Posts Tagged ‘Scotland’

“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!

In many ways there are unlikely to be too many surprises tomorrow in Florence or Twickenham, but the subplot running through tomorrow’s fixtures is enormous. What subplot you may ask? Italy and Georgia will both be on show tomorrow, and the Autumn Nations Cup is probably the biggest opportunity to date to lay to rest once and for all the debate about Italy’s place in the Six Nations, and Georgia’s chance to take it from them. Unfortunately we feel that it is Georgia who has been dealt a poor hand in this regard. Italy have to face France, Fiji and Scotland whilst the hapless Georgians have to take on Wales, Ireland and current Six Nations Champions England. Ireland could have won the Six Nations and although they may be going through a lean patch, let’s not forget Wales were Six Nations Grand Slam Champions last year. In short, Italy are likely to emerge looking much healthier in terms of their ability to compete than Georgia when the Autumn Nations Cup draws to a close.

Italy vs Scotland – Saturday, November 14th – Florence

Scotland come into this match feeling rather confident despite their injury list in the fly half department. A positive Six Nations with the crowning achievement being overturning this year’s tournament darlings France is something they can look back on with pride. Scotland may be frustratingly inconsistent at times, but there is no denying they are a team who is playing some very respectable rugby these days. Italy on the other hand remain International Rugby’s perpetual underachievers – with the slogan being “surely this is the year” – but sadly we’re all still waiting. However, there were some sparks in their recent defeat to England in the final round of the Six Nations. This tournament will determine whether or not Italy remain a flash in the pan or under new Coach Franco Smith may be finally turning a corner.

Scotland look tight in the front five but we can’t say the same about Italy

In Scotland’s most recent outings we’ve really liked Scotland’s reliable and solid approach to chores in the tight five. They just look steady and well drilled with everyone having an exceptionally good understanding of their roles. The front row with Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson have been outstanding with some solid support from the bench in the shape of WP Nel and new kid on the block Oliver Kebble. Italy’s unit on the other hand just doesn’t look the part. There have been some improvements in the second row but overall it is not something you feel the Azurri can depend on. Scotland have proved rather adept at using their efficiency in the tight five to create opportunities for rampaging loose forwards like Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson and a set of backs running on high octane fuel. Italy on the other hand struggle to create those linkages, consequently we expect to see Scotland dominate set piece and phase play from the get go tomorrow.

Italy’s back row though need offer no excuses

It may be a unit that Italy is struggling to integrate into its overall game plan – but a classy unit it is nonetheless. Jake Polledri is clearly England’s loss and we were impressed with the work rates of his colleagues Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn against England in the final round of the Six Nations a fortnight ago. Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson are not two individuals we’d enjoy testing our mettle against in the Test Arena, but Italy can at least feel assured that they have a unit that can compete here. This undoubtedly will be the best aspect of Italy’s play tomorrow – so keep your eye on it.

Duncan Weir – we think Scotland may have missed you more than they care to admit

We allowed ourselves a wry smile to see who we think is one of Scotland’s most underrated players of the last five years be on the starting list for tomorrow’s game. Unfortunately Weir has had to live in the shadow of Scotland’s dynamic flyhalf duo Finn Russell and Adam Hastings – but make no mistake this guy is a VERY handy number 10. Remember this moment?

Consequently we were thrilled to see him back in Scotland’s starting lineup, albeit as a result of injuries to Hastings and Russell. The guy is a pocket rocket and a man with a keen eye for opportunity. Although he hasn’t worn a Scottish jersey since 2017, which we find really hard to believe, we feel Scotland could well suddenly realize tomorrow that overlooking Mr. Weir was a mistake. He is clearly enjoying his rugby with English side Worcester Warriors, and we certainly hope that his return to Test rugby will meet with similar success. The clash between him and impressive Italian debutant Paolo Garbisi should be a highly entertaining contest.

