Posts Tagged ‘England’

England and France may be “le Crunch” but England and Ireland contests are renown for packing plenty of intensity and emotion. Last weekend’s “Crunch” at Twickenham provided arguably the best game of the tournament to date, as in a nailbiting and fast flowing game a rejuvenated England managed to narrowly derail France’s Grand Slam ambitions. Meanwhile Ireland kept their recent winning streak at Murrayfield alive with a convincing win over an out of sorts Scottish side. Saturday’s dustup in Dublin should prove to be a big physical contest, with two sides desperately wanting to put a finishing shine on what has been an otherwise disappointing Six Nations campaign for both.

England’s revival in their defeat of France last weekend was impressive, with the Men in White playing an exciting attacking game while at the same time staying true to their hard hitting physical brand of rugby. Ireland did much the same at Murrayfield and like England held their nerve to hold off a late challenge from their opponents. England managed to get a handle on their discipline and maintain their composure as France made a dramatic comeback at the end. Ireland finally appeared to have a game plan against Scotland that played to their obvious physical strengths while allowing their backs a lot more of the ball than they have been used to seeing of late.

It’s one of our favourite fixtures of the year and you won’t want to miss it.

Ireland vs England – Saturday, March 20th – Dublin

Jukebox tango

Props aren’t known for their dancing skills but Ireland’s Tadgh “Jukebox” Furlong could grace many a ballroom with these moves

Ireland’s Tadgh Furlong produced one of the most memorable moments of the tournament with this dazzling display of footwork against Scotland last weekend. The powerhouse prop made a bruising return to the Irish front office, and there was no hint of the injury that had kept him off the Irish team sheets for the last year. As good as England were last weekend, we think with Furlong in the mix Ireland will be able to hold their own against the English trio of Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan Dickie and Mako Vunipola. There will be an equally sparky encounter in the front row once the replacements come on as Ireland’s Andrew Porter and England’s Ellis Genge get to know each other again at the coalface. If you like gritty edgy contests up front Saturday’s matchups are unlikely to disappoint.

Clash of the Titans

A contest for the Ages – Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne against England’s Maro Itoje

Saturday’s match sees a contest we’ve been eagerly anticipating all year in the second row. Two players who have had massive impact for their respective sides go head to head, and you could argue that the battle could be won and lost here more than in any other area on Saturday. Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely outstanding for Ireland throughout their Six Nations campaign and the same can be said of England’s Maro Itoje. Despite some people criticizing Itoje’s penalty count in the Round 3 match with Wales, we felt that it stemmed more from the fact that he was one of the few English players actually applying himself. Beirne has spent his Six Nations equally at home in the back and second rows but in all four matches has been one of Ireland’s standout players whatever position he plays. With Irish second row legend Paul O’Connell now helping out with Ireland’s set pieces Beirne has become even more of an effective unit. Itoje lends England an edge and degree of controlled aggression that they can ill afford to do without. His towering presence in both the lineouts and at the breakdowns has been of vital importance to England, and last weekend against France the lock was imperious. Two players with very different but highly effective playing styles, the contest between them alone on Saturday will be worth the price of admission. Itoje may have more Test caps under his belt but Beirne has had a huge impact on Ireland since coming into the squad in 2018. You won’t want to miss this one.

End of an era for one of Ireland’s favourite adopted sons

Ireland will want to give one of their most loyal servants CJ Stander a royal sendoff on Saturday

Since South African CJ Stander burst onto the scene for Ireland in 2016, he has been front and centre of everything Ireland does well. One of the nicest guys playing the modern game, and a player seemingly oblivious to injury and with a work rate second to none, his teammates will play out of their skins on Saturday to ensure that this Irish legend’s final match is one to remember. It’s a great shame that Stander’s final outing in a green jersey will not be in front of the 50,000 Aviva crowd who have taken him into their hearts these last 5 years. Still expect the powerful back rower to play like a man possessed and give his worthy opposite number Mark Wilson more than a few bumps and bruises to take back to Twickenham as a souvenir. One of the games great jackals and guaranteed to have one of the highest ball carrying stats of the match once referee Mathieu Raynal blows the final whistle, Stander will be sorely missed by Ireland after he hangs up his green boots for the last time on Saturday.

Old boys clubs

It’s business as usual between two rival companies

While Ben Youngs and George Ford may not be quite the established half back partnership for England that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have become over the years they are not far off it. Equally dynamic together and with an implicit understanding of what they are both trying to do, there is little to choose between them and as a result an even contest awaits. The Irish pair have been accused of being a long way off their lofty Grand Slam standards of 2018, but Sexton’s performance against Scotland last weekend saw the fly half play one of his best games in years. Murray is also picking up a head of steam again after troubles with injuries so provided they click Ireland should be in very safe hands on Saturday. England’s scrum half Ben Youngs has been firmly planted in the crosshairs of English supporters sights since the last World Cup, but like Sexton silenced his critics and then some last weekend in an outstanding performance against France. His partner George Ford has provided England that attacking edge they have been missing since the World Cup, making everyone seriously question why he hasn’t had more than the 48 starts he has had to date for England since he debuted way back in 2014.

