape of fullback Stuart Hogg.  Saturday’s contest in Dublin will hopefully be a showpiece of expansive running rugby, and do much to answer questions regarding the gulf between Northern and Southern Hemisphere playing styles.  Lastly, Italy looks destined to hold aloft the wooden spoon this year as they take on Wales in Cardiff.  Italy have shown some genuine promise at times in this year’s tournament, however under pressure from better sides they have sadly imploded dramatically in the second half.   With a raft of injuries affecting Italy’s final fixture in this year’s tournament, it is hard to see a break from this pattern taking place on Saturday.

Wales vs Italy
Saturday, March 19th
Cardiff

With absolutely no disrespect to Italy of all the fixtures this weekend this is the easiest match to predict.  Wales pretty well have second place sewn up barring some sort of miracle in Paris on Saturday.  Italy on the other hand are in the same position for cementing their grasp on this year’s Wooden Spoon.  To avoid it they would have to put in a performance akin to the Second coming in front of a packed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.  While Italian Captain Sergio Parisse is renown for inspiring his charges to produce the unexpected, such a reversal in Italian fortunes on Saturday would require a truly superhuman effort.  Wales meanwhile will be licking their wounds from only showing up to spoil England’s Six Nations party last weekend in the last ten minutes.  Only a massive score line against the unfortunate Italians will help ease the pain of that error in judgement last Saturday.  As a result, Italy will as always be brave but ultimately sacrificial lambs to a Welsh team looking to erase the memory of last weekend in a red rage.

Up front even without the likes of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones and Sam Warburton, Wales has more than enough power to push Italy all over the park.  The Welsh front row although coming uncharacteristically unstuck against England last weekend, should easily have the edge over an Italian unit that has rarely fired this tournament.  The Welsh front row of Rob Evans, Samson Lee and Scott Baldwin needs little introduction and is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of last week.  This platform should be the blunt and highly effective edge of Wales forward dominance on Saturday.  In the second rows, once again it should be all about Wales.  Wales’ Bradley Davies alongside Luke Charteris should dominate the lineouts and Italy’s offerings in Quintin Geldenhuys and Valerio Bernabo are simply not of the same calibre.  In the back rows the contest is slightly more even, let’s face it Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been no slackers this tournament, but up against Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate who comes in to replace the injured Sam Warburton as Captain they will be pushed hard.  For me Justin Tipuric is one of Wales most underrated players and whenever he is on the pitch Wales develops an extra set of teeth as he is fast, agile and seemingly tireless in getting Wales turnover ball.  This Lydiate/Tipuric axis with the superb Taulupe Faletau backing it up at number eight should give Wales total dominance in the back rows, at the breakdowns and in any resulting loose play.  Italy’s Sergio Parisse at number eight will be a constant thorn in Wales side and alongside Zanni and Minto is a clear threat but just not quite of the same stature and reliability as the Welsh three.

In the halfbacks it is great to see Tommaso Allan make a return for Italy as he was one of Italy’s standout players for me in last year’s tournament and the World Cup.  He along with Carlo Canna is clearly the way forward for Italy at number ten.  However, he and Italy’s Kelly Haimona are still no match for the Welsh all star pair of Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, with the latter turning the game dramatically around for Wales last weekend when he came off the bench.  At scrum half, continuing injury problems mean Italy is more than up against it on Saturday, as newcomer Guglielmo Palazanni is simply no match for Welsh danger man Rhys Webb and his bench replacement Gareth Davies.  Expect total dominance by Wales in this department on Saturday.

In the backs, if Wales play with any kind of purpose here as they did in the final ten minutes at Twickenham last Saturday, then expect them to run riot over the Italians.  Welsh winger George North was on fire last weekend and expect to see him shredding Italian defences if given the green light.  The centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are tried and trusted and when the former was allowed to really cut loose last weekend he added an enormous amount of variety to an otherwise far too predictable Welsh game plan.  Expect more of the same on Saturday.  Italy has the chance to challenge with Leonardo Sarto and Mattia Bellini on the wings though Sarto’s defensive skills last weekend were highly questionable at times.  Gonzalo Garcia is always a threat in the centre and a strong ball carrier but Italy will feel the absence of arguably their best player of the tournament Michele Campagnaro, with his replacement Andrea Pratichetti having to fill an enormous pair of boots.  At fullback David Odiete has impressed me for Italy in his first season with the Azurri but is no match for Wales’ Liam Williams especially under the high ball.  Italy can compete in the backs but given the sheer pedigree of the Welsh offering, and without the superb Michele Campagnaro Italy are likely to be playing catch up rugby in this department all afternoon.

In short, I fear a rather one sided contest in Cardiff, with Wales potentially running away with a cricket score.  If Italy start losing control of the match by the first quarter, which tired and dispirited as they now are is highly likely, this should be Wales day by at least 25 points.  I hope for Italy’s sake that they can dig deep and find some pride and hopefully keep themselves just in touch for the first quarter, but Wales have everything to prove on Saturday as they set their sights on a truly daunting tour of New Zealand in two months’ time.  Anything less than a clear display of total dominance by Wales on Saturday will have many wondering if it won’t be Wales who like Italy this Saturday will end up sacrificial lambs on the altar of World Rugby in June.

Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 19th
Dublin

Grand Slam aspirations aside by England later in the afternoon, we have to be totally honest and admit that this is the fixture we are looking forward to the most this weekend.  Even though Italy were very poor last weekend, Ireland were an absolute joy to watch as they ran in nine superb tries.  Scotland against France also provided us with examples of sheer brilliance at times and are definitely the ‘flair’ side of the tournament matched to a set of basic skills and decision making that has finally come of age under Coach Vern Cotter.  With superb conditions forecast for Dublin on Saturday, we are hoping for a contest of free flowing and expansive rugby akin to what our Southern Hemisphere rivals are able to dish up on any given Saturday.  While we are always wary of hyping up a contest in this competition lest it degenerate into a tedious defensive slugfest, we can’t help feeling that Saturday’s tussle in Dublin should be a fascinating spectacle that should keep us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes.  Whoever you may be supporting Saturday, we doubt you will leave feeling you haven’t just watched something slightly special.

Up front two very solid and experienced front rows go up against each other.  Ireland’s Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross are clearly the more experienced trio, but Scotland’s WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford showed France who was boss last weekend.  However, in front of an Aviva Stadium in full voice at every scrum, I can’t help feeling that Ireland are just going to get the better of Scotland at times on most occasions here.  In the second rows, Ireland should also have the edge at lineout time with Devin Toner rediscovering some much needed form and Donnacha Ryan rapidly becoming a key component of a strong Irish challenge for the future.  Scotland’s Ritchie Gray and Tim Swinson are an impressive unit but they will miss Ritchie’s injured brother Johnny who has been instrumental in Scotland’s stellar rise in the last few months.  While I am delighted to see Ireland’s Tommy O’Donnell back in the back row mix for Ireland, and think the Irish flanker is clearly part of the enormous depth Ireland is developing in this area of the game, he and outstanding newcomer CJ Stander are going to have their work cut out for them trying to contain Scotland’s back row pair of John Barclay and John Hardie.  Scotland’s duo has been outstanding all tournament and are devastating in the loose and in defence, with a tackle rate that is off the charts.  Ireland will compete here make no mistake and this will be one of the most fascinating match ups of the afternoon, but I am giving the Scottish pair a slight degree of dominance here.  Lastly at number eight, Jamie Heaslip had one of his best days out for Ireland in recent memory last Saturday.  However, Scotland also seems to have a depth of talent in this position as well.  Ryan Wilson has impressed me in this tournament, and his bench replacement Josh Strauss is of equal calibre, though I am pleased to see Ireland having Ultan Dillane on their bench who has been outstanding every time he has come on for Ireland and another bright star for the future. I still can’t help feeling that Scotland’s back row is just that more ferocious and edgier than Ireland’s.  Close call to make but Scotland might just have a slight dominance in this area of the park on Saturday.

In the half backs, quality meets quality once more.  Johnny Sexton is back to his best as we saw last weekend against Italy and Conor Murray has rediscovered much of the confidence he has lacked at club level this year by playing alongside his Irish halfback partner Sexton.  Although Scotland are missing the exceptionally talented Finn Russell at fly half due to injury, his replacement last week Peter Horne proved to be an exceptionally capable replacement and I must confess to being surprised to not see him start this weekend.  Admittedly he is on the bench and Duncan Weir provides a certain X-factor at times to Scottish play, so Scotland are certainly fielding some quality in this department.  At scrum half Greg Laidlaw may not have the adventurism of Conor Murray but is more than reliable and a calm head when needed.  His replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne however has more of the ability to break a game up than Ireland’s bench warmer for Conor Murray in the shape of Eoin Reddan.  Still given the sheer Test quality of the Sexton/Murray partnership, it should be Ireland’s day in terms of game management on Saturday.  Off the bench though I would argue Scotland has the edge here, but should Ireland have a commanding lead by the time Hidalgo-Clyne and Horne come on then it should be Ireland’s day.

In the backs, no matter who you support there can be little question that everyone is looking forward to seeing Scottish fullback and playmaker Stuart Hogg in action once more this Saturday.  In terms of X-factor and the unexpected the contest between him and Ireland’s Simon Zebo should be one of the most entertaining match-ups we’ll see all Championship.  The Irishman is full of dancing feet and remarkable offloads, but Scotland’s Hogg has been consistently outstanding for Scotland all tournament.  Both players are exceptionally skilled but Hogg’s abilities in defence as well as in attack just give him the clear advantage here.  His decision making and eye for an opportunity is just that much better than Zebo’s so Scotland should get the better of this duel.  On the wings I can’t help feeling that Scotland’s Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour have twice the fizz, spark and speed that their accomplished Irish rivals have in the shape of Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble.  Given also that the Irish pair are prone to injury I can’t help feeling that Scotland will be running the touchlines just that bit better on Saturday.  It’s in the centres that the contest swings back in Ireland’s favour, even though I must confess to being very disappointed to see Ireland’s new rising star Stuart McCloskey once more not even make it onto the bench.  However, Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw has been outstanding for Ireland all tournament.  A ferocious tackler and exceptionally strong and fast with ball in hand he is going to be a complete handful for Scotland all afternoon.  His partner Jared Payne has also had a strong campaign for Ireland and this pair at home should give Ireland the edge they need.  Scotland’s offering in the centres of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor put in a superb body of work last weekend against France and will provide a potential nightmare defensively for Ireland’s Henshaw and Payne, but I feel that the Irish pair’s defensive abilities are more than up to the task, whereas the Scots may struggle to contain the Irishmen in this area of the park.

In short, Ireland should win the battles up front even though they will be exceptionally close at times, but linked to Ireland’s tried and trusted halfback pairing of Sexton/Murray, the Irish platform should prove slightly more reliable under pressure than Scotland’s.  In the backs it really is open season and could go either way, with Scotland’s Stuart Hogg being such a danger that I actually feel that in terms of the running rugby we’ll see on Saturday, Scotland will actually be the better team.  However, that Irish defence coupled to the Schmidt/Sexton brains trust should just get Ireland home on the day.  It is going be close, ever so close and have spectators bouncing in out of their seats for the full eighty minutes, but Ireland to come out on top by three points.  Either way here’s hoping that it truly ends up being the spectacle it is being billed as!

