Super Saturday will summon the faithful for a Six Nations showdown of note!

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

The ultimate Welsh Lion Alun Wyn Jones makes another remarkable comeback from injury

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!

Although he looks like he’s barely out of mini rugby, fullback sensation Ange Capuozzo left us speechless during his stint against Scotland off the bench

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

Ireland Captain Jonathan Sexton shows no signs of slowing down despite announcing his retirement after the World Cup in France next year

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?

As a fullback or winger we know Blair Kinghorn’s abilities well – but is Townsend’s growing experimentation with him at fly half yet another example of the Coach’s lack of understanding of the talent he has to choose from in Scotland or a stroke of genius?

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?

There is no denying that French fullback Melvyn Jaminet despite blasting onto the International scene last year during the tour to Australia, got a serious case of the wobbles against Wales under the high ball

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

You really have to wonder how English scrum half Ben Youngs’ slow and pedestrian approach to his duties can answer the speed, pace and eye for opportunity possessed by his opposite number France’s Antoine Dupont

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!

A look at how the Six Nations has unfolded so far and how it’s setting up for what should be an epic finale!

So after three rounds of vintage Six Nations rugby we have a look at how the final two weekends look to be shaping up and how the teams are faring now we’re past the the halfway point.

In short, there have been few suprises as France have turned their status as pre tournament favourites into a seemingly inevitable reality. Ireland very much look the part of finishing as strong runners, up while England definitely have the look of a quality side but one in transition and struggling at times to determine their shape and identity. Wales have proved, as they always do in this tournament, that they are extremely difficult to beat at home as well as the fact that you just can’t write them off when it comes to the Six Nations regardless of their form heading into the competition. Scotland despite getting off to a rip-roaring start against England, have simply looked off the mark against France and Wales and once more just not lived up to their promise. Although Italy look comfortably en route towards their traditional Wooden Spoon, there is definitely something different about the Azurri this year. They still may not win any matches in the 2022 edition but they look more competitive than they have ever done in the twenty years they’ve been in the tournament, and that competitiveness and the set of skills that go with it look to increase dramatically in the coming years if they can keep it up.

So without further ado let’s look at where the six participants stand with the two penultimate rounds left to go!

Francethe sleeping giant has finally woken up!

International Rugby’s new Brain Trust – French scrum half and Captain Antoine Dupont and Coach Fabien Galthie

We have a hunch that we may well have egg on our faces when referee Jaco Peyper calls time on the last game of the Championship in a just over two weeks time in Paris. We insisted that a Grand Slam was not in the offing this year for any of the six teams, but having watched France in the first three Rounds, it’s going to take an exceptionally special team to get past them. As talented as England and Wales are, we have a hard time believing that either one is the team to put the brakes on France’s juggernaut.

France are so cohesive at the moment, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a team with such a clear understanding of the game they want to play and how to implement it. Every player on the pitch seems to have an intricate knowledge of their role in France’s approach to a given opponent. It is fantastic to watch and they make it all look so effortless. Gone are the traditional French lapses in concentration or discipline at key moments. We’re not saying they are perfect but they’re not far off from being the finished product and so far appear to be light year’s ahead of any of their Six Nations rivals. Their forward pack from one to eight works seamlessly, their halfbacks expertly link the work between the backs and forwards together, and their centre and backfield units are a joy to watch.

French flair is very much alive and well but it is all so clinically organized at the moment. Defensively across the park they are watertight and on attack they have a precision that is absolutely lethal. Their matchday 23s are now a star studded cast and while there are numerous standout players, there are few if any weak links. In their front row Hooker Julien Marchand has been a revelation, while in the second row Cameron Woki is fully justifying all the hype we gave him heading into the tournament. Gregory Aldritt is arguably the best number eight in the modern game – while the halfback combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack share a PhD in game management. In the centres Gael Fickou is a defensive and attack field marshal while Damian Penaud is the definition of a world class winger. But this is simply naming but a few of France’s exceptionally talented roster and to single them out almost does injustice to a team that as a whole just works so well together.

Wales may be a possible banana skin in the Cardiff cauldron, but as evidenced against Scotland, France are now a team that travel just as well as they play at home in front of the Stade de France faithful. Provided things go well for France this weekend in Cardiff, England face the equivalent of parting the Red Sea when they face off against les Bleus in the French capital and try to deny them a Grand Slam in the tournament’s final game.

Ireland – a new standard that just might finally peak at the right time for the World Cup

Irish Captain Jonathan Sexton continues to defy all the odds regarding his age while Coach Andy Farrell continues to weld together a squad that just might give Ireland a fighting chance at long last come the World Cup

Whether it’s by necessity or choice, one of the most refreshing things about Irish Coach Andy Farrell is his willingness to embrace new talent and look to the future. While we may have had our doubts about him in the past, those have all been put to bed as he is rapidly putting together a squad that blends youth and experience and a way of playing the game that maximizes the potential of both. Meanwhile his Captain, the legendary Jonathan Sexton is playing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 36. While Ireland still need a long term answer to his replacement, there is little reason to doubt that one of Ireland’s biggest rugby icons of the last twenty years still has a very important contribution to make to next year’s World Cup campaign.

Ireland’s opening two games were impressive efforts despite the narrow Round 2 loss to France in Paris. Ireland’s slightly bizarre game against an Italian side essentially playing with one hand tied behind their backs, was a valuable but frustrating exercise. However, what Ireland have shown us is their enterprise and imagination in how they play the game these days, backed up by a talent bank that is rapidly becoming the envy of many rival coaches. Ireland were ultimately able to hold their own against tournament darlings France in Paris and the end result was never a certainty until the final whistle, with Ireland mounting a solid comeback in the second half. Despite some uncharacteristic sloppiness against Italy, Ireland ultimately breezed past the Azurri but were perhaps taken aback by the ferocity with which a severely handicapped opponent fought back.

However, despite the fumbles against Italy and the narrow loss to France, Ireland are definitely on song at the moment and the only real challenger to France’s seemingly inevitable crown. Their final two games against England at Twickenham and then at home to a misfiring Scottish outfit, should see them finish a strong second. Their front row has taken some hits with the loss of Hooker Ronan Kelleher to injury along with Prop Andrew Porter. However in Dan Sheehan they have found a more than capable understudy for Kelleher. In the second row, Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely immense both in the set pieces and the loose, while Ireland’s back row stocks have been arguably the richest in the tournament. Lingering questions remain about the future of the halfback berths but with fly half Sexton and even Gibson-Park at scrum half being in such rich form there is not too much to worry about in the short term. Meanwhile Gary Ringrose is a constant thorn for opposition defences in the centre channels and the back three are blessed with talent out wide and at fullback.

In short, Ireland despite some injury concerns heads into these last two rounds in exceptionally rude health and have every reason to feel as confident as France about their last two matches. They’ll be watching proceedings in Cardiff this Friday with huge interest, but first there is the challenging of getting one past an England side that despite lacking Ireland’s cohesion will pose a huge threat at Fortress Twickenham.

England – The tinkering continues with a side that could be so much more

Eddie Jones clearly rates his sensational next generation fly half Marcus Smith but seems unable to figure out how to use him to full effect

The new look England that Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to unleash, certainly has potential but it still remains a lumpy unbalanced unit that at times seems unsure of how to use the array of talent at its disposal. England sit just a point behind Ireland on the table in third place after one loss and two wins, however they have only managed to score six tries all tournament. Ireland have scored 16 and tournament favorites France 13. Given that France and Ireland are England’s last two opponents, that will make for troublesome reading for Jones and his charges as it basically says that England have no real attack. Marcus Smith may be a genius but he can’t singlehandedly provide England with the attacking platform they are so clearly lacking at the moment.

England and Jones seem to be obsessed with the possible return of centre Manu Tuilagi to provide them with the catalyst on attack that they seem to be struggling to find. However, as we and many others have said Tuilagi is simply not a long term option for England as his consistent problems with injury shatter one false dawn after another. Despite Smith making his best efforts to unpick opposition defenses, without an effective centre pairing complimenting his abilities there seems little to work with, and England look woefully bereft of ideas out wide without the likes of Jonny May. In short, England just look blunt in the backs and we find it puzzling given the talent in their ranks such as Jack Nowell, Freddie Steward, Henry Slade and Max Malins. They also seem to be struggling to assert themselves in areas of traditional dominance such as the forwards, even if they finally seem to be starting to develop a more balanced back row. Once again there is a raft of talented individuals putting in huge shifts like Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt but as a unit it’s just not clicking and in the set pieces in particular appears average at best.

What the answer is to England’s dilemma would appear to beyond them for the moment and unfortunately time appears to be running out as the World Cup rapidly looms over the horizon. The next two games will be critical in terms of how England emerges from this Six Nations with an eye to the future. If they can acquit themselves well against arguably the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere over the next two weekends, then they may well start to find answers to the questions that seem to be eluding them. Either way it certainly won’t be for want of talent.

Scotland appear to be heading for the door with a whimper

It all started so well against England for Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend and Captain Stuart Hogg but since then the wheels have started fall off quite dramatically

Scotland looked to be on a roll after that opening game against England which saw them claim back to back Six Nations victories over the Red Rose. Since then though it has all started to go rather pear shaped. As we feared injuries have not helped their cause, but there is also a level of frustration with Scotland when it comes to execution and consistency – qualities we thought they had got a handle on last year. Scotland much like England are blessed with some extraordinary individual talent but at times lack the shape and cohesion necessary to make them the force they could and should be. Their decision making particularly from Captain Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russell is not always the best, and for us Russell continues to force the game at times which results in multiple costly errors that simply hand momentum back to the opposition.

As they head into their final two games, they simply have to tighten up their game and rein in the propensity for recklessness that is Russell’s Achilles Heel and with it the team’s. Against France and Wales they rapidly lost shape, and in the French game in particular they appeared to take no cognizance of how superbly well organized France are defensively. In short they looked more and more desperate as the game wore on. Italy as we’ve seen in adversity will be no pushover in Rome and Ireland in Dublin will be a decidedly painful lesson if Scotland haven’t tightened up their game management and decision making. Despite the initial promise this could well be a Six Nations that Scotland will want to forget in a hurry.

The team that just refuses to quit

Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac and Captian Dan Biggar seem to relish defying all the odds stacked against them

Wales had everything against them as the tournament got underway, an injury list from hell and a thumping at the hands of Ireland that made them appear a spent force from the outset. Then came the gritty home win against the Scots followed up by a second half performance at Twickenham that gave England the fright of their lives. Wales could have won that game and if they had we would all be looking at them in rather a different light. As it is now they head back to Cardiff to face the tournament’s red hot favorites France. As we saw against England there was clearly a hint of one genuinely big performance to come from this Welsh side and in front of the Principality faithful it could be this Friday against France. France have yet to prove that they can take their seemingly invincible track record now at the Stade de France on the road with them. They blew apart an inept Scotland a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, but Cardiff will be a veritable cauldron of noise and Wales will be hoping they can be the banana skin that France invariably encounters somewhere along the road in a Six Nations Championship.

Wales are clearly not the force they were in years gone by, but to write them off against France despite the odds stacked against them, would be foolish to say the least. If they do pull off the unthinkable Friday, then all of a sudden a respectable third place finish could be in their sights. In a tournament where nothing is ever a given we can’t wait to see how the the Welsh dragon’s fortunes pan out.

