What should have been a great Six Nations weekend sadly succumbs to COVID 19

We all knew deep down that the likelihood of this year’s Six Nations proceeding uninterrupted from start to finish with the specter of COVID 19 hanging over it, was unlikely to say the least. Sure enough what should have been the fixture of the weekend in our opinion, that between France and Scotland in Paris, is now having to be put on ice till further notice. On returning from Ireland, COVID 19 appears to have ravaged the French squad causing them to have to postpone Sunday’s match. While we have no intention of pointing fingers of blame, what we have been disheartened by is the apparent lack of contingency planning by the tournament’s organizers in the first place for such eventualities. If they seriously thought that the tournament would escape unscathed for its entire seven week duration while Europe was in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic, then you really have to question levels of competency in rugby’s governing bodies. We are now left with a tournament that may not see its conclusion until possibly the autumn. The fact that there was no provision built into the schedule and agreements with the clubs and unions to allow for rescheduled matches and player releases shows serious lack of foresight and planning at the top. Providing there are no more cancellations ( wildly optimistic thinking at best), we will only have a conclusion if Wales pull off the unthinkable by achieving a Grand Slam at the end of March. If not we could be left in suspense as to who the ultimate winner is until perhaps the summer at the earliest – hardly a positive message for a tournament that likes to pride itself as “rugby’s greatest Championship”. All this aside though we sincerely hope that all the French players make a speedy recovery and are back as soon as possible to what they do best – entertaining rugby fans with their scintillating brand of our glorious sport!

So with that rant aside we can turn our attention to the main focus of this weekend – Ireland and Italy’s do or die duel in Rome and Wales and England’s showdown in Cardiff in which the Men in Red hope to keep their Grand Slam dreams alive. The fixture in Cardiff looks set to be a particularly tasty affair. Wales are riding high after two solid and gritty wins in the opening two rounds of the competition. England on the other hand have yet to really prove themselves, after an exceptionally lukewarm start to the tournament. While England managed to get a comfortable win in the end over Italy, they didn’t quite come away with the points haul they would have liked, and the Azurri were able to pierce their defenses a little to often for comfort. Nevertheless Italy are still not really the benchmark by which you measure yourselves whereas Wales in Cardiff is a much sterner Test. England failed their first serious examination at the hands of the Scots and are likely to be feeling more than a little anxious about Saturday’s encounter. Wales will want to prove that their two opening wins were not simply the luck of the draw in having to face teams with only 14 men. We think it’s a bit deeper than that and Wales are a lot more than simply a flash in the pan this year. There is still plenty of work to do and they are a long way from the finished product, but a Test against England will really show how much progress they’ve made since the dismal days of 2020.

Ireland get us started on Saturday as guests of an energetic and lively Italian side. Italy like Ireland are desperately looking for their first win in the competition, but in the process have shown us an enterprising and entertaining effort. It may still be early days yet as well as sounding liking a broken record, but we feel things are starting to look a bit more positive in the Azurri camp than they have for a long time. In Franco Smith we’d argue they have a Coach with a plan. We sadly can’t really say the same about Ireland and Andy Farrell. Their labored performances against Wales and France, leave us with an impression of a side bereft of imagination and lacking some of the core skills needed to make them a side to be wary of once more. In short, Ireland looked tired and out of ideas. The effort is still there but is sadly not producing anything to make you sit up and take notice. Opposition sides will treat them cautiously but Ireland have lost the heady aura that surrounded them two years ago.

So here’s what got us talking in the buildup to Saturday’s two fixtures.

Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 27th – Rome

Both sides have to win, and while you always say that about Italy, this time around you could be excused for thinking they might feel they could actually do it. Unlikely but definitely possible, especially if Ireland continue playing this rather possession heavy, stodgy and relatively efficient but rather unimaginative brand of rugby that sadly seems to have become their trademark. Expect to see Ireland once more dominate the possession stats at the end of the match, and spend a considerable amount of time down in Italy’s 22, where for a change they may actually be able to do something with it. Italy seem relatively comfortable everywhere else on the park, except in their own 22 where for some reason they simply stop defending. Italy unlike Ireland and courtesy of the two wonderkids in their halfback department, who are clearly on the roadmap to the next World Cup, have shown some genuine creativity in attack and Paolo Garbisi is improving as a playmaker with every game he plays. Meanwhile his scrum half partner Steven Varney has shown a real aptitude for marshalling his forwards well beyond his teenage years.

Ireland are still a very good team with some exceptional players – make absolutely no mistake. However, as a unit they seem incapable of harnessing their raft of individual talents into a cohesive team performance. If you look at their efforts in the last few months you can sense that the players are desperate to throw off the shackles of former Coach Joe Schmidt’s very structured and initially highly successful approach to the game. On the few occasions this Championship when Irish players have sought to throw the playbook out the window (assuming they actually have one), and just act on individual initiative they have got results. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Hooker Ronan Kelleher’s try off a botched Irish lineout against France a fortnight ago. Ireland will need a lot more of those “carpe diem” moments and players seizing the initiative if they are to get their 2021 season back on track.

The Jukebox is back!

Stop him if you can – Tadgh Furlong returns to front line duty

The Jukebox or Mayor of Wexford as he is alternatively known amongst his colleagues makes his return to front row service in Ireland’s starting lineup for Saturday’s match. While Tadgh Furlong has made appearances of late for his club Leinster, the big bruising prop has been sorely missed due to injury by Ireland. Instrumental to Ireland’s successes in their Grand Slam year in 2018, expect to see Furlong put in hit after hit for as long as Andy Farrell deems to keep him on the pitch. Ireland can look to some real strength in this part of the park on Saturday, with the increasingly impressive Ronan Kelleher at Hooker and Munster prop Dave Kilcoyne which will showcase Ireland’s depth in the front row. With an equally terrifying front row bench of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter and Rob Herring, Ireland’s road map to the next World Cup in this department is plain to see.

Is this the future of the Irish Captaincy and Coaching direction?

Captain on the left – Coach on the right

Watch these two very carefully over the next year. Second rower James Ryan no matter what kind of performance Ireland has on the pitch that day, always comes out with an honorable mention. His mentor former second rower and Irish Captain extraordinaire Paul O’Connell needs no introduction. Since being brought into the Coaching department, Ireland’s work in the set pieces and especially the lineout improved dramatically, and was clear for all to see in the game against France. O’Connell may not be interested in the top job, but his influence in the Coaching box and as a talisman to his charges should be taken advantage of to the full. Ryan is clearly Ireland’s World Cup Captain in the making and we sincerely hope for Ireland’s sake that O’Connell’s role grows exponentially within the team over the next few years.

Italy’s reliability factor

Mr. Dependable for Italy – Sebastian Negri

Italy’s Zimbabwean import has been one of Italy’s most consistent performers of the last few years, and if you watch any Italian performance in detail you will see that the big back rower gets through a mountain of work but rarely gets the praise he deserves, especially as he so often operates in the shadow of the outstanding Jake Polledri. With Polledri out injured, Negri is really coming to the fore and expect him to have lots to say in Rome on Saturday. The contest between himself and Ireland’s latest addition to their exceptionally healthy back row stocks, Will Conors, should be outstanding entertainment.

New World Chianti

Australian import winger Monty Ioane is definitely a player to watch for the Azurri

Ioane’s try against England, ably assisted by Maestro Garbisi, showed just how dangerous this new adventurous Italian attacking spirit can be. Ioane was always looking for work against England and the winger has a real turn of speed and ability to keep defences guessing. He will be up against Ireland’s Jordan Larmour who perhaps embraces that individual creativity better than any Irish player since the legendary Brian O’Driscoll. Larmour’s defence has been called into question, but we’d argue it’s got better in the last year especially at club level, but he’ll need it to keep Ioane in check.

The more we see the more we like

We haven’t had too many positive things to say about Irish Coach Andy Farrell’s selections but he’s got it right with Hugo Keenan

So we’ll give Irish Coach Andy Farrell some credit. In sticking with Hugo Keenan at fullback, he’s making the right call. Keenan still has a lot to learn but he is becoming so confident under the high ball and so enthusiastic in his running and kicking game, that in an otherwise rather lifeless Irish side he’s a pleasure to watch. Jordan Larmour is an equally talented and exciting fullback, but Saturday sees him start on the wing and Keenan keep the 15 jersey. It’s the right decision and one of the few steps towards building a new Irish back line that appears to be working. Keenan consistently puts in maximum effort and his execution is getting better with every outing coupled to a work rate that is exemplary. If he keeps it up, he’ll definitely be on our shortlist of the most up and coming players of 2021.

Verdict

Ireland should ultimately get the job done in Rome, and comfortably if they have learnt from their mistakes of the first two rounds. Whether or not that learning ability is there in the Coaching box however remains questionable. This is a good Irish squad but it seems a bit rudderless in terms of direction at the moment. Italy will know this and fancy their chances at causing an upset. With some of their young mavericks willing to take risks they could just pull it off. However, it’s a tall order and Ireland need to find their mojo once more and are no doubt looking at Italy as the springboard to get them back in the groove. Even though Ireland’s squad is vastly more experienced than Italy’s we don’t think it’s a dead rubber, even if the outcome is most likely in Ireland’s favor. There should be some sparks in this contest and one we have a hunch will be worth a few hours of your time on Saturday morning.

Wales vs England – Saturday, February 27th – Cardiff

English Coach Eddie Jones is correct in his assertion that this is one of the biggest fixtures of the Northern Hemisphere calendar. The rivalry between these two sides is intense and at the moment Wales look the more composed of the two. England are simply not clicking the way you would expect a recent World Cup finalist to, and a good but unbalanced and at times poorly led team make the trip to Cardiff needing to silence their critics and get 2021 back on track. Although England easily got the better of Italy despite an initial scare, it never looked all that convincing and rarely developed a rhythm. With George Ford directing affairs from the fly half berth we finally got to see an English side willing to attack, but at times the execution was slightly haphazard and England have yet to find the kind of clinical efficiency that got them the Championship last year. Most teams seem to have figured out England by now better than they have themselves.

Wales meanwhile will walk into the Principality grinning from ear to ear. Along with France they find themselves as one of the only two teams still left with a shot at a Grand Slam. If you’d asked them that at the beginning of the tournament, they may have been flattered but muttered politely about this year being one of rebuilding. Well that process seems to be going swimmingly so far. While there still have been question marks about how good this Welsh team are against a 15 man side, we think that’s a cheap shot and although Wales may not be the most polished or exciting team out there right now, winger Louis Rees-Zammit excepted of course, they are definitely one of the most gritty and resilient. There is a new found spirit of optimism and confidence in the Welsh camp and Coach Wayne Pivac finally seems to be enjoying his job. They will feel that England are there for the taking and will be hard to break down even in a Principality Stadium lacking its usual deafening atmosphere created by fervent Welsh supporters.

A player who has suddenly come of age

Prop Wyn Jones has become the real deal

Wales’ front row just didn’t look settled last year, but this year they have looked solid and this man in particular is really standing out. We always thought he was good, but this year he has really taken it to another level. Man of the Match in Wales’ Six Nations opener against Ireland, and followed up with another superb performance against Scotland a week later, Wyn Jones along with Ken Owens and Tomas Francis completes a very solid and dependable Welsh front row. They’ll fancy their chances against an English offering that somehow just isn’t quite at the races. Mako Vunipola looks increasingly like a lumbering dinosaur, Jamie George is just not hitting his straps this year and Kyle Sinckler while exceptional is prone to being England’s disciplinary wild card. If Wales keep their wits about them Saturday this is an area where they could really unsettle England.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Sam Simmonds desperately trying to figure out how to get Eddie Jones’ attention

It’s common knowledge that we spend a great deal of time puzzling over England Coach Eddie Jones’ selections. This week was no exception. Given that England’s back row is unbalanced and clearly not working the persistent omission of Exeter back rower Sam Simmonds continues to amaze us, particularly given Jones’ penchant for an increasingly ineffective Billy Vunipola. Simmonds continues to light up the English premiership with Exeter Chiefs yet somehow seems to be of no interest whatsoever to Jones. That Simmonds doesn’t even get a look in on the bench simply confounds us further. All eyes will be on Billy Vunipola on Saturday and if he fails to make his mark yet again then surely Simmonds will suddenly appear on Jones’ speed dial list. That English back row still looks unbalanced to us with Tom Curry and Mark Wilson having to spend too much time covering for Vunipola to make them really effective. Wales bring a powerhouse offering in Josh Navidi, the incomparable Justin Tipuric and Talupe Faletau, with the latter pair playing at their best this year and we fear that once again England will fail to make much of an impression here.

It’s all about the future in Wales

In Wayne’s world the youngsters get a chance to prove themselves on the big stage – fly half Calum Sheedy and scrum half Keiran Hardy

Like his French counterpart Fabien Galthie, Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac recognises the need to blood young talent early on for big occasions and not just a year out from a World Cup. Something his English counterpart Eddie Jones may do well to start emulating sooner rather than later. To give rookie Keiran Hardy the starting berth at number 9 for such a big match is a bold move, but one which we salute and given his more than competent performance against Scotland a fortnight ago, fully justified. In the England camp Jones has decided to go with the increasingly pedestrian Ben Youngs over Dan Robson. Every time Robson has come on England have really started to fizz, and against a Welsh side who appear unafraid to take risks Jones may well rue his conservative approach, especially as Youngs is unlikely to make the World Cup if his current form continues. Wales appear to be relishing change while England appear almost afraid of it.

