Posts Tagged ‘France’

With the dust now settled on what for us has been one of the most riveting Six Nations in years, it’s time to hand out the marks. Despite the lack of crowds, the quality of rugby for the most part did not suffer and we were treated to a series of vintage games that are likely to stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.

So who got it right and who got it spectacularly wrong? For most of the participants there was lots to be learnt with the majority taking the lessons to heart and making good use of them. For a small minority of participants it appeared to be a tournament where opportunities to grow and prepare for the next World Cup and even the next Six Nations were completely wasted. For the Celtic nations and France it is a time for optimism. For Italy it is yet another year to forget. Perhaps the most worrying lesson though in all of this is that for England the clock is ticking with increasingly little time left to find the answers to a series of problems that really haven’t been addressed since England’s defeat in the last World Cup final.

So agree to disagree but here’s how we judged the overall performances of this year’s Six Nations participants starting with the top 3 in this year’s table.

Wales8/10

We said at the end of last year that where there was smoke there would be fire – and the Welsh dragon did not prove us wrong!

Wales are always the tournament’s smoking gun, well except perhaps last year. However, we couldn’t help feeling all along that the Welsh misery of 2020 was simply a bump in the road, and their superb effort this year shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise as it did to most. Wales has an excellent balance of youth and experience, it just needed to gel with new Coach Wayne Pivac. There is little question that the gel is now set, and Pivac has a team that looks the business as well as one that can grow and develop during this World Cup cycle.

Why not a score higher than eight then you might ask? Wales were rightful Champions, but it was awful close at times, and the odd element of luck occassionally had a bit too much of a say in proceedings for our liking. Furthermore, despite their Herculean effort in the final match in Paris, Grand Slam winners they are not, at least for the moment. There were times in the French match where that trademark Welsh grit just wasn’t enough to overcome a more inventive and arguably fitter French side. Perhaps Wales strongest asset is their ability to remain calm under pressure, something England could do well to copy, but the French match saw it start to weaken slightly.

Wales opened their campaign well against an Irish side struggling with discipline, and the Men in Red benefitted from being able to play against 14 men for almost the entire game after Peter O’Mahony was red carded 13 minutes into proceedings. Next up was an incredibly tight affair against Scotland where once again Wales benefitted from a red card decision reducing the Scots to 14 men for most of the second half. Then it was the thriller against England which saw the Men in Red come out resoundingly on top, even if you took away what some considered were questionable officiating decisions. Their Roman holiday against Italy saw them come away with the inevitable hefty points haul, which would ensure that even with the loss to France in the final round the points difference would see them home.

Their last match against France was an extraordinary game that had more twists and turns than a Game of Thrones episode. However, this time Wales couldn’t use the red card given to France towards the end of the match to their advantage. After holding off multiple French assaults in their 22 Wales themselves succumbed to an inevitable yellow card as fatigue set in and the numbers on the pitch were level again. France got the measure of a clearly exhausted Welsh side and robbed the Men in Red of that elusive Grand Slam. Wales would still emerge champions after France came short against Scotland six days later, but as we suspected given the quality of the opposition this year, Grand Slams were never really on the cards for any of the teams.

It was an extraordinary performance from Wales, and they were deserved winners of not only the Triple Crown but the Championship as well, even if that dream Grand Slam was lost at the death in Paris. Halfway through this World Cup cycle they must surely feel pleased with where they find themselves. They have some extraordinary young talent coming through the ranks, a Coach who has now proven how to get results, and a wealth of experienced and seasoned veterans who have one more big World Cup performance left in them. Perhaps the only question hanging over Wales is who will replace Captain extraordinaire Alun Wyn Jones, who now at 35 is unlikely to be in the running to lead the Men in Red in two years time.

