Archive for the ‘Six Nations 2018’ Category

The final Saturday of the Six Nations, or “Super Saturday” as it is now commonly referred to, has in recent years provided a thrilling climax to a classic tournament. This year looks set to be no different. Scotland start us off in Rome, needing a 65 point winning margin at least, and a favorable turn of events in Cardiff to keep them in the hunt for second place. Their opponents Italy, even with a win would still once more maintain their traditional place of wooden spoon holders. Next up it is without question one of THE biggest Tests of the year. Ireland travel to Twickenham having already won the Championship last weekend, but as a result of being undefeated seek only their third Grand Slam in the tournament’s history. However, to get there they need to play well away from home against a wounded and angry English side seeking revenge for Ireland spoiling their own party on exactly the same terms in Dublin this time last year. To add insult to injury for the English, Ireland have also pipped the Men in White to the number 2 spot in the world rankings. England may have lost the Championship but barring the World Cup they have rarely had so much to play for. Lastly, France travel to Cardiff for a battle royale with Wales, with both sides hoping Ireland will do them a favor and see either of them home to a second place finish. Many had predicted that, despite injury problems, Wales would end up the dark horses of the tournament and finish second, but few ourselves included ever imagined France to be in such a position of strength.

Unfortunately, due to our kids all being out on March break from school here in Canada, we simply have not had nearly as much time as we would like this week to sit around over a few pints and discuss the finer points of what should be an epic weekend. So apologies, and not because we think the matches in Rome and Cardiff are of any less importance, but sadly we can only give a brief overview of those two matches and what we think might happen, and reserve our usual head to head breakdowns for the Grand Slam decider between England and Ireland. So in we go!

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, March 17th
Rome

Like we say we don’t underestimate the importance of this match by any stretch of the imagination. Scotland are clearly in the hunt for a strong third place finish, as well as a continued climb up the world rankings – so in short plenty to play for. Italy, are resigned to their status as wooden spoon holders, for yet another year but it doesn’t mean their Six Nations leaves them with nothing to play for this Saturday. Italy have shown some enormous promise at times in attack this tournament, so there is plenty to be excited about and they will certainly give it their all to finish on a high against Scotland.

So having said that who’s most likely to pull it off? No matter which way you cut it, it’s hard to see anything other than a Scottish victory, and probably a fairly comfortable one at that. Scotland will be thinking points, points and more points and they easily have the strike force to rack them up. The execution that was lacking in the match against Ireland last weekend is unlikely to be repeated. Furthermore, although Italy will also be able to attack and punch holes in Scottish defences, the Italian defence has been consistently weak this tournament, and they are going to struggle to contain the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg, to name but a few of the Scottish speed merchants. Once the Scottish backs cut loose they are likely to make the Italian defence look like a massive piece of Swiss cheese. Scotland do have defensive liabilities of their own but nothing close to the problems that Italy has faced. Add to this Italy’s famous disciplinary problems once the panic mode sets in, and Scotland’s devastating pack of loose forwards and jackals are likely to have a field day.

Expect some massive performances from Italy courtesy of the usual suspects such as Sergio Parisse at number eight. Once more the talismanic Captain will inspire his charges and one of his loose forwards Sebastian Negri will provide enormous firepower to Italy’s cause and has rightly been their player of the tournament. We’ve also been massively impressed by Italy’s attacking prowess in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and centre Tommaso Castello. Once again two exceptional players for the Azurri and a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, just look at that Scottish lineup! Fix the errors seen against Ireland and this team could literally run rings around the Italians. Although Scotland have rung a significant amount of changes to the side that came unstuck against Ireland, especially in the forwards, it is still a formidable unit. The sheer presence of Hamish Watson and John Barclay alone in the back row for Scotland should see them home, as these two exceptional jackals ply their trade to the max. They also boast for the most part an excellent disciplinary record at the breakdown. Once the hard work is done up front, then expect Scotland’s phenomenal set of backs from 9-15 to just let rip. The names sound like an honor roll of attacking rugby in this year’s Six Nations, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. Add the reliability and composure of scrum half Greg Laidlaw’s boot to keep the scoreboard ticking over for the inevitable Italian disciplinary lapses and the match should be signed, sealed and delivered for Scotland.

Verdict

It still should be a good game and well worth our interest. There is plenty to play for for both sides. Honor for Italy and a considerable shot in the arm regarding world standings for Scotland are all on the line. Italy has played some beautiful attacking rugby at times, so expect more of the same. However, despite the progress that Italy has made this tournament, this match perhaps more than any other will test their weak defensive structures to the limit. Consequently, we expect Scotland to ultimately pull away with it, especially if they find their rhythm and cut out the errors. As a result Scotland to get the result they need to put them in place for a strong third place finish and get the win by 25+ points!

England vs Ireland
Saturday, March 17th
Twickenham

Sit down, strap in and assume the brace position! That’s the way we’re looking at this clash of Titans on St.Patrick’s day at English rugby HQ Twickenham. Test matches really don’t get much bigger than this – plain and simple. Can Ireland pull off a Grand Slam, or will England deny them the prize just as the Irish did to England a year ago in Dublin? England’s last two outings in the Championship have seen them enter a dizzying free fall from the heights of success that had been their trademark up to that point. However, it’s England at home, and we just can’t see the slide continuing. Whether or not in the space of a mere week they can fix the fundamental problems that have been exposed, to the point where they can derail the Irish, remains to be seen. However, we can’t see them playing as poorly as they did on the road against Scotland and France. England at Twickenham is a whole different kettle of fish. Add to that the fact that Ireland’s away record is always in question and suddenly, despite England’s recent woes, it is very much a case of game on!

So this is the one match where we’ve had a chance to pick apart the team sheets and see how they match up.

Front rows

England see some important changes here after the upset in Paris. Kyle Sinckler comes in at Tighthead Prop for Dan Cole who reverts to the bench, with Dylan Hartley returning from injury at Hooker and as Captain. Mako Vunipola remains at loosehead, in a front row trio which really needs to assert the kind of authority that was lacking in Paris. However, sadly for England we just don’t see it happening with the possible exception of a greater success rate in lineout throws. The Irish trio of Props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong and Hooker Rory Best have been immense this Championship with the props in particular dominating proceedings in this part of the park. When you have the likes of Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath waiting on the bench to carry on the good fight, then Ireland find themselves in exceptionally robust health here. England are also packing a solid replacement unit with Dan Cole and Jamie George, but we still hold that Joe Marler is likely to prove the weak link in the chain, especially given the emotions likely to be at stake. It will be gritty and a tad uncomfortable here at times, but Ireland to be in the driver’s seat.

Second rows

What a contest is in store here between these two sides. We’d argue that at home England have the edge. Expect Maro Itoje to be completely fired up and his partner George Kruis is capable of some massive performances. It’s home advantage that will really tell here, and despite the fact that Ireland’s James Ryan has been one of the stars of the tournament this will be the youngster’s first real taste of the kind of off the charts pressure that such matches provide. His partner Ian Henderson will provide a bit more experience but we just think it’s the English pair who are more likely to be the dominant force. With Joe Launchbury waiting on the bench for England the deal should be sealed, despite the experience that Devin Toner brings to the contest for Ireland.

Back rows

England clearly are scrambling for answers in this part of the park, hence the wholesale changes made for this match. Two World Cup veterans for England line up together in the shape of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, and the experiment of playing Courtney Lawes out of position has been shelved, with newcomer Don Armand in as a bench replacement. Sam Simmonds starts at eight for England, and despite some calls to the contrary we still hold that this dynamic player is the way forward for England even though there is clearly work for him to do to fully develop into the role. In short it looks like a more sensible English back row.

However, up against them is an Irish trio who have become masters of the breakdown and keeping possession for Ireland. Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander need no introduction, but newcomer Dan Leavy has really stood up in the absence of Sean O’Brien. Stander meanwhile has produced some phenomenal statistics this tournament, and somehow we just can’t see England on current form being able to better these three. Add to this the fact that Jordi Murphy, who we think is one of Ireland’s most underrated players awaits the call from the bench and England are going to have to be smarter, quicker and more effective than Ireland here for the full eighty minutes – something we just haven’t seen so far this tournament from them unlike the Irish who have been masters of their trade here. A titanic struggle on the books here but one that Ireland should just edge.

Half Backs

This match sees Owen Farrell return to the number 10 jersey which in our opinion is a massive boost for England. Ireland may have arguably the best half back partnership in the world right now in the shape of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but Farrell is in a class of his own. While he has been exemplary for England at centre, he adds some intelligence and decision-making to the fly half position which has been absent for England so far this tournament. His half back partner at scrum half Richard Wigglesworth is no stranger to Test rugby but we just can’t put him in the same league as Ireland’s Conor Murray. It will definitely be a battle of minds at ten between Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and England’s Owen Farrell, and almost impossible to call. However, Sexton is probably having one of his best seasons ever in the green jersey and allied to Murray’s remarkable talents we just feel that Ireland will be the more clinical here. The battle of the benches in this part of the park has led many to favor England, with Danny Care and George Ford. However, we should point out that it was Ireland’s replacement at scrum half Keiran Marmion who was on duty in place of the injured Conor Murray when Ireland derailed the English Grand Slam juggernaut last year. Also we feel that despite his inexperience Ireland’s Joey Carberry has much more X-factor than a clearly out of sorts George Ford these days. Tight contest at times but one which Ireland should ultimately run comfortably.

Centres

Ireland’s Gary Ringrose burst back onto the Test stage last weekend after a lengthy layoff from injury, and left us speechless. Ireland have lost two world-class centres this tournament and seem none the worse for wear. Ringrose’s partner  Bundee Aki was accused of being slightly one-dimensional and overly physical at first, but even his game has evolved in the last few weeks to the point where Ireland are running perhaps the strongest centre platform in the tournament, even with the enforced changes. At the risk of upsetting English supporters we just don’t see the fascination with Ben Te’o, despite some isolated examples of brilliance. Jonathan Joseph appears to have been hot and cold this year, though with Farrell pulling the strings at fly half we expect to see him being more productive. England may surprise us here but based on form, it’s pretty easy to hand this to Ireland.

Back lines

It’s in this part of the park where once more we feel the contest evens up considerably and may well favor England. There is the small matter that Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale as the tournament’s leading try scorer is up against a very fast but occasionally defensively suspect Jonny May for England. However, Stockdale himself has had more than a few defensive mishaps this tournament, and away from home it could all get a bit much for him so that he and May cancel each other out in terms of their effectiveness for their respective sides. It’s Elliot Daly on the left wing for England that we feel should get English supporters more than a little excited. We’re huge fans of Daly and feel he adds a very versatile and reliable skill set to England in both attack and defence. Admittedly he’s up against Ireland’s Keith Earls who appears to be auditioning for a role in the next instalment of a Marvel Super Heroes action film, but Daly is a smooth operator and brings some real class and intelligence to this English side. Lastly at fullback, Ireland’s Rob Kearney has been outstanding but we think that England’s Anthony Watson packs more in the X-factor department as well as being a powerful strike runner. The bench battle will be fascinating with English bulldog Mike Brown being expected to save the day should things be going awry for England at that point up against Ireland’s Jordan Larmour. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has kept faith in giving Larmour another shot at the big stage and we think it’s merited. If things are going well for Ireland at that point he could make a real difference. It’s still a tall ask though and to be honest overall, perhaps to everyone’s suprise given their recent fortunes, we are giving the edge to England here, mainly on the basis of home advantage.

Verdict

An exceptionally difficult game to call and one we are almost reluctant to predict. Ireland don’t have a good track record away from home under this kind of pressure, but this would appear to be a rather special Irish team who seem to get better with each outing. However, they’re up against an English team with more than a few points to prove in front of a home crowd who will be expecting them to take no prisoners whatsoever, whatever the body count at the final whistle. As a result this is going to be one of the most physical and intense Tests of the year. While England may be lacking a certain degree of creativity at the moment, the team they have chosen to do battle on Saturday is one exceptionally well placed to snuff out any that Ireland may seek to provide. We see a tense and relatively low scoring affair unfolding at Twickenham, although if tries are to be scored we favor Ireland’s chances slightly more.

However, we feel that Ireland are the more structured and cohesive unit, whose collective rugby brain is likely to be sharper than England’s on the day. The pressure doesn’t come greater than this with the exception of possibly a World Cup final or semi-final, and it will be a real test of how far Ireland’s big game mentality has come in preparation for next year’s showdown in Japan. England have one absolutely MASSIVE game in them this tournament and we always thought it would be this match despite their recent mishaps. Whether or not it will be enough to overcome an Irish side that seems to have hit overdrive remains to be seen, even with home advantage. Consequently with a fair degree of trepidation we are throwing the history books out the window on this one and giving Ireland the win by two points!

Wales vs France
Saturday, March 17th
Cardiff

The tournament ends with a fitting flourish as Wales and France, depending on the outcome of the previous dustup between England and Ireland, duke it out for second place. Despite the resurgence in French rugby that would appear to be taking place, albeit tentatively, we can’t help feeling that upsetting an exceptionally strong and stable looking Welsh team in Cardiff is a bridge too far. There will be sparks aplenty but we are of the opinion that this Welsh side has made such remarkable progress despite the injuries they faced at the beginning of the tournament, they will simply be too hard to turn over on their own turf. Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they now have and how to use it, something which France, as evidenced by their selections for this match, have yet to really determine.