A question of loyalty under pressure

Look mate as long as we keep these ridiculous grins the media might leave us alone”

As Eddie Jones continues to come under ever greater scrutiny for his selection decisions, the debate has almost reached fever pitch over his ongoing loyalty to Captain and fly half/center Owen Farrell. Ever since that ill fated World Cup final 18 months ago Farrell has simply not been the player and Captain that Jones repeatedly insists he is. Farrell does seem better suited to the centre role while George Ford takes over the playmaker duties and adds an attacking edge that England increasingly seems to miss under Farrell, ironically much as Ireland does under his father’s tutelage. Is Farrell a good player? Yes. Is he in the same class as New Zealand’s Dan Carter thus justifying Jones’ almost blind loyalty? No. As a Captain as we have already said on numerous occasions he leaves a lot to be desired. Increasingly petulant and rubbing referees the wrong way in much the same vein as Ireland’s Jonny Sexton, Farrell struggles to lead from the front under pressure and has a worrying tendency to seem almost invisible when things are not going his or his team’s way. In short we just don’t get the fascination. We’re not saying that Jones should drop him from the team, but a change in England’s leadership could be the tonic they would appear to need right now, while at the same time releasing Farrell from a burden he appears to be struggling with. Once freed from the pressures of the Captaincy we may well see Farrell back to his best. Unfortunately for him, the lights will be shining very brightly in Cardiff on Saturday and another off color performance will only increase the mounting calls for a change in leadership.

Not all there

England fullback Elliot Daly will join Owen Farrell on Saturday under the microscope

In a way we feel rather sorry for England fullback Elliot Daly. We don’t think he’s that bad a player, but is he England’s long term fullback? The answer to that question increasingly appears to err on the side of no. The English media is clamoring for his removal, or at least moving him to the wing. Much like the Farrell debate we would argue against dropping him completely but in the fullback role it would appear that England needs to and can do better. If Wales are willing to risk a rookie scrum half for such an important match, then surely the time for boldness on England’s part is now and Max Malins should get the nod for a start in the 15 jersey. In Eddie Jones view it would seem not. Once again Malins sits it out on the bench and against Italy we were left dumbfounded as he sat out the entire match on the sidelines. Wales do have the last line of defence well covered by Liam Williams, and that could be the reason Jones is going with the more experienced fullback. However in terms of development for the World Cup and even next year’s Six Nations we feel it’s yet another chance gone begging by Jones and England.

Verdict

It should be a terrific match on Saturday and even without the Welsh sixteenth man, the famous Cardiff crowd, we’re tipping Wales to continue to build towards that fairytale Grand Slam and catch England unawares. There are some terrific contests in store across the park and perhaps none more tasty than that between two of Test Rugby’s most exciting wingers at the moment, England’s Jonny May and new Welsh sensation Louis Rees-Zammit. We see a tight contest in store but one we think Wales are going to have the final say in. While England won’t be suffering from a lack of motivation, Wales clearly have the momentum right now. A fascinating battle of wits awaits and it’s one you won’t want to miss – and now without the France/Scotland game, the showpiece of the weekend.

Stay safe everyone, enjoy what should be some quality Six Nations action this weekend and let’s hope that the much anticipated France/Scotland game can still happen within the window of the current tournament’s time frame.

After the first two rounds of the Six Nations – what have we learnt?

We have to say that despite the lack of crowds and some initial reservations about this year’s tournament, we are thoroughly enjoying it so far. As for the competitors themselves, we think it’s safe to say some are enjoying it more than others. If you’d asked us at the end of last year if we would be writing about Wales being the only Grand Slam contenders alongside France, we would have muttered politely into our drinks that it might have been stretching the bounds of plausibility. Imagine our surprise and delight for the Men in Red that this now a genuine possibility after two Rounds. There is still the rather uncomfortable issue of having to deal with England and France still to come for Wales, but after Scotland’s victory at Twickenham you’d have to argue that this year’s tournament is one that so far gives everyone the right to dream big. France still look the team to beat, but England along with Scotland and Wales look more than capable of ruining anyone’s party. So at this stage in the competition here’s our look at what we think the teams are feeling so far.

England – Dissatisfied

Eddie and Owen share their feelings about haggis

England may be sitting in third place after the opening two rounds, but these are clearly not happy times for either their Coach Eddie Jones or the team. Sure the win over Italy got them back on track after their wretched performance against Scotland, but Italy still managed to break the English defenses twice as well as make the expected points haul by England considerably less than what the Men in White thought they should have come away with. Tournament favorites France were able to walk away with a 40 point difference in their tangle with Italy in Rome, but England could only manage 23 at Fortress Twickenham. That could well come back to haunt them should either France or Wales slip up in the final three rounds and points difference suddenly give England a genuine shot at the title.

England showed definite promise against Italy and at long last played some attacking rugby. Yes it looked good against a much weaker opponent, but we doubt that France felt overly concerned after watching that game. If Coach Eddie Jones decides to play the stubborn card once more against Wales next weekend, leaving George Ford on the bench and Owen Farrell finds himself back in the 10 jersey, we have a horrible feeling that England will start going backwards once more. England had serious ignition problems at the end of last year, which became glaringly apparent in their opener against Scotland. English supporters have demanded an attacking style of play and Captain Owen Farrell seems increasingly unable to deliver what the people want.

However, it’s not just Farrell- there are too many players in the squad that Jones is picking based on some outdated sense of loyalty to their reputations rather than form. Scrum half Ben Youngs, number 8 Billy Vunipola, fullback Elliot Daly……..the list goes on. He now has a chance to let some of his more dynamic charges such as George Ford, scrum half Dan Robson, fullback Max Malins and many others from his and up and coming players have an opportunity to stake their claim and build an exciting mix of youth and experience. This is the only way to forge a competitive English side able to last the distance between now and the next World Cup. The time to be giving these players game time is now and if Jones doesn’t he only has himself to blame, as the growing dissatisfaction with England’s performances of late builds to a crescendo.

France – Excited

“I don’t know about you mon ami – but I can’t remember the last time we had so much fun!!!!”

Although they may have been slightly frustrated by the nature of their win over the Irish last weekend, the excitement running through this squad is plain for all to see and Coach Fabien Galthie and his assistant Raphael Ibanez couldn’t be happier. Easily playing the most ambitious rugby of any side in the tournament and clearly loving it, France look in a league of their own. Even if things didn’t quite go their way as evidenced against Ireland, this French side has finally understood how to dig in, keep their emotions intact and sow the seeds of doubt in their opponents. French sides of old would have thrown away that narrow lead last Sunday in Dublin through a combination of desperation and ill discipline. France have finally understood how to absorb pressure and maintain composure. They simply did not panic in Dublin last weekend and held their nerve and resolve to get the better of a determined but unstructured Irish side. France now excel at pinning opposition sides back in their own half and forcing them to start another wave of attack from deep – ask any player of the modern game and they will tell you that is simply exhausting. It’s rarely the aimless kick tennis we’ve seen so often from England and Ireland. France like Scotland are superb at either counterattacking with ball in hand or employing a kicking game that forces opposition teams to run with the ball from deep in their own 22.

While Italy weren’t much of a test for the Six Nations Formula 1 team, Ireland clearly were not exactly a walk in the park. France were brought down to earth in no uncertain terms and made fully aware of the daunting tasks that lie ahead of them with Scotland, England and Wales. However, we’d argue that Ireland did them a favor by giving them a reality check and as a result they will be a lot sharper for their remaining three fixtures which will really show us what this rather extraordinary French side is made of.

Ireland – Confused

“I don’t think you and I are all that popular right now Jonny”

Coach Andy Farrell and Captain Jonathan Sexton are now under the most intense scrutiny and it’s not painting either of them in a particularly good light. Andy Farrell seems hopelessly out of his depth and Ireland themselves seem at sixes and sevens under his tutelage on the pitch. While they may be trying their hand at attacking rugby the knife is so blunt it would have trouble getting through butter. Perhaps the only positive from last weekend’s match was the influence of Paul O’Connell as the most recent addition to the Coaching box. His role with the forwards was plain to see as Ireland looked consistently better in the set pieces, especially their lineout work. Meanwhile Captain Jonathan Sexton seems in denial about both his own health and leadership abilities. This once great player’s skill set is now more a feature of highlights reels than anything he is creating on Test pitches these days. In addition, we can’t help feeling that Sexton has forgotten what his role is as playmaker. Put your hands up if like us you find yourself staring at the TV screen in disbelief as Sexton instead of watching how the game is unfolding around him decides he would better serve his teammates by clearing out rucks. A truly great player who sadly seems to have lost the plot somewhat lately and in the process is taking his team down with him.

Ireland under Andy Farrell have started to look desperate. Desperate for results to justify his position while at the same time squandering the opportunity to develop long term solutions to the replacement of key players who will simply be unable to make a useful contribution to Ireland’s World Cup campaign in 2023. Ireland are already looking in danger of being woefully unprepared for France in just over 2 years time. If they are serious about not exiting a World Cup at the quarter finals for the first time in their history then that work and grooming of the right personnel has to start now. They have to be prepared for a rough year as the new faces are bedded into the team with some serious top level game time. The Six Nations happens every year, so even if you lose every game this year but in the process start to develop a squad that will be the right side of 30 come 2023 and experienced to boot, then you focus on next year’s Six Nations for silverware. Let’s face it there are another 2 Six Nations tournaments after this one between now and the next World Cup in which to go trophy hunting. In short, be brave, make some tough decisions and like France really find out what two world class match day 23 man squads look like – but do it now!!!!

Italy – Optimistic

“Calma – I never said we’d produce miracles”

Italy true to form start their Six Nations campaign with two losses – but hang on a minute. Before we get sucked into the inevitable and pointless debate about whether or not Italy should even be in the Six Nations in the first place – we think that new Italian Coach Franco Smith has more grounds for optimism than any of his predecessors. Everyone predicted a whitewash in their encounter with England, but Italy for good chunks of that game were highly competitive and at times genuinely imaginative in attack. Sure their discipline is still their Achilles Heel as is their execution at times but we increasingly enjoy watching them play. Their wonderkid half back combination of scrum half Steven Varney and fly half Paolo Garbisi are genuinely exciting even if their lack of experience at times trips them up in terms of finishing skills. However, that will come with time and they look set to be getting lots of it in the next two years. In short, while they are hardly going to be challenging for any silverware this year, they will make us get up out of chairs and cheer them on as they put in some serious effort and attempt to punch way above their current weight. If you can’t take pleasure in watching them try then you’re probably not a genuine rugby fan. The proof of the pudding will be whether or not all this initial optimism has turned out to be yet another flash in the pan a year from now, but for the moment we’re giving Italy and Franco Smith the benefit of the doubt!

Scotland – Frustrated

Down but definitely not out!

The narrow loss to Wales last weekend, may have been a bitter pill to swallow for Scotland after the euphoria of their Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham against England in the opening round, but there was enough skill and determination on show in Murrayfield last Saturday that Scotland are still very much in it to win it. To top it all off they lost by only one point and having to do it all with just 14 men for the major part of the match. Furthermore, Wales have clearly got their mojo back so it was never going to be easy in the first place. Their trip to Paris next weekend will be a daunting task, but as we saw last Saturday this is a Scottish side who simply don’t know when to quit. There are still some consistency concerns around their execution at times, but this is an exceptionally good Scottish side who can go the full eighty minutes. Their discipline is good, despite the costly but unfortunate aberration by prop Zander Fagerson last weekend, and their ability and willingness to both defend and attack are exemplary. In short, a hard team to break down defensively and one that on attack can turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye. While they may not quite have the all rounded skill set of France, they can certainly give them a run for their money and next Sunday in Paris should be a hotly contested affair full of exciting running rugby from both sides. Once they have got the French fixture out of the way, Scotland take up residence at Murrayfield for the remainder of the tournament which should ensure that while they may not be lifting the trophy this year, a strong finish is definitely on the cards. In short, well coached by Gregor Townsend and his assistants and well led by Stuart Hogg, Scotland are the most complete package they’ve been in years. If France or Wales slip up next weekend then it will be time to dream big once more for Scotland.

Wales – cheerful

This was the try of the weekend for us!

The drought is over and Wales have emerged from their long cold year in the wilderness. The second try last Saturday by superstar in the making Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit, proved to us more than anything that Wales are back. There is plenty of work to do yet, and Wales still looked creaky at times against Scotland, but when they did click they looked impressive. On top of that they proved once more that while they may not be the most exciting team or the most skilled, they are a seriously dogged and gritty unit and one that is very difficult to break down. That quality came through against Ireland and then again in the match last weekend against Scotland. Even though many had written Wales off, we just weren’t comfortable doing so and felt that once they understood what Coach Wayne Pivac was asking of them, Wales would be back to being the tournament’s most consistent dark horse. The first two rounds would appear to have confirmed our suspicions as Wales now find themselves along with France chasing a Grand Slam. What a prospect their match with England in Cardiff has now become! Were Wales just lucky the first two rounds or is the Welsh renaissance now in full swing? Next Saturday will surely answer such questions and if the injury gods are kind to Wales this tournament then we have a hunch they are just getting started on what should be a very good year for them.

That’s it for now, we’ll be back next week with a look ahead to Round 3. Till then stay safe!

The final round of this weekend’s Six Nations action see France’s superstars take on an Irish side suffering from an identity crisis

Tournament favorites France make their second road trip in this Six Nations before a welcome return to the Stade de France. While some have said that France don’t travel well, we’d argue that is not borne out in results. If you look at their performances in 2020, of four matches away they won two and lost two. Of the two they lost, their final away game against England in the Autumn Nations Cup was such an impressive team effort that saw them fall just short of a victory, that it’s hard to criticize. They arrive in Dublin off the back of an impressive demolition of a spirited Italian side. Ireland will be a much tougher assignment, but Ireland are hardly exuding the kind of confidence that France seem to be reveling in. Ireland’s loss to Wales last weekend after a stop-start disjointed performance marred by poor discipline did not exactly come as a surprise. A crisis of leadership within the team, a group of veterans hurtling towards their sell by date, and a lack of belief in Ireland’s next generation are all the ingredients of a team lacking shape and definition as to what sort of game they want to play. France suffer from no such conundrums, they know exactly what kind of game they want to play and who they want to play it. Ireland will have to dig very deep on Sunday, and show like Wales last weekend that there is light at the end of a rebuilding process that is long overdue and is clearly faltering.