The baby faced warrior makes his return

Jacob Stockdale makes a welcome return for Ireland in a position he is more suited to

We’ve felt a bit sorry for Jacob Stockdale over the years. Sure his try scoring exploits of 2018 did slightly go to his head, and he clearly was never meant to be the long term solution to replacing Rob Kearney at full back. We think that it has become fairly obvious this Championship that newcomer Hugo Keenan has carved his name in stone on the 15 jersey. Find the right way to use Stockdale and all of a sudden Ireland has a world class threat. He’s a big lad in the mold of Shane Horgan and Tommy Bowe, and defensively he seems to fare better on the wings than at fullback. Let’s face it defence out wide in the shape of James Lowe who Stockdale replaces has been a nightmare for Ireland this Six Nations, and the Scotland game proved without a shadow of a doubt that despite his talents on attack Lowe is not a Test Level wing. Stockdale on the other hand has proven his merit and recently his defensive positioning especially out wide has definitely improved. At this stage Ireland have to revert to the more proven commodity in Stockdale and hope the Ulster winger brings his club form to the Test arena as containing England’s Anthony Watson who turned in a blinder of a performance against France will be no easy task.

Verdict

This match has all the makings of a classic on Saturday as with no silverware to chase, both sides technically have nothing to lose but their reputations. Consequently expect both teams to go at each other hammer and tongs in what is traditionally one of Test Rugby’s most physical events of the year. It’s a hard one to call but England after last weekend look the tighter and more coherent of the two sides in terms of execution. Consequently in what should be an absolute nail biter to the death we have a hunch that it could be England’s day by a very tight margin. Expect Ireland to pull out all the stops to ensure CJ Stander has the sendoff he deserves, and that could end up swinging it Ireland’s way provided they can keep their emotions in check. Despite the occasion though we’d still argue it’s England’s game to lose. Either way we CAN’T wait to find out whether we’re right or wrong and think we’re in for eighty minutes of top class Six Nations entertainment whichever side walks away with the spoils.

We imagine that at the end of the weekend, Wales will still be on track for a Grand Slam after their Roman holiday courtesy of Italy, but could a beleaguered England have something to say about France’s lofty Championship aspirations? For Scotland and Ireland it’s a chance to get their campaigns back on track. Scotland with three games in hand could still very much be in the hunt for a strong finish. Should Ireland come unstuck once more in Murrayfield on Sunday, then for all intents and purposes, like England and Italy the Men in Green’s Championship will essentially be over. Everything to prove for all sides and some very high stakes matches on offer in what should be an outstanding weekend of Six Nations action!

The action all starts this Saturday with Wales travelling to Rome to face an Italian side full of ambition but low on confidence, as once again the Azurri find themselves winless heading into Round 4. Wales on the other hand seem unstoppable and Saturday’s encounter is likely to set up what should be the Championship finale next weekend in Paris as France and Wales face off. That’s assuming that France’s visit to Twickenham on Saturday goes according to plan for Les Bleus. England after losses to Scotland and Wales are clearly struggling and are a shadow of the side that made it to the Final of the last World Cup. On paper France should take advantage of an English side that seem to have clearly lost their way, but this fixture rarely if ever goes according to the form books!

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, March 13th – Rome

This match should for all intents and purposes be no more than a training run in the sun for Wales on their seemingly unstoppable journey to a potential Grand Slam. Wales have been the surprise package of the tournament, and put on display some genuinely world class youngsters while playing some very efficient and solid rugby. With each outing this year Wales have simply got better, and their demolition of England a fortnight ago, even if you take away the two controversial tries was impressive. Wales like France seem to be on the right path to building the kind of squad they want for the next World Cup. Like most sides making the trip to Italy, Wales will be looking for a maximum points haul, in case the issue of points differences come into play at the end of the Championship if neither Wales or France pull off a Grand Slam.

Italy will once again be seeking to make a statement that they can be competitive with the big teams, but pulling off the upset of the tournament is to be honest probably not on the cards Saturday. There is promise in this young Italian side make no mistake, but they are not quite at the races yet and instead will be looking to Saturday’s encounter to once more gauge where they’re at in terms of squad development for the future.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

It’s time for Italian Captain Luca Bigi to step into the rather large shoes left behind by Sergio Parisse

Italian Captain and Hooker Luca Bigi seems like a genuinely nice guy who cares about his teammates. The problem is by being a nice guy how do you live up to the legendary status of your predecessor, the great Sergio Parisse? Parisse led from the front and took no prisoners, even if it meant dressing down his teammates when necessary. Italy’s discipline is woeful at the moment and it’s time for Bigi to start laying the law down and leading by example. He can start by improving his own performance in the scrum and impressing upon his teammates the need for a better understanding of the rules. 18 penalties and two yellow cards in the game against Ireland is simply inexcusable and on the pitch it’s the job of the man wearing the Captain’s armband to stamp it out quickly as well as lead by example. It won’t be easy consigning the shadow of Parisse to a proud history but it needs to happen sooner rather than later, with Bigi opening another memorable chapter.