For reasons we can’t really fathom the French front row has undergone a complete overhaul with Jefferson Poirot the only survivor. Rabah Slimani is due to make his weight felt from the bench, but the rest of the French replacements in the front row are simply too much of an unknown quantity for us to see anything other than clear and utter dominance from Wales here, both in the starting selections and from the bench. While Poirot put in some very hard graft against England, he benefitted from the leadership of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani packing down beside him. Without these two figures, and under the kind of intense pressure we expect from Wales we fear his discipline may well go out the window. Wales pack an outstanding front row that has really come into its own in this tournament and their bench looks solid enough to back up any gains made here.

It’s in the second and back rows where the contest evens out and we expect to see a large part of the action on Saturday. France pack a very capable second row and their back row has been quite the revelation this tournament. The back row trio of Marco Tauleigne, Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara have been outstanding and expect them to be exceptionally competitive in Cardiff. Wales however are equally strong and when you can boast names like Alun-Wyn Jones in the second row then there is no question that there will be some tireless physicality on hand from Wales. However, it’s Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau who should strike fear into the hearts of a very capable and competitive French back row. Throw in Aaron Shingler off the bench and we can’t help feeling that Wales are almost unstoppable in this part of the park despite a stiff French challenge.

In the backs and at half back Wales also look rather frightening to say the least. A solid half back partnership exists between Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies, with Davies surely the number one Welsh choice at scrum half building towards the World Cup. From 11-15 Wales just look more lethal than France for this encounter and their performances in this tournament would back up that assertion. France have some real power in winger Remy Grosso who had an absolutely massive game against England, but overall from 9-15 for this match there is not the same tried and trusted platform in blue jerseys that Wales have managed to develop over the last seven weeks. Mathieu Basteraud at centre for France has had perhaps the two best games of his career in his last two outings against Italy and England, but we still feel that with some imagination and creativity Wales will find a way to work around him. If Grosso and Basteraud end up being the game changers they were against England for France, then Wales could have a very difficult afternoon, but we just can’t help feeling that away from home and with the composition of the rest of France’s efforts in the backs slightly disjointed, Wales will have a field day with them here.

Then there’s the small matter of a Welsh bench which has impact and X-factor written all over it, and it is hard to see France being competitive in the final quarter of the match if it has got away from them by that point on the basis of their own bench.

Verdict

Much has been said about home advantage in this tournament and rightly so. This is one match where we feel that it will come to the fore. This is a good French team, albeit perhaps not as balanced as last week’s squad, but taking on a Welsh team that is on the cusp of a very strong finish at home is a very significant undertaking. Wales dismantled Scotland and Italy in their other two home matches, and we see the trend being set to continue this Saturday. France will be exceptionally competitive especially in the loose, but we expect to see Wales start to pull away once the bench starts to come into play. Consequently a tense and very closely fought encounter for the first hour, but Wales to pull away by 9 and a bonus point in the last quarter!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we have done all tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

We are in for a rather exciting Saturday this weekend, as Ireland attempt to sew up the Championship by Round 4. However, it won’t be that simple as in order to do so they have to get past a Scottish side buoyed by their recent epic win against England a fortnight ago. Ireland will be counting on home advantage, and Scotland’s traditionally poor record away from home, as extra strings to a bow that is likely to leave little to chance. Meanwhile England travel to a wet and rainy Paris to take on a French side, who despite only just starting to show signs of emerging from a long dark period, are likely to still manage to turn it on for this match between these two traditional rivals. In their last few outings England have not looked the side that seemed unbeatable since their horrific exit from the last World Cup, and although they still are a formidable side they look vulnerable and France will be keenly aware of this.

The weekend kicks off with a potentially thrilling encounter, as current tournament favorites Ireland take on Scotland. Ireland are the only team left in the running for the Grand Slam, but after Scotland’s superb win against England a fortnight ago, Scotland are still very much in the hunt for the title if they can buck the bookmakers predictions and beat Ireland in Dublin. Ireland have been masters of hanging onto the ball this tournament, but Scotland have excelled in turning more limited possession into try scoring opportunities. Scotland have been fantastic out wide and the Irish defenses will have to be absolutely clinical on Saturday in denying Scotland quick ball and the split second chances they thrive on. However, Scotland traditionally struggle on the road in this tournament and it remains to be seen if they can turn the history books upside down on Saturday.

England travel to Paris where they take on a French side that has shown some real promise at times in this tournament, and whose defence certainly looks the part. Like many, we have felt that ever since the November Internationals England has looked a tad ordinary after their barnstorming run of back to back victories post the last World Cup. They have the talent of that there is no doubt, but it has all looked just a little flat and thin on creativity of late. France meanwhile, certainly look more robust than they have in a long time, and while they may only have one win to their credit in the tournament, we still can’t help feeling that there is one big game to come from them before this year’s Six Nations wraps up next weekend, and we have a hunch that this will be it.

On Sunday, a Welsh team that has impressed in all three of their matches, despite having only one win to their credit take on an Italian side, who are once more clearly on their way to brandishing the wooden spoon. Italy travel to Cardiff knowing that the odds are definitely against them, and despite some positives this tournament for the Azurri, there is still a mountain of work to get through before they can realistically aspire to finishing in the top four of the Six Nations table. Although Wales are out of the hunt for the silverware this year, the chance of a very strong second place finish is most definitely on the cards for them, so expect them to show no mercy to their Italian visitors as they go on the hunt for the maximum amount of points possible. A solid second place for Wales would be an excellent testament to how well their World Cup preparations are progressing, as a wealth of new talent has really stood out for them since November.

So as always let’s get into the head to head matchups.

Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 10th
Dublin

So the big question is, can Ireland make it 4 from 4 and head off to Twickenham next week with the Championship sewn up and simply a Grand Slam to chase? Or will Scotland upset the party and prove that the form they showed against England can also be replicated on the road? Either way a potentially thrilling encounter is in prospect and this will clearly be THE game of the weekend. Scotland stick with the side that blew England away at Murrayfield with only one enforced change on the wing. Ireland meanwhile welcome the return of centre extraordinaire Gary Ringrose, and scrum wrecking ball Tadhg Furlong.

Scotland put on a blinding display that favored their open and fast running game a fortnight ago under sunny skies at Murrayfield. This Saturday, the ground will be slicker due to rain and unlikely to offer the kind of fast pitch on which Scotland so clearly excel. In many ways it will favor Ireland’s patient and clinical dominance of possession, with the forwards being quick to snuff out any opportunity for Scotland to exploit gaps in defence. It’s Ireland’s legendary speed at the breakdown, along with the talents of probably the best half back combination in Test Rugby outside of New Zealand, that will mean Ireland should have the upper hand in terms of controlling the game and the pace at which they want to play it. Scotland are likely to have few chances on Saturday, but when they do they are more than capable of turning the tables in their favor. Provided Scotland show up unlike their opening encounter in Wales, this duel between Ireland and Scotland could be one of the most exciting of the Championship.

Front rows

Scotland’s much publicised injury woes affecting their front row prior to the tournament seem to have caused them little if any difficulty after their disastrous opening against Wales. The turnaround in a mere week was nothing short of remarkable, and in so doing unearthed a depth of talent in this part of the park that few thought Scotland had. While Ireland may have the more cohesive and experienced overall unit, Scotland will be extremely competitive here. Props Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan are exceptional scrappers and Hooker Stuart McInally has been outstanding. They’ll give as good as they get against Irish props Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Captain and Hooker Rory Best. However the combined experience of the Irish trio is much greater at this level, and if Best can find his mark at lineout time then Ireland should just have the upper hand here. We’re also excited about the battle of the benches in this part of the park as both teams pack a complete front row replacement, with Ireland’s perhaps having a bit more of the wow factor in the shape of Andrew Porter and the experience of Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath.

Second rows

We like the look of both units here, but once again think Ireland has the slight edge. Devin Toner has the experience paired up with the remarkable James Ryan, with the youngster demonstrating a phenomenal work rate. Scotland are no slackers here in the shape of the exceptional Jonny Gray, but the jury is out for us as to whether or not Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist is of the same calibre as the Irish pair, despite a very strong showing at times against England a fortnight ago. Once again though it is the Irish bench which packs the killer punch in the shape of Ian Henderson, even though we have been fans of Scotland’s Tim Swinson for a while now, and think he is one of Scotland’s most underrated players.

Back rows

Ireland’s forward dominance should continue here, but once again is likely to be put to the sternest of Tests by Scotland. Flankers Hamish Watson and John Barclay have put in some blinding performances in Scotland’s last two outings, and expect more of the same. Ryan Wilson at number eight will be troublesome, but it is unlikely he will be able to match Ireland’s CJ Stander whose ball carrying statistics so far this tournament are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy will be a solid counterweight to the jackaling abilities of Watson and Barclay, and we just feel that the Irish unit is the more powerful of the two, even at the expense of being more predictable. With Jordi Murphy on the bench for Ireland, they too should be able to throw in their own degree of X-factor and while like most we rate Scotland’s replacement number eight David Denton, for overall composure and big match temperament under pressure, the contest should be Ireland’s to win.

Half backs

Can Finn Russell display the master class he put on against England a fortnight ago? One thing is for certain we know the Irish pair of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray can – and then some! Greg Laidlaw brings the experience and wisdom needed at this level to the scrum half position for Scotland, and should help steer his younger partner through the pressure hurdles he’ll be up against. Add to the Laidlaw equation a reliable source of points through the boot and Scotland will pose a threat make no mistake. However, we just feel that Sexton and Murray are so clearly at the top of their game right now that Ireland should have this aspect of proceedings comfortably sewn up. Ireland know that Russell can be easily rattled and will be seeking every opportunity to ensure this happens, and if it does Scotland’s game management suddenly looks full of holes and rather rudderless. Poise and class in the shape of Ireland meets reliability and X-factor in the shape of Scotland on Saturday, and in our opinion it’s the former that will triumph on the day, especially with Joey Carberry on the bench for Ireland. However, before Irish supporters can get too relaxed Scotland pack their own bench weapon in the shape of scrum half Ali Price.

Centres

It’s here that Scotland starts to look the more threatening proposition. Watch the replays of centre Huw Jones in action against England if you don’t believe us, especially as after a full sprint halfway across the field he manages to drag two English defenders across the try line with him. Clearly a contender for World Player of the Year if ever there was one. His partner Peter Horne will have his work cut out for him trying to contain the dancing feet of Ireland’s Gary Ringrose, but this is the Irishman’s first return to Test duty after a lengthy absence with injury so it remains to be seen how effective Ringrose is. If he does have his full game legs with him then expect plenty of action from one end of the field to the other from Ringrose and Jones. In short a thrilling contest in this part of the park, with Ireland’s Bundee Aki clearly having the defensive Test of his career as he tries to contain the exuberant Jones. We were just so in awe of Jones’ performance against England and unsure of Ringrose’s fitness post injury, that we hand this contest to Scotland.

Back lines

Another epic tussle awaits in this part of the field between two exceptionally talented back lines. On the wings Ireland look devastating in the shape of Jacob Stockdale and veteran Keith Earls. Earls is having the tournament of his career, and we are still rerunning the tape of his extraordinary 60+ metre sprint to make a try saving tackle in the Italian match. In short no concerns about his level of fitness or defensive capabilities. Stockdale is the tournament’s leading try scorer, despite Scotland’s Huw Jones snapping at his heels, and expect plenty of fireworks from the Irish speedster in front of a delirious home crowd. Consequently, out wide we’re handing it to Ireland, despite some questions around Stockdale on defense. Scotland field the untried Blair Kinghorn on the wing and it remains to be seen if his remarkable performances on the PRO14 circuit can be replicated at Test level. Sean Maitland will put Keith Earls’ defensive abilities to the sternest of Tests, but we just feel the Irish pair look the more dangerous and accomplished. It’s at fullback where Scotland should cause Ireland all kinds of difficulties in the shape of that man Stuart Hogg. Elusive, fast and with an exceptional eye for opportunity we just feel he is a vastly more dynamic player than Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Kearney may be great under the high ball and in his defense he is having one of his most competitive seasons in a while, but Hogg’s sheer X-factor makes him the more difficult to manage of the two.

However, overall we feel it’s Ireland’s strength on the wings which should get them through. Furthermore, while we talk of X-factor, we have to make mention of the benches and Ireland’s in particular. While we agree that Jordan Larmour didn’t quite have the Test debut against Italy we had hoped for, and was clearly a liability in defence, we feel he is such a talent in the making that he will have learnt a great deal from that opening outing in the green shirt. So much so, that players that sharp are unlikely to make the same the same mistakes again. Consequently, in a match of such key importance, we salute Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s decision to give the youngster another shot at glory off the bench. If that isn’t faith in your preparations leading up the World Cup then we don’t know what is!

Verdict

We agree with most punters out there that this is Ireland’s game to lose and Scotland’s to win. We haven’t seen enough consistency from Scotland on the road, especially when it comes to the Six Nations to see them suddenly turning the form books on their head. Sure they were the underdogs against England, but they were at home. While they are the clear underdogs here, overturning an Irish side that for the most part is humming along nicely and looks exceptionally well-drilled, will be a very tall order away from home. Not impossible but clearly a challenge that is yet another step up from the one they faced at home against England a fortnight ago. All that said though it should be a barnstormer of a match, and one that is likely to keep both sets of supporters on the edge of their seats, but Ireland to ultimately pull away by seven and with a bonus point!