There were a host of notable performances, but here is our list of who made the biggest impression in each department for Wales. In the front row, Loosehead prop Wyn Jones was stellar, providing some much needed stability to the Welsh scrum which last year had proved problematic. In the second row, Captain Alun Wyn Jones was absolutely immense and without a doubt the leader of the tournament. In the back row Josh Navidi and Talupe Faletau put in some massive shifts, but as always it was Welsh Superman Justin Tipuric who consistently stood out both in ability and a work rate that is simply off the charts. In the half backs, fly half Callum Sheedy’s performance in the second half against England showed what talent Wales have in their youth. In the centres George North seems to have rediscovered himself and as a result made a huge contribution to Welsh efforts this Championship and was back to his try scoring best. Finally in the back line, as good as Liam Williams and Josh Adams were, it was newcomer Louis Rees-Zammit who impressed the most off the wing and showed that all the hype surrounding this latest Welsh prodigy was completely justified at Test Level. While these six individuals may be our picks of the tournament, it was a complete Welsh effort and every Welshman who donned the red jersey over the past two months can and should feel proud of their achievements, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for this remarkable group of players.

France – 7/10

A FABULOUS team in the making – but clearly still in the design stages

Magnifique, incroyable, extraordinaire – these were all terms used to describe this year’s edition of France’s Six Nations ensemble. Tipped by many as favourites to take the title, they did not disappoint. However, there were moments where despite all the panache and flair, France looked a little a ways off from being the finished product just yet. At times you sensed they perhaps got carried away with all the hype surrounding them, and still have quite a bit of fine tuning to do before they can consider themselves a shoe in for World Cup glory in two years time. Consequently, despite the fact that we probably enjoyed watching France’s rugby joie de vivre more than any other team in this year’s Six Nations, their ability to blow hot and cold in the blink of an eye cost them a slightly lower score. However, the current foundation is so strong that there is little doubt that France are going to be the team to watch over the next two years.

France got their campaign off to a blistering start against the hapless Italians, and made sure that like Wales they used the fixture to maximise their points haul. Next up however, a lot of the shine of Nouvelle France wore off as they struggled to get past a disjointed but feisty Irish side in Dublin. They got the win but it felt labored and was often error strewn, with star playmaker scrum half Antoine Dupont proving that he is most definitely human and not some extraordinarily gifted extraterrestrial rugby being.

After that France had to live under the self-inflicted cloud of “Wafflegate” after the team was forced into isolation after testing positive for COVID 19 due to a poorly thought out excursion in Rome for said breakfast delicacies, and Coach Fabien Galthie leaving the bubble to watch his son play in Paris. While the latter may be more understandable than the Roman breafast faux pas it is still hard to justify as they both almost scuppered the tournament and meant the postponement of France’s match with Scotland.

After a month break it was time to take on England, and perhaps as a form of poetic justice France’s lack of playing time clearly had an effect as they were beaten by arguably the second worst team of the tournament. Still it appeared to snap them out of both their complacency and sense of entitlement that the tournament was theirs to win. They needed a massive performance to beat Wales and remain in the hunt for Six Nations silverware. They produced it, even if at times it looked as if the day was going to belong to Wales. They held their nerve right to the end and in perhaps one of the greatest final ten minute comebacks in the history of the tournament, pulled off one of the Six Nations greatest wins. With all the attention now on them, they perhaps got carried away once more with the hype and focused more on what they had to do to win the Championship rather than keep a Scottish side that had seemingly slipped completely under their radar at bay. Scotland simply looked like they had a more of a point to prove, and as a result walked away the winners, robbing France of the Championship. France will be back bigger and better next year, but perhaps more than any other team they have embraced change and the huge resources of talent and youth at their disposal. Their squad come the World Cup should be at the absolute peak of their game, and the rest of the world has been warned that the Northern Hemisphere’s strongest contender for the ultimate Webb Ellis souvenir is likely to be singing “La Marseillaise”.

