Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

With all the rugby going on at the moment, we have to confess to finding it hard to keep a handle on all of it and a balance with work and family. As a result it’s a slightly abbreviated look at some of this weekend’s action. After a bumper crop of top notch matches in Round 1, the pickings are slightly slimmer this weekend, but some big matches are on offer. We’ve picked out three that perhaps best capture the flavor of what is already proving to be a memorable World Cup.

First up is tomorrow’s headliner between hosts Japan and one of the tournament favorites Ireland. The Irish have recognized the potential banana skin posed by Japan in front of what should be a very vocal crowd in Fukoroi. Ireland field a full strength side with only one or two omissions, fully aware that Japan will throw everything at them. After Scotland’s annihilation at the hands of the Irish, Japan are probably looking at their final match of the Pool stages with the Scots to attempt one of the tournament’s big upsets. However, they couldn’t ask for better preparation than Ireland who would appear to be regaining the form that made them such a force in 2018.

For us though it is Sunday that provides the bulk of the action. It is Uruguay who caused the first big upset of the tournament, with their historic win over Fiji, and what a match it was! It caught the imagination of the fans in attendance and was a fabulous match to watch. Georgia also put on an impressive second half display against Wales. On the basis of that we think that Sunday’s fixture between Georgia and Uruguay could end up being one of the best Tier 2 Pool games of the entire tournament. Uruguay will have had a shorter turnaround than the Georgians but if they play with the same kind of heart and conviction they showed against Fiji, then as a spectacle this could be quite the match, as Georgia are also not short on passion and hard graft.

We end with THE big match of the weekend as Pool D’s heavyweights, Australia and Wales do battle. Wales may have blown Georgia away in the first half  of their World Cup opener but the Georgians came back with a real vengeance in the second half and caused the Welsh all kinds of problems. In Australia’s case they suffered a serious case of opening night nerves as Fiji had them on the ropes in the first half. They were able to regroup for the second half and ultimately secure the victory, but there is no denying that they had been asked some serious questions along the way. As a result this could be a very even contest on Sunday as both sides seek to gain ascendancy in Pool D.

Japan vs Ireland – Saturday, September 28th – Fukuroi

Arguably Ireland’s second most difficult game of the Pool stages and one which will require another emphatic performance similar to that against Scotland. Ireland will be well aware that they have struggled at times this year to hit the ground running. Should they have the kind of off day that we saw a lot of during the Six Nations, then Japan could fancy their chances at an upset akin to their triumph over South Africa in the last World Cup.

However, Ireland in their last three games prior to the World Cup would appear to have started to hit their straps again. The performance we saw against Scotland, admittedly an exceptionally poor Scottish effort, in tough conditions demonstrated that Ireland would appear to be back on an upward trajectory just when they need it most.

Japan got the job done against Russia, but didn’t look like the giant killers that some imagine they may be in front of their home crowds on Rugby’s biggest stage. There’s certainly enough there to cause Ireland problems, but at this stage we’re not quite envisaging an upset on Saturday, especially with Ireland fielding an exceptionally capable squad which clearly recognizes and respects the potential threat Japan could pose.

Ireland will want to see a good outing from winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney after they missed the Scotland game due to injury. Meanwhile Jacob Stockdale will need to be at his best to contain Japanese try scoring machine Kotaro Matsushima who looked outstanding against Russia. CJ Stander was back to his bruising best for Ireland and will really need to step up again against Japan’s Amanaki Mafi who is genuinely world class. Also after an outstanding contribution from Jack Carty who took over from Johnny Sexton in the last quarter against Scotland, the young Irish fly half gets the nod at the starting 10 spot for this match. Irish supporters will also be keen to see Joey Carberry make an appearance as Carty’s replacement, after Carberry’s absence with injury.

Overall, despite what we think will be an exceptionally vigorous Japanese challenge, there is just too much class, pedigree and experience in this Irish match day 23 to make the likelihood of an upset a reality. Japan will be brave make no mistake and cause Ireland some problems, but Ireland to ultimately seal the deal by 16 points!

Georgia vs Uruguay – Sunday, September 29th – Kumagaya

After both sides exploits against Wales and Fiji, we have to confess that we are really looking forward to this one. While Uruguay managed to win their match after a heroic effort, Georgia certainly gave Wales an uphill battle at times in the second half. Both these teams really play with their hearts on their sleeves and are likely to be firm crowd favorites during the pool stages.

Georgia are keen to make a statement this tournament as they continue to push for a spot in the Six Nations, and a strong third place finish in their pool would further strengthen that argument. Uruguay meanwhile will continue to be an emerging rugby force in the Americas and with an increasing number of their players plying their trade in Major league Rugby in the US and Top 14 in France, they will also be chasing that third spot and automatic qualification for the next World Cup in France in 2023.

As a result two highly entertaining sides with plenty of grit go head to head with each other. Georgia should have the better forward pack, but as Uruguay showed against Fiji their forwards are no slouches. Uruguay should have the edge in the backs, having displayed some lovely running in the Fiji game, but Georgia has also come a long way since the days of them being recognized as a bone crushing set of forwards but not much else. They too have some silky backs, and as we saw against Wales they were able to make some damaging incisions into the Welsh defenses. In short, two very high quality Tier 2 sides who should provide one of the best underdog competitions of the tournament. Georgia’s reputation being the more heavyweight of the two should see them through in a very tight contest by two points!

Australia vs Wales – Sunday, September 29th – Tokyo

Without a doubt the showpiece event of the weekend! Barring any major upsets this contest will decide Pool D, despite Wales and Australia in particular having their odd moments of uncertainty against Georgia and Fiji. Australia as we predicted found that their rather exuberant running game at times would catch them out against Fiji, particularly if the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. It wasn’t in the first half and Fiji capitalized as there is nothing they love better than unstructured open play. Australia adopted a much more conservative approach in the second half and it paid dividends.

Wales appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half against Georgia, and got the rudest of wake up calls for the first quarter. A mistake they are unlikely to repeat against Australia. Much like Scotland though they have serious concerns about how deep they can go into this tournament should the injury gods not be kind to them in the Pool stages.

For a match of this significance both teams are packing a powerhouse match day 23 and bringing out all their big guns. While Wales managed to beat Australia in Cardiff last November for the first time in 8 years, it was at home, and the Welsh record against the Wallabies is not a favorable one. However, this Wallaby side blows so hot and cold, much like the French, that we are all wondering which Wallaby team will turn up on Sunday, even if it looks almost exactly the same on the team sheet bar one or two exceptions as the one that went up against Fiji. Wales meanwhile bring to Tokyo essentially the same team that faced off against Georgia.

The battle of the back rows should be one for the ages with David Pocock and Michael Hooper of Australia up against Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi. Newcomers Isi Naisarani for Australia and Aaron Wainwright for Wales have both impressed, and should be well mentored by the four veterans surrounding them. The battle between Justin Tipuric and David Pocock though is one of the key battles on the park. Pocock seems back to his best after injury and Tipuric is probably one of Test Rugby’s most dependable men in a crisis.

Australia though have gone for a sea change in the half backs, while Wales stick with the tried and trusted formula of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. Biggar really seems to have a handle on how to pull Wales out of the fire should things start getting away from them and his goal kicking appears to be spot on. Australia bring Will Genia and Bernard Foley back into the mix and for a match of this importance, and despite being really impressed with Nic White, we feel it is the right call. Christian Lealiifano just didn’t seem in the match last weekend for the Wallabies and Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua look like more reliable platforms at number 10. The other notable inclusion for Australia is the long awaited return of Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing. However, we feel that the outstanding winger’s best days may be behind him, so expect to see Fijian missile Marika Koroibete and centre Samu Kerevi have more to say in the try scoring department for Australia on Sunday.

The benches look solid, but Australia may have the edge in their front row replacements, as we saw last week against Fiji. Otherwise we think it’s fairly even, and it’s another big call for Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell on the replacements bench. However, we’ve been fans of the Scarlets play maker for a while now and for the most part he seems to rise to big occasions like Sunday’s match.

Two very evenly matched teams face up in what should be a thrilling contest. Two teams who love to run the ball, with Wales perhaps having the better kicking game, but Australia a more enterprising and unpredictable back line. In the forwards it’s even stevens, with the Welsh pack perhaps being the more settled of the two. In short, almost impossible to call but we’re hedging our bets that Wales have a better understanding of the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. No we haven’t been taking betting tips from Rob Howley, but we’re giving it to Wales by three!

It is widely assumed that Ireland and Scotland will be the teams that progress from Pool A to the quarter finals. There is the wild card that is Japan and how home advantage could cause them to create two upsets this tournament as opposed to their one historic victory in the last World Cup, but for most their money is on the two Celtic tigers to progress to the next round. What faces either of them is a rather intimidating quarter final prospect with either New Zealand or South Africa. On the basis of today’s dust up between the two Pool B Southern Hemisphere superpowers, you could argue that a quarter final date with South Africa would be marginally preferable to one with New Zealand. Consequently in a World Cup opener for Scotland and Ireland, the stakes could not be higher in a must win match scenario.

Despite the form that catapulted them to dizzying heights in 2018, seeming to have deserted them, Ireland still look the better placed of the two sides to have South Africa as opposed to New Zealand on their dance card in four weeks time. Scotland will bring plenty to the table tomorrow and are more than up to the task of ripping up Ireland’s preferred quarter final invitation, but they will need a performance of the ages to do it, despite Ireland’s recent wobbles. With Ireland having dispatched Six Nations Grand Slam Champions Wales twice over the summer at home and away, it could be argued they are the side with less to prove tomorrow. Yes we know there was that horror show at Twickenham, for which there is little or no explanation, but Ireland do seem to have moved on from that. However, it is Scotland who on their day can play a style of rugby akin to a Northern Hemisphere version of Fiji at full throttle. In short, there are no guarantees tomorrow.

Ireland vs Scotland – Sunday, September 22nd – Yokohama

Tomorrow is a must win match for both teams plain and simple. You could have argued that the teams might have been able to judge that call a bit better after watching today’s match between New Zealand and South Africa and deciding who they would rather face. However, this is the first match of a long tournament for both teams, and while the omens look good for both teams progressing to the semi-final, barring the threat that Japan could pose on home soil, we can’t help feeling that after today South Africa is the preferred quarter final opponent of choice for both teams. However, that’s not exactly a comforting thought.  South Africa may have lost today and not looked as sharp and polished as New Zealand at times, but there is no denying they put up one hell of a fight! In short, New Zealand or South Africa are daunting potential opponents in your first kick at the knockout stages, and to be honest if we were Ireland or Scotland we’d want neither, as the likelihood of it all ending in tears is just too strong a possibility.

So the priorities tomorrow will be pretty simple for Ireland and Scotland – throw everything at each other including the kitchen sink and get the win, but in doing so avoid the types of injuries that invariably have caused Ireland to never get beyond the quarter finals in a World Cup, and Scotland only manage a semi-final once, way back in 1991.

It’s not quite Ireland’s best, but not far from it

For us there are three notable omissions for a game of such stature from an Irish point of view. Dan Leavy, but that was always going to be the case after that horrific injury earlier this year, and Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. With Kearney and Earls being wrapped in cotton wool for the quarter finals and beyond, should Ireland make a break with World Cup history, their omission is understandable even if they could have played this match. Scotland are going to put Ireland to the test under the high ball, and Ireland will miss their version of Israel Folau, as Rob Kearney sits this one out and Jordan Larmour gets his biggest chance to date to prove he is the future of Ireland’s 15 jersey. Andrew Conway may have more gas out wide than Keith Earls, but Earls sheer reliability and work rate is something that Ireland has found great comfort in when the chips are down. Otherwise this is Ireland at maximum strength and Scotland will have to be at their best to keep them in check. It’s a very good Scottish team, make no mistake, but Ireland if they click have the kind of cohesive pedigree in this match day 23 that could take them back to the glory days of 2018. Either way we’ll find out tomorrow if Ireland’s drop in form was simply a ruse to keep everyone guessing till Japan, or if the rest of the world really has got Ireland taped once and for all.