France vs England
Saturday, March 10th
Paris

A game that England has to win in order to stay in the hunt for the title, and a game that France will desperately want to win to show that they are back and mean business once more. England find themselves in an awkward position where after having been the dominant force in Northern Hemisphere rugby for the last two years, it would appear that their competitors are catching up to them and in some cases moving past them. England appear rather static at the moment, and their brutal efficiency in grinding out wins no longer seems sufficient as other teams appear smarter and more creative. That was clearly in evidence a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, as England found themselves with more questions than answers as a smart and fleet-footed Scotland outwitted them across the park. Some have said that England have peaked too early and that Coach Eddie Jones is a one-trick pony. We don’t believe either assertion. Jones is one smart operator, just see how he dismantled South Africa with his Japanese charges against all the odds in the last World Cup. Furthermore, England are blessed with the kind of depth of talent that most teams can only fantasize about. If England can use the final two matches in the tournament to really find that missing spark of creativity, then it should be back to full steam ahead for their World Cup preparations.

France have shown promise at times during the course of the tournament. They have a defence that is rock solid for the most part, and a bruising forward pack that can put in the hard yards. As we saw in the match against Italy, their backs also have some real potential and given the right opportunities can be a potent attacking weapon. As we’ve said all along France have one BIG game in them this tournament, especially at home and we have a hunch that Saturday’s fixture may just be that match.

Front rows

England’s trio should have the ascendancy but it is going to be close, especially in front of an exceptionally vocal French crowd. However, the presence of Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole who have been consistently reliable for England should be the calm heads under pressure that England needs in such a volatile encounter. We’re fans of England Hooker Jamie George but he is going to have to be at his best to get the better of French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado. Nevertheless we still feel that Jefferson Poirot is the one weak link in terms of discipline for France and Dan Cole will be seeking to exploit it to the full. Rabah Slimani is outstanding at tighthead but going up against Vunipola is a big ask even at home. The benches look relatively even but we still fancy England’s chances here to assert some real dominance for the full eighty minutes, despite the disciplinary liabilities posed by England’s Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler.

Second rows

Once again providing they fire, we think the English duo of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje should get the better of a very good French pair in Sebastien Vahaamahina and Paul Gabrillagues. Vahaamahina can be a real enforcer for France and clearly responds well to a home crowd. Although the English pair have looked slightly flat at times this tournament, we still feel they have the higher pedigree and should get the better of the contest.

Back rows

This is a tight battle but, perhaps against the grain, we feel that France at home could have a better day here. England, as has been well documented, look unbalanced in this part of the park, whereas France seem to have developed a settled and effective unit. We’ve been impressed by the two French flankers Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret. They’re aggressive and just seem more comfortable in their roles than England’s out of position Courtney Lawes, and a valiant but overworked Chris Robshaw. Furthermore, Marco Tauleigne at number eight for France, although relatively new to the squad, had put in some big shifts. Much was expected of Nathan Hughes in the match against Scotland by England, but even he seemed out of place at times. This is France’s part of the park to dominate and we feel they might just pull it off on Saturday. The only real ace up England’s sleeve is Sam Simmonds off the bench, a player we feel is the way forward for England at number eight.

Half backs

England are not firing here for some reason, with Danny Care at scrum half appearing too impulsive at times and fly half George Ford just not hitting the high standards we have come to expect from him. France are not much better off as they seem devoid of a suitable fly half at the moment, and consequently scrum half Maxime Machenaud is left doing all the hard work. Machenaud is a fine player and boasts some serious experience, but he is being asked to do a great deal – too much in our opinion. Consequently, we feel that despite their problems England are better placed to run the show here on Saturday. France’s choice of Francois Trinh-Duc leaves us scratching our heads as there surely must be better options given the resources available to France. Add to the mix, the fact that England pack a much more experienced bench replacement in the shape of Richard Wigglesworth, and France are going to have to work too hard here on Saturday unless England have a complete implosion.

Centres

Owen Farrell may be one of the best all round players in the modern game but he needs a unit and partnership to work with, something he seems to be lacking at the moment. His partner for Saturday, Ben Te’o is an impressive operator but we just don’t see the two of them gelling all that well together. Farrell is also unlikely to be happy about the fact that French battering ram Mathieu Basteraud will be running at him all afternoon. France’s other centre Geoffrey Doumayrou has been a star at La Rochelle, and seems to have made a comfortable transition to the Test arena. Consequently, we feel that France are likely to get under the skin of the English pair giving rise to yet another unsettled performance. Jonathan Joseph is on the bench for England and, despite some dips in form, he is still a potential game breaker given the right opportunities. However, we just feel that France at home may cause the English pair too much grief in this part of the park to really establish any kind of rhythm or the control that Farrell is synonymous with.

Back lines

This is where England should come to the fore despite some significant French opposition. This match sees the return of Elliot Daly on the left wing, which is a huge boost for England, as in our opinion he is one of the Men in White’s finest all round players with some exceptional versatility. Jonny May has one of the most blistering turns of speed in Test rugby, even if lingering concerns exist about his defensive abilities. Anthony Watson switches to fullback in place of Mike Brown, and we can’t help feeling that we are likely to be seeing this more and more as England build towards the World Cup. Mike Brown has been a valiant and feisty servant of English rugby, but is usually only as good as the opposition allows him to be. In reference to that spark of creativity that England are lacking we can’t help feeling that Brown is falling behind in this department. France will be competitive here, and we have been exceptionally impressed with winger Remy Grosso and expect him to cause all kinds of problems for England on Saturday. His fellow winger Benjamin Fall is a good player but we feel that England’s Daly will easily have his measure. Lastly, France’s Hugo Bonneval is a solid fullback but we feel that England’s Watson is a more powerful strike runner. Some tight battles here and hopefully some enterprising play from both sides, but England are packing a more proven unit.

Verdict

It’s going to be rainy and windy in Paris on Saturday, conditions that on paper should suit the grinding effectiveness of England’s game plan better than France. However, France in recent years have been less about flair and more about a bruising physical challenge – one they look set to deliver on Saturday. Consequently, we feel this match is likely to be much closer than many are predicting. France will be up for this in front of a home crowd baying for a result against their biggest traditional rival. However, it is precisely that emotion that ultimately may get in the way of the measured and composed performance needed from France on Saturday. England are wounded but have yet to stumble twice in a row since Eddie Jones took charge. As much as France will push them, we can’t see England slipping up a second time, even away from home. It may not be pretty at times but it still should be a gripping contest, with England grinding out a victory by five points!

Wales vs Italy,
Sunday, March 11th
Cardiff

At the time of writing this, only Wales’ squad for this match had been announced, so as a result we can’t do much more than speculate in general terms. However, let’s be honest the result on Sunday is not really in doubt. Wales are fielding an outstanding side that showcases the best of the new talent they have unearthed since November.

Italy have looked promising at times, but defensively they are still a shambles. There is the nucleus of a squad developing for Italy under Coach Conor O’Shea’s tutelage that could well be competitive come the World Cup, but it would appear that sights are more firmly set on the 2023 edition of the tournament. In the meantime, Italy will strive to improve their skills in high level tournaments such as this, but it is still probably a year too early for us to see any real improvements in Italy’s standing in the Six Nations. There are some genuinely exciting backs in the team in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and Tommaso Benvenuti, while at centre Tommaso Castello looks the real deal. Flanker Sebastian Negri has been one of the finds of the tournament, not just for Italy but as a spectator favorite. However, beyond that many of Italy’s problems seem consistent, especially in terms of discipline and defence.

Wales on the other hand look as bright as a button and are showcasing some world-class talent that will serve them well come the World Cup. They have a veteran front row that have held their own for much of the tournament, together with a competent and committed second row. However, it’s that Welsh back row and Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler in particular that has been one of the talking points of this Six Nations. Intensely physical and devastatingly fast and powerful in the loose, the Welsh pair have turned heads on more than one occasion and are going to be a real threat when Wales turns up in Japan in eighteen months time.

Wales in our opinion are more than comfortable without Rhys Webb at scrum half, as Gareth Davies has been one of the most dynamic players of the tournament and has a real eye for the try line. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe are exceptional fly halves in the making and we feel will soon eclipse the incumbent Dan Biggar. Add some real pace out wide in Liam Williams and Steff Evans coupled to some bruising physicality and speed up the middle in Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams, and Wales look in frighteningly robust health in the backs. To add insult to injury for opposition teams, Leigh Halfpenny is back to his best since his return to the Welsh fullback position after his time in France. To seal the deal, Wales are now able to boast a bench with plenty of experience and raw young talent. Although Wales won’t be lifting any silverware next Saturday, they’ve learnt a great deal about themselves and the depth they have available over the last seven weeks, and as a result they and their supporters can feel more than happy with the fact that Wales are still in contention for a very strong second place finish.

Verdict

It’s not hard to predict a fairly emphatic Welsh victory in front of 70,000 of the Welsh faithful in Cardiff on Sunday. Italy will be brave but this is a daunting environment in which to make the kind of statement that has been sadly lacking in their campaign so far. Wales simply have been so much more successful in building the kind of competitive squad they want for this tournament and beyond to the World Cup, for it to be anything other than a maximum points haul for the Welsh. Wales to use this as the points grab they need to set themselves up nicely for a strong second place finish next week – and as a result Wales by 23!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we have done all tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

 

What a weekend lies ahead! There is so much to play for this weekend for all the teams, and the stakes are higher than they have been in a long time at the midway point of the tournament. There are potential upsets on the cards, there are new combinations to be tried, and there are losses to be avoided at all costs. If you want high drama you’ve picked what is clearly going to be one of the biggest rugby weekends of the 2018 season. The history and passion are all there, and this weekend the ramifications for the winners and losers are perhaps bigger than even the final weekend when one team finally gets to lift the trophy.

A fascinating contest starts proceedings in Marseille between France and Italy on Friday. There are so many variables here that it is almost impossible to call. France simply have to win as do Italy, otherwise the rest of their Championship is in tatters and the sole focus becomes avoiding the wooden spoon. France due to off field disciplinary problems post the Scottish match, field a side that lacks the cohesion and spark that we have seen so far. Italy are staying faithful to a team that seems to be hitting the targets in terms of improvement that Coach Conor O’Shea is setting them. Italy will set their sights on one match and we think this is the one where they are most likely to cause an upset.

A very confident Welsh side, despite the close loss to England in Round 2, travels to Dublin for a tough encounter with an Irish side that still looks like a work in progress. While Ireland may still, along with England, be the favourites, they have yet to really convince. Lapses in concentration caught them out against Italy, and against France they struggled to break through a solid defence. Wales completely dismantled a Scottish side at the beginning of the tournament. Despite a poor opening 50 minutes against England, Wales regrouped in a spectacular fashion and proceeded to dominate the final 30 minutes. Wales do not seem phased by playing away from home. If they had put in the kind of performance they pulled out of the hat against England in the last half hour at Twickenham for the full eighty minutes, then there is no doubt they could have pulled off the first big upset of the tournament. They are settled, lean and hungry and look the part. Irish supporters will be rightly feeling more than just a little uncertain and nervous as to how this game is going pan out. Wales seem to have recovered from their injury woes but Ireland, as so often happens in the Six Nations, seem to have their injury problems mounting with each successive match. Consequently Ireland find themselves heading into such a crucial match with far more unknowns than Wales do. The Welsh leaders have been determined and are present and accounted for this Saturday. Ireland however, while having many leaders amongst them will also need to find some new role models on Saturday.

Finally it’s Calcutta Cup time! There is a danger that, just like last year, this match ends up being overhyped into the damp squib it ended up turning into at Scotland’s expense. Sure it’s at Murrayfield and Scotland’s motivation in front of a home crowd is likely be off the charts, but can they keep the emotion in check and deal with an English side that caused us to reach for a very stiff drink once the team sheets came out? It’s an English juggernaut up against a fleet-footed Scottish sports car. There are brains aplenty on both sides but this is a clinical and ruthless English side taking on an ambitious Scottish team who like to take risks. If England suffocate Scotland up front and their backs and half back combinations keep Scotland’s defences stretched thin, then it will be a long afternoon for the Scots. If on the other hand Scotland manage to keep quick ball and avoid getting bogged down in the physical battles, then they have proved that they can be very difficult to contain. Scotland are unlikely to get the better of England in the set pieces but if they can keep to a fast and loosely structured game that allows them to exercise their remarkable counterattacking ability from deep, then they might just make this a Calcutta epic we”ll all be talking about for many years to come.

So without any further ado let’s get into the head to heads for a weekend that promises some fascinating matchups!

France vs Italy
Friday, February 23rd
Marseille

A truly fascinating encounter awaits us in the South of France today. By the time you read this you will probably know the result, so whatever we write may be purely academic. Nevertheless, we all can’t wait to get home tonight and spool up the tape of this one. As mentioned above both sides desperately need a win, and after the off-field shenanigans in Edinburgh a fortnight ago, France have certainly made life harder for themselves. We genuinely feel that Italy are making progress this year, and really only need to perform a dramatic overhaul of the defensive efforts by their current squad. They have had a fortnight to do it, look like a settled side and are clearly in the mood to cause an upset. France on the other hand have looked solid at times especially defensively, but an ongoing problem with discipline on and off the field mean that they only have themselves to blame for the handicap they head into this match with.

Front Rows

Fortunately for France the off-field antics a fortnight ago have not affected the composition of a very reliable and solid French front row. Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado, and props Rabah Slimani and Jefferson Poirot all return to front line duty having impressed in the first two rounds. By the same token so have Italy’s offering of the experienced Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and props Simone Ferrari and Andrea Lovotti. The disciplinary weak links are Poirot for France and Ghiraldini for Italy. Expect an even battle here, but France’s experience and the inspirational presence of Guirado should give les Bleus the upper hand here.

Second Rows

The presence of Sebastien Vahaamahina alone should ensure French dominance here, especially if he can keep his discipline together. He has been a real enforcer for France this tournament, and with Guirado being solid at the lineout this is one area where the French should dictate proceedings. There will be a fiesty Italian challenge in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd, but a powerful French unit should see the men in Blue have the edge.