The Wooden Spoon may be inevitable but this is a very competitive and resilient Italian side

Kieran Crowley appears as frustrated at times as any of his predecessors, but Captain Michele Lamaro and his charges have shown some admirable resilience this year and there could yet be a sting in the tail from the Azurri for either Scotland or Wales

Italy are likely going to end up clutching the Wooden Spoon once again this year, but, provided they can put in two solid performances in their final two games, we genuinely feel that we’ve seen a different Italy this year and one which bodes well for the future. Put aside that 57-6 thumping at the hands of Ireland, but we found ourselves taking our hats off to them for the way they approached a match that from the 20th minute on they had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Shorn of two players for the entire match and towards the end down to 12 against 15, they still played with huge character and heart and despite the scoreline Ireland didn’t exactly have things all their way. Italy managed to deny England the points haul the Men in White so desperately needed, and in their opener against France they nobly demonstrated the fact that France never start well managing to hold their own against Les Bleus until the second half.

Captain Michele Lamaro has shown a maturity and degree of leadership well in excess of his 23 years on this planet. In short Italy have a leader who will be able to carry this team for at least the next three World Cups. Italy still have an enormous amount of work to do, and losing their Hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi who has really risen to the task for the rest of the tournament is a hammer blow. However, there is a real belief in this exceptionally young but talented team. Now with the pointless debate about their place in the tournament seemingly dead and buried, we feel that Italy could finally start to get the breathing room to develop into a side that could actually start to hand the Wooden Spoon to somebody else in years to come.

Whichever way you cut it these final two rounds of this year’s Six Nations should be some of the most fascinating we’ve seen in years with points to prove for all!!!

England head to Rome wary of an Italian side that is showing some promise at long last!

Most of the weekend’s thunder will be emanating from the Stade de France on Saturday, but Sunday’s encounter between Italy and England provides us with plenty of intrigue. It’s a potentially fascinating encounter, and Italy’s duel with tournament favorites France last Sunday in Paris was well worth watching. We’ve all said it a thousand times before in the past, but Italy really do look genuinely competitive this year and as a result their journey through the 2022 tournament could be refreshingly different. While we still have trouble seeing them recording a win, we certainly can’t dismiss the idea that they are in with a chance to pull off an upset.

It’s unlikely though that Italy will get that elusive win against an English side smarting from two successive losses to Scotland. Furthermore, the game last weekend at Murrayfield hung in the balance for the longest time. England looked good albeit not as cohesive as they would like. However, we think it’s fairly safe to say that this year England are likely to improve dramatically on their disastrous 2021 Six Nations campaign. England’s opening night nerves in Murrayfield are likely to settle as the tournament wears on, and the crop of new talent England is now banking on for the future start to mesh more effectively with the veterans.

We have to admit that we are looking forward to this one and fascinated to see how well Italy bear up against yet another stern Test. We won’t say much more than that lest we blight their progress with a commentator’s curse. England know what they need to do and look more than capable of getting the result required to get their campaign back on track. So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking looking at the lineups.

Italy finally have a decent second row

Coupled to the dynamic Federico Ruzza, Niccolo Cannone is making sure that Italy’s prowess in the second row is building nicely

The 23 year old Benetton lock grows in stature and ability with every performance in an Azurri jersey. Alongside one of our Italian favorites, Federico Ruzza, Cannone looked impressive last weekend against France. A lot of the statistics pertaining to the set pieces in last weekend’s duel in Paris paint Italy in a fairly positive light. His work rate and tackle count were impressive, while he was particularly effective for Italy in the lineouts. He wasn’t fazed by France’s Cameron Woki and Paul Willemse last weekend and we see no reason that he shouldn’t fare just as well against England’s Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe. If Italy can gain some parity in the set pieces courtesy of Cannone and Ruzza, that level of competitiveness that is clearly Italy’s end goal in terms of development from this tournament will be assured.

Does Eddie Jones really not know what to do with Itoje?

Without any shadow of a doubt, Itoje is one of the most important components of England’s engine room, yet he rarely gets the recognition from Coach Eddie Jones that we feel he deserves in terms of a leadership role

Search YouTube for a clip of Maro Itoje’s 30 second motivational speech to his teammates in the England changing room following their narrow defeat to Scotland last weekend. Once you’ve watched it you’ll understand our conundrum. While we are delighted to see Tom Curry get a shot at wearing the Captain’s armband we have been consistently puzzled by England Coach Eddie Jones continuing reluctance to offer the same honor to Itoje. Itoje has the necessary experience and is such a talismanic figure in the England camp that, at a time when England needs some wise heads speaking from experience, it’s remarkable Itoje is not given more of a leadership role.

If that’s not enough then imagine our surprise at seeing him moved from his traditional role in the second row, to pair with current Captain Tom Curry in the back row. Is he moved there simply to negate the influence of Italy’s highly motivated young Captain Michele Lamaro? We have a hunch that it may well be the case allowing Tom Curry to steal the limelight as Captain of the day. Still we much prefer Itoje in the second row, a role he seems much more effective in. Sunday’s starting Hooker Jamie George has struggled of late with his lineout throwing for England, and is used to having Itoje as an easy target where he expects him to be. Just as England finally looked like they had a balanced back row for the Scotland match, Jones decides yet again to tinker with it. Against Italy he can probably afford to do so, but we still question the logic. Sunday will be the judge, but at least with Itoje you know he will rise to the occasion whatever is asked of him.

Rising to the challenge

At only 23 Italy Captain Michele Lamaro is adapting exceptionally well to the challenge of leading his beleaguered nation

Talking of leadership, we have to take our hat off to Italy’s newest Captain and back rower, Michele Lamaro. Watch a replay of the anthems at the Stade de France last Sunday, and it would be hard to find a more motivated leader, despite the obvious challenges that Italy continues to face in the Six Nations in their struggle to be competitive. He simply looks like a natural and his team respond well to him. He seems to have ditched some of the emotions that tripped him up last year, and now appears a remarkably calm and efficient operator in the heat of battle. In short, he may be young but is operating at a maturity level well above his years, and is a quality Italy have desperately needed since the departure of the legendary Sergio Parisse. Like Parisse, Lamaro has a phenomenal work rate and put in 21 tackles last weekend and played the full eighty minutes with no let up in intensity. He still has work to do in terms of technique and won’t be happy with the four tackles he missed, but there is no denying that he is rapidly putting his stamp on Italy’s emerging future. His contest with England’s Maro Itoje on Sunday, will be a genuine coming of age for Italy’s young but inspirational leader.

Chance for a whizz kid to shine

Scrum half Harry Randall brings a level of flair and pace to the position that is a refreshing change from regular incumbent Ben Youngs’ rather pedestrian approach to the role

England’s baby faced warrior Harry Randall is the most exciting thing that’s happened to the scrum half role in the English camp for a very long time. While Ben Youngs has been a reliable servant, there is no denying that the kind of fizz that Randall brings is exactly what England need to be competitive against the likes of France’s Antoine Dupont. While he may still be too raw and inexperienced to take on such heavyweights during the course of this year’s Championship, a golden opportunity to test his skills against the likes of Italy and Wales is exactly what England need to fast track him to the point where he can be a genuine option come the World Cup. His duel with Italy’s own fresh faced number nine barely out of his teenage years, Stephen Varney, should be one of the highlights of the afternoon. Varney looked very much the schoolboy against France last weekend, and Randall must surely fancy his and England’s chances in Rome on Sunday as a result.

The future of their respective countries is in both their hands

In the continuing theme of the battle of the fly halves that will dominate this year’s Championship, the future of both England and Italy lie with Marcus Smith and Paolo Garbisi

Yes we know we talked about Marcus Smith last weekend, but we have a hunch that it will be a recurring theme this Six Nations. The same can probably be said about Italy’s Paolo Garbisi. With both fly halves well shy of their 25th birthdays, the future is bright for both of their countries. Last weekend, despite moments of absolute genius, England’s Marcus Smith was nevertheless the apprentice to Scotland’s seasoned Finn Russell. After watching Squidge Rugby’s analysis of the dustup at Murrayfield, we found ourselves understanding to some extent Coach Eddie Jones’ reasoning for pulling Smith off the field. At times the pressure was getting to him and he was making some rather uncharacteristic schoolboy mistakes which his opposite number Finn Russell was capitalizing on. Still, we couldn’t help feeling that George Ford didn’t really add much to the equation to reverse England’s fortunes when he came on, and as a result it might have been better to keep Smith on and allow him to learn from his mistakes. Like many we felt that would have been the more prudent course of action, even if we could understand Jones’ reasoning. Shortly before Smith went off he scored a crucial try for England and seemed to be mastering the situation he found himself in and as a result it might of been better for his future development to let him stay the course on the field.

Much the same could be said of his Italian counterpart this weekend, Paolo Garbisi. Garbisi is vital to Italy’s future plans but had a real 50/50 game against France last weekend. His kick to put winger Tommaso Menoncello was exquisite, but he like Smith at times was guilty of schoolboy errors under pressure. However, much like England it is simply not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater at this stage. Unlike with Smith and England, Italy and Coach Kieran Crowley appreciate that they simply have no option other than sticking with Garbisi and helping him through his mistakes. It’s the right approach as Garbisi’s talent is there for all to see and given the fact that at the age of 21 he already has 14 caps to his name, he is only going to get better. He has already been fast tracked out of necessity much more than Smith and although the Englishman is the more naturally gifted of the two, Garbisi is more familiar with the big pressure moments that Sunday’s game will bring. It is going to be a fascinating contest between two world class youngsters. Smith may have the better setup behind him in terms of nurturing his development, but Garbisi’s star will keep rising and England will have to continue to keep him under pressure on Sunday.

While it’s hard to disagree with yet another loss for Italy and an emphatic win for England, this is still a match that holds plenty of interest for both supporters and neutrals alike. Italy could well end up being someone’s banana skin further down the road if they continue on their present trajectory. England meanwhile will want to get their Six Nations campaign back on track and will be aiming for a maximum points haul against a traditionally easy target. However, we have a hunch that Italy may not be quite the pushover that England may be expecting them to be this time around.

Ireland have it all to do if they are to stop the French juggernaut in Paris this Saturday!

Although it’s so early in the day, Round 2 to be precise, it’s hard to not look at Saturday’s clash in Paris as a possible Championship decider. There is little doubt that both teams are red hot at the moment. However, before we all get too carried away, let’s put it in perspective. As good as Ireland and France looked last weekend, they were playing the two sides who will most likely be duking it out for the Wooden Spoon this year – Italy and Wales. To be honest, a shock win for Italy given their resistance against France last Sunday is not beyond the realms of possibility. Had France and Ireland played either Scotland or England and wiped the floor with them last Saturday, then perhaps we would be more akin to the idea of entertaining an early Championship decider. A contest of epic proportions awaits, of that there is no question, but a tournament clincher at this stage – not quite.

Ireland’s performance against a clearly faltering Welsh side last Saturday, was impressive, clinical and played at 300 miles an hour. However, it wasn’t perfect as both Coach Andy Farrell and his charges are keenly aware of. Ireland should in reality have put at least another 12 points on the Welsh last weekend. At times the weather didn’t help and this is an Irish side on fire but one which is still fine tuning its processes, while at the same time finessing some rather extraordinary new talent into the establishment.

As for France, they got off to their usual rusty start at the beginning of every Six Nations tournament. Italy had come to play and were not overly daunted by the calibre of their opponents or the deafening cauldron that a packed Stade de France provided. France’s All Stars struggled to impose themselves on the courageous Italians until the end of the first half. Much like Ireland they should have put at least 10 more points on the scoreboard. However, the engine was clearly purring by the end of the game, even if it hadn’t quite reached the full throttle roar it will need come this Saturday afternoon.