While Ireland need Rory Best’s leadership on the pitch, others will really need to take the mantle for the future tomorrow

Many have argued, ourselves included that second rower James Ryan is the future of the Irish captaincy. While he may be a little green around the edges, no pun intended, he is part of the leadership cadre that will need to step up to provide support to Rory Best who is clearly battling with the demands of the role at times in the twilight of his outstanding career. Others like Peter O’Mahony and Jonathan Sexton will also need to put their shoulder to the wheel over the coming weeks, as part of a watertight and cohesive collective Irish leadership, especially as this is something that Scotland seemed to have had more success in building. While we feel slightly treacherous in admitting this, we have to admit we felt that in terms of Ireland’s set pieces in their final warm up game with Wales, Hooker Niall Scannell made a better fist of it than Best, and when the Irish Captain did come on in the final quarter Ireland’s dominance of the game started to slip. While Best may still be the talisman to the squad, there are other players whose quiet leadership and skill sets now need to come to the fore.

Is Hamish Watson Scotland’s most important player?

In big crunch matches like this, we’d argue yes. As most readers know we are huge fans of the Scottish wrecking ball, as he is just everywhere on the park for Scotland. If Scotland need a talisman on Sunday, then Watson embodies it by the bucket load. We regard Watson as the Northern Hemisphere’s version of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, and we’d argue you’d be hard pressed to top that as a compliment. Sure Scotland have some genuine game changers and play makers in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and the secret tactical nuclear missile they keep on the bench in the shape of winger Darcy Graham, but for us nobody epitomizes the surprise package of frenetic pace and skill that Scotland have become better than Hamish Watson. Whenever he gets the ball, Scotland experience a sea change in momentum, and Ireland will need to work hard at keeping the dynamic forward in check.

Sexton needs to develop the kind of relationship with Stockdale that Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont showed today for France

If you watched arguably the day’s most exciting match, that between France and Argentina, then that partnership between Penaud and Dupont was a thing of beauty. Penaud knows how to use space and Dupont knows how to put him there. Ireland’s key play maker fly half Jonathan Sexton and winger Jacob Stockdale will need to develop a similar relationship tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament. When Sexton does bring out his first choice set of conducting batons, Ireland veritably hum and speed and space merchants like Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour but especially Jacob Stockdale shine. We haven’t seen much of it to be honest so far from Ireland and Sexton in 2019, and Stockdale has been ominously quiet for much of the year, but you know it’s there if Ireland can get it right. Having watched South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe carve huge chunks of space out of the New Zealand defence today seemingly at will, then Ireland need to start practicing for whoever their dance partner may end up being come the quarter finals.

Verdict

It may be damp tomorrow in Yokohama which may make ball handling a nightmare, especially given the humidity. Apparently both teams have been practicing chucking balls around lathered in shampoo, baby oil etc so they should be in good stead to handle the conditions. Both these teams, but Scotland in particular, love to run and we hope the conditions don’t stifle this ambition too much. Either way it should be a highly charged and entertaining high stakes spectacle. Hard to call, but on paper this does look like the Irish side that turned the rugby world upside down last year, with Scotland perhaps relishing the underdog tag, albeit one loaded with X-factor. A tough contest in store but one which a better drilled and perhaps more comprehensively coached Irish side should clinch by 8 points!

It’s actually a fairly busy weekend in Test Rugby terms, as there are a plethora of “friendlies” taking place in both Hemispheres. Sadly it will be quite a challenge for us to get easy access to any of them here in Canada, the only exception to that being the Canada/USA game in Vancouver on Saturday. However, as of Thursday night, there is very little information about the Canada game, such as team lineups, referees etc. If they do put something out tomorrow we may have time to have a look at it, but otherwise for all intents and purposes it’s a mystery game. You’ll be able to watch it on TSN where hopefully it becomes less of an enigma.

The big action is in Europe with England taking on Italy on Friday, and Scotland hosting Georgia. We don’t have access to these games via regular channels/streaming services here in Canada. With both games likely to be a foregone conclusion in terms of the winners, with no disrespect to Italy or Georgia, we’ll just be looking at the Ireland/Wales game.

Wales take a full strength team to Dublin, and one which will most likely start against Australia, Fiji and Georgia in the World Cup. By the same token Wales and Coach Warren Gatland will hope that the injury gods are kind to them on Saturday, as in the game last weekend it was clear that as good as Wales are, outside of their first choice match day 23 travelling to Dublin, depth is limited.

Ireland bring out a star studded cast for this one and the expectations on them will be high. While injuries will be a concern for the Coaching staff, Ireland really need to make a statement that they mean business at the World Cup, something that it’s been hard to believe in much this year. After their blowout against England a fortnight ago, they salvaged some pride against a second string Welsh side in Cardiff last Saturday, but it wasn’t exactly a performance that would have caused either of their potential quarter final opponents, New Zealand or South Africa, any sleepless nights. The problem is so far this year Ireland have looked average at best and downright awful for a lot of the time. With a potential pool decider against Scotland as their World Cup opener only 15 days away, Ireland need to find their groove fast and make it stick.

So here’s what got us talking in relation to the last big show in Dublin before all eyes turn to the land of the rising sun.

Ireland vs Wales – Saturday, September 7th – Dublin

Two all star squads go head to head in Dublin on Saturday, but it begs the question – how hard will they really go at it with the main event less than two weeks away, and neither side wanting to be burdened with injuries? You could argue that Ireland will want to lay down a marker against the second best team in the world if you believe World Rugby’s ranking system (and we’re in the non believer camp). We are not denying that Wales are an outstanding team at the moment and clear contenders for World Cup glory. However, we struggle to believe they have the kind of depth necessary to rival New Zealand’s dominance of said ranking system in the last few years. Furthermore, if Ireland had beaten Wales last weekend by fifteen points last Saturday, then they would have become number one in the world, which based on their form of 2019 would have been absurd. So like we say no disrespect to the teams themselves, but we don’t place much stock in the ranking system.

Whichever way you cut it this weekend though an interesting contest is still on offer. Ireland are likely to want to make some kind of statement against Wales, as the last time they met Alun Wyn Jones and his merry men this year in the Six Nations, they received a rather harsh schooling in the finer arts of the oval ball. The humiliation of that loss and the fact they failed to get any points on the board until the last play of the game, is probably still hurting, especially as the game was originally touted as the biggest game of the tournament. Wales clearly read the script that matched the billing but Ireland were on a completely different set of pace notes altogether.

Ireland got a much needed win last weekend but it still failed to impress, and make us really believe that this Irish side is the same one that took the world by storm in 2018. Perhaps we’ll see glimmers of that this weekend, but it still seems too little too late heading into the World Cup. Whether or not Coach Joe Schmidt has tried to lull the rest of the world into complacency regarding Ireland and the World Cup, and really does have an arsenal of tactics up his sleeve that he is waiting to unleash and catch everyone completely off guard remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Irish fans will want to see some kind of a convincing performance on Saturday, as well as the medics playing solitaire in the tunnels of the Aviva as opposed to running about the pitch. For Wales it will be business as usual, and there is no denying that an away win over an all star Irish squad would be just the tonic to get this Welsh squad in the right frame of mind for the big show in Japan and that niggly opener against Georgia.

It’s Rory Best’s last performance in Dublin in an Irish jersey and he’ll want to make it count

Niall Scannell certainly impressed last weekend in Cardiff, as Ireland’s set pieces and particularly the lineout looked much more solid, after the mess we saw at Twickenham. It was unfortunate that Ireland’s fortunes in the match last Saturday in Cardiff started to slide once he went to the bench and Rory Best came on. The Irish Captain’s form has deserted him lately and there was little question that Scannell looked the more effective in the number two jersey. All that said though there is no question that Best’s leadership and motivation for his charges is still an enormously important contribution. Say what you will but he was always going to get the starter jersey for this match, and we have a hunch that it may well prove to be one that helps him find the spark that has been so valuable to this Irish team over the last five years.

We wouldn’t want to be in Jean Kleyn’s shoes

There is no getting away from the fact that the omission of Devin Toner from Coach Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad raised many an eyebrow including quite a few of ours. Toner may not be the flashiest player on the park, but there is no denying the value of his presence in this Irish team over the years. While we have mixed feelings on the residency rule that has allowed South African Jean Kleyn to qualify for Ireland just in time for the World Cup, he has clearly demonstrated a set of qualities that Schmidt feels he needs in Japan, particularly in terms of physicality against sides like New Zealand and South Africa. Something which Toner who has battled with injury in the last year has at times failed to deliver. Nevertheless, Toner’s omission from the squad has certainly been seen as a controversial call, and the pressure on Kleyn on Saturday to justify his selection in front of a dubious public will be immense.

Once again it’s another powerhouse back row contest

Last week’s was excellent and this weekend’s billing should provide more of the same fare. Another of Ireland’s South Africans CJ Stander will also be under the spotlight, as the utility flanker has failed to really standout this past season. Wales see the return of Superman in the shape of Justin Tipuric, while Ross Moriarty and the impressive Aaron Wainwright also look to rattle Ireland, with Josh Navidi waiting on the bench. Jack Conan was one of Ireland’s better players last week, and we all know what Josh van der Flier can do, even if we haven’t seen as much of it as we would have perhaps liked this year. However, just like last weekend this should be a contest that should have us glued to our TV screens.

In the half backs, Ireland start their big guns against the Welsh apprentices, with roles reversed once the benches come into play

A long awaited first outing in an Irish jersey since the Six Nations sees Jonathan Sexton take the helm at fly half, with his powerhouse partner Conor Murray taking the scrum half berth. Ireland’s dynamic duo face off against Welsh youngsters Rhys Patchell and Tomos Williams. Patchell completely revitalized Wales when he came off the bench last weekend, and if he can hold his own against one of the world’s best in Sexton, then Wales could ask for no better preparation for Japan. In terms of the Irish contingent, they need to have one of those games that sees Murray seize every opportunity that comes his way, and Sexton needs to find the precision and accuracy that seemed to desert him in the Six Nations. Once the benches come into play then it’s Welsh maestros Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies up against Irish novices Luke McGrath and Jack Carty. How these battles play out and how they may change the ebb and flow of the game, just as they did last weekend, will be fascinating to watch.

What Justin Tipuric is to Wales – Keith Earls is to Ireland

You may raise your eyebrows at the above statement, and rightly so when you consider one is a forward and the other a winger. In our opinion what makes these two players so valuable is their reliability. When the chips are down and you need a player to step up and do something remarkable, then Ireland’s Keith Earls tends to be a very safe bet. A player, like Tipuric for Wales, who knows exactly what his job is and just goes about it with maximum effort and efficiency. Earls has that knack of being in the right place at the right time, whether it’s for a try saving tackle, spotting a gap that everyone else has missed or on the end of one of Sexton’s audacious kicks. He’s one of our favorite Irish players and probably one of Ireland’s greatest unsung heroes. This may well be his last World Cup and as a result we expect him to be making plenty of headlines this fall in Japan.

Verdict

Two powerhouse teams go head to head in a match that should provide plenty of entertaining rugby.  How hard the two sides will go at each other remains to be seen, but certainly in Ireland’s case they may be willing to up the ante, despite the injury risk. It’s Coach Joe Schmidt and Captain Rory Best’s last game at the Aviva in Dublin, and despite what’s at stake in Japan, you can’t help feeling that their teammates are likely to want to give them a fitting sendoff. We think Ireland will play with a little more edge than a strong Welsh team mindful of the bigger prize at stake at the end of the month. As a result we’re giving it to Ireland by four, in a tight contest that should reaffirm Wales as genuine World Cup contenders and Ireland as the team that finally shows us that all the hype last year was justified in terms of their own World Cup aspirations!