Another name Scotland will be glad to welcome back is Sam Johnson

Scotland see center Sam Johnson return to the fold, and we feel this is yet another bundle of excitement Coach Gregor Townsend brings to a world class set of backs. Although his performances this year haven’t quite caught the imagination like his debut year in 2019, the Australian import oozes potential. Back to his best and alongside Scottish firecrackers like wingers Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and the legendary Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg expect to see some exquisite running rugby tomorrow, and this unit to genuinely trouble the smoking gun in Scotland’s group – France.

It should be a great contest and we feel that Italy are likely to be much more competitive than we’ve seen so far this year, with Six Nations aspirants Georgia showcasing their talents in the same tournament breathing down their necks. Scotland should still comfortably take the win, but Italy are unlikely to be the whipping boys they were when the two met earlier in the year during the Six Nations.

England vs Georgia – Saturday, November 14th – Twickenham

Georgia will run out on the pitch at Twickenham with big aspirations but we really do fear that, given the squad English Coach Eddie Jones has assembled for this match, Europe’s best Tier 2 team will be brought down to earth with a resounding thump. Their remaining two matches in the Autumn Nations Cup are certainly not going to provide any relief to soften the landing.

England are clearly setting out their stall right from the get go, and we were surprised that for this, arguably the easiest fixture in their group, Eddie Jones has refrained for the most part from blooding new talent, which many feel he should have done. Sure he has made some positional tweaks, but has chosen to blood only 1 new cap in his starting 15, the exceptional Wasps back rower Jack Willis . Perhaps more concerning for English supporters is his seeming reluctance to blood new talent in his halfback selections, as he casts an eye to France and 2023.

Lambs to the slaughter?

Although we have the utmost respect for Georgia we just can’t see them being even remotely competitive against a Six Nations powerhouse trio. Their opener against England is likely to be an exercise in pain management, followed up by Wales who are likely to use the match to once and for all put a stop to the rot that has caused Welsh fans to wonder if rugby is still a national sport. Lastly they have a date with Ireland who are bursting at the seams with emerging talent. Apart from exposure to top level competition, this tournament is not going to be a particularly uplifting advertisement for Georgian rugby, and sadly make a mockery of the argument that they are ready for the Six Nations at Italy’s expense.

Italy are likely to fare much better than their rivals from the Caucasus. Scotland are a known commodity and are nursing a few key injuries, so that Italy’s opening encounter in Florence could well be a positive experience in terms of a respectable scoreline, even though we doubt that a Scottish side humming with talent and enthusiasm will let them have too much to say. With Fiji’s participation thrown into doubt due to COVID-19, Italy may then only have to face France. While the likelihood of them losing to Scotland and France is high, and they therefore will be desperately hoping that their encounter with Fiji does go ahead, they still would emerge from the tournament as more of the underdog than lambs to the slaughter – which sadly could be Georgia’s experience. If Italy are competitive and even manage to sneak a win against Scotland, then the argument about their place in the Six Nations is likely to be put to bed once and for all – sadly at Georgia’s expense.

We sincerely hope that our concerns about this emerging subplot and Georgia’s possible humiliation in this tournament do not come to fruition. We’ll be cheering them on as hard as we can, but the stars do not look like they have lined up well for the Georgians in this tournament. They will play with pride and passion, but as we saw against Scotland last month it simply isn’t enough to compete with Six Nations squads who are sadly light years away from them in terms of their development. A poor showing in this tournament could simply end up consigning Georgia to the wilderness of Test rugby for another decade, as they desperately seek regular participation in a tournament that is both meaningful and provides platforms in which to build and develop their confidence and skill levels. There is likely to be a revival of the Pacific Nations Cup for the Pacific Island countries and Japan, an increasingly competitive Americas Rugby Championship for North and South America – but for Georgia and the other Tier 2 European nations there is little to look forward to that can take them to where they need to be in terms of the next stage in their development in International Rugby. It is our sincere hope that whatever the outcome of the next four weeks, something is done to give Georgia the much needed shot in the arm it craves and deserves in the long-term.