While we remain slightly skeptical of this game being billed as a Championship decider so early in the proceedings, it will without a doubt be one of the most important games of this year’s Six Nations. On that note here’s what got us talking about the potential matchups.

Two of the best at their trade and who will have a very large say in how the game unfolds

France’s Julien Marchand and Ireland’s Ronan Kelleher are rapidly becoming two of the best Hookers in the International game

Dynamic is the word that most often comes to mind when describing the centerpieces of France and Ireland’s front rows. Kelleher may be part of the more fearsome unit, but Marchand’s abilities are so impressive that he can almost carry the front row on his own. What the two have in common is their lightning quick abilities in the loose. Two very powerful ball carriers who excel in open play and pose a constant threat at the breakdowns. Marchand is central to French defense Coach Shaun Edwards’ plans while Kelleher is a brilliant jackaler of the ball. Their respective roles in ensuring who dominates the set pieces as well as getting invaluable go forward momentum will be key as to how Saturday’s game unfolds and who has the edge. Given Kelleher’s skills especially with ball in hand, we’re giving the Irishman the slight edge here, but make no mistake this will be one of the most important contests on the park in Paris on Saturday.

A clash of Titans

Two of the very best in the modern game go head to head in the shape of France and Ireland’s number 8s – Gregory Alldritt and Jack Conan

Make sure you book yourself a front row seat to watch these two remarkable players have at it on Saturday in Paris. There is very little to choose between them, and in our humble opinion there is nobody to equal them in this year’s Six Nations. Both were immense last year in their respective sides’ victories over New Zealand. Their discipline is exemplary and in terms of driving their teams forward you couldn’t ask for better. Two very technical and highly skilled players who do all the unsung work that is so crucial to establishing forward dominance. However, for us the Frenchman has the edge, and leads the two in all the statistics. They both get through the same amount of work, but somehow Alldritt just consistently pulls the higher numbers overall when comparing their seasons so far with one glaring exception – the games against New Zealand. Against the All Blacks the Irishman scored the higher numbers, as impressive as both players were in their respective matches and victories over said fabled opponent. In short, for such a big game you couldn’t ask for two better players and the contest between the two of them on Saturday is likely to have you glued to your TV screens.

A slow start but don’t let it fool you!

Antoine Dupont was clearly recovering from his bout with COVID, but by the end of the match against Italy there was no doubt that he will have spooled up nicely for Ireland

To be honest we were surprised to see French wonder scrum half Dupont feature in last weekend’s match against Italy. Having just recovered from Covid, we had doubts about his match fitness, and thought it an excellent opportunity to blood some depth for France in the position. Given the fact that Italy were able to lead France a merry dance at times, perhaps it was just as well that the pocket sized dynamo was there to restore order. It was clear to see though that at times the game was taking a toll on him physically and overall France’s superstar was not quite up to his usual mesmerizing standard. However, by game end he looked to have found his feet again and Ireland will need to be on their guard. As Sexton is to Ireland, “le petit general” is key to how well France fare on the big occasions.

A vital step on the road to life without Jonny

As valuable as Jonathan Sexton was to getting Ireland off to a dream start last weekend, Joey Carberry’s biggest start to date in an Irish jersey is equally important to Ireland’s long term plans especially with a view to the World Cup

Irish fly half and legend Jonathan Sexton was at the top of his game against Wales last weekend, despite a few goalkicking foibles. The arguments about his age were well and truly buried once more as the veteran provided yet another brilliant example of game management. However, the arguments about Ireland’s depth in the 10 jersey still linger on and Sexton’s inevitable brush with injury this week during training have made it all the more pressing. As good as Sexton is there is no guarantee he will escape injury during the course of the tournament and more importantly in the runup to the World Cup. Consequently the need to develop a reliable and consistent understudy of equal caliber has never been more pressing.

Ireland are likely to feel the loss of Sexton this Saturday in Paris, but it is a golden opportunity for Joey Carberry to resume where he left off in his bid to be the Leinster legend’s successor. To start against France who are most likely going to be your biggest threat in this year’s campaign is the ultimate Test, and if Carberry can pull it off it will stand him in excellent stead for England and Scotland should the stretcher bearers get a hold of Sexton again later in the tournament. Carberry has battled injury problems of his own, and as a result Connacht’s Jack Carty awaits on the bench. For us this is an equally important opportunity for Ireland. Given Carberry’s propensity for injury Ireland need a Plan B and if Carty can replicate his form for Connacht then Ireland could perhaps finally start to think of a “life without Jonny” when it eventually comes to pass.

As a debut it doesn’t get much better than last weekend – but now the real test begins!

Irish winger Mack Hansen had the dream debut against Wales, but France and Damian Penaud will be a completely different beast that will really determine if the Australian import is the real deal

We were blown away by Mack Hansen’s debut in an Irish jersey last weekend against Wales. It wasn’t just good it was spectacular, and a bit like Scotland’s Darcy Graham the man was everywhere, and at times seemed just as comfortable in the center channels as he did out wide. Great with ball in hand but also capable of some absolutely sublime offloads, Hansen is the most exciting thing to happen to Ireland on the wings since Jacob Stockdale. Ironically, although his dancing feet and silky hands put in a huge shift at the Aviva last Saturday, he scored no tries of his own as he was simply too busy setting up tries for everyone else. This is a really gifted footballer and coupled with Andrew Conway on the other wing, Ireland have an exceptionally potent strike threat out wide. The big Test for Hansen this Saturday will be if he can contain his opposite number the exceptionally elusive Damian Penaud who is arguably one of the best players in the world at the moment gracing the 14 jersey. Saturday’s match may be less about Hansen’s natural razzle dazzle, and more about how well his defensive skills are up to the task of containing the slippery Frenchman, who has proven that he needs only the slightest of gaps in which to carve out huge chunks of real estate for his team.

It’s set to be an absolute thriller with the weather on cue to cooperate and favor two sides who simply love to run the ball at the moment. It’s hard to argue against the odds being slightly tilted in France’s favor at home and against an Irish side missing such a key player as Sexton. Even without Sexton though this is an exceptionally capable Irish outfit that have rediscovered the joy of an open game. Ultimately it will come down to who can channel the power of two bruising forward packs and the pace of two sets of silky backs, and turn it all into points on the scoreboard most effectively. Either way you simply won’t want to miss this one, and we have a hunch that wherever you are on Saturday, it’s one you’ll be catching live as opposed to on demand!!!

Scotland arrive in Cardiff looking to add even more impetus to an impressive start to their Six Nations campaign while Wales hope that home advantage may bring some salvation!

Wales’ first of three home Six Nations games sees them having to take on a Scottish side oozing confidence after back to back Calcutta Cup victories over England. Wales are not the Championship winning side of 2021 and in many ways are a mere shadow of it. Their current form is more likely to put them in in danger of going head to head with Italy this year for the Wooden Spoon. However, playing in front of a sold out Principality Stadium crowd will be a powerful tonic for the Men in Red and as a result to write them off would be beyond foolish. Scotland will know that and come prepared. There weren’t too many positives last weekend for Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac’s men, but their cause hasn’t been helped by their ongoing injury crisis, and an opener against a red hot Ireland was never going to be a simple task. We can’t help feeling that Wales can’t get any worse than they were in Dublin and as the tournament wears on, especially now they only have one more away game left, their fortunes should improve.

Scotland will breeze into Cardiff knowing that they almost ruined Wales’ party last year, and on the basis of that controlled win over England last Saturday, they seem more than comfortable with handling big pressure moments. It also should be borne in mind that their track record away from Murrayfield in last year’s Six Nations was rather impressive as they won both of their away games against England and France no less. Barring the loss of back rower Jamie Ritchie due to injury for this match and sadly the rest of the tournament, Scotland look in rather rude health and more than up for the challenge that awaits them. There is little doubt that they are the form team of the two heading into this match, and that their Welsh opponents have it all to prove.

“Bash em Basham” – some genuine excitement for Welsh fans

Wales didn’t have much to cheer about last weekend, but flanker Taine Basham managed to lift Welsh spirits consistently and scored the Men in Red’s only try

Wales came perilously close to experiencing a 29-0 rout to Ireland last weekend. Wales looked out of sorts and clearly very few of them were aware of what kind of game they were supposed to be playing and how to execute it. However, new back row sensation Taine Basham was the exception from start to finish. Involved in every aspect of the game, he matched everything that Ireland threw at his colleagues for the full eighty minutes. He put in a staggering 22 tackles and missed none of them. He was a menace at the breakdown, made 14 carries and 34 metres, beat 2 defenders and in general was a complete handful for Ireland. In short, he was one of the few Welsh players that Ireland really had to contain last Saturday.

Unfortunately for Basham, the rest of the Welsh back row hardly fired a shot, even the impressive Ellis Jenkins. Their second row was for the most part ineffective not helped by a dismal 67% success rate in the lineouts and a scrum that simply got obliterated by Ireland’s powerhouse trio both in the the set pieces and the loose. As good as Basham is, he simply can’t be the one man Welsh forward army this Saturday that he was in Dublin. His colleagues need to follow his example as they take on what is rapidly becoming a rather accomplished and capable Scottish pack. His contest with Scottish firebrand and Six Nations player of 2021 Hamish Watson will be one of the highlights of the weekend!

Coming of age

In a Scottish back row that is rapidly gaining in stature, Matt Fagerson’s stint in the 8 jersey against England last weekend gained him a worthy Man of the Match accolade.

We had an inkling that Scottish number 8 Matt Fagerson was destined for great things when he arrived in the Scottish camp back in 2018. Since then he has improved steadily every season. However, his Man of the Match performance against England last weekend, announced his coming of age at Test Level. He may not be of the same stature and prowess as say Ireland’s Jack Conan or France’s Gregory Aldritt, but like England’s Alex Dombrandt expect Fagerson to be causing havoc from now on leading up to the World Cup. He lasted the full eighty minutes and hardly looked like he’d really broken a sweat. He got the better of English wrecking ball Sam Simmonds and if anything negated the Englishman’s presence. Fagerson was the glue that held a very solid and effective Scottish back row together. He never missed a beat especially when Jamie Ritchie had to be taken off the field with injury and if anything made up for Ritchie’s absence by doubling his already considerable efforts. We have a hunch that his composure may get the better of his more volatile Welsh opposite number Ross Moriarty this weekend.

Dynamic Duo

The chemistry between Scottish Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg and his playmaker extraordinaire fly half Finn Russell is plain for all to see

The eyes of the world last weekend were on the 10 and 15 jerseys at Murrayfield. To say that Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russsell understand each other, is likely to be one of the biggest understatements of this year’s Championship. Hogg clearly trusts his playmaker and despite some questionable decision making in the past, Russell seems to have finally mastered the art of consistency in how he manages a game. Gone last weekend were those hail Mary moments that had been a hallmark of Russell’s game in years gone by and would have Scottish fans holding their breath or averting their eyes.

