Posts Tagged ‘Six Nations 2016’

After the nightmare of the World Cup England emerged triumphant in a Six Nations that rarely caught the imagination.  Even though all the sides were undergoing transformations of some sort since the events of last September/October, it would appear that England have made the most progress.  While few of us here were expecting any side to take the Grand Slam, England surprised us and did just that.  While England may not have been the most exciting team in the tournament, they certainly looked the most polished with a clear sense of purpose and direction.  The other teams had moments of brilliance, especially the three Celtic nations but inconsistencies and poor execution at times let them down at various stages of their campaigns.  Meanwhile France showed some promise as they started a new life under Coach Guy Noves despite a domestic structure that is clearly crippling the national side.  Lastly, Italy as expected took the Wooden Spoon as they prepared to say goodbye to Coach Jacques Brunel and sadly got progressively worse as their campaign wore on leaving many people once more questioning their place in the tournament.

Wales vs Italy
Final Score – Wales 67/Italy 14

As exhilarating as it was to watch Wales in full flight, in the grand scheme of things Wales were already assured of second place and Italy the Wooden Spoon before the match had even begun.  Italy looked demoralised for much of the match whilst the Welsh just looked angry and with a point to prove after their loss to England the previous weekend which ended their title hopes.  Yes, Wales ran in nine tries just as Ireland had done the week before against Italy but it seemed a hollow victory against a side who were more spectators than participants.

The Jonathan Davies try against Wales below is a perfect summary of the match.  Italian defences which were for all intents and purposes nonexistent for the last sixty minutes of this encounter, allowed Wales to run Italy ragged for the last three quarters.  There was simply no need for the physical approach preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland and which has often stifled Wales’ creative talents out wide.  Wales were allowed to run free all afternoon with Italy offering very little in the way of an obstruction.

The first half was a torrid affair for the Italians and was not helped by continuing injury problems causing winger Mattia Bellini and center Andrea Pratichetti to leave the field.  Italy occasionally showed some brave defence but it was rarely enough to contain a rampant Welsh team.  Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb, who so cruelly missed the World Cup, made a brilliant return to a Welsh shirt and showed that despite a strong performance by Gareth Davies in his absence the competition for the scrum half berth in Wales will be keenly contested over the coming months.  Webb would open the scoring for Wales despite there being clear evidence of Welsh players being offside from a kick from fly half Dan Biggar.  While it certainly may have made the Italians feel that refereeing decisions were perhaps going to go against them, it still would not have changed the nature of the significant thrashing the Azurri would ultimately get over the next seventy minutes.  Wales would steadily ramp up the pressure on Italy causing their defensive structures to disintegrate and with it their discipline.  Dan Biggar would make sure that his boot would keep the scoreboard ticking over while continuing to keep Italy under pressure.  Despite some poor execution at times from Wales in the opening twenty minutes they were still the more composed and better organised team.

Dan Biggar would get Wales’ next try followed soon after by centre Jonathan Davies as mentioned above who would score one of the best tries of the tournament.  Italy were clearly out of ideas and inspiration, even the legendary Sergio Parisse seemed at his wits end.  With Wales in a commanding lead at 27-0 as referee Romain Poite blew for half time, you felt it was only going to get worse for Italy as there had been little on display to think otherwise.  Italy looked crestfallen while Wales looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

It would be George North’s turn to be the linchpin of Welsh play as the second half got underway.  A superb offload by the winger would set up centre Jamie Roberts for Wales early in the second half.  Soon afterwards the Welsh winger would emulate Jonathan Davies efforts in the first half as he sliced huge holes through the Italian defence to score Wales’ fifth try.  This seemed to galvanize Italy into action at long last and some positive pressure from them in the Welsh 22 would see scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani profit from a solid Italian rolling maul and get Italy’s first five pointer.  The change in fortunes was short lived however, as Welsh fullback Liam Williams would get Wales’ sixth try.

