Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

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

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

France vs Scotland – Friday, March 26th – Paris

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

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

A time to focus on what really matters

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

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

Life really is all about how you cope with Plan B

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

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

It’s all in the throw

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

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

Les Magiciens

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

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

Tied at one apiece

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

As Super Saturday and the final round of the Six Nations comes to a thrilling conclusion we’ll be addressing each match individually. After Round 4’s breathtaking action last weekend, we felt that this last round of matches deserve their own pieces. Scotland and Italy get us underway on Saturday, and it was clear that Scotland faltered badly last weekend against Ireland. The month long absence from Six Nations rugby as a result of the Scots delayed Round 3 match with France, simply took too much momentum out of their campaign which had already come unstuck against Wales in Round 2.

Italy meanwhile could use no such excuses against Grand Slam front runners Wales, and as the tournament has wore on the Azurri engine has started to look increasingly faulty. All Italy would seem to have now is passion, but a lack of discipline, execution and overall skill levels have been exposed and the gap is once more widening between Italy and the rest of the tournament’s competitors. In short, as it is every year for Italy, it’s wooden spoon time again.

Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, March 20th – Edinburgh

The tournament’s two most frustrated sides meet in a Edinburgh on Saturday, and it would appear that yet another dead rubber is on the cards as Italy continue to go from bad to worse as the tournament draws to a close. It’s unfortunate as Italy did make an encouraging start but, as they do every year, seem unable to live up to the promise of what would once again appear to bet yet another false dawn. Having said that we’d still argue that this is the best side Italy have fielded in the competition to date, and they have in the past raised themselves to another level in Murrayfield. In short it would be unfair to write them off just yet.

Scotland know that their Championship is now over, even if Wales come short against France, but a strong finish to a campaign that has gone horribly flat at the halfway mark, is still a goal worth pursuing. Scotland are a good team, of that there is no doubt, but consistency is simply not their strong point. If they are to really look to the next World Cup with confidence then consistency in the face of adversity is what they need, and this Six Nations will be the best possible test of Scottish character in that regard.

Rugby’s most frustrating job

Coaching Italy must be an exercise in frustration

There was that ever so tantalising hint at the beginning of this Six Year’s Nations, that Italy might just be starting to turn a corner. Not necessarily in getting results, but definitely in terms of learning which would ultimately start to bring them those elusive wins. After 4 increasingly poor Rounds, it would appear that Italy remain firmly rooted to Square One. The only education they seem to have had consistently this tournament is how far they lag behind the tournament’s other competitors for the 21st straight year in a row. Their harsh schoolings at the hands of France, England, Ireland and Wales have been almost painful to watch at times, made even more so by the fact that ultimately Italy have only themselves to blame. They aren’t a bad team on paper but on the pitch they lack cohesion, discipline and above all the execution needed for 80 minutes to compete at this level. We’re frustrated watching them and can only imagine what the players and Coaching staff must feel like. As Franco Smith spent large periods of last weekend’s game against Wales with his head in his hands, it would appear that Italy arrive in Edinburgh as a lost cause as another year goes begging.

A notable inclusion joins on paper a good squad

We’d argue he should have been there all along – but we think Italy will enjoy having second rower Frederico Ruzza back in their starting 15

As regular readers know we are fans of Italian second rower Frederico Ruzza, so much so that his continued omission from Italy’s starting lineup and often not even making the bench has left us rather confused to say the least. Consequently imagine our delight to see him starting on Saturday against Scotland. When you look at the starting lineup for Italy for the Scottish encounter, we’d argue that either Franco Smith is throwing everything he can at the Scots or he truly has saved the best for last. For us this is the Italian squad that should have played every match. Danilo Fischetti at loosehead, Ruzza in the second row, Sebastien Negri in the back row, Stephen Varney at 9, Paolo Garbisi at 10, Marco Zanon in the centres (even if he only makes the bench for this match), and Monty Ioane on the wings is the core of a dynamic Italian team. The only current weak link is no definite candidate for a jersey at fullback, but hopefully that will come in time. However, with these 7 individuals there is enough of a spine for Italy to be able to compete at this level and it will be fascinating to see if they rise to the challenge on Saturday.

Talking of conundrums

Sure Hogg can play 10 but isn’t he better at creating moments like this from the counter attack?