Back Rows

This is the one area of the park, where by the narrowest of margins, we think Italy has the edge. Italy are fielding a very strong back row with the legendary Sergio Parisse being the talisman at number eight. Flanker Sebastian Negri has really impressed so far this tournament and his colleague Maxime Mbanda is a ferocious tackler. It’s a solid French unit in the shape of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret, but Marco Tauleigne up against the legendary Sergio Parisse is a big ask. Mbanda’s relentless tackling, Negri’s elusiveness and Parisse’s inspiration should see Italy get the better of proceedings in this part of the field today.

Half Backs

There is no question that France are struggling with selection and consistency here, despite a wealth of talent at their disposal. We were very surprised to see Lionel Beauxis get the nod again against Italy at fly half. We thought he had a very poor game against Scotland. Maxime Machenaud brings plenty to the table for France at scrum half, but his opposite number Marcello Violi has also caught the eye so far this tournament. Meanwhile Italy’s Tommaso Allan has been a firm favorite of ours for a while now. Italy are blessed with two quality fly halves in the shape of Allan and Carlo Canna who awaits on the bench. On the other hand we cannot understand the choice of Francois Trinh-Duc as a bench replacement for Beauxis. To us this smacks of desperation and a clear lack of imagination from French Coach Jacques Brunel. Machenaud’s replacement Kelian Galletier is a very exciting prospect, but the transition from Top 14 superstar to Test Rugby is a big ask, especially given what’s at stake for France in terms of pressure today. Italy, to have the more level head here.

Centres

With the exciting Geoffrey Doumayrou from La Rochelle and Toulon’s Mathieu Basteraud, this French centre pairing needs no introduction. However, as impressive as Doumayrou has been at club level we don’t really feel that he has found his feet at Test level yet. Add to this we are not sure that he and Basteraud will gel today, and once more we actually fancy Italy’s chances here. Basteraud may be a bruising ball carrier and devastating tackler, but he is rather easy to read and get the measure of defensively as well as not being the fastest defender if you are able to wrong foot him. We think Italy’s centre pairing of the two Tommasos looks far more dangerous. If Boni has fixed his defensive liabilities and improved his basic skill set then he could be a real threat to France. However, it is Castello who has been the real eye opener for Italy this tournament and the contest between him and the rather predictable Basteraud should be fascinating, with the Italian creating more opportunities and being harder to read. Italy to be more creative here, especially if Boni has really done his homework over the last two weeks.

Back Lines

Having not watched any of the Top 14, we simply don’t know enough about France’s back line other than fullback Hugo Bonneval to really comment. We’ve heard good things about the wingers Remy Grosso and Benjamin Fall but don’t really know what to expect of them as a Test unit. Italy on the other hand, especially in the shape of Matteo Minozzi at fullback, have looked spectacular at times. Tommaso Benevenuti has got some real speed out wide and Mattia Bellini is an ever improving prospect on the wings. Once again if Italy have done their homework here especially on defence out wide, they could spring some real surprises here today. We’ve seen this Italian back line in action and really like the look of it, so on the basis of familiarity and the caveat of them having done their homework regarding defence, we’re giving it to Italy by the slimmest of margins.

Verdict

It’s France at home, albeit in Marseille, which with its proximity to the Italian border should mean that there is a larger Italian presence in the stands then had this been played at Stade de France. Consequently, although France are benefitting from home advantage, it’s perhaps less of an advantage than some would think. France will be motivated make no mistake, as the ramifications of a loss today are too painful to contemplate. However, we just think the Italian squad is more cohesive and familiar with each other. If they have done their homework this could be their one big match of the tournament, especially as they have shown they have some genuine talent at their disposal and in our opinion are packing a better bench. As Italy showed against Ireland, they actually played their best rugby in the final quarter, which will put them in good stead against a French team facing questions about their fitness. A messy affair at times, but one in which Italy will cause the bookmakers grief and steal it by one point!

Ireland vs Wales
Saturday, February 25th
Dublin

If you’re an Irish supporter you are no doubt feeling more than just a little nervous about the proceedings in Dublin tomorrow. If you’re a Welsh supporter you could be forgiven for feeling more than just a little optimistic about your team’s chances. Of one thing we can be sure, it is likely to be a titanic struggle with both sides desperately hoping that the physical toll it is likely to inflict will not add to their respective injury woes. Ireland as a result of injuries are being forced to take more of a gamble, whereas Wales welcome back from injury some key players and consequently field a team that is a proven entity and rapidly developing into the form team of the Championship.

Front Rows

Ireland are without the services of the extraordinary Tadgh Furlong at Tighthead Prop, and although his replacement Andrew Porter is an impressive performer for Leinster, to really cut your straps at Test level in a match of such extraordinary intensity is a very tall order. He will be ably supported by Hooker and Captain Rory Best and fellow Prop Cian Healy, but Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them in containing the Welsh front three. Props Rob Evans and Samson Lee with Hooker Ken Owens have been outstanding so far this tournament and are going to put enormous pressure on the Irish new boy. Consequently, we see Wales getting the upper hand here for the first hour. However, once Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath come off the bench the pendulum should swing back in Ireland’s favor. Nevertheless, if the Welsh trio manage to wreak enough havoc in the first 60 minutes than Wales should have this contest sewn up.

Second Rows

It’s the X-factor of Ireland’s James Ryan which will determine the outcome of this contest. Since that is almost impossible to predict at this stage we give the battle to Wales’ Alun-Wyn Jones and Corey Hill, both of whom have been immense for Wales in the tournament so far. Wales have been consistent at the lineouts, and if Rory Best’s throwing is off the mark for Ireland under pressure then expect the Welsh to have a field day with disrupting Ireland here. Ryan is clearly the smoking gun for Ireland that could turn proceedings upside down, but he is only just back from injury so we wait and see. We feel the benches are weak for both sides in this department so it will really depend who gets the upper hand by the hour mark, and we fancy Wales here until we see what Ryan brings to the party for Ireland.

Back Rows

One of THE contests of the weekend without a doubt, and probably where the game is going to be won or lost. Impossible to call and with such talent swelling the ranks on both sides, including the bench, we give this to Ireland by the slimmest of margins and simply on the basis of home advantage. The Welsh partnership of Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi has been spectacular since the November Internationals and just gets better with every outing. Add to this the mighty Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and this is a really fearsome unit. Ross Moriarity at number eight is rapidly getting back to his best and these four Welshmen are going to make their Irish counterparts sweat for the full eighty minutes. Ireland have an exciting mix of seasoned veterans and blazing young talent in their offering. CJ Stander continues to be the talk of post match statistics, while Peter O’Mahony’s commitment to the cause and work rate are consistently reliable. Leinster’s Dan Leavy has relished his call up to the Test Arena at openside flanker, and his clubmate Jack Conan has been extraordinary in Leinster’s European Champions Cup campaign. So simply far too close to call, with the only possible deciding factor being home advantage which causes us to give it to Ireland by the slimmest of margins. However, Ireland cannot afford to fall off the boil for fifteen minutes here as they have in their opening two rounds of the Championship.

Half Backs

Like most Irish supporters we will be breathing huge sighs of relief if Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray emerge at the final whistle without any injuries. This is going to be a hugely physical encounter and one where these two Irishmen will be clearly in the sights of the Welsh back row all afternoon. The Welsh back row have no doubt been practising against tackle bags with Sexton and Murray’s faces painted on them all week. Wales know that they face one of the best half back partnerships in Test Rugby, equal to New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith. Sexton and Murray are masters of their respective trades plain and simple. Dan Biggar returns to the Welsh fold at fly half after injury, but he will need to find his feet again fast. Although brilliant at times, his reputation for having the odd seriously wobbly performance is well documented. His partner Gareth Davies at scrum half is no stranger to the try line and excels at catching opposition defences off guard especially from deep. The benches are solid for both sides, with Wales’ Gareth Anscombe looking particularly good against England a fortnight ago. However, we just think that Ireland pack so much X-factor in Joey Carberry that given Sexton and Murray’s pedigree Ireland should have the clear advantage here tomorrow.

Centres

Once again as a result of injury Ireland are being forced to experiment here, whereas Wales have the advantage of consistency since November. The loss of Robbie Henshaw for Ireland was a bitter blow, and with electric centre Gary Ringrose, not quite fit enough after injury Ireland have more questions than answers here right now. Consequently it’s an untried combination of Connacht centre Bundee Aki and Munster’s Chris Farrell. Both these players remind us more of Springbok centre partnerships of old, comprising of bruising ball carriers than the dancing feet of the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. They will be a good match for the physical combination of Wales’ Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams. Parkes in particular is fast and physical and, as seen in his performances with the Scarlets in the European Champions Cup and PRO14, can carve opposition defences wide open. Hard to read defensively we feel there is just a bit more proven complexity to Wales in the middle of the field than Ireland’s untried offering. Consequently, Wales should have the upper hand unless the Irish duo turn out to be the revelation of the tournament.

Back lines

Fast and furious are the words that come to mind here. Wales look good here make no mistake but we think home advantage and some genuine pace and unpredictability out wide favor Ireland. Rob Kearney will field whatever high balls come his way and provide strong fullback cover for Ireland, while Leigh Halfpenny’s positional awareness for Wales is second to none, allied to a boot that rarely misses. Two experienced fullbacks with differing skill sets will provide a level playing field here. However, it’s the contest on the wings that is likely to provide the most excitement. Ireland’s Keith Earls is having probably the best season of an impressive career, and newcomer Jacob Stockdale is able to cross the try line with alarming regularity. Question marks remain about his defensive abilities, but then the same could be said of Wales’ Steff Evans who is also rapidly making a name for himself on the Test circuit. Liam Williams is a proven performer for Wales and his ability to attack from deep is the stuff of legends. Two very good back lines go head to head here, but we think that Wales might just have the edge here, especially if they expose any defensive weaknesses in Ireland and George North makes a telling impact off the bench. However, it’s home advantage and Earls’ reputation for try saving tackles and Sexton’s ability to put him in the right place at the right time, along with Stockdale’s try scoring ability that should see Ireland just get the upper hand.

Verdict

Ireland should win, but we can’t help feeling that this Welsh team looks the more complete unit. Consequently we’re bucking the bookies predictions and calling it in favour of Wales. It is going to be a clash of Titans, and we like many are anxious about the potential body count come the final whistle, especially given how this could ultimately influence the fortunes of these two teams for the remainder of the tournament. One of the biggest matches of the Championship without a doubt, but a more confident and settled Welsh side to just squeak it in a hugely physical and close match against the odds by 2 points!

Scotland vs England
Saturday, February 25th
Murrayfield

If you have’nt been rushed off to the hospital for heart surgery after the Ireland/Wales game, then another epic encounter awaits you in Test Rugby’s oldest fixture – the annual Calcutta dustup between England and Scotland. England are clear favorites despite the match taking place north of Hadrian’s Wall this year. England simply look too polished and focused, and they are masters of being able to grind out hard victories. Scotland will put in a highly spirited challenge in front of an exceptionally vocal home crowd, but so far we just have’nt seen that killer instinct from them, despite them almost getting a shock win over the All Blacks in November. There are few, ourselves included, who doubt Scotland’s ability to cause an upset tomorrow, but it is going to require a super human effort against a very frightening looking English team. So keep those defibrillators to hand as we go through the head to heads.

Front Rows

Scotland showed against France that despite their injury concerns they can be exceptionally competitive up front with Hooker Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan being some genuine good news for Scotland. Add into the mix seasoned terrier Gordon Reid and there is plenty of potential for Scotland to be competitive here. However, that English front row has looked alarmingly solid for a long time now. Dylan Hartley continues to justify his spot at Hooker and Captain, while Props Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole just consistently get the job done with ruthless efficiency. England pack a frightening looking bench to continue their efforts, and while it is great to see Scotland’s WP Nel back from injury, we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction up front. England to comfortably dominate proceedings at the coal face here.

Second Rows

Ouch! Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje – you know that is going to hurt all afternoon. Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist will put on a brave display of giving as good as they get but we just can’t see them getting the better of the English pair plain and simple, even with Tim Swinson on the bench for the Scots. Also England have George Kruis waiting to come on for some added havoc and it is likely to be a long and potentially painful afternoon for Scotland in this part of the park.

Back Rows

We know that Scotland’s flanker pairing of Hamish Watson and John Barclay can compete with the best in the world, the question is will they show up on Saturday and not have the kind of missing in action performance they had in Cardiff at the start of the tournament? We personally feel that they are the more creative unit than the English powerhouse duo of Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw. If the English simply outmuscle the Scots here and suffocate them in the loose due to their overwhelming physicality, especially with Nathan Hughes backing them up at number eight, it could well be game over for Scotland early on. Add to this the fact that Lawes is famous for destroying fly halves and, much of Scotland’s attention here will be focused on protecting Finn Russell who so desperately needs to put in a big performance for Scotland. Scotland have the talent here of that there is no doubt, we just fear they won’t be allowed to express themselves and if they get forced to hit the panic button by half time, can’t help feeling that this is where England are going to take the game away from them.

Half Backs

Scotland’s Finn Russell knows he needs to put in one of the biggest performances of his career to date tomorrow. The question is does he have the big match temperament to pull it off? England will work relentlessly on him all afternoon, and he will be aware that himself and Courtney Lawes are likely to develop a very physical relationship throughout the game. Greg Laidlaw will provide plenty of big match experience and wisdom to his young fly half, and the veteran scrum half may not be the most exciting player on the park, but his reliability in the heat of the moment is legendary. Danny Care and George Ford are clicking nicely since the Italian match and add Owen Farrell to the 10-12 axis and the results are consistently there for all to see. Russell’s key strength is his unpredictability especially in terms of getting Scotland’s back line shifting through the gears out wide. If he does manage to do this then England could be in for some very uncomfortable surprises. However, in terms of game management and control we just feel that England are better suited for the task at hand. If the game is close by the time the benches make their appearance and Scotland is not in panic mode, then the added X-factor of Ali Price could swing a tight match Scotland’s way – but it’s a big if. England simply look to polished and well-drilled here for us to think that England won’t be running the show at 9 and 10.