France vs England
Saturday, March 19th
Paris

While France vs England matches these days may not quite have the aura of “Le Crunch” that they had in years gone by, they are always a fixture on the Six Nations calendar that is eagerly anticipated.  There is always the possibility of the element of surprise in this fixture with France usually providing it as they somehow manage to rise to the occasion.  France are not the Six Nations force of old as they struggle with a domestic structure that has hijacked the national cause, but in this match they still somehow manage to raise their level of intensity and produce their one ‘big’ game of the tournament.  It is hoped that this Saturday will be no different.  England have won the title and now only France stands in the way of their first Grand Slam in 13 years which seems hard to believe.  England while perhaps sticking to tradition in not being the most exciting team to watch in this tournament have clearly been the most effective and well structured.  Under new Coach Eddie Jones, they have a clear sense of purpose and the basic tools to get results.  While they almost dramatically imploded against Wales last weekend in the final ten minutes, the wake up call that provided is unlikely to be repeated in Paris on Saturday.  England look confident though not arrogant, and must clearly be the favourites to finish a strong Six Nations in style in Paris and reflect on a successful resurgence after the horrors of the World Cup.  England may not be the finished product yet that they need to be if they are to challenge the Southern Hemisphere sides on a regular basis but of all the sides in this year’s Six Nations, along with Scotland they have made the most progress in getting there.

England’s forward pack as a traditional staple has been exceptionally reliable this Six Nations.  Some new talent, most notably in the form of outstanding second rower Maro Itoje, have settled in well alongside more experienced players such as Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola and Dan Cole.  Captain Dylan Hartley has really impressed in the leadership role and has simply left his critics with nothing to say – in short job well done and a superb character transformation.  In the front row, England will have clear advantage on Saturday.  Hartley, Cole and Mako Vunipola will be evenly matched by France’s exceptional Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani.  However, for France prop Jefferson Poirot is likely to be the weak link and ultimately see England have dominance here.  Should Joe Marler be brought in for England early in the match then the contest would even up, as despite his colorful commentary in the scrum, I still think he is England’s weak link in the front row, especially in terms of technique.  In the second row, England’s offering of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is rock solid and offers some dynamism, strength and speed which France simply doesn’t have in their counter of Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart.  Meanwhile in the back row, England once again should have the edge with the experience of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, even though for me the latter is not England’s most reliable asset.  France will compete here especially in the form of flanker Damien Chouly but England should still be dictating the pace at the breakdown.  At number eight, England has all the right cards in the shape of Billy Vunipola whose one-man tank brigade assaults on the Irish lines last month are already the stuff of legends.  I doubt that French newcomer Loann Goujon will be able to match the intensity of the Englishman.

At halfback, England should clearly have the run of play, as despite his dip in form this year English halfback George Ford is more of a reliable commodity than the mercurial Francois Trinh-Duc for France.  Danny Care at scrum half is perhaps a tad quicker out of the blocks than France’s Maxime Machenaud and benefits from having a clearer idea of what the need to offload should achieve than his French counterpart.  Unless Ford gets really rattled then I would expect England to have a much better system of game management in place than France on Saturday.

In the backs, expect to see plenty of offloading by France, but the problem seems to be that it is often slightly directionless and a tad predictable as breathtaking as it can be at times.  England on the other hand are more conservative but much more reliable when it comes to running the ball and spreading it wide, with a much better sense of what they are trying to achieve with it.  Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have been outstanding for England on the wings, and Nowell in particular has really impressed in attack and defence.  France will be hoping that in their wingers Virimi Vakatawa and the superb Wesley Fofana they will have the X-factor that will keep England guessing on Saturday.  It is certainly possible with Vakatawa being a genuine force of nature.  However, doubts remain about Fofana’s place on the wing as opposed to his preferred position in the centre.  Vakatawa as devastating as he may be, has rarely had the support he needs once he cuts loose so far in this tournament, and unless France address this on Saturday, I can’t see them giving England to much to worry about on the wings.  In the centres, there are still some question marks around Owen Farrell, especially as with George Ford’s dip in form many are wondering why he is not running the fly half berth.  However, for the most part Farrell does seem to be working well with Jonathan Joseph in the centres for England.  Farrell’s vision compared with Joseph’s lightning bursts of speed make this a very hard pair to read and contain.  Gael Fickou is a quality centre as evidenced last Saturday, but for me the jury is still out on Maxime Mermoz and given the inconsistent delivery from France’s halfbacks, I can’t help feeling that England should be much more visible in centre field than France on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, Mike Brown’s cocky demeanour is likely to be in for a bit of a bruising from France’s Scott Spedding, and I actually feel that this is one area where France are likely to teach England a few lessons on Saturday.  On top of that Spedding possesses a monster boot that is able to punish any English indiscretions from deep.

However, just as against Wales this is England’s game to lose and France’s to win.  England are clearly right on target for the Grand Slam.  France could upset their party but it will require a superhuman from an already exhausted and slightly disjointed side.  French Coach Guy Noves has made remarkable progress in the space of five matches in lifting a shattered national side from the ruins of the Saint-Andre years.  However, in the case of France, it is very much a work in progress that without a corresponding change in attitudes at the domestic level is unlikely to produce the kind of dramatic results needed on Saturday.  There will be some entertainment at times on Saturday in Paris, make no mistake, but it should be England’s day and ultimate Grand Slam by 12 points!

Yes, it’s back!  The Six Nations after one of the most uninspiring initial three rounds many of us can remember for a long time suddenly found a new lease of life this past weekend and provided us with three highly entertaining matches.  It wasn’t always pretty especially if you were Italian, Welsh or French but there is no doubt that after three false starts the tournament finally found some much needed tempo and excitement.  Ireland completely annihilated an admittedly very poor at times Italy, in a glorious display of running rugby which saw the Men in Green run in nine tries.  England then went on to take a step further in clinching the Championship with a win over Wales which in the last ten minutes almost slipped spectacularly away from them.  Finally, at Murrayfield, the Scots as we always knew they would provided us a display of skill at times that would have been the envy of any Southern Hemisphere team in arguably the most entertaining match of the weekend.  We cheered, cried and forgot to breathe on several occasions in 240 minutes of rugby that reaffirmed our faith in this much loved tournament.  We can only hope that it has set us up for a champagne finish this coming Saturday, even though unlike last year England has already won the Championship by being undefeated in the first four rounds and on track for an elusive Grand Slam for the first time in 13 years.  Although the Six Nations trophy is England’s already this year, next weekend will shed light on so many questions about the future of all six competitors, and with a weather forecast of sunny European skies it should provide for compelling viewing.

Ireland vs Italy
Final Score – Ireland 58/Italy 15
Dublin

We thought that in Dublin, Ireland were always destined to win this match by a comfortable margin as they desperately sought their first win of the season, but we never thought for a minute that they would do it in such an emphatic fashion.  Italy has looked promising at times in this year’s Six Nations and despite missing some key players, there is enough of a core for Italy that they should be able to provide any of the Six Nations teams with a healthy challenge.  Indeed, there were times last Saturday where Italy showed brief glimmers of promise, but sadly they ultimately imploded in the most spectacular fashion against an Irish side which grew in confidence with every score.  Ireland, had injury woes of their own, and despite some of us scratching our heads over some of Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections they nevertheless paid off and Ireland completely outclassed their Italian rivals.  Whether or not Ireland will be able to repeat this kind of effort against arguably the most exciting attacking side in this year’s tournament, Scotland next weekend, is a huge ask but they certainly laid some solid foundations this Saturday in Dublin.

You sensed that as Ireland took to the field the pressure was all on them, especially in front of the Aviva faithful.  Italy too were without a win, but they didn’t have the pressure of dipping so low from being back to back Six Nations champions.  Ireland looked slightly nervous in the opening few minutes and to their credit Italy capitalised on this and almost got the first points of the match through a near try from centre Gonzalo Garcia who at the last moment was bundled into touch by some desperate Irish defence.  This Italian wake up call seemed to settle Irish nerves and for all intents and purposes Ireland proceeded to dominate Italy for the next 75 minutes.  Ireland came surging back at Italy and the resulting pressure caused some defensive madness from Italian winger Leonardo Sarto as he batted the ball backwards deep in his own 22 which Irish centre Jared Payne gleefully pounced on and took to ground.  Ireland quickly recycled the ball allowing winger Andrew Trimble to get the first of Ireland’s many five pointers that day.  Ireland had their tails up and were full of running rugby with the centres Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw putting in enormous work rates in attack and defense as fly half Johnny Sexton provided the game management.  Irish prop Jack McGrath who was in fine form would secure Ireland’s second try, with flanker CJ Stander getting Ireland’s third minutes later.  Italy had responded with a penalty well taken by their fly half Edoardo Padovani, but trailing 20-3 it was starting to look like a whitewash by the first quarter.

Italy tried to respond as the clock wound down to half time, and in their defence put in some solid phases, with their superb centre Michele Campagnaro being at the heart of much of it, as he would be all match.  In essence for me Campagnaro was the only real stand out player for Italy on Saturday, and he is a real talent for the Azurri and a world class Test player.  However, despite Campagnaro’s and Italy’s efforts as half time approached, this happened producing probably the try of the tournament and putting Italy in an impossible starting position in the second half.

Ireland were now on a roll and starting to look almost unstoppable.  As Italy headed to the dressing room trailing 25-3 you couldn’t help feeling that there was only more pain to come as they increasingly looked out of ideas against an Irish side clearly revelling in the opportunity to be able to run freely again.

Italy looked rattled and dare I say it almost resigned to their fate as they came out in the second half and an easily read pass from Italian fly half Padovani, saw Irish centre Jared Payne streaking across the field to get Ireland’s fifth try.  Irish number eight Jamie Heaslip made an inspirational return to form and would go on to get his second try shortly after Payne’s efforts.  With thirty minutes to go, fly half Johnny Sexton’s work was considered done and he was replaced by Ian Madigan who put in a solid effort for the rest of the afternoon as well as bagging a sound try of his own later on.  Ireland were simply running riot now and as an exhausted and completely disorganised Italian effort sought to stem the green tidal wave, Ireland would run in a further four tries from Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan.  Italy would get two consolation scores of their own from Winger Leonardo Sarto and fullback David Odiete, but it was little consolation from an afternoon which saw them well and truly outplayed.  Ireland put in a complete team performance and all 23 players stood up and were counted.

Ireland now face a massive final tussle for a probable third place with Scotland next Saturday in Dublin, and with the Scots showing that they can score from almost anywhere on the park, Ireland will face a much sterner test than what Italy provided.  For Italy, their tournament is all but over and it will be exceptionally hard for them to pick themselves up for their last game under Coach Jacques Brunel, as they go up against Wales in Cardiff.  Wales have their own questions to answer but nothing less than an emphatic win such as Ireland’s will do, meaning that next week’s encounter for Italy is likely to be just as painful as the lessons they learnt in Dublin.  For Ireland this performance should help get the team back to winning ways as well as bringing on some of the key new talents they have waiting in the wings.  While Ireland has had a tough time adjusting to life after the World Cup, last Saturday showed that this team when allowed to play with imagination and spirit has more than just a few tricks up its sleeve.

England vs Wales
Final Score – England 25/Wales 21
Twickenham

As this match was rightly being considered the title decider many feared it would degenerate into a cautious defensive game with few risks being taken by either side.  Fortunately, this was not the case, as England played with plenty of intent, and Wales despite living up to the billing for the first hour, suddenly and especially in the last ten minutes turned the game upside down, leaving us all to wonder what might have happened had they played that way for the full eighty minutes.  As England carved out a well-earned but nail-biting win at the end, it was an interesting contrast in styles.  England Coach Eddie Jones has clearly helped shaped the way he wants his team to play and allowed them the expression to do so.  Welsh Coach Warren Gatland on the other hand has stuck to a game plan that may have worked in the past, but increasingly looks set to be a relic of years gone by as the Northern Hemisphere sides seek to break free of traditional playing styles.  Once Wales ditched the formula in the last ten minutes and started playing the kind of rugby they clearly want to play, the match suddenly almost got turned on its head.  England have won the Championship, and can now focus on their first Grand Slam in 13 years, while Wales can hopefully afford to throw caution to the wind in their final game against Italy and really start to break free of the constraints in terms of a game plan that is clearly holding them back from achieving their true potential.

