Archive for the ‘Six Nations 2017’ Category

We’ll be taking a sabbatical from our usual musings for the next few months, as work, family and vacation commitments mean we will be spending infinitely less time than usual paying attention to the goings on in the rugby world. Instead we’ll leave you each week with the best of our trawlings on YouTube for the highlights of the weekend’s Super Rugby action and this weekend’s penultimate round of the Six Nations, spiced up with a few one-liner thoughts of our own on each.

The Six Nations

With the Six Nations for all intents and purposes done and dusted in England’s favour, there simply remains the final weekend to sort out the pecking order in what has at times been a roller coaster of a tournament.

England have clinched the title and all that remains is to see whether or not a second consecutive Grand Slam is in the making for them along with topping the mighty All Blacks world record winning streak of 18 games. However, apart from last weekend’s thrashing of Scotland they have not looked the awe-inspiring side that you think would come with such a reputation. Apart from the Scotland match, England have rarely looked like the side with the ruthless efficiency and consistency of their Antipodean rivals. They’ve been good but rarely spectacular, and only really allowed to shine when up against opposition sides that simply didn’t show up which this year has only been Scotland. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that 18 games on the trot is a remarkable achievement and genuine cause for celebration for England and their supporters. What has impressed us the most is England’s ability to stay the course and get the job done in the last quarter even when their starts on some occassions have been by their own admission poor. This is a team that knows how to dig deep better than any other right now when things are not going their way, and for us this has been the real testament to their character and success over the last eighteen months. Whether or not there will be enough in the tank to overcome a wounded and angry Irish side at home in Dublin remains to be seen but it should provide a thrilling and fitting end to a fascinating tournament.

The main pretenders to the throne going into the tournament, Ireland, have for the most part had a poor Championship by their high standards. Their ongoing inability to score tries remains a major impediment to any kind of consistent success, the only exception to this being in the Italian match where just like England against Scotland they were faced with an opposition that simply didn’t show up. Despite their talents, serious lapses in concentration by Ireland, as evidenced in their opening game against Scotland, have meant that ultimately this side has promised so much but once again delivered very little. Their final match of the tournament in Dublin against England this weekend should be plenty of motivation for them to make a statement that when it comes to breaking winning streaks, you’d be hard pressed not to back their chances after they managed to end New Zealand’s party last year.

Wales have also struggled with consistency and a lack of finishing skills at key moments, the most notable being in the match against England. However, as evidenced by their demolition of Ireland this past weekend and almost knocking England off their perch last month, Wales have had moments of intense brilliance. Had Wales actually managed to beat England in a match they should have won, we would be telling a very different story of their fortunes in a tournament which few predicted them to do well in. The final Test in Paris against a resurgent French side will be a final obstacle of monumental proportions, but you sense there is a change in attitude in the Welsh camp after last Friday’s heroics in Cardiff.

Scotland have had the Cinderella tournament of all the teams and the resurgence of Scottish rugby has been very heartening to see after the many years in the wilderness up till now. Until the England game they were having a stellar Championship, and despite the total and humiliating implosion at Twickenham last weekend, Scotland are once more a force to be reckoned with. How this momentum is carried forward once their remarkable Coach Vern Cotter leaves at the end of this tournament remains to be seen, but there is more than enough talent in this Scottish side to cause any of the big sides some serious concern. With a relatively easy game against Italy at home to finish the tournament they should still finish well on the table.

France have burst back onto the Six Nations stage with a vengeance and although the results may not quite back up this argument with only two wins, they have still looked exceptionally promising especially in terms of their ability to compete for the silverware in next year’s tournament. The past year has been a very successful rebuilding process under Coach Guy Noves and France have provided plenty of warning signs of where they are going and the increasing threat they will pose. Possessing a punishing forward pack and a set of backs that are increasingly causing us to reach for the caps lock on our computers when we type the word flair, France are only going to get better with each successive outing. The final game against Wales will provide a fitting glimpse into the character of this French side and how far they have come.

Italy have surprised us at times. They have also given some weight to the argument that under new Coach Conor O’Shea they should at least be given the time frame of 2 years to see what progress they can make before the debate over whether or not a relegation system should be introduced to the Six Nations, which would allow up and coming European nations, like Georgia in particular, a crack at European rugby’s most cherished prize. We side with the argument in favor of more time, but also that it cannot be indefinite as it has in the past. Rugby is reaching out to a far bigger audience these days and Italy have to recognise this and produce results. There is no lack of spirit and heart in Italian rugby and Conor O’Shea certainly seems to be pointing his charges in the right direction. It’s still very early days but Italy has managed to produce some real quality rugby in the opening forty minutes during much of this Championship and it is for this reason we feel they need the benefit of the doubt for another year at least.

Here are the official video summaries of the action from last weekend.

Our predictions for this Saturday’s final round!

Scotland vs Italy

After the horror show that was the match against England, Scotland have a relatively easy game against Italy at home in Murrayfield. They should be back to their try scoring best and as a result should get a healthy points haul over Italy winning by 20 points and hopefully seeing them finish in the top three on the table.

France vs Wales

Very hard match to call but one in which we think Wales will find it hard to repeat their heroics of last Friday in Cardiff against Ireland. France at home have looked good and are getting more dangerous with every outing. It will be close, but France ultimately by five to put a fine point on a Championship which has seen the Gallic giant rise from its slumber of the last four years.

Ireland vs England

The weather is predicted to be foul and as a result it should favor Ireland’s tactical grind led by the Irish half back partnership of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, especially at home in Dublin in front of an exceptionally vocal crowd. The rivalry between these two sides is always something special and when England has both a Grand Slam and a world record on the line, Ireland will have even more impetus than normal to rain on their parade. As a result of the weather and home advantage we feel that Ireland’s continuing inability to rack up five pointers with any degree of consistency is unlikely to be that much of a hindrance on Saturday. If they can withstand the physical punishment England will serve up, Ireland should make marginally better use of the conditions and derail the English record machine by two points in a very tight contest with emotions running full throttle on both sides. What a prospect!

Super Rugby

As the Six Nations wraps up this weekend all eyes will shift South of the Equator to this year’s Super Rugby Championship, especially with the mouth-watering prospect of a Lions tour to New Zealand in June. Just like last year, New Zealand sides are looking unstoppable. However, from what we’ve seen so far this year there are glimmers of hope once more in South African rugby and the Argentinian franchise the Jaguares are showing more of the promise they were supposed to have offered last year. It still looks like it is going to be a long and painful season for the Japanese side the Sunwolves, and Australian rugby still looks slightly less than inspirational. Still it’s early days yet and as these three videos show this tournament still showcases some exceptional skill levels across all the participants.

We’ll continue each week to serve up the best YouTube summaries of the weekend’s Super Rugby action and sprinkle in the odd few sound bite thoughts of our own until our various commitments allow us the luxury of devoting more of our free time to our glorious sport come May. Till then sit back and be mesmerised by both the speed and skill that this tournament puts on display courtesy of The Tight Five on YouTube.

The rollercoaster ride of the 2017 Six Nations continues apace this weekend, as Round 4 presents must win scenarios for all the teams but even more so for England, Ireland and Scotland. Ireland will want to keep the momentum going after their initial upset to Scotland in Round 1 by putting in a solid performance against Wales with preferably a bonus point win, and thus set up a grand finale showdown with England next weekend in Dublin. Wales’ chances of lifting the trophy this year are for all intents done and dusted, but they will still want to put in a big showing against Ireland in front of a home crowd expecting and demanding nothing less. Scotland travel to Twickenham finding themselves still very much in the hunt as title contenders this year, and if they were to pull off the unthinkable and beat England could find themselves topping the standings by the end of the weekend. England however still remain in the driving seat of this year’s Championship unbeaten and with a winning streak of 17 games putting them on track to challenge the All Blacks record-breaking run of 18 wins. A Grand Slam at stake and a world record to boot makes the pressure on England, even though they are at home this weekend, take on almost biblical proportions. Lastly France and Italy seek to use their remaining fixtures to salvage some pride and build a foundation for the future. France has less to worry about in terms of pride as despite only winning one of their matches so far, they have still acquitted themselves exceptionally well and given their opponents plenty to think about for next year’s tournament. France’s rebuilding process is starting to show some dramatic promise for next year and a good showing in their final two games will serve to solidify the considerable gains made this year. Italy showed against England that they are not without a few tricks up their sleeves, and despite their drubbing at the hands of the Irish, still have plenty of heart and passion coupled with some considerable talent when they get the right opportunities. Italy’s shot at the title is now well and truly over for 2017. Italy’s final two games at home to France and away to Scotland, will test their mettle to the fullest but hopefully leave them with something to build on for next year, while at the same time silence the increasingly vocal audience calling for their relegation from the tournament in favor of Georgia or Romania.

Wales vs Ireland
Friday, March 10th
Cardiff

As Wales play for pride, Ireland need a big win here and a bonus point would set them up nicely for their final showdown with England next Saturday in Dublin. Wales are no longer in the hunt for the title, but a home fixture in this tournament will always demand maximum effort as Wales seek to restore some of the pride in the jersey that to be honest has taken a bit of a beating in the last few months. Ireland arrive in Cardiff with a sense of confidence and purpose, while Wales need to find significant amounts of both qualities. Nevertheless it should still add up to an epic contest with both sides having everything to prove albeit for very different reasons.

One thing will be certain and that is that this match will have a physical intensity that will see both sides giving few quarters. Ireland in our opinion clearly has the superior front row in the shape of Captain and Hooker and Rory Best and props Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. The Irish props have been immense in this tournament and have given their opponents a torrid time in the scrums. The Welsh trio of props Rob Evans, Tom Francis and Hooker Ken Owens are an able unit and in some ways Owens’ lineout skills are slightly more consistent than Best’s. Add to that the fact that with ball in hand Owens is no stranger to the try line and Ireland will have their work cut out facing up to the Welsh challenge. However, the Irish props have been such a destructive force with some exceptional stability at scrum time that we feel they have the dominant edge in this contest. In the second rows the battle evens out a bit more, though once again Ireland should also just edge it in terms of a more solid unit. Welsh Captain Alun-Wyn Jones has been one of the tournament’s most consistent players and is a seemingly indestructible force of nature for Wales. However, we don’t feel that his second row partner Jake Ball is of the same calibre. It is here that Ireland’s offering of Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should have the edge especially if Rory Best can ensure accuracy in his throws come lineout time.

In the back row, perhaps to the surprise of some, we hand the battle to Wales by the narrowest of margins. The wrecking ball unit of Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton for Wales have been one of the most consistently reliable aspects of the Welsh effort in this year’s Six Nations. Both players throw themselves into the contest with a complete and utter disregard to their own well-being and as a result their destructive abilities as well as securing valuable turnovers and go forward ball for Wales are exemplary. Add to this the fact that both seem able to last almost the full eighty minutes without any let-up in intensity and it is going to make it very difficult for Ireland’s duo of the exceptional Sean O’Brien and Irish superhero CJ Stander to contain them. With Sean O’Brien still not quite back to his explosive intensity since his return from injury, we consequently feel that Wales have the slight edge here. However, if O’Brien fires on all cylinders with Stander at his side then their ability as line breaking ball carriers is going to give the Welsh a long and painful day at the office. Lastly shoring up the back row is a contest between the wise and courageous head of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and the rampaging, tackle everything in sight youthful form of Wales’ Ross Moriarty. Although the Welshman has put in some epic performances of late, it is Heaslip’s experience and inspirational presence in the Irish side that should just see Ireland get the better of the contest between the two.

The half back contest is fairly cut and dry in Ireland’s favor, despite the considerable talents of Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb who, like Tipuric and Moriarty, has impressed all tournament and fly half Dan Biggar. However, the brains trust that is Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is almost without equal in Test Rugby at the moment. While injury concerns continue around fly half Sexton and his ability to last a full eighty minutes, he seemed to cope well in this aspect against France a fortnight ago especially in the physical aspects of the game. Irish scrum half Conor Murray has been on fire for the Men in Green for the last year and is one of their most potent attacking threats and an able adjutant to Sexton in terms of game management. Webb is elusive for Wales and requires constant attention from opposition defences but the Webb/Biggar partnership simply doesn’t have the consistency and big picture abilities of the Irish pair.