Centres

Scotland’s Huw Jones is one of the most exciting centres in Test rugby right now and exceptionally hard to defend against. However, that English partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is so accomplished that we just can’t see Scotland getting too much traction here. The jury is still very much out for us on Scotland’s Peter Horne – we don’t think he’s a bad player, we’re just not sure that Scotland have figured out yet where best to play him. Furthermore, can Nick Grigg really make the step up to Test Rugby off the bench for Scotland in a match of this kind of intensity? A spirited Scottish challenge in prospect, but once more a clinical and rather ruthless English approach should see the Men in White determine the run of play here.

Back Lines

Scotland’s abilities to turn games on their head from this part of the park is well documented. Fullback Stuart Hogg and wingers Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour are strike runners of note, and England’s Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Mike Brown are going to have to be at their sharpest to keep these three in check especially on the fringes. As a strike threat, we think Scotland have the edge here over England, especially if Russell finds his groove and is consistently able to put the three of them in space. England’s offering of Anthony Watson and Jonny May on the wings are a superb counter, especially May’s ability to cover enormous distances at extraordinary speed. Mike Brown at fullback is an absolute bulldog and was exceptional under the high ball against Wales, though Scotland are unlikely to give him as much work as Wales did. Hard to call here, but we are going with Scotland, simply because of the element of surprise which seems such an integral part of their playing style – but only just. Also much of that will depend on what kind of game Finn Russell has. Scotland will also really have to make this unit count early on as England offer the more experienced bench in the shape of Jack Nowell over Scotland’s untried but exciting Blair Kinghorn.

Verdict

Our heart says Scotland, and we really hope that the enormity of the occasion doesn’t unhinge the Scots the way it did for this fixture last year at Twickenham. However, our heads are going with England in what should be an enthralling match. It will be close and the weather would appear to favor a fast and open game, but expect England to put the brakes on the Scottish speedsters from the get go. An exceptionally well-drilled English side to keep an exciting Scottish side in check for eighty minutes, despite home advantage for Scotland, and as a result England to take it by six points!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

It’s been an enthralling Six Nations so far, and after the first two rounds the Tournament still looks wide open, even though England and Ireland are the only remaining contenders for a Grand Slam. However, Wales are still definitely in the mix for the Championship. Scotland also look set to make life difficult for England and Ireland, while France are more than capable of causing an upset in Paris when they take on England.

The same optimistic picture cannot be painted for Canada after three rounds of the Americas Rugby Championship. A loss to Uruguay which ultimately saw them lose yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, was made worse by the fact that they then lost to the United States who they now have not beaten since 2013. There was a bright light in Round 3 which saw Canada pull off a comprehensive win against Brazil. However, it is clearly going to be another rough year for Canadian rugby with the chance of missing the World Cup for the first time in the tournament’s history becoming a real possibility.

So here’s a snapshot of some of the things that stood out for us in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations and Canada’s performance in the Americas Rugby Championship so far.

Six Nations

Ireland

While it would seem England are still the side to beat, Ireland find themselves at the top of the Six Nations table on a slender points difference. England and Ireland have both had their easiest match of the tournament so far against Italy. Ireland were more successful in the points grab that such matches are traditionally viewed as, even if a woeful lapse in concentration in the second half saw Italy rack up three tries.

Against France, Ireland had plenty of possession but failed to really turn it into points, other than from the boot of fly half Johnny Sexton. They seemed incapable of breaking an impressive French defence despite repeated assaults. In fairness to them, the final three minutes of the match and 41 phases of Irish possession was an incredible display of big match composure to snatch what seemed like an improbable win. Johnny Sexton really showed his pedigree with that remarkable drop goal and why he is rightly considered one of the best in the world.

Ireland look good make no mistake, but seem to suffer from serious lapses of concentration in the second half, something which their final three opponents will be keen to pounce on. Ireland have their three toughest matches of the tournament up next. Firstly at home to Wales and Scotland and then they head to Fortress Twickenham to take on England in what many are predicting to be the tournament decider. However, to get past an impressive looking Welsh side and a Scottish team that seems to have settled back into their groove, Ireland will need 160 minutes of the kind of composure and execution they showed in the final three minutes of the French match. If they are able to do this then the showdown with England will become the Tournament and Grand Slam decider it is being billed as, but it is going to be a big ask.

England

England looked good against Italy in their opening match, though they will be disappointed with not getting more points out of the proceedings. However, much like Ireland against France, they were lucky to get the win over a Welsh side that dominated the final 30 minutes of a tough match. England do not look invincible and the fact that their final match against their main rivals Ireland is at fortress Twickenham will be of little comfort. They have looked impressive at times but as we saw in the Welsh game, against stiff opposition they can be pressured into making mistakes.

England have a tough assignment in Murrayfield against a revitalized Scottish team, followed by a trip to Paris against a French side that is clearly building up to one really big performance in this tournament. Make no mistake, we still feel England are the team to beat. However, the aura of invincibility that has surrounded them up to now has lost some of its lustre. Add continued injuries into the mix and question marks will get raised about how far England can really go this year, in much the same way as the same questions are being asked of Ireland.

The Welsh game will have been a valuable wake up call for Coach Eddie Jones and his charges, and we expect to see England ramp up their performance for a grand finale on March 17th against Ireland, but there will certainly be no givens in the weeks leading up to it.

Wales

If Wales had abandoned the kicking game that gifted the game to England in the first 50 minutes of the match at Twickenham, we would be looking at a very different pecking order in the table. That Welsh performance in the final half hour was a phenomenal comeback, raising the question of what would that scoreline have been like if they had played that way for a full eighty minutes, as they clearly had England on the ropes. Furthermore, the Welsh demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side in the tournament’s opening fixture was a revelation in itself. Wales may be struggling with injuries but there is no shortage of world-class talent in the squad, with a back row depth in the forwards that is quite frightening and some pace and skill in the backs to take your breath away.

Their opening match against Scotland was ruthless and clinical. Their next match against England displayed a tactical naiveté that after watching the Scotland game we were rather puzzled by to say the least. We were convinced that after the first half some serious words would have been doled out in the changing room about the inefficiency of the Welsh kicking game. Consequently imagine our surprise to see Wales doing exactly the same thing for the first ten minutes of the second half, before having a Eureka moment on the fifty minute mark. Once that happened Wales became a different side and could have clearly won that match had they played like that in the first fifty minutes of the game.

Despite the loss to England, Wales are clearly in this to win it. A tough away fixture in Dublin awaits them next, but after that they have the luxury of Italy and France at home. If they upset Ireland in Dublin, then although a Grand Slam is out of the question they will clearly fancy their chances at lifting the trophy on March 17th. They have pace out wide and a fearsome forward pack, with a defence that for the most part looks solid. Cut out the reliance on a kicking game that is clearly not working for them and Wales are very much the dark horse in this year’s tournament.

Scotland

Scotland were clearly devastated by their crushing loss to Wales in the opening round of the tournament. They were a shadow of the side that put 53 points on Australia in November. We like most people were shocked at how Scotland simply didn’t show up in Cardiff as they clearly are a better side than that with talent to burn. Consequently their comprehensive dismantling of France a week later was much more to the type of form we are coming to expect from them.

Like we say we can’t really find any excuses other than opening night nerves for the disaster in Cardiff. Some argue that Scotland are simply not that good on the road, but then let’s recall that historic defeat of the Wallabies in Sydney last June. This is an excellent Scottish side, even with the injury problems they are faced with, and as we saw in the French game, a serious threat to anyone who makes the mistake of taking them lightly.

Their only real stumbling blocks to a strong finish in this tournament is the trip to Dublin at the beginning of March and their date with England next Saturday. However, they will fancy their chances against England in front of a very vocal Murrayfield crowd. If that goes well there is no question they will be up for the challenge of their away fixture against the Irish, and a relatively soft final encounter against Italy in Rome. While we have trouble seeing Scotland finishing top of the table, a strong second or third place finish is definitely on the cards. If they do beat England next Saturday though they could essentially turn this tournament on its head, so keep a close eye to next week’s Calcutta Cup fixture.

France

While France may be winless after two rounds, considering that many had written them off before the tournament, there is a lot to cheer about if you’re a French supporter. The heartbreaking loss to Ireland at the final whistle was a tough pill to swallow, but France could take a great deal of heart from a superb performance both on attack and in some truly heroic defence. Ireland could simply not find a way through the blue wall and it required 41 phases of possession before a remarkable drop goal attempt from Ireland would rob France of an historic win at the final whistle.

France went to give Scotland a stern test at Murrayfield, and the first half showed some brilliant attacking flair from les Bleus. The game then resorted to a tactical battle via the boot in the second half, and here Scotland played the smarter game, as well as putting France under pressure to the point where their discipline started to crack badly.

However, despite languishing at fifth on the table, France are clearly once more on the rise. They have a solid forward pack and some exceptional flair and pace in their backs all allied to a water tight defence. They do seem to be struggling to find the right half back mix, but this is much more like a French side of old. In our opinion there is one really big game in this French side still to come in this tournament, that could well upset the tournament pecking order. We feel it might just be in Paris when they take on England, especially if England get a serious fright from the Scots next Saturday. France are definitely the wild card this year make no mistake, and it is great to see them brandishing it once more.

Italy

Italy like France may be struggling to get some traction so far in this tournament, but they have certainly showed some promise at times. Furthermore, they have arguably had their two toughest games at the start of the tournament against the two favorites England and Ireland, and as a result it may be unfair to judge them too harshly at this stage in the competition. They can take heart from the fact that they can score tries, and did so against the two best teams in the tournament. If they can work on their defence which is clearly a real Achilles heel for them along with continued problems in terms of discipline, then they could come to the end of the tournament with a sense of real progress.

Italy’s opening encounter with England in Rome, showed a much improved Italian performance after a poor November Test window. It was still a respectable scoreline at halftime with Italy only trailing 17-10 against the second best team in the world. Italy’s defence fell apart in the second half, but they had shown some real attacking flair with some outstanding new talent in the backs, and an aggressive and effective back row.

In their second match against Ireland, some of the shine came off that opening performance but they still managed to score three superb tries, despite being clearly overwhelmed by Ireland at times. If Scotland fail to rise to the challenge of England and Ireland, then Italy will surely fancy their chances against them in Rome at the end of the tournament. Italy’s immediate concern though will be trying to test the depth of the French renaissance in Marseille next Friday. This has traditionally always been a scrappy encounter between the two sides, and if France have run out of steam after a bright start and Italy have fixed their defensive issues then the scope for a possible upset is clearly there. It’s still hard to see Italy being anything other than the traditional holders of the wooden spoon this year, but there is clearly some real improvement going on and Coach Conor O’Shea should feel pleased with the progress being made.

Canada and the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC)

Put your hands up if like us you breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the third round and Canada’s emphatic win over Brazil. It was a result that Canada simply had to get. While it may not have much impact on Canada’s overall fortunes in the tournament, the fact that a torrid run of form has finally been broken is at least a point from which Canada can attempt to start the long and painful process of rebuilding a credible 15 a side game once more.

Canada got off to a shaky start at home to Uruguay which also served as a World Cup qualifier. While they played with plenty of intensity, the execution simply wasn’t there and as a result much of their play looked frantic and poorly structured despite them dominating the possession. Uruguay on the other hand, made much better use of the possession they had. In fairness to Canada as a result of having to fit two World Cup qualifying matches with Uruguay into the ARC schedule this year, the travel plans of the Canadian squad have been ridiculous to say the least over a six-week period. They went from their opening match straight to Uruguay, then back to the US and then up to Canada for this weekend’s match against Brazil. No sooner had they untied their boot laces from this weekend’s match, then they find themselves preparing to head off to Argentina for their match this coming Saturday, followed by their final match in Chile a week later. How you fit training into all of this and cope with the effects of long distance travel is slightly beyond us.

As a result of a hectic travel schedule it was no surprise that Canada came unstuck in their second match against the USA in Sacramento, California, especially after not managing to qualify for the World Cup after losing both their matches with the Uruguayans. Add to this a constant turnover in terms of squad personnel as new Coach Kingsley Jones seeks to get an understanding of his player base, and it is no wonder that there is little in terms of consistency regarding Canada’s performances at the moment. While we understand the constraints Jones is up against we also are concerned that with two matches to go, there is still alarmingly little consistency in selection outside of Hooker and the half back positions. In the second match against Uruguay which Canada narrowly lost by one point, we were really impressed with centre Ben LeSage and have been frustrated to not see him playing a greater role in the squad.

Furthermore, while we understand the fact that Canada doesn’t have a huge player base, we are not sure that this contant flux of sevens players in and out of the 15 a side structure at the moment is constructive in terms of fixing Canada’s long term problems. In many ways this smacks of desperation for results as opposed to a well thought out strategy for long term growth and development of the larger game in Canada.

Canada need to find the core of a 23 man squad they can really start to develop between now and November, if they are to stand any chance of getting through a tough repechage tournament for their final shot at qualifying for next year’s World Cup. With only two matches left in the ARC and three June internationals we fear that time is running out to build a settled squad before the crucial November round of qualifying matches. On their present form and without a consistent selection policy, while the win over Brazil will do much to restore some confidence and pride to a battered jersey, realistically Canada is unlikely to finish better than a strong fourth in this year’s Americas Rugby Championship. Saturday’s victory over Brazil was a much-needed shot in the arm, but it is still a long and rocky road ahead of Canada to start the hard climb up the world rankings once more.