England were clearly relishing the prospect of this contest at home in front of a fervent and very vocal Twickenham crowd.  Right from the opening whistle they asserted their dominance over a Welsh side that suddenly looked desperately predictable.  England came out of the blocks full of intent while Wales on the other hand seemed to lack any kind of intent whatsoever in the first half.  Poor discipline in the scrum, endless missed tackles and numerous penalties going against them meant that Wales looked a shadow of the side that had put up such stiff resistance to an Irish side a month ago at the start of the tournament.  England on the other hand looked like they were just getting better with every outing and were not only clear tournament favourites but also on track for a Grand Slam.

England applied relentless pressure and Wales were struggling to keep a sense of composure in containing the English onslaught in the first quarter.  This allowed the boot of center Owen Farrell to put England in a commanding lead 9-0 within the first quarter, and England clearly running the show in terms of possession.  England’s back line in the shape of Nowell, Watson and Brown were constantly sniping and testing gaps in the Welsh defence but it would be England’s newest sensation and ultimate man of the match lock Maro Itoje who would set the stage for the first try of the game.

Wales would continue to struggle for the remainder of the first half, and continued indiscretions in terms of discipline would see England take a commanding lead 16-0 at half time.  As ecstatic English supporters cheered their heroes into the tunnel, Welsh supporters took out their binoculars frantically scanning the pitch to see if there was even a Welsh team out there.

The second half started in much the same vein and yet another penalty would see England leading 19-0.  It seemed likely to generate into a complete whitewash, and although exciting in terms of the play on offer from England and certainly not the snooze fest that many had predicted, without Wales offering much in the way of resistance it still had the feel of a slightly lacklustre contest.  However, as we headed into the final half hour of the match something changed in the Welsh outlook.  A degree of adventurism kicked in and who better to spark the Men in Red into life than fly half Dan Biggar.  After some heavy but ultimately fruitless assault work deep in the English 22, Biggar charged down a poorly gauged kick from English fly half George Ford, and the Welshman had acres of space to tear off into unopposed and set the ball down between the posts.  Trailing by 12 points was still a mountain to climb given the level of confidence on display from England, but Wales suddenly looked like a side with intent once more.  Welsh Captain Sam Warburton was stretchered off moments later, and it suddenly looked like perhaps the turnaround in Welsh fortunes was to be nothing more than an illusion.

With twenty minutes to go, the substitutions started coming thick and fast for both sides.  English fly half George Ford was having another match which clearly showed up the dip in form he has suffered this year, while his opposite number Dan Biggar was replaced by Rhys Priestland.  In my opinion Wales’ most valuable player at the breakdown and in the loose, flanker Justin Tipuric also came on to the field and Wales all of a sudden appeared to be throwing away the game plan and playing a game that relied less on Coach Warren Gatland’s ideas and more on their own instinct.  As we headed into the final ten minutes, Welsh winger George North finally got a chance to showcase just how dangerous and powerful he is when given space.

All of a sudden it was game on again, and although Wales still needed to score two more tries and convert at least one of them, given the new-found intensity they suddenly possessed and given their track record in this fixture at the World Cup last year, it didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that they were perhaps about to pull off a comeback that would be talked about for years to come.  Sure enough Welsh number eight Talupe Faletau would oblige five minutes later with another well worked try after some scintillating Welsh running and offloading.  Rhys Priestland would convert for Wales and all of a sudden Wales were within four points of derailing the English Grand Slam Express.  George North would make one more daring break down the touchline with less than a minute to go, but England’s Manu Tuilagi would bundle him into touch and then scrum half Danny Care would boot the ball into the crowd from the restart as Twickenham erupted in a collective roar of relief that could probably have been heard as far away as Cardiff.

We can only wonder what might have been if Wales had thrown away the Warren Gatland playbook and played with the risk and enterprise they showed in the last ten minutes.  England were deserved winners on the basis of a superb first half and exceptional composure and skill from key players like Maro Itoje who surely must now be considered an indispensable component of any England starting XV.  However, although now surely on track for the Grand Slam against a French side battling with direction, England must also be concerned about the nature of the Welsh comeback and how close they came to suddenly staring defeat in the face after essentially sewing up the game in the first forty.  That Wales were able to score two superb tries with ease in five minutes at such a critical juncture in the game is surely ringing more than just a few alarm bells for England Coach Eddie Jones.  That kind of breakdown and lack of focus against the Southern Hemisphere sides in the summer and autumn Internationals will cost England dearly and potentially unravel all the solid work that has clearly been done in the past five weeks.  Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides England have clearly made the most progress since the World Cup along with Scotland, but as evidenced by the final ten minutes of this match plenty of work still lies ahead of them if they really want to restore their place amongst the elite sides in World Rugby this year.

Scotland vs France
Final Score – Scotland 29/France 18
Edinburgh

For us here at the Lineout this was the game, despite the hype surrounding the clash at Twickenham, that we were all looking forward to the most and we certainly were’nt disappointed.  Scotland entertained in a superb display of sound decision-making and dazzling skills.  France were for the most part outclassed but had moments of their own most notably through their Captain, Hooker Guilhem Guirado who once again scored another superb try for his country and provided his charges with some rock solid inspiration and motivation for the full eighty minutes.  Scotland though really have become an exceptionally exciting team to watch, and now that their execution which so often let them down in the past has really been fine tuned, coupled to some excellent decision making and game management, they have become a side that any team should approach with a great deal of respect and caution.  While England has rebuilt since the World Cup, Scotland has experienced a genuine Renaissance and surely must be considered title contenders for next year’s tournament if they are able to continue to build on their momentum of the last few weeks.

This was a standout effort from the entire Scottish team, but there is little doubt that at times Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was in a league of his own.  Hogg is clearly one of the most exciting players in international Test Rugby at the moment, but what really made his contribution so valuable on Sunday was how well the rest of his teammates were able to capitalise as a unit on the opportunities he created.

France meanwhile, were often outplayed but looked far less dire than they did against Wales a fortnight ago.  However as mentioned in the tries by Guirado and later centre Gael Fickou, France showed that they are not without ideas or intent, it just hasn’t gelled to the point where it can provide a genuine threat for a full eighty minutes, especially when key platforms of their game such as the scrum and multiple handling errors are constantly throwing them back on the defensive despite a clear willingness to attack and spread the ball wide.  It was clear in this match that despite an admirable willingness by France to offload as much as possible, there were clearly times when this was not the right option and a balance needs to be struck between spreading the ball and hanging onto it.  Once they do hang onto it then the platforms to ensure they retain possession need further work and better organisation.  Still there are signs that a reversal of fortunes in French rugby is taking place albeit slowly, and it was France who would make the first statement of intent in the match.  Winger Virimi Vakatawa showed just how good he is to ultimately put his Captain over the line for the first try and points of the match.

The build up to this try would see Scottish fly half Finn Russell leave the field with concussion and Scottish supporters suddenly shared a collective sense of anxiety as the young number ten has been such a pivotal part of Scotland’s recent successes.  They need not have feared.  Russell’s replacement Peter Horne played out of his skin and showed that at fly half Scotland now seemingly has some real strength in depth.  Horne was magnificent for Scotland on Sunday and calmly picked up where Russell left off.  France still seemed to have the initial momentum though and Scotland appeared slightly phased by the ferocity of the French surprise attacks and Russell’s early departure resulting in a few breakdowns in discipline.  Fortunately for Scotland, French fly half Francois Trinh-Duc had a horrendous day with the boot and as a result Scotland rarely had to pay for disciplinary indiscretions.

Scottish scrum half, Greg Laidlaw would soon get Scotland’s first points on the board through a penalty.  Scotland their calm restored suddenly looked the more dangerous of the two sides.  Horne and Hogg were clearly running the flow of play for Scotland and the fly half made a superb break through bewildered French defences which set in motion a series of phases that would ultimately see Stuart Hogg crash over in the corner.  What happened next as the wind really started to catch Scotland’s sails was just one of the many examples of glorious running rugby that Scotland seems gifted with these days.

As Scotland found themselves 18-5 ahead it looked like an epic rout was destined to take place.  France however, would not be left out of the limelight.  The Men in Blue managed to string together some good phases and some polished offloading saw centre Gael Fickou squeeze into the corner for France’s second try.  Trinh-Duc would finally manage to hit the gap between the uprights and the teams headed into the dressing rooms after a thrilling first half with France trailing 18-12.

Scotland put themselves back on the scoreboard again quickly after the restart from a thumping penalty kick from Jack of All Trades Stuart Hogg from inside the Scottish half.  France quickly returned the favour with a penalty kick from scrum half Maxime Machenaud who took over the kicking duties from Trinh-Duc who was struggling to make any of his footwork count.  This led to a brief period of French ascendancy in attack, but handling errors and a fanatical obsession with offloading at all costs saw a promising but ultimately fruitless passage of play from France.

However, it would be Scotland and that man Stuart Hogg who would once more show off a set of skills that in days gone by would have been most likely attributed to legendary “French flair”.  Indeed, after this tournament it would appear that the Scots are now the bearers of this lofty accolade.  Just have a look at the skill and decision making of Hogg in setting up Scotland’s third and game breaking try.

Scotland would remain camped in the French 22 for the remainder of the match and the constant pressure would see Laidlaw bag another three points for the Scots as fatigue and discipline problems started to take their toll.  France would make one last breakout from their own Maginot Line and a final assault on Hadrian’s wall, but better Scottish focus would see it disintegrate and as referee Glen Jackson called time, the Scottish players and Murrayfield erupted in a joyous and justified celebration.  Scotland played a complete and scintillating game, and France while bold at times just lacked the execution and imagination of their Scottish rivals.  It had been an enthralling contest that showed that expansive running rugby is alive and well in the Northern Hemisphere and being honed to a fine art in Scotland.

We can now look forward to a potentially thrilling encounter in the final round between Ireland and Scotland as these two sides most likely battle it out for third place.  Meanwhile France head back to Paris with the daunting task of trying to scupper the English Grand Slam juggernaut.  It will be the biggest test yet of French Coach Guy Noves, but if the decision making and execution by France improves in the space of a mere six days, in the way Scotland’s has in the last six weeks, then you never know – an upset of monumental proportions is still possible.  The finale of this year’s tournament is unlikely to be as nail-biting as last year’s, but we will certainly be glued to our television screens next Saturday as our much beloved tournament has once more learnt how to breathe fire!

Round 4 of the Six Nations sees England look to consolidate their position at the top of the table and edge closer to not only the title but also a Grand Slam.  Wales, as they have been all tournament, look to be the side most likely to derail the English steamroller as the two meet this weekend at Fortress Twickenham.  Meanwhile Ireland find themselves having to fend off an Italian challenge in Dublin, a failure to do so would mean that Ireland would plummet from the dizzying heights of being back to back champions to suddenly finding themselves staring at a potential wooden spoon.  Italy have shown plenty of promise this year but as in years past look to possibly fizzle out in the dying stages of the tournament.  Last but not least a revitalized Scotland take on France at Murrayfield on Sunday, and given that Scotland have provided us with some of the most entertaining displays of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere this year, this in many ways could end up being the best game of the weekend.  France are trying to rebuild and have shown that the potential is there, but continued selection problems and a lack of direction at times have meant that France still has a long way to go before they become title contenders again.