In the backs, both sides have plenty of players who could split opposition defences wide open and for all intents and purposes this is a relatively equal contest with Ireland perhaps having the slight edge in terms of unit cohesion. In the centres we actually rate the Irish pair of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose slightly higher than Wales’ Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams. Although Ringrose is still relatively new to Test Rugby, he has adapted remarkably well to the challenge alongside Henshaw who is now a proven commodity. Wales’ Jonathan Davies is an exceptional player but as a part of a centre pairing with Scott Williams seems to be lacking in confidence and purpose at times, something the Irish pair seem to have by the bucket load. On the wings, there is no doubting the quality of Wales’ George North but sadly as a result of some unpleasant knocks to the head over the last year is nowhere near his best and we can’t help feeling he needs time to get over his injuries, a luxury Wales seem intent on denying him. Liam Williams however, is one Welsh player who seems able to turn on the magic no matter how the rest of his team plays and we expect more of the same on Friday night, which will require his opposite number Ireland’s Keith Earls to be at his defensive best. We all know the remarkable skills and X-factor that Ireland’s Simon Zebo can display on the wing even though we don’t always see it at times. However, his defensive skills have improved dramatically over the last year and he should be more than capable of containing an out of form George North, while at the same time creating some magic of his own in terms of points for Ireland. Lastly at fullback, much debate has centred around Ireland’s Rob Kearney and Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny. Halfpenny has been one of the world’s best for a long time but the aura seems to be wearing off to the point where the accolade average seems to be more his stock in trade recently. Kearney had fallen off the boil dramatically in the last two years, but in Ireland’s outings since November of last year he has put in some big performances reminiscent of the abilities that made him European player of the year in 2012. Based on form we’d give the Irishman a better shot at justifying his reputation on Friday night than the Welshman.

If Ireland can get a convincing lead by the 60 minute mark then we are quite confident that their bench will finish the job and secure Ireland a much-needed bonus point. Wales have a good bench with lock Luke Charteris, number eight Taulupe Faletau, scrum half Gareth Davies and the up and coming Sam Davies at fly half providing serious firepower. However, the pedigree of Ireland’s reserves is just that much more frightening. We thought Niall Scannell had an excellent game in his first start at Hooker against Italy in place of Rory Best. Prop Cian Healy needs absolutely no introduction along with second rower Ian Henderson and flanker Peter O’Mahony who will all provide tiger like qualities when Ireland need them most. Fly half Johnny Sexton’s understudy Paddy Jackson is more than capable and is even a fine starter when Sexton is not available. We’re unsure about winger Tommy Bowe as he has not really stood out much of late for Ireland or Ulster but is more than capable of some searing breaks down the wing if given the right opportunity as well as being a master of the intercept.

It’s still going to be a humdinger of a contest with Ireland wanting to make a big statement ahead of their potential tournament deciding clash with England next weekend. Wales will make every attempt to derail Ireland’s Championship aspirations and in front of a home crowd baying for results they will be more than up for it. Expect a contest of bruising intensity, but one which Ireland should ultimately take by five points especially in the last quarter if Wales’ confidence starts to crack and a superior Irish bench applies the stranglehold on the match we expect them to!

Italy vs France
Saturday, March 11th
Rome

While neither Italy or France are in the running for the silverware in this year’s tournament, this match still offers plenty to play for for both sides. Italy will want to build on their showing against tournament favourites England a fortnight ago, where they managed to avoid what were many were billing as a potential whitewash. France meanwhile will want to put in a devastating performance, while also giving some of their younger players a shot at Test match glory, that hopefully will highlight how far they have come as well as giving them confidence to end the tournament on a high in a final tough encounter with Wales, and thus lay down a real marker for next year’s tournament.

Both sides possess some bruising forward power, but the French pack has justifiably gained a daunting reputation so far in this tournament and Italy will have their work cut out containing them. Italy’s front row have shown that they are no pushovers in the shape of props Andrea Lovotti and Lorenzo Cittadini and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. However, they will be hard pushed to match French props Cyril Baille and Rabah Slimani and hooker and inspirational Captain Guilhem Guirado. The French trio have impressed throughout the tournament and youngster Cyril Baille is a real talent for the future for France. Consequently, France should dominate the battle of the front rows. In the second rows, we hand the contest over to Italy as we simply feel that locks Marco Fuser and Dries Van Schalkwyk in particular pack some real punch for Italy and despite France’s Yoann Maestri able to rise to the occasion when needed, we just think the Italian pair have slightly more spark and grunt power as a unit. In the back row France once more experiment with youth and experience in the shape of flanker Kevin Gourdon, number 8 Louis Picamoles and youngster Fabien Sanconnie. Gourdon has been exceptional for France this tournament as has the veteran Louis Picamoles. Both these players provide France with some impressive physicality and ability to create opportunities for the rest of the pack to exploit as well as providing some solid defence. Italy have their own weapons here as well in the shape of their talismanic Captain Sergio Parisse at number 8 and flankers Braam Steyn and Simone Favaro. We have been consistent fans of Favaro and cannot say enough about Parisse’s extraordinary leadership qualities, but still can’t help feeling that the strength and speed of France’s Picamoles and Gourdon still provides an advantage that Italy will struggle to contain.

In the half backs, France’s offering of Baptiste Serin at scrum half and fly half Camille Lopez is clearly the established platform for the future while Italy’s unit is still a work in progress, albeit a promising one. Serin continues to be a revelation and although he didn’t have his best game against Ireland, he is still a talent that provides plenty of X-factor for France and some sublime distribution of the ball. Lopez possesses an accurate boot that will keep France ticking over on the scoreboard. Italian scrum half Edoardo Gori is an exciting player and can be guaranteed to put in a big shift but he just doesn’t quite possess some of the magical abilities of his French counterpart. Carlo Canna is a solid fly half for Italy who continues to improve but will be hard pressed to match Camille Lopez’s experience at this level, especially under pressure. Therefore expect to see France dictating the run of play in Rome.

The backs see a return for France of bruising speedster Virimi Vakatawa on the left wing along with his fellow Fijian Noa Nakaitaci on the right. These two provide so much pace and power that if they can keep ball in hand, which has sometimes been a problem, then Italy could be in for a torrid afternoon out wide. Add to that Vakatawa’s increasingly impressive defensive abilities and Italy’s Giovanbattista Venditti and Angelo Esposito are going to have to put in some very big performances but are unlikely to get the better of the two Frenchmen. In the centres it once again should be France’s day with Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat attending to business. Both have had an excellent Six Nations especially Lamerat and will surely relish the opportunity of getting the scoreboard ticking over regularly on Saturday in Rome. Italy do possess the exceptional Michele Campagnaro at centre and expect him to create plenty of fireworks of his own, but we don’t feel his partner Luke McLean offers enough of a threat to give Italy any kind of advantage over the French duo. Lastly at fullback it’s hard to call as we don’t really rate Frenchman Brice Dulin, and Italy’s Edoardo Padovani has promise but lacks experience. However, of the two we actually feel that Padovani is the slightly more reliable, although not as flash offering and as result actually favor Italy’s chances here.

In short this should be a solid contest with both sides capable of producing some drama. Italy at home can often be a challenge and they will want to make a real statement in their last home game of the tournament. France however, despite the loss to Ireland a fortnight ago, just look further down the road in terms of their rebuilding process. France are going to be hard to beat on Saturday and given the talent lying in wait to finish off Italy on their bench, it should ultimately be France’s day by a comfortable margin of 14 points!

England vs Scotland
Saturday, March 11th
Twickenham

At the beginning of this tournament although a Calcutta match encounter between these two old rivals was always something to look forward to, with Scotland’s victories over Ireland and Wales it has suddenly taken on a whole new dimension. England are on track for a Grand Slam, but Scotland suddenly find themselves in genuine contention for the Championship should they topple England at Fortress Twickenham on Saturday. It  will be no mean feat and a huge challenge for Scotland, but there is the slightest hint that history could be made on Saturday should they pull it off. While England still remain favourites to lift the trophy and despite stuttering badly at times during this Championship they still remain unbeaten, not only in this tournament but in their last 17 outings since their ill-fated World Cup. It is hard to imagine Scotland doing the unthinkable on Saturday if we look at it rationally, but if it is based solely on heart and spirit then you just never know what might happen. Either way it has suddenly become the most eagerly anticipated match to date of a Six Nations that increasingly refuses to follow the script.

Scotland know that the challenge facing them is immediate right from the get go and up front especially in the physical battles. However this is an area which they have managed to contest remarkably well despite their injury list. However, in the front rows at Twickenham Scotland will be hard matched to outmuscle England on Saturday. England’s prop division of Joe Marler and Dan Cole provide some serious strength and experience along with Hooker and Captain Dylan Hartley. Scotland’s offering of props Gordon Reid, Zander Ferguson and hooker Fraser Brown will challenge to their best of their ability but the experience of the English trio should easily give them the advantage, particularly if England’s Marler and Cole can keep their discipline under pressure. The battle of the second rows should be of epic proportions. England’s Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes have been outstanding for England, but then the Gray brothers have been equally impressive for Scotland. There will be fireworks aplenty here in an equal contest but one in which the power and experience of the English unit should just have the edge. However, in the back rows we actually hand the advantage over to Scotland which may come as a surprise to many, especially given the presence of England flanker and force of nature Maro Itoje. However, despite Itoje and his partner James Haskell’s remarkable skills we feel that the sheer terrier like qualities, endurance and unpredictability of Scotland’s John Barclay, Hamish Watson and number eight Ryan Wilson will just edge the day for the Scots here. If these three can hold their own against England for as long as possible then England are going to be under more pressure than they would perhaps like till number eight Billy Vunipola makes his first Test appearance off the bench after injury. We have yet to see anything from Nathan Hughes who will start at number eight for England that should give Scotland any cause for concern.

In the half backs we also feel that Scotland may have a bit of an edge. Scrum half Ali Price and fly half Finn Russell had a truly exceptional game for Scotland against Ireland a fortnight ago, whereas England’s Ben Youngs at scrum half and George Ford at fly half have stuttered too much on occasion. Ford in particular seems to be experiencing an erratic run of form and if Owen Farrell has the kind of wobbles he experienced against Italy then Ford’s confidence will take a further hit. We don’t deny that the English pair are world-class on their day, and should they fire on Saturday then it could well be all over for Scotland by half time, however we haven’t seen it yet this tournament whereas we really like what Scotland are able to produce in this department and as a result give them the narrowest of nods here.

In the backs it is an exceptionally tough contest to call. England clearly has the more experienced centre pairing in Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, however, at the time of writing injury concerns were a potential issue for Farrell even though we think it highly unlikely he will have such a dip in form as we saw against Italy. He seems to have developed into a much cooler customer than in days gone by in big pressure matches like this one. Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and exceptional newcomer Huw Jones, who set the world abuzz in Scotland’s November Tests, possess some serious skill and Jones when allied to the Hogg/Seymour strike axis can be lethal. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that the English pairing are the more effective especially under pressure. On the wings the contest between England’s Elliot Daly and Scotland’s Tommy Seymour should be outstanding. However, it is some of the Scotsman’s footwork and passing skills which lead us to believe that he is likely to emerge the better of the two. Meanwhile, we feel that England’s Jack Nowell possesses a speed and elusiveness that Scotland’s Tim Visser will simply not be able to contain. Lastly at fullback it is hard not to give Scotland the clear advantage in the shape of one of the players of the tournament, Stuart Hogg. Every time Hogg gets the ball Scotland manage to produce a passage of play that leaves defenders scrambling and warning bells sounding from Dublin to Rome. England’s Mike Brown is a feisty bulldog with an exceptional work rate but he simply doesn’t create the kind “what do we do now” moments that cause confusion amongst opposition defences that his Scottish counterpart is capable of. Ultimately this contest of the backs will come down to Scotland’s X-factor up against England’s experience and big game management skills.