Our department picks were a challenge in this rather talented squad to say the least. However in the front row we simply have to go with Hooker Julien Marchand, who was perhaps one of the most underrated players heading into the tournament but consistently ensured that France were competitive at scrum time and in the lineouts. In the second row we struggled but ultimately, and possibly as a surprise to some, settled on Romain Taofifenua whose performance in the Welsh game was so critical, as well as numerous impact appearances from the bench. In the back row, we really struggled to pick between Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt. Ollivon was an excellent leader but Alldritt went above and beyond in all five of France’s Six Nations games, and in the two games France lost he was the standout performer for les Bleus. In the halfbacks, despite Emile Ntamack’s late return from injury towards the end of the tournament and scrum half Antoine Dupont’s star quality, it was fly half Matthieu Jalibert who got top marks from us. Given that he has had to live in Ntamack’s shadow for the last year, he clearly stamped his authority on the role to the point where France have two very healthy starting options in the number 10 jersey. In the centres Gael Fickou gets the nod by a country mile. He was outstanding at marshalling France’s midfield attacks and defences and the veteran is probably close to the top of his game. In the back line, despite his wobble at the eighty minute mark against Scotland which ultimately cost France the game, fullback Brice Dulin was one of the standout performers of the tournament in the 15 jersey. Even against Scotland you could understand his seemingly inexplicable decision to keep the ball in play at the death, given that France were still chasing the elusive points they needed to get past Wales for the Championship. At the end of the day, given his stellar performances for France in the rest of the tournament and his absolute solidity under the high ball it would be remiss of us not to sing his praises.

France are so close to being the real dea,l and the next year will be all about fine tuning a squad that is destined for greatness. France have fired the opening shots of the next World Cup and the world has been warned.

Ireland – 7/10

Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne was one of the standout performers of the entire Championship – but Ireland are starting to click as a unit again

Once Ireland found their groove this Six Nations, they finally looked like a team starting to go places once more after what can only be described as two years in the wilderness. The transition to new Coach Andy Farrell has raised many an eyebrow, with many pundits ourselves included, being less than convinced that he was the right man for the job. However, after this Six Nations Irish supporters may just be feeling a tingling sense of optimism. Some of the youngsters are really coming to the fore, the veterans are stepping up to the plate once again and players who have been overlooked in the past are finally getting the recognition they so fully deserve. Lastly add into the Coaching mix an Irish legend and patron saint of forward packs Paul O’Connell, and Ireland are definitely once more on the rise.

Ireland got their campaign off to a poor start it has to be said. The ill disciplined and shambolic effort against Wales had all the hallmarks of a team at sixes and sevens in terms of direction. Their next encounter showed a more positive effort against France, as they put the title contenders under pressure and forced them into uncharacteristic mistakes. However, it wasn’t coherent enough to get the win, and the error and penalty count were still too high. There seemed to be very little evidence of any sort of plan in attack as Ireland dominated possession and territory but did little with either.

Their trip to Rome however, saw them finally come together as a unit and give them something to build on. Given Italy’s woeful defences it was always a golden opportunity to try out an attacking style of play and Ireland seized the opportunity with both hands running in six superbly executed tries. Next up it was Scotland and Ireland continued their run of form against their fellow Celts with a hard fought victory at Murrayfield against a clearly rusty Scottish side, after their enforced COVID 19 break courtesy of France’s Wafflegate. Ireland saved their best performance for last however, and put in the most solid effort we’ve seen from them in the new Andy Farrell era. They dismantled England from start to finish in a masterful display of defence, discipline under pressure and attacking prowess. Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations was very much a case of an improved showing from one match to the next. The second round against France was a marked improvement which culminated in a complete team effort against England in the final round earning Ireland a well justified third place.