Another of Wales’ unsung heroes

Cory Hill is another one of those Welsh players who deserves more attention

A bit like flanker Justin Tipuric, Welsh second rower Cory Hill is one of those players who somehow stays off the radar, yet when he is on the pitch gets through a mountain of work and is also rather effective at ratcheting up the scoreboard in favor of the Men in Red. In short, another of Wales’ highly underrated yet brutally effective players. Injury has sidelined him from taking much of a role in furthering the Welsh cause since the World Cup, but now he’s back expect fireworks aplenty from the powerful lock. He and and Alun Wyn Jones will be mixing it with a talented but ill disciplined Italian unit, and it’s hard to see Wales doing anything other than completely dictating play in the tight five exchanges as their powerhouse front row causes Italy to be reaching for some extra strength Tylenol.

The three Horseman of the Apocalypse

Nobody would want to meet these three together even for a waffle

Josh Navidi, Talupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric – if that’s not a combination to have you running for the hills behind Rome then we don’t know what is. Arguably one of the most impressive units in this year’s Six Nations the Welsh back row will take some beating on Saturday in Rome. Italy have some capable contenders in Sebastian Negri and the increasingly noteworthy Johan Meyer, but at the end of the day its division two meeting division one. All three Welshmen seem to be operating at their very best with Tipuric and Faletau combining exceptionally well together while Navidi is an exciting loose canon who is equally sound defensively. Italy struggle to score in the opposition 22 and defend in their own, and against a Welsh unit veritably humming from 1-8 in defence and attack, their job has suddenly got a whole lot harder.

A bit more than an impact player

After his stellar performance against England, we thought Sheedy was a shoe in for the starting 10 jersey against Italy

There is no denying the impact replacement fly half Calum Sheedy brought to the Welsh effort against England when he came on for Dan Biggar at the beginning of the second half. Consequently, you can perhaps understand our surprise at Sheedy not getting the starting berth in the 10 jersey for a game Wales should comfortably win. Giving up and coming young players a chance to start at Test level is key in our view and against a team that Wales should be able to get the measure of, surely this is an opportunity gone begging for Wales Coach Wayne Pivac. The only thing we can think of is that Italy’s up and coming fly half Paolo Garbisi is one of Italy’s few genuine attacking threats, and until Wales settle into a rythmn against the Azurri, perhaps Pivac prefers the more tried and trusted experience of Dan Biggar. We’ll know on the day but the battle between the Italian and Welsh youngsters once it does get underway on Saturday should prove fascinating.

Bench press these two if you can!

Italy’s bench stocks pale in comparison to what Wales have on offer – Aaron Wainwright and Jake Ball for starters!

Ultimately as brave as the Azurri will be on Saturday, the benches will seal the fate of this match and in this respect Wales can essentially put their feet up before referee Wayne Barnes has even blown the first whistle. There are some very big names on the Welsh bench, and Jake Ball’s stature alone is enough to strike fear into most normal human beings. Add in a dash of centre Willis Haloholo and fly half Calum Sheedy who we’ve already mentioned and Italy are going to have trouble keeping up, plain and simple, especially in the final quarter of the game when by tradition they go off the boil anyway.

Verdict

Wales seemingly inevitable march towards a Grand Slam decider in Paris, is unlikely to be halted on Saturday in Rome despite the best efforts of an Italian side still trying to figure out its talent base. In Wales they will get an outstanding opponent in which to test their mettle and really find out how far this Italian side have come in 2021, despite them marching in the opposite direction towards yet another Wooden Spoon. Their trip to Murrayfield as their final hoorah for this year’s Six Nations is an unenviable one, so expect perhaps their best performance of the tournament in their final home game, despite the superior pedigree of their Welsh opponents. An intriguing but most likely one sided contest awaits, as Wales set up that grand finale in Paris in a week’s time.

England vs France – Saturday, March 13th – Twickenham

This year’s edition of “Le Crunch” has some interesting subplots. Can England really continue to be as wretched as they have been so far this season? Will it be the final proof that England Coach Eddie Jones’ selections are simply not working? Will France’s month long hiatus courtesy of their waffle eating shenanigans and Coach Fabien Galthie’s indiscretion in cheering on his son, resulting in COVID exposure prove to be the undoing of France’s otherwise dream like start to 2021? Have France lost some critical momentum as a result? Is French scrum half Antoine Dupont really the world’s best rugby player? Make sure you tune in at 1145 AM Eastern on Saturday to find out.

We’d argue that France are unlikely to have lost too much momentum, as this is still just too good a team. Better coached and disciplined than their English opponents, France know what they are about and how they want to get results. England on the other hand would appear to be a lot more unsure of themselves and we can’t remember the last time we saw a team so clearly not enjoying what they’re doing. Saturday’s match carries enormous weight for both sides but for dramatically different reasons. For England, it is a last chance to silence their critics and prove that there really is life in what increasingly looks like a dinosaur. Meanwhile for France it’s time to banish the negative press surrounding their COVID 19 faux pas to the dustbin and get everyone focused back on their rather extraordinary brand of rugby.

