Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

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!

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

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

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

Ireland vs England – Saturday, March 20th – Dublin

Jukebox tango

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

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

Clash of the Titans

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

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

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

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

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

Old boys clubs

It’s business as usual between two rival companies

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

The baby faced warrior makes his return

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

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

Verdict

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

This has become an increasingly tasty fixture in the last few years, and at Murrayfield it seems to develop an extra layer of intensity. Ireland travel to Edinburgh fresh off an impressive dismantling of a rather poor Italian side, while Scotland will be fuming at their enforced abstinence from Six Nations rugby as a result of their Round 3 match with France being postponed due to COVID-19 transgressions by Les Bleus. Ireland have finally got some continuity in their play and the match against Italy was by far their best performance in quite some time. However, by the same token it was also arguably Italy’s worst performance to date under Coach Franco Smith, so it’s hard to judge where Ireland really are at. Perhaps a more important yardstick is their narrow loss to tournament favorites France in Round 2. Ireland ran the French very close and the Italian game seemed to refine the systems that seemed to work so well against Les Bleus. Against Scotland they simply have to click, as Coach Gregor Townsend is a fielding a side that is perhaps one of the finest Scottish sides seen in a long time, and one which is technically still in the hunt for Six Nations silverware if the two current front runners Wales and France slip up in the final two rounds.

Scotland may have lost some momentum and the 1 point loss to Wales in their most recent outing must have been hard to swallow. However, we’d argue that it is an exceptionally competent squad that runs out against Ireland on Sunday and one which has had plenty of time to prepare for what should be a challenging encounter. Scotland will have done their homework and seem to thrive much better on spur of the moment opportunism than Ireland. Scotland seem to relish creating an unstructured game that opposition sides struggle to stamp their game plans on. The Scots in turn seem to have this canny ability to then turn the resulting chaos into a series of exquistely crafted attacking chances. In short, almost impossible to read, especially their impish playmaker fly half Finn Russell, Scotland pose a real conundrum for any side trying to organise their defences. Ireland will do their best to starve Scotland of possession whilst exhausting their backline defences. Scotland in turn will try and ensure that Ireland are forced to be constantly second guessing themselves. Two contrasting playing styles should make for 80 minutes of high octane rugby entertainment.

Scotland vs Ireland – Sunday, March 14th – Edinburgh

Perhaps more than anything Sunday’s match will show us if Ireland have finally turned a corner under Coach Andy Farrell. Scotland may have lost some momentum due to having to sit out round three courtesy of France’s COVID-19 indiscretions, but there is still no denying that it’s a quality Scottish outfit that takes to the field on Sunday, and one which we have a pretty good understanding of what they are capable of achieving. For Ireland the jury is still out despite the narrow loss to France and the emphatic thumping of Italy. Consistency is still not a core value in the Irish camp whereas Scotland seem to have that aspect of their preparations under control. Scotland are almost the finished product while Ireland are still finalizing their blueprints.

Statistically the two sides are evenly matched even though Ireland have an extra game under their belt. A weak point in Scotland’s armor in the past has been their performance in the set pieces, however of late they have made massive improvements and can hold their own with the best teams when it comes to this aspect of their game. Given their confidence in both structured and unstructured play, it would appear they are the favourites going into Sunday’s match as Ireland are still more comfortable when play follows a rhythm and pace that they can control. We’d argue Scotland are better at adapting to and coping with Plan B than their Irish counterparts and it will be fascinating to see what kind of game unfolds on Sunday and who copes better at dealing with the unexpected.

An enviable dilemma

Ronan Kelleher looks for some tips on lineout throwing from Rob Herring

If you were Irish Coach Andy Farrell, the great Hooker debate must really be wearing out his pencils when drawing up his teamsheets. Do you pick the veteran Herring or the young upstart Kelleher? Given the degree of unpredictability of his opponents on Sunday, we’d have thought that Kelleher was a safer bet given his ability to react to the unexpected as evidenced by his single handed opportunistic try against France. Herring may have more experience but Kelleher is the more dynamic player. Herring’s dart throwing in the lineouts may be more consistent than Kelleher’s but given Paul O’Connell’s work with the team in this year’s Championship there should be enough talent to cover for what mistakes the younger player is likely to make come lineout time. In addition with Will Conors, Tadgh Beirne, James Ryan and Ian Henderson in the line, he has four fairly massive targets to hit even if his throwing is not as accurate as Herring’s. If Ireland start to wobble come lineout time as they did in the opening round against Wales, then expect to see Kelleher sooner rather than later, as he would appear better placed to handle the clean up role if the lineouts aren’t working.

You CANNOT be serious????

Irish second rower Ian Henderson will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to demonstrate to French referee Romain Poite the legal definition of a try at Murrayfield

If you were like us you would have shared Irish second rower Ian Henderson’s gobsmacked expression of disbelief when his perfectly legitimate try was disallowed against Italy by French TMO Romain Poite two weeks ago in Rome. Imagine Henderson’s reaction when he saw Romain Poite pencilled in as the official in charge for Sunday’s encounter. It may be one of the most fascinating subplots of the weekend, as no doubt Henderson will be going out of his way to demonstrate the finer points of the game to Poite, while Poite no doubt will be placing Henderson under increased scrutiny as a result. The mark of the professional as a player and as a referee will be on the line Sunday and both individuals will need to be at their best while avoiding tripping over each other in their efforts to prove a point.