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, March 12th
Dublin

To say that Ireland have to win this weekend is probably the rugby understatement of the year so far.  Italy are under equal pressure but their track record in this competition since 2000, reflects their current position.  For Ireland however, as back to back champions they find themselves in a very uncomfortable position.  Ireland has plenty of talent and a bright future, but so far this Six Nations none of this seems to be coming to the fore.  Their opening draw against Wales left most Irish supporters with plenty of scope for optimism, however the lack to close out that game repeated itself in their next two encounters in a messy game against France and a spirited but disjointed effort against England.  Ireland is in transition and the big question is what risks should be being taken in terms of building for the future? Based on current selections it would seem very few.  Meanwhile Italy have looked surprisingly good for the first sixty minutes of each of their three games to date in the competition.  If they could catch Ireland off guard and keep them that way for eighty minutes, then in theory an upset is not beyond the realms of possibility especially with the incomparable Sergio Parisse leading the charge.  However, one can’t help feeling that to pull off such a miracle in Dublin is likely to be too much to ask.  Ireland are playing one of the best halfback pairings in Test Rugby in the shape of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray while Italy field an untried combination and it is likely to be this if nothing else which should tip the balance firmly in favor of Ireland.

Up front, Ireland should be able to get the edge over Italy.  In the front rows Ireland clearly has the advantage in terms of experience and technique.  The Irish front row of Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross packs significant big game temperament.  Italy will sorely miss the presence of Leonardo Ghiraldini, and as a result are likely to get given short shrift by their Irish counterparts.  In the second row however, the battle becomes slightly more balanced with Italy’s Marco Fuser a real workhorse.  However, Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should still see that Ireland runs the line of play here especially at the lineouts.  In the back row however, I regard it as an even contest.  Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been outstanding all tournament and the battle between them and Ireland’s CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier should be superb entertainment on Saturday.  The two Irishmen have had outstanding debuts, but I would argue that the slightly longer time together for the Italian pair could well give Italy the edge here.  CJ Stander had a superb debut for Ireland against Wales but was strangely quiet against England.  Van der Flier is an enormous new talent for Ireland, but his lack of experience may at times be a liability.  Lastly at number eight as reliable and committed to the cause as Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is, he just doesn’t have the ferocity, intensity and sheer work rate of his opposite number Italy’s Sergio Parisse.  Therefore, in the forwards I am giving the battle of the tight fives to Ireland but in the back row it could well be Italy’s day.

As mentioned above, it’s in the halfbacks where the cracks in Italy’s structure are likely to be most evident.  To be honest I know very little about Italy’s halfback pairing, other than the fact that their club showings in Europe have been poor to say the least. Fly half Edoardo Padovani and scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani both ply their trade with Zebre who are languishing at the bottom of the PRO 12 table.  Up against the world class experience of their Irish counterparts fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray it is for all intents and purposes a non-starter in terms of a contest.  The Irish pair will simply dominate the run of play on Saturday, putting Ireland firmly in the driving seat.  I doubt that the two inexperienced Italians will be able to offer much in terms of a reply.

In the backs there is room for optimism from both sides.  Italy’s centre pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro are world class.  By the same token Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have also proved themselves.  However, when allied to Johnny Sexton’s vision I give this contest clearly to Ireland.  Italy will be intensely competitive here, but without the brains trust Ireland has in the halfback department Italy will struggle to make the best use of their talented centers.  On the wings I have been impressed by Italian debutant Mattia Bellini and Leonardo Sarto is always a threat out wide.  However, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble are proven commodities for Ireland in both attack and defence and should just give Ireland a slight edge over the Azurri on Saturday.  At fullback I have also been impressed by Italy’s new fullback David Odiete, although his lack of experience does lead to errors in execution in big matches like this especially as the pressure builds.  I must confess to being surprised at Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt choosing Simon Zebo at fullback.  Rob Kearney although injured has not impressed of late, and if anything Jared Payne would to me have been a much more logical choice having really stood out for Ulster this year at fullback.  This would also have allowed Stuart McCloskey another chance to gain experience in building an Irish centre pairing for the future alongside Robbie Henshaw.  Simon Zebo can be absolutely brilliant on attack and he stood up well to the defensive challenge against Wales, despite the fact that in the past there have been justified concerns about his defensive abilities.  However, if Zebo plays anything like he did against Wales this should help cement Ireland’s overall superiority in the backs on Saturday.

I imagine Ireland to play a conservative game as they look for a safe win, despite a very strong challenge from Italy.  If Ireland let the pressure of potentially being left with a wooden spoon get to them, then Italy could end up pulling off the upset of the tournament.  It should as a result be an entertaining contest, but ultimately one which should see Ireland pull away comfortably as the victors in the last quarter by 12.  It is after all being played in front of an expectant Dublin crowd.  The Championship may be well and truly consigned to history but Irish pride has never been more at stake and home advantage should clearly give the Men in Green an edge that Italy will find it hard to overcome.

England vs Wales
Saturday, March 12th
Twickenham

Many are billing this as the big game of the weekend, and given what it is at stake this comes as no surprise. However, as a result I can’t help feeling that of all the matches it will provide us with the least in terms of spectacle and entertainment.  It is likely to be a tight tense affair built around a solid defence that sees both sides reluctant to take chances.  Of the two sides England is likely to be the slightly more adventurous and expansive of the two sides, but I very much doubt the match is going to be a high scoring free flowing contest.  England look the more comprehensive side in terms of game plan, whereas Wales is clearly the more settled of the two sides.  Wales have the experience and cohesion of a team that has been up against it on a regular basis.  England on the other hand are bursting with talent and as their combinations continue to strengthen and develop they look to be the side that has the greater potential for the future.  England seem to have a clear idea of who they want to be and the type of game they want to play even if at times their execution is somewhat lacking.  Wales have a tried and trusted game plan that while lacking in imagination at times still seems able to produce results.  Wales may not be exciting but they are effective even if in the long run this inability to evolve their game plan may ultimately become their Achilles Heel.  It is going to be tight and perhaps not the most riveting of spectacles but I still can’t help feeling that much of the excitement to be generated on Saturday will come from England buoyed by them seeking revenge for being so unceremoniously knocked out of the World Cup by Wales.  If Wales can contain and dampen this English excitement and intensity they will be in a good position to derail England’s Grand Slam aspirations.  However, I can’t help feeling that England’s willingness to take more risks than Wales will ultimately give them the game by the finest of margins.

This is going to be an intensely physical encounter from the get go.  The Welsh front row despite its youth has proved impressive and seems to get better with every outing.  However, England’s experience in the front row in the shape of Captain Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Joe Marler is significant.  Cole was immense against Ireland and Hartley kept his composure and worked hard at keeping his charges on track, especially when discipline was proving to be a problem.  For me though the weak link in the English scrum is still Joe Marler and Wales’ Samson Lee is going to give him a stern examination on Saturday.  Despite England’s experience I am giving the battle of the front rows to the more dynamic Welsh offering.  In the second rows, my money is clearly on England.  Alun-Wyn Jones is immense for Wales but the English pair of George Kruis and debutant Maro Itoje are rapidly developing into a real powerhouse second row.  Kruis has enormous power while Itoje’s ability to get England turnover ball is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends.  In the back row I give the advantage back to Wales.  Sam Warburton is an outstanding Captain and a real menace in the loose along with Dan Lydiate.  Add to these two Welsh superhero Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and Wales should dominate this area of play on Saturday.  England’s Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have plenty of experience but they simply don’t have the wrecking ball qualities of their Welsh counterparts.  The battle between England’s Billy Vunipola who was a one-man Panzer division against Ireland and Wales’ Talaupe Faletau should be one of the highlights of the match at number eight.  Vunipola’s sheer power will be exceptionally difficult to contain.  Faletau is equally powerful in broken play but what he lacks in terms of strength in comparison to Vunipola he more than makes up for in terms of agility.  Overall, though in terms of the physical battle, given their scrum and their back row, I am just giving the edge to Wales.

In the halfback pairings though it is almost impossible to choose, though on form I would give Wales a slight advantage here.  Fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Gareth Davies for Wales have been outstanding and work exceptionally well together.  England’s scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford are absolutely top drawer but the latter has struggled at times in terms of form in this year’s Six Nations.  He was much better against Ireland and alongside Ben Youngs his regular English half back partner he seems to be much more confident.  Of the two sides though I would argue that the Welsh pair has slightly more of a big game temperament and the experience of tripping England up last year at the World Cup should just give them the nod on Saturday.

For me though it’s in the backs that England can and should win this match.  The English backs are much more adventurous as a unit than their Welsh counterparts and if provided with quality ball are much more likely to create opportunities than Wales. The centre pairing of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph is proving to be the vision and pace in this department that England has lacked for so long.  Wales’ Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are outstanding talents, but Roberts tends to be very predictable at times.  Jonathan Davies is the more expansive of the two and more likely to use the space available to him with more imagination.  However, as good as these two are, I can’t help feeling that England’s pair at Twickenham will just rise to the occasion that much more.  On the wings, England’s Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have got better with each outing in this tournament, and Nowell in particular is proving to be a real handful in defence and attack.  Wales’ George North and Alex Cuthbert although impressive are for me just not as good as their English counterparts.  When he fires George North is one of the best in the world but I can’t help feeling that he has lost a lot of his intensity in the last year and his schoolboy fumbling try against France was an example.  When in the right place at the right time he is unstoppable, it’s just he rarely seems to get there much these days.  In the last line of defence at fullback and at Twickenham then it has to be Mike Brown’s day for England.  Whether you like him or not, you can’t deny that his tenacious if somewhat obnoxious attitude gets results.  In front of a home crowd Brown’s intensity is likely to get ramped up that extra notch.  Wales’ Liam Williams has impressed, and some of his individual skills may actually be better than Brown’s but as the complete fullback then I would say that the Englishman is more the overall package in tight encounters like these.

A high stakes match that will have plenty of tension awaits.  However, the tension itself may produce a conservative match that sees both teams unwilling to take risks.  Consequently, expect a tough first hour with few points up on the scoreboard.  If England are able to release their backline in the last quarter and really start to tire the resolute Welsh defence, then England should just pull away.  Close and almost impossible to call, but sticking my neck out here and giving it to England by five.

Scotland vs France
Sunday, March 13th
Edinburgh

For me this should be the most exciting game of the weekend.  In years gone by it was always France who were given the label of the flair side, but in our opinion this title has now gone to Scotland.  They may not always get it right in terms of execution but you can’t fault them on intent and willingness to play adventurous and exciting rugby.  In the match against Italy they finally managed to connect all the dots and Scotland’s exciting and expansive playing style are really starting to pay dividends.  For France they have shown plenty of intent and lots of potential, but still seem to be struggling with direction.  Perhaps the difference this year is how much we have seen in France that could be used for the future.  French Coach Guy Noves seems to be developing an idea of the team he wants after only three matches in charge, and when not handcuffed by the vagaries of the French club structure in terms of selection, he seems to be taking France in the right direction.  However, it is early days still for a new France whereas Scotland are finally starting to reap the rewards of tearing up the old playbook and embracing a bold new future.

In the front rows it is clearly an even battle.  Scotland in the shape of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel have one of the best scrummaging units in European rugby.  France boast the exceptional talent of Rabah Slimani and their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado who was France’s standout player and source of inspiration in an otherwise dire effort against Wales.  However, Jefferson Poirot seems to be the weak link in the chain for France, and as a result this contest should be Scotland’s.  In the second rows the Gray brothers, Johnny and Richie are just that much more settled and effective as a unit than their French counterparts Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart and once again Scotland should have the edge here.  In the back rows it also should be Scotland’s day.  John Hardie and John Barclay were absolutely outstanding against Italy and expect the same on Sunday.  France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara show plenty of promise for the future but as a unit are just not there yet in comparison to their Scottish counterparts.  At number eight it should be an even contest between Scotland’s Josh Strauss and France’s Damien Chouly, though the greater experience of the Frenchman should just see him have an advantage here.  Overall though I can’t help feeling that Scotland should be the master of the forward battles on Sunday.