If you’re were an English supporter last weekend, you would have been dancing in the aisles, but for Irish supporters, players and management alike it will be a day they will want to forget as soon as possible. That was an impressive English performance that put a hapless Irish side to the sword at Twickenham last Saturday. With one final “easy” match against Italy in two weeks, England will be boarding the plane to Japan in an ebullient and confident mood. Barring their problems at scrum half they are without doubt the finished product and have clearly done their homework for the World Cup.

As for Ireland, with three weeks to go before the tournament kicks off in Japan, on the basis of what we saw at Twickenham Ireland look woefully unprepared and the best they can hope for is their traditional quarter final exit. In their present condition they won’t be able to hold a candle to either of their potential quarter final opponents, South Africa and New Zealand and that’s assuming they even make it out of the pool stages. There was absolutely nothing positive that came out of Twickenham last Saturday for Ireland. The leaders didn’t step up, the players seemed incapable for the most part of executing any sort of a game plan and Ireland were made to look completely and utterly inept. There were ten positive minutes of play at the beginning of the match culminating in Jacob Stockdale’s try, but for the rest of it until Bundee Aki got a consolation try at the end of the game there was simply nothing in between. All we saw was England in overdrive, and a bunch of individuals wearing green shirts that we thought said Ireland on them, running around like headless chickens. We don’t mean to be cruel but in terms of Ireland’s preparation for the world’s biggest stage for the sport it was painful to watch. Furthermore it leaves a side who were touted only as recently as last year as genuine trophy contenders, with a mountain of work to get through and very little time in which to do it.

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, August 31st – Cardiff

Wales have had the advantage of a break since getting one back against the English in Cardiff, in their two match series. It was a solid if unspectacular performance in which they showed some real Welsh character and kept a capable English side at bay. Refreshed and hopefully fit, providing their training regime in between these matches hasn’t been too hectic, Wales should be in good stead to deal with an Irish side desperate to turn things around after their humiliation last week at the hands of the English.

We feel we’ve already trash talked Ireland enough above and to continue doing so would simply be poor taste. However, this weekend despite the fact that the results of these warm up matches are not necessarily the be all and end all, performances are and last weekend Ireland showed us neither. Nevertheless, Ireland may have had us all cringing in front of our television screens last Saturday, but we still find it hard to believe that they have suddenly become a second rate side. Sure their performance in the Six Nations did very little to put in a convincing argument that Ireland were on track for World Cup glory, but this is still a team with considerable depth and talent, which when it clicks can be lethal. Where that form has gone is anyone’s guess, but we still feel that it is still too early to write Ireland off as perennial World Cup wannabees, a label that they have had to live with since the tournament’s inception in 1987.

Welsh experimentation could be the salvation Ireland needs on Saturday

Wales give some players they have yet to really try out on the big stage some much needed exposure this Saturday, and that in itself could be just the tonic Ireland needs to get themselves back in a winning head space. By the same token it could also be their undoing as they face up to a squad of players that they may be familiar with from the PRO14 but not as a Test unit. For the most part it’s a Welsh squad of young bucks, who while they may lack Test experience, ooze some quality and are clearly the next generation in Wales’ growing armory. There are a few familiar names there, but as a look at what Wales has in the tank Saturday’s squad should provide us with a fascinating insight into how far Wales could go in Japan if the inevitable injuries to their regular starters start to take their toll.

The Rory Best question

We’ve sadly said it before, and in doing so feel almost treacherous, but has age and the sun set on Ireland’s venerable Captain? We’d argue not just yet, but despite having been at the forefront of some of Ireland’s greatest performances in the last ten years, there is no denying that form has started to desert the Irish leader. A series of poor performances, especially at the set pieces in the Six Nations and then the shocker at Twickenham last weekend have not painted Best in the best of light. Furthermore, Ireland have left it rather late to develop a real understudy to the Ulsterman. Saturday sees Niall Scannell get a much needed and long overdue start. However, with it being Ireland’s last performance at the Aviva in Dublin next weekend before Japan, and thus Best’s last game in an Irish jersey at the ground, expect to see Best start again next weekend. It is with extremely divided loyalties that we argue that Best perhaps needs less time now and the likes of Scannell and others more, irrespective of history and tradition. Ireland have serious issues in the Hooker department and the set pieces which have been such a strong part of Ireland’s game plan in the last few years. Our best piece of advice for Best – watch a replay of South Africa’s last game against Argentina this year in which Schalk Brits who is a year older than Best, also Captained the team at Hooker and put on an inspirational display. You’re going to need some of that in Japan Rory!

This weekend we find out how essential Devin Toner is to Ireland

Ian Henderson was one of the few standout players for Ireland last weekend, but with Rory Best continually missing him on lineout throws his value was limited. Devin Toner was on the bench and didn’t have enough time to make an impact when he eventually did come on, but there was definitely a feeling that Ireland were missing his towering presence. This weekend he once again warms the bench, but Ireland’s stocks will be deep here with the incomparable James Ryan getting his first start. If the lineout continues to falter, it will be interesting to see if the injection of Toner gives it the settled stability that it missed last weekend. Many, ourselves included, feel that Toner is the missing ingredient for the big games, and provided his form continues then Ryan is the other part of the equation. Certainly in Ryan’s case he has been one of the few Irish players who has not suffered the drop in form that the rest of his teammates have suffered in the past twelve months.

Contest of the afternoon – the back rows

This is what we would base the price of our tickets on at the Principality Stadium, if we were lucky enough to be in attendance. Josh Navidi shifts to the number eight position for Wales as well as taking on the Captaincy, and in doing so is reunited with Aaron Shingler in the starting fifteen. With the exciting James Davies thrown into the mix and the mighty Ross Moriarty on the bench, this is a class Welsh act. Up against them is a mouthwatering offering from Ireland. Peter O’Mahony lines up and takes the Captain’s mantle, something we expect him to do a lot in Japan, but on this occasion he needs to be a bit more vocal in leadership than he was at Twickenham. Alongside him are Jack Conan who comes in for the out of form CJ Stander, and to be honest we think he is the form number eight for Ireland going into the tournament. Also of huge interest for us is the first appearance of Tadgh Beirne at flanker for Ireland. He has already proved his credentials in the green jersey in the second row, but the bruising utility forward is a menace wherever you put him, and it is hoped that this Irish back row will provide the bite that was clearly lacking at Twickenham. A contest of epic proportions awaits in this part of the park and we can’t wait.

Wales and Ireland give their young fly halves a chance on center stage under the bright lights

Ireland need some answers heading to Japan in terms of understudy material, with lingering injury concerns over Joey Carberry and Jonathan Sexton being wrapped in cotton wool prior to the tournament. Ross Byrne didn’t quite make the grade last weekend. Now it’s Jack Carty’s chance and with no replacement on the bench for him, it’s a big call on Saturday. Meanwhile Wales finally give the green light to youngster Jarrod Evans. With Gareth Anscombe out of the World Cup, Wales desperately need to find a capable understudy for Dan Biggar. Evans is a serious but inexperienced talent and Saturday will be his biggest test to date. If he passes it with flying colors then Wales can start to relax somewhat, but if he fluffs his lines, then like England at scrum half, Wales will head to Japan with some lingering problem areas. Rhys Patchell awaits on the bench and Coach Warren Gatland is clearly using this match to get this aspect of his World Cup to do list sorted out.

Verdict

Ireland simply can’t be any worse than they were on Saturday at Twickenham – or can they? Cardiff is never an easy place to play, and this may be a relatively inexperienced Welsh squad, but it’s one that has a ton of gas and some genuine skill to boot. If it fires and catches Ireland unawares, Ireland could once again find themselves sliding into touch on yet another banana skin they were unprepared for. We think there is simply too much experience in this Irish offering for lightning to strike twice. Ireland need both a performance and a result on Saturday, and emphatic ones at that. The danger is that a touch of desperation may unsettle an Irish performance driven by the need to prove to themselves and the world at large that they are still the real deal. Nevertheless we think Ireland will have regrouped sufficiently and some calmer heads such as James Ryan will help order prevail. Consequently a fascinating and at times thrilling contest on offer with the more experienced Irish outfit to take the spoils by five points!

 

 

Ireland travel to Twickenham this weekend in their first of a gruelling round of three back to back World Cup warmup games which sees them up against England and then two encounters against the Welsh. England have one more match after this before Japan, so after coming unstuck against Wales last weekend will clearly want to put in a strong performance against a side that has rained on their parade more than they would have perhaps liked in the last few years. Ireland also need to find the form that had them being billed as World Cup contenders last year, but so far this year has all but deserted them. A poor Six Nations campaign has left Ireland needing to find answers and quickly.

Scotland were given an exceptionally rude wake up call last weekend in Nice by a rampant French side that looked very slick indeed. Whether that was one of those infamous one off French displays that we will now have to wait to see repeated at some point where we least expect it, remains to be seen. However, if they can keep up the kind of intensity they showed last weekend, then they will no doubt head into this World Cup with the label of dark horse, which has so often been their exclusive preserve with the exception of the 2015 edition of the tournament. Scotland surely cannot be as bad again as they were in Nice, and on the hallowed ground of Murrayfield expect a more convincing performance. However, if they do end up being blown out of the water again by “les Bleus” then Ireland may at least feel that their own progression from the pools is assured at Scotland’s expense.

It’s an interesting weekend ahead, and performance rather than results will be key as well as keeping the injury demons at bay. However, there is little doubt that in Ireland and Scotland’s case with places up for grabs on the plane to Japan, there should be a little more intensity on offer than an out of season “friendly” usually generates. Here’s what we’ll be looking at this weekend.

Scotland vs France – Saturday, August 24th – Murrayfield

We have to confess to being slightly perplexed at Scotland’s exceptionally inept display last weekend in Nice, especially with so many names in the Scottish squad that you would assume to be first choice picks for Japan. Whether Scottish players had taken their summer vacations far too seriously and as a result were beyond rusty is debatable, but as professionals you would have thought that even with a much needed break they would still have managed to show up to some degree on the day. France on the other hand looked as though the TOP 14 final had only been yesterday, as they were full of enterprise, skill and all round panache. Whether or not they will be able to maintain this is the quintessential question when talking of French teams and as a result Saturday’s result will say a great deal in terms of where France are at in terms of their potential form heading into the World Cup.

Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend wields the axe across the board and rings the changes

After their shambolic performance last weekend, there are very few survivors taking to the field on Saturday for Scotland. Only fullback Stuart Hogg gets to keep his place and probably only because Scotland has two options for the position, both of whom played last Saturday and will do so again this weekend. Scotland lacked any kind of bite whatsoever last weekend and could almost have been accused of not really caring about proceedings. They’ll need to make a massive step up this weekend in front of the Murrayfield faithful who will simply not tolerate another schooling from their French visitors. Scotland suffer the same problem as France, brilliant one day and then a disaster the next. The Twickenham “miracle” at the end of this year’s Six Nations, now seems just that based on their performance in Nice. They will need to dig deep and rediscover that form that makes them as entertaining to watch as Fiji at times.

There is something strange brewing in France – consistency in selection

After years of watching the team sheets change dramatically from one match to another, this weekend’s team list looks almost identical to last week’s. The only difference being that some of the starters are now on the bench and vice versa. Is French Coach Jacques Brunel going to do away with the French propensity to chop and change and instead focus on a settled squad – a luxury French teams have been denied for at least the last five years? We have to confess to finding it hard to believe that Brunel himself is the proponent for such a radical change in French thinking, but if the experiment works on Saturday, then the long overdue call for such an approach will finally have been justified.