However, for us whichever way you cut it this match will be won or lost from the benches and it is here that England is just packing far too much firepower. The Vunipolas are a force of nature in their own right and Scotland simply has no response to these two bruising giants on their own bench. English replacement scrum half Danny Care has proven time and again how quickly he can turn the pace of a match as have the power and pace of centre Ben Te’o and winger Anthony Watson. Te’o in particular has been instrumental in sealing matches for England in this Championship in the last quarter. Scotland has some capable firepower on their bench and in particular second rower Tim Swinson has really stood out for us, but they simply don’t have the calibre of England’s weapons in waiting so as a result we expect England to have the last laugh here.

Make no mistake this match should keep all of us on the edge of our seats and spilling our beer in living rooms and pubs across the globe on Saturday, especially for the first hour. However, as the inevitable attrition takes place as Scotland throw every last ounce of willpower they possess in containing an increasingly rampant England at home in front of a fervent Twickenham, we fear it will ultimately be a bridge too far for this highly talented and inspirational Scottish side. Once England bring their big guns off the bench, England should ultimately pull away by 6 points or more in what should still hopefully prove to be a thrilling encounter! That’s if things go according to script, something that so far in this tournament has not quite happened with the kind of regularity one would expect – either way strap yourselves in and if you’re of the betting persuasion you might want to hold off on this one.

In probably the most unscripted tournament in years, Round 3 of the 2017 Six Nations served up plenty of thrills and continued to set the stage for an epic final two weekends in March. Scotland provided a spectacular start to the weekend’s proceedings by proving once and for all that the resurgence in Scottish rugby is clearly no mere flash in the pan as they put in a solid effort against Wales even without some of their key players. Wales were once more left to wonder why a team of such obvious talents is struggling to get results. Ireland as many expected, at home in Dublin and with the return of world-class fly half Johnny Sexton, put in a clinical display which ultimately negated the significant forward power that France possesses as well as their increasingly dangerous running game. Lastly at Twickenham, Italy decided to use the rule book to their advantage and for the first forty minutes caused England to scratch their heads as they tried to figure out what sort of contest they were involved in. While it was brilliant play by Italy in avoiding the whitewash and potential cricket score that many were predicting at the hands of tournament favourites England, it ultimately backfired on them in the second half as England emerged from the break with a clear idea of the weaknesses presented by the Italian game plan and consequently exploited them to the full. It was another exceptionally exciting weekend of Test Rugby which once more showed how close this year’s competition is and the fact that none of the sides can take anything for granted. As the tournament heads into its final two weekends, England’s position at the top of the table starts to look more than just a little fragile as Scotland and Ireland remain in clear contention for the title. Much like the cliff hanger tournament of the 2015 season we are unlikely to know the winner until the final whistle of the final match on the last weekend!

Scotland vs Wales
Final Score – Scotland 29/Wales 13
Murrayfield

We predicted that the game between Ireland and France was likely to be the firecracker of the weekend but in the end this match ultimately kept us on the edge of our seats and spilling our drinks much more than the contest in Dublin. What perhaps was most exciting was the fact that on paper and given the injury list that Scotland was managing, other than home advantage, in many ways Scotland were the underdogs. Consequently the exceptionally brave and skillful performance the Scots produced with such heart made it all the more worthy spectacle and a great advertisement for the global game. Wales will once more be left wondering why a squad boasting so much world-class talent cannot get the results it should be getting when they matter most, and in a game where they were essentially outclassed and outplayed, more questions than answers will be raised about the coaching styles currently being used by Wales and interim Coach Rob Howley’s abilities.

Unlike in their victory over Ireland in the tournament opener, Scotland did not catch Wales napping in the first half and Wales looked more than comfortable for much of a closely fought half with the Welsh ending the half with a narrow lead. As predicted Welsh back rowers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric were proving adept at breaking up any Scottish attempts at rhythm and causing havoc at the breakdowns. However, one concern that Scotland had going into the match was put to rest within the opening few minutes. With talismanic Scottish Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw sidelined for the rest of the tournament all eyes were on Ali Price’s call to start in only his first Test start at scrum half, despite two previous caps on the bench. Price did not disappoint and, as we suspected he would, provided some real urgency and pace to the Scottish attack and often quicker ball to his colleagues than Laidlaw produces with his more conservative style of play.

In a frenetic opening twenty minutes the momentum swung back and forth between both sides but as predicted Wales were getting the better of the physical exchanges especially through Warburton and Tipuric. As a result, it would be Wales who would get the first five pointer of the match through winger Liam Williams who is a consistently reliable attacking platform for Wales no matter how the rest of his team plays. On this occasion however, Williams benefitted from some fine passing across the park from the rest of his teammates ultimately putting him into space and across the white line for Wales, with Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb and fullback Leigh Halfpenny providing key supporting roles. Rhys Webb would go on to prevent an almost certain try from Scotland in the dying minutes of the first half, as the strike axis of Scotland’s fullback Stuart Hogg, winger Tommy Seymour and centre Huw Jones started to really hit their strides in a counter attacking move from deep in the Scottish half that showed off some dazzling footwork and passing skills from the Scottish trio. Webb’s heroics ably supported by his forwards in a world-renowned Welsh defensive effort would see Wales head into the break leading 13-9. The warning signs were clear though from Scotland and fly half Finn Russell’s boot was keeping Scotland well in touch on the scoreboard.

In the second half it was all about Scotland, as they simply dominated the Welsh in every aspect of the game and managed to win the second half 20-0. The Scots weren’t just good in the final forty minutes, they were outstanding and surely must take great heart from the quality of their efforts as they head into a crucial and very challenging encounter with England at Twickenham next weekend. If Scotland can produce the kind of second half they put on display against Wales when they meet England, it is going to end up being a barnstormer of a contest with the final result very difficult to call.

Scotland came out of the tunnel in the second half with a point to prove which they did emphatically. They simply outplayed Wales in every aspect of the game and showed the inability of Wales to adapt when things start to unravel for them. What’s more despite appearing the weaker of the two sides on paper in the physical aspect of the game, Scotland in the second half managed to completely negate Wales’ physical authority. Scotland picked up the frenetic pace of the opening twenty minutes right from the get go in the second half. The Scots struck early with fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Tommy Seymour once more providing some dazzling attacking skills as they got them on the board and into the lead. From that moment on even watching on television you could sense the crowd at Murrayfield start to raise the roof as yet another historic win for Scotland seemed on the cards. Wales didn’t give up but their execution just wasn’t as crisp as that of a very fired up Scotland. In the final quarter that man Hogg would once more have a say in assisting Scotland across the Welsh try line as a lovely flick pass saw him put winger Tim Visser across in the corner.

Scotland ended the match strongly and Finn Russell’s superb kicking kept the scoreboard ticking over till the very end as Welsh discipline began to fade. Scotland ended the match with a comfortable win at the end of the day and a massive confidence booster going into their toughest game of the competition – a showdown with England at Twickenham this Saturday. It had been another complete Scottish team performance and one in which Scotland’s injury concerns going into the match appeared null and void as Ali Price had a huge game at scrum half, while Finn Russell made sure that Greg Laidlaw’s kicking boots were not missed. Flanker John Barclay had a superb outing as Captain in place of the injured Laidlaw while number eight Ryan Wilson and replacement flanker Hamish Watson played out of their skins. They will need to do it all again this Saturday at an even higher level of intensity and commitment, something this team really seems to want to do to send outgoing Coach Vern Cotter off on a high note and recognise the contribution he has made to the remarkable journey Scottish rugby has taken under his tutelage in the last two years.

Wales meanwhile know they have a great deal of soul searching to do as they prepare to meet an Irish side who are finally showing the promise that had them ranked as favorites behind England. Wales are a good team, of that there is no doubt and they possess some extraordinary talent. When a team can boast names like Warburton, Moriarty, Tipuric, Williams, Halfpenny and Webb it is in more than capable hands. The problem seems to still lie in a lack of coaching direction as to exactly what type of game Wales is trying to play and how to execute it. Although resolute under pressure especially in defence Wales still seem unsure of themselves and lack confidence in their purpose especially on attack. The game against Ireland at home in Cardiff should still be an epic encounter, but Wales really need to use the passion of the home crowd to give them the confidence to develop that killer instinct needed to put away an Irish side starting to build momentum just when they need it most.

Here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.

Ireland vs France
Final Score – Ireland 19/France 9
Dublin

Ireland, fresh off a staggering 63 point haul over Italy, came into this match knowing that having got their Six Nations campaign back on track, keeping momentum was going to be absolutely essential against a rapidly improving French side. France had given tournament favourites England a nasty scare in the opening round and then gone on to a convincing win over Scotland, the team that had given Ireland such a shaky start to this year’s Six Nations. It was always going to be a tight affair between two sides who have a long history of spoiling each other’s parties.

While it may not have provided as much excitement in terms of open running rugby as the contest in Scotland, it still highlighted some undeniable skill from both sides and in particularly Ireland’s tactical edge with the welcome return of fly half Johnny Sexton. While his understudy Paddy Jackson is becoming increasingly capable in the role, there is no denying that with Sexton on the field Ireland invariably takes on another dimension. France clearly had plenty of intent when it came to attacking rugby it was just that, as has been their Achilles Heel in the last year, the execution needed to finish off some dazzling moves is still a work in progress at times. Nevertheless it would be France who would be first on the board through the boot of fly half Camille Lopez in the first quarter through a penalty kick. France in the first twenty minutes produced some superb displays of running rugby which ultimately lacked the finishing needed. However, they were looking dangerous and led on the scoreboard 6-0.

It was on the half hour mark that Ireland finally started to hit their straps as fly half Johnny Sexton made a spectacular break and provided one of his incredible pinpoint kicks on the fly and at speed, with some desperate French defence just narrowly getting to the ball before Irish winger Keith Earls, and thus stopping a certain try in the corner for the Irish. Ireland’s continued determination to wrest control of the game firmly in their favor would ultimately see them dominate the rest of the half ending with a fine pressure try from scrum half Conor Murray as his forward pack mounted a concerted assault on the French white line. Ireland were back in charge at 7-6 as referee Nigel Owens sent the teams to the tunnel for half time but they were keenly aware of how hard they had been made to work for it.

As the second half got underway, Dublin’s inclement weather attempted to spoil the proceedings but still failed to dampen the intent or enthusiasm of both sides. Ireland kept up the pressure especially in terms of the physical contest and the French began to tire and lose their composure. Sexton would increase the lead as French discipline began to slip. Then with half an hour left to go Sexton would, from 30 metres out and despite a swirling wind, slot a superb drop goal and suddenly it was Ireland who were firmly in control. France would then proceed to throw everything they could at an Irish forward pack that simply denied them a say in proceedings. Ireland were clearly focusing on the win and less about chasing points despite the introduction of the bonus point system in this year’s Championship. Consequently, they simply stopped the French attacks dead in their tracks while at the same time not risking any flash moves of their own especially as the weather continued to deteriorate. With ten minutes to go, France made the questionable decision to kick for points rather than touch even though they were trailing by ten points. Although fly half Camille Lopez gained France a valuable three points making it a seven point difference, it was hard to imagine France making up the deficit required to win the match with six minutes to go in front of an ecstatic Irish crowd. As Ireland called in the reserves from the benches, Sexton’s replacement Paddy Jackson quickly got Ireland back to a ten point lead with a fine penalty kick.

From there it was all over as Ireland once more got back in the driving seat and came close to bagging another try in the final two minutes. However, as the clock wound down into the last minute, Ireland decided they had had enough and the need to risk bodies ahead of a gruelling away fixture with Wales was simply not worth it. The ball was kicked into touch and Ireland ultimately emerged the comfortable winners. Ireland know that they will need to get closer to an unbeaten England on points difference for the final two matches, but in challenging circumstances against an increasingly dangerous looking French team they had kept their composure and played the smarter game of rugby. France will rue opportunities missed and a lack of finishing at crucial moments, but will still take heart that the systems they are putting in place are starting to deliver results. France is back in business after the heartache of the past four years, and it is great to see French teams playing with such enthusiasm, committment and flair once more. There is still plenty of work to be done, but don’t be surprised to see them be serious contenders for the title next year.