The Statistics aren’t all that bad

Some slightly more entertaining statistics from an English perspective – but in reality they are not as bad as they may seem

England may wish that their stats were perhaps as cheery as these ones from last year, but if you actually look closely at the stats between the two sides for Saturday’s match they don’t make for that unhappy reading, with one glaring exception – DISCIPLINE! But before we get to that here are some interesting positives to note. France have only scored one more try than England, although they have averaged twice the number of tries scored per match and have played one less match than England. England have parity with France in success at lineouts and in the scrums. Their tackle success rate is almost identical to France. There are only two real glaring disparities. The first is in only two games France has averaged almost five times as many offloads as England has managed in three. Second and most important is England has conceded 41 penalties compared to France’s 18. Even if France had played three games to date, based on the law of averages they would still be trailing England by 14 penalties. In short what does this tell us? France are better at controlling themselves under pressure while at the same time being infinitely more imaginative and creative in attack. It will be fascinating to see if after two weeks of number crunching England will have found a way to make the statisticians paint a more rosy picture of them.

France’s Weakest Link or Mastery of the Dark Arts?

Given England’s discipline problems they must have rejoiced at seeing French bad boy Mohamed Haouas on the teamsheets

If England have one shot at redemption on Saturday in the discipline stakes they could end up finding it in the front row. Have France deliberately put their red card specialist prop Mohamed Haouas in the mix to wind England up, particularly live wire prop Kyle Sinckler who is no stranger to the referee’s whistle himself? Even though Haouas and Sinckler will be on opposite sides of the scrum, the potential for sparks here is enormous and it will be fascinating to see who retains the cooler set of heads. Despite the pundits arguing that England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is the better of the two Hookers, we can’t agree and feel that France’s Julien Marchand is just as lethal. However, if England can keep their composure here they could finally start to get the penalty count to work in their favor and gain some early dominance in the set pieces.

Easy target but not the problem

England’s Maro Itoje may have led the Men in White’s penalty count against Wales but they simply can’t do without him

You may be puzzled to see us steadfastly defending the player who stood out amongst all others in terms of penalties conceded by England in their loss to Wales. Look deeper though and Itoje got into so much trouble because he was one of the few English players actually making an effort in Cardiff. Agreed he still has to get a handle on his discipline, but he is such a quality player that England simply cannot afford to leave him out of their starting XV. His work rate is off the charts and provided he can stay on the right side of the referee, then he is a talisman to the rest of his teammates. If he can keep a lid on his emotions, there is no denying the enormous value he brings to England’s set pieces and he is an absolute nightmare at the breakdowns. He is likely to make French scrum half Antoine Dupont’s life an absolute misery on Saturday, causing the French genius to think twice about box kicking. England need Itoje’s Herculean work rate and raw aggression, provided he can keep both within the boundaries of the laws. Despite his issues against Wales, we feel that this is one player that Coach Eddie Jones is right to continue placing his faith in.

An alternate reality

“You’ll be fine mate – this Alldritt guy is only twice as fast and fit as you are”

Take a player who has a reputation of some sterling performances a few years ago, who prefers running straight lines into direct contact with opposition defences and put him against a player who covers huge areas of the park and can make some rather handy offloads while dancing his way around defenders. Who do you think is going to come out on top? The former is England’s Billy Vunipola a great player in his day until opposition defences figured him out, and the latter is France’s Gregory Alldritt who everyone is just trying to get the measure of. There are a raft of young number eights in the English Premiership who display similar qualities to Alldritt but fail to register with Eddie Jones. We have a great deal of respect for Billy Vunipola who has put in some legendary performances in an English jersey. The problem is he is playing the type of rugby that would have worked 2 years ago, but Alldritt is playing they type of game that is required of a number eight in 2021 and beyond. Our heart goes out to Vunipola who may well find himself out in the cold for much of Saturday’s encounter, and as a result put out to pasture as England and Eddie Jones reluctantly start to think about the next World Cup.

Catch him if you can

French centre Virimi Vakatawa building up a head of steam

The much hyped return of French centre Virimi Vakatawa from injury, presents what we feel is another mismatch in the making. Just like Billy Vunipola and Gregory Aldritt, Vakatawa and his English counterpart Owen Farrell could not be more different. Vakatawa’s explosive ball carrying, offloading and ability to weave his way through and around defences could not be more different to Farrell’s slower and more tactical approach. Vakatawa may not have Farrell’s overall sense of how matches unfold but his reaction times and ability to seize the slightest of opportunities and turn them into something, make him the far more dangerous player. You always know where Farrell is, but the same cannot be said of Vakatawa who seems to pop up everywhere. Although defensively he may not be as solid as Farrell, he is improving and not prone to the costly lapses in tackling technique that the Englishman is often guilty of. Lastly without the pressure of the Captain’s armband affecting his nerves expect the French Fijian to be having a much more enjoyable afternoon on Saturday than his English opposite number.

Verdict

France on paper and if form is anything to go by look the side to beat on Saturday, even if it is on the hallowed ground of Twickenham. It remains to be seen how much the four weeks away from the competition has affected their momentum. Furthermore although they beat Ireland in Dublin in their last match prior to Saturday’s encounter, it required them to pull out every trick in their considerable arsenal. England will come into this game knowing that they simply have to throw everything at the French, as a third humiliating defeat in this year’s tournament will put a bruised and battered squad under even more intense and unwelcome scrutiny as well as making their trip to Dublin a week later an even greater challenge. France should win this one, but this is a game that very rarely goes according to script. Much like the match between Ireland and France almost a month ago, this one will be tight, but we can’t help feeling that France will set themselves up for a silverware showdown with Wales next Saturday in Paris at England’s continuing expense. In short, France have the confidence and sense of purpose that England would dearly love to have rub off on them.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the final match of the weekend, that between Scotland and Ireland in Murrayfield once the team sheets are out.

