It’s been a glorious four weekends of International Test Rugby and one of the best Six Nations we can remember for a while, but like all good things it must come to an end – but what an ending we have to look forward to on Saturday. France look essentially unstoppable on their march to their first Grand Slam since 2010. The only team who can stop them is an English side who simply haven’t fired this tournament – and to top it all off they have to attempt the impossible in Paris. Assuming that before the dustup in Paris, Ireland are able to dispatch an increasingly confused looking Scottish outfit in Dublin, then every Irish supporter will be watching events in Paris with bated breath, and for 80 minutes find themselves perhaps being even more ardent English supporters than the English themselves. Super Saturday starts however in Cardiff as Wales look to pull off a surprisingly good finish given their form and injury list heading into the tournament, while Italy attempt to finally prove that they have turned a corner in terms of their ability to compete.
In short, as rugby fans we’re in for a treat this Saturday. With France hosting the next World Cup a mere 18 months away, the stakes couldn’t be higher and every team as a result has a point to prove. While campaigns may be over for some of the participants there is still everything to play for with an eye to what lies ahead. While this tournament may be drawing to a close for another year the tone it sets for preparations for Rugby’s ultimate prize next year will be critical for all the teams.
Unfortunately work has kept us far busier than we would have liked of late, so instead of a piece on each match, we’ve condensed them into one and a key summary of what to look for this weekend.
Wales vs Italy
Wales have not lost a Six Nations match against Italy since 2007, and never in Cardiff. Consequently the Azurri have a massive mountain to climb on Saturday. While the desire to win and pull off one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history will be at the back of their minds, it will be more important to build on the competitiveness they showed against Scotland last weekend. This young Italian side looks promising in a way that is genuinely different compared to years gone by.
Wales meanwhile, will want to salvage some pride and respect from a tournament that in many ways had everything stacked against them, but nevertheless they have defied the odds and done rather well. Apart from that horrific opener against Ireland, they have been exceptionally competitive and in two of their three losses they have only lost by less than a converted try. In addition they made both France and England sweat to the final whistle. A bonus point win in Cardiff with a hefty points haul against Italy could see Wales leapfrog both Scotland and England if results go against both on Saturday in Dublin and Paris.
The return of a legend
He may not be wearing the Captain’s armband on Saturday, but lock and Wales’ most capped player of all time Alun Wyn Jones’ presence will be felt by every man on the pitch in Cardiff on Saturday. He is Wales’ ultimate talisman and in terms of rallying the troops there are few who can match him. His seeming indestructability is officially the stuff of legends and Italy will respect him as much as they fear him on Saturday. Whether or not he will have the puff to last the full eighty minutes is another question, but there is no doubt that whether on or off the field, Wales will be a better team with him amongst their ranks. He is clearly, like Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton in the swansong of his career but the impact he can still bring to a Welsh charge can be game changing. If he can weld the Welsh forward pack into a cohesive platform that can build the base for Wales’ halfback pairing of Gareth Rees and Dan Biggar to unleash the likes of Josh Adams and Louis Rees Zammitt out wide, it could be a very long afternoon for Italy.
Speed that Ferrari would be proud of!
One thing you can definitely say about Italian rugby this year is that it is full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest was new fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo who in his 35 minutes on the pitch scored two superb tries against Scotland and looked in danger of scoring more every time he got the ball. Once we’d checked his birthdate and found out that he genuinely is 22 and not 12, we were amazed at the diminutive fullback’s pace and complete disregard for his own safety. He threw himself into contact, and although his stature didn’t quite help his tackle success rate he never shied away from chucking himself into the fray. Italy has sought an answer to the injury cursed but supremely gifted Matteo Minozzi at fullback and in Capuozzo they may well have found it, provided he too doesn’t get broken.
There is little doubt that in front of a fervent home crowd demanding nothing less than a strong finish to a troubled campaign, and with a talisman such as Alun Wyn Jones on the pitch this is a match that Wales should win comfortably. However, if Italy can make them work for it like they did Scotland, then they themselves, although leaving the tournament with yet another Wooden Spoon, can feel that there is a hint of promise for a long awaited brighter future.