Once more here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.

England vs Italy
Final Score – England 36/Italy 15
Twickenham

Some called this match one of the most bizarre displays of rugby seen in a long time. England Coach Eddie Jones seemed veritably incensed by Italy’s tactics and struggled to even describe it as a game of rugby, after his players spent the first forty minutes desperately searching for a rule book on the sidelines. Even referee Romain Poite was consulted by the English players as they sought to understand the Italian tactics, causing one of the best lines of the tournament so far from the Frenchman – ““Sorry, Dylan, I am a referee, not a coach.” For the Italians it was a clever albeit perfectly legal ruse in a game that we sometimes forget has layers of complex strategy set to throw even the most experienced players off their guard. By simply not contesting the rucks and not committing players to the breakdowns, Italy allowed themselves to never really be in an offside position. While it worked well in the first half for Italy, as a bewildered English team desperately sought to understand what was taking place on the pitch, it ultimately backfired on them in the second, as England caught on to what was happening and the fact that it was leaving Italy vulnerable to any sort of English attack at speed if they could keep the ball moving quickly. England quickly took charge and the most potentially embarrassing banana skin of the tournament was avoided. However, Italy can take heart that at least for the first half they at times made the tournament favourites look like school boy amateurs.

Nevertheless, despite the Italian tactics England still had the upper hand in the first twenty minutes, but were being made to work hard for it. However, sustained English pressure especially through their forward pack would see Dan Cole crash over the Italian line amidst a sea of white and blue shirts for the first points of the game. Still the Italian tactics were confusing the English and they were struggling to come to terms with how to combat them, prompting English Captain Dylan Hartley and flanker James Haskell to seek some coaching advice on defence from French referee Romain Poite. The Italian tactics and some consistent pressure from the Azurri were causing England all kinds of problems and they were clearly having a bad day at the office compounded by a myriad of unforced errors, and kicker and centre Owen Farrell having an uncharacteriscally awful day with the boot.

Italian fly half Tommaso Allan got Italy’s first points on the half hour mark through a superb drop goal, and then it was another basic schoolboy error from England which saw Italy get their first five pointer on the stroke of half time and head into the tunnel leading 10-5. Allan took a penalty kick which bounced off the posts as the entire England team took their eye off proceedings and completely missed the ball rebounding into the waiting arms of Italian winger Giovanbattista Venditti who blasted through a set of half asleep English defenders to score a try of almost comic like genius. A bemused and clearly frustrated England team headed to the tunnel while the Italians could hardly believe their luck.

A fairly stern tongue lashing had obviously been the order of the day from England Coach Eddie Jones in the changing rooms at half time. England emerged with a clearer sense of purpose and turned their frustration into some clinical execution especially in the final quarter. England got quickly onto the scoreboard through scrum half Danny Care as he picked his way through the loose Italian defences deep in the Italian half. The scores were only level however, after Owen Farrell missed yet another shot at goal. A few minutes later winger Elliot Daly would get England’s next set of points through a fine try out wide, which this time Farrell was able to convert. With the score at 17-10 to England the game appeared to lull into some kind of a stalemate until Italy once more got their foot on the gas and wrongfooted the English defence. Italian centre Michele Campagnaro, who is no stranger to England as a result of his exceptional work rate at Exeter, proved what a danger man he is as he completely shredded the English defences brushing off no less than four English tackles to score a well deserved try for Italy on the hour mark. The tension began to mount again as the unthinkable began to seem a distinct possibility with Italy only trailing 17-15.

With ten minutes to go, England finally found the rhythm that had eluded them all match as the England bench made its presence felt. Winger Jack Nowell who always takes some stopping was put into space and all of a sudden it was England ahead 22-15 despite Farrell once more missing the conversion. However, England would strike again in quick succession through centre Ben Te’o and then Jack Nowell would seal Italy’s fate in the 79th minute with Farrell this time succeeding with both conversions and ultimately putting England out of sight by the final whistle at 36-15.

England secured the much-needed win and the luxury of a bonus point, but had for the most part made it look ridiculously hard against an Italian side playing with plenty of heart and a better understanding it would seem of rugby’s rule book. Some have called Italy’s tactics cheap but you can’t fault them for using the game’s nuances to their advantage and ultimately avoiding the whitewash by England that many, including ourselves, had been predicting. England ultimately got the job done, but their sloppiness at times and initial inability to adapt to the Italians’ tactics must be causes for concern for Coach Eddie Jones as they prepare to take on an exceptionally motivated and very dangerous Scottish side this Saturday, even if it is in front of a home crowd. It is highly unlikely that England, given the talent they possess, will be as poor on their next outing. However, an inability to adapt at times and some porous defence will continue to be a source of concern if they are to keep their campaign and potential Grand Slam efforts on track in their last two daunting encounters. At home to a fired up Scotland and a final match away in Dublin against Ireland who are rapidly building momentum, are going to provide England with the sternest of Tests and a real testament to how far this team really has come under Coach Eddie Jones. England will be more than up to the task, it simply remains to see if Scotland and Ireland will allow them to get the job done. Either way it is building up to an epic final two rounds of what has been an enthralling Six Nations!

Once more here are the video highlights from the RBS Six Nations site on YouTube.

Round 3 marks the halfway point in this year’s Six Nations and for France and the Celtic Nations the stakes couldn’t be higher. You could say the same for Italy as they travel to Twickenham to take on an English side brimming with confidence and intent on a second consecutive Grand Slam. However, for Italy a win is sadly out of the question barring some sort of rugby miracle and the entire English squad being laid out by some crippling stomach bug, and as a result their objective is simply to avoid yet another humiliation. England will be looking to put up a big score against Italy to ensure them a healthy points cushion on the Six Nations table. France got their campaign back on track in Round 2 as did Ireland and the dust-up between these two in Dublin should prove to be a cracker, especially if the poor weather plaguing Europe as we write eases up. Wales and Scotland both suffered their first losses in Round 2 and will be keen to restore order and a sense of purpose to their title aspirations when they meet at Murrayfield on Saturday. So without any further ado let’s take our traditional look at the match ups on offer this weekend.

Scotland vs Wales
Saturday, February 25th
Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Let’s face it every encounter featuring Scotland this year has been a riveting spectacle to watch. With the physical attrition of the Round 2 encounter with France leaving Scotland to lick their wounds, they know that the same intensity of physicality awaits them this Saturday in the shape of Wales. Wales while feeling confident that they may well be able to dominate Scotland up front, will be keenly aware of the daunting challenge facing them in terms of containing Scotland’s fleet-footed backs, especially in front of a vocal Scottish crowd. Against Ireland, Scotland showed some real resolve and attacking prowess while still managing to match Ireland’s signficant forward threat. Buoyed by the confidence of that opening win Scotland are likely to fancy their chances against a Welsh side seeking to bounce back from a heartbreaking last gasp defeat to England at home. Wales were good against England and dominated their opponents for much of the match, but bizarre substitution decisions and poor execution in a game of the tightest margins ultimately cost them a match they could and should have won. Wales know that Scotland took a physical beating against France and will be keenly aware of any resulting weaknesses as well as exploiting the lack of leadership that injured Scottish Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw provides to his teammates. Still there is enough depth and talent in this Scottish squad to make sure that Wales are going to have dig deep to upset Scotland on what should be a very noisy afternoon at Murrayfield.

As mentioned above there should be no lack of intensity up front in this game, but we can’t help feeling that Wales just has the advantage here, especially after the knocks and bruises Scotland picked up a fortnight ago in their encounter with France. In the front row Scotland are clearly going for bulk with prop Gordon Reid up against Wales’ Tomas Francis in what should be a very even contest between the two. Reid’s scrum colleague Zander Ferguson has been outstanding for Scotland but then so was Wales’ Rob Evans against England. At hooker Wales Ken Owens and his remarkable ability to score tries should just give him and his front row partners the edge over Scotland’s Fraser Brown and the Scottish front row. However, in the second row we hand the honors back to Scotland in the shape of the Gray brothers who have been a remarkable unit this tournament with the younger Jonny clearly leading his older brother Richie by example. The Welsh offering needs no introduction when it boasts the likes of the mighty Alun-Wyn Jones, but we just don’t think that Jake Ball matches up to the pedigree of the Scottish duo so hence our favouritism towards the Scotsmen in this area of the field of play. Once again while Scotland boast an impressive back row in the shape of flankers John Barclay and John Hardie, we just feel that Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton are the superior unit. Warburton and Tipuric both seem to be physically indestructible in the type of intense physical encounter that Wales clearly relishes. Tipuric furthermore never seems to tire and is constantly smashing his way through defences and flinging hapless opposition players to the ground with no lack of intensity right up until the final whistle. Hardie and Barclay may possess a slightly more intelligent game that relies slightly less on brute force, but Tipuric’s ability to pop up in danger zones all over the park causes us to give Wales the nod here. Lastly Scotland will be rueing the absence of number eight Josh Strauss after he became a casualty of the French match. His replacement Ryan Wilson is brave and enterprising but simply no match for the Welsh wrecking ball known as Ross Moriarty who was outstanding against England, causing his substitution in the 56th minute to leave rugby fans around the world scratching their heads in wonder. Coach Rob Howley is unlikely to make the same mistake if Moriarty repeats his exploits against England at Murrayfield, and as result apart from the Gray brothers for Scotland the forward battle should have a distinctly Welsh flavor.

The biggest loss to Scotland after the French game was the tournament ending injury to Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw who has been the quiet and reliable general behind Scotland’s successes in the last few years and a solid points scorer with the boot. However, some have said that he is far too conservative at times when Scotland really need to take risks. As a result it may be no bad thing for Scotland to really put his replacement Ali Price to the test. Combined with the X-factor that Scottish fly half Finn Russell brings to Scotland’s attack, these two could really provide some spark and fizz for Scotland if they click. It is because of the sheer unpredictability these two bring at speed and pace that we give Scotland the slight edge when it comes to the half back duels, despite the risk of it backfiring horribly when up against the more experienced and composed heads of Wales’ Dan Biggar at fly half and Rhys Webb at scrum half.

In the backs the balance swings firmly back in favor of Scotland especially in front of a home crowd despite Wales boasting some very significant talent. For us the key lies in the link between Scotland’s 13-15 axis, centre Huw Jones, winger Tommy Seymour and fullback Stuart Hogg. If Wales can contain these three for the full eighty minutes and prevent them putting big points on the board, then a very close scoreline should be the order of the day. However, any lapses in concentration in the Welsh defences and these three are going to cause Wales all kinds of heartache and cause the Men in Red to have to be chasing the game all afternoon. We think these three are so strong together and provide such a spark in attack that they provide more of a threat than the more predictable and physical approach preferred by their Welsh counterparts. Scottish winger Tim Visser and centre Alex Dunbar are also likely to cause all sort of problems for the Welsh defences. However, it is the ability of the Scottish backs to create something out of nothing from almost anywhere on the park that gives them the edge. Welsh wingers Liam Williams and George North need no introduction and are exceptionally dangerous in their own right, however the centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams seem to be struggling with execution and composure at key moments despite their abundant talents. Davies will be keen to atone for his misplaced kick to touch against England which sadly was instrumental in Wales losing the match at the death. However, having to do this under pressure and away from home may simply be too much. Lastly while Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny possesses a boot that will always get Wales out of jail he simply doesn’t possess the speed, pace and vision of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg. Both sides have shown weaknesses in defence at times but we still feel that Scotland is possessing a more dangerous set of combinations in the backs that is likely to score the big points when most needed.

Both sides are packing impressive benches and if the scores are within one or two points going into the last quarter Wales could well swing it here, especially when you are able to boast names like lock Luke Charteris, prop Samson Lee, number eight Taulupe Faletau and fly half Sam Davies. Scotland have some enterprising characters on their own bench especially in the shape of lock Tim Swinson, try scorer against France, and centre Mark Bennett, but it is the big name quality of the Welsh bench that should just give them the edge. However, as we say that is assuming the scores are within three points or less going into the last quarter. We just feel that it is Scotland’s attacking prowess and sheer unpredictability in this department that will ultimately see Scotland emerge the winners by two points having built themselves a healthy lead early on, even though Wales will push them to the limit physically especially in the final quarter. Either way yet another epic Test match of the calibre of the first two rounds should await so don’t expect to be sitting down too much!