If things are going well early for England – Jones really has no excuse to not bring the bench halfback pairing into play sooner rather than later

England need to develop a future halfback pairing for France 2023. Quite frankly we were left scratching our heads when we saw the team sheet, and saw the same old regulars starting in the 9 and 10 shirt. There is no denying Farrell’s ability, despite some of our reservations about his Captaincy, and Ben Youngs had a glorious 100th cap performance against Italy in the final round of the Six Nations. Georgia will be an awkward opponent but one that England as a unit should have no trouble suppressing. Hence we cannot understand why such prime candidates as Dan Robson and Max Malins don’t get the starting nod at scrum and fly half berths, instead of waiting it out on the bench. If they wobble then you can always bring on Youngs and Farrell to steady the ship, but surely asking them to simply keep the Georgian rout going rather than organize its onset is not how you develop future talent. Enough said, we’re armchair warriors and Jones is the professional Coach but he continues to befuddle us with his selection policies.

Georgia can ultimately hope that England, as they often do, walk into a match like this which on paper they should win blindfolded and proceed to fluff their lines. They’ve done it before and once they get rattled start to unravel rather quickly. However, against lesser sides it is usually rectified by half time. Georgia needs several variables to work in their favor such as Youngs having one of his shockers which appeared with alarming regularity in the run up to the World Cup, Owen Farrell to once more regard wild swinging arm chop tackles above the shoulder as legitimate and England generally to start questioning every decision referee Nigel Owens makes, in order for the men from the Caucasus to at least remain competitive tomorrow. They will wear their hearts on their sleeves and once more we’ll marvel at their bravery and good old fashioned rugby grit, but sadly we fear England will just prove to be too much of a mountain to climb tomorrow for them to emerge with any credibility on the scoreboard. Still on the plus side there’s always Wales next weekend, and they way the Men in Red are going these days maybe they could join the Six Nations relegation debate alongside Italy and Georgia.

We won’t be posting anything on the France vs Fiji match which was supposed to take place on Sunday, as it has now been cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fijian camp. We hope it’s not permanent and sorry for the tardiness in getting this post out, but the day job got the better of me at the end of this week. Enjoy some great rugby this weekend and here’s looking forward to musing over this weekend’s events leading into Round 2!

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

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

Ireland vs Scotland – Sunday, September 22nd – Yokohama

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Hamish Watson Scotland’s most important player?

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

Scotland vs France – Saturday, August 24th – Murrayfield

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

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

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

There is something strange brewing in France – consistency in selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs Ireland – Saturday, August 24th – Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of Canadian interest on the left wing for Glasgow

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Italy

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

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy vs France – Saturday, March 16th – Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antoine Dupont – France’s ultimate danger man!

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, March 16th – Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland finally find their feet when it comes to game management

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs Scotland – Saturday, March 16th – Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

England’s World Cup centre pairing?

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

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

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

Elliot Daly – England’s unsung hero

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

Verdict

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

 

 

 

 

 

The tournament continues to throw the form book out the window, as in Round three we saw a French side play perhaps their best game of rugby in years, while Scotland looked a shadow of their potential. Wales’ track record leading up to their clash with England had been remarkable but they hadn’t exactly blown us away at times in the process, but in Cardiff they put in an assured and world-class performance. England blasted into the tournament at Ireland’s expense last month but their inability to adapt under pressure in Cardiff a fortnight ago, once more became a problem and with it their discipline. Meanwhile, after being written off by everyone, Italy gave Ireland an almighty scare in Rome as the Men in Green continue to look a far cry from the side that ended 2018 on such a high.