With the tournament now past the halfway mark and two mouth watering rounds left, we have been left with plenty to talk about. Even the postponed France/Scotland game is now looking likely to take place this month within the time frame of the tournament, albeit a few days after the final round, and with players being released from club duties for both sides. There has been drama, controversy and thrills aplenty – in short even without the crowds it has been a spectacle well worth watching and thoroughly deserving of our attention.

After last weekend Wales now find themselves hurtling towards a Grand Slam, which has surprised most of us, especially if we were judging Wales going into this tournament by their dismal form in 2020. Even the Welsh themselves seem at times slightly bemused by their new found success though are clearly revelling in it. France seem to have become tournament villains, along with their officials, despite being with Wales the only side still in the hunt for a Grand Slam. Their unfortunate breach of COVID-19 protocols almost derailed a tournament that until then seemed to be coping admirably with the challenges of the pandemic. Still all that aside, there is no denying that France will take some beating and their matchups with England, Wales and Scotland in that order are mouthwatering prospects.

Ireland finally got their campaign underway last weekend in Rome with an emphatic dispatch of an up till then promising Italian side. However, it is hard to judge whether or not Ireland are, like Wales, starting the long climb out of the abyss that was 2020. Italy are not exactly the benchmark against whom sides measure their progress these days. A much sterner test awaits at the hands of the Scots in Murrayfield next weekend before Ireland can get too carried away. England it would appear find themselves stranded in rough seas with a clearly broken engine, as they only find themselves in 4th place on the table, and even that is simply courtesy of the fact that they have played one more game than fifth place Scotland. With a visit from tournament favourites France next weekend, despite les Bleus COVID issues, England have serious work to do before they can even remotely consider themselves match fit for an encounter with France’s best.

Scotland unfairly sit at the bottom of the table with Italy, but their fifth place standing doesn’t really reflect the reality. They are a game short, and they suffered the narrowest of losses to the tournament’s current smoking gun Wales after having dismissed an undisciplined and shambolic English side. If the French match had gone ahead, they would most likely have found themselves outstripping England and possibly even Ireland in the standings. Scotland are definitely still in it to win it, and a strong finish looks on the cards especially now that they will have access to their full strength squad for their postponed final match with France. As for traditional Wooden Spoon holders Italy, it would appear to be business as usual once more. Despite some initial promise in the opening two rounds and flashes of brilliance, Italy appear to be sliding once more into Six Nations oblivion, as they have to host Wales next weekend and then face a difficult trip to face a fearsome Scottish outfit. Nevertheless we’d still argue that Italy under Coach Franco Smith are likely to be a different beast in the long run, and eighteen months is too early to judge. In short the jury has to stay out for a while longer on this one.

Wales – THE Surprise Package

We said that despite their form in 2020, where there was smoke there was fire and the Welsh dragon hasn’t proven us wrong!

Wales have always been that kind of team that sneaks up on you out of nowhere, and 2021 is proving no exception to the rule. Written off by pretty well everyone before the first whistle of the tournament was blown, Wales have surprised everyone even perhaps themselves by their current position atop the Six Nations table and being Triple Crown winners. While there has been controversy and the shadow of Lady Luck circling around all three of their matches in the Championship to date, you simply cannot deny that Wales are on an upward trajectory and 2020 is now an irrelevant blip in history. Wales are taking the opportunities presented to them and seizing them with both hands. They took the disciplinary lapses by both Ireland and Scotland and used them to their full advantage, and with England they simply had a field day with them. However, it’s not just about maintaining your composure and playing a smarter game than your opponent while at the same time making them look the villain in the referee’s eyes. Wales are doing all of this and then some, but in addition are playing some rather solid rugby of their own.

Their youngsters such as Louis Rees-Zammitt, Calum Sheedy and Kieran Hardy are living up to their promise and then some, the team are starting to gel under new Coach Wayne Pivac and figure out the kind of game he wants them to play, the established veterans are leading from the front……the list of positives goes on. Put aside the questionable tries last weekend, at least one of them which on deeper analysis was legitimate, and Wales would still have beaten England 26-24. Controversy aside Wales simply played England off the park while keeping their wits about them, something the Men in White were clearly unable to do themselves. Wales have always been that gritty and resilient team that can be so hard to get the measure of and 2021 is proving that the Men in Red are once more excelling at confounding their critics and pundits alike.