He almost singlehandedly reversed Scotland’s fortunes against England in the Six Nations and Scotland will be looking to Hamish Watson to do the same again this weekend.

The energy that Hamish Watson injects into any Scottish performance is now legendary and Scotland clearly missed the dynamic loose forward last weekend. Perhaps more than any other Scottish player he epitomizes the image of grabbing a match by the scruff of the neck and shaking some sense into it. His value to any Scottish team and their endeavours in Japan is an absolute given, and Scotland will be crossing their fingers that he escapes this match injury free.

Two of the most exciting half backs in Test Rugby set out to try and bamboozle each other

French scrum half Antoine Dupont and Scottish fly half Finn Russell, are two of the modern games most prominent masters of the X-factor. Both players excel at seizing sudden and unexpected opportunities that leave opposition defences completely wrong footed. With an exceptional set of footballing skills, these two players are always fascinating to watch, and the added bonus of having them both on the same pitch makes this a contest well worth watching. As masters of the element of surprise, expect plenty of enterprise and borderline reckless chance taking on Saturday.

In a stable of top quality backs how good has Damian Penaud become?

As you may recall, in this year’s Six Nations we kept lamenting French Coach Jacques Brunel’s insistence on playing Damian Penaud out of position on the wing. Up to that point the Clermont player had been known as a centre and a fine one at that. He clearly struggled initially with life on the wing despite a series of brave efforts. However, he has clearly matured into the role to the point now where he looks as though he has always played there and seems completely at ease running the touch lines. Expect him to be one of France’s danger men on Saturday.

Verdict

This is one of those calls where you would think the obvious is a given. However, after Scotland’s abject performance in France last weekend and “les Bleus” seeming renaissance ahead of the World Cup, anything could happen at Murrayfield on Saturday. Of one thing we are certain, this is a quality French side that will take some beating. However, their next big hurdle is to prove that they can produce this kind of form on the road, a talent that has often been missing from their armoury in recent years. Meanwhile an equally talented Scottish team needs to fire, and a rousing Murrayfield encouragement should be just the tonic needed. It should all provide for an entertaining contest, but Scotland should surely at home be the dominant side, albeit one pushed hard. We think Scotland are likely to bounce back and make it one apiece, but it won’t be easy and expect the scoreboard to tick over from both sides, with the Scots squeaking it out by 3 points!

England vs Ireland – Saturday, August 24th – Twickenham

England know what their World Cup squad looks like and after tomorrow Ireland should have a pretty good idea of what their selection for Japan should look like. The Emerald Isle’s World Cup warmup opener against Italy saw Ireland get the job done, but a few worrying injuries put a damper on an already conservative approach. Saturday see them face an English side feeling confident but disappointed by their loss to Wales last weekend. It’s very much a first choice England squad running out onto the pitch at Twickenham on Saturday, and Ireland have responded accordingly in their selections, with only fly half Jonathan Sexton and second rower James Ryan being the only notable omissions. England will no doubt focus on performance first and results second, but much like against the Welsh, neither team will want to lose this one. In short in terms of quality preparation for Japan, and provided the injury demons are kept at bay, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The return of Tom Curry to full match fitness it without doubt the best news England has had all month

He may not have much Test experience but his value to England has already been cast in stone, and expect the young flanker to have a huge role to play in Japan. As a result the sight of him hobbling off in England’s first game against Wales this month, must have set alarm bells ringing across the land. His return tomorrow could not be more welcome, and having to deal with the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Josh Van der Flier will be superb practice for the challenges that lie ahead. Our estimation of Curry is so high that we wouldn’t be surprised to see him sporting the Captain’s jersey come the next World Cup.

Ireland’s second row – a chance to shine under pressure

Jean Kleyn stepped up to the plate against Italy, and Ian Henderson will need to make a similar impression on Saturday, as places up for grabs in Ireland’s second row offerings for Japan are likely to be hotly contested. With James Ryan likely to be the only dead ringer for the World Cup at this stage, expect all four Irish second rowers starting and on the bench to play out of their skins on Saturday, meaning that England’s exceptionally capable trio of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and the indomitable Courtney Lawes will need to be at their best.

A slight surprise at seeing George Ford starting at 10 again, but he has clearly earned it

George Ford was outstanding against Wales in the opening World Cup warmup match for England, and despite the loss a week later in Cardiff he still put in a respectable performance. This match will probably see Owen Farrell move to the fly half position at some point in the match, allowing Jonathan Joseph to take over his starting position at centre. Coach Eddie Jones clearly favours this in terms of rotating his two World Cup number 10s, and consequently Ford continues to get the opportunity to make up for lost time after a poor domestic season.

We are delighted to see Ross Byrne get another start at 10 in an Irish jersey

Jonathan Sexton’s understudy at Leinster, Ross Byrne has impressed at club and European level but really needs to settle into the role at Test level. With the outstanding Joey Carberry in a race to be fit for Japan, Byrne has been given a golden opportunity to provide some much needed back up to Ireland’s two first choice number 10s. We think he is a quality player and very much, along with Carberry, the new face of the 10 jersey for Ireland once Jonathan Sexton hangs up his boots. His battle with George Ford should be one of the afternoon’s most fascinating contests.

If both half back pairings fire this could be a fantastic afternoon of running rugby

The backs selections for both teams ooze quality and excitement. Jordan Larmour, Gary Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale for Ireland can really put on a show and Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga can do the same for England. Manu Tuilagi also looked rather frightening with ball in hand for England in his appearances off the bench against Wales, whilst Andrew Conway can also run a good touch line for Ireland. We’d argue that in terms of service delivery from the fly half department and overall game management, England are likely to be better served but there is plenty of potential for Ireland to upset the apple cart here on Saturday. As a result this could end up being a high scoring game and certainly one high in entertainment value if free flowing attacking rugby is your cup of tea.

Verdict

Ireland may still remember fondly their Grand Slam win at Twickenham in last year’s Six Nations, but for all intents and purposes that is all ancient history. England are the form team and it is Ireland who have everything to prove. However, as a result they couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to dispel the claim that they peaked too early for the World Cup. Nevertheless this looks like a very settled and focused English team, and Ireland have yet to show us anything comparable this year, and while they are a team brimming with World Class talent, it simply hasn’t gelled so far this year the way England have. As a result, we’re handing this to England by six points, but expect to see Ireland’s first really clinical performance of the year, and one which gives us a hint that they are regrouping to be the force everyone originally thought they’d be in Japan!

We’re continuing with looking at this weekend’s action and with the teamsheets still to be announced for the England/Wales game, we’ll be covering the first of the Rugby Championship matches this weekend between Australia and New Zealand along with the first of the European World Cup warmups between Ireland and Italy. We’ll put out our thoughts on the England/Wales clash at Twickenham on Sunday once the teams are announced.

New Zealand travel to Australia, hoping that Argentina will do them a favour later in the day if they still hope to lift the silverware for the Rugby Championship. Failing that though, two important agendas are still on the table for both teams. Saturday’s match sees the first of two annual Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand – a trophy almost as hotly contested and meaningful as the World Cup itself. Just as important will be the settling of World Cup squads and one of the last chances the selectors will have to pick their 31 ticket holders for Japan. New Zealand perhaps have far less to prove in this department than Australia, but they also know there is significant room for improvement. Australia on the other hand need to find some answers and quickly. Despite their recent win over Argentina, it was less than convincing and their demolition at the hands of South Africa means that the Wallabies, unlike New Zealand, find themselves scrambling to define who goes to Japan and what type of game they want to play once they get there.

Italy travel to Dublin, looking to experiment, whereas Ireland will simply be looking to consolidate depth and hopefully avoid pointless injuries in the process. With no silverware on offer we have to confess that this series of warmup matches for the Six Nations competitors right before the World Cup are always a nerve wracking affair, for Coaches, players and supporters and we are all likely to breathe a huge sigh of relief once they are over and hopefully our respective teams have emerged unscathed.

So here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, August 10th – Perth

Australia really need some good news at the moment but may be hard pressed to find it in Western Australia on Saturday, despite Perth being a relatively happy hunting ground for the Wallabies. Sure they beat Argentina a fortnight ago, but it was a dire game of rugby which showed off very little skill from either side, with Australia winning by simply making slightly fewer mistakes than the Pumas. An inspirational performance it was not.

New Zealand on the other hand have now been pushed hard twice. They managed to eke out a tough win against a determined and highly capable Pumas side in Buenos Aires, but a week later could only manage a draw with a Springbok side that simply refused to quit. While both matches are hardly indications of the All Blacks suddenly becoming vulnerable, there is no doubt that there isn’t quite the polish that we have come to expect from the World Champions as they seek to experiment with some injury enforced combinations.

If Australia could actually hang on to the ball then they really could cause some grief

This single point has been our overriding impression of the Wallabies at the moment. In both their game against the Springboks and the match with the Pumas, we lost track of how many times they dropped or coughed up the ball. Promising breaks were squandered through endless knock ons and fumbles made worse by poor and erratic passing. Tactically there didn’t seem to be too much situational awareness either, and their execution looked promising but ultimately sloppy. We simply think that Australia should be far better than the sum of their parts would seem to indicate. Once they do get it right then, they could well be a force to be reckoned with. However, in their current condition and with the sands of time rapidly running out before the World Cup it would appear that Australia have the odds stacked against them.

One of the world’s best front rows is likely to cause Australia all kinds of heartache

Whichever way you cut it that is an outstanding All Black front row. Sure South Africa seemed to get the measure of it, but there are very few sides who can and Australia in their present shape are unlikely to be one of them. Add Dane Coles lurking menacingly on the wings whenever he’s not packed down in the scrum and Australia are likely to feel frustrated and rather ineffective for the full eighty minutes.

In the second row Australia continue to get ten points for effort

This is one aspect of the Wallabies game where their supporters could feel that there is something to cheer about. With Adam Coleman hopefully being fit for the World Cup, you could argue that Australia’s stocks here are strong. We felt that Rory Arnold and Izack Rodda have been reliably consistent in the second row, and often given the Wallabies something to work with, even if the rest of their teammates then proceed to drop the ball.

He’s back just when New Zealand need him most

There is no denying that the All Blacks really missed Ardie Savea against South Africa. The powerhouse utility forward is a complete force of nature and almost impossible to read and we wish Australia’s Michael Hooper and his back row colleagues the best of luck in trying to contain him. It’s an accomplished and capable New Zealand back row but with Savea in the mix it becomes a defensive nightmare for any opposition. Savea has more than earned his place as an All Black starter and we expect to see him as such in every one of New Zealand’s key matches in the coming months.

Nic White returns and for a match of this stature we think it’s the right call but also feel that an opportunity to create some depth is being missed

While Will Genia may be Coach Michael Cheika’s go to scrum half, we feel that Nic White brings a lot to the table despite being on the losing side against South Africa at the start of the competition. While Will Genia was one of the better Wallaby players against Argentina, we felt that Nic White actually brought more to the table in terms of quick and efficient delivery from the scrum half berth, and varied the Wallabies pace and style of play in a way that has been long overdue. Although his teammates were rarely able to capitalize on the opportunities he created, he still offers some depth to the position that Australia desperately needs for the World Cup. However as a depth creating exercise we are also surprised to not see any use of Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell on the bench, but given it’s a Bledisloe Cup match we can understand the caution.