Our department picks were pretty straightforward for the Men in Green and we doubt they’ll raise too many eyebrows. In the front row, the return from injury of Tighthead Prop Tadhg Furlong had an enormous impact on Irish fortunes at the coalface. Add to that his rather dazzling dance moves in the loose and Ireland have a real live wire in the front ably complimented by the likes of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher. In the second row, our choice could not have been more obvious – Tadhg Beirne. The second row monster was immense for the Men in Green, dominating lineouts, creating turnovers, making line breaks….the list goes on and he’s also equally capable in the back row. No matter what kind of day the rest of his team was having Beirne was having a day to remember, and is justifiably one of the players of the tournament. In the back row despite some very healthy competition from the likes of Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan it has to be Ireland’s favourite South African, the mighty CJ Stander in his swansong Six Nations appearance in an Irish jersey. One of the hardest working back rowers in Test rugby over the last five years, Stander did his adopted country proud from start to finish this year. In the halfbacks, it was Conor Murray’s return to form in the scrum half berth that would have got Irish eyes smiling culminating in his superb final round effort against England. In the centres, another nominee for player of the tournament, Robbie Henshaw, gets the nod. Another player who has suddenly rediscovered his form and is arguably now playing at the top of his game. Lastly in the back line we were severely torn between veteran winger Keith Earls and newcomer Hugo Keenan at fullback. Keenan has clearly made the 15 jersey his and was one of Ireland’s most consistent performers all tournament and best finds of the last year. However, we have to hand the honor to Earls who we think has always been one of Ireland’s most underrated players. He produced some spectacular tries this tournament and can often be relied upon to shore up Ireland’s problematic last line of defence. Perhaps not one of Ireland’s most talented players but arguably one of their most capable and reliable.

Under Andy Farrell, Ireland have clearly shaken off the rather rigid shackles of the Schmidt era, and appear to be revelling in the new found freedom to be slightly less structured and as a result more unpredictable on the pitch. It appears to be paying dividends, whilst the the discipline and defensive systems put in place during their time with Joe Schmidt are serving them well when under pressure. There are still question marks around some key positions in the build up to the next World Cup, most importantly around the fly half berth, but after this Six Nations, Irish supporters can breathe a little bit easier as like Wales, they are developing a healthy balance of youth and experience.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back next week with part two as we look at the three residents of the bottom half of the Six Nations table, Scotland, England and Italy. Sorry that it has taken so long to get this out, but with the pressures of work and COVID lockdowns it’s been a struggle to get our thoughts together. To keep you going till next time here’s a highlights reel of all the best tries of what was a remarkable tournament.

Take care and stay safe everyone!

Sure in a perfect world and all the controversy aside we should now be dissecting the ramifications of what has been one of the most enthralling Six Nations Championships we can remember in a long time. However, before we do that there is still the unfinished business of France and Scotland’s postponed Round 3 match on Friday night to deal with. Forget all the finger pointing, which is all ancient history now and France’s waffle eating negligence which got us here in the first place, as both Scotland and France will be 100% focused on the business at hand on Friday night and as fans so should we. After France pipped Wales at the death 32-30 and out of a Grand Slam last Saturday in Paris, we are now treated to one last glorious roll of the dice in the French capital to see whether the silverware will remain at the Stade de France or make it’s way to Cardiff once referee Wayne Barnes blows his final whistle.

Last weekend’s Super Saturday was vintage stuff, and will be remembered as one to savour. Scotland came blasting out of the blocks to resurrect their campaign by blitzing Italy and now face the tantalising prospect of finishing second if they manage to beat France and the numbers punched into calculators work in their favor. Ireland demolished an English side that is clearly in need of a new chassis and aggressive tune up in a thrilling match in Dublin. But the showpiece event without a doubt was 80 minutes of classic Test rugby in Paris as France and Wales fought tooth and nail. It was tense, hugely physical and had more drama than a full season of The Sopranos. There was some exquisite rugby on display from both sides and the hits could have registered on a Richter Scale. The seven try, 62 point fest was one that will be talked about for many years to come as two perfectly matched sides gave no quarter for the full eighty minutes from end to end. Your heart has to go out to the Welsh and their outstanding effort, but we always felt that a Grand Slam was just not on the cards for anyone this year as tantalisingly close as Wales came to achieving it. However, as a result we get to have one last indulgence in a tournament that despite the COVID 19 pandemic has exceeded our wildest expectations in terms of entertainment and excitement.