Ireland vs Scotland
Ireland are on track for an exceptionally strong finish and the Triple Crown. Their only stumbling block so far this tournament was the narrow loss to France in Paris which saw them out of the running for a Grand Slam. They started superbly against Wales, came unstuck by the slimmest of margins in an epic arm wrestle with France and then proceeded to dispatch Italy and England. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing. There were moments in both the games against Italy and England where Ireland looked slightly undercooked. In the win over Italy they looked genuinely sloppy at times and almost as if they weren’t sure how to play a fifteen man game against essentially a rugby league strength side – it was almost as if there was too much space for them to deal with. Against England last weekend, once again they looked bent out of shape against a side down to fourteen men and seemed genuinely taken aback by England’s heroic resistance in the set pieces. In both matches, Ireland regained their composure to put in two clinical finishing last quarters, but the purple patches in between and the almost complete lack of discipline at times against England will have been worrying to the Coaching staff. However, if you ask us it’s better for Ireland to have those doubts and areas to work on now. Rather that than, as they have in the last few World Cup cycles, peak 18 months too early and arrive at the World Cup on a downward trajectory.
As for Scotland, we’re really scratching our heads as to where and how it’s all gone so wrong. In actual fact however, we can’t help feeling that the brains trust of Coach Gregor Townsend, mercurial fly half Finn Russell and Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg are in for some uncomfortable questions. Our frustration, no doubt shared by Scottish supporters, with Finn Russell’s almost reckless approach to the game, Townsend’s odd selection choices and tactics at times and Hogg’s seeming inability to wrestle his troops into line and lead from the front when it’s most needed is reaching epic proportions. These are highly talented and capable individuals who just aren’t delivering at the moment and taking the rest of their teammates down with them.
Sometimes there’s just no substitute for experience
We have to be honest and say that we have questioned the decision by Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton to keep playing, especially given the fact that by the time Ireland kick off against Spain in their World Cup opener on September 9th next year he’ll be the tender age of 38. However, seeing the Irish Captain and fly half in action this past six months, it’s hard to argue against the opinion that he is perhaps playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious career. In short, there certainly looks like there is more than enough gas in the old warrior’s tank to get him and his team across the finish line. If he can remain injury free between now and then he will be a force for the rest of the rugby world to reckon with. Now that he seems to have come to terms with the scope of the number of playing days left to him, he seems to be playing with a calmness, focus and assuredness that was perhaps lacking until recently. He’s back on song and when he is so is Ireland.
Is frustration with Russell forcing Townsend’s hand or is this the future?
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying that Scotland’s starting fly half for Saturday, Blair Kinghorn shouldn’t be in the squad, but we really are scratching our head over his positioning. He’s fast and capable under the high ball so why not put him where those talents can be used best either at fullback or out wide on the wing. Given that you’re never going to displace Stuart Hogg, we felt that he should have got the starting berth for the Left Wing instead of Kyle Steyn. Scotland’s Six Nations campaign would appear to be well and truly over, as a win against a full strength Irish squad in Dublin chasing the Triple Crown and possibly the Championship is unlikely to say the least given their current form. Therefore wouldn’t it have been more prudent to look towards next year and the World Cup by giving either Adam Hastings or up and coming Glasgow fly half Ross Thompson a shot a match of this stature? Playing Kinghorn is a gamble – he has played well in the position for Edinburgh and the fact that he can move to the back line once Russell comes on if Steyn or Hogg are not firing, is perhaps the reasoning behind it. However, we’re still sad to seen neither Thompson or Hastings getting a look in, considering experimentation seems to be the order of the day for Scotland on Saturday. What is obvious is that Finn Russell would appear to living on borrowed time once more with Townsend, and in that respect we can’t say we blame him as we haven’t been impressed with Russell at all so far this tournament, apart from against England in their opener.
Ireland should be in the driving seat in this one, but there are a couple of niggles hanging over them from their games against England and Italy that Scotland could possibly exploit and pull off a shock win and hand France the Championship. It’s all a bit far fetched for us to be honest, and in the process Scotland may also be missing out on some opportunities to learn and build for the future. Consequently our money is on Ireland to unpack Scotland with relative ease and wait with bated breath for the outcome in Paris.