Le Professeur

Maybe it’s those trademark glasses but French Coach Fabien Galthie and his staff have a clearer vision of the future than any other team in the competition

Fabien Galthie is already well on his way to lifting the Coach of the year award, and watching his expertly drilled and managed charges in action is rapidly becoming the highlight of any Test Rugby weekend. As we’ve already mentioned, unpick France’s seemingly spur of the moment opportunism and you can see a team that is simply putting into practice drills that they are obviously able to do in their sleep. Much like Scotland they have been well coached but not over coached. If you look at Ireland under Joe Schmidt or England with Eddie Jones, you could argue that despite their successes they were coached to the point where they were unable to think beyond the well rehearsed drills of the training ground and apply their own individual creativity to them when necessary. We’d argue that France under Galthie, more so than Scotland, has managed to equip his players with this fine balance. France know exactly what to do, but can also quickly adapt to changing circumstances. France are quick and superbly inventive but it is all backed up by a foundation in the basics that would appear second to none. When you watch Scotland attempt the unthinkable your heart skips a beat as you wonder if they will actually manage to pull it off, whereas with France it all looks remarkably controlled leaving you in relatively little doubt that they know exactly what they are doing and how to pull it off.

Ireland’s chance to shine?

Time for Ireland’s front row to man up and we think Sunday just might be the day for these Leinster teammates to teach France a few lessons

Although, we are slightly baffled to see Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher start on the bench on Sunday once more, with Ulster’s Rob Herring starting despite a shaky performance last weekend, we have a hunch that this is one area where Ireland could really get some dominance over France. Ireland looked better when Kelleher joined the front row and made it an all Leinster trio last weekend. This is a potent Irish weapon and we’d argue superior to France’s offerings particularly off the bench for Sunday, especially as we simply don’t rate French prop Uini Atonio. France are clearly missing the highly dynamic Camille Chat out with injury, but until then we’d argue this is one area where opposing teams should seek to take advantage and Ireland are well poised to do so on Sunday.

Allez-y les Boks

France’s second row South African duo of Paul Willemse and Bernard le Roux will take some beating on Sunday

South African players have a long history with les Bleus and France’s second row partnership of Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse is paying huge dividends. Le Roux had a massive game against Italy and expect more of the same this weekend. They will be up against it in dealing with Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne who was the Men in Green’s best player last Sunday by a country mile, and his partner Ian Henderson had a good shift for the injured James Ryan. However, there is a chemistry between the two journeyman Springboks that will be hard to match. Provided Julien Marchand provides accurate throwing, and after his performance against Italy there is no reason to think he won’t, Ireland are going to have work hard to contain the two South Africans, and it will be a superb Test of how well Ireland can cope without the talismanic James Ryan.

Should I stay or should I go?

The line from the Clash song has been swirling round both players all week for completely different reasons

Our hearts really went out to Irish fly half Billy Burns in the dying seconds of last Sunday’s clash with Wales. The pressure on the Test rookie was immense, and he clearly attempted to carve off more than he could really chew with his kick to touch. The ball went dead, and Ireland’s seemingly inevitable last gasp win from a five meter lineout was dead and buried. All great Test matches hinge on such key moments and Burns should have toned down his ambitions and settled for a slightly less ambitious kick for touch. However, we’d argue such lessons need to be learnt in exactly those kind of pressure moments, and as a result despite his selection being forced by injury to veteran Jonathan Sexton this weekend, we think it is the right call for him to get the starting 10 jersey. When he did come on he provided far more urgency and creativity to Ireland’s attack than Sexton, skills which are crying out for game time and the same applies to all of Ireland’s other Sexton understudies.

As for Sexton himself, the press has been dominated by the debate surrounding his long running issues with head injuries. On top of that there is no denying that the 35 year old is just not the force he once was. We personally think that for the sake of his family he should hang up his hat. He has been a great servant of Irish rugby but all good things must come to an end, especially if you want to have a productive post rugby life. His ambition to lead Ireland through the next World Cup is sheer fallacy and is likely to have serious long-term consequences for his health. He knows the risks – they couldn’t be any more clearly laid out and if he chooses to ignore them then he has only himself to blame. In the meantime, the continuing debate about whether he should stay or go is seriously hindering the development of his replacement which is long overdue. In fairness to the jersey and himself Sexton should start to devote his energies to matters on the sidelines, help in the coaching department and let the next generation step up to the plate! If not both he and Irish rugby are likely to suffer in the long-term, and he will leave behind a tarnished legacy of an otherwise great player.

Is this France’s most underrated player?

French fullback Brice Dulin just doesn’t seem to be getting the notice he deserves

He was always reliable, but now he’s just downright fantastic. For some strange reason the 30 year old French last line of defense just never seemed to get on International Rugby’s radar. However under Galthie’s tutelage he has really flourished and now has become one of those exceptionally capable and reliable 15s. He may not be the most flash player on the park, but everything he does he does really well. Once the ball comes floating down into France’s 22 there’s that reassuring feeling of being able to say, “it’s OK Dulin’s got it”. His kicking game is excellent, he is outstanding in defense and under the high ball as well as being able to run some handy meters to cap it all off. Just an all round quality player and we are delighted to see him finally getting the recognition he so thoroughly deserves. He is complimented in the backline by a very exciting wing combination of “Mr Excitement” Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere who just gets better with every outing. These three are defensively solid, something that perhaps cannot be said about their Irish opponents with the exception of Keith Earls. Earls was clearly frustrated last week at getting very little ball to show off his attacking prowess, but he was solid in defense. Something which it was hard to say about James Lowe, and this weekend the Kiwi import will have a nightmare on his hands in the shape of Penaud. We stand by what we said about Hugo Keenan at fullback for Ireland, and he didn’t let us down last weekend, despite still having lots to learn at this level, but defensively we think he is improving dramatically and under the high ball he is proving to be exceptionally solid.

Verdict

This has the potential to be the most exciting contest of the weekend, but one we think ultimately France will come out the winners. They seem to travel much better than in the past, and are so together at the moment it’s hard to see them being unseated by an Irish team still unsure of themselves and which direction they are headed in. Plenty of key battles to be played out, and Ireland certainly have the talent to make this close, but in terms of cohesion they are still struggling to find their straps – a problem France simply doesn’t have. Enjoy what should be a terrific Six Nations weekend, stay safe and we’ll see you again soon.

In the meantime to keep you going here’s another excellent effort by our YouTube fan favorite the mighty Squidge on last weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash.

Six Nations Round 2 looks set to be a cracker – with England having everything to prove and needing a big win sadly at Italy’s continuing expense, while Wales will want to build on their defeat of Ireland but Scotland may have something to say about it!

Despite the lack of crowds that give the Six Nations its essential festival atmosphere, the rugby on display lacked for nothing in intensity and excitement. Italy and France got us started and while the result was never in doubt, France laid down a marker in full technicolor that they are the team to beat this year by a country mile. Italy’s novices struggled to get to grips with the French thoroughbreds and at times showed some enterprising play, but as always their lack of composure and execution got the better of them as well as a seeming inability to last much more than 60 minutes.

Next up was the not so unexpected surprise of Scotland getting the better of a rather shambolic English side, and winning at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years. Scotland were focused, clinical and simply dominated proceedings while England’s woeful lack of any kind of genuine attacking game was brutally exposed. England looked flat and bereft of ideas juxtaposed against Scotland’s exuberance and ambition.

Lastly on Sunday, Ireland travelled to Cardiff and Wales could not have made a more convincing argument that the pain of 2020 is now behind them, and a brighter future under Wayne Pivac now beckons. Ireland had moments of individual brilliance but as a team they just didn’t quite seem to be at the races or singing from the same song sheet. Furthermore, much like England question marks continued to hang over many of Ireland’s “old guard” who increasingly seem to be there solely on reputation rather than form.

So as we head into Round 2 here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s matchups.

England vs Italy – Saturday, February 13th – Twickenham

After the Scottish shambles last weekend, England simply have to win on Saturday and win big. With a Grand Slam now clearly out of the question, Italy arrive at Twickenham as lambs to the points slaughter. England have to grab as many points as possible on Saturday plain and simple and hope that someone, somewhere along the way knocks the French out of contention for what looks like a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam for the Men in Blue. English supporters will be desperately unhappy with the inept display their troops put on show against Scotland. England looked unfit and out of ideas and a shadow of the team that were World Cup finalists eighteen months ago. Their discipline was awful, too many players seemed to have turned up based solely on reputation alone, with nothing to show for it on the pitch last Saturday at Twickenham. In short, a team that has been talked up endlessly over the last year looked beyond average last weekend.

Italy, after their hiding at the hands of France’s group of wonderkids, no doubt arrive in England lacking a bit of confidence and probably rather alarmed at being England’s first target after a public humiliation. It doesn’t bode well for the Azurri, but still expect them to bring plenty of passion and enthusiasm to the proceedings. There are some bright sparks in this team who could provide some real moments of excitement, even if they are most likely going to be looking at the wrong side of the scoreline at the end of eighty minutes.

Not what they were expecting

England’s Maro Itoje gets some constructive help with his flying training from the Scottish front row

To be honest we’re not quite sure what England were expecting from Scotland, but as the above image shows perhaps better than any other last weekend, it wasn’t this. When established giants like Maro Itoje are being taught some of the finer points of the game by the opposition, then clearly England’s preparations have somewhat missed the mark. In his defence we thought Itoje was one of the few English players who played well last weekend against Scotland, but you could tell that even he felt that England lacked shape and purpose. England, much as they were in the World Cup final were outmuscled and out thought at their own game. England appeared to feel that playing without the ball was something they were comfortable with, while biding their time defensively until the opposition tired of doing all the running. Scotland made a mockery of this approach as they held their focus and resolve for the full eighty minutes. It was England who looked exhausted at the end of eighty minutes and not Scotland despite the men in Blue doing almost twice as much running as England. Scotland dominated territory and possession, made 11 clean breaks while England made none, beat almost three times as many defenders….. if it’s stats you’re looking at the list goes on an on. Italy will more than likely run at them all afternoon, but fortunately for England the Azurri’s execution will be well short of that shown by Scotland. England may get a breather this weekend, but they desperately need to use it as an opportunity to bolt on a style of play that allows them to be the ones taking the game to the opposition for a change.

We think he is more than just an impact player

Lock Frederico Ruzza must surely be one of Italy’s most underrated players

We salute Italian Coach Franco Smith’s efforts at trawling through the resources he has at his disposal this year, but for matches against the tournament’s two biggest guns in the opening rounds, we are baffled as to why Frederico Ruzza has not gotten a starting berth in the lock department. He immediately made an impact when he came on towards the end of the game against France, and against England you would have thought he would have been a shoe in, especially as Marco Sisi and Franco Lazzaroni had very little to say in their battle with France last weekend. Up against England’s Maro Itoje who is likely to be feeling more than a little pumped up, we would have thought Ruzza’s pace and power would have been a natural alternative. We have a feeling we may be seeing Ruzza sooner rather than later on Saturday.

Extra study required

Flanker Tom Curry seemed to forget the laws of the game against Scotland

We have to admit at being rather surprised at watching a player we rate as highly as Tom Curry, put in a performance akin to a schoolboy’s first outing with the senior XV. While we sympathise with the fact that the rules of our beloved sport appear to change with the start of every tournament, making it hard for players to keep up, Tom Curry’s constant infringements on Saturday were hard to justify and referee Andrew Brace’s patience was clearly pushed to the limit. Perhaps not helping Curry’s situation was England’s continued lack of balance in the back row, made worse by probably the worst performance in an English jersey we’ve ever seen from number eight Billy Vunipola. As we mentioned in last week’s post we sadly think Vunipola’s ship has sailed and Coach Eddie Jones reliance on him has become a liability. England has some solid back row options that need developing but we are not sure that Saturday’s lineup is really the answer, with a mish mash of a Curry hopefully up to speed with the rules, the out of form Vunipola and Courtney Lawes who has put in some respectable shifts on the flanks but is not your standard back rower. It’s definitely not balanced, but then neither is Italy’s so it will get the job done, but against France or Ireland we can hear the sirens already.

The Kids are alright

Italy’s favorite Welshman – scrum half Stephen Varney

There weren’t too many things to shout about for Italy last weekend, but there is a smoldering promise in the midfield as Italy’s two new kids on the block, scrum half Stephen Varney and fly half Paolo Garbisi, continued to impress. They are a dynamic duo who look set to bring some real zip to Italy. Garbisi is already demonstrating an understanding of the flow of a game well beyond his years, while teenage wonderkid Varney was able to deliver crisp service whenever the ball went to ground. The pair would be a useful role model for English Coach Eddie Jones, who increasingly seems unable to see life beyond the increasingly pedestrian and lethargic delivery of Owen Farrel and Ben Youngs despite the wealth of younger and more dynamic talent at his disposal.

A shot in the arm

George Ford feeling excited about playing some attacking rugby

It’s about time is all we can say. After increasingly ineffectual performances in the number 10 jersey, Owen Farrell gets moved out to the centres, and England gets a fly half who loves ensuring that England run and attack with ball in hand. We thought initially last week, that Jones might have made the right call in using Farrell to keep Scotland pinned back in their half and then bring on Ford to play some attacking rugby if that wasn’t working. Consequently, when it clearly wasn’t an effective strategy to everyone except Eddie Jones after the first twenty minutes, imagine our disbelief to only see George Ford appear off the bench with 8 minutes left on the clock. He instantly changed England’s shape and it started to look promising but at that stage was a completely lost cause. Jones has said that he has recognized the error of his ways, but we’re not convinced so Ford is probably going to have to make a very big lasting impression on his boss this weekend.