Italy would make one more spirited attack in a brief interlude of positive play from the Azurri, and centre Gonzalo Garcia who has been one of the few shining lights in Italy’s Six Nations campaign would get Italy’s only other try.  From then on till the final whistle Wales simply took the game by the scruff of the neck and it was all about the Men in Red.  Flanker Ross Moriarty who replaced the injured Justin Tipuric would go on to score two more tries for Wales as Italy for all intents and purposes simply ran out of gas and gave up.  Scrum half Gareth Davies would end the match with Wales ninth try and a reaffirmation that, despite a fine return to the Welsh shirt by his rival Rhys Webb, he is still a force to be reckoned with in the number nine jersey.

While there was plenty of excitement in this match from a Welsh perspective it was ultimately a very one-sided contest.  Wales were in a league of their own while Italy failed to make any statement whatsoever.  Although it was an impressive comeback by Wales after the debacle at Twickenham the week before, against such inferior opposition it was hard to say what it really means in terms of where Wales find themselves after this Six Nations and with the prospect of an extremely challenging tour of New Zealand awaiting them in June.  Against better opposition Wales seem to revert to type and the adventurism we saw, albeit too late against England, and clearly on display against Italy gives way to a more conservative physical approach seemingly favoured by Coach Warren Gatland.  While Wales may be sound defensively which will stand them in good stead in New Zealand they will need to have the attacking confidence they showed in the last ten minutes of the England game and in this match if they are to make any kind of an impression against the All Blacks.  When given freedom Wales suddenly look very exciting but they seem reluctant to use their obvious attacking potential especially in space and out wide.  Wales are without doubt a good team and one, as we saw in the World Cup, who can hold their own against the Southern Hemisphere sides when they are allowed to be creative.  However, without this creativity they look exceptionally predictable and one dimensional, two traits that New Zealand will exploit to the full resulting in a potentially painful four weeks for Wales this June.  A New Zealand squad fresh off the rounds of Super Rugby will be an exceptionally difficult proposition for a Welsh side at the end of a very long domestic and international season.  Creativity will be the key, but under pressure Wales may be effective but not imaginative enough to ultimately get results – we wait and see.

As for Italy, it is back to the drawing board for them as Coach Jacques Brunel leaves and Conor O’Shea takes over.  Italy need to build on some of the skills of their younger players who showed some promise in this Six Nations, and learn to rely less on Sergio Parisse to constantly bale them out of trouble or create that initial go forward spark.  It is hoped they can tighten up their execution and decision making under a new coaching regime and play as a more cohesive unit.  The next few years will see Italy under the microscope of International Test Rugby as calls for other European emerging nations such as Georgia and Romania to take their place in the Six Nations will grow.  Italy desperately needs to show some real progress as the results since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000 are few and far between.  I still think it is early days to perhaps talk of relegation even though post the World Cup I did put forward the idea of such a system in the Six Nations.  However, if Italy holds onto the Wooden Spoon again next year then I can’t see how they can argue against it.  As a result, the pressure on them is enormous but hopefully it will be a positive catalyst for change and improvement.  Italy clearly has talent of that there is little doubt, but they need a structure and the support to help them realise this potential.  It won’t be easy but I still think they have a core of younger players who have shown the hunger and the basic skills needed to help get them there in the future.  There have been some promising developments in the management structure of Italian rugby in the last few weeks, and it is hoped that the foundations needed to finally get Italy living up to its potential are slowly starting to be put in place.

Ireland vs Scotland
Final Score – Ireland 35/Scotland 25

Ireland may have won the game but once again it was Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg who stole the show.  This game lived up to the hype surrounding it as both sides played with ambition and flair.  Ultimately though, Ireland’s better organisation and execution would see them come out on top.  Scotland challenged to the end, but once again we saw some of the basic errors creeping back into their game that have haunted them at crucial times in the last year.  Scotland have made enormous progress under Coach Vern Cotter in the last twelve months and are without a doubt one of the most exciting sides to watch in the Northern Hemisphere.  However, it is a lingering lack of finesse that seems to get the better of them in big games such as this one.  Ireland may not have been as exciting to watch in open play, but everything they did was just slightly more clinical than the Scots.  The match provided plenty of thrills and spills but Ireland clearly pulled away in the last quarter and took charge.  Scotland have had a fabulous Six Nations and scored some spectacular tries, but have sadly just not found that consistency yet in the basics.  They are clearly better at the end of this tournament than when they started and the progress has been there for all to see but there is still a way to go before they can really take the bigger teams to task on a regular basis.