In the halfbacks once again I would hand the benefit of the doubt to Scotland.  Fly half Finn Russell is electric and scrum half and Captain Greg Laidlaw is the steady hand on the tiller.  France’s Francois Trinh-Duc may have more experience and a slightly cooler head than his Scottish counterpart at fly half, but the Scotsman is more likely to take his chances when they present themselves.  Maxime Machenaud may have a greater burst of pace and intensity at the breakdown as scrum half than Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw, but his lack of composure at times coupled with occasional indecision means that France’s loses momentum at key moments.  Therefore, once again as long as Russell keeps his wits about him Scotland should be more effective at running a game plan than France.

In the backs there is plenty of excitement on offer from both sides.  France boasts a wealth of talent that could potentially be a nightmare for any defence.  However, once more though Scotland seems more effective at using their backs and creating opportunities with them than France.  France has some devastating ball carriers in the shape of Virimi Vakatawa and Wesley Fofana but often these players are expected to perform miracles on their own.  In the centres France have two talented players in Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou but without direction these two are likely to flounder in linking their attacks to a concerted team effort as we saw against Wales.  Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor may be the slightly less experienced pair but more likely to create opportunities that the rest of their team can build on.  On the wings, Scotland packs a tight unit in the shape of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour with the latter rapidly becoming one of the masters of the high ball.  Visser’s speed and agility coupled with Seymour’s ability to read the aerial battles make these two a handful for any defence.  France’s Wesley Fofana and Virimi Vakatawa can rip defences to shreds in the blink of an eye but without adequate support which is something France is struggling to provide; their attacks rapidly lose the hard earned momentum that these two talented individuals create.  Once again two very talented sets of wings but given the fact that Scotland’s pair are likely to be better supported it should be Scotland’s day here once more.  Lastly at fullback Scotland boast one of the best players of the tournament in Stuart Hogg.  He has simply been inspirational this tournament and every time he gets the ball something happens.  One of the tournament’s most exciting players to watch by a country mile, Hogg should be at the forefront of getting Scotland deep into the French half.  France’s Scott Spedding has one of the biggest boots in Test Rugby and is a hard man to bring down but all too often is far too predictable.  He may be reliable but is unlikely to really spark a passage of play that is likely to surprise Scotland.  France has some exciting backs, but Scotland do as well and their ability to both create opportunities coupled with the support play needed from the rest of their teammates should clearly give the Scots the edge on Sunday.

Expect plenty of free flowing rugby especially from Scotland.  The Scots greater sense of vision of what they are trying to achieve should get them through a fascinating encounter on Sunday.  France will pose a serious threat, but Scotland who are now really starting to click as a unit and in front of an ecstatic home crowd should be the better team.  Consequently, we feel Scotland should ultimately walk away the victors by eight points!  Despite the high stakes taking place at Twickenham the day before, as a celebration of our glorious sport we have a feeling that this is the game you’ll really want to watch this weekend.

Round 3 of this year’s Six Nations saw England assert their authority in their race to lift the trophy this month while Wales made it clear that they have every intention of being the team to upset England’s party at Twickenham in Round 4.  Ireland and Scotland meanwhile provided plenty of entertainment, particularly in the case of Scotland as they recorded a much needed and emphatic win in Rome.  Ireland played with plenty of heart and their handful of new caps provided some exciting insight into what Ireland could look like in the very near future.  Meanwhile, despite the truly heroic efforts of their Captain, France failed to impress in what was a fairly dire effort in Cardiff and Italy showed plenty of courage but were ultimately blown away by Scotland’s composure and devastatingly quick back line.

In many ways despite what was at stake for all teams at the midpoint of the competition, Round 3 was not the most riveting weekend in Six Nations rugby with the exception of the Scotland game which provided us with a glorious spectacle of attacking rugby.  The match in Cardiff between Wales and France was more like a comedy of errors at times and it was only a spectacular Welsh defence and some heroic marshalling of the troops by French Captain Guilhem Guirado that sparked our interest.  The game in Rome was visually the most entertaining of the three contests and while there was plenty of tension in the match between England and Ireland, as expected it was a gritty encounter at times with both teams leaving plenty of points on the field that could have and should have been taken.  England were the more effective of the two teams and the sight of Billy Vunipola providing a one-man tank assault on the Irish defence was quite awe inspiring at times, but we were left feeling that there could have been so much more from a fixture that had been so built up in terms of expectations from both sides.  England were clearly the better side on the day, and from an Irish perspective it was good to see some new caps really make a statement, but overall the match saw England get the job done and Ireland wonder what might have been.

Wales vs France
Final Score – Wales 19/France 10
Cardiff

Like most people we were all really looking forward to this contest.  France had shown some signs of serious recovery after their time in the wilderness known as the Philippe Saint-Andre years and Wales looked good value for money as main title contenders with England.  Wales’ defensive abilities are rightly considered to be the best in the tournament so far this year, but the French scrum after some tweaking in the first two rounds is showing some clear promise for the future allied to a new generation of exciting and competitive forwards.  France seem to be developing some attacking flair and prowess once more, and Wales through a solid halfback partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies clearly have the potential to pick apart defences at will unleashing a powerful Welsh back line.  Consequently, we anticipated a relatively high scoring game with some good running rugby.  In essence we got neither as we watched two sides play a slightly unstructured game riddled with schoolboy errors.  In short, the French looked confused and at times the Welsh looked comical.

The first half had few if any highlights.  Wales looked solid defensively and in the set pieces but failed to capitalise on the few attacking opportunities they had.  Furthermore, endless scrum resets by referee Wayne Barnes slowed the match at times to a snail’s pace.  Although Wales looked the more settled of the two sides, they seemed more content to simply sap French energy than genuinely try and create opportunities of their own.  Meanwhile, France looked completely confused for much of the first half and without any sense of purpose in attack.  French winger Virimi Vakatawa did his best to spark an energetic French attack to suddenly find himself facing a Welsh wall with no support players in sight.  At the breakdown French play was typified by a few bodies on the floor and several others milling about aimlessly on the fringes or stumbling into each other not quite sure what if anything was supposed to happen next.  Wales seemed content to simply soak up the pressure and let the French tire themselves out while capitalising on any penalties that came their way.  Just before half time, Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies took matters into his own hands through a blistering break, but much like France’s Vakatawa suddenly found himself with few if any options in the form of the rest of his teammates at the breakdown.  As Wales led 6-3 at half time, we hoped that the inevitable dressing room question and answer periods would produce a slightly more interesting second half.

The second half wasn’t that much better and despite an initial spark of brilliance from Welsh centre Jonathan Davies who masterfully put the ball into acres of space for a charging George North, what followed next from both sides can only be described as a schoolboy friendly at its best.

George North would be happy with the try and French fly half Jules Plisson may be considering other sporting professions, but although a crucial score for Wales, apart from Jonathan Davies initial effort there was very little skill involved.  It seemed to put the nail in France’s coffin.  Instead, it served to galvanize French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado to put in an heroic effort at rallying his dysfunctional troops.  France seemed reenergized and once more went on the offensive with Guirado being in the thick of everything.  However, despite repeated heroic assaults on a Welsh defensive line that would simply not crack, France by the final quarter had nothing to show for their efforts and a humiliating thrashing at 19-3 seemed to be a harsh reward for all their efforts as disjointed as they may have been.  Francois Trinh-Duc came on for the flailing Jules Plisson at fly half and some order was restored to French efforts.  Finally, Guirado’s perseverance paid off and he secured a consolation try for France and just reward for his superhuman efforts in service of his country.  The final whistle blew much to the relief of players and spectators at 19-10 for Wales.

Welsh supporters while elated with the win know that Wales will have to step up their game tenfold if they stand any chance of upsetting England’s Grand Slam ambitions at Twickenham on March 5th.  As England look willing to attack and are becoming more confident in the process, Wales will need to match them not only in defence but also make sure they are taking the initiative in the offensive battles.  From what we saw in Cardiff last Friday, Wales and Coach Warren Gatland have more than just a little homework to do.  For France as they too look to be the final hurdle in denying England a Grand Slam, there are sadly still far too many questions to answer in the space of three weeks made worse by the incessant and unrealistic demands of a gruelling domestic season on national players.  France are clearly making progress but the results are likely to be thin on the ground for a while yet.

Italy vs Scotland
Final Score – Italy 20/Scotland 36
Rome

In terms of spectacle and entertainment this was clearly the best game of the weekend.  Scotland desperately needed a win, and a big win to boot.  They managed both and must surely be feeling more than just a little optimistic about their forthcoming clash with France at Murrayfield.  Their execution was absolutely top drawer and was complemented by some sound and composed decision making.  Italy were not as steamrollered as the score line would suggest, but in terms of ability and flair they were completely outclassed by their Scottish rivals.  Italy still looked good at times and Captain Sergio Parisse as always was in the thick of things.  Italy scored two well worked tries that are a credit to the endeavour and skill levels that Italy has available to them.  The renaissance in Italian Test Rugby is still ongoing despite the woeful fortunes of Italian teams at the club level in Europe.  However, as good as Italy were at times, Scotland ruled the Stadio Olimpico both in attack and defence, leaving Italy to try and catch up as best they could.

Scotland were without regular number eight David Denton, but we weren’t overly concerned as from our point of view he was remarkably quiet and almost ineffectual against Wales.  His replacement Ryan Wilson on the other hand had a barnstormer of a game against Italy and proved a match for his Italian counterpart, the legendary Sergio Parisse, on several occasions.  Although Italy would get the first points on the board from a monster kick from fly half Kelly Haimona, the momentum would swing firmly in favour of Scotland as they would score two outstanding tries in the space of six minutes to put them ahead 14-3.  In the first try Scottish danger man and fullback extraordinaire Stuart Hogg would scythe and weave his way through a dumbfounded Italian defence and then going to ground provide flanker John Barclay with a spectacular offload to see the forward get Scotland’s first try.  Three minutes later Scottish fly half Finn Russell would provide his own magic by dancing his way around several Italian defenders and putting Barclay’s back row partner John Hardie over in the corner for the Scots’ second try.

Italy would regather their senses after the Scottish whirlwind and go on to score a fine try of their own, through centre Gonzalo Garcia and Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini.  Italian fly half Kelly Haimona for once seemed to have brought his kicking boots and the score was 17-10 in favor of the Scots at half time.

Italy started the second half full of intent but slightly lacking in execution and discipline allowing Scotland to widen the margin through Greg Laidlaw’s boot to 23-13 as both sides traded penalties, with the count being in the Scots favour.  Italy maintained the pressure and were rewarded for their efforts in the Scottish 22 as lock Marco Fuser crashed over for Italy’s second try.  With 20 minutes still to play and the score 26-20, Italy looked to make the comeback that the home crowd was baying for.  However, Scotland’s superior fitness and bench would come into play and Scotland quietly took charge of proceedings for the last quarter in Rome.  Italy maintained the pressure but bodies and minds were beginning to tire for the Azurri and the finishing skills just weren’t there anymore as discipline also started to break down.  To rub salt into the wound, Scottish winger Tommy Seymour would score yet another try for Scotland at the death after some more stellar work from fullback Stuart Hogg.

In the end, it was clearly Scotland’s day as they finally really looked like the side they have been promising to be for so long.  Here’s a superb view of Scotland’s remarkable skills against Italy in Round 3 to illustrate the point.