Ireland vs France
Saturday, February 25th
Dublin

Ireland have three exceptionally tough matches ahead of them starting with France and ending with England with a difficult trip to Wales sandwiched in between. Despite getting 63 points against Italy and ensuring that their campaign is back on the rails as they sit comfortably in second place, the hard work really begins in these final three rounds. Ireland were simply a shambles in the opening half of their first game against Scotland, causing them to ultimately lose despite an epic display of catch up rugby in the second half. They will be painfully aware that any such lapses in intensity, focus and concentration for the rest of the tournament will cause their title hopes for this year to be well and truly over. France are getting better with every outing and although they haven’t beaten Ireland at home since 2011, there is no question that they are well placed to bring the curtain down on Ireland’s Six Nations journey this weekend. As evidenced against Scotland, this is a bruising and very effective set of French forwards allied to a set of pacy and elusive backs. France is working as unit again, it is just their execution under pressure which is letting them down at times, but French flair and power is back once more in no uncertain terms.

The forward battle on Saturday in Dublin should be immense with Ireland’s pack likely to be better suited to withstand the physical toll and attrition that the French inflicted on the Scots a fortnight ago. France bring to Dublin their power front row of props Cyril Baille and the outstanding Rabah Slimani with Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado going up his opposite number Ireland’s Rory Best. As good as France’s props are, our money is still on the Irish pair of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong who have been a superb blend of youth and experience, to win the battle of the front row for Ireland. In the second rows we still think that Ireland should have a better afternoon especially if Rory Best can get his accuracy issues sorted out at lineout time. France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina has impressed, but for us the jury is still out on Yoann Maestri in terms of consistency. For Ireland, Devin Toner has been immense in the last twelve months and we think that Donnacha Ryan is one of Ireland’s most underrated players. In the back row there will be a spirited challenge from France especially from outstanding flanker Kevin Gourdon, but Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander are in a league of their own, especially Stander at the moment, so expect Ireland to get the dominance here. At number eight an exciting contest awaits between France’s Louis Picamoles who is on fire at the moment and Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. There are few players who put their heart and soul into the game as much as Jamie Heaslip especially at home in Dublin, but Louis Picamoles is playing some of the best rugby of his career and is likely to end up as one of, if not the best number eight of the tournament. However, it is Heaslip’s lion-like qualities in front of his home crowd that should just complete Ireland’s forward dominance on Saturday.

In the half backs Ireland has the clear pedigree provided Irish fly half Johnny Sexton can put to rest concerns about his match fitness. Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray are one of the best half back pairings in Test rugby and are likely to be infinitely better at marshalling their troops and managing the game than the French pair of scrum half Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez. This is not to denigrate the French duo as Serin is a hugely exciting prospect for France leading up to the next World Cup and Lopez is a genuinely talented fly half. However, with Lopez he can be brilliant one day and a disaster the next, so a bit like French teams you just don’t know what kind of performance you’ll get until the day. Consequently it is the sheer reliability and all round ability of the Irish pair that should see Ireland dictating the run of play on Saturday, with Paddy Jackson waiting in the wings as a more than capable understudy to take over should Sexton be unable to go the distance.

In the backs the contest evens out a bit more with France perhaps having the slight edge. We really like the centre partnership of Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose and feel that this is the way forward as Ireland build towards the next World Cup. However, France’s Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou have been real quality so far this tournament and seem to be a slightly more settled unit. Nevertheless it should be an electric contest between these two with perhaps the greater experience of the French duo at Test Level possibly swinging the balance in France’s favor. Ireland provide a gritty winger in the shape of Keith Earls up against the big powerful French winger Noa Nakaitaci, while Simon Zebo will have to face up against France’s Yoann Huget who appears to making an impressive return to form after injury. The Irish pair have had more game time at Test Level together than their French counterparts and as a result feel they may just have the edge. However, at fullback France’s Scott Spedding has been a key part of the French renaissance and will provide a serious challenge to Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Kearney’s form dipped dramatically in the last few years but seems to be returning of late, however, we can’t help feeling that the French number 15 is the player more likely to turn heads on Saturday.

At home and with a star-studded bench boasting names like Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Cian Healy the contest starts to take on a distinctly Irish edge especially if Ireland have built a good lead going into the final quarter. France have quality in props Uini Atonio and the very capable Eddy Ben Arous along with number eight Charles Ollivon and scrum half Maxime Machenaud, but we can’t help feeling that it just doesn’t pack the same amount of depth and punch as the Irish contingent.

With the weather likely to be uncooperative and the wind providing the sternest of tests to the kickers, both teams will have their work cut out for them, but it is hoped it doesn’t detract from what should be an epic contest. Ireland will want to prove that they are still title contenders leading up to the final showdown with England, while France will want to prove that French rugby is back with a vengeance and not just a short-lived flash in the pan. However, in front of a home crowd desperate for a big result and with a more tried and trusted set of combinations Ireland should bag the win in a tight contest by 4 points finishing off a thrilling afternoon of Test Rugby! Roll on Saturday!

England vs Italy
Sunday, February 26th
Twickenham

As of writing this, the English team selection had yet to be finalised, and as a result our predictions contain a greater degree of crystal ball gazing than normal. Of one thing we are fairly certain however, England will successfully continue their quest for a second Grand Slam with Italy sadly being the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. While we are fairly confident of an emphatic English win, another epic humiliation of Italy along the lines of the two handed out to them so far in the tournament by Wales and Ireland will be painful to watch. The calls for the inclusion of Georgia in the Six Nations at Italy’s expense are already at full throttle before the referee’s opening whistle has even blown, and we hope that Italy can somehow produce a performance against vastly superior opposition on Sunday at Twickenham that can both surprise their critics and put such debates on hold until at least the end of the tournament.

Without any starting lineup announcements from England at the time of writing this, we’ll just keep it short and throw out a base prediction which to be honest isn’t exactly rocket science for this particular encounter. The only real positive we can see for Italy is the decision to finally start outstanding centre Michele Campagnaro who through his time at Exeter Chiefs will be no stranger to his English opponents. However, even if England choose to experiment with some of their more junior players for this match and test new combinations they should still find this a relatively straightforward outing. Italian Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse is always a force to be reckoned with, but at Twickenham he is likely to be an island who cannot perform miracles on his own. There are likely to be some solid individual performances from some of the Italian squad such as second rower Marco Fuser and flanker Simone Favaro with Maxime Mata Mbanda to add some firepower off the bench. However up against an English team boasting names like Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Johnny May, Jack Nowell and Ben Youngs among many others, including some very promising youngsters, it is an overwhelmingly tall order for Italy to do much more than offer England some gutsy scrummaging practice. Make no mistake Italy will play with pride, passion and hopefully plenty of heart but it is going to be a long and painful day at the office for them.

England are packing far too much firepower for it to be anything other than one way traffic for the Men in White. England to win by at least 45 points!

 

The thrills and spills came at a frenetic pace in the second round of this year’s Six Nations championship. The action got underway as Ireland blitzed a hapless Italian side and made an emphatic statement that the slip up in Murrayfield was an unfortunate hiccough along the way to what should prove to be a solid challenge for the title. Next up was the weekend’s most highly anticipated match between England and Wales. England as defending champions and last year’s Grand Slam heroes were keen to prove that a sloppy start against France in the first round was simply that and no serious cause for concern, while Wales sought to silence their critics after an emphatic opening win against Italy. One of Test Rugby’s great rivalries provided plenty of spectacle, but it was England’s ability to go the distance that allowed them to emerge the victors in a thrilling contest. Lastly, Scotland looked to set to continue the momentum from their epic opening round victory over Ireland against a resurgent France. A punishing physical contest, which left bodies strewn across the park especially for Scotland, still produced some breathtaking displays of running and attacking rugby. This year’s Six Nations is proving that Northern Hemisphere rugby is in exceptionally robust health!

Italy vs Ireland
Final Score – Italy 10/Ireland 63
Rome

Ireland came to Rome with a point to prove and Italy sadly ended up being the sacrificial lambs in the process. One thing for certain was that Italy, despite the input of new Coach Conor O’Shea, still have a long way to go before they become genuinely competitive in the Six Nations, which sadly means the calls for the inclusion of other countries such as Georgia at Italy’s expense will once again be one of the talking points when the tournament wraps up next month. Ireland were exceptionally impressive after their upset to the Scots a week earlier, but against such a hapless Italian side it is hard to really judge how they will fare against much stiffer competition for the rest of the tournament. Nevertheless Ireland managed to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and in a good position for a much more challenging fixture against a French side that is showing plenty of promise.

Ireland came screaming out of the blocks and the points were not long to follow. Ireland simply dominated every aspect of the game leaving Italy clutching at straws for the full eighty minutes. By the twenty minute mark Ireland were comfortably ahead by three tries. The only blip on Ireland’s radar for the full eighty minutes was some ill discipline by second rower Donnacha Ryan, for collapsing an Italian maul from a lineout which saw him sent to the sin bin and Italy being awarded a penalty try. That was to be Italy’s only moment of glory, as from then on it was strictly one way traffic from Ireland.

Flanker CJ Stander was playing like a man possessed for Ireland scoring three outstanding tries and being in the thick of everything for the Men in Green. Ireland will also take heart that in the absence of their regular Captain and Hooker Rory Best, Munster’s Niall Scannell had an excellent game at Hooker once more reinforcing the considerable depth that Ireland are developing in all positions. Replacement winger Craig Gilroy had a barnstormer of an afternoon for Ireland running in his own hat trick, complementing the efforts of fellow winger Keith Earls who ran in two of his own. Lastly Gary Ringrose also added to the party atmosphere with a fine try of his own and some superb work alongside his centre partner Robbie Henshaw all afternoon.

Italy will need to pick up the pieces somehow as they travel to Fortress Twickenham this weekend to take on tournament favourites England. It would seem that their trials and tribulations are set to continue but it is hoped they can find some positives for the remainder of their campaign. They have a great Coach in Conor O’Shea and some very talented players, but for now are struggling to click as a cohesive unit especially when under pressure. For Ireland their Six Nations campaign only gets harder from here until the final showdown with England, but this emphatic victory will boost their confidence as they prepare to take on a French team that is just starting to hit its straps this weekend in Dublin.

Wales vs England
Final Score – Wales 16/England 21
Cardiff

One of Test Rugby’s oldest and most intense rivalries lived up to its billing and then some as England travelled to Cardiff. It was an epic Test match that kept us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes. Wales will be gutted to lose a match they could have clearly won, while England will take huge confidence from the fact that they seem to have become masters of their own composure under pressure with an ability to close out big games that is starting to rival the abilities of New Zealand’s All Blacks.

From the opening whistle until the last both teams played at full throttle, and at times from a spectator’s point of view it was almost exhausting to watch. To be honest for much of this match Wales were the dominant side but it was England who were able to make better use of their chances as well as be that much more precise in their execution when it mattered the most. As we saw last year on the tour to Australia, England’s defence has an ability to really settle when under pressure and after a shaky start against France in the opening round, England were the more composed of the two sides as Wales mounted continuous assaults on the English line.

As expected there was some solid Welsh pressure from the forwards, and despite England’s front row getting the better of their Welsh counterparts, Wales were giving as good as they got in some punishing physical battles which often saw the Welsh having the slight edge. However, the superhuman efforts of the English second row in the shape of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury who were outstanding along with flanker Maro Itoje, ensured that England were always competitive across the park. English Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley was not having his best game but an enormous positive for England was the fact that replacement Hooker Jamie George played an outstanding final 30 minutes and is likely to get a starting berth against Italy this weekend. Flanker Jack Clifford also made his presence felt as did number eight Nathan Hughes.