Verdict

England must and should easily win this game, but we just aren’t convinced that this is an English team we are going to remember great things about this Six Nations. Opportunities to develop a squad that can build and develop for the next World Cup let alone next Six Nations are being squandered, and a reliance on supposed big name players on reputation only is not doing England any favors and runs the risk of leaving them in the shadow of their competitors who increasingly seem to be embracing change with gusto. In order for England to keep their Championship hopes alive they will need an emphatic confidence building win, along with a solid points haul to help them in the closing stages of the tournament. We think they will meet the first condition without too much difficulty, but could be perceived to have fluffed their lines if they don’t come away with at least 50 points plus.

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, February 13th – Murrayfield

Scotland got their Six Nations campaign off to a fantastic start with an historic win over the ‘auld enemy’ at Twickenham, the first in 38 years. It was a superb performance with Scotland controlling proceedings for the full eighty minutes. It wasn’t without the odd hiccouph – Finn Russell’s clumsy trip and resultant yellow card at the end of the first half and the odd attempt at creating unlikely miracles that almost backfired spectacularly with the scores so close. However, Scotland dominated the game from start to finish and had all the ideas opposed to England who had hardly any. Scotland were disciplined, structured and their execution was leagues ahead of their opponents. However, while we wish to take absolutely nothing away from a marvelous Scottish victory which we thoroughly enjoyed raising our glasses to, Scotland must not get too carried away heading into what should be a difficult match against a Welsh side hoping they are slowly getting back on track. England were a poor side in a crisis of confidence last Saturday, and against France at the end of the month Scotland are going to have to notch their game up yet another set of gears.

As for Wales, the victory against Ireland was long overdue. Although there is still significant room for improvement for Wales, it was a much needed shot in the arm and the first step in banishing the ghosts of a truly miserable 2020 to the dustbin of history. Wales weren’t exactly brilliant against Ireland, and after a moment of complete madness from scrum half Gareth Davies with 15 seconds left on the clock that handed possession back to Ireland with the game clearly sealed in favor of Wales, you were left wondering about the decision making abilities of the Men in Red with so much at stake. Had Irish fly half Billy Burns ill fated miskick to touch in the dying seconds of injury time worked, we might be writing a very different story. However luck smiled kindly on the Welsh, and their comeback from a seemingly inevitable defeat to a 14 man Ireland, showed the kind of grit and determination that has made Wales such a force in this tournament in the last twenty years. They may not be the flashiest or smartest side on the park, but their ability to dig in when the chips are down still remains legendary.

A complete team performance

It had been a long time coming but was one for the ages

Unless you are a complete rugby philistine, there is no way you could not have enjoyed Scotland’s win over England last Saturday at Twickenham. You may not have enjoyed it so much if you were an English supporter but you no doubt admired it, and for Scottish fans and neutrals alike, rugby and Scotland were the clear winners. We had a hunch that Scotland might pull an upset out of their increasingly varied bag of tricks, but the manner in which they did it was impressive. This was a complete 15 man effort, and while there were some standout individual performances, the key ingredient was everyone knew their roles and worked together seamlessly. The scenes of Scotland’s jubilation at the final whistle were one of the best starts to the 2021 Test rugby calendar we could have asked for. It was a celebration of a great sporting contest that showed off the full range of skills that our glorious sport embodies, even if it was only displayed by one team. In short, well done Scotland and more of the same please this Saturday! Another convincing win and all of a sudden Scotland can start to take themselves seriously as Championship contenders.

Depth issues – Really?

Scotland’s George Turner showed that they don’t need to worry about the Hooker position

We remember watching a slightly younger George Turner absolutely demolish Canada two years ago on a Scottish developmental summer tour to North America. We thought then that the turbocharged Hooker was a star in the making, thus imagine our delight to see him absolutely tear up the pitch at Twickenham last Saturday, and completely outclass his established English counterpart Jamie George. With Scotland’s regular starters in the number two jersey Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally out injured, concerns were voiced regarding Scotland’s ability to hold their own at scrum time. Fear not after Saturday and if Turner keeps the jersey for the remainder of the tournament, then the competition for it over the next three years leading up to France 2023 is going to be very healthy indeed. Ably assisted on either side by the highly impressive Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland, Scotland looks in exceptionally rude health in the front row.

A contest for the ages

In our opinion the two best opensides in the worldJustin Tipuric of Wales and Hamish Watson of Scotland

Scotland’s “Manic Mish” meets Wales’ “Superman” on Saturday, and with such high stakes for both sides we expect this to be one of the most entertaining contests of the entire Six Nations. Hamish Watson and his manic grin was simply everywhere on Saturday for Scotland, effecting turnovers, making line breaks and generally smashing England into submission across the park. Against Ireland, Justin Tipuric was doing exactly the same thing, always rock solid in defence but also the most important player in a Welsh jersey in ensuring that Wales get go forward ball as that blue scrum cap just pops up everywhere. These two are fan favourites here at the Lineout and consequently the priveledge of seeing them both in action on the same pitch is one of the highlights of the year.

Stop me if you can

Scotland’s Western Cape wrecking ball – Duhan van der Merwe

First off South Africa must really be wishing that they had managed to hang onto to this guy, but Scotland’s latest Springbok import really is quite the commodity. As he casually brushed off a host of ineffective English defenders trying to prevent him crossing the whitewash last Saturday, similar scenes of England attempting the same with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu 25 years ago came to mind. Big, fast, and very powerful van der Merwe has clearly been one of Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend’s favorite Christmas presents. While some in Scotland have lamented his immediate departure for club rugby in England once he qualified for a Scotland jersey, there is no denying the power and pace he brings Scotland out wide. His opposite number this Saturday Welsh winger Louis Rees- Zammit was equally impressive against Ireland last weekend justifying our praise of him in last week’s post by scoring an equally fine try of his own. The battle between two of the Six Nations most exciting new talents is likely to be one of the highlights of the competition at Murrayfield on Saturday.

A Leader Comes of Age

Stuart Hogg has become the kind of Captain Scotland have been looking for since Gavin Hastings

Scottish fullback and Captain Stuart Hogg has always been an exceptional player, but initially some people including ourselves felt that his exuberant talents on the pitch clashed slightly with the calm head needed for the Captain’s role. Saturday’s performance both in the 15 jersey and in carrying the Captain’s armband showed a mastery of both. The dazzling breakouts from deep that appear to come out of nowhere but often get his side easily back over the halfway mark were there for all to see, but so was a calm and focused leadership of his charges. He appears able to trust his teammates to do their jobs, whilst at the same time creating an atmosphere that welds all these unique talents together. Scotland worked seamlessly for the full eighty minutes, and Hogg was always there throughout encouraging his teammates and bucking them up if things didn’t quite go to plan. He was confident but not arrogant and clearly the glue that held his team together. In sport it’s often hard for a player of such exceptional talent to take on the role of leader, especially as it can often mean stepping out of the limelight yourself so that others can shine. However, Hogg on Saturday showed that he has matured into an excellent Captain and one who is more than capable of ensuring that his team reach the lofty goals they have clearly set for themselves.

Verdict

A confident Scottish side literally buzzing with talent and ability will be hard to beat on Saturday on their home turf even if they will be without the crowds. However, knowing that every living room North of Hadrian’s Wall is likely to erupt if they get past Wales, should be sufficient motivation. We can’t help feeling Scotland are riding a wave right now and it is going to take a rather special team to knock them off their board, with perhaps only France in Paris having the ability to spoil Scotland’s New Year’s Party. Wales will fancy their chances and look in a much better position than they did last year to start getting results. However, Murrayfield and Scotland may be a bit more than they have bargained on just yet. Either way we have a hunch that it will be 80 minutes of your time very well spent this Saturday.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back later today with our look at the big one this weekend – Sunday’s clash in Dublin between Ireland and France once the teamsheets get released this morning. Till then stay safe and stock the fridge for some great rugby action this weekend.

Ireland look to continue causing Wales some grief but still more questions than answers for both sides

In the last of our previews of this weekend’s Six Nations action we look at Sunday’s clash between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff. Ireland travel to Wales surely feeling more than a little confident given Wales annus horribilis in 2020. But before the Irish get too carried away with themselves, if they reflected on their own 2020, the term mediocre is perhaps the strongest adjective they could come up with. They fell drastically short against the big teams, and simply got the job done against everyone else but rarely got your heartrate up. Wales heading into 2021 must surely feel that they can’t be any worse than last year, and with that behind them and some very painful but valuable lessons learnt they can now get back to being one of the Six Nations more reliable sides. In short, two teams with EVERYTHING to prove on Sunday, and two Coaches who are no doubt desperate to beef up their resumes should they need to start putting them out on the jobs market come March 20th. So here’s what got us talking over our pints of Guinness this week.

Wales vs Ireland – Sunday, February 7th – Cardiff

These two sides Six Nations opener is no doubt causing both Coaches to have difficulty sleeping this week. Both desperately need a win, and not just any old win. After 2020 it has to be a win full of fireworks and drama and rugby for the ages, all qualities we didn’t see much of from these great Six Nations competitors last year, especially Wales. In that respect Ireland and their beleaguered Coach Andy Farrell probably have the edge over Wales and Wayne Pivac, as Ireland met Wales twice in 2020 and came out smelling of roses on both occassions. However, both those fixtures were played in Dublin, and although the Principality Stadium as the largest cathedral in Wales will be empty of fans, you can bet that the WRU will have the strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Tom Jones’ Delilah thundering around the stadium at a volume that would put a Who concert to shame, along with all the appropriate piped Welsh crowd sound effects.

Is this the motivational link that Ireland have missed?

One of the most important ingredients in Irish rugby is passion, and it was sadly lacking in a lot of Ireland’s performances in 2020. There are few greater Irish motivational speakers than former Ireland and British Lions Captain and second rower Paul O’Connell. The famous “Manic Aggression” speech in the video above is one of rugby’s greatest changing room performances and it had an enormous effect on his charges that day back in 2007 against France, even if it didn’t quite get them the result they sought as a bit of French magic at the end stole Ireland’s glory. What it did provide though was one of those Six Nations matches for the ages and one we all still talk about today. That passion and fire in the belly was a key missing ingredient in Ireland’s approach to the game in 2020, without it they simply are not the team they could be. With O’Connell back in the mix we expect Ireland to roar once more. POC has almost godlike status here at the Lineout and we sincerely hope that the broadcasters will be letting us into the dressing rooms at half time this year, as a bit of O’Connell motivational speaking will do us all good in these COVID times.

Front row meat grinder

Our heart goes out to Wales on Sunday in having to deal with these two

Ouch and more ouch. We can’t help feeling that Wales are going to get pulverized at scrum time on Sunday. They failed to impress in this department in 2020 and up against Ireland’s prop combo of Andrew Porter and veteran Cian Healy, all we can see is a world of hurt coming their way this weekend. These two individuals are perhaps the only candidates for the manic aggression in an Irish jersey award in 2020, and we expect no let up in 2021 especially with Paul O’Connell giving them some helpful advice.

Ireland’s lineout woes may be at an end

If Ireland can get Rob Herring’s dart throwing skills sorted out expect Beirne and Ryan to cause Wales all kinds of misery at lineout time!

While there has been much experimentation in the Irish second row, James Ryan being the only constant, we think that Sunday’s partnership with Tadgh Beirne is Ireland’s long term solution in this department. While they will be up against Welsh legend and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, the Welshman’s partner Adam Beard doesn’t even register a signature on our radar. The Irish duo on the other hand are the definition of dynamism coupled to a seemingly tireless work rate that is second to none. With Beirne you have the added advantage of a marauding loose forward when he and Ryan are not causing havoc at the lineout and in the set pieces, and this is a package that their Six Nations opponents over the coming weeks may want to pay close attention to.

Just Reward

Still a lot to learn but worth sticking with – Ireland’s Hugo Keenan

There were few genuine standout performers last year for Ireland, but winger and fullback Hugo Keenan kept grabbing our attention in his first full year of Test rugby. Although he made some mistakes, that proved costly at times, there was a core of skills there that were impressive. For quite a while now Ireland have been looking for someone with the kind of skill set under the high ball that former Ireland fullback Rob Kearney possessed. While you could argue that Jordan Larmour has the more electric all round skill set, between the two of them Ireland has surely found the answer to depth in the 15 jersey building towards the next World Cup. Larmour features on the bench for this match and should things not go according to plan expect him to turn Wales upside down, but up to that point we respect Coach Andy Farrell’s choice to continue building Keenan’s confidence by giving him the starting berth.

Something for Welsh fans to get excited about

Coach Wayne Pivac will be expecting big things this year from youngster Louis Rees-Zammit

We apologise to Welsh fans that we haven’t said much about their side in this piece and much of what we have said isn’t overly flattering. The Lineout’s back row role model Justin Tipuric naturally starts at 7 and his partnership with number eight Taulupe Faletau started to show some genuine promise towards the end of 2020. They were about the only two players who appeared to understand the kind of game that Wayne Pivac wants them to play. However, for us the future of Welsh rugby is embodied in winger Louis Rees-Zammit, and we sense Pivac feels the same. The twenty year old is the most exciting thing to happen in Wales since 70s all time great Gareth Edwards. We’re delighted to see him get a start on Sunday, and sincerely hope that this will be the norm in terms of selection decisions for 2021. He will only achieve the greatness he potentially has at his fingertips if he gets some serious game time. He may well meet his match facing up against Ireland’s James Lowe, but if he holds his own and even gets the measure of the Kiwi import in a green jersey then we rest our case.