Russell was up against a fellow magician of rather extraordinary talent in the shape of England’s Marcus Smith. As talented as Smith is, he was on Saturday to Finn Russell what Harry Potter is to Albus Dumbledore. In short, Smith still has plenty to learn but Russell has mastered the full range of magic required to compete at this level under the most intense pressure. A similar analogy could be made between England’s Freddie Steward and Scottish Captain Stuart Hogg in the fifteen jersey, as another case of Master and highly talented but still rather raw Apprentice played out in front of us. The Scottish duo clearly understand and trust each other, and with Russell’s vision and sleight of hand and foot, Hogg and his back line wizards are able to utilize their considerable talents to the full. It’s a very dangerous pairing and looks set to rattle some of the world’s best over the coming weeks.

An axis that simply has to work this week – plain and simple!

Wales chose to gamble with their center pairings last weekend and it was a complete disaster – with Tompkins and Watkin this weekend they have to get it right

Let’s be completely honest the decision to play winger Josh Adams at center last weekend was an unmitigated disaster. Adams is a great winger make no mistake, but completely at sea in the center channels. Watch any replay of last weekend’s game and defensively he is almost always positioning himself to defend out wide. Ireland read him like a book and simply ran inside him all afternoon. Allied to Nick Tompkins who was having trouble making any of his own tackles stick, Ireland found it to be open season in the center of the park – a fact that Gary Ringrose and Bundee Aki made the Welsh keenly aware of. One has to feel slightly sorry for Adams as this week he finds himself out of the match day 23.

Consequently, this weekend Tompkins needs to make sure his tackles stick and he reads the game correctly, something he failed to do on numerous occasions last weekend. His partner Owen Watkin will need to help anchor Wales’ ship in the midfield. To be honest we were rather baffled at his omission last weekend in favor of Adams. He played an instrumental part in Wales run to the semi finals at the last World Cup and although like Tompkins he is a potential liability on defense, the two can be a potent force on attack. They will have their work cut out for them this weekend as they go up against the exceptional Chris Harris for Scotland, and newcomer Sione Tuipulotu who made such an impressive debut last weekend in his cameo for the final quarter against England.

Who says size matters?

Scotland’s pint size winger Darcy Graham punched WAY above his weight last weekend and appears to have modeled himself on South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe

Winger Darcy Graham may not be the biggest man on the park but that hardly slows him down. He thrived out wide last weekend for Scotland against England, tackled like a demon and was more than willing to lend a hand in the rucks and when required by his forward pack. His try ably assisted by England’s hapless Luke Cowan Dickie sealed the deal for Scotland, along with the opening try for Scotland that he set up for Ben White. However, it was his tireless efforts for the full eighty minutes that most impressed us. His colleague on the other side of the park, Duhan van der Merwe, may have stolen the thunder at times with his bullocking runs, but the fact that Graham was literally everywhere and often doing things that a player of his stature should on paper have no business attempting, made him one of the stars of the show last Saturday. This weekend he is up against Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit who, despite clearly battling with an ankle niggle last weekend, is a player of the same caliber. However, given the fact that Darcy will be weaving chaos from every angle of the park, we fear the Welshman despite his remarkable talents may appear rather one dimensional by comparison. Either way watch that side of the park on Saturday.

It’s hard not to see a pumped up and clinically proficient Scotland, who seem to fare rather well on the road, get the better of a Welsh side clearly struggling with injuries and an identity crisis. The Principality Stadium will add lots of noise and passion, but these Scottish lads just seem far too composed right now to let it get to them. It may not have the billing of the France/Ireland game which follows it, but we can’t think of a better way to get your Six Nations Saturday started!

In a rain soaked Paris, Italy seek to be competitive against the tournament favorites France!

In the final game of the opening round of this year’s Six Nations the byword is in the tagline above – Italy simply need to try and be competitive a trait they will need to demonstrate throughout this tournament. There is literally a snowball’s chance in hell that they are going to pull one over the mighty French in a rain sodden Stade de France on Sunday. However, if they can keep themselves in the match for at least the first hour, much as they did for the first 30 minutes against the All Blacks in November, then Kieran Crowley and his charges will have started their Six Nations campaign in the vein in which they mean to continue.

As for France, they will be seeking to lay down a marker that they are the team to beat this year and then some. To that effect Coach Fabien Galthie has brought a star studded cast to the Stade de France and a fully loaded squad. Looking at the lineup there are simply no deficiencies in it and it’s a thoroughly tried and tested set of combinations. In short, nothing is being left to chance. France often start the Six Nations with a wobble and although nobody can really entertain the idea of them losing to Italy on home soil, there is no denying that a degree of rustiness is often present in the squad in their opening match of the tournament. It is precisely for that reason that Galthie has chosen to stick with his big guns for a match where had it been further into the tournament, he would probably have had the luxury of experimenting with his setups and resting some tired bodies.

While the victor is in little doubt, this should still be a fascinating contest as we get to see how competitive Italy can be and how dominant France really are, especially against weaker opposition. Like all the games this weekend, the weather will play a part and probably be more of a handicap for the Italians than the French, so don’t necessarily expect a free flowing game and instead one where both sides cautiously test their Six Nations straps.

France’s player of the tournament in the making?

While there will be plenty of attention focused on France’s all star backs and half backs, we have a hunch that utility forward Cameron Woki may end up stealing the show this Six Nations

While the media are literally fainting over France’s all star half back combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack who will feature in this match, spare a thought for utility forward Cameron Woki. He was utterly outstanding in last year’s Six Nations and against the All Blacks. Exceptionally versatile and a player who surprisingly has never played in the second row until his French callup, Woki is a massive weapon in France’s arsenal. His presence dominates lineouts, adds an unstoppable power to rolling mauls and in the loose he is devastatingly effective. In short, he is one of the most complete forward players we have seen France produce. To top it all off he is only 23. Expect to see him make the headlines week in week out this Six Nations and Italy will have their hands full keeping him in check on Sunday.

Ruzza is finally seen as a starter

It has puzzled us for the last two years how outstanding Italian second rower Federico Ruzza has always been consigned to the bench

If we can say one positive thing about new Italian Coach Keiran Crowley it is that he has, unlike his predecessors, seen the value of starting second rower Federico Ruzza instead of keeping him on the bench. This is possibly due to Crowley’s time at Ruzza’s club Benetton and a familiarity with what the feisty utility forward can contribute to his team’s efforts. Ball in hand Ruzza is a genuinely dangerous prospect and he’s also rather handy at producing turnover ball. In short, we are delighted to see the big man finally get the recognition he deserves. He’ll have his hands full trying to contain France’s wonder weapon Cameron Woki, but if he can compete it will be a telling indication of how well Italy will fare this Six Nations.

Garbisi’s biggest Six Nations to date

Garbisi’s skill set is remarkable especially given his age, and how well he is able to keep his opponent guessing will be key to how well Italy fares in what is their most important Six Nations campaign to date

There is no question that Italian fly half Paolo Garbisi has talent by the bucket load, but he has also become in the blink of an eye the talisman around which his team will succeed or fail. If Garbisi is having a good day then so will Italy. He has an aura around him almost akin to the legendary Sergio Parisse. We’re just not sure that he has mastered the art of running a game in the wet. In dry conditions, provided he can maintain his accuracy then he can be one of the Six Nations most skillful competitors. However, in conditions that don’t favor a running game Garbisi is simply not as confident or assured. If he can add that string to his already accomplished bow on Sunday, then Italian fortunes will continue to rise.

The Six Nations leading try scorer in the making?

We have a hunch that French winger Damian Penaud will be leading the try scoring statistics this Six Nations

To put it simply, French winger Damian Penaud can score from ANYWHERE! We were always slightly bemused at how he was often glossed over come selection time by former French Coaches, but under Galthie Penaud has blossomed into the superstar he was always destined to be. He’ll have a genuine match on his hands as he’ll have to keep Italian speedster Monty Ioane in check. The difference is that Penaud has mastered the ability to cross the whitewash in all conditions – rain or shine. Penaud is your all season winger and although the conditions on Sunday are unlikely to favor a free flowing game, Penaud will find a way to gain some traction and build up a head of steam in slippery conditions. Give him the ball and a chink of light in the defence and no matter what the weather is doing – he’s gone plain and simple!

A very solid last line of defense

With Melvyn Jaminet, France like England and Ireland are very secure at the back of the park

A revelation on the tour to Australia and outstanding against New Zealand in November, French fullback Melvyn Jaminet took the French rugby public by storm last year. To be honest until then we’d never heard of him, but now he is such an integral part of French planning that it’s hard to see how they ever lived without him. Brice Dulin is equally talented but somehow Jaminet has shown that he has the cooler head under pressure in a very short space of time. France’s propensity for flair has sometimes made decision making at the back less than stellar on occasion. However, with Jaminet running France’s last line of defense there is a security which the rest of his teammates can take great comfort from. In short, France like England’s Freddie Steward and Ireland’s Hugo Keenan, have reliability and sound decision making built into their fifteen jersey in the shape of Jaminet.

Like we say the outcome isn’t really in doubt and is clearly in France’s favor. However, it should nevertheless be a fascinating and important encounter for both sides and an opportunity to lay down their respective statements of intent for this Six Nations.

A perfect storm brews at Murrayfield between two sides with everything to prove and scores to settle!

Six Nations games between England and Scotland have always been packed brimful of expectation and emotion, but in recent years they have started to become the stuff of legend. Can anyone ever forget that remarkable Scotland comeback from 31-7 down in the second half in 2019 at Twickenham? Then there was last year’s heroics on the same ground as Scotland secured their first victory at England HQ since 1983. Ironically, Murrayfield doesn’t seem to produce the same level of success against the English. In their last five encounters at Murrayfield Scotland have only won one of them.

As for England, that defeat to Scotland last year at the start of the tournament on such hallowed ground stung them to the core, and in many ways set the tone for what would prove to be a disastrous English Six Nations campaign. To say that Eddie Jones and his charges are out to return the favor this time on Scotland’s home turf would be a bit of understatement. The conditions look set to be horrific and would seem to favor the grit and determination approach favored by England as opposed to the pace and skill game of Scotland. Both sides have players of enormous talent and could provide us with a thrill ride of note, but we fear that Mother Nature is likely going to put a bit of a damper on proceedings, excuse the pun. Consequently it will be more of a slog than a F1 race, and as a result the team that can endure the longest while keeping their composure and discipline will emerge the winner.

England’s front row may creak but the glue that binds it is exceptionally strong

England Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie has plenty of reasons to keep smiling

We have genuine concerns about England’s front row, particularly in terms of balance as we feel it is just not gelling. For us Kyle Sinckler is too much of liability in terms of discipline and technique at Tighthead despite his bruising abilities in the loose, and the same could be said to a certain degree of Ellis Genge on the other side. However, their man in the middle Luke Cowan-Dickie need make no apologies. In our opinion he’s the best option England have by a comfortable margin, and one that is only going to get better. England’s bench doesn’t really fill us with confidence either with the possible exception of renaissance man Joe Marler. While Scotland may also struggle with front row balance, and let’s not talk about their woeful lineout accuracy, we still feel it’s a more cohesive and effective unit. With that said though we feel it’s Cowan-Dickie’s technique and abilities in the set pieces that may ultimately give England the slight edge in the front row contests.

Scotland’s dynamic duo look set to cause havoc once more

One of England’s biggest problems on Saturday will be trying to wipe that irrepressible grin off of Scottish back rower Hamish Watson’s face

One of our favorite back row pairings in the Six Nations is back in action again on Saturday and will be up to their usual mischief. Scotland’s Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie take great pleasure in raining on England’s parade and are rather effective at it. Watson is everywhere disrupting rucks, making turnovers and generally making a massive nuisance of himself while Ritchie plays the role of enforcer in the set pieces and physical battles. The pair are ferocious competitors and take very few prisoners. They will be up against it this time as England finally look to have a settled and balanced back row, with some equally dynamic ball players. However, even if the conditions don’t allow Scotland their preferred chaos management stlye of game, much of the work done by these two will set the tone of how well Scotland will be able to cope with Plan B.