Italy can take heart from the fact that they simply never gave up against a Scottish side that was just firing on all cylinders at long last.  Italy remained competitive to the end, but Scotland’s remarkable skill set just proved too much on a day where they finally managed to connect all the dots.  Whether Scotland can do it all again against France remains to be seen, but based on what we’ve seen so far, and in front of an ecstatic home crowd, we think the answer will surely be yes!

England vs Ireland
Final Score – England 21/Ireland 10
Twickenham

We’ll have to confess that this was the game we were all looking forward to the most in Round 3, and while not nearly as turgid as the contest between Wales and France it didn’t quite live up to the weight of expectation going into the match.  While still a good contest it somehow lacked the sparkle and exciting exuberance of the game earlier in the day in Rome.  England clearly lay down the marker that they are the team to beat this year and new Coach Eddie Jones’ initial outings in charge certainly seem to be hitting all the right notes.  However, as good as England are and truly extraordinary as Billy Vunipola was last Sunday, you can’t help feeling that there is still work to be done before this new look England really can be called a finished product.  For Ireland, they are clearly in transition and searching for the leadership and direction they have benefitted from in the last few years but is now painfully absent at times.  However, there were plenty of signs of promise as Irish Coach Joe Schmidt finally got a chance to blood some new talent, most notably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey and Flanker Josh Van der Flier, both of whom acquitted themselves superbly last Saturday.  Ireland are clearly out of the running for Six Nations glory this year, but the last two rounds of the Championship should hopefully see some solid foundations laid for the future with the pressure of having to defend their Six Nations title now removed.

It is only fair to say that the score line is not an accurate reflection of how close this game was in reality.  Indeed, Ireland were only trailing by three at half time, and a late resurgence by the Men in Green could have swung the game in their favor had they been slightly more efficient with the run of play.   However, England were the clear winners in a match that never looked a certainty for them until the last ten minutes.  England have finally got the composure and mental fortitude to close out tight and emotionally charged matches like this one, and in his defence I have been impressed by how much English Captain Dylan Hartley has contributed to this process.  Hartley has more than silenced his critics and been a model of discipline for the rest of his teammates, and his legendary short fuse which was once England’s Achilles Heel has been notably absent from England’s performances in this tournament.

England had much of the possession and attacking play in the first half but problems with execution and discipline in the heat of the action were causing them problems, and when you have the likes of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton as your opposition fly half, such lapses will always prove costly.  Consequently, penalties were traded for much of the first half, with England looking the more enterprising in attack but let down by a lack of essential skills at crucial moments.  To Ireland’s credit, although rarely looking a threat in attack they were solid in defence and forcing the English into numerous errors.  At half time it was 6-3 for England but there had been little to genuinely lift the spirits for both sets of supporters.

The second half however would provide the fireworks that this match so desperately needed, with England Number Eight Billy Vunipola at times acting like an entire Panzer division as he set up countless opportunities and breaks in the Irish defence for his teammates.  However, it would be Ireland who would get the first try as scrum half Conor Murray would take full advantage of England being a man short due to a yellow card, and squeezing himself through a tunnel in the English try line defence.  Ireland all of a sudden led 10-6.  England would then strike back as Vunipola set off on a personal crusade into the Irish half.  His superhuman efforts would ultimately lay the foundations for England scoring two tries to put them firmly in charge of proceedings.  Winger Anthony Watson would benefit from a timely offload from flanker Chris Robshaw for England’s first try, soon followed by some superb interplay from centre Owen Farrell and fullback Mike Brown for the second try, as England streaked ahead and began to look the clearly dominant side.

However, it wasn’t to be all England’s day as a concerted Irish effort was made to respond causing some heroics from both sides.  Irish centre Robbie Henshaw looked dangerous all afternoon and a spectacular last minute try saving tackle from England winger Jack Nowell just managed to keep Ireland from getting back into the game after a searing break from Henshaw.  Some refereeing decisions that clearly didn’t go the way of the Irish saw them denied a sure fire try from the two new forward caps Van der Flier and Ultane Dillane who both had a superb afternoon and who show enormous promise for the future.  Ireland attacked again and unfortunately as Irish scrum half Conor Murray decided to hang onto the ball rather than release it, he received some undue cosmetic surgery from the boots of English fullback Mike Brown.  French referee Romain Poite then proceeded to completely lose the plot as he made several different and inconsistent decisions on a rather complex passage of play.  The result was a loss of momentum for the Irish and a lucky reprieve for England.  However, the referees’ decisions will often be up for debate and it is the responsibility of teams to focus on the task at hand.  In this case England clearly had the upper hand, and turned the pressure back on Ireland.  Ireland would give it one more heroic effort but England clearly had the measure of them in defence and the English scrum and lineout was proving to be key, along with the one-man army efforts of Billy Vunipola.

In the end, refereeing decisions aside, England emerged the deserved winners against a very spirited Irish challenge that at times just wasn’t as well executed and planned as that by the Men in White.  Although an epic tussle at times, it somehow lacked the spectacle most of us have come to expect from this fixture, with both sides seeming unsure of themselves at times.  However, what you can’t take away from this match is the fact that England are on a roll and if you are going to stop them, then stopping this man is going to have to be a very big part of your strategy.

While they may not look the finished product just yet, England are still the most likely Championship material this year, and Wales will be racking their brains as to what they need to do to eke out a win at Fortress Twickenham a week today.  As for Ireland, they can return to Dublin with their heads held high and their new young guns eager for a crack at an equally spirited and enthusiastic Italy.  Ireland’s Championship may be over but the first steps to Japan and 2019 were taken last Saturday, and as a result Irish eyes should be smiling.

In this weekend’s third round of the Six Nations, England and Wales seek to consolidate their position as the two contenders for top honors in this year’s competition.  Meanwhile France get their first proper test of the tournament and we get to see how much the massive underdog label suits Ireland at Twickenham.  Lastly the two traditional competitors for the Wooden Spoon, Italy and Scotland do battle in Rome.

England clearly have it all to prove in their sternest test to date under new Coach Eddie Jones in front of a Twickenham crowd demanding excellence at the highest level.  Ireland, partly as a result of injury, are forced into playing at long last some of their promising provincial up and coming talent, most noticeably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey.  Despite wearing the underdog’s shirt, it’s still a solid looking Irish side which under Coach Joe Schmidt is more than capable of upsetting the English band wagon, even at Fortress Twickenham.  Meanwhile in Cardiff a Welsh side that needs no introduction takes on a French team that is finally looking like it is settling and has the potential to enable French rugby to finally rise from the ashes of the last four years.  Wales although put through their paces in no uncertain terms by a feisty Scottish side two weeks ago still showed that they have a remarkable ability to regroup and turn a game around when it matters most and this Saturday should be no exception.  In Rome, Scotland have it all to do and finally prove that the clear potential they keep displaying is now more than just that with an emphatic win over the side that gave them the Wooden Spoon last year.  This is a Scottish team boasting some serious talent and in the game against Wales their execution and decision-making was finally starting to show some of the finesse and polish it so desperately needs.  For Italy, home advantage and the rampaging form of Captain Sergio Parisse will as always provide them with more than enough inspiration.  Italy have looked extremely good at times this tournament with some superb emerging talent.  However, a number of injuries to key players for this weekend’s fixture may cause them to come unstuck against a full-strength and highly motivated Scottish side desperate for a win.

Wales vs France
Friday, February 26th
Cardiff

Wales will be wanting to seal an emphatic win on Friday in Cardiff to really prepare them for a tough assignment away against England in a fortnight’s time at Twickenham.  Although they got the run around from Scotland a fortnight ago, the character and composure in Wales at the moment ensured that they never really looked as if they felt the game was slipping away from them – stirred but definitely not shaken!  France meanwhile look like they are finally starting to settle as Coach Guy Noves in only his third outing appears to have the nucleus of the squad he wants to work with this year.  That stability and consistency is an ingredient French rugby has lacked for far too long.  Admittedly there is still some tweaking going on, but for the most part we have a much better idea of the type of France that will turn up in Cardiff and for the rest of the tournament than we ever did under Noves’ predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre.

France have chosen to try and replicate the front row that rescued France against Ireland a fortnight ago with Captain and Hooker Gulheim Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani, but without Eddy Ben Arous they will be hard put to match up to Wales here.  Arous is unavailable for this game and in his place is Jefferson Poirot, who did little to impress against Ireland a fortnight ago.  The minute he was replaced by Arous in that match, France’s fortunes in the front row improved dramatically.  Given a solid and experienced Welsh front row boasting the likes of Samson Lee and the more than capable young talent of Rob Evans, Wales should easily dominate the war of the front rows.  In the locks it is more of an even contest especially as Wales are without Luke Charteris who has had an outstanding tournament so far.  However, with the talismanic figure of Alun Wyn-Jones bludgeoning his way through the forwards and towering over the lineouts, Wales should have the edge over France here.  However, I do like the look of France’s new second row partnership and definitely think there is a sound platform here for the future in the shape of Alexandre Flanquart and Paul Jedrasiak and these two will certainly provide plenty of problems for their Welsh counterparts on Friday.  In the back row, Wales should have the edge here with Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate being tireless workhorses for Wales with some seemingly indestructible physicality.  If Lydiate can’t cope, then Welsh superman Justin Tipuric is waiting on the bench to add to French nightmares.  France’s Wenceslas Lauret is getting better with every outing, and Antoine Burban is a quality player, but for me they just don’t have the pedigree of their Welsh opposite numbers.  Lastly in the number eights, Taulupe Faletau is playing out of his skin for Wales at the moment, and Damien Chouly although no slacker for France just doesn’t have that same intensity.  As a result, up front I expect it to be an exceptionally tough day at the office for France with Wales calling all the shots.

In the halfbacks, once more Wales has the edge and then some.  French fly half Jules Plisson is a bright prospect for the future but for now he is simply nowhere near the quality of Wales’ Dan Biggar.  Meanwhile Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies is simply too quick off the mark and able to cover so much of the park that there shouldn’t be much of a contest here either.  The Welsh partnership of Biggar and Davies is now so well-honed under pressure that the French offering of Plisson and the impressive Maxime Machenaud at scrum half should really be no contest despite the talent the French possess here.

In the backs, I don’t regard it such a one-sided contest in Wales’ favour as some pundits are predicting.  The French backs are all proven commodities with the exception of winger Djibril Camara.  Fullback Maxime Medard is back to his dangerous best, winger Virimi Vakatawa is rapidly proving to have Jonah Lomu like tendencies as defences struggle to bring him down and centre Jonathan Danty has impressed me so far in a French jersey.  However, it’s that Welsh partnership of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts both of whom have played in France and have a good idea of what they’re up against that for me should give Wales the edge on Friday coupled with a George North on the wing who appears to be back to his very best.  Wales’ proven commodities under pressure should get their side the advantage over some impressive French flair in the contest of the backlines.

In short, it should be another interesting and at times genuinely exciting look at a French side that seems to be emerging quite well from the wreckage of the last four years.  There are still many questions to be answered in French rugby over the coming months but there is clear progress and France are well and truly out of the intensive care ward and showing signs of a genuine recovery.  Meanwhile Wales just look settled and with a crystal clear idea of what it is they want to do and how to get the job done.  It’s this experience and ability to really pull together as a well-oiled machine that is making me give this match to Wales by 12 points!

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, February 27th
Rome

Scotland travel to Rome desperate to seek revenge on a side that has so cruelly ended up leaving them with the Wooden Spoon in the previous year’s tournament.  Last year’s loss at the final whistle to Italy at home in Murrayfield was clearly something that Scotland will want to forget as quickly as possible.  Scotland’s execution and decision making against Wales a fortnight ago was for the most part superb, and they only really lost it in the final ten minutes.  If they can take that kind of intensity and focus into this match, then it is most likely going to cause a spirited Italy all kinds of problems.  Italy are certainly buoyed by their performances in this tournament despite coming into this match on the back of two losses.  However, injuries to key players especially the up and coming fly halves Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna, mean that Italy despite their best intentions will be hard pressed to get one over a full-strength Scottish side with an axe to grind.