The Dynamic Duo

Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish WatsonMasters of the loose

Scotland’s back row duo of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are in their element in broken play and both love nothing more than a good turnover. They will be ably assisted by Matt Fagerson on Sunday who is arguably becoming Scotland’s find of the season so far. It’s a very effective trio up against an equally impressive Irish offering, especially in the shape of Tadgh Beirne who is clearly set to be Ireland’s player of the tournament. However, going back to the chaos theory mentioned earlier it’s the Scots, particularly Ritchie and Watson who seem to thrive on it. Ireland in Will Conors and CJ Stander offer a more traditional approach to back row play, with Beirne providing that stroke of creativity when you need it. But it’s the Scots who would appear to be the all action duo and operate at a pace that would make a troupe of whirling dervishes dizzy. There should be some absolutely outstanding contests in this part of the park on Sunday and many of the game’s key moments will be won and lost here.

A welcome return

Scotland’s Sam Johnson has been missed

One of the architects of that remarkable second half comeback by Scotland against England at Twickenham a few years ago was Scottish centre Sam Johnson. Plagued by injury since then, but now apparently fully fit, Scotland will be expecting big things from him and replacement centre Huw Jones. Two highly talented players who can be real game breakers for their team, but who sadly have simply not had a chance to shine in the last year. Scotland will be up against an exceptionally capable Irish offering in the centre of the park in the shape of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose, but will really want to make a statement here, especially to open up opportunities for their world class back line of Hogg, Maitland and van der Merwe. Much like the battles taking place around the rucks, the game could well be won or lost in the centre channels on Sunday.

Often overlooked but rarely undercooked

Garry Ringrose is well known for his attacking prowess but it’s his defensive abilities that often impress us the most

Irish centre Garry Ringrose has been compared to the great Brian O’Driscoll for his silky attacking play, but in our opinion it’s his defensive work in the centre channels which gets overlooked but is so vital to Ireland’s success when they are on song. Pay close attention on Sunday to Ringrose’s defensive positioning and you’ll see he rarely misses his mark as well as reading the ebb and flow of a game brilliantly. Always in the right place at the right time, we’d argue he is perhaps one of the best defensive Test centres playing the game right now. Sure people will focus on his outstanding runs and line breaks, but there is no question that what he does for Ireland defensively is just as if not more important. He will be key to shutting down the threat posed by Scotland’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones as well as spoiling the party for Russell, Hogg and van der Merwe. If he has a good day, Scotland will find that creativity they crave and excel at producing may be nothing more than an exercise in frustration.

Verdict

We’ll be honest and say that this is one of those rare matches where we find it almost impossible to predict a winner. This one really could go either way – these sides are that close. If we have to hang our hats somewhere though we’d give it to Scotland by the slightest of margins. Whatever happens by the time referee Romain Poite blows the final whistle, we’re fairly confident we’ll have been treated to a memorable 80 minutes of Six Nations rugby. Two talented teams with contrasting styles and everything to play for should be able to put on quite the show provided the elements cooperate. In short a recipe for excitement awaits. Make sure you set your clocks forward an hour on Saturday night and your alarms for 11 AM Eastern on Sunday so you don’t miss what should be a very worthy finale to a superb Six Nations weekend! Stay safe everyone and until next weekend here’s a little retrospective on perhaps the greatest comeback ever seen in the Six Nations, by you guessed it – Ireland’s hosts on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

Wales – THE Surprise Package

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

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

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

France – Les enfants terribles

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

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

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

Ireland – I want to break free!

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

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

England – Train Wreck?

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

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

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

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

Scotland – Sadly missed

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

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

Italy – Looking for the right recipes

Skilled – but still lacking a firm and consistent base

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 27th – Rome

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

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

The Jukebox is back!

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

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

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

Captain on the left – Coach on the right

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

Italy’s reliability factor

Mr. Dependable for Italy – Sebastian Negri

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

New World Chianti

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

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

The more we see the more we like

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs England – Saturday, February 27th – Cardiff

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

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

A player who has suddenly come of age

Prop Wyn Jones has become the real deal

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

It’s all about the future in Wales

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

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

A question of loyalty under pressure

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

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

Not all there

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

England – Dissatisfied

Eddie and Owen share their feelings about haggis

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

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

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

France – Excited

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

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

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

Ireland – Confused

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

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

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

Italy – Optimistic

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

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

Scotland – Frustrated

Down but definitely not out!

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

Wales – cheerful

This was the try of the weekend for us!

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

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

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.

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

Wales vs Ireland – Sunday, February 7th – Cardiff

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

Is this the motivational link that Ireland have missed?

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

Front row meat grinder

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

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

Ireland’s lineout woes may be at an end

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

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

Just Reward

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

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

Something for Welsh fans to get excited about

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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!

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

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

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

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

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

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

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

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

The definition of extraordinary!

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

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

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

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

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

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

Man in the Hot Seat

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

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

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

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

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

Scotland the bold and the brave

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

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

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

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

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

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

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

One to watch for Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Wales in name only

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

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

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

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

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

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

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