Scotland could be forgiven for their routing at the hands of the French a fortnight ago in Paris as they were dealt an injury list from hell. However, there were still a few wise heads in that Scottish squad that should and could have made more of an impact. Scotland were spirited at times, but their execution and decision-making was exceptionally poor, compared to a French team that literally sparkled. France seemed to have recovered from the debacle at Twickenham and put on a display that ticked all the boxes. Superb defence, a devastatingly effective and physical set of loose forwards, an inspired half back partnership and a back line that clicked and provided some real imagination to France’s attacking abilities. Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen, as sadly that has not been France’s forte in the last few years, especially away from home. Scotland welcome some familiar faces back to the fold this weekend, but will it be enough to derail the Welsh Grand Slam express?

Wales finally put on a show that justified all the slow building hype surrounding them a fortnight ago in Cardiff, as they completely outclassed an English side that failed to adapt to Welsh tactics. We have to confess to being amongst the many, who although admiring Wales’ successful track record of late, were struggling to see what all the fuss was about as they were managing workmanlike performances at best, and while efficient they weren’t exactly blowing other teams off the park. However, against England they put in a world-class performance that has surely got alarm bells ringing for their opponents in the World Cup. England meanwhile didn’t exactly play a bad game, but ultimately they stuck with a game plan that clearly wasn’t working and was playing straight into the hands of a Welsh team that had figured them out in the first ten minutes. England have a relatively soft game this weekend against Italy, but should they fall asleep at the wheel as Ireland did a fortnight ago in Rome, a potential banana skin could await them at Fortress Twickenham – unlikely but just saying. Meanwhile Wales know that all the momentum of the tournament is with them, and although a road trip to Murrayfield is never easy, provided they play like they did against England then once again the job should get done.

Ireland will be kicking themselves for coming away with such a pitiful points haul from Rome, as once more they looked a shadow of last year’s Grand Slam champions. Italy came at them for the full eighty minutes and put in one of the best Italian performances we’ve seen in a long time. Once more the Italian defence looked solid and there is a growing sparkle to their attacking play, with scrum half Tito Tebaldi clearly being the Azurri find of 2019. Ireland by comparison looked sluggish and as the match wore on increasingly frustrated. They knew they were being given a challenge but seemed ill prepared for it, with certain key players being well off their best. There were some outstanding individual performances from a handful of Irish players but overall they are simply not firing as a team and really need to step up the ante if they are to regain the mantle of genuine World Cup contenders. With only two Tests left before the summer warm ups the clock is ticking for Ireland, and if France puts in the kind of performance they did against Scotland this Sunday in Dublin, then Ireland’s task suddenly looks a whole lot harder.

The final pecking order is starting to take shape for this year’s Six Nations, and barring any upsets this weekend it would appear that it is a three-horse race to the finish, with the Welsh clearly well out in front, England comfortably in second and the Irish bringing up the rear. But hang on it’s the Six Nations we’re talking about where literally anything could happen. So as always without any further ado, let’s have a look at what got us talking this week about the forthcoming weekend’s proceedings.

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, March 9th – Edinburgh

Scotland showed plenty of promise in the November Internationals but that was perhaps the best that could be said for it, as although they got some good results they often appeared laboured and came painfully short against South Africa. Their Six Nations campaign so far seems to have the same veneer to it. While we don’t deny for a second that losing the likes of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg for the French game was a serious blow, there were still some Scottish veterans in Paris that day who simply didn’t show up. Furthermore, Scotland seem to be slipping back into their old ways of overly ambitious play styles without the necessary execution to back them up. Despite some brilliant individual performances, that has very much been the case this year so far, especially against Ireland and France.

Wales come to Murrayfield knowing that of late it has become a challenging venue at which to get a win, but there is no denying that they arrive brimming with confidence after a very convincing win over England. While they struggled at times in their opening two games of the Championship, their second half comeback in the opener against France was the stuff of legends. Furthermore the England victory showed a Welsh side that clearly has the wherewithal to make some noise in Japan later this year. Either way this should prove to be a contest well worthy of our attention on Saturday.