Wales however managed to maintain a lead all the way to the 75th minute and were taught a painful lesson in how close the margins can be at this level. The Welsh second and back rows put in a massive shift against England, with flanker Justin Tipuric and number eight Ross Moriarty proving once more what destructive forces they are for Wales. Tipuric’s abilities in attack and defence are becoming legendary especially as the man never seems to tire. Moriarty put in another ferocious performance for Wales causing England all kinds of problems as he tackled everything in sight and provided countless turnovers for Wales. Your heart has to go out to centre Jonathan Davies and that fatal clearing kick in the 75th minute which simply HAD to find touch and didn’t and resulted in English winger Elliot Daly’s superb match winning try. However, it did highlight the point that this was a game that came down to the margins and the team that had mastered the clinical finishing needed was always going to snatch the win. Wales are playing some great rugby at the moment, but so are all the other Six Nations sides with the exception of Italy, and as a result the ability to execute under pressure as the clock ticks down those final minutes is the difference between winning and losing. Something England clearly seem to have mastered and Wales have yet to achieve.

Wales must now travel to Scotland and as Ireland found out, Scotland at home are now an exceptionally daunting prospect. Wales’ resolve will be tested to the full and it will be fascinating to see how well they bounce back from the heartbreaking loss to England. For the English their momentum continues to build and with a relatively soft fixture this weekend against Italy, it is going to take an exceptionally gifted and determined Scottish or Irish side to derail the English Grand Slam express in March!

France vs Scotland
Final Score – France 22/Scotland 16
Paris

To be honest we found this match just as exciting and nerve-wracking at times as the epic dustup between England and Wales the day before. France is playing some exceptionally exciting rugby again under new Coach Guy Noves, and Scotland possesses some of the paciest backs in the modern game who can light up a pitch from anywhere. This match also showed that in the shape of replacement lock Tim Swinson some of their forwards are no slouchers either! However, the only downside was the intensely physical nature of the contest which left an exceptionally high Scottish body count and knocked their Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw out of the rest of the tournament. France were not without their losses either but Scotland clearly came off worst in the physical battles. Nevertheless it was an epic match which lacked nothing in terms of intensity and spectacle.

The first twenty minutes of this match were played at breakneck speed by both sides. However the frenetic pace of the action at times found Scotland lacking the composure particularly in terms of discipline that had served them so well against Ireland the week before. It was these disciplinary lapses, and the fact that French fly half Camille Lopez had brought his GPS kicking boots with him, which ensured that France in a tight encounter would end up with the clear points advantage despite being outscored in the try department.

Scotland although struggling with discipline at times in the opening quarter would still be the first across the white line in a superb team effort finished off by fullback extraordinaire Stuart Hogg on his fiftieth appearance for his country. France would strike back ten minutes later through the superb Gael Fickou at centre and the game’s momentum continued to swing back and forth in favor of both sides till the half time whistle. The only downside being Scottish Captain Greg Laidlaw taking an ankle injury which would rule him out of the rest of the match and the tournament. However, in an attempt to draw some positives out of an unfortunate setback for Scotland, Laidlaw’s replacement Ali Price played a good game and brought some real fizz to the position, something that Laidlaw has often lacked preferring a more conservative approach. The dynamic between Price and fly half dynamo for Scotland Finn Russell was exciting to watch and while unpolished at times bodes well for the future.

In the second half, France’s dominant physicality was starting to take its toll especially in the scrums and the Scottish body count continued to rise as a result along with continuing penalties which France’s Camille Lopez would ensure that Scotland would keep paying the bill for. However, early in the second half, second rower Tim Swinson would come on for John Hardie who himself had been a replacement for flanker John Barclay. It was another spectacular display of Scottish attacking rugby with winger Tommy Seymour playing a starring role in supporting a superb try for Swinson. Scottish fly half Finn Russell was having an off day with the boot especially with usual kicker Greg Laidlaw off injured, and his attempt at a conversion went horribly wrong courtesy of an uncooperative tee and some slightly bizarre time keeping by South African referee Jaco Peyper. Scotland would remain competitive for the remainder of the match and threw everything they could at a resolute France, but the depleted Scottish bench and breakdown in organisation at times for Scotland gradually started to give the upper hand to France allied to fly half Lopez’s kicking boot. Scotland had been the slightly more enterprising team in terms of attack but France were winning the attrition battle in physical terms as well as being the more composed of the two as the clock wound down.

In the end it had been a breathtaking match at times with both sides giving it their all, and an especially brave performance from a Scottish team lining up outside the casualty departments of Parisian hospitals after the match. Both teams now have tough matches as Scotland take on Wales, albeit at the happy hunting ground of Murrayfield, while France face a challenging trip to Dublin against an Irish team with everything to prove. However both France and Scotland are playing some great rugby at the moment and are going to provide their opponents this weekend with the sternest of tests. France have got their campaign back up and running while Scotland have had to lick some significant wounds, but still possess a team blessed with an abundance of talent so the party is far from over yet!

With first round action out of the way, this weekend’s fixtures should give us a much clearer idea of how the standings are likely to pan out for the rest of the tournament. Wales or England will be out of the running for a Grand Slam this weekend depending on who emerges the winner, but given a tight contest should Wales win they could end up being the team to beat so far. Meanwhile should Scotland pull off another epic win against France in Paris, they will end up being more than just dark horses and emerge serious contenders for the title. France could get their Six Nations campaign back on track against Scotland but another loss would mean that this year’s spoils are likely to be  out of reach. For Ireland, nothing less than an emphatic win including a bonus point against Italy will do in Rome if they are to continue to share the title of favourites with England. For Italy an almost impossible task looms against a wounded Ireland, but one they know they must be competitive in if discussions about Italy’s relevance to the competition are to be dismissed outright. In short everything to play for!

Italy vs Ireland
Saturday, February 11th
Rome

While Italy need to win this match to ensure that they restore a sense of momentum back into their Six Nations campaign, the odds sadly would appear to be against them. Ireland meanwhile after a shaky start to the tournament need to come out firing from the opening whistle and stay that way for the full eighty minutes. To get their Six Nations efforts back on track Ireland need a handsome win in Rome by a significant points margin as well as securing the much-needed bonus point. Nothing else will do – plain and simple! Ireland were awful in their opening half against Scotland, which made their title of tournament favourites alongside England almost laughable as a rampant Scottish side tore the Irish defences to pieces. A dramatically improved second half from Ireland showed that there is plenty of threat present in the Green Machine but at this level you simply can’t gift the opposition the kind of lead that Ireland gave Scotland in the opening 40 minutes. In short, a big performance is both expected and required of Ireland in Rome on Saturday. Italy looked very sharp against Wales in the first 40 minutes last Sunday in Rome but as Wales increased the intensity, Italy simply fell by the wayside. They are in serious danger of doing the same this Saturday as Ireland are likely to bring the kind of intensity the Welsh showed in the second half for the full eighty minutes. It’s going to be a real test of the character of new Italian Coach Conor O’Shea’s men and their ability to withstand pressure of the highest order.

Italy’s scrum looked solid against Wales in the first half and they should stand up well against Ireland in the shape of hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and props Andrea Lovotti and Lorenzo Cittadini both of whom had a good game against Wales. However, the Irish counterweights of Captain and Hooker Rory Best and props Tadgh Furlong and Cian Healy are immense and the Italians will struggle to keep these three in check, especially once Irish prop Jack McGrath comes off the bench. Italy will be competitive here but Ireland should have the clear edge. In the second rows it should once again be all about Ireland despite the presence of Italians Marco Fuser and the impressive South African import Dries Van Schalkwyk. Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should easily dominate the lineouts and Ryan is an exceptional destructive force and ball carrier.

It’s in the half backs where Ireland should be streets ahead, despite Irish scrum half Conor Murray having his worst game in a while last weekend at Murrayfield. Murray rarely has more than one poor performance a year, so we’ll settle for last weekend getting that hiccough out of the way for 2017. Meanwhile Paddy Jackson although not the master of game management that his mentor Johnny Sexton is, he is a more than capable understudy. As a result Italy’s Edoardo Gori at scrum half and Carlo Canna at fly half are just simply not the same quality despite an outstanding first half from Gori last weekend. Canna’s composure is improving with every match but the consistency still isn’t there. Ireland should comfortably dictate the pace of the game all afternoon.

When it comes to the backs, Ireland should continue to assert their dominance despite a very poor half from the Irish back five in the first half of the match against Scotland last weekend. We are still scratching our heads at the omission of Italian centre Michele Campagnaro from the starting XV as the pace this player brings to Italy’s attack is outstanding and was clearly evident once he came off the bench last weekend against Wales. We fully expect to Ireland’s centre partnership of Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw to click far more effectively than they did last weekend. Italy’s Luke McLean and Tomasso Benvenuti while no slackers themselves are not quite as quick off the mark and good at spotting opportunities as the Irish pair, especially Robshaw. On the wings Ireland’s Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were far less accurate and impressive than their Scottish counterparts last weekend but should easily ensure that it is Italy’s Angelo Esposito and Giovanbattista Venditti are the ones doing the majority of the defending on Saturday in Rome. Lastly Irish fullback Rob Kearney has a vast amount of experience and appears, despite some errors last weekend, to be at his charging best under the high ball once more and Italy’s Edoardo Padovani is going to be working hard all afternoon just to keep him at bay.

If Ireland are pulling comfortably ahead by half time which we expect them to do, then their bench should cement Italy’s fate in the second half. We just can’t see anything on Italy’s bench that is likely to threaten Ireland in the last forty minutes with the exception of Michele Campagnaro. Ireland’s three forward replacements of prop Jack McGrath, lock Ultan Dillane and the exceptional flanker Josh van der Flier are all ultimate weapons in the Irish arsenal and Italy’s discipline and fatigue are all likely to count against them as they try to keep this trio in check in the final quarter.

Ireland were poor last weekend, but it was more likely a case of opening night nerves on the road than an actual genuine dip in form. They will be seeking to silence their critics in no uncertain terms on Saturday and sadly Italy are likely to be the sacrificial lambs in the process. Make no mistake Italy will be exceptionally competitive, but this is just too big a challenge and Ireland have too much to prove. Ireland to dominate across the park and their powerful bench will ensure Ireland run riot in the last quarter and thus take the match by 23 points!

Wales vs England
Saturday, February 11th
Cardiff

Wales at home are never easy and we saw glimpses last weekend in Rome of how good a side they can be when all the pieces line up and they have a clear idea of the kind of rugby they want to play. The arrival of fly half Sam Davies in the second half transformed the Welsh attack and they ran rings around the Italians. Consequently apart from a weaker front row compared to England, we are surprised at the number of people writing off Wales’ chances this weekend in their own backyard. There is no question that England were poor for the first sixty minutes last weekend against France, and it is highly unlikely that they will stutter out of the blocks a second time around. However, Wales at home are always a challenge and they seem to have put the sketchy performances of the Autumn Internationals behind them. They will want to keep the momentum going and will have spotted clear weaknesses in England’s defenses that were becoming apparent in the Autumn Internationals. It should be much closer than many are predicting and England are clearly not underestimating what is likely to be a grueling contest especially in the physical department.

As mentioned above we are predicting a punishing physical encounter and the only weakness we see here for Wales is in the front row, which ultimately should swing the overall forward battle in England’s favor but only just. England’s front row just look the more familiar and experienced unit in the shape of props Dan Cole and Joe Marler with Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley backing up the experience. The Welsh offering of props Tomas Francis and Rob Evans just don’t have the same pedigree even if Hooker Ken Owens needs little if any introduction and can be a try scoring machine in his own right. Marler’s discipline and scrumming technique remains for us a potential liability for England and there were clear signs of that last weekend against France, though how anyone stands up under pressure to the massive bulk of French prop Uini Atonio is debatable so it is perhaps unfair to judge Marler on those grounds. However, the battles in the rest of the forward pack will level out very quickly from the second rows onwards. England should just maintain dominance in the second row with the lock partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes. Wales’ Alun Wyn-Jones is a massive inspiration to his troops but his partner Jake Ball doesn’t lend the same weight, meaning England should be dominant for the most part here. In the back rows the competition gets even more fierce with a battle royale between Welsh flankers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and England’s Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford. For us the battle should be won here by Wales despite the presence of one of last year’s best Test players, England’s Maro Itoje. Warburton’s sheer indestructibility and Tipuric’s superhuman abilities in both attack and defence should ensure that Wales just edge out England in the loose. Make no mistake Clifford and Itoje’s abilities are likely to impress all afternoon but they just don’t have the game time together that the Welsh duo have. At number eight it’s the battle of the youngsters in England’s Nathan Hughes and Welshman Ross Moriarty, who was one of the few players who consistently stood out in Wales erratic Autumn Internationals. We may be wrong but in front of a home crowd we think Moriarty may just win the day here for Wales on Saturday.