Verdict

So that’s it for this first weekend of one of the greatest shows on earth. We can’t wait and sincerely hope it lives up to its billing, and is the start of the long road out of the rugby wilderness caused by COVID-19. Perhaps the best way to approach the next 7 weeks and celebrate it despite the constraints is best summed up by our fan favorite on YouTube – the mighty Squidge. Enjoy, stock your fridge, turn up the volume, get together on line with your mates and revel in one of our glorious sport’s most wonderful festivals.

We couldn’t say it any better ourselves – thanks Squidge as always for yet another excellent piece!

As Test Rugby takes its first tentative steps in 2021, France look to lay down a marker in Rome and a potential thriller in Twickenham awaits between England and Scotland

It’s back people!!!! Test Rugby and one of our favorite times of the year, the Six Nations gets underway this weekend. Although the stadiums will be empty, COVID so far has not managed to throw a spanner in the works, and proceedings look set to take place as planned. While France’s trip to Rome is more than likely a dead rubber in the Frenchmen’s favor, there have always been surprises in this fixture in the past that have made it closer than expected. On paper last year’s Six Nations champions England should get the better of Scotland, but this is a Scottish side overflowing with creativity in attack, a quality that has been rather lacking in England’s approach to the game in the past year. Lastly on Sunday, a stop start Irish side makes the difficult trip to Cardiff to face a Welsh team that surely can’t be as poor as they were last year. Either way entertainment is to be had aplenty and Saturday can’t come soon enough! So here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s matchups.

Italy vs France – Saturday, February 6th – Rome

It’s hard if not impossible to see anything other than an emphatic win for a French team that many are tipping to walk away with the silver in this year’s Six Nations. As 2020 wore on, despite the many curve balls thrown at them France just got better and better while showing that they have two world class match day squads of 23 at their disposal. Well coached, well disciplined and demonstrating an almost infectious joy in the way they play the game, France are by the far the most exciting package going into this year’s tournament. Have other sides figured them out in 2021 and now know how to contain them? We think perhaps to a certain degree, but you can’t help get the feeling that France are just getting going with plenty more to come, all peaking at the right time come 2023.

As for Italy, it’s business as usual. That means a general talking up of their abilities and promise for the future, but as the tournament wears on, many of us are likely to struggle to find anything new in Italy’s ultimate path to yet another wooden spoon. We sincerely hope we’re wrong this year, but for now that’s all we can say and sadly can’t base such hopes on much tangible evidence to the contrary. On the flip side, despite France’s brilliance, Italy has a habit of making this fixture a challenging one at times for Les Bleus and in theory they have the ability to do so yet again on Saturday.

Italy looks to the future more than the here and now

Italy Coach Franco Smith is clearly thinking about the future more than the present

Most people are probably scratching their heads slightly at Italian Coach Franco Smith’s selections for this important match. While we ourselves thought much the same, it also says to us that Smith is using this tournament to build a team for 2023 and as a result for the most part results themselves are immaterial. In many ways you have to salute him for the courage to really have a look at the assets at his disposal in this first real year of building towards the next World Cup. If he does pull off some surprises along the way then all credit to him and his foresight. He clearly doesn’t care about the debates about relegation and Georgia entering the Six Nations at Italy’s expense. He knows it isn’t going to happen in this World Cup cycle, so it’s irrelevant. If Italy ends up with the Wooden Spoon again this year so what, but if they look consistently better at the end of the Championship than when they started, and consequently a contender for a higher finish next year then he can consider 2021 a job well done. Smith knows he needs to unearth every nook and cranny of Italian rugby and he only has this year to do it. Hence unless you’ve watched a lot of Italian rugby then most of the names on Saturday’s teamsheet will mean very little to you, but we’re looking forward to learning more, hopefully in a positive light.

France – are they the Championship’s ultimate Sports Car?

Lean, fast and mean – France are the tournament’s thrill factor this year

Vroom vroom! In addition to many of us shouting “allez le Bleus” over the next two months, you get the sense that this will be the sound emanating from the French changing rooms prior to every match. Outrageously talented, fast and capable of 0 to full throttle excitement in the blink of an eye, the team that Coach Fabien Galthie and his staff have assembled for the tournament has it all. Saturday’s lineup oozes pedigree even if most of that pedigree has only been developed in the space of a mere 12 months. If you’re a neutral we’re willing to bet that France will be your team for the next two months.

We’ll be seeing a lot of this fellow in the coming weeks

Gregory Aldritt has been a revelation for France and there is plenty more to come

Coach Fabien Galthie has picked an all star French side for Saturday’s clash in Rome, but we remain convinced that this gentleman is likely to find himself constantly on the front pages of rugby journals in the coming weeks. The powerful number eight is simply outstanding on both attack and defence, and he’s only 23. Arguably one of the best in Test Rugby right now, Aldritt would have little difficulty making a World XV. He is one of many outstanding French players taking to the field Saturday, but allied to exceptional teammate and Captain Charles Ollivon in the back row Italy are going to find him and his colleagues a nightmare to deal with.

One to watch for Italy

Italy’s go to guy in 2021 – Marco Zanon?

Sure there’s been plenty of talk about the Azurri’s Senior Kindergarten player of 2020 fly half Paolo Garbisi, and we’ve definitely been on that bandwagon – but if you’re looking for someone who is constantly going to ask opposition defenses some embarrassing questions then look no further than center Marco Zanon. Although Garbisi grabbed all the limelight in the Autumn Nations Cup and finish to Italy’s 2020 Six Nations campaign, it was Zanon who kept popping up on our TV screens in 2020 and making us ask “who is this guy”? He creates chances for Italy and is a genuine playmaker for the team especially in broken play. We’d argue that if you want something to cheer about when Italy is otherwise having a bad day at the office, look no further than Zanon this year.

Simple but effective – France turn seizing the moment into a fine art

Remember this one?

Italy will remember this but sincerely hope they don’t see a repeat of it on Saturday, especially as the protaganist of the above video is back, winger Gabin Villiere. He made this try look like it came out of nowhere, but if you watch the video above you can see that it demonstrates how good France have become at reading those small moments in a game and turning them to their advantage. Scrum half Antoine Dupont and fly half Mathieu Jallibert have the added advantage of not only being able to spot these kinds of now you see them now you don’t opportunities, but also have the skill to create them in the first place. This is more than just French flair these days, it’s a genuine skill that is coached and which France have mastered better than any other.

Verdict

In short, France will be essentially impossible to beat on Saturday. They will face a fired up but vastly inexperienced and unfamiliar Italian team. We appreciate that is a very bold statement and one we are not used to making, but we just can’t help feeling that France are just that good right now and there is a body of evidence that has been produced in the last six months to prove it. For Italy’s sake though we hope that their youngsters prove more than just deer in the headlights on Saturday, and actually show Coach Franco Smith enough nuggets of raw talent that he is able to start building an Italian side that may ultimately manage to make one or two statements in France in 2023.

England vs Scotland – Saturday, February 6th – Twickenham

If you’re like us, you can probably hardly wait till Saturday morning 1145 AM Eastern. This fixture for the famous Calcutta Cup, is one of the tournament’s annual classics and in recent years has served up some thrillers – who can forget that incredible draw the last time these two sides met at Twickenham two years ago? There is every reason to hope that Saturday’s encounter has the potential to serve up more of the same. England have clearly picked a team that is concerned about Scotland’s almost reckless abandon in attack, and as a result expect the Men in White to play a game that makes the opposition do all the running. This lack of an attacking game in England’s arsenal over the last few months has caused much consternation amongst their supporters, and for good reason. However, on the flip side of the coin there is no denying that England’s preference to not play with ball in hand has produced results as the opposition becomes more and more desperate to break a seemingly impenetrable defensive shield of white shirts.

Expect more of the same, as the Scots will run at England from every inch of the park. Whether or not they can keep it up for a full eighty minutes while still maintaining the kind of execution and discipline needed for it to put points on the board remains a big question mark. Scotland may also find themselves struggling to contain England in the set pieces as the Men in White’s tight five is without doubt one of the best in the business. After that though we’d argue it’s a relatively even contest, with some English players out of form and a lack of balance in some departments for England. Scotland’s progress in a rather strange year to say the least for Test Rugby was impressive at times, but it was never consistent – something which England was throughout. It will be an interesting contrast of styles with England’s rather dour approach up against Scotland’s willingness to throw caution to the wind with sometimes dazzling results. England are your reliable siege engine while Scotland are your gritty, unpredictable mavericks. It should make for a great contest.

One of the greats in the making

Prime English vintageMaro Itoje

English second rower Maro Itoje has always been a bit like one of those excellent vintages that you get in the wine store with the caveat best drunk a few years from now. Well those years are now. In our opinion, putting aside the remarkable individual try scoring efforts of winger Jonny May, Itoje has become the complete team asset for England. His presence on the pitch lends England an authority and ruthlessness they have often lacked in the past. This smoldering giant is likely England’s next Captain and his ability to get himself and the rest of his teammates under oppositions’ skins is very much in the mold of England’s World Cup winning skipper Martin Johnson. His indestructability on the pitch and ability to put in stadium jarring hits for the full eighty minutes is the stuff of legends and an enormous inspiration to his fellow teammates. He was outstanding in 2020, expect him to be phenomenal in 2021!

Has his time come and gone?

Do England need to consider life after Billy Vunipola?

For years Billy Vunipola was seen as an essential cog in the engine room of England’s back row. However, on the basis of what we saw from him last year, we have a hunch that England’s one man panzer division is not quite the blitzkrieg weapon he once was. In our humble opinion, England perhaps relied on his exceptional talents a little too much at the expense of developing a balanced back row. He is a devastating number eight and has served England exceptionally well, but he’s been far too quiet of late for us and we haven’t seen any signs that he is likely to start shouting from the rooftops once more. Injuries seem to be getting the better of him making his trip to the next World Cup questionable, and England’s priority must be to address what they want their back row to look like now rather than a year out from France. His back row partner for Saturday’s match Mark Wilson is one of our favorites but also another who is unlikely to make the next World Cup given his age. England has no shortage of depth in the back row, so it’s a bit early to be ringing the alarm bells. However, given Scotland’s rampaging back row trio of Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson this Saturday, some younger and fresher legs might have been the right call.

The Farrell/Ford debate – for once we think Eddie Jones may have got it right

“Look Faz if that cheeky little Scotsman gives you a panic attack – I’ve got your back”

As regular readers of this blog know, we are not fans of English Captain and fly half Owen Farrell, and yes we’ll lay our cards on the table – we actually think George Ford is the better player. Then why we hear you ask do you think England Coach Eddie Jones putting George Ford on the bench is the right call? One of our major beefs about Owen Farrell is that he tends to go to pieces if the opposition makes a mockery of his game plan. Once he gets the wobbles his decision making and discipline goes out the window (let alone his tackling technique). Jones is clearly anxious about the kind of high jinks Scottish fly half Finn Russell will pull out of his hat on Saturday, so has decided that Farrell’s comfort level of playing without the ball and forcing mavericks like Russell into costly mistakes is the right option. However, if it doesn’t work and England find themselves being run ragged by Scotland, then exit Farrell stage right and bring in Ford who seems to be able to handle pressure much better. Ford loves to run with the ball and if the Scots have the upper hand come half time, it’s Ford’s attacking play that England will need as opposed to Farrell’s containment policies.

Scotland’s court jesterFinn Russell

That sounds absolutely bonkers…….but you know it might just work – let’s give it a try!”

Some of the things Scotland fly half Finn Russell does appear bereft of any kind of logic and yet the results are often spectacular. He is one of those players it is almost impossible to read. He thinks so quickly that even his teammates struggle to keep up with him at times. He is one of the most exciting players in Test Rugby right now, but occassionally his penchant for the extraordinary can at times be a liability. While England will be justifiably cautious and apprehensive of the magical Scotsman, they also know that if they can put his side under pressure on the scoreboard, Scotland’s ambitions will ultimately start to turn into a desperate recklessness as Russell throws caution to the wind.

England’s new attacking breed?

One to watch – Max Malins

While England fans have lamented their side’s lack of attacking rugby, they may have cause to breathe a sigh of relief if utility back Max Malins gets some serious game time on Saturday. The Bristol Bears utility back is equally at home in the number 10 or 15 jersey, so much so that he has been likened to England’s answer to two time World Player of the Year New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett, who is also exceptionally comfortable in both roles. Both have a similar style, are dynamic with ball in hand and possess a superb kick and chase game. The contest between himself and Scotland’s “Mr. Excitement” Stuart Hogg, provided Malins get sufficient time off the bench should be superb entertainment.

Verdict

It’s hard to not see England getting the better of a feisty and unpredictable Scottish side packed with attacking prowess at Fortress Twickenham, even if it is devoid of their passionate supporters. Scotland though as they showed so admirably two years ago can throw the form book right out the window on any given Saturday. We’d argue that they are a better side now than the one that turned out for that memorable contest that almost got Scotland that first elusive win at Twickenham since 1983. However, Scotland still lack consistency at times and a penchant for attempting the unthinkable if Russell gets his way. England may not be getting us out of our seats as much on Saturday, but are still more likely to have got the job done by the time the final whistle shrills out across the empty stands. Either way you won’t want to miss it.

We’ll be back tomorrow with our look at Sunday’s game between Wales and Ireland once the teamsheets are out. Till then stay safe, make sure you’ve got your libations of choice in hand for the weekend and here’s hoping for some great rugby!

As we look towards a Six Nations that may or may not happen – we reflect on last year’s much maligned Autumn Nations Cup and what it told us about the state of Northern Hemisphere rugby

Before we bash it too much – let’s all be brutally honest. While it may have struggled to fire our imaginations for the most part, in a year where we were starved of Test Rugby, the cobbled together Autumn Nations Cup did give us some worthwhile reasons to gather around our televisions, provide some heated chat sessions on our phones and down a few pints while partaking of our favorite Saturday afternoon pastime, picking apart a Test match. The quality at times was debatable, the broadcast rights for most (fortunately not us here in Canada – thanks DAZN for getting it right for once) were complicated to say the least, but there were some memorable moments.