Like many of his colleagues Stuart McInally needs a BIG game on Saturday

Let’s face it the Scottish scrum got bossed around in Paris, and they will have to be at their best to contain a Welsh front row that got the better of England a fortnight ago. McInally lends a real presence to the Scottish front row which was sadly lacking in France, and in front of an expectant home crowd with an eye to the World Cup, the Scottish hooker needs a massive performance on Saturday to give the rest of his teammates the confidence that hard work at the coal face can build the kind of platform they need to unleash their backs.

The loss of Cory Hill in the second row for Wales is a bitter blow but a golden opportunity for Scotland

As regular readers of this blog know we are big fans of the Welsh second rower and feel he is a genuine contender for Wales’ World Cup campaign later this year. Even though Coach Warren Gatland seems to prefer Saturday’s starter Adam Beard, we like many fail to understand why. With Hill out injured, Beard is back in but there is no doubting the massive impact Hill had on the England game. Impact is not a term that comes to mind when watching Beard in action by contrast. Consequently, we are hoping that on Saturday the mystery will finally be resolved as to what exactly Beard’s value is to the squad. Scotland meanwhile could well profit, as provided Jonny Gray and Adam Gilchrist put in a massive shift here, Scotland could have a better day of it despite the presence of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones for Wales.

Have Wales got one of the best back rows in Test Rugby right now?

We certainly think so. Reliability, panache and sheer brute force are the three key attributes of the Welsh back row turning out on Saturday. As regular readers know, we consider that Justin Tipuric should be made a patron saint of Welsh rugby, as he is one of the most reliable back rowers in the modern game and excels at getting his team of out tight spots. Meanwhile Josh Navidi appears to be back to his best both in the loose and the tight exchanges, with Ross Moriarty just being a devastatingly effective nuisance factor. While we really like the look of Scottish newcomer Jamie Ritchie and see a big role for him in Scotland’s World Cup campaign, we find it hard to believe that he and his colleagues are going to be able to rattle the Welsh justice league.

We’ll say it again but Ali Price should have started in Paris

As regular readers know we have had difficulty of late, especially with the World Cup just around the corner, in understanding Scottish Coach Gregor Townsend’s insistence on starting Greig Laidlaw over Price. We have raised our concerns in the past on these pages that Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw simply doesn’t provide the spark that Scotland needs, and at times is almost pedestrian in his duties. Ali Price is much more of a live wire, and we are more confident in Scotland’s chances on Saturday seeing him get the starting berth, especially alongside fellow speed merchant Finn Russell.

From 11 to 15 Wales are likely to run rings around Scotland

If you watch the Welsh performance against England a fortnight ago, the control that this Welsh set of backs imposed on the game was extraordinary. Put simply we just don’t see Scotland being able to match this on Saturday. There were some outstanding skill sets on display by the Welsh quintet against England, perhaps best epitomized by winger Josh Adams remarkable match winning try. While this Welsh group were perhaps slightly underwhelming in the opening two rounds, they came to fore as the finished product against England. Scotland has some genuine talent in Blair Kinghorn at fullback and the contest in the air between him and Welshman Liam Williams will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Verdict

One thing Scotland do have going in their favor is their bench on Saturday. We are not necessarily saying it’s better than the Welsh offering, but it has a few key individuals who if they turn up can really give Wales some grief. Saturday sees the welcome return of flanker Hamish Watson from injury, and fly half Adam Hastings needs no introduction. However it is the X-factor of Byron McGuigan we are most excited by. Nevertheless with the likes of Dan Biggar among others, it is still a pretty impressive Welsh bench that should feel comfortable with whatever Scotland can throw at them. In short, this is Wales game to lose and it is going to take a pretty special Scottish performance to rain on the Welsh parade. Scotland have a good team, make no mistake but it looks badly shaken in terms of confidence, something which Wales seem to have in abundance. Provided Wales don’t produce the kind of underwhelming displays that characterised their initial efforts in the Six Nations, Wales should emerge the winners and a step closer to lifting the trophy and even a possible Grand Slam. A fascinating encounter but one in which a more assured Welsh side are likely to take the spoils by six points!