France – Les enfants terribles

“What have you got to do to get a decent waffle in Rome mes amis?”- France’s breakfast exploits in Italy among other things have got them in a bit of hot water lately

While things French, whether it’s referee Pascal Gauzere or the French rugby team, have lost some of their shine as a result of last weekend, there is still no denying that second placed France are going to leave a definite imprint on this tournament. While their COVID protocol faults are not the faux pas that they will want to be remembered for, there is no denying that it almost capsized a tournament that up to that point had been navigating its way rather well through some very stormy seas. It’s likely that we will never know the full details of what happened causing the French rugby team to suddenly find themselves as the tournament’s typhoid Marys, but things seem to have been sorted rather quickly, with a reluctance to apportion blame and simply move things along. Whether that’s right or wrong the tournament will ultimately remain intact and at the end of the day rugby wins. We all want to see France at their best in this tournament, as we are sure so do their opponents. In short right or wrong – it’s time to move on and it would seem the tournament and authorities are doing so, even if we are slightly less than happy at how the whole affair was handled seemingly at France’s benefit.

All that aside, this is a French team who are still arguably the ones to beat, and that match between them and Wales in Paris on the final weekend is shaping up to be the tournament’s grand finale. If Wales win that match then the tournament is essentially over and Wales walk away with the Grand Slam and the silver, barring some shock loss to Italy next weekend. If France triumph then the postponed match with Scotland six days later suddenly takes on enormous significance for both sides. As long as the French manage to curb their enthusiasm for waffles over the coming weeks we are set for an epic climax to the tournament.

Ireland – I want to break free!

Are Ireland about to break the shackles of the Schmidt era?

Third placed Ireland’s free spirited display in Italy last weekend was downright refreshing for both the players and their long suffering fans. Sure it was against Italy which makes it hard to judge how effective it will be against much sterner opposition in the shape of Scotland and England, their remaining two Six Nations opponents. However, Ireland really came to play and ran in five fine tries, six if you actually count the perfectly legitimate try by Ian Henderson early in the match which for some bizarre reason was disallowed by French TMO Romain Poite. Ireland looked poised but also enjoying the freedom allowed by shoddy Italian defence to express themselves in rather inventive ways. Fly half and Captain Jonathan Sexton was clearly having a good day at the office and had probably one of the best games he’s had in ages. Irish defence was absolutely rock solid, coupled to a forward pack that just decimated Italy in attack and defence with Tadgh Beirne, being as he has been all tournament, absolutely outstanding. Ireland’s discipline was solid for the most part, with their scrum in particular clearly benefitting from the return of Tadgh Furlong. Hugo Keenan at fullback had another stellar performance scoring a fine try of his own and it would be very hard to argue against carving his name in stone on the 15 jersey. Overall, it was an Irish side that was remarkably different from what we’ve seen so far. They looked together and clearly benefitting from a sense of purpose. Whether it was good enough to take on the big boys in the shape of Scotland and England, we’ll have to find out and there is no denying that a trip to Murrayfield given Ireland’s hot and cold performances of late could be problematic. However, if they come out of that smelling of roses then their last match against an English side in crisis in Dublin could be something Ireland can look forward to with a genuine sense of relish.

England – Train Wreck?

The warning signs have been there for a while now but England seemed to have chosen to ignore them

Fourth placed England are a mess plain and simple. Their discipline is horrendous, their skill set as a team is questionable and their direction as a whole seems headed in one direction only – a yawning abyss. In short it makes no sense whatsoever. A nation with probably the largest and deepest player base in the sport, seems incapable in 2021 of fielding a dynamic team balancing youth and experience that can mix it with the best. Instead, what we see is a tired looking group of veterans, whose core skills are somewhat lacking and who would appear to have never read the latest edition of rugby union’s laws. England look tired, poorly led, badly coached and as for the selection decisions they would appear to be from a farmer’s almanac from the last century. A veritable aircraft carrier’s worth of young players excelling in English premiership rugby are being completely overlooked in favor of a group of out of touch dinosaurs. Coach Eddie Jones comes across as obstinate and stubborn, Captain Owen Farrell as petulant and whiny and a shadow of the player he could and should be, while the team as a whole look lazy, switched off and belligerent.

Sadly none of these qualities will win England a World Cup let alone a Six Nations Championship. England have only themselves to blame for last Saturday’s defeat in Cardiff. The penalty count was worthy of mention in the Guinness Book of World Records with Maro Itoje unfortunately leading the charge, while their attention to what was going on at times was laughable. Teams cannot simply switch off when their opponents are taking a penalty and England did that to their cost on numerous occasions last weekend – it’s not American football where such breaks are populated by a two minute ad break. Test Rugby is perhaps one of the most intense 80 minute periods of sport there is, and teams cannot let their guard down for a second. England for some reason seemed to feel that they were special and that the rules would accommodate such an approach. Agreed referee Pascal Gauzere’s communication techniques are not the best at times, but then neither are England Captain Owen Farrell’s. Furthermore Eddie Jones seems to be building his whole team philosophy around the return of bruising centre Manu Tuilagi in terms of attack. We hate to break it to him but that is so short sighted it is almost beyond belief. Tuilagi’s injury record has essentially written him off for the next World Cup, and Jones needs a radical rethink now – not a year out from the ultimate global showdown.

As for Itoje, we still hold that he fully justifies his place in England’s present and future squad, but he really needs to channel his natural aggression into what the rules allow, especially in those more murky areas that the forwards like to lurk in. If things do change for the French encounter and then against Ireland, perhaps English supporters will be able to breathe a much needed sigh of relief, but for now it looks set to be another 120 minutes of wasted opportunity and a complete failure as a learning exercise for England’s long overdue rebuild.