Despite being drawn in the pool of death Georgia, proved that four back to back Test matches makes them a competitive side to the point where their final two matches were well worth watching. They made Ireland feel absolutely awful about themselves and gave us one of the best games of the tournament in their courageous struggle against a classy Fijian side. It is hoped that if we learnt nothing else from the Autumn Nations Cup it’s that this gallant group of lads from the Caucasus deserve and need continued regular exposure to this level of competition. The Georgian side that started the tournament was hardly recognizable when looking at the hardened group that were able to give Fiji a run for their money after three weeks of top level rugby.

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

Italy on the other hand showed us very little despite the fact that one of their matches against Fiji was cancelled. As a result the age old debate about whether the Six Nations should introduce the concept of relegation, most likely at Italy’s expense and Georgia’s benefit, is set to continue especially if Italy once again end up clutching the wooden spoon if this year’s Six Nations goes ahead. On the flip side there was plenty of talent on display from Italy, but as usual it seems almost impossible to harness it into a game winning platform. We’ll enter this year’s Six Nations making lots of promising noises about this Italian talent, but are likely to remain steadfastly skeptical about it actually producing results that can change Italy’s traditional fortunes in the tournament.

The passion is still there – but the results still sadly are not

Fiji sadly as a result of a COVID outbreak in their camp right from the get go had to forfeit their first three matches, but their one and only game against a very feisty group of Georgians was a glorious spectacle that only served to remind us of what we missed as a result of them only playing one instead of four matches. The flavour and spark they would have added to a tournament that desperately needed it would have been immense, but that magical 80 minutes against Georgia was worth the wait. We can still console ourselves with the fact that many of the Fijians that lit up our TV screens that first Saturday in December, will still be seen in Europe this year once the Champions Cup labors back into life after its COVID hiatus. Fiji like Georgia though must not be left out in the no man’s land of Test rugby as the bigger Unions tend to focus on themselves in the course of 2021 in an attempt to rejuvenate their traditional big ticket annual competitions and tours.

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

Scotland were as always a feisty and unpredictable side, that when they get it right are a genuinely slippery and nuggety team to deal with. While they might not have finished as strongly as they would have liked, there was plenty of promise for a Six Nations campaign to get excited about. The traditional Achilles Heel of Scottish rugby was plain for all to see in the shape of injuries. Furthermore they only got to play three of their four scheduled matches due to the game with Fiji being forfeited. Their only win against Italy was a relatively lacklustre affair, and they were outclassed by an understrength French side and blitzed by an Irish side desperate to make a point after an embarrassing question and answer session with Georgia. However, despite lots of praise for some noteworthy individual displays we couldn’t help feeling that Scotland have some serious homework to do before their tricky Six Nations opener with England at Twickenham. The Autumn Nations Cup raised more questions than it answered as well as bringing home once more that depth is not Scotland’s strong point, which once the injuries start ramping up becomes seriously problematic.

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

Wales Autumn Nations Cup campaign was simply a reminder that 2020 was a year that they could not consign to the trash quickly enough. While they did manage to win two of their four games against Italy and Georgia, they were hardly convincing performances. Italy failed to impress throughout the entire tournament, so for Wales to lose their final match of the year against the tournament’s ultimate underachievers would just have been too much salt into an already gaping wound. Sure they held Georgia scoreless in a rather labored performance, after being thumped by Ireland in their tournament opener. But would the scoreline have been so pretty had they played the Georgians a week later by which time the Eastern Europeans were starting to warm up nicely after a year without Test Rugby? There were sparks of a Wales of old against England despite losing to the ultimate Tournament champions, and against Italy there were the beginnings of a possible Welsh renaissance spearheaded by the youngsters. But overall Wales hardly fired a shot in the tournament, and only against weaker sides.

However, we’d argue that Wales have fallen as far as they can and now it is only onwards and upwards. There is still the spine of a solid team once it has figured out how to transition to life under new Coach Wayne Pivac. Stalwarts like Justin Tipuric, who still remains a solid fan favorite here at the Lineout, were showing by the end of the year that they understood the kind of game Pivac wants them to play – even if it is a radical departure from the golden Gatland years that these veterans are used to. Add to that some very impressive young blood coming through the ranks that is only going to get better and we’d argue that by going through the crucible of 2020, the worst is behind Wales. While we still think that third place is probably the highest they can aspire to in the forthcoming Six Nations, a strong fourth place finish is definitely on the cards which could see Wales quietly but efficiently building into a problematic side for Australia and Fiji come the next World Cup. In short – watch this space!

Where there’s smoke – there will be fire once more!

Ireland are clearly the flash in the pan crew at the moment in Northern Hemisphre rugby. Brilliant one day – clueless and devoid of inspiration the next. Ireland’s performances throughout the Autumn Nations Cup seesawed between the sublime and the ridiculous. The sublime – Keith Earls performance, ably assisted at times by Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the third place playoff against Scotland. The ridiculous – the insistence on playing winger Jacob Stockdale at fullback and ignoring completely the talents of Ulster scrum half John Cooney in favor of Jamison Gibson-Park for the entire tournament. Whether or not Ireland are gelling with new Coach Andy Farrell, or more to the point he actually knows what he is doing are debates that are likely to go on long into the night in the build up to this year’s Six Nations. What he does need to do though is take a long hard look at a few players who are clearly reaching their sell by dates, most notably fly half Jonathan Sexton, and develop some serious strength in depth – something which in reality Ireland has by the bucketload. They have outrageous depth from positions 1-8, some serious question marks around 9-10, but a raft of experienced and up and coming talent across 11-15.

Get the basics right, figure out what sort of game you want to play and there is absolutely no reason why Ireland should not be amongst the World Cup contenders on a regular basis from now till 2023. It’s the brain trust in the Coaching box that seems to be the biggest question mark and for us the jury still remains well and truly out. A great team on paper but one in danger of making the headlines for all the wrong reasons come match day. In short, of all the teams under the microscope in the coming months, Ireland are likely to feel the heat the most, both from their opponents and their supporters.

Ireland’s Mr. Nuggety – Keith Earls shows sometimes there is no substitute for experience

France – in short MAGNIFIQUE!!!!!!! Are these guys the team to watch this year, and probably for the next four years? Absolutely! As playing with the ball seems to have become a liability in the modern game, France under their brilliant Coaching brains trust and with a container ship load of young talent, have figured out a way to play a game in which possession results in points and plenty of them all scored in a fashion which is a joy to behold. As everyone else seems to want to turn our beloved game into a drudge fest of attrition, France have decided to throw the rule book out the window and be different and offer up a fast, free flowing but equally hard hitting game that is pure entertainment and a glorious celebration of our beloved sport. Despite everyone else’s best efforts to remove the word fun from rugby vocabulary, France are going hell for leather to ensure that it remains one of the sport’s guiding principles. There is so much talent in this team with the vast majority of it barely out of Test rugby kindergarten, and yet it is producing the kind of results attributed only to Test veterans.

France are already in ridiculously rude health at the start of this World Cup cycle. Is scrum half Antoine Dupont the world’s best rugby player right now? It’s pretty hard to argue against such a claim. But then there are so many other names that also spring to mind. Gregory Aldritt is probably in the mix for the world’s best number eight, Romain Ntamack for fly half, Virimi Vakatawa for the centres, Brice Dulin for fullback, Camille Chat for Hooker, Teddy Thomas for winger……the list goes on and on, and what’s more most of these guys are just getting started in their Test Rugby careers. The fact that a supposed 2nd/3rd string French side were able to give England’s very finest the fright of their lives at Twickenham and come within a hair’s breadth of throwing the form book completely out the window says it all.

Look out world you’ve been warned, and as for the Six Nations if they don’t pull off their first Grand Slam since 2010 then we may have to give up our feeble attempts at predicting the future of this noble sport. Enough said – but in conclusion if you don’t have any allegiances heading into this Six Nations we think you may just develop a penchant for the finer things in life made in France by the end of it.

It’s a kind of magic!

England ultimately won the whole thing and in short recovered spectacularly from their World Cup disappointment, but did they fire our imaginations in doing so? Sadly not with the exception of winger Jonny May who is an extraordinarily gifted athlete and always capable of single handed feats of brilliance that defy imagination. The rest of England’s gameplay however this year, although brutally effective in getting results, has put most of us to sleep. Their opener against Georgia was very impressive, but the poor Georgians thrust into the limelight after a year’s absence from Test Rugby were never going to be at the races against a World Cup finalist for their first match. Against Ireland, England got the job done, but that’s pretty much all you could say about 80 minutes of rugby which was more akin to watching two teams do their annual tax returns than an international sporting contest. The only exception in the game was winger Jonny May’s sudden realization that he actually hadn’t voted for Brexit and wanted to live and work in France.

The same approach was effectively adopted against Wales who were hardly making opposition sides lose too much sleep at night during 2020. In all of this there was a reluctance to blood new talent, especially in key positions such as the halfback berths, which is almost criminal at this stage in a country’s World Cup cycle.

England’s reluctance to play with ball in hand and simply suck the life out of opposition attacks with body numbing physicality, almost blew up in their face in the most spectacular fashion when they took on a supposedly second or third rate French team in the Final who made a mockery of the Men in White’s approach to modern day Test Rugby. England hung on, helped on occasion by some interesting officiating decisions, but we very much doubt that England’s current take on the game will get them another Six Nations title this year let alone a World Cup in four years. England had a successful if rather uninspiring 2020, but unless things change they are likely to find that everyone else has figured them out in 2021 and moved on, leaving England having to play catch up by the time the World Cup rolls around. It’s early days yet, and England has some exceptional players at its disposal, even if Coach Eddie Jones seems to reluctant to use them as much as he should. The world’s best but most boring side in 2020, and one still likely to do rather well in the forthcoming Six Nations. But if a change in tactics and personnel isn’t seen sooner rather than later England may look back on the first eighteen months of life after the last World Cup as opportunities missed rather than silverware on the shelf.

Well boys I always said filing our income tax return carefully would get us a healthy rebate cheque

We’ll be back with our usual previews of the Six Nations, provided it actually happens and COVID once more doesn’t get in the way. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s hoping that 2021 gives us the kind of oval ball year that we were all so sadly denied in 2020, albeit for all the right reasons!

So what did the recently concluded Rugby Championship (aka Tri Nations this year) tell us about its competitors after one of the strangest years in terms of Test Rugby?

Let’s be honest in general 2020 is a year that most of us can’t wait to assign to the scrap heap of history. Our beloved sport was put on hold for several months and when it did return it was forced to play out in empty stadiums in the Northern Hemisphere. On that note our compatriots in the Southern Hemisphere, as a result of taking drastic measures right from the get go, had much greater success in containing the scourge of the virus. As a result, rugby got underway much quicker South of the Equator in Australia and New Zealand. South Africa was the obvious exception unfortunately as the country was ravaged by the pandemic and Argentina found themselves with no-one to play locally in the rejigged Super Rugby tournaments which essentially become domestic competitions.

Despite all the trauma the Tri Nations held at the end of the year in New Zealand and Australia between the two countries, with Argentina taking up residence in Australia to play their matches, provided us with some memorable entertainment – most notably Argentina making history by beating the All Blacks for the first time ever. Plenty of new talent was on show, and unlike their compatriots North of the Equator the three countries enjoyed being able to play in front of large crowds due to Australia and New Zealand’s success with containing the COVID-19 outbreak from the very beginning. All sports need a crowd to lend an atmosphere, but the color, passion and good humor that rugby crowds bring to a contest are unique in world sport.

So as we look towards a New Year that hopefully promises much for our sport, we look back at the Tri Nations and what it taught us about its competitors.

Argentina have some work to do but showed they are a force to be reckoned with in this World Cup cycle

Argentina’s VERY big day out against New Zealand

When it comes to the raw emotion which is such a big part of rugby it would be pretty hard to top Argentina’s stunning win over the All Blacks in November. Sure the victory was tarnished by a media witch hunt around some comments made by some of the players which were a tad inapporpriate, but uttered in the brashness and immaturity of youth many years before this match – inexcusable but needed some context nevertheless. Captain Pablo Matera who was so inspirational to his colleagues in that memorable match, has shouldered the blame for his actions and the shame that comes with them. He and some of his teammates will undergo some awareness training to ensure that those comments were nothing more than irresponsible faux pas made by a bunch of teenagers who had yet to be seasoned by the international camaraderie of rugby union. A sport which brings players together from a wealth of different cultures and backgrounds.

All that aside, what we did learn from Argentina is that a year in the wilderness and isolated from international competition, if anything seems to have made them stronger. Coach Mario Ledesma, with some help from former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika, has molded together an outfit that blends the best of the Pumas exports playing in top level European competition with an exciting, talented and dangerous group of new young talent. While Argentina will want to forget that 38-0 revenge drubbing from New Zealand a fortnight after that historic win, they managed to redeem themselves a week later against Australia in a hard fought draw despite the distractions of the media circus going on around them. Furthermore, let’s put it in perspective. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Argentina had not played in a year, were a long way from home and had to play four back to back Test matches against two of the best Test sides on the planet. To emerge from that with one win against New Zealand, two draws and one loss is pretty respectable whichever way you cut it.