Scotland should comfortably win this match unless the core of the Italian team above have something to say about it, hence we were rather surprised to see Stuart Hogg who normally excels at fullback for Scotland be shifted to the number 10 berth in the absence of the injured Finn Russell. Surely this would have been the opportunity to give Edinburgh fly half Jaco van der Walt a good run in the starting jersey at 10, leaving Hogg to do what he does best – counterattack from deep? If like Italy, Scotland are looking to learn a thing or two from this Six Nations campaign then this is clearly an opportunity gone begging. Enough said.

Back where he belongs

We can’t for the life of us understand why centre Huw Jones has been absent from Scotland’s starting XV

As mentioned above, Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s selection decisions have often left us scratching our heads and it would appear we are not alone. Centre Huw Jones brings so much X factor to Scotland as evidenced by his cameo appearance off the bench last weekend against Ireland, that we fail to understand why he has not been a shoe in from the outset for Scotland in this Six Nations campaign. Scotland’s centre pairing have been their consistent weak link in the tournament so far. Jones has the added advantage of being able to cover on the wings or at fullback, so where has he been when arguably Scotland have needed him most? A good performance Saturday is likely to provide Townsend the justification he needs to put this debate to rest once and for all, especially teamed up with Sam Johnson who we felt had a good match last weekend.

The Gas Man

Scotland winger Darcy Graham with a full head of steam

While injuries have not been kind to the Scottish speedster, there is no denying that, along with Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg, Graham completes the Scottish school of wizardry contingent. These three would all gain scholarships at Harry Potter’s famous Hogwarts, such is their ability to flip a game on its head and their skills in the transfiguration department. Graham exemplifies Scotland’s love of a free running and expansive game. With the weather set to cooperate at Murrayfield on Saturday, and Italy struggling defensively with 101 missed tackles to Scotland’s 30 there could be some genuine excitement on display here.

Verdict

This in theory is a fairly straightforward contest to call. Unless Italy arrive in Scotland having transformed themselves beyond recognition and the above mentioned spine really come to play, then the Scots should walk away with a comfortable points haul to allow them to at least attempt to salvage a strong finish in Paris next week. Scotland should finish the tournament on a high note and much further up the standings than they currently are. It’s unlikely that Italy will pull off the upset of the tournament they did at Murrayfield on the final weekend of the Six Nations in 2015, when the beat the Scots 22-19, but expect them to give it a good go but Scotland to have none of it.

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

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

Scotland vs Ireland – Sunday, March 14th – Edinburgh

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

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

An enviable dilemma

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

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

You CANNOT be serious????

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

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

The Dynamic Duo

Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish WatsonMasters of the loose

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

A welcome return

Scotland’s Sam Johnson has been missed

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

Often overlooked but rarely undercooked

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

Wales – THE Surprise Package

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

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

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

France – Les enfants terribles

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

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

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

Ireland – I want to break free!

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

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

England – Train Wreck?

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

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

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

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

Scotland – Sadly missed

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

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

Italy – Looking for the right recipes

Skilled – but still lacking a firm and consistent base

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

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

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

England – Dissatisfied

Eddie and Owen share their feelings about haggis

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

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

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

France – Excited

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

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

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

Ireland – Confused

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

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

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

Italy – Optimistic

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

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

Scotland – Frustrated

Down but definitely not out!

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

Wales – cheerful

This was the try of the weekend for us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs Italy – Saturday, February 13th – Twickenham

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

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

Not what they were expecting

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

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

We think he is more than just an impact player

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

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

Extra study required

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

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

The Kids are alright

Italy’s favorite Welshman – scrum half Stephen Varney

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

A shot in the arm

George Ford feeling excited about playing some attacking rugby

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

Verdict

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

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, February 13th – Murrayfield

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

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

A complete team performance

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

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

Depth issues – Really?

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

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

A contest for the ages

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

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

Stop me if you can

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

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

A Leader Comes of Age

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

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

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

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

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

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

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a kind of magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

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

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

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

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

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

The definition of extraordinary!

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

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

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

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

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

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

Man in the Hot Seat

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

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

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

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

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

Scotland the bold and the brave

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

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

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

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

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

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

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

One to watch for Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Wales in name only

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

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

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland – it’s not just about possession

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

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

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

His time will come

Scotland – exciting but inconsistent

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

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

Man on a Mission

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

France get their first taste of Autumn Nations Cup action, after their opening fixture with Fiji was cancelled due to COVID-19 running amok amongst the Island visitors. Scotland meanwhile dispatched Italy with relative ease last weekend, but even though both sides are lacking their first choice fly halves, Scotland know they will need to step it up a gear. France travel to Murrayfield no doubt determined to right the wrongs of their only Six Nations defeat on the same ground earlier this year. Scotland will know that France come with an agenda and are currently the form team in the Northern Hemisphere. Scotland may not have the all out wow factor of France, but their entertaining brand of rugby can definitely give their Gallic opponents a run for their money. Add to the mix a Scottish back row that is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s most dangerous units right now, some decent weather for running rugby and you have all the ingredients for an encounter that should provide some serious entertainment.