France vs England
And so it comes to this – a Championship and Grand Slam decider in the venue that will also see who ultimately gets their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy in eighteen months time. It’s hard to argue against France wrapping it all up on Saturday, and we are rapidly coming to terms with the fact that the end of the tournament could well see us with egg on faces, as we were adamant at the outset that a Grand Slam would not be seen this year. The really big question is can France keep it going in five consecutive matches? In the last 12 years there has always been a banana skin lying in wait for them somewhere in the Championship, and often when they least expect it. However, they just look like they are so much better prepared week in week out since Galthie took over as Coach and especially in the last 9 months as France’s buildup to next year’s World Cup starts to gain significant momentum. They did look a bit rattled against Wales last weekend and that will have been picked up by England. Nevertheless, when it mattered most France were able to hold their nerve and that almost watertight defensive system they have put in place allowed them to stay the course.
As for England, much praise has been rightly heaped on last weekend’s squad who so nobly battled against a ferocious Irish assault, and held their own until the final quarter. However, in the euphoria about England’s character, the fact that England has no attacking game whatsoever got glossed over. Once Ireland broke them down in the final quarter they ran in two fairly straightforward tries in quick succession. Furthermore, England have not scored any tries since their points fest against Italy in Round 2. When it comes to tries they sit fourth on the table with only 3 more than Italy and two more than Wales, making a paltry total of 7. Compare that to Scotland’s 10, France’s 14 and Ireland’s 20. It makes for alarming reading and a mockery of Coach Eddie Jones’ assertion of making England a genuine contender for World Cup glory next year. They have character make no mistake and we saw plenty of it last weekend. In fly half Marcus Smith they also have more attacking potential than they know what to do with. Therein lies the problem however, in that they simply don’t know how to use his exceptional talents.
Is there a target on his back?
You really can’t find any faults in this French squad plain and simple. So on that note we’ve really had to trawl the tapes to find one. After doing so the only thing we could pick on was Melvyn Jaminet at fullback who really seemed to struggle at times under the Welsh aerial assault. For us that was the more worrying aspect than France seeming to only want to throw the ball to lock Cameron Woki when it came to lineout time. Although it was highly predictable, because Woki is so good at what he does France were able to get away with it. However, Jaminet was clearly not comfortable at times and England will make sure that he feels the same way on Saturday. England’s fly half Marcus Smith is more than capable of making sure that Jaminet experiences that kind of pressure. French fullback Brice Dulin blew France’s shot at a Grand Slam last year and England will be hoping that such a sense of deja vu will get the better of Jaminet on Saturday night.
Get your deckchairs out lads
England Coach Eddie Jones’ selection decisions once more confound any sense of logic for Saturday’s match. Every forum we’ve read has had English supporters up in arms about Ben Youngs’ selection for this match. France have Antoine Dupont who thinks and reacts faster than most computer processors, while England are choosing the slow and steady route. Youngs may be England’s most capped player but that’s not exactly a glowing advertisement these days. England look ponderous off the back of rucks and mauls under his watch, and against a side like France whose forwards are just as enterprising and quick witted as their backs we fear it is going to cost them dearly. Ally that to the fact that England has no attacking platform whatsoever and it doesn’t bode well for the future. Harry Randall who has looked so impressive at scrum half despite his diminutive size, is what England needs if they are genuine about developing an attacking platform that will serve them well next year in the World Cup. Instead, to try and save face Jones has decided to not run the risk that Randall poses in terms of an experiment for such a high pressure match. The youngster makes the bench but the mountain he may have to climb by the time he comes off it may simply be too much and potentially shatter his confidence in the long term.
Jones has also tinkered with the rest of his squad, and once more there is that sense that it’s an unbalanced side lacking cohesion that heads to Paris to take on probably the best organized side in Test Rugby at the moment in the shape of France. England’s backs are against the wall and the thought of them finishing fifth on the table for a second year running will be a huge motivator, as well as the satisfaction of denying France a Grand Slam in front of 70,000 French fans in Paris. In short it won’t be easy for France, make no mistake but the idea that this final hurdle is France’s banana skin in waiting in this year’s Championship looks increasingly unlikely. France will have had the wake up call they needed last weekend in Cardiff. As long as nerves don’t get to them in what is without a doubt their biggest game since the 2011 World Cup Final, we have a hunch that the end of this year’s epic tournament will be bathed in blue!