The talent on display, especially from the newcomers was a joy to behold at times, and Argentina look so much more cohesive than they have done in years gone by. While there are still problems with concentration and discipline at times, the Pumas look for the most part exceptionally well organised. Their scrum is once more a thing to be feared and they seem to have a factory of alarmingly talented and exceptionally powerful back rowers. Their backs are magical and there are some up and coming youngsters ready to step into the shoes of the likes of Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo. In short, what we found out about Argentina is that they are in exceptionally rude health and just getting started on their preparations for the next World Cup, something their main World Cup Pool rivals England will need to play close attention to in the next three years. Unlike the last World Cup cycle, and perhaps because of the pandemic, Argentina seem to have accepted the hand that geography has dealt them and appear set to adapt, ensuring that along with Fiji they are likely to remain one of the most popular online shopping destinations for Northern Hemisphere club coaches.

Australia very much a work in progress but watch this space!

Dave Rennie hoping he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew

Nobody ever said the Wallaby coaching job would be easy. Take a collection of talented players who very rarely seem able or willing to follow orders, throw in a bunch of youngsters who can’t decide whether they should be playing union, league or Australian rules and new Coach Dave Rennie has probably spent much of 2020 trying to figure out where to begin. When he has got it right, Australia have looked good, and some of their new talent has really made us sit up and take notice, especially harnessed to a game plan that actually works. Unfortunately the rather rebellious streak that runs through Australian rugby managed to derail the Wallabies a few times this year despite Rennie’s best intentions. Nevertheless, what we did see him doing was welding the Wallabies into a recognizable shape and giving them a sense of definition as a team, rather than a collection of unruly but talented loose canons. When Australia clicked as in their defeat of the All Blacks, the promise of this new look Wallaby side was there for all to see. Unfortunately though we still only saw glimpses of it rather than any degree of consistency. However it’s early days and we’re fairly confident that under Rennie’s guidance the best is yet to come.

Australia still suffer from problems with discipline and some of their set piece work, most notably the lineout needs some desperate work. However, overall there were improvements across the board. Discipline was for the most part better, their scrum has improved dramatically and they have clearly got the measure of how to use explosive talents like winger Marika Koroibete to maximum effect. Defensively they are improving and with the long range seige gun capabilities of utility back Reece Hodge’s boot, Australia have plenty to be excited about heading into the New Year.

Most notable for Australia this year was the relish with which they harnessed new talent. There was a long list of names on the roll call for notable performances but here are a few that stood out for us. In the front row Taniela Tupou or the “Tongan Thor” as he is better known as has really come into his own and was an absolute nightmare for Argentina and Australia this year. Harry Wilson looks set to be an outstanding prospect for the future at number eight despite one or two deer in the headlights moments on the big stage this year. Jordan Petaia at centre has greatness written all over him, while Tom Wright proved to be the find of the year on the wing and Tom Banks looks set to answer the questions the Wallabies have consistently had at fullback for the last few years.

In short, Australia despite a mixed bag of results this year, have shown some encouraging signs in 2020 that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with come 2023. There are plenty of kinks still to be worked out, but we have no doubts that Australia in Dave Rennie have picked the right man for the job.

New Zealand – False alarms and still the team to beat

They may be angry this year – but they are still the benchmark everyone else uses to measure themselves against

Put aside all the nonsense in the media this year claiming that the All Blacks had lost their edge, question marks around new Coach Ian Foster being the right man for the job and a few serious wobbles against Australia and Argentina as nothing more than idle speculation. When the All Blacks review the footage of what they got wrong, they are still hands down the best team in the world at reinventing themselves. After struggling to get past Australia in their first Test of 2020, a week later they were able to close them out and the week after that completely blow them off the park. Sure the following two weeks were a fairly torrid time for the Men in Black narrowly losing to Australia, and then the shock defeat to the Pumas. However, their last Test of the year and ultimate 38-0 revenge over the South Americans showed a side that can finish on a high like no other, as they simply took Argentina apart piece by piece for the full eighty minutes, not allowing the Pumas to even get a word in to the contrary. It’s that ruthlessness and ability to come back from the dark places of the sport with such clinical efficiency that sets the All Blacks apart from their rivals.

The jury may still be out on whether or not new Coach Ian Foster is the man to take the All Blacks to the World Cup, where they are going to have to get past their age old nemesis in the global showdown – France. Les Bleus seem on a rocket trajectory to Mars at the moment and will take some beating especially at home. Fly half and one of the most experienced heads on the team, Beauden Barrett, will still be in his prime in 2023, but has proven his versatility at fullback to ensure that New Zealand will have a genuine powerhouse decision making duo in himself and Richie Mo’unga at fly half. Add in some truly outrageous new talent like winger Caleb Clarke and fullback Will Jordan to the spine of a very capable and experienced team, and this is still the team against whom everyone else will measure their progress. It’s the versatility of New Zealand’s players across the board that still keeps the rest of the world guessing. Dane Coles is not only one of the best hookers in the world, he’s also one of the most dangerous men out wide where he likes to get the winger in him out of the closet. Ardie Savea is the modern day equivalent of a whirling dervish, whilst across the park this group of All Blacks continue to pull off moves that seem effortless to them but often defy logic for the rest of us.

That vision of where space is or how to create it is so ingrained in New Zealand’s rugby DNA, that while they may be in transition the big wins are still likely to vastly outnumber the losses this World Cup cycle. This group of angry young men may still be smarting at their exit from last year’s World Cup at the hands of the old enemy England, but are likely to be using it as a lesson to prepare them for their ultimate potential banana skin France in three years time. Not yet perfect but showing all the signs that they will be in a couple of years!

South Africa are likely to regret not taking the trip to Australia

Is it all just ancient history now?

South Africa chose not to participate in the Rugby Championship held in Australia this year. There were various reasons for this, though mainly due to COVID-19 which has decimated the country. However, with precautions it is likely they could have made the tournament. Instead lack of playing time required to get the players match fit for a grueling Test schedule was cited as the main reason for not making the journey. Given Argentina’s exploits in Australia and that they faced similar issues, this argument seems to be rather groundless, especially when you consider that South Africa are current World Champions. Australia, Argentina and New Zealand are all looking sharp, as are England. When South Africa run out to potentially meet a powerhouse Lions squad in July of next year, it will be their first Test since the World Cup final which by then will have been almost two years ago. As Argentina showed, a year in the wilderness can be managed – but almost two years????

Consequently, we don’t have too much to say about them as at the end of 2020 we simply have no idea where they’re at. Will they regret their decision to not make the trip to Australia or simply use the Lions series as the start of preparations to defend their World title even if they find themselves on a hiding to nothing at the end of it? Little is known about the new Coaching setup for the Springboks, even if it does have the wise hand of World Cup winning Coach Rassie Erasmus overseeing it all, albeit not as closely as many would probably like. Nevertheless, from the little we have seen of the Super Rugby domestic competition in South Africa which only started in September, as well as the Currie Cup, despite the ravages of Covid 19 there is absolutely no shortage of world class talent in the country. Add to that the likes of key players such as winger Cheslin Kolbe making the front pages of every rugby publication every time he takes to the pitch with French side Toulouse and underestimate the green machine at your peril.

There is no denying that the landscape of Test rugby has just not been the same without the Springboks this year, and like the rest of the world we can’t wait for the Lions series this year, pandemic permitting. The Boks are a team that invariably rises to the occasion and regards the jersey as a symbol of national pride never to be taken lightly. They’ll be back rest assured and we hope and suspect that they will reignite the passion and the fury that caused the rest of the world to look on in awe over a year ago in Japan.

We’ll be back with our final piece wrapping up 2020, as we reflect on the end of the Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and what we learnt from it. Till then Happy New Year and let’s hope for all of us around the globe that Covid-19 makes its way into history and our glorious game is allowed to return to the business of making it.

Is it a final in name only or could the last Test of the year have a surprising twist in its tail?

It would appear on paper that the supposed showpiece event of the Autumn Nations Cup is for all intents and purposes a bit of a non event. England roll out all their big guns while France are left to assemble a rag tag team of scraps from what the domestic clubs feel they can live without this weekend. Is it a case of a Humvee competing in a Monster Truck final against a Trabant, or underneath that cardboard shell is there a set of well coached but unknown quantities for an unsuspecting English side. All the bluster and talking up of the match has come from the English camp this week, while the French team have gone about their business behind closed doors quietly accepting the hand that fate has dealt them. It’s very hard to see anything other than a decisive English victory against a cobbled together French side, but we can’t help feeling that there may be one or two surprising twists left in this tale of unfulfilled ambitions. While English Coach Eddie Jones swaggers and blusters his way around the media circuit stating the seemingly obvious in an attempt to get inside French heads prior to Sunday, we’ve heard very little from France leading us to believe that old adage that it’s the quiet, silent types who are the most dangerous.

We know everything about this English team but almost nothing about France on Sunday

C’est quoi ca?

We have to confess to knowing nothing about France from numbers 1-9 this week. Sure we’ve heard rumors and brushed up on our knowledge of all things TOP 14, but in all honesty the French forward pack for Sunday and their scrum half are simply unkown quantities to us. We’ve read some positive buzz about their exploits at club level, and have a hazy recollection of flanker Anthony Jelonch in action against the All Blacks three years ago, but for all intents and purposes it will be like opening a box of mystery presents on Sunday as far as we’re concerned. What we do think is being underestimated though is this French Coaching team’s abilities to whip a bunch of relative unknowns into a competent Test side. Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards France seem to be thriving and we very much doubt this forward pack are likely to be the deer in the headlights that most are predicting they will be.

Is Eddie Jones despite the bluster the more annoyed of the two Coaches?

Look mate I ordered champagne not house red!!!!

In his regular rounds of the rugby press this week, we’ve sensed an underlying tone of frustration in Eddie Jones assessment of what his charges will be up against this weekend. While he has paid the customary respects to his opponents, reading between the lines, we feel he is almost more annoyed about the selections that French Coach Fabien Galthie has been forced to make for this match than Galthie himself. Jones wanted to end this rather upside down year with a victory against his biggest Six Nations threat next year France. This match would have been the ideal preparation to really get the measure of the squad who denied him and his charges the Grand Slam this year, and who clearly fancy their chances of taking the title from him next year. This group of unknowns he now has to face provides him with a possible banana skin in terms of his immediate preparations for Sunday, and at the same time denies him the opportunity to have another look at the side he is likely to face at Twickenham next March. Of the two we’d say Jones may be the more frustrated right now as a result.

A brains trust that is clearly working

An unlikely but highly effective partnership – France’s Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards

Very few teams seem to have emerged from the last World Cup with a Coaching platform that has managed to embrace change and show promise for the next global showdown. France would appear to be the exception. While it may be a slightly unorthodox partnership there is no denying that France Head Coach Fabien Galthie and former Welsh defense Coach Shaun Edwards have managed to get their house in order right from the get go. They seem to be the only team that has managed to understand the fine balance between defense and attack and merge the two into a highly effective and attractive brand of rugby. Put a Fijian engine inside an English chassis, and you have France 2020. Add to that the fact that the pair of them seem almost gleeful at sifting through France’s toybox of talent regardless of its experience like two kids at Christmas. There is a genuine thirst for knowledge to find out as much as possible about everything France will have at its disposal over the next four years and manage those resources accordingly. If you’re going to watch anybody off the pitch over the next four years, pay close attention to these two gentlemen, and their fellow Northern Hemisphere counterparts might want to do the same.

Is it a plane, is it a bird – no it’s Gabin Villiere!

Villiere Flight 001 departing for Fiji!

France’s back line however for Sunday’s match may lack experience but we’ve already seen what they’re capable of. Jonathan Danty proved to be an outstanding centre in the mold of the old bruiser himself Mathieu Bastareaud against Italy. Whether or not he can measure up to England’s Owen Farrell and Henry Slade is an entirely different question but one we are looking forward to seeing him try to answer. It was winger Gabin Villiere who really made us sit up and take notice against Italy as he seemingly burst from nowhere from behind a lineout to score a classic 7s style try. The contest between him and his opposite number Anthony Watson should prove to be one of the most entertaining of the afternoon.

It’s a match that England, benefitting from 2,000 lucky fans in attendance for the first time in the competition, can and should win. France come into the match as a relative unknown, which adds an element of danger to the whole equation for England, but at times like these there is rarely a substitute for experience and that is something Eddie Jones’ charges bring to the contest by the bucket load. After our initial disappointment on hearing it would not be a full strength French team, as the week has wore on, our interest in this match has peaked so that we have a hunch this may not be the dead rubber the pundits are dismissing it as. Either way, you are unlikely to come away without some insight into what life will be like for next year’s two Six Nations title contenders and for that reason alone we’d argue it would be worth 2 hours of your time on Sunday.

Enjoy this year’s last hurrah this weekend, and we sincerely hope it will give us plenty to talk about as we look ahead to a return to normal service in 2021!

Is this finally the weekend to get excited about the Autumn Nations Cup?

“A made up tournament, in a desperate attempt to inject some financial lifeblood into the Northern Hemisphere’s cash starved Unions” – we sincerely hope that this weekend will enable us to write a different epitaph on the Autumn Nations Cup Tombstone. The tournament just hasn’t fired plain and simple. One of the biggest entertainment cards in the competition Fiji will be playing their only match this Saturday after being in COVID-19 lockdown for the entire pool stage phase. Georgia have been placed in the worst of possible pools that has done little to allow them to show off their talents or further their case for inclusion in the Six Nations. Wales find themselves out in the cold after having struggled to define what they are supposed to look like in the post Gatland era. Italy have done little more than unearth some promising talent for a future that is always just around the corner. Scotland have looked perhaps the most adventurous of all the sides bar France, while Ireland seem to be relying more on the supposed mythical luck of their nation than an actual game plan. England have simply bludgeoned all before them into submission, only occasionally allowing individuals like the exceptional Jonny May to experiment with one man attacking rugby. Lastly France have enthralled us but are being held hostage by their clubs and thus denying the whole competition the final it should have had. In short, would anyone really want to do this again? We think not!!!