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Here’s their excellent review of Round 2’s action. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

This year’s Six Nations got off to a rip-roaring start, with the opening match between Wales and Scotland turning the form book on its head. Most of us simply did not see the turbocharged version of Wales coming, and neither did Scotland. It was a fantastic Welsh performance which completely negated Scotland’s much vaunted attacking prowess. Scotland sadly were just not allowed into the match, and Wales all of a sudden look a team with a purpose and plenty of attacking threats of their own coupled to a rock solid defense.

Next up it was Ireland’s turn to take on France in rain-soaked Paris. Ireland were clearly nervous, but much to everyone’s surprise the French turned up and their defence seemed impenetrable. To make Ireland’s problems worse France would score the only try of the match, despite Ireland dominating possession. The final three minutes of the match produced one of the most memorable Six Nations finishes in a long time. Ireland displayed extraordinary skill and calm as they managed to hang onto the ball for a staggering 41 phases before popping the ball back to Johnny Sexton for a 42 metre drop goal. The agony on French Captain Guilhem Guirado’s face as the match was snatched from France in the dying seconds while Irish players collapsed on each other in joyful celebration said it all.

On Sunday, England took on Italy in the Roman sunshine. Although many had expected England to run rings around the Azurri, many were heartened by a bold and exciting Italian performance, with Italy very much in contention for the first sixty minutes. The sea change in the quality of Italian play since the November Internationals was easy to see and must have heartened their supporters no end. England did ultimately run away with the match in the final quarter but they left Rome knowing that they had been tested, and consequently it is unlikely that Italy’s other opponents for the rest of the tournament will take them lightly. England on the other hand put in a dominant and powerful performance, with one of their newer caps, Sam Simmonds at number eight, really standing out.

With some mouth-watering matchups this weekend, let’s get straight into our look at the head to heads taking place on Saturday and Sunday.

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, February 10th
Dublin

Ireland return home to Dublin for three matches after a nervy but ultimately successful start to their campaign in Paris last weekend. Ireland will be concerned that despite concerted pressure on the French defences they were unable to cross the whitewash. They will be heartened by that incredible display of composure and control in the final three minutes, but there is no doubt they will not want to leave the rest of their games to the last minute like that. Italy will take enormous confidence from the positive rugby they played last weekend against tournament favourites England. Away from home, against an Irish side clearly needing to make a statement, it will be a tough ask of young but promising Italian team.

Front rows

There will be some great battles here on Saturday, but ultimately Ireland’s experience and strength should see them win the day here. We were hugely impressed with Italy’s Simone Pietro Ferrari on the Tighthead side of the scrum last weekend and the contest between him and Ireland’s exceptional Jack McGrath will be well worth the price of admission. The rest of Italy’s scrum will be competitive but the experience of Captain Rory Best and Tighthead Tadgh Furlong should see Ireland maintain overall control. With Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Cian Healy on bench duty, Ireland’s overall superiority should be complete, though expect a solid shift from Andrea Lovotti once he makes an appearance for the Azurri.

Second rows

This match sees the return of Ireland’s Devin Toner to the second row, alongside Ian Henderson. While Italy’s contribution in the shape of Alessandro Zanni and Dean Budd put in some good work last weekend, it is unlikely they will be able to match the Irish pair for the full eighty minutes. So once again provided Hooker Rory Best can find his mark at lineout time, Ireland should own this part of the game.

Back rows

It’s here we’re expecting the biggest fireworks on Saturday. Ireland are packing what should be the dominant trio, but as we saw last weekend in Rome, Italy can really stand up and be counted here. We thought flanker Sebastian Negri had a superb game for Italy last weekend, and expect more of the same this Saturday. At number eight Sergio Parisse appears to be back to his best, and Braam Steyn is also a ferocious competitor. Italy will give Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan a run for their money in Dublin. We are delighted to see Dan Leavy get another start as he was one of the standout performers for Ireland last weekend. Furthermore, having impressed for Leinster all season we are very happy to see Jack Conan get a start. Despite Italy’s firepower here, and the relative youth of Ireland’s contingent, the Irish trio are likely to be the more clinical of the two sides. Add to the mix, CJ Stander waiting on the bench for Ireland, and there are few who would doubt Ireland’s dominance here.

Halfbacks

Watch the last three minutes of Ireland’s match against France last weekend and, despite Italy’s pair putting in a good effort against England, it is hard to see anything other than complete dominance by Ireland here. After last weekend’s heroics Johnny Sexton’s ability to keep a calm head under enormous pressure is clearly the stuff of legends. To have the confidence in your own ability to attempt a long-range drop goal like that is a testament to what a remarkable player Sexton is. His partner at scrum half, Conor Murray, is also a master of being able to maintain composure under the most extreme pressure. Our only hope in this match is that Sexton’s replacement, Joey Carberry, will be brought on relatively early in the match for two reasons. Firstly to keep Sexton clear of potential injury, but secondly and more important in our view to give Carberry some much-needed big game time in the 10 jersey. We saw what he could do in Chicago two years ago and what he regularly produces at Leinster. Ireland really need to give Carberry as much exposure as possible between now and the World Cup.

Italy’s Marcello Violi and Tommaso Allan played well for Italy last weekend, but we just can’t really seeing them getting the measure of Sexton and Murray, with Carberry and Marmion waiting on the bench to do more damage.

Centres

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki provided plenty of powerful ball carrying last weekend in Paris as well as shutting down countless French attacks. Although the Henshaw/Aki partnership seems to favor a more direct style up the middle as opposed to the weaving and darting of the Henshaw/Ringrose pairing, there is no denying the potency of the threat they pose. In addition Aki’s ability to stop runners dead in their tracks will come in useful against Italy’s powerful pair of Tommasos, Castello and Boni. Castello is one of Italy’s most exciting new talents and we liked much of what we saw from Boni last weekend. However, Ireland’s unit should be the more effective of the two and as a result Ireland should be comfortably in charge here.

Back line

Once again there were two revelations from Italy here last weekend in the form of winger Tommaso Benvenuti and fullback Matteo Minozzi. Minozzi in particular ran some fantastic lines on Sunday in Rome, and we are looking forward to seeing him in action again this weekend. In short, with Mattia Bellini on the opposite wing, it’s a good Italian back line and the Irish defences will need to be on their guard, especially as Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale was found wanting in defence at times last Saturday in Paris.

However, Ireland once again are packing the higher pedigree in the shape of winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney. These two highly experienced Test veterans for Ireland should ensure that they are able to be the dominant side in this part of the park on Saturday. Earls ability to find and make space and Kearney’s exceptional abilities under the high ball, will keep Italy guessing all afternoon. One of the talking points of the weekend will be how well Jordan Larmour will respond to his first callup in an Irish jersey off the bench, having set the Pro14 and European Champions Cup alight.

Verdict

In Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections for this match, it is clear that Ireland are approaching Italy with the utmost caution, and after the close shave they had in Paris last weekend, nothing is being left to chance. In a tournament that may well come down to points differences, Ireland will not be satisfied with anything less than four tries and a bonus point. They have the personnel to do it, especially in front of a home crowd and although Italy will make them work for it, it is hard for us to imagine anything other than an emphatic Irish win. Consequently, Ireland to be more effective than they were last weekend in Paris in breaking down Italian defences and to take the match by 24 points!

Wales vs England
Saturday, February 10th
Twickenham

While there are plenty of entertaining fixtures this weekend there is no doubt that this is the BIG one. After Wales’ complete demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side last weekend, there should be plenty of drama on offer at Twickenham this Saturday. With both sides knowing that a potential Grand Slam will be on for only one of these two sides after the final whistle, this should be a match of the highest intensity.

Front rows

This will be one of the most fiercely contested battles on Saturday afternoon. The Scarlets front three for Wales of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee were rock solid last week against Scotland, and we expect them to be just as good against a much stronger English trio. England’s Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola and Dylan Hartley have been a very reliable platform for England, with the two props in particular turning out consistently strong performances. We actually think the Welsh unit could have the edge here, simply based on their familiarity of playing together at club level, and something which translates well to Test level. Very close but it is the sheer power of Mako Vunipola for England which we think will ultimately tip a very tight contest ever so slightly in favor of the Men in White.

Second Rows

Another titanic struggle awaits here, but one which England should ultimately get the better of. Cory Hill had a superb game for Wales last weekend, but taking on the English partnership of Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje is a very daunting prospect, even when you are supported by Captain Remarkable for Wales, Alun-Wyn Jones. The English pair though should provide more spark in attack, and their ball carrying abilities and skill at mastering the art of the turnover are second to none. England to have the clear edge here despite some ferocious Welsh opposition, especially with George Kruis waiting on the bench for England.

Back Rows

This is where we think the battle swings ever so slightly in favor of Wales. Flankers Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi were immense last weekend against Scotland as well as during the November Internationals, with no slouch in the shape of Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench. Add Ross Moriarty into the mix at number eight and this is a very potent and gritty Welsh back row. Navidi and Shingler’s ability to break the gain line coupled to their absolute nuisance factor at the breakdown will mean that England will have their work cut out containing these three.

England still field a phenomenal unit, with relative newcomer Sam Simmonds really stepping up to the plate in the absence of the injured Billy Vunipola. For us Simmonds is England’s find of the season. An absolute tiger in attack and defence we think he will get the better of his feisty opposite Welsh number Moriarty, especially at Twickenham. On the flanks Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes need no introduction, and bring a vast body of Test experience. However, we still think Lawes is ultimately more comfortable in the second row. Despite the experience of these two English veterans, we just think the Welsh pair are likely to be more explosive and unpredictable. Close battle to be sure but one in which we think Wales may get the upper hand.

Half Backs

Despite the slightly unsavory nature of English Coach Eddie Jones’ attacks in the press on Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell during the course of the week, it is ultimately mind games and we doubt that the Welsh youngster has risen to it. Patchell had a fantastic game against Scotland and showed a wisdom in terms of controlling the game well beyond his years and experience. Consequently, we expect more of the same despite the fact that it is a much bigger challenge. Scrum half Gareth Davies as many know is actually our Welsh scrum half of choice despite Rhys Webb being considered Wales’ finest. Consequently, if Patchell can keep his cool as he is likely to be targeted all afternoon, then Wales should be able to run a tight game here.

Having said that though, we still feel that England have the edge here, despite the X-factor we saw from Patchell last weekend. Danny Care at scrum half and George Ford at fly half need no introduction, and in a game like this Care’s inclusion in the starting XV may well prove decisive. Care is a great sniping runner, and his speed of delivery could be just what England need on Saturday. George Ford allied to Owen Farrell at centre has proven to be a lethal combination for England, and we expect Sunday to be no different. It will really come down to which side establishes the most dominance by the time the replacements come on for the two scrum halves, as we actually think Wales may pack more surprises in the shape of Aled Davies than England’s Richard Wigglesworth.  Despite some fierce competition here we can’t help feeling that England will ultimately exercise greater control over proceedings here.

Centres

Wales’ centre partnership of Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes were lethal last weekend and devastatingly effective at shredding Scottish defences. England’s Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph will have to bring all of their considerable Test experience to bear to contain these two. It’s that experience that we feel will ensure that England get the better of the two Welsh firecrackers. With Ben Te’o on the bench for England, the Men in White should be able to wrestle the game away from Wales here in the last quarter once the control needed has been established by Joseph and Farrell.

Back lines

Welsh youth and exuberance meets English bedrock in this part of the field on Saturday. This is not to say that Wales is without its own calm head in the shape of fullback Leigh Halfpenny. However, the sheer speed and pace of the two Welsh youngsters last Saturday was a joy to watch. England’s Jonny May is now an established part of England’s back line and boasts a remarkable turn of pace coupled to an increasingly smart and accomplished game. Meanwhile on the opposite wing Anthony Watson showed off some blistering pace and strength in attack and defence against Italy. Add to the mix, the in your face attitude of Mike Brown at fullback for England, and this English trio is likely to cause Welsh defences all kinds of problem as well as Brown likely getting under the skin of the Welsh youngsters.

There were question marks around Welsh winger Steff Evans defensive capabilities during the November Internationals, but that has clearly been worked on but we still feel that it is going to be sorely tested against a very experienced and dangerous English offering. Evans is going to have to step his game up and then some to contain his opposite number Watson. Furthermore we just feel that away from home Welsh winger Josh Adams despite his obvious talents is just still too green to contain the likes of England’s Jonny May. In the fullback battle we prefer the calm head and more measured response of Wales’ Halfpenny in contrast to Brown’s bulldog approach to the game, and let’s not forget the value of the Welshman’s kicking game. However, overall we just feel that the experience of the two English wingers will see that in terms of the backs it’s going to be England’s day.

Verdict

This should be one of the best games of the whole tournament, especially if Wales bring the kind of shift they put in against Scotland last weekend. If they do, the game should swing back and forth in a thrilling contest. However, it’s home advantage and England’s greater levels of experience at this level that should see the Men in White through a nail biting encounter. England to once more demonstrate their proven finishing abilities in a very close game, and the Men in White to seal the deal at the death by four points!