Verdict

If they can hang on to the ball and gain some parity with New Zealand in the set pieces then Australia could be in with a shout for this one. However, based simply on the form of the two sides it’s hard to see anything other than predominantly one way traffic for New Zealand. Australia need to up their game significantly if they are to be competitive on Saturday and we haven’t seen much ability from this beleaguered Wallaby side to do so of late. New Zealand may not be overly fussed about this abbreviated edition of the Rugby Championship and its silverware, but they and the rest of their fellow countrymen always care about the Bledisloe Cup. Consequently we see New Zealand taking Saturday’s game by a comfortable margin of 12 points.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, August 10th – Dublin

Ireland start their World Cup preparations with a relatively straightforward exercise against an experimental Italian side. For the most part it’s an Irish side we all recognize, and while it may not be Ireland’s first choice team, this is an exceptionally capable side that will give this new look Italy a serious workout. Given the dip in form of many of Ireland’s key players this season we’d actually argue that what we see on Saturday may not always be that different from some of the starting lineups we’re going to see for many of Ireland’s World Cup matches, especially in the Pool stages.

While we understand Italy’s need for experimentation especially after a poor Six Nations, we’re not sure Dublin is the place to do it

It’s interesting to surmise what Conor O’Shea’s logic is for this match. We’d have thought that you would have gone the experimental route for Italy’s two middle warmup games against France and Russia, with more of your key players participating in the opener against Ireland and the final warmup match against England to build some important confidence at the start and end of a challenging set of matches. On the flip side a good performance on Saturday and Italy can use the next four weeks to really build some momentum. However, unfortunately a lot of O’Shea’s rolls of the dice have not gone favourably, but we hope for his sake he’s got this gamble right.

Ireland field a positive halfback combination that smacks of depth and the future

Former Leinster teammates Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry occupy the scrum and fly half berths respectively. Carberry since moving to Munster and getting regular starts has come along in leaps and bounds, while McGrath has really grown into the scrum half role at Leinster this year. This is Ireland’s most probable halfback combination post Japan and in the lead up to the next World Cup, whilst at the same time providing Ireland with excellent depth heading into the tournament next month. However, with Kieran Marmion also a proven commodity on the bench at scrum half and the rapidly rising star of Jack Carty as Carberry’s replacement, Ireland really do look in exceptionally rude health in this part of the park. All this adds to the pedigree that established veterans like Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton already bring to the positions.

Chris Farrel makes a welcome return for Ireland in the centre of the park

Irish supporters will be delighted to see Chris Farrell back in the green after injury ruled him out of this year’s Six Nations. The big centre packs some real punch to Ireland’s efforts up the middle of the park and allied to the vision of Gary Ringrose this could be an outstanding combination on Saturday. They’ll have to deal with Italy’s Marco Zanon who is one of Italy’s rising stars and the rather capable Tommaso Benvenuti, but the latter is out of his preferred position on the wing, so the Irish pair should dictate proceedings.

Talking of highly anticipated returns, Italy will be watching Matteo Minozzi carefully

The Italian fullback was one of the stars of the 2018 Six Nations, but sadly was ruled out of this year’s competition due to injury, and Italy certainly missed him. He starts on the bench this for this match, which is a wise call but he is a player that we are really looking forward to seeing in action again for the Azurri, as he is one of their most exciting talents. If he remains injury free expect this player to feature heavily in any headlines about Italy in Japan.

The last time he played Italy, he stole the show and Ireland will probably expect him to do the same again

Fullback Jordan Larmour missed Ireland’s tepid Six Nations performance against Italy, and Irish supporters probably wished he hadn’t. The last time he played Italy in their exhibition match in Chicago in last year’s November Internationals he ran in three tries against the Azurri. With his defensive abilities dramatically improved though still needing some work, expect the Irish fullback to put in a big shift on Saturday, and really lay down a marker that he is the future of the 15 jersey for Ireland once Rob Kearney hangs up his boots after Japan.

Verdict

With no disrespect to Italy, and despite Ireland’s dip in form this year, this is not exactly a hard game to call. Italy seek to find out a bit more about their depth, but it is doubtful they are expecting much more than that from Saturday’s proceedings. Ireland meanwhile will look to solidify their second choice string while also giving players the chance to rattle the cage for those in Ireland’s regular starting lineup. There is enough talent in this squad to cause Coach Joe Schmidt to hardly blink an eye when it comes to selection for some of Ireland’s big games come the World Cup. He already has most of the answers he needs about the majority of the players that take to the field on Saturday, and instead is focusing on giving them some much needed game time. Italy as always to be brave and perhaps surprise us with some dazzling individual performances, but Ireland to comfortably settle proceedings by 22 points, in what should be a convincing team effort!

Although we don’t necessarily cover the PRO14 in any detail, this year’s final has a real international flavor to it. With a good proportion of their respective World Cup squads involved in Saturday’s club final, Irish and Scottish eyes will be keenly focused on events in Glasgow. In their last big game before the World Cup warm ups start in August, this is a chance for key Irish and Scottish players to really standout in front of the selectors in a match that mirrors the opening encounter for both sides in Japan in September. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his Scottish counterpart Gregor Townsend will be watching proceedings closely.

Title holders Leinster come into this match off the back of an agonizing loss to Saracens in the European Champions Cup final a fortnight ago. Meanwhile the Warriors failed to get past Saracens in the quarter final stages of the same competition. Despite that loss one could argue that Glasgow are the form team going into tomorrow’s fixture, and continue to be the masters of a frenetic attacking style of rugby.

Leinster on the other hand have done enough to get them to this point, but simply haven’t been the all conquering side of last year. Relying on a possession dominated game that starves opposition sides of quality ball, Leinster have been effective but it remains to be seen if they can handle Glasgow’s fast paced and highly opportunistic brand of rugby. The two sides have only met once this year, and Glasgow were the dominant side, winning that encounter by a comfortable 15 point margin. Glasgow were able to pull off that victory away from home, and Saturday’s final sees them enjoy the luxury of playing in front of their supporters at Glasgow’s famous Celtic Park.

So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking over our pints this week in relation to Saturday’s eagerly anticipated match.

Glasgow Warriors vs Leinster – Saturday, May 25th – Glasgow

How many of the players wearing their club jerseys on Saturday will end up wearing their national colors on September 22nd in Yokohama remains to be seen, but there is no denying that the match tomorrow has more than just a few overtones of Ireland and Scotland’s opening encounter in the World Cup later this year. Although Leinster come into the match as defending champions, one could almost argue that they have more to prove. With their form, that served them so well last year, seeming to have deserted them at key moments this season, Leinster know they have it all to prove to their supporters on Saturday. While Glasgow are unlikely to have underestimated the threat posed by one of Europe’s best club teams – home advantage, the return of key players and a team in scintillating form in the PRO14 will make them hard to beat on the day.

Glasgow have to concern themselves with not only being competitive against Leinster’s powerhouse front row but also keeping try seeking missile Sean Cronin in check

Most teams would fear the prospect of keeping up with Leinster’s front row, but making sure that one of the competition’s top try scorers is kept at bay is an added complication they would probably rather do without. Leinster’s Hooker Sean Cronin has been a constant thorn in the side of opposition teams this year both in the European Champions Cup and PRO14. While Cronin’s dart throwing at lineout time has not been the most reliable at times, Leinster’s overall prowess in the front row is the stuff of legends with Irish props Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy adding some real grunt and go forward ability at the coal face. Glasgow will be highly competitive here, and a good showing by them is likely to give Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend great heart heading into the World Cup, but there is no getting away from the fact that they are going to have their work cut out for them.

Glasgow simply have to make sure that Leinster don’t overpower them up front and must try and disrupt the lineout as much as possible

We feel Glasgow will struggle to get parity with Leinster in the forward battles, but if they can disrupt the lineout to the point where Sean Cronin’s dart throwing starts to unravel, there is the potential for loose and scrappy ball which Glasgow seem to thrive on. However, Leinster’s Scott Fardy and James Ryan are two of the most reliable assets in European Club rugby and providing Cronin finds his targets, they are unlikely to cough up much opportunistic loose ball. With Jack Conan lighting up the back row for Leinster and Josh van der Flier back to his best on the open side, Glasgow really need to dig deep here to prevent Leinster having the lion’s share of possession. Scottish eyes will all be on van der Flier’s opposite number Rob Harley who is on fire this season and is likely to feature heavily in Scotland’s World Cup plans, while youngster Matt Fagerson is definitely a raw talent in the making for both Glasgow and Scotland at number eight. Fagerson and Harley could not ask for a better warm up for the World Cup and a big performance on Saturday will be a massive confidence booster for them.

Johnny Sexton seems to have found the composure once more that has eluded him this season, but Glasgow’s half back duo packs plenty of speed and the element of surprise

Sexton is such a benchmark for both Leinster and Ireland, that his loss of composure at key moments in 2019 has been worrying for Irish supporters in the run up to a World Cup that has so much riding on it for Ireland. In the PRO14 semi-final against Munster, Sexton seemed to finally settle back into his groove and Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt will hope that his star playmaker’s last performance before the August warm-ups exhibits the same qualities. Glasgow’s halfback duo of fly half Adam Hastings and scrum half Ali Price are more than capable of catching Sexton off guard. With Hastings rapidly rising through the ranks as a more than capable understudy to Scotland’s first choice number 10 Finn Russell, Leinster and Sexton will have to keep an eye on the wily youngster. Meanwhile Ali Price is renown for his frenetic energy and pace off the back of the scrum. His opposite number Leinster’s Luke McGrath will really need to keep the energetic Scottish youngster in check, and in doing so make his claim for Irish colors come September over a raft of up and coming contenders for the no 2 spot on Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s scrum half list for Japan.

Gary Ringrose has impressed all season for Ireland and Leinster so expect him to finish the year with a bang on Saturday

While his centre field partner Rob Henshaw may be the more established name, in our opinion it’s Ringrose who has been the most consistent player for both club and country this season. Though many have compared him to the great Brian O’Driscoll, we feel Ringrose brings his own unique character and skill set to the game. Increasingly though he is making those kind of breaks that his predecessor was famous for. If a try is to be scored you can almost bet your next paycheck that Ringrose will feature heavily in its execution. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing, he is well on his way to becoming the kind of unique well rounded centre that the Emerald Isle seems to excel at producing. Glasgow and Scotland’s Sam Johnson has also caught the eye all year, most notably in Scotland’s recent thriller at Twickenham in the final match of the Six Nations. A key talent for Scotland and definitely someone likely to have a big say in Scotland’s quest for glory in Japan in a few months time.

Plenty of Canadian interest on the left wing for Glasgow

Canadian fans will be keen to see arguably their country’s best player in action for Glasgow on Saturday. Winger DTH van der Merwe is back to some of his best form for Glasgow after returning to the club this season after three years in England and Wales. Glasgow appear delighted to have him back, and the Canadian is clearly relishing being back at the club that got his international career off to such a promising start. DTH will feature heavily in Canada’s exceptionally difficult World Cup challenge this September, and expect the winger to put on a show to give his international opponents something to think about later in the year.

A swansong in their respective colors for two of Europe’s finest fullbacks?

In the case of Stuart Hogg, that is definitely the case as the Scottish fullback parts company with a club that he played such a vital role in over the last eight years. The final on Saturday sees the Scottish International head south of the border to take up with English premiership side Exeter. Glasgow will miss the extraordinary talents of a player who seems able to strike from anywhere on the pitch. Rob Kearney’s future post Saturday’s match is still undecided, but could well see him heading to France after the World Cup, and as a result tomorrow’s game could be the last time the veteran fullback wears the colors of his beloved Leinster. Much like Hogg, Kearney has played a huge role in the Dublin club’s successes in Europe and Ireland’s triumphs on the world stage for the last fourteen years. Expect these two to put on a vintage display for their fans to remember them by.