Scotland – Sadly missed

Scotland are entitled to a justified rant at the tournament’s organisers

Scotland do not deserve their current status as the fifth ranked team in the competition. We fully expect it to change next weekend after their encounter with Ireland at Murrayfield, regardless of the result. They were on a roll despite the narrow loss to Wales in Round 2, and although a date with France in Paris was a tall order we still felt that they could have given the French a run for their money and ended up with a losing bonus point which would have put them ahead of England. Scotland have shown some real enterprise this tournament and are an exceptionally entertaining team to watch. They are certainly a better side than England, and you could argue Ireland as well, although next Sunday will prove whether or not that assertion is correct. Being left out in the cold last weekend as a result of French indiscretion and poor planning by the tournament’s organisers is no fault of their own and consequently it seems a bit harsh that more than halfway through the competition they find themselves scraping crumbs off the Six Nations floor with Italy. They will be back and expect a powder keg encounter in Edinburgh a week Sunday and one which Ireland will have to make sure they have thought of every possible curve ball this wily Scottish side can throw at them.

Italy – Looking for the right recipes

Skilled – but still lacking a firm and consistent base

Italy should be better than they are and especially this year. We still hold that it’s a better year for Italy than the standings table shows. Sure they may be heading towards yet another wooden spoon at breakneck speed, especially given that their remaining opponents are a seemingly invincible Wales and a group of Scottish wizards in Edinburgh. Nevertheless, we’ve seen the nucleus of an Italian side capable of hitting the right notes when needed. Like England they seem completely unaware of the current laws, particularly the offside rule, but when they do string a set of phases together they look good. Their defence is still woeful and until that and their discipline get seriously addressed, then the Six Nations basement will remain their permanent residence. However we think 2022 might be a better year for Italy, and even the remainder of their Test calendar for this year. In Paolo Garbisi they have a genuine find and one of the best field marshals in the making that Italian rugby if not Northern Hemisphere rugby has seen for a while. If nothing else salute his heroic attempts at single handedly tackling Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne last weekend, a man three times his size. He is directing his troops with a wisdom well beyond his fledgling 20 years, and he has some good players alongside him who are only going to get better with each passing year. All Italy need this year are a couple of good results, and they don’t even have to be victories, narrow losses would suffice, to show that there is finally some learning going on in the Italian camp. They have a great mentor in Coach Franco Smith, and we genuinely feel that he is the man to finally give Italy something to build on. So we’ll continue to stay positive in discussing the Azurri’s fortunes, even if we are crossing all our fingers and toes in the same breath.

We’ll be back next week in our preview of what should be a real make or break weekend for all the teams in a fascinating Round 4. Till then stay safe and here’s hoping we are all one week closer to the parting of the COVID 19 clouds.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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!

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!

We rather regard this round of fixtures, before next Saturday’s finals as the contractual obligation weekend. We doubt it’s going to be particularly enthralling as a competition, especially with all three results being essentially foregone conclusions. England’s bruising pack and confident seasoned veterans are likely to put a squad of Welsh new kids on the block to the sword, even with a few wise old heads in the mix to lend a hand. France are the sports car squad of the tournament, and with plenty of heart and spirit Italy may give them a run for their money at times, but once again it’s hard to anticipate too much in the way of surprises when it comes to results. Lastly Ireland aim to be the third team to ensure that Georgia despite their bravery leave the tournament completely empty handed, especially as this is likely the Eastern Europeans last game in the tournament, with Fiji’s participation essentially having become null and void. Three games that have to be played but which ultimately have little or no bearing on the way the finals will be played out next weekend.

England and France are likely to top their respective pools, and thus compete for the first place final. Scotland and Ireland will battle it out in the second final. Wales unless they pull off a miracle this weekend will meet Italy in the third, leaving the hapless Georgians to claim seventh spot due to Fiji likely forfeiting their match with them for the last two spots in terms of ranking. Consequently since there is not a great deal to get excited about this weekend, we’re just looking at the four front running teams to see what we’ve learnt about them so far.

England – Solid as a rock but somehow just not that exciting

England have been the most competent team of the tournament by a country mile, but if it wasn’t for this guy would you really have noticed them?

Many have lamented that England have not looked overly impressive as an attacking unit. However, when you have someone like Jonny May, do you really need one? That try last weekend showed off the talents of a rather extrordinary and gifted athlete. The problem is that without Jonny May, England look rather one-dimensional and flat in attack, preferring instead to use that incredible forward platform to simply bludgeon the opposition into submission. England’s forwards division is without doubt the elite in Test Rugby right now and against teams even less imaginative than England (ie most of the Six Nations sides with the exception of France and possibly Scotland), brutally effective. Until England’s rivals in the Northern Hemisphere learn how to cope with this and negate it, then England really don’t have to worry too much. But figure it out they will and as we saw so dramatically last year in the World Cup final – teams from South of the Equator are already starting to get the measure of England.

Make no mistake England are outstanding at the moment. However, are they the finished product yet -definitely not. On paper they should make short work of Wales tomorrow, but what will another resounding victory against weaker opposition really teach them? England Coach Eddie Jones, keeps telling the world that the great secret of English attacking rugby is still to be revealed – the problem is he’s been saying that for quite a while now. If we don’t start seeing it though by the next Six Nations alarm bells should start ringing, as France seem to have exclusive rights to the blueprints.