An intriguing half back battle awaits but we think that England, if they can dictate the game early on, should just have the edge here. There is no question that scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford had a poor game last weekend against France but we find it unlikely that they will suffer from the same lack of finesse this weekend, despite the poor form of their respective clubs this year. However, if they can’t dictate the game for England early on they will be up against it if Welsh fly half Sam Davies comes off the bench early in the second half, with Gareth Davies injecting some tried and trusted gas at scrum half off the bench for the Welsh. England will be relying on Youngs and Ford to establish some early dominance for England, and given their abilities on this front allied to the exceptional Owen Farrell in centre field we feel they are more than capable of getting the better of Welsh fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Rhys Webb.

If England don’t get a healthy points lead early on it could be a tough afternoon as Wales, as evidenced last weekend in Rome, have some exceptional  pace in the backs, and the two sides are essentially evenly balanced here. It is just the game management skills and vision of English centre Owen Farrell which we think will swing the balance in England’s favor. England’s centre partnership of Own Farrell and Jonathan Joseph needs little if any introduction even if they were exceptionally quiet by their standards last weekend, but that seemed more due to the fact that the other part of this key strike axis in the shape of Ben Youngs and George Ford just wasn’t firing on all four cylinders. Like we say we doubt we’ll see the same inconsistencies this weekend. However the Welsh centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams are more than capable of some devastating breaks if they are given some space to work with, and given England’s porous defence at times last weekend this will be a concern. Nevertheless, it is the ability of Farrell to read the game as it unfolds and some sheer X-factor that should give England the edge here. On the wings an exciting contest awaits. George North appears to be back to some of his best form in a Welsh shirt and England’s Elliot Daly will find him a handful on Saturday. However, it’s an even contest with Daly being an equally impressive opponent with the added bonus of a very useful boot from distance. Meanwhile we are pleased to see England’s Jack Nowell getting a start for this match as he was one of England’s most exciting players in last year’s tournament and on the tour to Australia. Quality through and through Nowell will be up against a player of equal quality in the shape of Wales’ fleet-footed and elusive Liam Wiliams. At fullback the abrasive form of England’s Mike Brown will ensure that he gets underneath Welsh skins all afternoon, while Wales’ vastly experienced Leigh Halfpenny is unlikely to rise to the niggles while keeping a calm head and slotting the points for Wales when required. An exceptionally close contest awaits here which should see some exciting running rugby as both sides chase the bonus point, but one which England should just get the better of by the smallest of margins due to the Farrell factor.

Both teams are packing impressive benches with both sides looking to bring on completely new front rows as the game unfolds. Wales as mentioned above have the talents of Sam Davies at fly half to call on should Dan Biggar once again be found wanting in his abilities to spark a Welsh attack. Add to that the destructive power of Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau but injury concerns regarding Faletau raise questions around how much of a saviour to the Welsh cause he may prove to be if things are starting to go sideways for Wales. England’s bench packs a raft of talented newcomers especially in the front row, but also some very experienced and dangerous strike weapons in the shape of winger Jonny May and flanker James Haskell. Haskell injected the pace that was lacking in England’s performance against France last weekend, and although doubts persist about his fitness on return from injury we could see no lack of intensity in his efforts last Saturday. Centre Ben Te’o is likely to provide some more of the magic that saved England’s bacon last Saturday and Jonny May provides an excellent turn of speed on the outside when needed. Wales are packing a solid bench but England’s was such a game changer last weekend that we think the game will be won in the last fifteen minutes again and against tough opposition England look better placed to do it.

We’re  hoping for an epic contest between these two which should give us a real shakedown of where these two traditional giants of the tournament really stand this year. England were found wanting last week, but against much tougher opposition than Wales found they showed the wherewithal to dig deep and produce a result with their backs against the wall. Consequently we expect them to do the same again this weekend, by the narrowest of margins so are just handing the match to England by four points!

France vs Scotland
Sunday, February 12th
Paris

This should be another exceptionally high quality dustup between two exciting teams. Scotland got their Six Nations campaign off to an excellent start with a convincing win against Ireland which showed that they have finally mastered the art of closing out big games while at the same time putting on a scintillating display of attacking rugby. France were heartbroken by the narrow loss to England at Twickenham but surely must take heart from the fact that they put in a display which, although lacking the required finesse at times, showed that the France of old is back in no uncertain terms. Scotland will need to prove that the magic they produced at Murrayfield last weekend can be replicated on the road while France will want  to show that they are once more a force to be reckoned with, and in front of a home crowd they will be hard to beat.

Many predicted that Scotland would struggle up front against Ireland’s powerhouse forward pack and the same questions are likely to be asked of the Scots by France this weekend. Despite this Scotland apart from battling at scrum time gave as good as they got up front against Ireland and we expect no less this weekend. However, the battle of the scrums should still go France’s way. France keep the same front row that gave England so much grief last weekend in the shape of props Uini Atonio and Cyril Baille and Captain and prop Guilhem Guirado. Scotland’s offering also remains unchanged with props Allan Dell and Zander Ferguson and Hooker Fraser Brown. While the Scottish unit is more than capable it is the inspirational factor that Guirado brings along with his ability to lead under pressure that should swing it France’s way. Add to that the massive bulk of Atonio and Scotland’s trio are going to battle to gain any kind of ascendancy at scrum time. In the second rows though the balance should swing straight back to Scotland in the shape of the incomparable Gray brothers. Richie and Jonny Gray were immense for Scotland last weekend and will give France’s Yoann Maestri and Sebastien Vahaamahina a torrid time in the lineouts and at the breakdowns. In the back row a relatively more even contest awaits between Scottish flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson and France’s Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon. However, as much we are continuously impressed with Scotland’s Barclay we can’t help feeling that the French duo are the more dangerous and as result think that France may ultimately be masters of the ball in the loose and at the breakdowns. When you add the figure of France’s Louis Picamoles at number eight we feel that the argument in favor of France in this area of the park becomes water tight. Picamoles was an absolute menace last weekend against England and Scotland’s Josh Strauss while having plenty of beast like qualities of his own will be hard pressed to limit the Frenchman’s rampaging runs.

In the half backs another intriguing but relatively even contest awaits, though Scotland’s is the more tried and tested combination. Both sides provide plenty of fizz and X-factor with French scrum half Baptiste Serin and Scottish fly half Finn Russell being two of the game’s most unpredictable players. However, it is Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw’s steady nerves that should just give Scotland the advantage here. French fly half Camille Lopez was outstanding last weekend against England but still is one of those players who can battle with consistency issues at times.

It’s in the backs where we feel that Scotland has the advantage over France. The French showed some real gas out wide in the shape of wingers Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa last weekend, but their ability to keep ball in hand and finish off key passes was seriously lacking at times. This is an area where Scotland seem to have skills in abundance with the remarkable fullback Stuart Hogg leading the charge. Scotland should have the clear edge in terms of finishing out wide on the wings in the shape of Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland. France’s Vakatawa and Nakaitaci will pose a threat all afternoon but Seymour and Maitland are such excellent finishers that Scotland should rule the day here. In the centres Scotland should also come out on top with the exceptional Huw Jones, despite him being rather quiet last weekend, and Alex Dunbar. Dunbar was in the thick of everything last weekend against Ireland and expect more of the same from him this weekend. France’s offering of Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat offer plenty of excitement of their own but the skill set of the Scottish duo at the moment is so finely tuned that Scotland are likely to be more effective in centre field on Sunday. Lastly at fullback while France’s Scott Spedding was one of the standout players of last weekend’s tussle between les Bleus and England, it was Scotland’s Stuart Hogg who was one of the main talking points of the opening round of this year’s Six Nations. Hogg is a threat right across the park and as good as Spedding is he is a lot more predictable than the Scot. Spedding is a powerful runner and ball carrier but his forays rely more on brute strength and power than Hogg’s whose dancing feet are almost impossible to read. Hogg has the unique ability to create situations that suddenly open up huge areas of the park which the rest of his teammates can work with – in short he is the master of any kind of open space. Consequently the battle of the backs on Sunday in Paris will be close and should provide excitement by the bucket load from both sides but Scotland’s all round prowess should just give them the edge here.

It is the presence of the exceptional Rabah Slimani, Damien Chouly and Yoann Huget on the bench which we feel ultimately swings this match in favour of France by the slightest of margins especially at home. Slimani scored a try within minutes of coming off the bench last weekend and as a result the prop is one of France’s key secret weapons. Flanker Chouly and winger Huget have plenty of power to once more add some much-needed pace to France’s attack and defence once the inevitable fatigue of trying to contain a rampant Scottish team for eighty minutes starts to set in. Scotland have nothing to apologise for on their bench especially in the shape of flanker John Hardie and centre Mark Bennett. However we just can’t help feeling that in the final quarter home advantage and French power will count for too much. As a result a nail biting finish awaits, but one that France should just emerge the victors from by 2 points. Either way we know that we will be glued to our television screens on Sunday for what should be one of the most entertaining matchups of the weekend!

This year’s Six Nations got off to a superb start this weekend, and the tournament’s billing as one of the most closely competitive tournaments in years seemed to be spot on the money. As Tournament favourites along with England, Ireland got an exceptionally rude introduction to this year’s Six Nations as Scotland finally delivered on the promises they have been making for so long in a superb victory at Murrayfield. At Twickenham a decidedly average looking England for much of the match up until the final quarter, were pushed to the wire by a French side that is clearly on the way up after years of false starts. Meanwhile in Rome, Italy looked exceptionally competitive in the first half against Wales only to dramatically implode in the second as a Welsh side looked to answer their critics and prepare themselves for a bruising showdown with England this coming weekend. There were plenty of thrills and spills with some exciting attacking rugby on display at times, no doubt egged on by the introduction of the bonus points system this year. However, the message was clear – after the damp squib of last year’s tournament – the Six Nations is back with a bang and we’re only just getting started!

Meanwhile although it lacked the spectacle and grand stages of the Six Nations, the second annual Americas Rugby Championship got underway. Canada found themselves up against Argentina in very challenging wintry conditions, but the snow certainly didn’t slow down the men from South America and Canada were given a salutary lesson as Argentina once again showed the depth and talent that is making it such a powerhouse in the modern game.

Six Nations

Scotland vs Ireland
Final Score – Scotland 27/Ireland 22
Murrayfield

In a tournament that could provide many banana skins, Ireland were the first slip up. While few if any were under any illusions about the challenge facing Ireland in their opener against a Scottish side that has some blistering pace in attack, most were still predicting a tight Irish victory based on the supposed superiority of their forward pack. While that threat was there it was often negated and definitely held in check by some solid Scottish efforts up front which then provided the platform for their exceptional set of backs to really cut loose. Scotland were deserved winners last Saturday in Murrayfield and Ireland have only themselves to blame for a shambolic first half performance which gave Scotland the momentum which ensured they never looked back. Ireland fought a valiant rearguard action to get themselves right back into the match and even the lead in the second half, but they had ultimately left themselves with too much to do.

It was a great Six Nations opener between two highly competitive teams and provided the spectacle and excitement which will hopefully set the tone for the rest of the tournament. As expected Scotland were having a torrid time in the scrums especially in the early stages of the match, but their open play was full of exuberance and flair. They put the  Irish defences under huge pressure right from the get go as Ireland just could not get to grips with Scotland’s explosive start. Scotland were just as competitive at the breakdowns and in the loose and were the more effective of the two sides in creating the opportunities to unleash their back line who revelled in asking the Irish defences questions they seemed to struggle to answer. Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg’s opening try was a joy to watch no matter which side you were supporting.