England finally decide what they want their back row to look like

“Alright mate – it’s not just a number then after all” – England Coach Eddie Jones at long last recognizes the value of a specialist number eight now that he is spoilt for choice

After seemingly denying the value of a specialist number eight, England Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to listen to his critics, and include not just one but two in his matchday 23 to face Scotland. The long suffering Sam Simmonds finally gets to start at eight in place of Tom Curry. Curry fulfilled the role with admirable efficiency at times last year, but is still much more valuable as a flanker where he now finds himself along with wearing the Captain’s armband. For Simmonds though it’s been a long time coming and very much overdue given his outstanding form at club level with Exeter. England really are spoilt for choice here as once the dynamic Simmonds starts to tire, Jones gets to bring on Harlequins demolition expert Alex Dombrandt whose presence in an England jersey was consistently called for by England supporters during the course of last year. It’s a position where we feel Scotland are really going to struggle to compete, and despite Matt Fagerson being ably assisted by Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, England may just have too much power here.

Wizarding Wars

When it comes to outrageous talent, it’s hard to beat Scotland’s Finn Russell and England’s Marcus Smith in the number 10 jersey

Of all the contests this weekend, the battle of the fly halves at Murrayfield will be the most influential. Marcus Smith may be the new kid on the block in terms of Test Rugby compared to Finn Russell who is no stranger to the roller coaster ride of the Six Nations, but the Englishman’s skill set is every bit as good as his opposite number. Both individuals are hungry for success, but we’d argue that as driven as Smith is, despite his youth he appears to have the more measured head on his shoulders. We are often in awe of Finn Russell who can produce miracles out of nothing, but all too often he loses sight of the larger picture, something we feel that Smith is better at grasping despite his lack of Test experience.

Russell is a world class 10 plain and simple, but we feel that he often only sees the game through the lenses of a fly half. Smith on the other hand, in the few Tests we’ve seen him play so far, seems to have a better eye to what the game may be looking like for the rest of his squad mates. He is a remarkable player, but despite his almost manic competitiveness he always looks like he has weighed up all his options before committing himself, even if he has done it in the blink of an eye. Although Finn Russell has become slightly less reckless in his approach to managing Scotland’s game, he is still prone to rolling the dice and hoping that luck favors the brave. Sometimes it works for Scotland with spectacular success but when it doesn’t Scotland start to unravel very quickly. We can’t wait to see who fortune favors on Saturday, but given the conditions the odds may be slightly stacked in the Smith camp.

Scotland’s Power and Pace combo may lose out to Mother Nature

It would be a great shame if we don’t get to see Scotland’s Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe operate at full throttle as a result of the weather

Unfortunately as talented as they are, the weather at Murrayfield on Saturday may just not favor the 100 mile an hour game that fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Duhan van der Merwe prefer. For Scotland’s fleet footed but devastatingly powerful winger raised on the hard dry pitches of the highveld, conditions may mean that we see little of him. With gale force winds predicted it’s also unlikely there will be a lot of aerial contests from which Hogg can launch his lightning fast counter attacks that can leave defenders guessing for an unbroken 50 metres. England’s Max Malins and new fullback sensation Freddie Steward can provide an equal number of thrills but we’d argue that the big English fullback is likely to be slightly better at adapting to the conditions despite his lack of Test experience. If the two Scots are allowed to run wild then England could be at sixes and sevens defensively, especially the new kids on the block in the back line. However, we can’t help get the feeling that simply may not be the case if Mother Nature has her way in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Either way it should be a cracking game and one of the most anticipated of the tournament and you won’t want to miss it. In many ways we feel that Scotland have more to prove of the two especially in front of a home crowd, and that added to the weather may mean England squeak a narrow win and level the playing field between these two sides after last year. But then nothing in this glorious tournament is ever a certainty and definitely not between these two sides, so bring on Saturday and let the game do the talking!

Ireland line up at the Aviva with a squad that looks set to take no Welsh prisoners!

And so it begins!!! The tournament that we anticipate more than any other is finally about to get underway. After the empty stadiums of the past two years, the crowds are back and will add that critical 16th man element to every home team as well as all the color and festive atmosphere the tournament has lacked courtesy of the pandemic. Covid is still likely to throw all the teams the odd curveball throughout the tournament, but with the World Cup only 18 months away and all six teams looking in fine fettle, this is likely to be a tournament to remember for many a year to come.

Ireland and Wales get us underway this Saturday, in wet and blustery conditions at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Ireland are one of the favorites to lift the trophy on March 19th, while defending champions Wales’ luck seems to have run out before the tournament has even started. But as everyone knows in recent years this is a tournament, that perhaps with the exception of Italy, the form book seems not to respect. In short, anything can happen on the day and while Ireland look an incredibly daunting prospect especially at home, to write off Wales’ before the opening whistle would be not only disrespectful but rather foolish to say the least. Wales got the better of Ireland last year in Cardiff in a hard fought encounter, and despite the conditions on Saturday expect no less in Dublin as both teams have everything to prove.

So here’s what got us talking ahead of this critical opening fixture for both sides.

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Ireland’s front row is the most feared of any side in the tournament and rightly so

Everyone who has read this blog, knows that we think Ireland’s front row stocks of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadgh Furlong are the benchmark by which all other teams will have to measure themselves against this Six Nations. They have arguably the world’s best Tighthead prop in Tadgh Furlong. On the opposite side the highly versatile Andrew Porter who can cover both Loosehead and Tighthead, is a wrecking ball of note. Add into the mix Ronan Kelleher who is probably one of the fastest and most destructive Hookers in the modern game and Ireland have it all going on up front. The only mild concern is Kelleher’s lineout throwing but it certainly looked like it had come on leaps and bounds during the November series and we’d argue Wales’ Ryan Elias has much more to worry about in that regard. Their bench are no slackers either but more on that in a minute. Wales are going to really struggle to compete with these three, especially in inclement weather. Expect Ireland to build a dominant platform up front that takes no prisoners and dictates the tone of the match from the outset.

Irelands wealth of forward riches now extend to the front row

Just when Ronan Kelleher thought it was safe to frame his Ireland 2 jersey, along comes Dan Sheehan

There is no doubt that incumbent Ronan Kelleher earned his stripes in 2021 to make him Irish Coach Andy Farrell’s first choice Hooker. However, if you’ve watched Leinster this season in the URC, young Dan Sheehan has been tearing up pitches wherever he goes. Boasting a skill set just as good as Kelleher’s, albeit with a slightly different approach to how he plays the position, Sheehan has been a revelation at Leinster. As a result we are delighted to see him get a spot on the bench for Ireland’s Six Nations opener. Ireland lose nothing other than experience by bringing him off the bench, and with an eye to the World Cup just around the corner, getting Sheehan some serious game time over the coming weeks will really strengthen Ireland’s depth and options in such a crucial position.

A crucial back row axis that despite missing some traditional firepower could well be Wales’ salvation

While Wales may be missing the likes of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins and new kid on the block Taine Basham certainly made us sit up and take notice in November.

If you’re going to be even remotely competitive against Ireland, then the battles in the back row will be key. Lack firepower here and it will be all over but for the crying. While Wales are reeling from an injury list from hell in their back row stocks, it is definitely made up for in the shape of Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham. Jenkins returned after two years out from a horrific injury to be Wales’ most impressive performer of their November campaign. Meanwhile, newcomer Taine Basham lived up to all the hype surrounding him. The two flankers will be up against it as they wrestle to keep Ireland’s Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier in check, but we fully expect to see them make a decent fist of it. Without question the battles fought in this part of the park will be the most important indicator of how Wales will fare in this match. If these two can slow down that powerhouse Irish back row and create some go forward ball of their own, then all of a sudden the bookmakers may have to start retooling their betting odds.

Just one of the many reasons that Ireland’s future looks so bright

Ireland’s Caelan Doris exceeded all expectations in his breakout year in 2021 and we can only imagine how much better he’ll be this year

One thing Ireland has become very, very good at in recent years is churning out a seemingly endless stream of world class back rowers. Caelan Doris is just one more recent example, but he could well end up becoming Ireland’s most important player this tournament. Alongside the fleet footed Josh van der Flier who is back to his very best, Doris took the rugby public by storm last year. Highly mobile, dynamic in the rucks and mauls and seemingly impossible to bring down, expect to see Doris featuring heavily in the highlights of Ireland’s exploits in the coming weeks. Alongside van der Flier and the remarkable Jack Conan, Doris could make it an exceptionally long and painful day at the office for the Welsh as this is an Irish back row that could prove next to impossible to contain.

Two Captains who suffer no illusions as to what’s at stake

Welsh fly half and Captain Dan Biggar knows like his opposite number Jonathan Sexton that your Six Nations opener will set the tone for the rest of your campaign.

Your heart has to go out to this year’s Welsh Captain Dan Biggar. How do you possibly step into the shoes of a persona as large as injured Welsh Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones? While Ireland struggles with the Sexton succession question, for now they know they simply can’t do without him. Fortunately for Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, Sexton’s recent form has proven that the wily veteran is still at the top of his game. If Biggar can figure out what some of the rabbits Sexton is likely to pull out his rather large hat might look like, he will be able to keep Wales in the match. However, in the conditions likely to plague the Aviva on Saturday afternoon your money has to be with Ireland’s man for all seasons. Like many of the matchups over the coming weeks, the battle of the fly halves will determine the outcome of this Six Nations and Saturday’s encounter in Dublin is a case in point. While every game is key in this tournament, your opener is arguably the most important in the competition. At this stage it’s a level playing field for everyone and how you succeed or fail in Round 1 can often set the tone for how the rest of your campaign will play out and how your opponents perceive you in terms of their own planning.

Conditions in Dublin on Saturday will mean that this contest will most likely be a war of attrition in the trenches amongst the forwards. It’s unlikely that we will see the speed and grace of Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit or the weaving runs of new Irish sensation and debutant Mack Hansen. As a result if that is the case it’s hard not to tip your hat in favor of the Irish for this one. Allied to Sexton’s game management Ireland are probably the better equipped side to manage such a slugfest. Either way, as an opener to the glorious festival of rugby we are about to indulge in over the coming weeks we couldn’t ask for better!

This year’s Six Nations looks set to be the most exciting and unpredictable annual classic that we’ve seen in a very long time!!!!

Yes it’s finally here, a tournament that for most of us is the highlight of our annual rugby calendar. That in no way detracts from the Rugby Championship for our Southern Hemisphere friends but as International Test Rugby’s oldest annual dustup, the Six Nations has so much history behind it that it’s hard to top in terms of a sense of occasion. Some editions have been less than stellar but this year’s competition looks set to have us glued to our TV screens for the next two months. Add into the mix the colorful crowds, which are such an integral and important part of this classic tournament, and ladies and gentleman get ready to start your engines this Saturday!

Good natured debates are already crowding the airwaves and discussions in pubs and bars around the globe as rugby’s oldest tournament prepares to spool up once more. There is no doubt that as always there are some clear front runners, but in our opinion this year’s tournament looks set to be one of the closest in history. We are fairly certain however that a Grand Slam for any of the six participants is quite frankly out of the question. Even the best, whom many think this year are France are going to encounter a banana skin along the way to Super Saturday on March 19th.