Ireland were clearly the better organised team in attack and defence in the first half and Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton’s boot would keep the Scots in check as Ireland led 6-0.  However, some sterling Scottish defence was effectively blunting the Irish attack and keeping the Men in Green at bay.  Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw would see the Scots get on the board with a finely taken penalty kick and after a frenetic first fifteen minutes and considerable dominance of possession by the Irish the score was only 6-3 in favour of Ireland.  Sexton would bag another penalty and the score seemed to be creeping inexorably in favour of the Irish, especially as they were playing the territorial game so well and having the majority of possession.  Then this happened and reinforced just how dangerous Scotland have become.

To say that Stuart Hogg is perhaps a force of nature is rapidly becoming an understatement.  Give the man the ball anywhere on the field and he is more than likely to do something spectacular with it.  Not only is he possessed with an exceptional skill set he is now probably one of Test Rugby’s greatest entertainers and in our opinion, along with many others, has been the best fullback of the tournament.

Scotland were now ahead 10-9 and you sensed that this match was about to really open up.  However, sadly Scotland would suddenly find themselves slipping back into their old ways as discipline and decision making would get the better of them.  Flanker John Barclay was sin binned and a man down Scotland found themselves having to defend a ferocious Irish assault on their lines, which ended in Irish flanker and ball carrying sensation CJ Stander pole vaulting over a pile of Scottish bodies on the white line to get Ireland’s first try.  Minutes later a clever kick from Sexton would see two Scottish defenders have a communication breakdown as the ball went loose allowing winger Keith Earls to scoop it up and dot down Ireland’s second try.  Scotland would have the last laugh in the first half from a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw to restore some respectability to the score line as Scotland trailed 21-13.

The second half would see Scotland essentially try to contain a confident Ireland who clearly had the measure of how to rattle their opponents and play on their perceived weaknesses in decision making and discipline.  Scrum half Conor Murray would, as he does so often, spot the tiniest of tunnels in the pile of Scottish bodies defending the line and squirt through to score Ireland’s third try early in the second half.  Scotland would hit back quickly through Ritchie Gray and some well worked pressure in the Irish half as the big lock would saunter over between the posts and keep Scotland well in touch of the score line trailing 28-20.  Scotland looked well in contention until a moment of disciplinary weakness would see them get a second yellow card as centre Alex Dunbar would make a pointless tip tackle on Irish fly half Johnny Sexton, even if it was milked for the cameras slightly by the Irishman.  As the game ebbed away, a tired and weakened Scotland finally started to cave.  Ireland would capitalise on them being a man down and lock Devin Toner would crash over from a lineout for Ireland’s fourth and final try.  Scotland still tried to make the most of a bad situation till the final whistle but those costly lapses in discipline and execution had once more proven to be their Achilles Heel and Ireland simply played a more comprehensive game which would see them worthy winners at 35-25.

It was a solid performance from Ireland and capped off two good displays at the tail end of the tournament which showed what Ireland is capable of.  While it was always going to be unlikely if not impossible for Ireland to lift the title for a third consecutive time, a strong finish in third place sets the tone nicely for a challenging tour to South Africa in June.  As Coach Joe Schmidt contemplates his future after the South African tour going into 2017, he surely must be pleased with the talent he has at his disposal should he choose to remain in charge of the Men in Green for the World Cup in 2019.  Flanker CJ Stander’s work rate and athleticism has been a marvel to behold all tournament, while Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier had impressive starts in the green shirt in the back row.  I still must confess to being disappointed at not seeing more of Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey in this tournament but hopefully the South African tour will redress this.  Meanwhile prop Jack McGrath was outstanding and it was good to see Donnacha Ryan and Tommy O’Donnell back in action in the forwards and they will be key resources going into the future. Ireland may be rebuilding, but there is more than enough potential to see them return to the lofty heights they reached last year.  I personally feel that with the disarray in the Springbok coaching department at the moment, the Irish trip to South Africa could be a profitable one.  South Africa will still be an immense challenge and a country bursting with talent but the possible candidates for the Springbok coaching job don’t leave us with much optimism, leading us to believe that Ireland could sneak more than just the one win most are predicting they will get.  Either way it should be an excellent opportunity for Coach Joe Schmidt to set the team he or his successor will need to work on building as they start the long road to Japan in 2019.