England vs Italy – Saturday, March 9th – Twickenham

England were on a roll until their encounter with Wales a fortnight ago. Consequently they will be looking to get their campaign back on track and hoping that Scotland do them a favor in the process. If that were to happen, it will reinforce the need for England to rack up as many points as possible against Italy who traditionally are the weakest side in the tournament. We are fairly certain that Ireland approached their game with the Azurri a fortnight ago with the same mentality but were given an exceptionally rude awakening. Italy may have struggled so far this year, and there is no question that Ireland were well off the mark in Rome, but to still hold the second best team in the world to only a ten point margin deserves some credit. Furthermore, for large chunks of the match Italy were able to exert extraordinary pressure on Ireland which made an already misfiring performance from the Men in Green even more difficult. Lastly the Italian defence has come along in leaps and bounds since November, which will no doubt get in the way of England’s ambitions points wise.

That being said though, this is a home game for England, and Twickenham appears to have regained its Fortress status, making the challenge a daunting one for Italy. While the result is not really in doubt, what remains to be seen is how much of a confidence boost the game against Ireland has given Italy. If they can at least keep the scoreline relatively honest and not get completely blown away by England, then they will be well set for their final home game of the tournament against a mercurial French side. England however would appear to be taking no chances with Italy as a potential banana skin. This is a quality England side, and after the Welsh nightmare England will be looking to reassert to their supporters and the rugby world at large that they are back and mean business, not only in this tournament but also in Japan in six months time. Italy were not the sacrificial lambs everyone thought they would be against Ireland, but this is a much different prospect. We hope for their sake that like a fortnight ago, it is not the result that matters but the performance.

England’s front row should really have no problem, but Kyle Sinckler’s discipline needs work

Sinckler’s value to this England setup is not in doubt, but there is no question that he revels in testing referees’ and opposition’s patience and at times this can be a liability for England. In a contest with a side that is also renown for their own discipline problems this could all get out of hand on Saturday. However, as a player who can break the gainline seemingly at will, England will see him as a key component in their quest for maximum points on Saturday, provided he can keep his mind on the task at hand. However, if he does lose the plot England couldn’t ask for a better replacement than Dan Cole.

It’s an interesting call but both Coaches would appear to expect their second rows to go the full eighty minutes

We were surprised given the mobility of both sets of second rows, to see little or no cover for them on the benches. We’ve already mentioned that we regard Italy’s Federico Ruzza as one of the Azurri’s finds of the year, and Dean Budd covered a lot of the park against Ireland. Both Joe Launchbury and George Kruis need no introduction for England, but have had their fair share of injury problems. Having to contend with a fast and physical Italian unit for a full eighty minutes, may be something English Coach Eddie Jones may have underestimated, especially if injury niggles start to set in. Definitely watch how much attention the medical staff give to these four players on Saturday, as it may be one of the more interesting subplots of the match.

The Brad Shields question for England

Yes we get it Mark Wilson can’t be expected to start every game despite being one of England’s top finds of the last twelve months, and Brad Shields desperately needs some game time. However, we’ve seen little from him either at club or Test level that has really made us sit up and say, “so that’s why Eddie Jones was so keen to entice him away from New Zealand”. Quite frankly we think there are better players in England and as a result an opportunity in developing some long-term depth for the World Cup and beyond may have been missed.

Ben Youngs vs Tito Tebaldi – we can’t wait!

This year the Lineout could also be called the “Tito Tebaldi supporters club,” especially after the match against Ireland. For a side that desperately needed something to cheer about Tebaldi has provided it by the bucketload. In the heat of the moment his execution can occasionally leave something to be desired, but there is no doubt he plays a much faster and more explosive game than England’s Ben Youngs who looks downright conservative by comparison. Youngs is a solid player make no mistake, but if Italy don’t get annihilated by England then imagine Tebaldi to be the most talked about number nine in the English papers on Sunday unless Eddie Jones finally decides to use Young’s replacement Dan Robson for more than 90 seconds a match.