So without any further ado, let’s do our own bit of initial crystal ball gazing as to what the teams might be able to expect out of this year’s tournament.

France – the sleeping giant is finally awake!

We have to go along with the general consensus that France look like the team to beat this year, but a Grand Slam is not in the mix for les Bleus

Oh France what will you give us this year? The rugby media is literally fainting at the door to the French dressing room, such is the adulation for Fabien Galthie and his charges. To be honest we find it all a bit much. Don’t get us wrong we hold France in the greatest regard and think that this current group of individuals in blue jerseys is one of the most formidable units in Test rugby. But invincible – absolutely not. Sure they have a pretty admirable draw card with home matches against their two toughest opponents England and Ireland, but consistency is just not a strong suit in France’s arsenal. Under Galthie they are almost there and this is probably the most composed and clinical French side we’ve seen in the last 50 years. The killer instinct is there without the emotion which at times has tripped them up on so many occasions.

However, as we saw last year they are still prone to moments that defy all logic and scupper their lofty ambitions. As good as France are presently, we just can’t see them winning every single match. Away matches in Cardiff and Murrayfield could be their greatest stumbling blocks, especially as Scotland managed to pull one over on them in Paris last year. While we think they should comfortably get the measure of England in Paris in their final match, even that is not a given. What happens if England’s new breed of talent turn the tables upside down and arrive at the Stade de France unbeaten on March 19th? There’s also that rather problematic visit of a red hot Ireland in Round 2 – a side who knows what it’s like to upset France on home soil against all the odds. So in short nothing is a given for France this year.

It’s pretty hard to see any weaknesses in this French side, but if we had to pick out any it would perhaps be in their front row. We’re just not convinced they’ve found the right balance there yet as compared to a side like Ireland. But apart from that it’s a pretty impressive looking squad from 1 to 23, even despite the absence of one or two stars from last year. Their second row stocks look sound, particularly in the shape of newcomer Thibaud Flament. Their back row, like Ireland and England’s, packs a hefty punch, while their half back pairings are the stuff of fantasy. In the centres they appear to have lots of exciting options and their back line just oozes class and pedigree.

They are missing some key players through injury most notably last year’s Captain Charles Ollivon, and you can almost be certain that Covid and its mutations along with further injuries will have an impact on the squad roster as the tournament unfolds. Although this concern will not be unique to France and is one faced by all the competitors. In short, expect the 2022 edition of France to wow us every weekend, and most likely go on to lift the trophy on March 19th. However it won’t be on the back of a Grand Slam and the road there will involve a few more nail biting finishes than Monsieur Galthie would probably like.

Ireland – the side everyone seems afraid of!

Ireland look just as good as France in our opinion and will be the side that most likely wrecks everyone’s Grand Slam hopes

Ireland definitely won’t repeat their Grand Slam success of 2018, but they are going to be everyone’s biggest problem side. Beat Ireland and then you can start to entertain thoughts of Six Nations Glory. There are still some personnel questions, such as how much longer can Ireland really rely on Jonathan Sexton, especially with a World Cup just round the corner? What’s more important – claiming a Six Nations crown with Sexton at the helm or using the tournament to put his understudies to the ultimate Test? We’ll leave that one up for debate.

With that aside though Ireland look in terrifyingly rude health. They have depth in every position, with an increasingly impressive crop of youngsters rapidly stepping up to take on the legacy that Sexton and his league of veterans will leave behind. The Irish front row is hands down the strongest in the tournament, as is probably their back row, with only a few lingering question marks of how to achieve the best balance in the second row. Apart from the ongoing debates about the halfback berths, there is talent aplenty there, and a daunting mix of veterans and youngsters look set to make up midfield and back line pairings that would put a smile on any Coach’s face. Whatever you say about Sexton’s age there is no doubt that at the swansong of his career he is playing some of the best rugby of his illustrious playing days, and there is definitely still life left in the old dog yet.

Ireland have arguably their two toughest fixtures on the road, against England and France, and it remains to be seen how good this new look Ireland is on the road. Their enterprise and speed of play is an absolute joy to watch and will provide France and England with a plethora of headaches in how to contain it, let alone a hospital full of bruised bodies. The rather stodgy, but defensively sound and disciplined Ireland of the Joe Schmidt era has evolved into a Hummer chassis with a Ferrari engine and Mercedes reliability. In short, it’s going to hurt you and keep you guessing while reaching for the oxygen tanks at half time. We see a strong second place finish for Ireland provided they can handle either England or France, but beware of the Scottish smoking gun when it shows up at the Aviva.

England – Eddie Jones’ young whizz kids will impress but remain pretenders to the throne for now

“Oh alright – let’s do this change thing” – Eddie Jones is finally forced to play his young guns and so far it all looks rather promising as a work in progress even if it is perhaps too little too late in terms of 2023

Has Eddie Jones finally taken popular opinion into account in his selection decisions? Not a man to be swayed by what the media or lesser mortals like the general public and England supporters think, Jones’ rather Thatcherite approach to Coaching has meant that England’s aspiring youngsters have not seen much game time until lately. With his regular choice at Captain, Owen Farrell out with injury for the entire tournament, and his second choice Courtney Lawes probably in the same boat, Jones has been forced to embrace change at long last. This is one of the most exciting looking English units we’ve seen since 2015.

England are still too raw in our opinion to lift this year’s silverware, but they have everything to prove and in their enthusiasm to do so will upset most of their opponents over the coming weeks. Like Ireland, they will deny anyone who has the gall to think a Grand Slam is a possibility this year. France may be a bridge too far in the final round in Paris, but Ireland are certainly a tasty proposition on home soil in front of an ecstatic Twickenham crowd. They also have the advantage of an under strength Welsh side paying them a visit. However, their opener in the hostile cauldron of Murrayfield will be the sternest test of this new look England.

Make no mistake this is a very good English side. Their front and second rows do concern us and we feel may struggle, especially against Ireland. However, from there they go from strength to strength. It seems Jones is finally about to establish the balanced back row he has lacked for so long. His halfback options, led by the truly outstanding Marcus Smith look strong and we really hope that Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke are going to get lots of game time alongside him in the scrum half position. England’s centre pairings are really the only other weak link in the chain Henry Slade excepted. However, out wide and at the back, with their find of last year Freddie Steward, they look solid though perhaps not as accomplished as their French rivals.

In short, we expect England to charge hard for a solid third place finish, and possibly even second place if France and Ireland have too many consistency wobbles along the road to March 19th.

Scotland – more like a smoking howitzer than just a gun

Scotland are having rather a lot of fun these days at everyone else’s expense

Scotland have excelled in the last few years at wrecking their Six Nations’ opponents parties. While they are not quite at the stage where they can realistically entertain ideas of lifting Six Nations silverware, they are really good at destroying everybody else’s ambitions to do the same. Scotland are a really good side that for the most part are a joy to watch and, next to France, probably play the tournament’s most exciting brand of rugby. The problem is that they tend to like throwing caution to the wind a bit too much for our liking, and it has a habit of wrecking their own party. Their joyful exuberance simply gets in the way of finishing the job all too often. While we sincerely hope this year will be different, with Finn Russell running the show at fly half, we still feel that there is an element of recklessness at times which will cause Scotland to fall at the odd hurdle over the next two months.

This is not to say that we think Scotland are not a good side. On the contrary, but consistency is simply not part of their makeup. Brilliant one weekend, but a shambles the next, particularly if the stretcher bearers make their way on to the pitch during the course of the tournament exposing Scotland’s lack of depth. However, last year we felt that Scotland did actually make strides to tighten up their lack of consistency, but finishing out big games especially under pressure is still not their strong suit. They can do it, as we saw in their opener against England at Twickenham last year and that epic win on the road over France. The problem is they just can’t seem to do it week in week out, and despite the joyful delirium always present at Murrayfield in the stands, it remains a mixed bag in terms of being a successful hunting ground for the Scots. Nevertheless they are no doubt taking a shot if confidence from the fact they are facing two of their toughest opponents, England and France, on said hallowed home ground.

We have concerns about their front row and lack of effectiveness in the lineouts. Their back row stocks are world class, but we are slightly puzzled that they only have one specialist fly half in Finn Russell and that smacks dangerously of putting all your eggs in one basket. However, those Scottish backs and centers are a nightmare for defenses to deal with, so there will be definitely plenty of flair on hand from the darker blue equivalent of les Bleus and in Chris Harris they have one of Test Rugby’s best defensive midfielders.

We really wrestled with predicting an outcome for Scotland this Six Nations. They will definitely finish at least fourth, but we have a hunch that a third place finish is not out of the question especially if one of the front three of France, Ireland and England fail to fire. We love watching Scotland play and they should do so much better than the results they seem to consistently end up with in the tournament. We can’t wait to see what Scotland’s 2022 Six Nations journey ultimately ends up being, but be prepared to strap yourself in for a thrill ride.

Wales – Down but not Out

While this Six Nations may smack of past glories in terms of last year – write Wales off at your peril!

Wales as so often in recent years, appear to be heading into this Six Nations with one hand tied behind their backs, as a number of their key players find themselves on the injury list. Their most notable omissions are Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, and all star flankers Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and our favourite Welsh player of all time Justin Tipuric to name but a few. However, this is Wales we’re talking about. Apart from tough trips to Twickenham and Dublin, their fixture list favors them taking full advantage of the legendary Principality Stadium and its 75,000 Welshmen in full song, which as everyone knows is one of the most powerful 16th men out there.

Their injury list from hell also means should they submit any more bodies to the stretcher bearers during the course of the tournament, they will start to run alarmingly thin on depth. However, Wales are a side that despite this seem able to punch way above their weight especially on home soil. Expect no different this year. While they are likely to suffer at scrum time, they will compete at lineout time and their back row led by renaissance man par excellence Ellis Jenkins are set to thrill and be a constant thorn in opposition defenses. If Dan Biggar can fine tune his communication skills with referees then Welsh game plans will be ably managed, alongside some dynamic scrum halves who excel at making the most out of their dynamic loose forwards. Even if Dan Biggar goes missing, Welsh Coach Dan Pivac has decided to bolster his stocks with no less than three other specialist fly halves. We have to admit we found this decision rather strange to say the least, despite Biggar and Anscombe’s ongoing injury concerns along with Priestland’s age. It’s a capable if not flash set of backs and centers, with the exception of greased lightning in the shape of winger Louis Rees-Zammit. However, we were puzzled at the omission of big bruising winger Owen Lane, and surely he could have taken one of the four fly half berths.

We have a hunch that the pundits may be right and, despite being Six Nations champions last year, Wales may find themselves finishing fifth. However, we feel that of all the predictions we are making in this piece, this is the one most likely to be way off base. We really have trouble seeing Wales finish so low, even if all the cool headed science and statistics would indicate that this is the Men in Red’s likely fortune this year. So we’ll stick with the convictions of rugby brains much wiser than ours for now but are thoroughly prepared to be proven wrong, and for Welsh supporters we certainly hope this will ultimately be the case.

Italy – does the promise of yet another false dawn beckon?

We’ve talked up Italy so often in the past only to be bitterly disappointed come the end of the tournament, but could this year finally be different?