France vs Scotland – Friday, March 26th – Paris

Let’s put aside the finger pointing in the run up to this match, and the French squad’s faux pas surrounding COVID 19 protocols. It’s not perfect and while the seeming lack of repercussions has riled some of us, what’s done is done. Scotland and France both had a break from the momentum of Six Nations Test Rugby and it cost them both dearly. France in their loss to England and Scotland in their defeat by Ireland. Agreed Scotland didn’t ask for it and would appear the more hard done by, but unlike France before they headed into the break they had already lost to Wales so things weren’t exactly going to plan after that historic Round 1 defeat of England at Twickenham. A trip to Paris may well have been a bridge too far too soon at that point. Now after recovering their mojo against Italy in a relatively easy training run, you’d have to argue they go into this match looking the fresher of the two sides after only a six day turnaround. The maths are pretty complicated for Scotland to get second place and their highest ever Six Nations finish, but in short it involves beating France, and then it’s down to the calculators. They either have to score four tries against the French or beat the French by five points and deny them a try or losing bonus point and let’s face it the likelihood of France NOT scoring a try is akin to making a convincing argument for the flat earth campaign.

France had to play out of their skins against Wales last Saturday in a game from which the physical toll will be hard to get over in the space of just six days. That being said, there is no denying the momentum that kind of victory can give you and Scotland are going to have to be at their very best to stop the French juggernaut on a ground that the boys from North of Hadrian’s wall haven’t won on since 1999. France need to beat Scotland by 21 points and score four tries, or 20 points and six tries to win the title off Wales. In addition to those basics there is also some maths to do, but essentially without either of those two conditions as a starting point then the Championship will belong to Wales. Despite all the accounting and number punching to do, there is the fact that Friday’s match has everything to play for for both sides. In short, a battle royale for very different reasons awaits us in Paris.

A time to focus on what really matters

French Coach Fabien Galthie has been feeling the heat from COVID and not choosing his words carefully enough

French Coach Fabien Galthie has come under some serious criticism of late. Firstly due to his breaking of COVID 19 protocols which ultimately led to the postponement of this fixture, and secondly his inflammatory remarks accusing Wales of milking red card opportunities with referees. Poor on both counts, and now that he has had some time to reflect he no doubt wishes that he’d done neither. More importantly he wishes that the media would get back to focusing on what he and his charges do best – play some rather brilliant rugby. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for France these last few weeks, and it’s almost inevitable that things may get said in the heat of the moment that shouldn’t. Galthie and his coaching staff are an exceptionally talented group well liked and respected by their players. Much of what has been said and done over the last few weeks are rather uncharacteristic and no doubt brought on to some degree by the pressure the group has been under. We’re not making excuses for any of it but think that it’s time to move away from the media circus and get back to judging Galthie and his charges by their actions on the pitch – and let’s be honest in that respect they have given us something to celebrate this Championship.

Life really is all about how you cope with Plan B

Gregor Townsend and Stuart Hogg know that things very rarely go according to plan for the Scots but in the process opportunity knocks

Scotland it seems are constantly having to reinvent themselves, whether it’s due to the injury gods depleting their ranks, cancelled fixtures, seemingly inexplicable refereeing decisions – the list goes on. In short, Scotland can never run out onto the pitch thinking that the next 80 minutes will go according to whatever dress rehearsals they’ve gone through. Saturday’s encounter in Paris will be no different, and Captain Stuart Hogg will once again find his leadership and resolve tested to the max. We’d argue he’s developed into the kind of unflappable talisman and leader of men Scotland need, while Coach Gregor Townsend is more than capable of hiding a few tricks up his sleeve that will only see the light of day once referee Wayne Barnes blows the opening whistle. Two of Test Rugby’s shrewdest and wiliest characters will take on the brains trust that is French rugby and as a result it is now Scotland rather than France who beg the question – “which Scottish team will turn up”? They may be underdogs but they are probably the world’s most dangerous team carrying such a tag right now.