From Scotland’s point of view, it has been an encouraging tournament, but lingering doubts remain as to how much Scotland have managed to fix some of their core problems.  This is an exceptionally talented team guided by a visionary Coach in the shape of Vern Cotter.  However, the sea change in Scottish playing styles has been so dramatic since Cotter took charge that there are still some kinks left to be ironed out as the team still struggles to adapt at times.  Scottish execution and decision making still remains a problem even though as evidenced in the game against Wales and especially against France and Italy there have been wholesale improvements in this area.  In the game against France for example Scotland finally put in the complete performance they have been searching for since Cotter took charge.  If they can replicate that kind of effort and composure for the rest of the year, then Scottish fortunes on their tour of Japan and in the November Internationals look promising indeed.  Scottish supporters will no doubt feel frustrated that their team is so close but still relatively bereft of results, but I would argue that they are clearly getting there.  This tournament following so close after a tumultuous World Cup campaign for the Scots has been a very positive learning curve and there is plenty to take heart from.  Scotland possess one of the most exciting back lines in Test rugby, a solid and promising halfback partnership that blends youth and experience and a forward pack that is rapidly developing into a powerful and highly agile unit.  All the ingredients are there for success.  Furthermore, look at the increasing depth on the Scottish bench in any of the Six Nations and the future looks bright indeed.  Scotland know what they need to do, simply tighten up the discipline, maintain their composure and decision making under pressure and finesse their execution.  If they can do this consistently then a very exciting future awaits.  While it didn’t quite come to fruition in this Six Nations we saw more than enough evidence that it is surely not very far away!

France vs England
Final Score – France 21/England 31

We’ll be completely honest while we never really expected England to take the Grand Slam we had little or no doubt that they would be the side to lift the Six Nations trophy on March 19th.  As the tournament wore on England’s steady march to the ultimate prize seemed inevitable.  Wales looked like they might have derailed the English Grand Slam express at the death, but ultimately it was too little too late, despite English supporters wincing in the stands at Twickenham in the final ten minutes.  After that match it was left to France to try and produce some miracles in Paris, and they certainly made the effort but by this stage England were simply unstoppable.  If you have to look for a complete team display over five matches then England for the most part gets the nod, despite the defensive horror show of the final ten minutes against Wales and a seeming inability to really assert any kind of authority over Italy in the first half in Rome.  Disciplinary issues still remain, but Captain Dylan Hartley who has been a disciplinary pariah in the past, led admirably from the front in this department and worked hard at bringing his charges into line.  England looked good for the most part but are also aware that they let many opportunities slip past them.  A fact that Australia will be keenly aware of as they prepare to meet them in June.  Meanwhile France have made a relatively positive start to life under new Coach Guy Noves, but clearly have a long way to go before they can once more claim to be a dominant force in the Six Nations.  Captain Guilhem Guirado has been a revelation for France this tournament and was clearly one of the most inspirational Captains of this Six Nations, his work rate and never say die attitude has provided France with some solid leadership in a challenging campaign.  Winger Virimi Vakatawa has proved to be the danger he was built up to be, but his prowess in breaking open defences was often a solo effort in this tournament as the rest of his teammates struggled to catch up with him and his blistering speed and strength.  Vakatawa is a clear threat for France but his team has yet to figure out how to use him effectively, but once they do he should be the spark that sets alight some promising back line players.  Up front France is competitive but without that powerhouse front row of Guirado, Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous, they often looked vulnerable.  In short, plenty to work with but for now France is very much in the design stages.