It seems every year at the start of the Six Nations we herald what is supposed to be the dawn of a new era in Italian rugby only to find ourselves struggling to figure out what all the fuss was about, as Italy walk away with yet another Wooden Spoon. While we are hard pressed to see anything different happening this year, we have to admit that we are cautiously optimistic that Italy may at least be genuinely competitive over the next two months. There won’t be too many opportunities for a surprise win, and the only real possibility is their game in the final round against a possibly weakened and floundering Welsh side. But even that is a genuine long shot as Italy have to travel to the cauldron of the Principality Stadium to achieve it. If Wales’ Six Nations campaign has been a shambles up to that point the Cardiff faithful will expect nothing less than a wholesale slaughter of the hapless Italians.

So yes, this year doesn’t look too promising for new Coach Kieran Crowley and his charges, so why the optimism you might ask? We still think Italy will emerge winless, but in the process they are likely to give one or two sides a genuine fright. This is a very youthful and energetic Italian side and arguably the youngest in the competition. The academy system in Italy is finally starting to bear fruit and while Zebre are still a very long way from striking fear into the hearts of their opponents, Benetton (Crowley’s former employer) have been a quiet success story. They won the Rainbow Cup last year in the old PRO 14 and this year have been competitive in the United Rugby Championship. This current Italian squad benefits from having the core of that Benetton squad. Captain Michele Lamaro is the youngest leader in the tournament, but has shown a maturity beyond his years in his duties both with Italy and Benetton. The talent that has made Italy increasingly competitive in the U20 Six Nations is now firmly embedded into this senior squad. Paolo Garbisi is a increasingly effective game manager at fly half, and is a genuine world class talent. Rugby is now being offered in schools in Italy alongside football and interest is growing. Don’t forget, it took France 49 years to clinch their first outright Six Nations Championship and look at them now!

There are no clear areas where Italy can dominate any of their opponents but there is enough talent spread across all fifteen positions that Italy can at least be competitive. If they can manage their discipline which all too often gets away from them and keep up the kind of focus and effort that saw them hold New Zealand scoreless for the first thirty minutes last November, then Italy could finally start to show the glimmerings of a coming of age in the Six Nations. The debates as to whether or not they should be in the tournament in the first place, we’d argue are irrelevant, but we hope that Italy finally starts to silence them this year. While they are unlikely to win any of their matches, if they can emerge with at least 3 losing bonus points by keeping the score line to a difference of less than seven points in three of their matches then there will definitely be reasons for thinking positively about the future.

So yes sadly it’s yet another Wooden Spoon for Italy this year, but one awarded with a sense of optimism as we very much doubt that Italy are going to be a pushover in five straight matches especially at home. Scotland will need to be on their guard if Italy have managed to emerge with some degree of credibility from three very tough opening rounds against France, England and Ireland and who knows where Wales will be come March 19th?

So that’s a wrap for now. Enjoy the tournament everyone we think it’s going to be an absolute belter this year. I’ll do my best to try and get previews out for this weekend’s matches if the pressure of the day job permits, and if nothing else at least get a podcast out for each of the games.

November Internationals – North vs South and what we’ve learned – Part 5

After a month of truly vintage North vs South International Test Rugby, we take a look at what the respective Coaches of the big Ten learnt about their charges. I’ll try and get at least one a week out which should be a good segue into the buildup for the Six Nations in the New Year but, as mentioned before, work at the moment is getting the better of me and likely to continue to do so for the next few weeks.

In each of these five pieces we’ll pick out two of the teams in order of their success ratio this month; focus on what the Coaches must be feeling; pick a player that stood out the most and finally pick what we think is the kind of starting XV that will set them up well for 2022 and beyond.

So without any further ado in this last instalment let’s look at two sides who can feel extremely pleased with their November Test window results – Ireland and France.

Ireland – Won 3 – Lost 0

We had our doubts at first about Ireland Coach Andy Farrell, but after this November have put most of them on the shelf as the Men in Green looked the sharpest they’ve been since the heady days of 2018

In many ways we feel we owe Ireland Coach Andy Farrell a few apologies. Like many we had grave doubts about his appointment as Joe Schmidt’s successor after Ireland’s dismal showing at the last World Cup. Was Schmidt’s deputy who had helped preside over a disastrous 2019, really the right man for the job? His first two years in office did little to convince us otherwise, but in our skepticism we overlooked the quiet revolution that Farrell was putting in place. He essentially asked his charges to keep what was good about the Schmidt era – the clinical execution and solid discipline but at the same time embrace a new sense of freedom of expression in how they played the game, and accept that no two Saturdays are ever the same in how you need to approach your opposition.

Under Schmidt Ireland became mired in a game plan and set of processes that ultimately stifled their creativity and made it easy for other teams to figure them out. They were very good at what they did, but sadly far too predictable. While Farrell can hardly be credited with introducing French flair to Irish rugby, there is definitely a sense of Gaelic panache that has made them a very entertaining and effective side to watch and a handful for opposition sides to get to grips with, as no two Saturdays now with Ireland can ever be described as predictable. There’s a creativity and energy to this team that bodes well for the future. Nevertheless all this praise is dished out with a serious note of caution. We’ve seen Ireland peak a year too early out from the World Cup far too often in the last twenty years and then exit quietly stage left with a whimper. Fingers crossed that this time around it’s a rebuild that can stand the test of time.

Ireland got their November campaign off to a stellar start as they thumped a Japanese side that many had thought would give them a run for their money. Most of us were left scratching our heads as to where the Japanese side that had taken the Lions and then Ireland to task over the summer had disappeared to. Apparently they resurfaced against Scotland a fortnight later, but were nowhere to be seen in Dublin as a turbocharged Irish outfit cruised past them 60-5 in a nine try field day which saw Ireland make an incredible 581 run metres.

Ireland then faced the All Blacks in an encounter that appears to be getting increasingly difficult for the New Zealanders. Dublin is now one of those grounds that holds no certainty for the Men in Black, and last month’s encounter was a case in point. Both sides came charging out of the blocks right from the get go, and things initially seemed to be favoring Ireland. After silencing his critics about his defensive abilities a few moments earlier, winger James Lowe then did what he does best and with ball in hand showed his former teammates from the Land of the Long White Cloud a clean set of heels which left them floundering. New Zealand would strike back just before half time, but for a good thirty minutes we got to see an expressive and expansive Ireland that we had rarely got to see under Schmidt, all operating at a hundred miles an hour.

Ireland kept up the pressure in the second half, and scored two fine tries in quick succession. As they headed into the last quarter Ireland found themselves 10 points ahead. A slightly purple patch then ensued as Ireland appeared to switch off as New Zealand upped their game another few gears and clawed their way back into contention through a Will Jordan try. However, Ireland regrouped, refocused and for the last fifteen minutes simply turned the screw on an All Black side seeming to struggle to come to terms with what they were up against. Joey Carberry came on for Jonathan Sexton and calmly slotted three penalty goals and had the kind of game that showed so much promise five years ago in Chicago against New Zealand.

The pressure Ireland heaped on New Zealand was phenomenal but perhaps the statistic that stood out the most was the fact that they forced the All Blacks to make a staggering 224 tackles. That is 128 more than Ireland were required to make. Ireland won 132 rucks compared to only 57 for New Zealand. In short, Ireland took the game to New Zealand at a truly frenetic pace, that lost nothing in terms of physicality and execution, while dominating territory and possession. It was a spectacle to watch and Ireland have clearly laid down a marker for the Six Nations.

Their final match of their November campaign against a tired and frustrated Argentinian outfit, was nowhere near the same calibre in terms of spectacle, but Ireland never let up in intensity. Much like in the match against Japan, Ireland had a field day when it came to scoring tries, but ironically Argentina proved to be a thorny opponent despite what the numbers on the scoreboard suggested come the final whistle. Once again though it was Ireland’s exuberant yet clinical but expansive game plan that ultimately ran rings around an exhausted Argentinian defense. Argentina were brave and worthy opponents but against this new look Ireland, they were more than just a little outclassed.

In many ways Ireland really only had one heavyweight opponent this November in the shape of New Zealand, as did France for that matter. Compare this to England, Wales and Scotland who all had to face both Australia and South Africa, and you can understand the argument in some circles that it’s hard to judge just where Ireland really are at the moment. However, their performance against one of the best teams in the world was so impressive and emphatic that if they can keep it up there is little doubt that they are genuine contenders along with England and France for Six Nations glory come February.

Andy Farrell can reflect on a job well done and a genuinely exciting and capable squad set to do battle come the Six Nations in February. Ireland showed in November that their core skills are sound and that they are playing with an energy and creativity that we haven’t seen for quite some time. Ireland possess probably one of the best front rows in International Test rugby at the moment and to be honest we’re hard pressed to find its equal in the Six Nations competitors. Lineout accuracy could still use some work, but Hooker Ronan Kelleher grows in confidence by the day, and his play in the loose has to be seen to be believed. Ireland’s second row stocks are equally robust, and there is clearly a secret factory buried deep in the mountains of Connemara churning out world class back rowers on an almost daily basis.

The conundrum around the future halfback question in Ireland continues, and after a month where incumbent fly half Jonathan Sexton played some of the best rugby we’ve ever seen him play, it is probably still likely to go unanswered for a while yet. Joey Carberry made his long awaited return from injury in style against both New Zealand and Argentina but can he keep the stretcher bearers at bay in the long run? At scrum half Jamison Gibson-Park silenced his critics at Conor Murray’s expense, but there is a raft of talented options at Andy Farrell’s disposal that just don’t seem to be getting game time. Until these questions get answered it’s hard to get too excited about Ireland’s current renaissance and its longevity come the World Cup.

In the backs and the centers though Ireland appears to be blessed. James Lowe has finally shown that he can defend as well as he can attack, and in Lowe and Conway alone Ireland has plenty of strength out wide, along with Keith Earls who also looks raring to go these days. In the center channels Ireland is truly spoilt for choice and at fullback they have one of the best in the business, the outstanding Hugo Keenan. In short, Ireland look like they love playing rugby again and are blossoming under the new freedom of expression they are being allowed under Farrell. To sum up, watch this space and if the few concerns can get answered in the next twelve months, Irish supporters may well be travelling to France in 2023 with both eyes firmly glued to the pitch as opposed to one eyeing up the nearest exit.

Still some things to work on, but a force to be reckoned with

So many players stood up and were counted for Ireland in November, but for us Ronan Kelleher’s coming of age in an Irish jersey was something to behold

The Irish Hooker still has plenty to work on, but his three performances in November were so impressive that the errors he did make are easily glossed over. He was literally on fire for 150 minutes, and his effort against New Zealand was immense. Defensively sound and an absolute tiger in the loose, Kelleher simply gets better with every outing. His ferocious physicality and turn of pace was key in unravelling New Zealand, and he is going to be a genuine menace to opposition defenses come the Six Nations. He is improving so quickly that we simply had to list him as the player that stood out the most for us this month. His influence on proceedings in all three matches was instrumental in getting Ireland on the front foot and for us he embodied that Irish spirit of days gone by and made famous in that memorable changing room rant by the legendary Paul O’Connell.