England out wide – look out!

Jonny May had a remarkably quiet game a fortnight ago in Cardiff by his own exceptional standards, and that was also a testimony to how effective Wales were in denying the English speed merchant the space and opportunities he thrives on. On Saturday, he is also joined out wide by England’s secret weapon Joe Cokanasiga. He may be English by long association but his rugby playing chemistry is pure Fijian magic. England are clearly looking to these two to get an endless stream of big points on the board and this is likely to be Italy’s biggest defensive test of the tournament.

Verdict

Just like the Azurri’s match against Ireland a fortnight ago, the result here is not really in doubt. England should emerge comfortable winners and having watched Ireland labor to a difficult win against this feisty and exuberant Italian side, England will be leaving nothing to chance. The Wales mishap is likely to have provided England with the wake up call they needed to avoid falling into the trap of complacency, which almost seemed inevitable after their blistering start to the tournament against Ireland and France. Italy bring an exciting team to Twickenham, but it is unlikely to have the traction it got against Ireland. It’s Twickenham, and should Scotland derail the Welsh Grand Slam express earlier in the day, England will be even more motivated to use this match to get them the points differential they need to keep them in with a shot at the title. England to win by eighteen points despite a spirited performance from Italy!

Ireland vs France – Sunday, March 10th – Dublin

No we are not going to start this preview with the usual clichés about France, but there is no question that after their last performance against Scotland a fortnight ago, Sunday’s encounter in Dublin poses lots of interesting questions for both sides. Ireland have simply not been the form team that everyone made them out to be going into the tournament. Meanwhile France showed against Scotland that this is a squad that can deliver with some raw talent that seems much more comfortable under the big lights than many would have given them credit for. It was certainly one of the best French performances we’ve seen in a long time and light years away from the shambles we saw at Twickenham and that historic defeat to Fiji back in November. If they are able to pull it off again in Dublin then all of a sudden France could just be getting their house in order at the right time, especially if they can pull off two solid performances on the road in these last two rounds of the Six Nations.

Ireland meanwhile know they need to put on a big show in Dublin on Sunday – a very big show. We are really battling to understand where last year’s Grand Slam champions have been so far in 2019. Lacking their customary composure, finesse and ability to manage games right down to the last detail, Ireland have looked less than flash this year to say the least. Sure after the horror show against England they got themselves back on track against Scotland even if it looked labored at times. However, against Italy they were awful and only managed to eke out a mandatory win in an error strewn and lacklustre performance. Their number one playmaker, fly half Johnny Sexton has been so far from his legendary form that alarm bells must surely be ringing ahead of the World Cup. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the remainder of the tournament, Coach Joe Schmidt is more than likely just a tad uncomfortable as Ireland only have two Tests left before preparations begin in earnest for the World Cup in August. However, it’s not just Sexton who has been off the mark, other veteran players are also not hitting their customary heights as well. In short, it has been a frustrating and disappointing tournament for Ireland so far, and their supporters will be looking to Sunday’s proceedings to mark the real kick-start to Ireland’s World Cup preparations.

Ireland’s front row need to stamp their authority on the game from the get go but France may have other ideas at long last

Ireland’s front three, despite their experience have not quite hit the mark so far this year, with Irish wonder weapon Tadgh Furlong being rather quiet to say the least. The three Irishmen will know that France’s Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado will travel to Dublin seeking to avenge that narrow defeat last year in Paris. After their exploits a fortnight ago it would appear that France finally have a competitive front row, and Guirado’s role as a talisman to the rest of his team is well documented in much the same vein as Italy’s Sergio Parisse. Ireland will need to have their front three back to their 2018 form for the full eighty minutes and Rory Best’s dart throwing skills will need to be at their very best, unlike the horror show the unfortunate Sean Cronin experienced in Rome a fortnight ago.