Scotland would soon strike again through that man Hogg, after a spirited charge from Ireland into the Scottish 22 led by flanker Sean O’Brien. Scotland would work the ball back up the field to ultimately unleash Hogg into space, with the fleet-footed fullback selling Ireland a dummy which two Irish defenders bought hook, line and sinker. Twenty-four minutes in and Scotland were ahead 14-0. Ireland once more mounted an assault on the Scottish defences, but unlike the Scots it appeared unstructured and lacking in committment at times. Some heroic Scottish defending kept the Irish in check but ultimately a highly risky pass by Irish winger Simon Zebo was fortunate in finding his colleague Keith Earls on the outside and Ireland would get their first five pointer. Scotland would then get themselves right back in the driving seat in a passage of play that left Ireland scratching their heads in disbelief and showing a naiveté in defence that we are not accustomed to seeing from the Men in Green. With a Scottish throw in to the lineout close to the try line, Scotland loaded the lineout with three backs. The Irish defences obligingly left Scottish centre Alex Dunbar an exceptionally inviting gap to charge through after he had snatched the ball out of the air. The play was so obvious it had probably been on the front pages of the sports sections in papers in Scotland the day before, leaving us utterly perplexed at Ireland’s seeming confusion and lack of defensive organisation as the ball was thrown in. A bewildered and clearly rattled Ireland headed for the changing rooms at half time while Scotland revelled in a 21-8 point lead.

Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s words in the changing room at half time were obviously not for the faint-hearted as the Irish side which came out for the second half was a very different beast. The intensity went up by several notches and all of a sudden it seemed to be the Irish side that made the headlines last year in Chicago that was once more on the field. Ireland looked better organised and mounted a ferocious assault on the Scottish defences. The Irish forwards were once more playing like men possessed resulting in a try from Irish lock Ian Henderson. The game would swing back and forth between both sides with some bruising battles in the forwards and some exceptional running from both sides. There was no shortage of excitement with Ireland seeming to gain the upper hand. Irish fly half Paddy Jackson would score an excellent try of his own putting Ireland just in front at 22-21. With ten minutes to go a nail biting finish was on the cards. However, Irish discipline and composure once more started to crack while Scotland’s held. Ireland would give away two penalties which Scotland Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw didn’t hesitate to turn into points. Those last six points would break Ireland’s thrilling comeback and the stands in Murrayfield erupted in joyful pandemonium and a fair amount of emotion as the final whistle saw Scotland start their campaign with a superb 27-22 victory over Ireland.

Scotland if they keep it up are more than just dark horses and do have a genuine shot at lifting the trophy if they can keep their momentum. They played a brilliant game of rugby and have become such an exciting team to watch especially once their backs start chewing up the mileage on the pitch. Ireland are unlikely to play as poorly as they did in the first half again this tournament and while still clearly in the hunt they can ill afford any more nasty surprises like the one they received at Murrayfield, and a bonus point win in Rome this weekend against Italy is surely a non-negotiable objective.

England vs France
Final Score – England 19/France 16
Twickenham

While not quite as entertaining as the match between Celtic rivals Ireland and Scotland, this match provided one of the more exciting encounters between age-old rivals France and England. After their extraordinary successes of 2016, England didn’t look quite as polished and composed as we have come to expect under new Coach Eddie Jones and at times were stretched to the limit by a French side that showed some clear signs of a return to the glory days of French rugby. England managed to regroup and after a decidedly average opening sixty minutes finally found their stride by depleting the benches and putting in a much more energetic and convincing performance to ultimately seal the deal and start their Six Nations campaign off with an important win.

England looked just a little sluggish in the opening stages of this match and all the momentum appeared to be with France. Furthermore England seemed to lack confidence and lapses in discipline allowed France to pull ahead with a penalty in the first ten minutes. This was soon answered by England’s Owen Farrell getting his own penalty goal to keep the scores level. An unfortunate error by winger Johnny May saw him sit out ten minutes in the sin bin for a sloppy tip tackle on French centre Gael Fickou. French fly half Camille Lopez kept racking up the penalty goals as another tackle by English lock Maro Itoje on the rampaging figure of French number eight Louis Picamoles was deemed high. Nevertheless despite France having the more damaging attacking runs especially in the shape of number eight Louis Picamoles, who was a wrecking ball all night, and French fullback Scott Spedding, the scores would be level at half time. However, alarm bells were ringing for England particularly defensively as had the French passing been a bit better and their ball in hand work been a bit more precise, France would have crossed the English white line on at least two occasions in the first half. It was an uncharacteristic display from a usually confident English side, with their defense seeming to be more than just a little porous and disorganised at times.

The second half continued in much the same vein, although England were unlucky to not get a try after a superb passage of play that left winger Elliot Daly’s foot just nudging the touch line as he put the ball down after some excellent cover defence from his opposite number Noa Nakaitaci. France would get the first try of the game through the exceptional replacement prop Rabah Slimani. With less than twenty minutes to go, there was a sense that another upset of tournament favorites was on the cards. However, England called in wholesale changes from the bench and England’s fortunes suddenly went from zero to hero in the blink of an eye. Leading the charge was flanker James Haskell who immediately tore huge holes in the rapidly tiring French defences. English centre Ben Te’o was also making his presence felt off the bench and in the 70th minute put England back in contention with an outstanding try. Owen Farrell would kick the conversion and England would take the lead that they would doggedly hold on to for the remaining ten minutes, as they emerged the winners from a nervous contest at 19-16.

It hadn’t been the most convincing performance from England by a long shot, but in the end they did enough to avoid an upset that could have been the talking point of the weekend. They know they will have to up their game considerably if they are to avoid the next banana skin that awaits them in the shape of Wales in a difficult encounter away in the cauldron of Cardiff at the Principality Stadium. For France it was a gut-wrenching loss after such an impressive performance at times. France are starting to look exceptionally dangerous and once the finishing skills are in place they are going to be a very difficult team to beat especially at home, something Scotland are no doubt keenly aware of as this weekend’s set of fixtures approaches.

Italy vs Wales
Final Score – Italy 7/Wales 33
Rome

While few doubted the end result of this match, not many would have predicted a scoreline favouring Italy by 7-3 at half time. If anything Italy were perhaps the better and more enterprising of the two sides for the first 40 minutes, making their rapid demise in the second half all the more frustrating for supporters and new Coach Conor O’Shea. The usual suspects played a huge role in Italy’s first half heroics, with Captain Fantastic Sergio Parisse once more stealing the headlines. Wales however, pulled rapidly away in the second half, and much like England the day before it was the bench that seemed to make all the difference.

Italy put in a powerhouse first half performance and their scrum was clearly getting the better of the Welsh outfit. The confidence this was giving Italy was reflected in the decision to avoid kicking for points after spending long periods camped in the Welsh half, and instead kick for touch and rely on their forward power to crash over for a five pointer. Perseverance finally paid off and on the half hour mark some concerted forward pressure on Wales would see Italian scrum half Eduardo Gori crash over for the first try of the match. However, Italy’s renowned problems with discipline would see them come short once more as they gave away a costly penalty allowing fullback Leigh Halfpenny to slot the three points and keep Wales in touch of the scoreline. Italy were clearly the more buoyant side heading into the changing rooms as they ended the half leading 7-3.

However, Italy’s age-old problems of struggling to play a game of two halves and ongoing discipline issues would plague them throughout the second half, allowing Wales to comfortably deal a series of death blows in the final quarter. With half an hour to go, an increasingly exhausted looking Italy were struggling to contain a Welsh side really starting to find some rhythm. The benches were emptied for both sides and Wales clearly had the advantage. Leigh Halfpenny had been making the Italian lapses in discipline count on the scoreboard in Wales’ favour and in the last quarter Wales began running in the tries as Italy ran out of gas and ideas. In the last quarter Wales would run in three unanswered tries in rapid succession, starting with centre Jonathan Davies and then one each from the wings through Liam Williams and George North. The final whistle blew and Italy were left to reflect on what could have been if they had played a game of eighty minutes. Wales would have been disappointed to not bag the bonus point through a fourth try but it was still a confidence boosting game heading into the difficult clash with tournament favourites England this weekend. With Wales topping the table at the end of a riveting opening weekend of Six Nations rugby, they surely must feel a justified sense of optimism about their chances against England let alone the rest of the Six Nations sides.

Americas Rugby Championship

Canada vs Argentina
Final Score – Canada 6/Argentina 20
Langford

In truly appalling conditions Canada and Argentina got their Americas Rugby Championship underway in the snow in Langford. Argentina seemed to adapt much better to the conditions than the Canadians, despite the conditions being a more regular part of the winter landscape in Canada than Argentina. Although Argentina are fielding a non-Test side in the competition, the gap between the two countries was plain to see. Argentina were infinitely more structured and composed than the Canadians and their forward prowess and line speed in the backs left Canada wrong-footed for the full eighty minutes.

Canada struggled to contain the prowess of Argentina’s big forward pack and discipline suffered as a result, with Argentina taking a three-point lead after only the second minute through a penalty kick. Ten minutes in flanker Lucas Rumball made the unfortunate mistake of playing an Argentine player in the air under the high ball and ended up leaving Canada a man short for the next ten minutes. Despite this Canada put in one of their better shifts in the game and were able to put some serious pressure on the Argentine defences leading to Canada’s first successful penalty kick. For the rest of the half both sides would attempt to probe each other’s strengths and weaknesses while adapting to the challenging conditions. Nevertheless, Canada headed to the changing rooms feeling pleased with a 3-3 tie after forty minutes.

In the second half however, Argentina gradually began to turn the screw on Canada and seemed to have a better understanding of the conditions and how to play them to their advantage. A remarkably soft try in the 50th minute saw Argentina take the lead at 10-3. Canada struck back once scrum half Phil Mack came off the bench to replace fly half Robbie Tovey, with starting scrum half Gordon McRorie moving to the fly half position. As readers of this blog are well aware we feel that Mack always adds some much-needed pace and vitality to the scrum half position in place of McRorie’s rather pedestrian and predictable service. Mack immediately made his presence felt, spearheading a passage of play which almost saw Canada score a try, but replacement centre George Barton was unable to hang onto the pass in the slippery conditions. McRorie would still make a successful penalty kick shortly after to keep Canada in touch trailing 10-6.

However, Canada had been missing tackles on Argentina’s energetic backs all night, making McRorie’s decision to kick to an area of open field that had three Argentinian backs loitering with intent, perplexing to say the least. Canada paid dearly for this moment of indiscretion as Argentine replacement fullback Segundo Tuculet was waiting with open arms. Tuculet is the younger brother of Pumas superstar fullback Joaquin Tuculet, so the pedigree is there for all to see. As he slipped through three Canadian tackles the difference in depth between the two sides especially in terms of their respective benches was painfully obvious. Canada would scrap it out to the end, despite Argentina still being the more enterprising in attack in conditions that continued to deteriorate. For the last three minutes Argentina would be a man down after a yellow card, but despite a valiant effort Canada simply couldn’t find any answers or means of adding to their points tally against a resolute and clearly fitter Argentine defence.

Canada’s next encounter this weekend with Chile should be a much tighter affair and the weather will hopefully be more conducive to the type of game Canada wants to play. Still in order to be competitive against their next big challenge, the USA, Canada has a very long to do list. We hope that some of the talent that really impressed us last year really comes to the fore by then. For now we still continue to like the look of flankers Lucas Rumball and Admir Cejanovic, and really hope that scrum half Phil Mack gets a shot at starting in Canada’s next few fixtures. If the conditions had been better we probably would have seen much more from an impressive set of backs, most notably winger Taylor Paris and centre Nick Blevins, but also feel that centre Brock Staller and winger Dan Moor will impress as much as they did last year as the tournament progresses. Early days yet for Canada but hopefully it’s onwards and upwards from here!

Endnote

Here’s an excellent video wrap up from Bspor TV on YouTube, of all the Round 1 action so give them a big thumbs up!

Here are TSN’s highlights of the snowball fight between Canada and Argentina in the Americas Rugby Championship.