Italy has a ferocious and gritty forward pack and Scotland will have to really up their game from that against Wales to match up to it, especially if Italy keep their discipline.  At times especially as the match wore on against Wales, Scotland looked in trouble up front with the scrums and lineouts unravelling quite dramatically at key moments.  If Italy can hold their own here for the full eighty minutes Scotland will struggle to release their devastating backs.  I’d actually go as far as saying that the front rows are completely evenly matched, but if Scottish prop W P Nel can have a slightly more productive afternoon than he did in Cardiff then Scotland could just get some dominance here as the game wears on.  It’s the lock partnership where I don’t really see so much of a competition especially if Hooker Ross Ford can get his lineout throwing for Scotland to work properly unlike a fortnight ago against Wales.  The Gray brothers for Scotland are real quality and are more than a match for Italy’s Joshua Furno and Marco Fuser.  It’s in the locks where I think it once more becomes a completely level playing field.  Francesco Minto and Alessandro Zanni have been absolutely immense for Italy this tournament, but John Hardie and John Barclay have been the same for Scotland with Hardie tackling everything that moves.  It’s at number eight where Italy should on paper have the clear edge.  Captain Sergio Parisse is a proven force of nature, while Scotland’s David Denton is impressive but was strangely quiet in Cardiff a fortnight ago.  Denton will really have to up his game against a Parisse who has more motivation and energy than an entire Roman legion would know what to do with.  On form alone the contest is clearly Parisse’s.

In the halfbacks though the day belongs wholeheartedly to Scotland and should be the difference that ensures the Scots are able to dictate the flow of play all afternoon.  Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw and Finn Russell are a superb blend of youthful energy and experience.  Finn Russell has some exceptional skills and as he continues to mature the Scottish fly half’s playmaking ability improves in leaps and bounds.  Laidlaw at scrum half is a reliable if not extravagant workhorse of Scottish rugby and his boot at penalty time means that Italy will pay dearly for any indiscretions.  With Sam Hidalgo-Clyne waiting on the bench Scotland should have this aspect of the game nicely sewn up.  Italy’s Kelly Haimona has done little if anything to impress me at fly half and I sadly am expecting little change on Saturday.  Meanwhile, Eduardo Gori is a feisty and increasingly skillful scrum half for Italy but still has a way to go before he can match up to the quality Scotland will have on offer on Saturday.

It’s in the backs where the wheels are likely to fall off quite dramatically for Italy as they come up against Scotland’s racing slicks.  While I like what I see in Italy’s backs with Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia and Leonardo Sarto providing some real edge to the Italian attack they are going to have a tough afternoon containing the likes of Scottish speedsters Tim Visser, Mark Bennet, Duncan Taylor and Tommy Seymour.  Seymour was exceptional under the high ball against Wales two weeks ago and the Scottish winger is going to be a big problem for Italy.  Add to the mix the form of fullback Stuart Hogg, as he spends the afternoon slicing through opposition defences from all corners of the park and Italy are probably going to end up running out of pace by the last quarter from simply having had to try and contain Scotland’s backs for sixty minutes.

If Scotland execute as well as they did against Wales and show the kind of decision making that was often lacking at times last year, then they should run in comfortable winners in Rome on Saturday.  Italy will continue to put up a significant challenge and no doubt will see this as a game they have every chance of winning.  However, Scotland under Coach Vern Cotter simply has too much talent.  If the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour are given any kind of space to work in then Scotland should have built up a comfortable lead by the last quarter.  Italy’s bench just won’t have the power to bring them back from the edge and therefore it should be Scotland’s day by 10 points.

England vs Ireland
Saturday, February 27th
Twickenham

For many this is England’s first real test under new Coach Eddie Jones.  Ireland may not be the force of the last two years anymore but they possess enough talent and shrewd tactical nous in Coach Joe Schmidt to upset England’s initial Six Nations celebrations.  Ireland are clearly the underdogs, if anything this is more England’s game to lose than Ireland’s to win.  England should win this match and I must confess to being in the camp that agrees with that prediction.  Ireland however, will have some surprises up their sleeves and if new Irish cap and centre Stuart McCloskey keeps his head and wits about him in such an auspicious debut, it could be a very exciting afternoon of rugby.  England are still likely to emerge the victors and continue the solid work being done to recover from the pain of the World Cup.  However, Ireland hopefully will start to have a performance to get genuinely excited about in terms of the future of Irish rugby regardless of whether they win or lose.

The Irish scrum and front row hasn’t always looked the best this Six Nations and their lineout work still has room for improvement, whereas England are starting to look increasingly dominant in this area.  English Hooker and Captain Dylan Hartley seems to be adapting well to the leadership role and motivating those around him.  Meanwhile Dan Coles is becoming a real workhorse in the scrums as well as in the contact areas.  I still feel that Joe Marler is the weak link in the English front row and a potential liability.  Ireland’s Rory Best and Jack McGrath are sound opposition up front, but Mike Ross could be as much of a cause for concern for Ireland as Joe Marler.  Tough battle but England should still just have the edge here.  In the locks, it should be England’s day.  There is nothing wrong with Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan and they will be more than competitive but England’s George Kruis and new cap Maro Itoje are just looking outstanding at the moment and are more than likely to outshine the Irish duo on Saturday.  However, in the flankers my money is on the Irish offering of C J Stander and Josh Van der Flier.  The South African import Stander, alongside Van der Flier who is getting his first cap Saturday, are real class through and through while being absolutely devastating ball carriers, especially in the loose.  England’s Chris Robshaw and Jeff Haskell may be the more experienced pair, but offer far less in sheer explosive power and unpredictability.  Expect to see Ireland on the front foot here with England struggling to contain the Irish pair.  At number eight as much as I admire his work rate and ability Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is no match for a barnstorming Billy Vunipola who seems to have rediscovered some spectacular form this year.  Ultimately though despite the headache that Stander and Van der Flier should cause England, it is likely to be Ireland reaching for painkillers in the forward battles more than England on Saturday.

In the halfbacks, two different styles and evenly matched on paper but form seems to be deserting some of the key actors.  English fly half George Ford has blown hot and cold this season and the same could be said of Irish scrum half Conor Murray.  Meanwhile English scrum half Ben Youngs is having a fantastic season and being George Ford’s regular halfback partner should help settle the English fly half’s nerves in such a big game.  Johnny Sexton is an injury worry for Ireland, with every Irish supporter becoming increasingly concerned about this outstanding servant of Irish rugby’s long-term health. However he seems to be relishing being back in an Irish jersey as well as playing his club rugby back home in Ireland.  In the game against Wales and at times against France, some of the old Sexton magic was there for all to see.  Murray and Sexton clearly got the better of George Ford last year in Dublin but it will be a much harder task at Twickenham.  Impossible to call and we wait to see who’s got the better A-game of these two pairs on Saturday.

In the second half in Rome a fortnight ago, England’s backs were outstanding with centre Jonathan Joseph putting in a truly remarkable twenty-minute shift. In front of a home crowd expect the same.  This is essentially a much more cohesive and established unit than Ireland’s and for that reason I give England the edge here.  Ireland’s Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw are clearly the centre pairing of the future for Ireland and if they gel could be an exceptionally exciting prospect in international Test Rugby, however as yet they are an untried quantity together.  However, if we only get a glimpse of their potential on Saturday then I think most Irish supporters will go away feeling pretty good about the future whether or not they win.  For England, the centre partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is a seriously daunting combination.  Joseph’s magic feet and Farrell’s eye for space and how to use it could make these two a nightmare for Ireland to contain Saturday.  My money is on the experience of the English pair getting those critical margins in England’s favour on Saturday.  On the wings I think the X-factor that England’s Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have in abundance is just too much for an injury prone Irish offering of Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls.  The two Irishmen have plenty of spark of their own but struggle to finish out a match so it once more should be England who end up running the sidelines on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, English bulldog Mike Brown will be in his element against Ireland’s Rob Kearney  with the Irishman becoming far too predictable and one dimensional in his play.  Whether or not you like Brown you have to admit that the Englishman is ferocious in attack and defense and seems to have far more fire in his belly for the task at hand than his Irish counterpart seems to be showing at the moment, so England should win the battle here.

If Ireland are to win, then it will be regarded as an upset.  While I think it unlikely it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.  England were surprised in the first half against Italy and if Ireland can catch them off guard and keep them that way for the full eighty minutes then it could be a chance for the Men in Green to get their Six Nations campaign back on the road.  However, for Ireland it is more likely going to be a case of trying to remain competitive for the full eighty minutes with a squad that is starting to show some potential for the future rather than a win at any cost.  In my opinion given their circumstances after the disappointment of the World Cup that is the right approach.  For England though it is important to finally break the run of being Ireland’s bridesmaid when the Six Nations trophy gets handed over next month.  I would argue that at home and with Coach Eddie Jones ringing the changes England must clearly be the favourites on Saturday.  If England get ahead comfortably in the first sixty minutes the quality of their bench should easily enable them to consolidate such a lead and close Ireland out for the last quarter.  Whatever happens as both sides look to the future, we all hope for a close and exciting contest between these age old rivals, but one that we reckon will go England’s way by 8 points!

The second round of this year’s Six Nations took place this past weekend and somehow didn’t quite catch the imagination as much as perhaps we might have hoped and if anything seemed slightly predictable.  France squeaked a win in the rain against Ireland which saw Ireland rack up a significant injury list while France continued to show some attacking flair despite struggling to break down Ireland’s defenses.  It was a poor match as a spectacle that left us eagerly anticipating the next fixture – Wales against Scotland under a closed roof.  This match had much more excitement but once again it too took on an air of predictability as a much improved Scotland in terms of execution, showed us what they are capable of in terms of attack.  However, once their key player fullback Stuart Hogg left the field Scotland seemed to revert to type and Wales’ superior organisation saw them get a deserved win.  Once again Scotland looked very promising but ultimately left empty-handed.  Finally, in Rome England put a song in the hearts of their supporters on Valentine’s Day, in a second half thumping of Italy.  Had Italy played like they did in the first half, then it could have been a very different story, but sadly as all too often when up against better quality opposition Italy imploded in the last twenty minutes and the scoreboard got completely beyond them.  England meanwhile, although looking clear favorites now for the title this year, must surely be wondering why they struggled so hard to make any kind of impression against Italy in the first half and will need to improve on this performance if they are to go head to head with a Welsh side that looks very much like the finished product in a month’s time.

France vs Ireland
Final Score – France 10/Ireland 9
Paris

There is no way that you could describe this grueling encounter in the rain in Paris as entertaining.  Most of us had to struggle to keep our interest going for the full eighty minutes.  France got a win by using their bench to greater effect and when they did get an opportunity using it more efficiently than Ireland.  To be fair to Ireland they defended well but continuing injury problems and a lack of a real attacking threat meant that if France were to up their game it was theirs for the taking.  Once more there were glimmers of French flair resurfacing again in attack and through their only try.  For Irish Coach Joe Schmidt as he faces the problem of facing an English side rapidly growing in confidence and ability in two weeks there are more questions than answers right now.  For French Coach Guy Noves, the win may not have been pretty but he surely, unlike his predecessor, must have a clear idea of the team he wants to use for the duration of this tournament, after the devastating turnaround in French fortunes once he replaced his front row.  France may not look polished in attack but the point is they are trying to attack again and that must surely make their supporters happy and their opposition sit up and take notice.