The first in a long line of raw French talent that is improving at a rate of knots – Felix Lambey

What a game the fiery Frenchman had against Scotland a fortnight ago. He may lack experience at Test level, but against the Scots he was an absolute menace and Ireland’s Ian Henderson and James Ryan will have their hands full with the Frenchman. Sebastian Vahaamahina is also no walk in the park for the Irish and if Ian Henderson’s ongoing battles with injury come back to haunt him, then Ultan Dillane is in for another ultimate test off the bench. Ireland are going to have to keep their wits about them here especially at lineout time.

It’s a good Irish back row but once again France have looked the business here for much of the tournament

Ireland are at home and CJ Stander is back and as a result it is a solid Irish back row that heads out on to the pitch at the Aviva on Sunday. However it needs to be as this is one area of the park the French have looked good in all tournament, barring one or two exceptions. Louis Picamoles has been nothing short of remarkable and as regular readers know we rate newcomer Arthur Iturria VERY highly indeed. With Wenceslas Lauret this is the same French back row that took apart Wales for forty minutes in the opening game of the tournament. If they can keep it up for eighty minutes this time then Ireland could have a real match on their hands here. In terms of an opportunity to shine off the bench and lay down a marker for the World Cup, Irish replacement number eight Jack Conan could ask for no better opportunity.

No more Johnny-come-lately please!

Ireland know they need fly half Jonathan Sexton to get back to his best and quickly. Sunday’s game has to be the match where we see last year’s World Player of the Year get his groove back. He looked decidedly frustrated in Rome and there was no question that it was bringing the rest of the team down with him, such is his intrinsic value to Ireland and how well they perform on the day. With his understudy Joey Carberry set to miss the rest of the tournament, Ireland need to get their fly half resources firing again on all cylinders. Sunday’s match sees Connacht’s Jack Carty get another opportunity from the bench, but it was clear that at times he was rather overwhelmed with the sense of occasion in Rome. On Sunday he will be up against some alarmingly good raw French talent in the shape of Romain Ntamack, who partnered exceptionally well with Antoine Dupont at scrum half and who is also likely to give Conor Murray a run for his money.

Irish reliability should bring them home

Ireland’s two most reliable players of the last twelve months, winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney have been the cornerstones of Ireland’s shaky successes so far in this tournament. Earls in particular is playing out of his skin and one almost breathes a sigh of relief any time the ball ends up in his or Kearney’s hands. Match saving tackles, extraordinary calm under the high ball and outstanding line breaks are the order of the day from the Irish duo when Ireland need them most. France looked very good in the backs against a weakened Scottish side, but on Sunday they will be up against one of the best back quintets in the business as Ireland welcome back Gary Ringrose to the centre channel and we all know what winger Jacob Stockdale can do when Sexton is firing on all cylinders. France looked good here a fortnight ago, but provided Ireland find their missing mojo on Sunday, the French could be in for a torrid time here.

Verdict

Ireland have to kick into high gear at some point as they simply have not become a bad team overnight. Furthermore although they are not exactly top of the charts right now, they still have won their last two matches and sit in third place just one point behind England. If Scotland have done them a favor the day before in Murrayfield this could just be the spark to get Ireland back into the tournament with a vengeance. Ireland may have struggled to hit the high notes so far this year, but we very much doubt it is a permanent condition. Consequently, expect plenty of fireworks on Sunday and this is a match you wont’ want to miss. However, we just can’t help feeling that Ireland are about to arrive back with a very loud bang, and this may well be just the match in which it happens to give them confidence for a very challenging trip to Cardiff next weekend. As a result, despite facing what should be some excellent French resistance, Ireland to arrive late in the Six Nations with a real flourish and take the match by 11 points!

Endnote

Sadly our good friends Steve and Gareth from the 1014 on YouTube have clearly been wrapped up by their new affiliation with New Zealand’s Sky Sports into covering Super Rugby at the moment. As a result it would appear they have been unable to spare the time for their usual Six Nations coverage. But we’re sure they will be back and will keep you posted as soon as they are able to put something out.