So here’s the Lineout’s Ireland starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Andrew Porter – Partnered with Furlong ensures that the Irish front row is rock solid, guarantees good go forward ball for his teammates and is a vital asset in those body pileups on the opposition try line.
  2. Hooker – Ronan Kelleher – Thoroughly enjoyed watching Kelleher last month, an absolute tiger in the loose and probably one of the quickest thinking Hookers around – lineout work still needs improving but such a positive investment for the future.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Tadhg Furlong – As he has all year the “Jukebox” just kept putting out those chart topping hits all November, but has a rather handy set of dance moves to go with them.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Tadhg Beirne – One of our favourites in the current crop of Irish players. Equally at home in the back row, but superbly effective wherever you put him and his teammates feed off his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm for the the task at hand.
  5. Number 5 Lock – James Ryan – getting back to his best after a quiet year but Ian Henderson is pushing him for the jersey.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Caelan Doris – Man of the Match against New Zealand, and part of the almost ridiculous depth in numbers in the back row that Ireland possesses.
  7. Openside Flanker – Josh van der Flier – Had one of his best months in the green jersey to date and thrives on the new sense of creativity being promoted in the way Ireland play the game.
  8. Number 8 – Jack Conan – Arguably one of the best in his position in Test Rugby and almost made New Zealand’s Ardie Savea look like a beginner.
  9. Scrum Half – Jamison Gibson-Park – While the fly half question remains a problem issue for Ireland, the 9 jersey is not with Craig Casey, John Cooney, Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Nathan Doak all looking to get bench time next year. For now though the Kiwi import did more than enough in November to cement his place as Ireland’s starter and Ireland’s new style suits him particularly well.
  10. Fly Half – Jonathan Sexton – Ireland’s genuine superstar was back to his very best this November after a period where his star had seemed to slowly dip. When he’s enjoying himself, which he clearly is at the moment, his age almost seems irrelevant. Nevertheless injury concerns and the “age factor” make it critical that Ireland make a genuine investment in life “beyond Jonny” in the next 18 months and commit to it.
  11. Left Wing – James Lowe – The electric winger finally showed that he his more than just a flash pair of heels as he finally added some sound defensive skills to his impressive attacking repertoire.
  12. Inside Centre – Robbie Henshaw – Didn’t play as much as we would have liked in November, but when he did and partnered with Ringrose showed just what an intelligent center pairing Ireland are blessed with. Bundee Aki did exceptionally well against New Zealand in his place, but Henshaw is still our go to man.
  13. Outside Centre – Gary Ringrose – Another Irish player back to his absolute best in November. Partnered with Henshaw, Ireland possess one of the best brains trusts in the business in the midfield.
  14. Right Wing – Andrew Conway – We’ve always rated the Munsterman, and have been surprised that he hasn’t featured more in the big Tests since the World Cup. Coach Farrell clearly understood the error in his omission in November, and Conway got the game time he so thoroughly deserved. A very complete player out wide.
  15. FullbackHugo Keenan – Definite runner up for Ireland’s player of the month, Keenan has taken Irish rugby by storm since last year. Not the biggest lad on the park, but punches way above his weight and clearly coats his hands in Super Glue prior to every game as he simply doesn’t drop balls no matter what kind of pressure he’s under. Opposition sides will kick to him at their own peril come the Six Nations. Defensively could still do with some minor tweaks, but overall an absolutely solid player who ensures that the back of the park is a genuine safe zone for Ireland.

France – Won 3 – Lost 0

Fabien Galthie knows he has a class product at his disposal and France look in alarmingly rude health as they start the countdown to their own World Cup

Like Ireland, France really only got put under the microscope once in November against New Zealand, although Argentina did make them realize there were a few cobwebs to blow off since their Australian tour earlier this summer. However, France’s dismantling of New Zealand was probably the best game of the month. It was a glorious celebration of French rugby and why they still are probably one of the most unpredictable and attractive teams in World Rugby to watch. Some of their moves appear almost demented, and yet under Galthie it all looks so incredibly organized and calmly executed. Take for example fly half Romain Ntamack’s run from out of his own in goal area that saw France make it to within millimeters of New Zealand’s 22. For any other team that would be a gamble of almost suicidal proportions but Ntamack and France made it all appear a perfectly logical thing to do, and executed in a manner that left nothing to chance. There were numerous other moments like that in the match, but in short France have simply taken creativity and daring to another level.

France got their November campaign off to a challenging start against Argentina. The Pumas despite a poor year turned up in Paris determined to play, and France at times looked a long way from the well oiled machine that would send the All Blacks packing a fortnight later. The first quarter was a genuine arm wrestle with Argentina having the upper hand. The two teams went into the sheds with France hanging on to a narrow lead. Argentina came out of the blocks firing in the opening stanzas of the second half and almost got the lead back, but that stellar French defense, which has become such a key feature of their recent successes, came to the fore and momentum slowly and almost inevitably swung back in favor of the French and would remain that way till the final whistle. Still it had been a valuable wake up call and excellent preparation for what was to come at the end of the month.

Next up it was a feisty encounter against a very plucky Georgian outfit, who like Argentina the week before did not seem rattled by the caliber of their opponents. Georgia gave France a genuine Test and at times France almost looked overwhelmed by Georgia’s relentless physicality, while some fast hands from the Men from the Caucasus tested French defences out wide, something England and Ireland would have been keenly aware of. Ultimately France ran away with it but they had been given plenty of food for thought in the process.

Lastly it was France’s turn to meet an All Black side still reeling from what had just happened to them in Dublin. It was a mirror image of what will take place in just under two years time in the opening game of the 2023 World Cup and the 80,000 French fans in the Stade de France made sure that there was nothing lacking in the sense of occasion. It seemed remarkable to think that France hadn’t beaten the All Blacks at home since 1973, and that ironically their numerous successes against the Men in Black since then had all been away from home.

What followed was 80 minutes of glorious attacking rugby all backed up by a defensive platform that rarely faltered. France’s forwards are just as talented in the attacking department as the backs and this was evidenced by Hooker Peato Mauvaka getting Les Bleus’ first try after a mere three minutes. French exuberance though saw some lapses in discipline as the All Blacks regrouped and the gap was narrowed. The final thirty minutes of the first half were all about France however, as they ran in two tries and the Men in Blue headed into the sheds 24-6. It looked all over bar the singing as the teams ran out for the second half and the Stade de France was a deafening cauldron. All credit to New Zealand that they managed to put all that behind them and be the first side to get points on the board through a Jordie Barrett try. Rieko Ioane then added another and all of a sudden the inevitable All Black comeback seemed on the cards. Ardie Savea added a further five points converted by Jordie Barrett.

With twenty minutes to go, the scoreline was on a knife edge at 27-25 in favor of France. France then proceeded to regroup and produced the best final quarter we’ve seen from them in many a year. France were bold as evidenced by fly half Ntamack’s seemingly mad run from his in goal area. More importantly they simply ramped up the pressure on a New Zealand outfit gaining in confidence and proceeded to snuff out the All Blacks sense of new found optimism. In the final twenty minutes France scored 13 unanswered points, the highlight of which was winger Damian Penaud’s superb try. It was an historic win, but as the last match of the Autumn series we really had been treated to a case of saving the best for last.

What was significant about that match was how this French side were able to regroup and refocus after New Zealand had fought their way back into the match, a trait that would have served French sides well in the past but all too often went missing. Ironically New Zealand had the upper hand in many of the statistics, but France simply made better use of the moments that they were in control than the New Zealanders. There was plenty of French flair but unlike in years gone by it was exceptionally well organized and at times looked almost effortless. Despite having only a 69% and 71% success rate in the scrums and lineouts respectively compared to the All Blacks 100% in both, France still managed to control the ebb and flow of the game to their advantage. In short, they made New Zealand run to stand still.

As epic as that win against New Zealand was and how good France looked, Galthie and his charges know there is plenty of work to be done before France’s Six Nations opener against Italy on February 6th. Their front row needs some work to make it competitive against the likes of Ireland, and their scrum overall looks a bit creaky to say the least. Lineout throwing can also be a bit of a hit and miss affair. In the second row, France can rest easy especially with the exceptional Cameron Woki in their ranks. Their back row is almost as healthy as England and Ireland’s in terms of depth and ability. Their halfback options however, particularly in the number 10 jersey are the stuff of every Coach’s wildest fantasies. Meanwhile their centre options look increasingly impressive with Gael Fickou’s wise head marshalling France’s midfield efforts. Out wide France are equally blessed with Damian Penaud in particular really showing his worth during November. Lastly at fullback France have not just one but two game changing options in Melvyn Jaminet and Brice Dulin. In short, this is a youthful and exceptionally talented French team boasting an enviable level of depth – ideal qualities leading up to a World Cup.

Where French flair becomes calculated genius

Fly half Romain Ntamack showed in this almost suicidal act of daring just how good France have become at what would appear to be the impossible

While French scrum half Antoine Dupont may be World Rugby’s poster boy right now, as the above clip shows, it’s Ntamack’s skill set and vision that is such a core component of French Rugby’s renaissance under Fabien Galthie. There are very few players who would even think of attempting Ntamack’s seemingly outrageous plays from nothing, and yet somehow the Toulouse fly half makes it look perfectly natural and something he doesn’t even have to think twice about. There are very few players who possess his ability to seize a one off opportunity and turn it into an exquisitely structured set of phases. A visionary player who looks set to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors and change the way we think the game can be played. In short, French flair with a plan.

So here’s the Lineout’s French starting XV:

  1. Loosehead Prop – Cyril Baille – Best of the bunch in a role that still remains a problem for France.
  2. Hooker – Peato Mauvaka – Definitely needs work on his lineout throws, and could be more effective in the scrums, but cannot fault the effort levels and effectiveness on defence and off the back of rolling mauls which made him Man of the match against New Zealand.
  3. Tighthead Prop – Demba Bamba – Always started from the bench but with regular play just gets better and better and could bring that impact factor for the full eighty minutes if fit enough.
  4. Number 4 Lock – Cameron Woki – Equally at home in the back row, Woki is quality through and through and definitely one of France’s strongest assets in the buildup to the World Cup.
  5. Number 5 Lock – Paul Willemse – The South African import continued to make his presence felt particularly in the set pieces.
  6. Blindside Flanker – Thibaud Flament – One of the finds of the month for France and a highly versatile forward who can also operate effectively in the second row.
  7. Openside Flanker – Anthony Jelonch – In the absence of regular and Captain Charles Ollivon, Jelonch has filled the void in more ways than one and is one of France’s most underrated players.
  8. Number 8 – Gregory Alldritt – Powerful, effective and the consummate 8 – a core part of France’s new spine.
  9. Scrum Half – Antoine Dupont – Deserves every accolade he gets – the world’s most lethal number nine plain and simple.
  10. Fly Half – Romain Ntamack – Still being chased hard by Matthieu Jallibert but against New Zealand showed just what an artist he really is.
  11. Left Wing – Gabin Villiere – He may not be the biggest winger on the park but is utterly fearless and seems to revel in mixing it in with the forwards when needed. Pace and skill out wide that is paying dividends for France.
  12. Inside Centre – Jonathan Danty – Despite his size is extraordinarily nimble on his feet, and his physicality makes him almost impossible to bring down.
  13. Outside Centre – Gael Fickou – France’s midfield general.
  14. Right Wing – Damian Penaud – Back to his barnstorming best in November, though as always minor tweaks in his defensive set could be useful ahead of the Six Nations.
  15. FullbackMelvyn Jaminet – Like England’s Freddie Steward has carved his name in stone on the 15 jersey this year in a remarkably short space of time.

So that’s it for now everyone till the New Year. Thanks to everyone who has read our musings and helped this blog have its best year ever. Onwards and upwards for 2022 and here’s hoping that COVID and all its various mutations finally start to leave our beloved game alone. In the meantime, take care everyone stay safe and have a wonderful holiday period with family and friends and here’s looking forward to what should be a fantastic year of rugby!