Scotland vs France
Sunday, February 11th
Murrayfield

Scotland no doubt limped into Murrayfield earlier this week after the comprehensive hiding they were given by Wales last Saturday. However, a week is a long time in Test rugby. Sure the hype surrounding Scotland got put into perspective in no uncertain terms, but it still doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a very good Scottish team that is blessed with some remarkable talent. The likelihood of this Scottish team not turning up, in front of a delirious home crowd is in our opinion rather remote. Scotland may struggle on the road, but Murrayfield has definitely become a happy hunting ground for them this past year. Furthermore, we just don’t believe that Scotland can be as bad as they were last weekend. Lessons will have been learnt and some hard work done on the training pitch this week.

France travel to Scotland suffering from scars of their own both mental and physical. To have victory snatched from them at the death is hard for any team to take, especially when you’d been written off heading into it. Their performance against Ireland in difficult conditions took everyone, including Ireland, completely by surprise. Their defence was the stuff of legends and they were able to wrong foot the Irish defences to the point they were the only side to cross the whitewash. The question remains though – is this yet another false French dawn? We certainly hope not as the Six Nations without a strong French challenge just isn’t the same. A fascinating contest awaits for two sides with everything to prove.

Front Rows

Scotland got pushed around up front in Cardiff last weekend, and we can’t see much changing here on Sunday on Murrayfield. The French front row last weekend against Ireland were superb and Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado put in an inspirational performance. Consequently the French trio of Rabah Slimani, Guirado and Jefferson Poirot should use this experience to get the better of a relatively untried Scottish front row in the shape of Stuart McInally, Gordon Reid and Simon Berghan. Reid is no stranger to Test Rugby but his two partners are still finding their feet at this level. As a result despite feisty challenge from the Scots we expect France to win the day here.

Second Rows

Scotland’s second row just didn’t fire last weekend, but we expect it to do better on home soil, and feel that Grant Gilchrist is likely to make more of an impact than Ben Toolis. The French second row of Arthur Iturria and particularly Sebastien Vahaamahina caused Ireland all kind of problems last weekend, Vahaamahina in particular. However, despite his clear role as France’s enforcer, Vahaamahina fell foul of the referee’s whistle on numerous occasions last Saturday in Paris. Expect Scotland to push the French second rower here, and Gilchrist and Jonny Gray should be more effective in getting under the French pair’s skin while at the same time maintaining the upper hand from a disciplinary standpoint. A tight contest but one where Scotland on home ground should have the edge.

Back Rows

France are without the services of Kevin Gourdon here who had such an influence on proceedings last weekend in Paris against Ireland. As a result we hand this to Scotland fair and square. Even though they were rather flat last weekend in Cardiff, this is a world-class Scottish back row in the shape of flankers John Barclay and Hamish Watson. We just can’t see them failing to turn up two weeks in a row. One of Scotland’s weak links last weekend was their number eight Cornell du Preez, but in Ryan Wilson this week we feel they have a far stronger contender. Consequently, the Scottish back row this weekend should reestablish the authority over loose play and the breakdown that characterised so many of their performances in November. France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara will be competitive but it will be a tall order for them to better a Scottish back row of this caliber at home and with a point to prove, even with Louis Picamoles on the bench for France.

Half Backs

We are still scratching our heads a bit on this one in terms of Scottish selections here. We would have thought that Ali Price’s remarkable speed and elusiveness would have ensured that he got the starting berth at scrum half, as opposed to the much more conservative Greig Laidlaw. However, in a game Scotland simply cannot afford to lose, we are assuming that Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend is opting for the reliability and leadership factor Laidlaw brings to the squad, with the X-factor of Price coming on in the final quarter once dominance has been established.  France rely on two veteran players and that is perhaps what has shaped Townsend’s decision-making. Lionel Beauxis and Maxime Machenaud are no strangers to Test rugby, though Beauxis hasn’t played at Test level in almost six years. Scotland should establish control over proceedings here, but will have to be on their guard once the bench gets called into play, and here France may have the edge in Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau. Caution will definitely be the better part of valor here especially in the dying stages of the game. Scotland to have the upper hand for much of the match but France to push them hard in the final quarter.

Centres

Scotland at home should come out on top here, as they have an excellent centre pairing in Huw Jones and Peter Horne, though we felt the latter had an off game at times when he came off the bench last weekend. Chris Harris was simply put in the shade last weekend by Wales and hence he finds himself on the bench this weekend, but in front of the Murrayfield faithful he should have much more traction than he did last weekend when he does come on.

France however pack some serious firepower in the shape of Remi Lamerat and La Rochelle sensation Geoffrey Doumayrou. In our opinion if these two click then they are likely to prove more of a strike threat, however it is Huw Jones blinding pace and ability to spot gaps for the Scots, especially at his preferred position of outside centre that makes us think Scotland are likely to have the edge here.

Back lines

So this week we are not going to fall into the trap we did last week by getting carried away by the supposed prowess of Scotland’s back line. Sure it is definitely there, but as was shown in Cardiff it can be contained. France showed in Teddy Thomas they have a player who can be a game changer, and his fellow winger Virimi Vakatawa is a proven strike threat. Add to that the fact that France’s back line put in a very solid defensive effort and Scotland despite their obvious prowess here will need to use their full bag of tricks if they are to score tries.

This week Scotland have Sean Maitland on the wing and we were surprised to not see him get a start in Cardiff. Alongside Tommy Seymour this is a fearsome attacking unit and Thomas and Vakatawa will have to be at their defensive best for France, especially as Seymour is unlikely to be as flat as he was in Cardiff. Geoffrey Palis gave a good account of himself against Ireland for France at fullback. However, trying to contain the flying form of Stuart Hogg at home and with a point to prove is probably too much of an ask for the young Frenchman. Scotland’s renowned pace and prowess in this part of the park should live up to its justified reputation at France’s expense here on Sunday.

Verdict

Very much a do or die match for both sides so expect them to throw everything at it. Scotland simply can’t be as lifeless and inept as they were last weekend. France on the other hand will want to prove that French rugby has returned with a vengeance to the Test arena, so expect the sparks to fly on a day where the weather should favor a fast and free-flowing game from both sides. It will be close and plenty of drama should be on offer. Nevertheless, home advantage should give Scotland the slightest edge here and take the contest by four points, in a game that is likely to hang in the balance till the final five minutes!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

Yes it’s finally here! While it perhaps has been one of the most hyped Six Nations in a while, we feel it is well-founded. There are two clear front-runners in England and Ireland. Add into the mix two dark horses in the shape of Wales and Scotland, with Scotland in particular being touted as the side to make life exceptionally difficult for England and Ireland. Lastly, things surely can’t get any worse for France and Italy and as a result there will be at least one big game from one of them somewhere in the tournament.

While a Grand Slam is unlikely for any side, there should be fireworks and drama aplenty and a thrilling five weekends are in prospect. The opening set of fixtures sees Scotland travel to Wales in what should be a fast flowing game, especially if the roof is closed at the Principality Stadium to deal with the expected inclement weather. Ireland travel to Paris which traditionally has been an unhappy hunting ground for them despite the dramatic drops in quality of French sides in recent years. Finally England take on Italy in Rome on the Sunday, and while it should be an easy match to predict remember the drama that unfolded when the two sides met at Twickenham last year.

In short, there are no givens this weekend and we can’t wait for it to begin. So without any further ado, let’s get into the head to heads of some mouth-watering match-ups.

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, February 3rd
Cardiff

Both sides may be reeling from injuries, but there is still a sizable talent pool available to both teams that will make any matches featuring these two competitors worth watching. Scotland’s losses in the forwards are more than made up for in a remarkable set of backs. Where Wales has suffered injuries in some of their star quality backs, there is some genuine talent in the forwards that is going to make Saturday’s opening battle of the 2018 Six Nations a worthy curtain raiser for the tournament. Scotland in particular, despite their injury concerns, remain very much an outside title contender. A rip-roaring start to their campaign in Cardiff will do their confidence no end of good as preparation for their two tough encounters home and away, against tournament favorites England and Ireland respectively. Wales on the other hand have drawn the short straw in terms of fixtures and will need this home advantage start to really build some momentum ahead of a tough campaign on the road.

So let’s have a look at the match-ups on Saturday.

Front row

Scotland’s front row concerns, as a result of injuries, have been well publicized in the lead up to the tournament. Consequently it’s hard to see anything other than Welsh dominance here. While that may be the overall trend on Saturday, it is unlikely all to be the way of the Welsh.

Scotland will still be able to field a strong challenge, especially in the shape of Hooker Stuart McInally who has been consistently impressive in the PRO 14 with Edinburgh, but also put in a very good showing for Scotland during the November Internationals this year. We also like the look of Scotland’s Gordon Reid at loosehead prop. Reid is a strong competitor and the match up between him and Wales’ Samson Lee should provide plenty of sparks, even if Lee is the more practised technician.

However, overall Wales should have the clear edge here as they field a more balanced and experienced front row than the Scottish offering. Another exciting contest awaits off the bench in the shape of props Tomas Francis for Wales and James Bhatti for Scotland, with Bhatti in particular a name we think we are going to be hearing a lot of in years to come.

Second row

Much talk has been made of the absence of Richie Gray for Scotland, but to be honest we can’t say we really are overly concerned. His replacement Ben Toolis made a strong impression on us in November, and we fully expect to see more of the same during the course of the Six Nations. His partner, Jonny Gray, is without doubt one of Scotland’s best players and as a result Scotland are packing a fearsome unit. To be fair to both sides we think this is a completely even contest.

The Welsh offering of legendary lock and Captain Alun-Wyn Jones and Cory Hill is one to be reckoned with. Jones’ indestructibility, often for a full eighty minutes, as he leads his charges from the front has been well documented, while Hill has impressed and even got a surprise call up to the Lions this summer in New Zealand. Impossible to call here and both sides to be highly competitive in an even contest.

Back row

This is where Scotland starts to pull ahead ever so slightly, especially in the flanker department. John Barclay and Hamish Watson are absolutely world-class and were rightly two of the major talking points of the November Internationals. Barclay is a smart and feisty competitor while Watson is a complete wrecking ball even if he isn’t the biggest openside flanker out there.

However, Wales are not without their threats, though for the life of us given who they are up against, we are still scratching our heads over the incomparable Justin Tipuric starting the match on the bench with Aaron Shingler taking his starting spot. Nevertheless, Josh Navidi at openside flanker was one of our most promising Welsh players of 2017, even though at the age of 27 he is not exactly a stranger to the Welsh camp. A ferocious competitor possessing remarkable strength and an admirable burst of speed, expect Navidi to cause Scotland all kinds of problems on Saturday. Ross Moriarty at number 8 for Wales is also an impressive operator though we feel his form of late has dipped somewhat, and he can be liable to disciplinary lapses.

Meanwhile Scotland have Cornell du Preez who, provided he can remain injury free, is a force to be reckoned with and is frequently Man of the Match for Edinburgh. Some real power and threat will come from the benches for both sides in the shape of Justin Tipuric for Wales and Scottish number 8 Ryan Wilson. However, given the sheer composure, work rate and skill set of Scotland’s Barclay and Watson, we expect to see the Men from North of Hadrian’s wall dominate this aspect of the match on Saturday.

Half backs

Scotland continues to edge ahead here as they have one of the best units in this year’s Six Nations in the shape of scrum half Ali Price and fly half Finn Russell. Watch the footage of the November Internationals and Scotland’s performances against New Zealand and Australia, and you will see exactly what we mean. Finn Russell’s vision and unpredictability is becoming the stuff of legends, and Price’s frenetic but surprisingly accurate energy make for a lethal partnership. Also let’s not forget that we have Captain Reliable in the shape of Greg Laidlaw waiting on the bench for Scotland.

Wales have some real talent in the shape of scrum half of Gareth Davies who we actually rate higher than the injured Rhys Webb and he will be evenly matched against Scotland’s Price. However, Russell’s sheer genius is likely to eclipse Wales’ Rhys Patchell at fly half. Patchell is a promising prospect for Wales but is still very much a work in progress, compared to the proven commodity that Russell has already become. Scotland to comfortably run proceedings here on Saturday.

Centres

This is the strongest part of Wales challenge in the backs. Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes are skilled footballers, with Parkes in particular having some real strength and an eye for space. Parkes made everyone sit up and take notice against South Africa in Wales’ last Test of 2017 as the New Zealand born centre scored two fine tries. Williams can also turn in an electric turn of pace and the Welsh pair will likely test Scottish defences all afternoon.

However, Scotland’s Huw Jones has made such an impact on the kind of open running game Scotland wants to play, that he will pose one of the biggest threats on the park all afternoon. It’s his partner Craig Harris, who perhaps does not match up to the caliber of the Welsh challenge and as a result we feel that this is the one area where Wales can really try to establish some dominance in back play.

Back line

Plain and simple, this is Scotland’s contest hands down. Wingers Byron McGuigan and Tommy Seymour were absolutely outstanding in the November Internationals. To make things worse for Wales here, there is a certain individual by the name of Stuart Hogg at fullback. One of the most dangerous and gifted backs in Test Rugby right now, Hogg is an absolute pleasure to watch and has X-factor written all over the front and back of his jersey. McGuigan was sensational on the wing against Australia in November and Tommy Seymour has been a consistent performer, and some of his linkages with Hogg have been sublime – just check the recent European Champions match between Glasgow and Exeter Chiefs for proof. Bring Sean Maitland off the bench and Scotland loses nothing in the strength of their attack.

Wales pack some enormous experience in the shape of fullback Leigh Halfpenny, whose return from France to ply his trade again in Wales has seen a real resurgence in his form. Add to that his prodigious point scoring abilities with the boot and Wales has few if any worries in this department. However, it is out on the wings where Wales look inexperienced, and despite his significant promise, we found Steff Evans to be too much of a defensive liability in the November Internationals. His partner Josh Adams is clearly a star in the making but a Test debut in the Six Nations is a pretty tall order, especially when trying to contain the likes of Scotland’s Byron McGuigan. In short, Wales will be brave here but ultimately outclassed.