It’s all in the throw

Gregor Townsend will be hoping that George Turner and Dave Cherry have been playing a lot of darts in their spare time this week

Scotland need their starting Hooker George Turner to find his targets on Friday night in Paris, something he singularly failed to do at Murrayfield against Ireland in Round 4. Dave Cherry looked much more comfortable a week later against Italy when assigned the job of throwing darts and was also no stranger to the try line. Ireland has plenty of lineout poachers, which made Turner’s job especially difficult, something Cherry didn’t really have to contend with against Italy. Fortunately, France aren’t exactly leading the statistics in lineout steals, so provided Turner can improve his accuracy Scotland should improve their showing here. Cherry’s try scoring antics against Italy are unlikely to come into play against France and a distinctly more robust defence, so it’s really up to Turner to put in the kind of performance that turned heads against England and make Scotland competitive in the set pieces against a very formidable French pack.

Les Magiciens

Masters of the unexpected – France’s Romain Ntamack and Scotland’s Finn Russell

One is without game time and the other has a worrying lack of consistency even with game time. Both however, are absolute geniuses and a joy to watch. France’s Romain Ntamack made his return off the bench to duty in the French fly half jersey last weekend against Wales. Considering that it was his first crack at Six Nations action for quite some time after injury we thought he put in a pretty good shift, especially in the final ten minutes when he really hit his straps. He was instrumental in setting up France’s match winning try, and now he has his Test legs again the battle between him and Scotland’s impish wizard Finn Russell will be well worth the price of admission. The big question mark hanging over Finn Russell is his consistency and propensity to throw a game after attempting the impossible, as daring and clever as it may be. On the one hand Scotland need Russell to throw caution to the wind, but on the other somehow need to manage when he does it, as he himself is not always the best at judging the moment. Key for Scotland on Friday will be to “manage the game manager” without stifling his creativity. The interplay between himself and back line magician Captain Stuart Hogg will be critical.

Tied at one apiece

Despite some raised eyebrows Scotland’s Chris Harris and France’s Virimi Vakatawa are fairly effective at dealing with each other

There were some furrowed brows this morning when the team sheets came out and Scotland’s Chris Harris got the starting berth at outside centre over Huw Jones who lit up the pitch at Murrayfield against Italy. However, on the two occasions that Chris Harris has come up against France’s Virimi Vakatawa in the past year, Scotland won and lost one. In last year’s Six Nations encounter at Murrayfield Harris provided some gritty defence when needed, a quality that Huw Jones despite his brilliance on attack has not really shown much of. Six months later in the Autumn Nations Cup it was a very different story and France’s Fijian ran rings around Harris all afternoon. Still Harris has at times shown that while he rarely shines on attack, when some forceful and physical defence is needed, which it certainly will be on Friday night, he’s a bit more of a reliable commodity than Huw Jones. If he and fellow centre Sam Johnson can withstand the initial French onslaught by Vakatawa and Arthur Vincent, then that should allow Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend the freedom to bring on Jones to step up the attack against a tiring French duo in the last quarter of the match. It’s a gamble but it might just pay off.

Verdict

There’s no silverware on the table for Scotland, but pride and perhaps revenge for a perceived slight by France in causing the Scots to lose their momentum halfway through the tournament, will mean that Scotland will have a point to prove and a score to settle in Paris on Friday night. Their highest finish in the tournament since it became the Six Nations in 2000, is surely motivation enough for a talented and feisty Scottish side who have shown that they can handle the pressure on the road and in big venues like Twickenham. Paris is not a happy hunting ground for them but then neither was Twickenham.

However, France are not a dysfunctional England and are literally buzzing with confidence and a hunger for silverware. France want to lay down markers to the world at large that they will be the team to beat in 2023, and an emphatic win over Scotland on Friday night and with it the Six Nations crown will be a pretty convincing argument in their favor. As fired up as Scotland will be, our heads are telling us that it will be France emerging victorious but just short of the points required to claim the Championship. Our hearts are hoping for a Scottish performance that produces another match that goes down to the wire. Ultimately though even with a French win, we have hunch that the Six Nations trophy may be finding itself on a late night flight to Cardiff on Friday.

We’ll be doing our wrap up of the tournament next week, and then turning our attention to the European Champions Cup Finals and Toronto’s campaign in Major League Rugby. After that it’s the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa and other summer internationals to look forward to, COVID 19 permitting. Hopefully by the time we get to November, COVID will be a distant memory and it will be back to business as usual for some tantalising Autumn Internationals that are starting to come together.