So here’s what got us talking about this one.

The French front row has oodles of talent but it would appear not in the stock of their trade – the scrum

We much preferred the look of France’s front row against Ireland in the final round of the Six Nations from a technical point of view. Sunday’s offering has very talented players, but their talents actually lay more outside the scrum than in it. Prop Demba Bamba is a very gifted player and in the loose is a nightmare for opposition sides and also rather difficult to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam. Camille Chat is much the same, but as for the stock and trade of their positions, the scrum, we feel they are less proficient. This is an area Scotland’s capable and experienced unit can target. Fraser Brown and Simon Berghan are seasoned campaigners and new South African import Ollie Kebble is an absolute menace. If Scotland can get the ascendancy in the set pieces then key momentum shifts could come the way of the Scots and force the French into costly mistakes.

Scotland tackled France off the park last time the two met in the Six Nations and will need to do so again

Both teams benefit from some very smart defensive coaches, but the last time the two teams met, it was Scotland’s ability in particular through Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie, to essentially tackle France to a standstill that gave them the match. Expect more of the same on Sunday the one difference being that France will be much wiser to it this time around. Watson and Ritchie’s gang tackling of outstanding French loose forward Gregory Aldritt back in March, negated much of the kind of authority France are now able to establish in this part of the park especially through their world class number eight. France however, are much more refined now so it is unlikely that Scotland will be able to keep les Bleus’ outstanding back row trio in check as well as they did in March. Although you could argue France now look the sharper of the two sides, Scotland’s tackling game is still one area that they should feel comfortable in. If they can slow France down and stop them building any kind of forward momentum then Scotland have as good a chance as any at upsetting the Northern Hemisphere’s flashiest outfit right now.

Is he the best number 9 on the planet right now?

We certainly think so! An unbelievably talented and gifted natural player barely out of Test rugby kindergarten. To the rest of the world – look out you’ve been warned! Enough said!

Scotland could use some big (H)air on Sunday

Knowing what Duncan Weir can do in the fly half position, we have to be honest and say we expected more last Saturday in Florence. The hair was certainly there make no mistake but it was a relatively quiet performance from the Scot, despite some flashes of brilliance and he was unlucky to not have his try awarded. The hair is likely to be even higher this weekend but he needs a greater vertical profile to his actual game than what we saw against Italy. Weir possesses a very useful kick and chase game, and Scotland will want to see him bring it on, provided their gang tackling forwards can tie enough Frenchmen up in the middle of the park to allow Weir to pinpoint some holes.

Weir’s opposite number, Matthieu Jallibert, is yet another of the new generation French 10s who know how to put on the razzle dazzle. When not doubling as a Billy Idol impersonator, Jallibert has a formidable turn of pace and ability to keep the opposition guessing and ultimately wrong footed in defence. In short, Coach Fabien Galthie is unlikely to have had too many sleepless nights over Romain Ntamack’s short term injury.

Exeter meet Toulouse in the Heineken Cup all over again

Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg knows his opposite number Thomas Ramos very well from their recent Heineken Cup semi-final. On that occasion the Scot got the better of the Frenchman, but make no mistake Ramos is a gifted footballer and although his style may not quite emulate the legendary Scot, he is a very potent strike threat in his own right. However, what Hogg is starting to show in addition to his ability to spark a blinding counterattack from deep, is an increasingly impressive defensive resume. On a tackle count Hogg is your man, while Ramos still has some lingering doubts around that aspect of his game. Both have handy boots and the aerial battle featuring these two will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

The weather looks to favor two exciting free flowing sides. This along with the England/Ireland match the day before should be one of the tournament’s most riveting fixtures. Although Scotland will fancy their chances of upsetting France’s world class act, the Men in Blue are looking so much sharper than they did back in March we have a hard time believing it. Surely Ireland and Scotland will all be watching replays of Argentina’s exploits against the All Blacks to reaffirm that the odds are just that – odds. However, our heads favor England and France to get the job done this weekend.

Enjoy what should be an outstanding weekend of Test Rugby everyone as we appear to be heading into yet another lockdown. At least we have some quality oval ball action to keep us company this time!