France – the tournament’s sports car finds itself equally at home in the monster truck arena

France should cruise past Italy this weekend and set themselves up for a mouthwatering final next Saturday with England. They may have all the attacking skills that England would dearly love to emulate, despite Jonny May’s one man impersonations of the entire French back line – but increasingly the Men in Blue have proven that their forward pack is a 4×4 unit that takes no prisoners. France’s back row in particular have been magnificent with Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt being two of the most impressive performers of the tournament. What France finally have is a team, instead of a collection of exceptionally talented loose canons. Add a solid Coaching team that the players can relate to and allow those talents to flourish when the opportunities present themselves, and there is no denying that France look good right now. What’s more they appear to be only just getting started. They are young, hungry and clearly have their eyes on the main prize – France 2023. While results clearly matter to them at the moment, development of a squad that can lift rugby’s ultimate prize with all the inevitable hiccoughs along the way that provide the necessary learning would appear to be far more important. France seem quite happy to admit that they are still looking for answers, but in the process seem to be thoroughly enjoying the journey. This weekend will provide some insight into whether their incredible attacking game can still flourish without the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa, and in the process give us some real insight into France’s depth. But just in case you’re worried there’s always their own answer to Jonny May.

Ireland – it’s not just about possession

One thing we’ve learned about Ireland this tournament is that they sure do like to hold on to the ball and let’s face it they’re pretty good at it. The problem is that there’s not much point to all that possession if you don’t actually do anything with it. We’ve also learnt that their increasing obsession with naturalizing Southern Hemisphere talent faster than a good pint of Guinness should really be poured is also not quite the answer. To be honest we don’t really understand this recent obsession. Ireland should be building to make France 2023 the first World Cup where they actually get beyond the quarter finals. In our humble opinion the best way to do this is to harness the wealth of emerging talent Ireland has at its disposal. Drafting in foreign players who may well be past their sell by dates come 2023 in order to get short term results is short sighted beyond belief. From what we’ve seen so far this tournament it’s also not producing results. You know we are not fans of Leinster Kiwi import Jamison Gibson-Park being drafted into the Irish squad at the expense of John Cooney. We thought he had a genuine shocker against England. Sure he and fellow New Zealand import James Lowe looked good against Wales, but then anybody could almost look sharp against Wales right now. If you’re going to lose to a quality side like England then at least learn something in the process, and to be honest we felt Ireland learnt nothing last Saturday.

There were some good individual performances from Ireland last weekend. We thought James Ryan stepped up to the leadership role well, despite the loss and let’s face it Ireland didn’t exactly get hammered last Saturday by the best team in the tournament. Keith Earls has consistently been one of our top Irish performers and didn’t disappoint last Saturday, but whether he will still be at his prime in three years time is questionable. We also thought Hugo Keenan was for the most part excellent under the high ball and feel that he is definitely, along with the injured Jordan Larmour, the future for Ireland at fullback – just give him time. Ireland’s back row as always were competitive but their scrum was a disaster as were a lot of their lineouts. James Lowe’s impressive start against Wales was completely negated by England’s water tight defenses and against similar caliber opposition you have to wonder if he is the wonder weapon Ireland and Coach Andy Farrell thought he was.

This Saturday, Ireland are still relying on a majority of big guns to put a hapless Georgian side to the sword. What they will learn out of the process is questionable. Bring in a raft of Ireland’s second strings and get the win, and then you might be talking. Consequently, Sunday’s match holds little in the way of interest for many and is one that would appear to be simply making up the numbers.

His time will come

Scotland – exciting but inconsistent

Scotland have not lost their appeal, and like many we are gutted that we won’t get to see one of the contests we were most looking forward to in this tournament, their date with Fiji this weekend. In general it’s been a rather encouraging year for Scotland. A lot of what they do works, much of it is built on a relatively youthful squad, and even the seasoned campaigners should all be the right side of the age curve in three years time. In short, what’s not to like about Scotland? It’s that lack of consistency which Scotland just can’t seem to wrap their heads around that worries us. Scotland remind us slightly of Argentina in the last World Cup cycle, just when they need it the most their concentration or focus goes out the window. A gifted team that somehow just doesn’t have that 80 minute killer instinct. Drive and committment is not the problem but focus does seem to be. Even with the extraordinary talents of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell there are lapses of concentration that are still proving too costly.

Talent though there is aplenty. Fine tune it, develop a bit more depth along with the positive vibes running through the Scottish camp right now and who knows how far this team can go in the next three years. Perhaps more than anyone for us, Jamie Ritchie epitomizes everything good about this new generation of Scottish players, and if this young man doesn’t find himself at a Lions jersey fitting session next year then there is simply no justice.

Man on a Mission

We apologize for not taking a look at the bottom feeders in the tournament this weekend – Wales, Italy, Georgia and Fiji. Unfortunately, work got the better of us and sadly with Fiji there is nothing to talk about. We will endeavor to do them justice later this week, and secretly hope that Wales surprise us all tomorrow and Georgia manage to get some points on the board at long last in Dublin.