Enjoy Friday and here’s hoping for a fitting end to what has been a great Championship!

In the meantime we’ll leave you with the Mighty Squidge’s video analysis of the France/Wales match. Enjoy and get behind his excellent work!

We should, had COVID-19 not got in the way, be toasting this year’s Six Nations Champion by the time referee Luke Pearce blows for time on Saturday in Paris. If Wales complete their Grand Slam journey and beat France, then we will indeed be toasting all things in Red. However, should they come unstuck in France then it gets complicated and once more it becomes a two horse race between Wales and Les Bleus only to be decided once Wayne Barnes blows the final whistle in Paris next Friday night. For France to emerge victorious they will have to beat both Wales and Scotland with a bonus point, while at the same time denying Wales a bonus point this Saturday. Failing that it all comes down to points differences and everyone getting out their calculators. In short, nothing is guaranteed and Super Saturday’s final match carries with it plenty of suspense and what ifs.

Wales must surely be feeling confident as they head undefeated to Paris, as well as having made a handy points haul in Rome last weekend. Italy it must be said were rather weak opponents so Wales were not exactly tested ahead of a very tricky fixture on Saturday, but they certainly looked well drilled in their approach to the Italian game – traits they are likely to bring to their biggest encounter since their World Cup semi-final encounter with South Africa.

France looked good for the first sixty minutes against England last week, but much like Scotland the four week hiatus from Six Nations rugby caught up with them in the final quarter where they started to look rather puffed against a shiny English side that seemed able to take the intensity of the match comfortably in their stride. France had a strong rally in the final five minutes that looked like they were just about to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but their chief magician Antoine Dupont fumbled the ball forward in the dying minute and France kissed their Grand Slam ambitions goodbye. With two games left, their sole focus must be on denying Wales the Grand Slam and keeping their own Six Nations silverware dreams alive. It’s going to be a tall order, even in Paris but this French side have shown that they do have that composure when they need it most, especially now they are match fit once more. The Championship couldn’t ask for a better 80 minutes of nerve wracking tension for fans and players alike.

France vs Wales – Saturday, March 20th – Paris

Of Relative Strengths

What do the numbers mean you may ask, especially when you consider that these are two very good teams chasing silverware? Wales may have more confidence and be feeling slightly more pumped given their run up to this point than France who perhaps are not feeling as invincible even on home turf. The numbers indicate though where the two sides have their greater strengths. For Wales we feel they have the edge in the front and second rows and the blindside flanker position. For France we feel their offerings in the backs from scrum half to fullback is the stronger unit, as gifted as Wales are in some of those positions. But hang on we hear you say where is 7 and 8? They are not included as for both sides they balance each other out. France’s openside flanker and number eight combination of Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt is every bit as good as Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau – in short there is nothing to choose between the two sides here.

We think Wales are going to dominate the set pieces and France the back play. The two sides are likely to be even in matters of open play and overall Wales are likely to be the more disciplined side when it comes to keeping on the right side of Luke Pearce’s whistle. Do the maths and if you take out passion and emotion, the numbers would give Wales the slightest edge. However, there is still this nagging doubt that Wales’ fairy tale ride has got to end at some point and France are the most likely party spoilers that the Welsh dragon will face this year. It’s our belief that France have it all to do on Saturday and Wales simply have to stay the course and keep their wits about them. Either way it still looks like some pretty big dice are being rolled on Saturday afternoon in Paris and we won’t be laying any bets – it’s just that close.