Both teams came into this match desperately needing to make a statement.  France needed to prove that last week’s labored effort against Italy was simply a new team adjusting to life together, while Ireland were keen to prove that the epic draw with Wales was an accurate reflection of Irish hopes and potential in this tournament.  Of the two France probably had a better day with their to do list than Ireland.  Like many we were surprised to see French Coach Noves change his front row for such an important game, and were all hedging bets as to how soon Props Eddie Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani would come off the bench to solidify the French forward effort.  As suspected the minute they were brought on France immediately got themselves into the driving seat in the match, and French supporters must surely be hoping that the experiment is over in this department.  Ireland meanwhile were riddled with injuries and as the game wore on they looked increasingly frail and bereft of ideas especially in attack.  Ireland’s chances of retaining the Six Nations title this year are for the most part done and dusted.  Surely the time is now right for Ireland to start looking for the depth they have available to them in their younger players if they are to gain anything from this year’s tournament which can be used to help rebuild and prepare the team for future success.

In fairness to Ireland they got the better of the very physical encounter between these two sides in the first half and the score line at half time, 9-3 in favor of the Irish, was a fair reflection of proceedings.  Guy Noves experimentation in the front row with Uini Atonio and Jefferson Poirot was just not working, and the resulting penalties awarded to Ireland was putting the game firmly in favor of the Men in Green through the boot of Johnny Sexton.  Furthermore, for France the experimentation with winger Teddy Thomas was also not working.  While he may have plenty of speed the French winger’s defensive skills in such a physical encounter as this are questionable and in wet conditions his handling skills simply aren’t there.  In a first half which did little to fire the imagination from both sides, Ireland could feel comfortable that they at least were a clear six points ahead of France at half time.

The second half would see France ring the changes, with most notably Teddy Thomas being replaced by Hugo Bonneval, who had performed so well against Italy, and Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous coming on to sort out the front row.  Once this was done France suddenly looked a lot more dangerous.  Had this been the starting XV it may have been a much more productive day for France.  That being said however, it still made the difference in ensuring that France got yet another nervous win.  Scrum half Maxime Machenaud came on and all of a sudden France’s offloading and attacks started to look a lot more promising as a clearly exhausted Ireland struggled to contain them.  The last twenty minutes were essentially a war of attrition for Ireland as they were required to defend continuously against constant pressure from France.  France struggled with execution at times in the wet but the intent was clearly there.  Number eight for France Damien Chouly was denied a try as the ball was not considered grounded but you couldn’t help feeling that it was only a question of time before France would cross the white line.

With ten minutes to go, France finally figured out how to break through the Irish wall as French danger man and flair specialist of old, fullback Maxime Medard, got the vital five pointer for Les Bleus just as he did the week before against Italy.  Plisson would convert and all of a sudden France simply had to last out for nine minutes to get win number two as they led 10-9.

To be honest Ireland simply didn’t look like they had the ability or game plan to get the win in those final minutes.  A faulty restart from Irish replacement fly half Ian Madigan set the tone for the dying minutes of the game.  Ireland were spent and essentially out of ideas.  The French bench had rejuvenated Les Bleus and the fresh legs were giving France the strength and conviction to hold on.  French Hooker and Captain Gulheim Guirado, had been immense throughout the game and once alongside fellow props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani, Guirado and France were clearly in the driving seat against a depleted Ireland.

There were the usual controversies around refereeing decisions most notably what should have been a yellow card against France’s Yoann Maestri for a late hit on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, even if it may have been slightly milked by the Irishman and there is no question that the rain took away any possible element of spectacle.  A messy and at times ugly win for France, but a win nevertheless.  However, all these excuses aside France still has a great deal of work to do if they are really going to be able to use this new found intent especially in attack to full effect against England and Wales.  Meanwhile Ireland really need to face up to the fact that with Six Nations silverware not much more than a pipe dream this year, it is time to start taking risks by giving new Irish talent some high level international exposure.  I would start with Ulster center Stuart McCloskey, but it appears I am likely to be saying this till the end of the tournament as a play it safe, conservative approach appears to be the order of the day in the Irish camp.  If Ireland are serious about standing up to New Zealand in their two tests at the end of this year, then now is the time to start developing their resources particularly in attack.  France find themselves in the strange position of sitting second in the Six Nations table after Round 2 despite England and Wales clearly being better teams.  If that position and France’s rejuvenation under Coach Guy Noves is to really mean something then France has an enormous amount of work to do as they prepare to face the most settled team in the tournament, Wales, in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium in two weeks.

Wales vs Scotland
Final Score – Wales 27/Scotland 23
Cardiff

In terms of an evenly matched contest that provided some genuine excitement this was definitely the match to watch this past weekend.  Wales continued to build on their performance the week before against Ireland, while Scotland made some significant improvements in their execution and decision-making only to have it slip away from them once more in the final quarter.  Wales look to be serious contenders for Six Nations glory come the middle of March along with England, while Scotland are still trying to find that complete 80-minute performance.  One can only hope for the sake of Scottish supporters that they find it soon as the frustration levels must be off the charts.  It is one thing to watch your team lose match after match if the skill set and talent levels are not there, but in Scotland’s case they are.  Scotland could have won this match but sadly fell short of the mark. However this was a better performance than against England and surely against Italy a week on Saturday, a much needed confidence boosting win will finally get Scotland on the right footing for the remainder of the tournament and allow them to realize their potential.

The intensity of this match was there for all to see from the get go.  Seven minutes in and Dan Biggar would set up this piece of magic for his half back partner scrum half Gareth Davies.

It’s this kind of quality and vision that is really making Biggar and Davies such a key weapon in Wales attack arsenal.  Davies managed to fool Scottish winger Tommy Seymour with a clever weave and the resulting footrace saw the Welshman ahead by a whisker to cross the try line.

Five minutes later with Scotland on the attack deep in the Welsh 22, it would be Seymour’s turn for revenge as a brilliantly weighted kick by Scottish fly half Finn Russell over the top of the Welsh defense would put Seymour in the corner and all of a sudden the scores were level once more at 7-7.  A special mention must be made of Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who was quite outstanding under the high ball all night. He is a real talent for Scotland and is likely to add plenty more spark to Scotland’s campaign for the remainder of the tournament.  Wales were constantly testing Seymour in the air throughout the match and he was rarely found wanting.

As he always is, fullback Stuart Hogg was electric for Scotland and his loss early in the match due to injury clearly had an influence on the final outcome and it is hoped he will be able to return for Scotland’s next game against Italy.  However, despite Hogg’s departure, Scotland maintained their focus and continued to probe on attack with the execution and decision making being leaps and bounds ahead of what we saw in their opener against England.  At half time, Scotland managed to get ahead with a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw and it appeared that Scotland were getting the better of their hosts leading 13-10.

However, the second half saw Wales seeming to have a clearer idea of where to probe Scottish weaknesses with Welsh danger man, winger George North, really starting to hit his stride.  Some solid work from the Welsh winger would ultimately see a penalty for Wales and Biggar would level the scores once more.  In a period of seesawing possession, both sides still looked evenly matched and Laidlaw would restore the Scottish lead again through another penalty.  At 16-13 for Scotland and heading into the last quarter the game was still poised on a knife edge.  As we headed into the final quarter, Welsh replacements particularly at the scrum were starting to take effect and Wales were slowly starting to get the ascendancy in the forward battles.  Wales’ center Jamie Roberts would crash over from a solid Welsh scrum effort metres from the Scottish line.  Eight minutes later Wales would strike again through George North as the Scottish defense started to fall apart and Scotland as a whole started to lose their cohesion and execution under pressure with 10 minutes to go.

It wouldn’t be all over for Scotland, as center Duncan Taylor would score a superb try of his own to allow Scotland to leave the match with their honor intact but bitterly disappointed as yet another game in which they had competed so well ultimately slipped away from them.  Wales meanwhile, look very much the finished product for the remainder of the tournament and will be a very tough proposition for England in a month’s time.  Wales’ title hopes are very much alive and with that in mind expect the Welsh dragon to be breathing fire for the remainder of the tournament.

Italy vs England
Final Score – Italy 9/England 40
Rome

In the second half of this match we finally got to see what a new look England side can do and a complete team performance from the Men in White.  England Coach Eddie Jones must feel happy with the momentum England has gained in the opening two weeks of the competition as they head into the final three rounds against slightly more problematic opposition.  For Italy, they will take great heart at how well they held England at bay in the first half, but then to implode the way they did in the second half is something that desperately needs to be addressed and quickly.  Italy played a superb forty minutes of rugby in Rome last Sunday and clearly rattled an English side that was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Italian challenge.  However, in the second half England quickly got the measure of the Azurri and adapted accordingly and as a result Italy was left wondering what might have been.  In England’s case they will be pleased that their ability to adapt their game plan and take risks when necessary in the last half of the match paid huge dividends.  The England of the second half was a completely different beast to that of the opening forty minutes.  Italy just did not adapt to England’s risk taking and opportunism and paid the price.  English supporters must be taking heart in the fact that England are becoming slightly less predictable and much more adventurous if the last forty minutes of this match are anything to go by.  There is still a long way to go, but the changes that Eddie Jones said were necessary in the English approach seem to be taking effect, albeit slowly.  England still have a long way to go before the Southern Hemisphere nations are likely to be losing too much sleep, and their next three encounters in this tournament will be much sterner examinations of what progress England really has made.  However, after a solid second half last Sunday in Rome which showed plenty of enterprise, the pulse of English rugby certainly seems to be racing a bit quicker at the moment.

Italy just as they were against France were exceptionally motivated and in all fairness to them played a superb first forty minutes of rugby, as always led from the front by the indomitable number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse.  England, although steady seemed to be having difficulty getting the measure of the ferocity of the Italian challenge, and certainly Italy appeared to have the edge in attack, with centre Michele Campagnaro putting in an outstanding performance for the Azurri in the first half.  Italy were tackling everything in sight and managing for the most part to hang onto possession in attack.  However, England would score the only try of the half through fly half George Ford after some superb interplay between him and center Owen Farrell.  Italian fly half Carlo Canna however would keep Italy in touch and at half time they were only trailing England by two points at 11-9 to England.

The second half however seemed to live up to the ending that many were predicting as England really started to tear away and this man below would score a hat trick of tries to give the Men in White a conclusive win.

Center Jonathan Joseph was very much a reflection of the overall team effort that simply derailed a very spirited initial Italian challenge as he would score three tries in less than twenty minutes.  England came alive in the second half and the pace at which they played the game, especially in the last quarter, left an exhausted and injury depleted Italian side with a mountain to climb.  England were expansive and exciting to watch in the second half as the solid forward platform they are renowned for linked much more effectively with the backs in this match than against Scotland.  Whether or not England will be afforded the same kind of space and opportunity against Ireland a week Saturday remains to be seen.

What is clear from this match is that Italy will still rise to the challenge of a Scotland desperate for a win when they meet in Rome in just over a week’s time.  The passion is there coupled with a real sense of cohesion from this relatively young looking but talented and enthusiastic Italian side.  If they can play with the same kind of intensity and composure they showed in the first half, Scotland could be in for a very long afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico.  For England this performance was clear evidence that they know the kind of game they want to play and are blessed with the talent and experience to achieve it both on the field and in the Coaching box.  England will now face three very stern examinations over the coming weeks which will really test their resilience and ability to deliver results under pressure.  However, after this match and if they maintain such momentum over the coming weeks, then they are clearly contenders for not only Six Nations glory but also in a position to challenge their Southern Hemisphere rivals for a greater share of Test rugby honors leading up to the next global showdown in Japan in 2019.