Verdict

We have to admit that we are really looking forward to what should be a thrilling contest, between two teams desperate to make a statement, with perhaps the need to do so being more pressing for Leinster. Glasgow at home will be exceptionally difficult to overcome and the crowd will do their bit as the sixteenth man, despite a healthy and numerous contingent of visiting Leinster supporters. A very hard contest to call, but despite some rather heated debate, we have ultimately decided to nod our heads across the Irish sea. Glasgow have home advantage and some truly dazzling attacking rugby up their sleeve in their favor but we side with the Irish team’s experience and big match temperament. It will be close of that we’re fairly certain and the lead may swing back and forth with some real heart in the mouth moments, but ultimately we feel Leinster will batten down the hatches and squeak out a tight win by four points! Either way make sure you don’t miss it as it is likely to have some influence on proceedings on a certain Sunday in September this year!

As the last major competition faced by the Six Nations competitors before they head to Japan in September, we take a look at each of the countries and how their performances over the last two months may or may not have a bearing on their fortunes at the forthcoming World Cup.

As always the Six Nations dished up its usual fare of twists and turns and downright surprises, perhaps best epitomised by the final match between England and Scotland in which an injury ravaged Scotland defied all the odds and almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets since the last World Cup. The top three finishers, Wales, England and Ireland, certainly justified the hype surrounding them but particularly for England and Ireland, we were still left with more questions than answers. There was disappointment for some, most notably Ireland, who for the most part failed to turn up during the tournament, having entered as favourites. However, Wales lived up to their dark horse billing and swept all aside in a well deserved though not always convincing Grand Slam performance. England clearly showed they have regrouped since their disastrous showing in last year’s tournament, but still left many of us scratching our heads over their disastrous second half showings against Wales and Scotland.

The bottom half of the table was once more filled with the usual suspects France, Scotland and Italy. France continue to be a conundrum. A brilliant performance against Scotland was about the only bright light in an otherwise disastrous campaign. We thought we were witnessing a new era in French rugby in the opening 40 minutes of their campaign against Wales, but their second half implosion soon dispelled such illusions.

Scotland as always played some thrilling rugby, but the injury gods wrought havoc on their campaign and despite a convincing opening win over Italy, they battled for the rest of the tournament. However, it would be harsh to judge them solely on their position of fifth in the table. They gave Wales an almighty scare at one point, and caused Ireland to have to work exceptionally hard for a win. However, the high point of their campaign was without a doubt their final match at Twickenham, and that epic draw with England. To be honest they came within an inch of the biggest upset of the tournament, as England scored the equalizer in the dying minute. However, they can take the honors for providing us with the one of the most spectacular comebacks against all odds in the history of the tournament.

Lastly, Italy ended the tournament winless and as a result set the debate alight once more about their place in the competition and the thorny question of relegation. It is still unlikely to happen given the commercial structure of the Championship, but given that they are winless in the tournament since 2015, something needs to change and fast. However, despite their failings we felt this year’s edition of the Six Nations did offer some hope for Italy as a raft of new talent caught our eye. There was some exceptionally positive play from Italy this year, and we feel there is enough emerging talent that it would still be premature to consider axing Italy in favor of another emerging European nation such as Georgia. We felt there was enough promise shown this year, despite the results to allow Italy another chance to prove us all wrong in the 2020 edition of the tournament.

So without any further ado let’s have a look at what got us talking in relation to the six participants as they head into the World Cup.

Wales

In the end worthy Grand Slam champions, and a team that has no doubt got their Pool D rivals in the World Cup into more than just a mild sweat. They weren’t the flashiest side in the tournament, but there is no denying they looked the most settled and seemed better than most at adapting to and playing what was in front of them. If that’s not a recipe for success then we don’t know what is. Masters of the basics, with clever but not overly ambitious game plans that for the most part were superbly executed. Their only real blemish during the entire tournament was a very shaky, almost clueless performance in the opening forty minutes against France in their first match. Sure they looked a little unsure of themselves against Italy, and clearly felt the heat of Scotland’s wrath away from home, but once they hit their straps against France in the tournament opener they never really seemed to look rattled again. Perhaps more than any other team in the championship they showed that rugby is actually a simple game that if played well can get results. Their complete dominance of Ireland in their final match of the tournament was utterly clinical, and an example of a team playing at the peak of their efficiency. Well drilled, well-disciplined and with an absolute understanding of what they need to do and how to do it – in short 15 players acting as one. While they may not have set the pitches alight this tournament, despite some outstanding tries, their composure under pressure and a superhuman defence was what in our opinion got them the Grand Slam.

So how has their Grand Slam finish positioned them for the World Cup? Rather well we think. Of their Group D opponents, based on current form we can’t see anyone challenging Wales for a first place finish. Fiji could pull off the upset of the century, but Wales’ main rivals Australia appear in a shambles at the moment, and with Wales having such a phenomenal defence we feel they are more than capable of containing the potent strike threats the Wallabies do have going for them. From there it is either France or Argentina in the quarter finals. If that goes well and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, then Wales have either South Africa or Ireland to contend with in the semi finals most likely scenario. These are both sides Wales are capable of beating and as a result it is not that difficult to see Wales going all the way to the final. World Cup matches are rarely high scoring affairs, particularly towards the business end of the tournament, where defence under pressure becomes premium, a quality that Wales had in abundance in this Six Nations.

It’s still early days, and form can be a fickle thing, but Wales have shown both depth and resolve in this tournament, allied to a an ability to execute the essentials with almost flawless precision. Add to that leaders across the pitch allied to a committment and sense of purpose that few sides could match this Six Nations, and Wales certainly look the finished product heading into the World Cup.

England

England showed in November that after a 2018 Six Nations campaign that they would probably rather forget, they are back and mean business. A strong second place finish will give them some solid confidence with which to build for Japan. Some promising new talent has finally come of age, and England are starting to look for the most part a balanced and exceptionally capable team. However, this tournament highlighted some clear problems that England still need to address if they are serious about being World Cup contenders. When they are firing on all cylinders they look like an exceptionally dangerous outfit, but throw some doubt in there and the plot seems to unravel alarmingly quickly.

England got their campaign off to the most spectacular of starts by playing initial tournament favorites Ireland at their own game, and ramping up the intensity another few gears. At times they simply blew Ireland off the park with their speed and brutal efficiency. Ireland seemed completely taken aback by the power and intensity of the English effort and were clearly not used to being made to look second best, especially in the physical aspects of the game. England built on their success by putting a hapless French team to the sword a week later. Cleary buoyed by their success and brimming with confidence, the wheels fell off as they travelled to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side that many were tipping to lift the trophy. Wales had not really looked the part of ultimate Grand Slam champions up to that point, and it is hard to tell if England had underestimated their opponents, but this was not the England that blew France away and ruthlessly dispatched Ireland. England persisted with a game plan that was clearly playing into Welsh hands, and one that their opponents found as easy to read as an open book. It was painfully obvious that England’s kicking game was not working and yet they persisted with it right till the end, allowing Wales to increasingly dictate proceedings, to the point where England hardly had a say in the ebb and flow of the game in the second half. England regained their form against Italy, but in the final match against an injury ravaged Scotland at Fortress Twickenham, England threw away a 31-0 lead in the second half which beggared belief. When things were going England’s way they looked superb, but the minute momentum changed they seemed to lose the plot in the most dramatic fashion.

England have a very good team, make no mistake, but their decision-making and ability to cope under pressure has got the alarm bells ringing for the World Cup. Therein perhaps lies England’s biggest problem – leadership. For such a talented team, they seem rather bereft when it comes to having a cool head to turn things around when things are not going their way. While he may be a very talented player, we have said for a long time that we do not regard Owen Farrell as Captain material, and his performances this tournament have done little to change that view. He seems to lose the plot with referees when things aren’t going England’s way, his decision making is abysmal when the wheels fall off and his tackling skills are rapidly becoming a huge liability for England. He is a gifted player who perhaps is unable to exercise his considerable talents when faced with the burden of leadership. The problem is however, if not Farrell then who is England’s next Captain? At this stage and heading to the World Cup we are sadly still drawing blanks in terms of how to answer that question.

Until this is addressed England remain World Cup hopefuls, but unlikely to progress beyond the semi finals. It looks fairly certain that they will top their group, and get the better of a rudderless Wallaby side in the quarter finals. However, come the semi-finals their most likely opponent is New Zealand, and as we saw at Twickenham last November, their ability to wrestle control of the game back from the All Blacks once the Kiwis got the upper hand didn’t go well, a trait which was repeated in this Six Nations. Leadership is not something you develop overnight heading into a World Cup, and we fear that with less than six months to go before Japan it is England’s Achilles Heel and too little too late.

Ireland

Perhaps the overriding question going through everyone’s mind this Six Nations was where was Ireland? The all-conquering side of 2018 was nowhere to be seen in this year’s Six Nations. To be blunt they looked a shadow of the side that were ranked number two in the world heading into the tournament. Clumsy, ill-disciplined, unimaginative and devoid of the killer instinct and organisation that served them so well last year, Ireland simply failed to turn up in this Six Nations. Sure they still finished third, but suffered two humiliating losses in the process, and in a match where they should have claimed maximum points against Italy to help them in the standings race they put in one of the most lacklustre, disorganised and half-hearted Irish performances we have seen in a long time. In short, they were lucky to win in Rome. Whether the shock of the nature of their opening defeat to England at the start of the tournament, ended up being such a dent in their seemingly indestructible confidence remains up for debate. However, whichever way you cut it, if you are serious about going for the ultimate prize in Japan this year, you simply have to pick yourself up and come back the better team. Something Ireland simply did not do this Six Nations.

While they may have beaten Scotland away in Murrayfield, it often looked labored and the effort against Italy was downright shambolic. They appeared to have regained their confidence in a solid performance against France as they sought to regain honor in front of the Dublin faithful, but all that good work was completely undone a week later as they put in one of the most inept Irish displays we have ever seen against Wales, and essentially gifted them the Championship and the Grand Slam.

Much like England, Ireland’s leaders failed to step up when needed most. Fly half Johnny Sexton was more of a liability than an asset to Ireland in this tournament, and the likes of Conor Murray, Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony were simply not playing anywhere near the standards that we have come to expect from them. In short, despite some solid individual performances at times, Ireland rarely looked like a team and appeared disjointed and demoralised more often than not. Perhaps the only positive you could take from Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations is that it is surely the mother of all wake up calls needed by a team fancying themselves as a potential shoe-in for World Cup glory. The problem is, much like in England’s case, there is not much time left to fix the problems. Ireland will need to pick themselves up off the floor, and be able to do so on a regular basis if things are not going well during the pool stages of the World Cup.

Ireland’s draw in the World Cup is not favorable, and unless there is a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, Ireland are once more heading for a quarter-final exit. There is no guarantee they will top their pool, especially if Scotland are operating at full strength and show the kind of passion and committment that almost derailed England. Japan at home will require the utmost vigilance and Samoa will pose all kinds of injury threats. If they get through their pool on top and unscathed then they have the unenvious task of having to face either New Zealand or South Africa. If they survive that then a probable rematch with England is on the cards for the semi-finals, with New Zealand or Wales waiting for them in the final. On the basis of the form they showed this Six Nations that is an exceptionally tall order. Ireland haven’t become a bad team overnight and will likely regroup, but if they are to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time, a great deal of soul-searching will be required by all concerned between now and September.

France

We all had that fleeting impression in the first forty minutes of France’s opening game against Wales, that les Bleus were finally back, just in time for the World Cup. Sadly it was just that, a fleeting impression and no more. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that there is some genuine talent in this team, who are a joy to watch when things are going well. Endless and misguided tinkering by the coaching staff with selections and players’ roles ensured that France remain a talented but confused side. If France are being coached at all, we’d actually be surprised. France’s performances this Six Nations were characterised by individual flashes of brilliance that provided a spark of momentum that the whole team seemed able to seize on at times. A game plan or exactly what France are trying to achieve on the pitch however, still seems a mystery. There is some genuine raw talent in this French team – Felix Lambey, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Artur Iturria, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos – the list goes on. However, therein lies the problem as this talent is not being harnessed effectively by the coaching structures into a unified force with a clear sense of purpose.