The return of the Cat

France’s replacement Hooker Camille Chat is in the mold of the original French caveman second rower Sebastien Chabal

French Coach Fabien Galthie enjoys the luxury of a problem most Coaches would dearly love to have. When you have two genuine World Class Hookers who do you choose? Much has been made in the media of France’s neckless wonder Camille Chat, but Galthie has stuck with Julien Marchand in the starting role for Saturday’s match. It’s the right call, Chat brings that X-factor and body crushing impact you need from a replacement front rower, while Marchand will get through a mountain of work quietly, efficiently and often with spectacular results for the first three quarters. You felt that Chat could have been brought on a bit earlier in the England game, but you still couldn’t fault an outstanding shift from Marchand. They’ll be up against it in the form of Wales’ Ken Owens who has been superb for the Men in Red, but if Elliott Dee comes off the bench sooner rather than later expect to see Chat make his appearance. If that proves to be the case we fear that France are likely to take complete control of front row proceedings at that point as well as causing havoc in broken play.

The Stats Master

Making the numbers work for him – Welsh second rower Adam Beard

We feel that we owe Adam Beard an apology. As regular readers know we’ve never really rated the Welsh lock, and if anything found him rather anonymous, an opinion shared by many others. But here’s an interesting fact Beard’s numbers in the Championship make for impressive reading even if you’re not actually noticing him producing them on the pitch. He’s made the second highest number of passes by a second rower in the Championship (Italy’s David Sisi holds that honor) and ranks second in lineout steals alongside CJ Stander, Tadgh Beirne and Maro Itoje. If you actually look across the entire player statistics for this year’s Championship Beard features highly in all the positive numbers. We were delighted to see Cory Hill back in action last week, but he’s going to have to work extra hard this year to unseat Beard and his quiet efficiency.

A very healthy rivalry

Who is the understudy – Matthieu Jalibert or Romain Ntamack?

The architect of Wales’ defeat in this same fixture last year, Romain Ntamack, makes his return from injury once more on the bench. However, in his absence Matthieu Jalibert has really come of age, leaving French Coach Fabien Galthie with another delicious dilemma when it comes to selection time. There is no question that Jalilbert has taken the opportunities given to him with both hands and matured into a genuine world class fly half. It would be hard to argue against him not being Ntamack’s equal if not better than the Toulouse playmaker based on current form. France will need to develop both these exceptional players for the World Cup, but balancing big match game time for both of them is the kind of headache most national team Coaches would dearly love to have.

Six Nations frequent flyers

France’s Damian Penaud and Louis Rees-Zammit have been burning up pitches for the last two months

French winger Damian Penaud is no stranger to the razzle dazzle of Test Rugby, but newcomer Welshman Louis Rees-Zammit has proven that all the hype surrounding his debut in the International Arena was fully justified. Consequently the contest between two of Test Rugby’s fastest men will be something to savor on Saturday. Penaud is more of an offload specialist and breaking the gain line from loose play, whereas Rees-Zammit’s all out speed and rather remarkable footballing skills have been a revelation this tournament. Two very different but equally gifted players should provide us with a genuine spectacle of attacking rugby as well as making our sport give its rival the so called “beautiful game” a genuine run for its money on Saturday.

Verdict

So the question on everyone’s lips is who is going to win? Will it be Wales and the Championship draws to a conclusion this Saturday, or will France claim the spoils and with it keep us in suspense till next Friday? Coming into this Championship it was clear that France were going to be the side to beat, but it’s been Wales steady but impressive course that has perhaps stayed with us the most. France have the talent and skill in bucket loads but Wales have shown a resolve and sense of purpose that has Champions in waiting written all over it. We didn’t see it coming but now we have it’s hard to argue against Wales’ deserved claims to the title this Saturday. A side that has gone from strength to strength as the tournament unfolded have surely saved their best performance for last. As accomplished as France are, we have a hunch that it’s Wales story to write on Saturday in a tale of high stakes drama that will be won by the narrowest of margins. We’ve struggled more than most years to pick winners in every round of this year’s Championship and Saturday’s finale in Paris is no exception – but if we have to and without any great sense of conviction we’re giving Wales a last gasp win by the smallest of margins.

So stay safe everyone, stock up on your libations of choice, connect with your rugby mates either at a distance or virtually and get set for one of the best Saturdays of the year!

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 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!

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

Le Professeur

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

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

Ireland’s chance to shine?

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

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

Allez-y les Boks

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

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

Should I stay or should I go?

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

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

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

Is this France’s most underrated player?

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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!