Nevertheless, in this rather unusual year, beggars can’t be choosers and what you see is what you get and it’s better than nothing at all. While we’re not really sure what this weekend’s final proceedings will actually tell us about where the teams are heading into a year that should see a return to mostly normal service, there could be some entertainment on hand. The fact that the French Coaching staff have not attempted to talk reason to the Clubs would indicate to us that they are relishing the chance to throw a group of newbies into the frying pan and develop another level of depth to their World Cup preparations – and who knows in the final International match of the year pull off its greatest upset. England literally swagger into Twickenham as a result but we’ve all seen how quickly that swagger can turn into a drunken lurch into the hoardings if they’re not careful. Fiji and Georgia should give us the genuine winner takes all, caution to wind entertainment that this tournament has so desperately needed and the same could be said for the Wales and Italy encounter. The only game that seems to have some real weight to it would appear to be Ireland and Scotland’s showdown in Dublin. Both sides are evenly matched in terms of skill sets even if Scotland struggle with consistency while Ireland are clearly unsure of how to use the skill sets they have at their disposal. So take from it what you will but we imagine that like us you won’t be too far from your TV screens this weekend, even if it’s just out of a sense of morbid curiosity.

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

This is a match we have to admit we’re really looking forward to. We would have been gutted if we wouldn’t have got a chance to see box office favorites the Flying Fijians in action this tournament. Although COVID-19 has dealt them a cruel blow, they are always serious entertainment value. Unfortunately the weather is unlikely to permit the kind of free flowing game the Pacific Islanders excel at, but still expect them to chance their hand whenever the opportunity arises.

Georgia on the other hand may feel slightly more comfortable, being battled hardened after three tough matches, the last of which was a highly respectable showing against Ireland, and at long last their first points in the tournament. Regardless of the shambolic performance by Ireland, Georgia played well and it was the quality of their play itself that helped to further unstitch a rudderless and at times inept Irish side. They should travel to Murrayfield knowing that if they can keep the composure and structure they showed against Ireland it could be enough to contain their wild and spirited opponents.

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

We would just like to thank a Mr. Giorgi Kveseladze of the Lelos, Georgian national rugby team for providing one of the tournament’s best moments. This try was just magic and had us out of our seats, and more importantly showed that Georgia can excite. We had just as much fun as the Georgian commentators in the above video had watching it unfold. Georgia played a really good game and this try showed just how good they can be after three weeks of top level competition. While Georgia’s performance overall in this tournament will not have gotten them that elusive entry ticket for the Six Nations, it surely must have strengthened the argument for more regular top level competition for the men from the Caucasus. They’ve earned it, they deserve it and if they can produce moments like this then we want much more of it.

We only hope the elements hold off to allow this gentleman to do the same!

The definition of extraordinary!

Make no mistake Fiji as a team are wonderful, but there is no denying this individual is rather special. Now a patron saint of English side Bristol Bears after helping them win the European Challenge Cup and get promotion to the 2020/21 Champions Cup competition, Semi Radradra is a quite extraordinary rugby footballer. We sincerely hope that the weather threatening Murrayfield on Saturday, gets stuck irrigating the Isle of Skye instead, allowing the Fijian magician to be at his best.

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

He may be with Fiji now, but the Islanders Coach Vern Cotter will be warmly received, social distancing permitted wherever he goes in Edinburgh. Scottish fans know that his stint as Scotland Coach, cut short far too soon in the eyes of many, laid the foundation for Scotland’s current success. As far as we are concerned he is one of the brightest minds in Test Rugby right now. Fiji no doubt count their blessings every day on the training pitch. A hard taskmaster but one deeply respected and perhaps even loved by the players under his tutelage, Cotter excels at getting the best out of his players. While he may appear a hard man on the outside, he wears his heart on his sleeve and is not shy to shed a tear or two when his boys make him proud. With several Coaching appointments in the Northern Hemisphere under the microscope at the moment, we’d imagine Cotter’s resume is at the very top of a fair few piles.

We hope the elements hold off enough to provide for an exciting match between two sides likely to play for nothing more than the sheer love of the game on Saturday in Murrayfield. Hard to call but weather permitting a potentially fascinating contest with perhaps the recently battle hardened Georgians getting the edge if the weather refuses to cooperate.

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

Ireland have to perform, and after their ramshackle effort against a plucky Georgian team last Saturday, Scotland must feel more than a little confident. For the Scots you could argue this is one of the few matches in this makeshift tournament that really matters to a side. Turn over an Irish side a bit at sixes and sevens with itself, and Scotland could rightfully claim the title of third best side in the Northern Hemisphere and the right to challenge for top honors come next year’s Six Nations. While consistency and injuries may be Scotland’s Achilles Heel, there is no denying that they are a shadow of the team that regularly duked it out with Italy for the Wooden Spoon in years gone by. Scotland sense there is a point to be made in their favor, and Ireland know that they have to turn in a convincing performance against a quality side to prove to their supporters that they are not a team in decline.

Man in the Hot Seat

Does Andy Farrell have a plan or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

The grumblings are getting louder, and Andy Farrell is looking more and more pensive. The problem is that Ireland appear to be going nowhere if not backwards and in a hurry. Sure you can’t lay all the blame at Farrell’s feet. Ireland’s biggest problem of the last two years was tunnel vision on the last World Cup and reliance on a core of players that had essentially peaked a year or two before, with no eye to their eventual replacements. Farrell and Ireland now find themselves looking desperately unprepared for the future and the succession issues it has brought up, while at the same time expected to produce results with a talented but dysfunctional team. Too inexperienced on one hand yet clearly past their sell by date on the other and often not providing the leadership needed on the field to guide the younger heads – makes the task of putting together a balanced squad almost impossible. There was much talk after the match with Georgia that Ireland needs time to refine its structures, yet based on what we saw last weekend there was very little evidence at all of any kind of structure or thought processes in Ireland’s play. Ireland may still be able to generate huge amounts of possession but their execution of the basics is becoming so poor that it makes hanging on to the ball the way they do a pointless and energy sapping endeavor. Add to the fact that Ireland’s ability to score more than two tries a match remains for the most part the stuff of fantasy, and Andy Farrell’s report card is unlikely to look good come his first annual review. He clearly wants results and consequently Ireland’s focus on the short term has increased at the expense of the long-term vision and how to get there that it really needs. We hate to sound like a broken record but we just don’t feel that Farrell will be the man to provide it. We wonder if Vern Cotter’s resume might be floating around the back offices of the IRFU……just saying.

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

On paper most people would argue given Scotland’s lineup, that this crew in green should be more than comfortable with getting the job done. There is a good balance of wise heads and youthful talent in there, but the leaders really need to step up Saturday and provide the guidance that has so often been missing. Furthermore it’s blatantly obvious that some experiments just aren’t working. We hate to harp on about it, but Jacob Stockdale is not a Test fullback – get him back on the wing and let youngster Hugo Keenan develop in the role. We thought Keenan has in general been superb under the high ball and is clearly learning his defensive duties. Allied to Jordan Larmour Ireland could then check the fullback department off their to do list for France 2023. As Ireland’s last line of defense Stockdale is a huge liability even if he performs the role admirably at club level with Ulster.

After Jamison-Gibson Park’s absolute howler against England we once again shook our heads at his inclusion once more albeit on the bench. Surely Keiran Marmion or John Cooney are a better investment in the future. To be honest there’s only two players we’re genuinely excited to see on this team sheet, second rower James Ryan and winger Keith Earls who were the only players in our opinion who really stood out against Georgia. In reality though will Earls still be there come the next World Cup. In short it’s a meaningless tournament in the grand scheme of things so take the French approach and be bold Ireland you’re not going to get too many more opportunities before things all start to get rather serious.

Scotland the bold and the brave

Time for a bit of faith and an eye to the future

Sure you can argue it’s been forced by injuries, but Scotland’s team selection is likely to put Scotland much further ahead on the learning curve when it comes to looking at how to develop depth. We have to admit to being surprised at not seeing fly half Duncan Weir even rate a spot on the bench, but the decision to give Edinburgh fly half and South African import Jaco van der Walt his first Scottish cap, smacks of an eye to the future especially given the injury problems plaguing incumbents Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at the moment. It could well backfire on Coach Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying van der Walt is a talent worth investing in for the future irrespective of whether or not he finds himself out of his depth on Saturday.

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

Sure it’s another of Scotland’s Southern Hemisphere imports, but under former Coach Vern Cotter, back rower Blair Cowan put in some stellar performances and was an extremely valuable asset in Scotland’s tool box. Agreed he had some discipline issues, but we felt that he was a player Scotland couldn’t do without. While the current crop of Scottish back rowers with the likes of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson in particular have in many ways made the Kiwi redundant, we’d argue Scotland will benefit from his return to the squad. A partnership between himself and Jamie Ritchie could prove to be an exceptionally feisty combination and Cowan was always a rather handy fellow come lineout time.

We’d argue there is plenty at stake tomorrow for both sides, but in many ways this is a game that Scotland will really want to make their own, as the ramifications for them will complete a trajectory they’ve been aiming for this year. Yes they’ve stumbled along the way at times, but win this match and win it well and the talk of them being the Six Nations perennial dark horse of the last few years suddenly will have some substance. They will head into next year’s tournament knowing that they are ranked third in Europe’s pecking order and with key players back from injury Scotland will surely feel that fortune may well favor the brave in 2021. Ireland won’t want to lose either, but a win for them is more likely to be a sigh of relief rather than the genuine sense of accomplishment likely to be felt by Scotland and confidence in the future. Of all the contests this weekend we’d argue that this one carries the most weight.

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

If you’re looking for possible upsets this weekend, is this match likely to be the one that ticks the boxes? We still think it’s an outside chance even given Wales ongoing fumblings in the dark, but it would be hard to fault the Italians for fancying their odds to do so. We know we’ve all heard it a thousand times before but Italy could be on the verge of something new under the tutelage of Coach Franco Smith. They had flashes of brilliance against France last weekend, and although it’s a fairly common theme with Italy rarely backed up by results, there are some exciting prospects here that could take advantage of a dysfunctional Welsh team.

One to watch for Italy

Autumn Nations Cup | Fischetti: There is a desire to create something  important
An increasingly potent weapon for the Azurri – Danilo Fishetti

Ever since the legendary Martin Castrogiovanni, Italy have had competent but not outstanding props. In Fishetti they may have found the successor to the great Castro. While he may not have had the best Six Nations debut, Fishetti has consistently stood out for us in this tournament and given the right encouragement is likely to have a bright future with the Azurri. The Welsh scrum is for the most part a serious weak link for Wales so expect the youngster to cause maximum havoc here. He’s also rather handy in the loose and a useful exponent of securing turnover ball.

Much like France Italy go experimental and continue to give the floor to their young guns

Is that the lineup for France 2023? Paolo Garbisi getting noticed

Italian Coach Franco Smith, much like his French counterpart Fabien Galthie has embraced the future and recognised that Italy’s path to France 2023 starts here and now. In a squad that fields relatively few of the more usual suspects in Italy’s recent lineups, youth and new talent are the flavor of the day. After a couple of false starts in the position, Italy would appear to have no trouble in recent years finding quality fly halves. Carlo Canna was competent but seems to prefer life as an inside centre and Tommaso Allan provides a steadying influence from the bench when the chips are down. But the spotlight is all on youngster Paolo Garbisi these days and for all the right reasons. This is an exciting player who is only going to get better. He provides the spark that Italy have been looking for, but it’s combined with a remarkably wise head when it comes to game management for such a young player. Alongside his scrum half partner Stephen Varney who ironically hails from Wales and is also barely out of his teenage years, Italy take some risks on Saturday but a giant leap forward in terms of squad development.

Wales in name only

We used to be good at this stuff – didn’t we?

Head scratching, fist pounding but more worrying a distinct lack of fire in the belly – these are all on field antics we simply aren’t used to associating with Wales in recent years. There’s no denying that they are a shadow of a once outstanding unit. Sure there are new Coaches to adjust to and plenty of new faces in the changing rooms – but Wales as a unit just aren’t gelling. Even the traditional leaders seem mildly disinterested in the task at hand when they’re not looking downright frustrated. Whether it’s a crisis of leadership on or off the pitch or in the Coaching box is hard to judge, but it simply isn’t a Welsh team or approach to the game that we recognize. It’s perhaps this more than anything else that Wales need to get right and get right quickly. Fix it and the rest will come, but for now they are vulnerable and other teams know it, and Italy will come wanting to exploit it to their advantage. Let’s face it Italy have given Wales some almighty scares in the past and given the present climate in Wales right now, are in the perfect position to do so again.

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

Can he do with Wales what put Bristol Bears on the map this season?

We’ve talked about the impact of Fijian Semi Radrada with Bristol Bears, but Welsh fly half for Saturday Callum Sheedy was also a big part of the English club’s success this season. Quickly able to read a game as it unfolds and change it up once the opposition have got your measure, Sheedy is perhaps the breath of fresh air needed to counteract Dan Biggar’s rather jaded enthusiasm these days and constant injury niggles. Wales are a bit thin on the ground in the fly half department and Coach Wayne Pivac has recognised the need to look at life beyond Dan Biggar sooner rather than later. While Saturday’s Test may be too much of a leap of faith at this stage, it surely can’t get much worse and giving a player of Sheedy’s calibre some quality game time is money in the bank.

We’re still waiting for all the lights to come on in the Welsh camp, but feel with morale so low overall business as usual in Wales is still a ways off. Nevertheless they should eke out a win against an Italian side that is likely to provide them considerably more difficulty than the Georgians. Italy will be desperate for a win as well, but Coach Franco Smith is likely to place more value on a quality performance from the Azurri that keeps them in the hunt all the way to the final whistle. It may not be one for the ages, but as a look at what these teams have in terms of investments for the future, it’s a match you may want to have a look at.

We’ll put something out on Sunday’s final between England and France once we get the team sheets tomorrow.