France started their opening match against Wales well, but then lost all structure and form in the second half and suffered a humiliating loss at home in a match they should have won. Things got even worse as they put in an almost clueless performance against England a week later that was riddled with errors and woeful execution of the basics. They redeemed themselves against Scotland in what was easily their best performance of the tournament. However, another inept performance against Ireland and a labored effort against Italy, gave French supporters little if anything to cheer about, while the French coaching staff led by Jacques Brunel couldn’t have looked more disinterested if they tried.

There is no denying that barring a miracle, it would appear that France are headed for an early exit at the World Cup. Argentina with the return of many of their overseas based players are likely to be the kind of force to be reckoned with that they were at the last World Cup. Meanwhile England should have no trouble dispatching France based on what we saw this year. In the unlikely event France make it out of their pool, then they would have to face Wales in the quarter finals, and based on this Six Nations, we doubt that would end well. France as they have in the past, may well surprise us, and let’s face it they have the talent to do it, but it’s that complete lack of wherewithal at the coaching level that is most likely to prove France’s undoing in Japan.

Scotland

We make no bones about it – we LOVE watching Scotland play, and their epic draw with England at the end of this year’s Six Nations was the stuff of legends and had us raising the roof. If Scotland had not been crippled by injuries just imagine where they could have finished. The fact that they were able to stage one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history with so many of their key players missing, shows that they have developed some remarkable depth. Some of the younger players really stepped up and embraced the opportunities they got with both hands and left us spellbound in the process. Perhaps no player exemplified this more than young winger Darcy Graham who was utterly outstanding every time he came on. Scotland’s results in this Six Nations are hard to judge as some of their play was exceptional. Apart from a purple patch of ten minutes in their opener against Italy, they looked very impressive. While things did not go their way against Ireland and France in their next two matches, their fight back against Wales in the second half was noteworthy. However, it was that final match in Twickenham against England with a relatively green and inexperienced squad that produced one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history, and gave us a glimpse of the true potential of Scottish rugby. Scotland were very unlucky to lose a match that they almost won against all odds. Nevertheless to come back from 31-0 down in such an emphatic display of imaginative attacking rugby and ultimately draw the match, and do it all on the road with a half strength squad is no mean achievement, and deserves the utmost praise.

Scotland are a very good team and a joy to watch. What they need more than anything is consistency. However, they are well coached and blessed with some remarkable talent, all of which bodes well for a strong showing in the World Cup. If they were to top their pool then they could well be in with a shot at the semi-finals. To do that they would need to beat Ireland, something which they have shown they can do in the past, especially if Ireland have not solved their performance issues by the time Japan rolls around. Scotland have run both New Zealand and South Africa close in recent years, so although knocking either of these two giants out of contention would appear a stretch, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Beating Wales in a semi-final may well be a bridge too far, but we still can’t help feeling that Scotland have the potential to surprise. Either way we won’t be missing a moment of their endeavours, even if it is only for the sheer enjoyment of watching a team that loves to run the ball only slightly less than Fiji.

Italy

We really enjoyed watching Italy at times during this year’s Six Nations, but felt utterly gutted for them, as once more they emerged with absolutely nothing to show for their efforts in terms of results. While they looked spritely and enterprising at times, there is no denying that we felt they never looked like they were going to win a match. Although they were blown off the park by England and Scotland, let’s look at the results a bit more objectively. At times they rattled ultimate Grand Slam winners Wales, and denied them a massive points haul. They did the same to Ireland, and clearly unhinged one of the top three teams in the world in the process. Finally, they came close to once more making life miserable for France. Are they competitive? Yes, but sadly lack the wherewithal to finish the job. However, what we were impressed by this year was the fact that Italy invariably tended to play their best rugby in the second half of every match, as opposed to simply fading into oblivion in the final forty minutes, as has been their habit in years gone by. Some much sought after staying power and stamina finally seems to have been achieved and over time it will start producing results.

Much like France there is some exceptional talent in this Italian team, and some names really stood out this tournament. Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Marco Zanon and Jake Polledri all demonstrated an exciting new backbone and core of leadership to the Italian team that has been long overdue. They have an exceptionally challenging World Cup ahead of them and no doubt know that anything other than a third place finish in their pool is wishful thinking, and that a place in the knockout stages is no more than a pipe dream. The likelihood of them dispatching either South Africa or New Zealand is not really on the cards. However, Canada and Tonga should be theirs for the taking. A strong third place finish in their Pool in Japan should set them up well for a more competitive showing in subsequent Six Nations and future World Cups. While some will once more be calling for their heads and a role for worthy up and coming contenders like Georgia in the Six Nations, we feel that on the basis of this year they still deserve more time to show us what they are made of in the long run.

Endnote

There is not much Test rugby on hand till the abbreviated Rugby Championship in July and the World Cup warm ups in August, now the Six Nations is over. However, we’ll be having a look at the recently concluded Americas Rugby Championship as well as what the forthcoming European Champions Cup and Super Rugby tournaments might tell us about form heading into the World Cup. So lot’s more to come as we get closer and closer to the BIG ONE in Japan.

Till then courtesy of BSPORTV on YouTube here’s a look back at some great moments over the last two months. Make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe.

One of the biggest Saturdays of the rugby year is with us once more! In the last few years the final round of the Six Nations has provided excitement aplenty as rugby fans around the world brace themselves for 240 minutes of nerve-wracking competition. This year is no exception.

The opening match between Italy and France may have no impact on the title race, but the stakes for both sides are huge as Italy seeks to win their first Six Nations match since 2015, and thus avoid the resurgence of the debate as to whether or not they deserve their place in the tournament in the first place. Meanwhile, France need to prove that their ability to be a contender come the World Cup is still a reality. It hasn’t been a good tournament for them, but there have been some positives as they dismantled Scotland and gave Wales an almighty scare in the opening forty minutes of the competition. However, the implosions against England and Ireland put a dampener on any hopes of a new dawn in French rugby.

All eyes however will be on Cardiff on Saturday as the main event gets underway between Wales and Ireland. Wales have quietly and efficiently got themselves to the point where they can now taste their first Grand Slam in seven years. However, last year’s Grand Slam Champions Ireland might have something to say about that. Although Ireland only really started to show us what they are made of when they took apart France last weekend, they have a history of raining on other team’s Grand Slam parades, as England will tell you from their own experience in the 2017 Championship. Ireland are clearly up for this, but Wales have the advantage of it being home turf and a venue that has a record of not favoring the visitors in this Championship.

England will be watching the events in Cardiff with great interest before they run out onto the pitch at Twickenham in the tournament’s last game, as they face a Scottish side decimated by injury. Should Ireland upset the Welsh, then England are suddenly in the running to lift the silverware. There are still plenty of permutations around bonus points and points differences that add a layer of complexity to proceedings, but ultimately England are very much in the hunt should Ireland do them a favor on Saturday. Scotland meanwhile face an injury list from hell made worse by a trip to Twickenham. As a result the Scots travel south of Hadrian’s Wall with perhaps the biggest underdog tag they have ever worn in their proud history.

So without any further ado, and bearing in mind that this is a tournament where surprises are never out of the question, even if they may be based on nothing more than flights of fancy, let’s get into what got us talking over some heated pints this week.

Italy vs France – Saturday, March 16th – Rome

Italy may have yet to record a win so far this year, but we’d be lying if we said we haven’t enjoyed watching them at times this Championship. This is not a bad Italian team, even if results would contradict this assertion. We have been really impressed by some of the new talent Italy has unearthed this year, and were they to end their campaign with a win against a powerful but backfiring French team, the confidence this would impart to Coach Conor O’Shea’s charges would be immeasurable. It’s Italy’s last hurrah before the World Cup and they need to make it count.

France on the other hand should be so much better than their results indicate this tournament. Despite some misguided tinkering by Coach Jacques Brunel in the opening rounds of the tournament he has chosen to stick for the most part with a team that he feels he can trust, even if for this match he has once more chosen to mess with the starting order. France need to end their tournament on a high as the players clearly seem to be out of sync with management, and a much-needed win on Saturday will do much to mend fences.

We want to believe that France has a front row beyond Guilhem Guirado – but it’s hard

Once again France’s Captain extraordinaire was one of the few French players who didn’t let the side down last Sunday in Dublin. However, that front row just creaks. It’s a hard call as there is no denying the skill of rookie tighthead prop Demba Bamba, but time and again his lack of experience shows as he continues to make basic errors. He is clearly an enthusiastic and exciting player, but one who still exhibits a rawness that is costly. Italy’s offering by contrast looks slightly more settled and composed. A fascinating contest awaits but one which simply has to fire for France.

One of the best contests of the weekend – Ruzza vs Lambey

For us this is the most exciting contest between two Test rookies this weekend. We have been hugely impressed by Italy’s Federico Ruzza and once again despite the loss to Ireland, France’s Felix Lambey had a monster of a game. These two rookie second rowers are stars of the future for their respective sides and this should be one of the most exciting contests of Super Saturday.

Brunel decides to gamble yet again with one of France’s strongest assets

Although they got shown up last weekend in Dublin, France’s back row has been one of the few things French supporters have had to cheer about in the last six weeks. While to a certain extent Coach Jacques Brunel’s hand has been forced by injury, we still raised our eyes slightly at the teamsheet. Picamoles has for the most part been a monster especially against weaker opposition, and although he may not have had the best game last weekend, flanker Arthur Iturria still remains one of France’s biggest new talents. While Iturria at least makes the bench, and Wenceslas Lauret is out due to injury it is perhaps a big gamble to throw rookie Gregory Alldritt into the starting lineup despite some impressive performances off the bench, and Yacouba Camara has yet to impress. The French contingent will be up against a very dangerous looking Italian unit spearheaded by legendary number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse, who will play his last competitive game at the Stadio Olimpico. If Brunel has got it wrong this could make for a long afternoon for France, and if Italy start to get some real traction going here in front of a home crowd who will be intensely vocal this could well swing the game in the Azurri’s favor.

Antoine Dupont – France’s ultimate danger man!

If we had to name our match day Six Nations 23, the young Frenchman would be a unanimous selection. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in sheer talent. Simply put – what a player! Even in France’s dark times over the last few weeks the scrum half has consistently stood out. Italy’s exceptional Tito Tebaldi is going to have his hands full keeping up.

Despite a solid work rate, are Italy’s backs good enough to take the fight to an experienced and capable French unit

France sees centre Wesley Fofana play his last Six Nations match alongside veteran battering ram Mathieu Basteraud. With a wealth of caps between them, the centre channels should be France’s to own on Saturday. Meanwhile, their back three pack plenty of experience and pace. However, Penaud’s pace on the wing is offset by some defensive frailties exposed by both England and Ireland, as the Frenchman still appears happier in the centre channels. Italy can be competitive here make no mistake but there is a lack of consistency here that is worrying. However, despite their experience the same could be said of France so it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Verdict

Can Italy pull it off, given what is at stake for them? We have a hunch they just might. France’s away record at the moment is dismal, and Italy have put together their strongest side all Championship. It won’t be easy but as Sergio Parisse’s swan song Italy surely must have one great game in them this Championship, and our hunch is that Saturday’s contest has all the hallmarks of an Italian performance for the ages. So let’s put away all the clichés about which French side will turn up and simply wear our heart on our sleeve and hope that Italy’s run of bad luck has to end sometime, and this weekend’s contest in Rome has all the trappings of a reversal of the Azurri’s fortunes of late. Consequently a hard-fought and edgy contest, full of mistakes from both sides in the heat of the moment, but Italy to make home advantage pay and take it by two!