Verdict

This should be a great contest, especially if the roof is closed in Cardiff due to the expected inclement weather, and a fitting opener to what should be a fantastic edition of the much-loved tournament. However, despite home advantage for Wales and some of the injuries plaguing Scotland’s selections up front, we still can’t help feel that it is ultimately going to be the Scots who have a better start to their campaign on Saturday. After November, Scotland’s tails are definitely up and they know they have the ability and cohesion to do some real damage over the course of the next seven weeks. With a back line and half back partnership that has the skill sets to make even the mighty All Blacks think twice, Scotland may just prove too much for a Welsh side battling their own injury woes and lacking the collective identity of their opponents on Saturday. Consequently we’re giving what should be a close match to Scotland by four!

France vs Ireland
Saturday, February 3rd
Paris

Although Ireland have traditionally struggled with success in Paris, we can’t help feeling that on Saturday it will be the French who have infinitely more to prove than their Irish visitors. A new Coach a mere two weeks before the start of the tournament, injury/fatigue problems right across their player base and a side which in all reality battles to produce more than 20 minutes of quality rugby in any given match of late have all made for a challenging start to France’s Six Nations campaign this year. However, after the opening few bars of “La Marseillaise” in Paris anything could still happen and consequently Irish Coach Joe Schmidt appears to have picked a strong side to cope with any eventuality no matter how unlikely. The sheer unpredictability of this match make it one which we think we know the result but like most will be crowded around our TV screens in nervous anticipation, especially when you consider that Ireland often get off to a shaky start in the tournament.

Front row

It’s not a bad French row, but by the same token it’s an outstanding Irish unit that they are up against on Saturday. France have a great Captain and Hooker in the shape of Guilhem Guirado, and despite his form perhaps not being stellar at club level, when he pulls on the blue jersey a menacing transformation tends to take place. His work rate is outstanding and he is one of the best leaders from the front in terms of galvanizing the rest of his teammates. At tighthead prop, Rabah Slimani is one of France’s most reliable weapons and consequently there is some real solidity and experience to France’s front row. However, for us the weak link in the chain is on the loosehead with Jefferson Poirot. Simply far too inconsistent for our liking and we ultimately feel that France is going to get bossed around here, especially with Poirot having to face up against probably the best tighthead in the game right now, Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong.

We can’t find any faults in the Irish selection, and as already mentioned the inclusion of Furlong alone is enough to have any opposition scrum Coach waking up in a cold sweat. Captain and Hooker Rory Best was on song for Ireland in the November Internationals, though questions remain around the consistency and accuracy of his lineout throwing. At loosehead prop the irrepressible Cian Healy is going to provide a battle royale with France’s Rabah Slimani. Healy has made a blinding return to form this year and seems to have got a hold of his disciplinary lapses of days gone by. This will be Ireland’s show to run on Saturday, especially when you look at the quality of Ireland’s bench in this department against the relatively untried and untested French offerings. There will be absolutely no drop in quality when Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin come on for Ireland.

Second row

We were delighted to see Ireland’s Jack Ryan get the nod here over the experienced Devin Toner in one of the starting lock positions. This is said in no disrespect to Toner, who is a fine player in his own right and is playing some of his best rugby at the moment. However, it is matches such as these where exciting new talent really needs to come to the fore with an eye to Japan. Ryan has been outstanding this season at Leinster and it is great to see the youngster get a start in such a crucial and weighty encounter. Add Ulster’s Ian Henderson as his partner and once again it should be a comfortable afternoon for Ireland in this department, with Devin Toner waiting in the wings to come off the bench.

It’s once more a solid French offering here, and we rate Sebastien Vahaamahina very highly with his partner Arthur Iturria showing plenty of promise. However, it just doesn’t have the same degree of spark and reliability that Ireland’s does, especially once the bench comes into play.

Back row

Once again France has some strength here, but the problem is they are up against an absolute powerhouse Irish back row. No matter which way you cut it, we have trouble seeing France being competitive here. Ireland’s contingent is the stuff of legends in the shape of flanker Peter O’Mahony and number eight CJ Stander, with these two turning in some phenomenal performances at Munster this season. Add Josh van der Flier at openside flanker and you have one of Irish rugby’s most promising young talents. To be honest we are happy to see the Leinster openside getting a start in place of the much vaunted but injured Sean O’Brien. We feel that van der Flier may well end up having a bigger role to play in Ireland’s World Cup campaign and consequently the more exposure he gets for Ireland in this Six Nations the better.

France have one of their best players in our opinion by a country mile in the shape of Kevin Gourdon at number eight. This is a very exciting player and expect to see him causing all kinds of havoc among the Irish defences on Saturday. However, from there the quality drops slightly in terms of the comparison with the Irish offering. As a result it’s a French back row that is going to struggle to get much traction on Saturday against a rampant Irish challenge. Flankers Yacouba Camara and Wencelas Lauret pack plenty of power but are not nearly as effective in the kind of all out scrap that the Irish unit is so effective at, especially in the loose.

Half backs

France have some experience in the shape of scrum half Maxime Machenaud, but together with the uncapped Matthieu Jalibert at fly half they are up against one of the best, if not the best, half back partnerships in Test Rugby – Ireland’s Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton. The Irish pair boast a combined game management skill set that is second to none, and as a result we just can’t see France being even remotely competitive here. For France’s sake we hope to be proved wrong but somehow doubt it.

Centres

Apart from France’s Remi Lamerat, we just can’t see much to really trouble Ireland here. Lamerat on his day can be an exceptional centre, but by the same token can often disappear from matches. As a result, much like the French team, we are left wondering which version will show up in Paris on Saturday. His partner Henry Chavancy has put in some solid performances with Racing 92 this season, but overall France’s offering here lacks the power and pace of their Irish opponents.

Ireland by comparison have a unit that made the world sit up and take notice in the November Test against South Africa. Robbie Henshaw is now a standard selection at centre for Irish Coach Joe Schmidt, and when paired with debutant Bundee Aki against the Springboks in November, the two were devastatingly effective. The intensely physical Aki coupled to Henshaw’s vision and pace, make for a fearsome unit and one which should effectively run rings around the French all afternoon.

Back line

It’s France’s back line which rings the alarm bells for us. There is no shortage of talent there in the shape of wingers Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, both of whom are no strangers to the try line. However, defensively they remain a big concern for us and we have seen little in the last year to change our opinion. Add in an unproven fullback at Test level in the shape of Geoffrey Palis, and against a very slick Irish unit packing plenty of Test experience, we can’t help feeling it is going to be a very long day at the office for France here on Saturday.

While Irish winger Jacob Stockdale may not be packing much in the way of the experience we just talked about, his blistering pace as seen in the Test against the Springboks is something which is going to cause French defenses endless headaches. There are concerns around Stockdale’s defensive abilities, but you can be sure Coach Joe Schmidt took this into account when making his selection. A lot of work no doubt has been done in the training camps leading up to the tournament. Meanwhile Rob Kearney at fullback seems to have rediscovered the form that made him European player of the year a couple of seasons ago. Keith Earls has also once more stamped his authority on the right wing position and provided he can keep his discipline is likely to be one of Ireland’s most potent strike threats on Saturday afternoon.

Verdict

It’s France in France so ultimately there are always question marks as to what actually may transpire on the pitch Saturday afternoon. However, we just can’t help feeling that it is such an Irish master class taking to the field, that French Coach Jacques Brunel’s slightly cobbled together side is going to be hard pressed to turn the form books upside down. Consequently we’re handing this one to Ireland by 13 points, albeit nervously!

Italy vs England
Sunday, February 4th
Rome

It is unlikely that England will get caught off guard by Italian tactics to the extent they were at Twickenham in last year’s edition of the tournament. As a result as the opening shot in the Championship for both sides should have a distinctly English flavor despite proceedings taking place in Rome. Italy will want to make a statement that improvement from last year’s poor showing is definitely on the cards. However, to have to do it against tournament favorites in your opening match is a tall order even with home advantage. England meanwhile will want to come out of the blocks at full throttle and lay down the marker to the other teams that they will be the side to beat over the next five weekends. Despite the possible predictability of the result a fascinating contest still awaits.

Front row

England should be completely dominant here as they are fielding an exceptionally experienced and competent front row in the shape of props Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole, with Hooker Dylan Hartley as usual taking the role of Captain. Make no mistake it is a solid Italian front row and packs some serious experience with Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. Props Andrea Lovotti and Simone Pietro Ferrari have impressed this year in the PRO 14 so there will be a challenge here make no mistake. However, we just can’t seeing it overcoming the combined experience and technical proficiency of the English trio. With Jamie George waiting on the bench for England should Dylan Hartley’s lineout throws start going astray, then English dominance here should be assured.

Second row

England’s stranglehold on the forward aspects of this match continues in the lock department. Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury need absolutely no introduction, and are fearsome competitors who should be prime and effective targets in the lineouts. Italy’s Alessandro Zanni will ensure that England doesn’t have it all their way, but the English duo are such accomplished practitioners of their trade it is hard to see Italy having much say in proceedings here on Sunday in Rome. And yes there is a certain Englishman on the bench by the name of George Kruis who is likely to add insult to injury here.

Back row

While the Italian flankers, Sebastian Negri and Renato Giammorioli have had a fair amount of say in the Italian resurgence at PRO 14 level, it is still a huge step up to Test Rugby especially when you see the English trio they are going to be up against, even with the mentorship of the legendary Sergio Parisse at number eight.

England field Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw, who together boast a wealth of Test experience. Although Lawes usually plays at lock, his versatility has been demonstrated on countless occasions coupled to an intense physicality. His partner Chris Robshaw’s experience has no equal in the England camp, and at present is playing some of his best rugby without the burden of the Captaincy. It’s at number eight where we are expecting some real fireworks in the shape of Sam Simmonds. Although Simmonds traditionally plays at openside flanker for his side Exeter Chiefs, we rate him as one of England’s most lethal new prospects heading into the buildup to the World Cup. An absolutely ferocious and committed competitor we are expecting very big things from the 23 year old as the Six Nations unfolds.

Consequently given the calibre of what they are up against it is going to be very hard for Italy to gain any real traction here, even with Captain Fantastic Sergio Parisse rallying the troops at number 8. Italy will make a brave stab at being competitive but expect to see England running the show here on Sunday.

Half backs

We have to confess to being surprised that Carlo Canna is not in the starting fly half berth for Italy. However, though not perhaps of the same vintage as England’s offering, there is some real promise here. Tommaso Alan has impressed with Benetton Treviso this year and we have thought highly of the Italian fly half for a few years now. With Canna set to come off the bench as a replacement, Italy have some real depth in this position. The same can be said of the scrum half position, with us also being surprised at Marcello Violi getting the starting nod over Eduardo Gori. Once again though there is some real consistency here once the bench in the shape of Gori gets called in to play. Italian Coach Conor O’Shea clearly sees some genuine spark and promise in Violi and if his gamble doesn’t pay off then the tried and trusted figure of Gori will no doubt restore order.

Despite some positives here for Italy, it will still be hard for them to match the pedigree of the English opposition in the shape of scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford. While the pair’s fortunes at club level with Leicester have dipped dramatically this year, there is still little question about their Test pedigree. Under Coach Eddie Jones tutelage these two have shone, and with Danny Care waiting on the bench for Youngs, this is a very solid platform for England. Expect these three to establish complete dominance for England in terms of game management on Sunday.

Centres

An exciting contest awaits here between Italy’s Tommaso Castello and England’s Ben Te’o. We think the English player will ultimately get the better of the match up but expect plenty of sparks in this part of the field, as Castello is one of Italy’s most promising new players.

However, the fact that Owen Farrell is occupying the inside centre berth means Italy’s fate is essentially sealed on Sunday. Still one of the world’s best, and forming one of the most lethal attacking axes in Test Rugby with his half back partners Youngs and Ford, expect to see Farrell almost effortlessly controlling the ebb and flow of play. With Jonathan Joseph on the bench for England, it could be a very long afternoon here for Italy. In addition, expect a very healthy tally of points from Farrell’s boot when required.

Back line

Lastly, England’s back line packs the pace and skill of wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson shored up by Mike Brown’s resolute graft at fullback. While Brown may have a temper that can potentially sound alarm bells when it comes to discipline, there is no question about his commitment to the cause and a work rate that is second to none. However, it’s the speed and elusiveness of May and Watson that is likely to cause the Italian defences no end of headaches on Sunday. Just trying to keep the two Englishmen in check for 80 minutes is likely to leave Italy with very little room to create attacks of their own. England also have the luxury of Jack Nowell on the bench, and the Italian defence coaches must be in a cold sweat even before proceedings get underway on Sunday.

Italy’s offering of Tommaso Benvenuti and Mattia Bellini on the wings with Matteo Minozzi at fullback just doesn’t match up to what England is likely to throw at the Azurri in Rome. Even if these three are able to break through initial English resistance, the defensive capabilities of the English three are solid enough to shut down any potential threat here.

Verdict

Italy will be competitive make no mistake, but as a curtain raiser for their Six Nations campaign this is a pretty tall order. Consequently, this game may go horribly sideways for them leaving them to put it behind them and focus on more realistic targets later in the tournament. Nevertheless, expect plenty of vocal support in Rome and they may end up giving England food for thought, especially if England get off to a slow start as they did in their opening game of the November Internationals against Argentina. Still we can’t really see any major surprises taking place in Rome on Sunday. Consequently England should be comfortable winners by at least 15 points!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. As we will for the rest of the tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!