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, March 16th – Cardiff

What a prospect is in store for us on Saturday! This was always seen as the Championship decider before proceedings even got underway on February 1st. Although the script has not quite been followed and Ireland find themselves fighting for at best a second place finish, Saturday’s Cardiff dustup will still decide the Championship in terms of whether or not it is England or Wales who will be lifting the silverware. Ireland still is in it with a chance, but it is sadly almost too remote to think of. It would mean that they not only have to knock Wales off their pedestal, but an injury ravaged Scotland would have to do the same to England. If that weren’t enough there is the small matter of bonus points and points differentials.

That said though, Ireland rediscovered the form that many thought would take them to yet another Grand Slam, when they rolled over a dazed France last weekend in Dublin. However, that needs to be taken in context. As much as Ireland dominated, France were poor and there is no denying that Ireland have simply not come away with the points haul they’ve needed against weaker teams like France and Italy in this year’s tournament to make them genuine title contenders. However, as Grand Slam ambition wrecking balls, there are few better teams than the Men in Green. Consequently despite having to travel to the Cardiff Cauldron, Ireland are more than up to the task.

Wales on the other hand simply look the finished product. They may not be the most flash side in the Championship, but they have simply got the job done week in week out and never really looked panicked. Consequently, their sense of belief must now be off the charts coupled to an efficiency and mastery of the basics that is the envy of many of their competitors. This is a brutally efficient and workmanlike Welsh side that knows what they are doing and how to best manage the ebb and flow of Test rugby. They may not have blown us off the park with their skills or flair, but when the chips are down and they are up against it, their sense of composure in closing out difficult games has been second to none. For that reason they deservedly find themselves looking at being Grand Slam Champions this year. All that remains to be seen is what Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his men have to say about it.

Wales have been good, but we think that their front five finally meets its match on Saturday

Although Ireland misfired here in the first three rounds of the Championship, their first five are still rightly regarded as one of the best in the business. After the disastrous Sean Cronin experiment in Rome, Rory Best returned to steady the ship against France. As he ran out for his last Six Nations appearance in front of the Aviva faithful, he proceeded to put in a performance to remember. In his last Six Nations match in an Irish jersey and with so much at stake, expect more of the same. Tadgh Furlong was back to his barnstorming best and Cian Healy made a complete nuisance of himself. Meanwhile James Ryan simply hasn’t put in a bad performance in an Irish jersey – ever! Saturday sees an Irishman who is no stranger to Welsh antics, second rower Tadgh Beirne make a welcome return. Even with the mighty Alun-Wyn Jones leading the Welsh troops, we think that provided the Irish tight five continue the form they showed against France, Wales are in for the biggest Test of the last twelve months in this part of the park.

The two best back rows in Test rugby go head to head

Well in the Northern Hemisphere at least, but we imagine quite a few New Zealanders hold these two units in considerable regard. Having said that we still regard Ireland as having a few more question marks hanging over them in this department than Wales. At the forefront is Sean O’Brien’s fitness. There is no denying his pedigree but we can’t help feeling that this remarkable player just hasn’t hit the high notes that he once did. We’re all big fans here at the Lineout of the “Tullow Tank” and really hope that he will once more put in one of those performances for the ages on Saturday. However, Irish supporters will take comfort in the fact that should he falter, Jack Conan made an outstanding contribution off the bench against France, so there should be no drop in intensity. Against Ireland, Wales pack an equally impressive unit, and last week as always Justin Tipuric was a deadly Welsh enforcer when the going got tough. Like their Irish counterparts, the Welsh trio excel in the physical contests but also pack some real pace around the park. However, we just feel that provided they click into high gear and stay there for the full eighty minutes Ireland have the edge here by the slimmest of margins, especially when it comes to the ability to dominate possession.

Ireland finally find their feet when it comes to game management

Let’s face it Ireland just weren’t there for their opening game against England and faltered badly here at times all the way to Rome. It was only last weekend against France that Ireland’s half back duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton could be said to be back to their best. However, when they are at their peak there are few that can match them, and as a result the test being put to Welsh half back Gareth Anscombe is the biggest of his career to date. Like his Irish compatriots he has got steadily better as the tournament progressed but has still had to be rescued at times by the experienced Dan Biggar. Expect to see the same on Saturday should he trip up. Furthermore, if it’s a shootout between Biggar and Irish replacement Jack Carty, should Sexton pick up the kind of injuries that he has somehow miraculously avoided so far this tournament, then our money is on Biggar. With proven match winners on and off the bench this is a very tight contest and will be one of the most fascinating battles on Saturday, but we tip the Irish to have the upper hand here, as they have a track record of winning big matches like this against the odds.

Gary Ringrose may have had a chat with Brian O’Driscoll ahead of this one

While the comparisons with the legendary Irish centre are inevitable, we feel Ringrose is a player with his own unique skill set. While his remarkable line breaks bring to mind his predecessor, Ringrose is likely to stamp his own authority on Saturday’s match. A word of advice from the great man himself over the phone in the buildup to this match certainly would have done Ringrose no harm. However if he carves out his own piece of history on Saturday, then the references to his illustrious counterpart may start to play less of a role in discussion of his own talents.

Welsh defences get tested out wide but they passed the test against England

There has been a lot of talk in the press this week about Welsh vulnerabilities out wide. Many people feel there are still question marks around the defensive abilities of Welsh wingers Josh Adams and George North in particular. They did pass the test against England, but then Wales controlled the game such that the English threat out wide was nullified, given the Welsh backs limited work to do defensively. Saturday is likely to be an entirely different prospect, especially if the Sexton/Murray partnership turns the tables on Welsh game management. Irish winger Keith Earls is literally playing out of his skin at the moment, and has been one of Ireland’s most consistently reliable performers in the tournament. Add to this threat the one posed by Jacob Stockdale, and if the Welsh defences allow space to open up for these two, then North and Adams will really find out what they are made of.

Verdict

What happens on Saturday has so many repercussions for how the final table will look, that without a doubt it is THE game of the weekend. Ireland will be up for this make no mistake, and will want to use this as their first real step on the road to the World Cup. Expect an intensity and physicality to this match that is likely to surpass some already memorable contests so far in the tournament. Complacency does not seem to be an issue affecting Wales, and their focus and composure has been exemplary coupled to a seemingly watertight defence in their own 22. If Ireland are to break the Welsh defences and score tries they will need to rely on their backs to do it outside the 22, rather than get into a slugging match with Wales at close quarters. A game to remember, whatever the outcome, is on the cards. Still we are going to go out on a limb here and see a fired up Irish side once again proving that they are the masters of derailing opponents’ Grand Slam ambitions, as they sneak a win by three points.

England vs Scotland – Saturday, March 16th – Twickenham

Your heart simply has to go out to Scotland for this one. This is a promising and spirited side that can play some genuinely exciting and attractive rugby. However, it seems to be subjected to a constant stream of injuries that make it almost impossible to achieve any kind of consistency. To have to travel to Fortress Twickenham, missing some of your key game changers is a fate we would not wish on any one. However, all that being said there are some Scottish players we are genuinely excited at watching in action and a big performance from some of them Saturday will only bode well for Scotland’s plans for the World Cup. If Scotland can cut down on their errors in execution that have plagued them this tournament, then they are in with a chance – a slim one but a chance nonetheless!

England on the other hand have no such problems. Fighting fit and boasting a full complement of world-class players, the Men in White must surely feel more than just a little confident about proceedings on Saturday. Should the Irish have done them a favor a few hours earlier in Cardiff, then expect them to regard the Scots as lambs to the slaughter as England go for the maximum points haul that would secure them the title. The squad picked by Coach Eddie Jones simply oozes quality and is one that is likely to feature in England’s big games in Japan six months from now.  With absolutely no disrespect to Scotland, they face an absolutely massive mountain to climb on Saturday, something which England are probably not completely oblivious to.

England’s back row should be dominant but this is one area where Scotland could prove awkward

Don’t believe us, then watch the absolutely massive and almost game changing impact Scotland’s Hamish Watson had coming off the bench last weekend against Grand Slam favorites Wales. He really got under their skin and threw their defences completely off kilter at times. So for that matter did impressive newcomer Magnus Bradbury and what’s more he did so for the full eighty minutes. England are putting out a balanced, powerful and exceptionally capable back row – something they didn’t have last year. It should get the measure of Scotland but expect the Scots to use Watson in particular to seek out the chinks in its armor with devastating effect. England will have to keep Watson in check if they are to keep their structures intact in this part of the field.

Scotland’s half back pairing simply HAS to cut down the basic errors

Once again we are happy for Scotland to see Ali Price start over Greig Laidlaw at scrum half. The energy and pace Price brought to the position against Wales had been clearly lacking in Scotland’s efforts in the tournament up to that point. Furthermore, he combines well with the rapid fire thinking and unpredictability of fly half Finn Russell. These two together could make their English rivals look downright pedestrian by comparison. However, therein lies the problem, in their desire to try to play the game at ninety miles an hour right from the get go, their execution invariably starts to go by the wayside. Scotland will need them to bring some composure under pressure to proceedings on Saturday. Risks will need to be taken if Scotland stand any chance of pulling off the upset of the tournament, but they will need to be measured.

England’s World Cup centre pairing?

Now that Manu Tuilagi seems to have put his injury problems to rest, there is no question he has looked the threat he has been built up to be. Meanwhile Henry Slade has finally come of age, and the two of them on Saturday are likely to be well beyond the reach of Scotland’s Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg. We expect to see these two be the architects of a lot of the big points on the board that England will be chasing on Saturday, with Scotland sadly being completely outclassed here. Furthermore, a good showing by the two Englishmen should see them get the nod for the starting positions in England’s big games six months from now in Japan. We wish Scotland well in this part of the park but fear it is going to be a bit of bruising.

Whatever happens on Saturday – a big performance from Darcy Graham will hopefully be something to celebrate

The Scottish winger’s performance against Wales was a real eye opener for us. Scotland seem to be able to produce electrifying backs with ease and Graham is a prime example. While he still may have a lot to learn, there is no denying that this is a star in the making and a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. If he puts in a big performance on Saturday, then Scotland will definitely have something to cheer about heading to Japan, as yet another youngster proves he can rise to the occasion.

Elliot Daly – England’s unsung hero

We confess that we tend to stand by certain players through thick and thin, and England’s Elliot Daly is a case in point. We regard him as one of England’s most underrated players, but hope that his performances this tournament will change that, as well as his efforts last November. While he may not always get it right, we regard him as a safe and reliable pair of hands that can consistently get England out of trouble. Continued exposure in high pressure games is simply making him a better player. We think he offers a broader range of skills to England than many of his predecessors in the position, and let’s face it he has an exceptionally handy boot to add to the package. Expect him to shine on Saturday and finally remove some of the doubts that occasionally detract from him being considered as England’s first choice for the 15 jersey.

Verdict

England go into this match, with the demons of Cardiff well and truly exorcised. However, although unlikely Scotland could still prove a banana skin in waiting, should England let their guard down once they think the job is done. At the end of the day, there is no overlooking the fact that Scotland have not won at Twickenham for 36 years. With a team ravaged by injury, it is almost impossible to consign a record like that to just a piece of history – such is the task faced by Scotland on Saturday. Extraordinary upsets of that magnitude simply don’t happen very often in our glorious game. So as much as we would like to dream and see Scotland give us something to talk about for the next 36 years, we just can’t see them getting past a very slick and well oiled English machine running at full capacity. Consequently England to take the spoils by 16 points after wrestling with some serious Scottish spirit!