The score line in this match perhaps doesn’t do justice to how hard France made England work for the full eighty minutes, and they surely must take heart from this performance even though they lost and sadly scored no tries, despite pressing agonisingly close on numerous occasions.  England on the other hand held their nerve, were the more clinical of the two sides and, just as they have all tournament, demonstrated just how far they have come in the three months since new Coach Eddie Jones has taken over after the World Cup debacle.  England were clearly the best side in the tournament and deserve all the accolades they have received in the last two months along with the Grand Slam.  Whether they are good enough to take apart Australia in two months, only time will tell but the foundations they have built in this tournament will certainly put them in good shape to make a serious impression on their Antipodean hosts.

France got the upper hand in the opening quarter of the match, as a lack of English discipline allowed scrum half Maxime Machenaud to put France ahead and he would continue to remain a reliable source of points with the boot all match for Les Bleus.  France looked the more enterprising of the two sides as they were ambitious and the more dominant of the two sides in attack.  After England’s Owen Farrell leveled the scores with a penalty kick France looked promising with some fine work from winger Virimi Vakatawa who was proving to be a handful for the English defences though sadly his colleagues were having trouble keeping up with him.  However, it was England and scrum half Danny Care who would ultimately make the statement as to how this game was going to unfold.

I have always found Ben Youngs to be a more reliable scrum half for England, but there is no question that Danny Care adds an X-factor that Youngs perhaps lacks.  With a keen eye for opportunity Care took advantage of a hole in the French defences that you could have run a legion through.  With only French prop Jefferson Poirot there to stop him there was really no contest.  Continuing English ill discipline especially in the scrums continued to cost England as France’s Machenaud kept them in touch.  However, England were increasingly getting the better of territory and possession despite French fullback Scott Spedding and winger Virimi Vakatawa’s efforts to the contrary.

It would be prop Dan Cole who has been a real part of the bedrock of England’s success in this tournament who would get England’s second try after some determined efforts by the English pack deep in the French 22.  England ended the half in charge at 17-12 but repeated incursions by the French had ensured that Machenaud were keeping France in the game.  As the teams headed into the tunnel it was still anyone’s game, especially if the French were able to keep up their obvious enthusiasm for the task at hand.

France certainly started the second half full of intent and had the English defences scrambling to contain them.  A penalty battle ensued in the first quarter with both sides trading accurate shots on goal and the score line remaining so tantalisingly close for both teams.  If anything it looked like France were getting the upper hand in attack despite some alarming errors starting to creep in as the frenetic pace of the game started to catch up with a French squad who were clearly not as well rested as their English opponents.  However, it would be Mr. Reliable, scrum half Ben Youngs who would come to England’s rescue after some solid ball carrying from Billy Vunipola.  The scrum half made a clever little break and then put a perfectly weighted grubber kick through for winger Anthony Watson to pounce on.  The winger held off France’s Wesley Fofana who himself was playing out of his preferred position at centre, much to the dismay of French supporters.  France however still managed to keep themselves in the game as another English indiscretion allowed Machenaud to bag France’s seventh penalty. The scrum half was proving to be spectacularly accurate with the boot and surely that has answered one question for Coach Guy Noves about who gets the kicking duties in the future.

English supporters would hold their breath as Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley was taken off the field with twelve minutes to go, and given the fact that he had hit every target all night in the lineouts the concerns were valid. English centre Owen Farrell would boot one of the longest penalty attempts of his career and seal France’s fate as the game closed out in England’s favor at 28-21.   However, France suddenly seemed to run out of steam and as French replacement forward Xavier Chiocci headed to the sin bin the writing was clearly on the wall.  Farrell landed another penalty and as referee Nigel Owens blew for full time the relief and joy for England was there for all to see.  It seems hard to believe that this is the first Grand Slam in 13 years for England, but as a result it will be one of the sweetest they are likely to get for a long time.

Whether an England fan or not, you cannot deny that for the most part they were the best team by a country mile in a competition that often left us wanting for so much more.  England played with enough ambition and adventure to lay down the marker for other teams to beat in the Northern Hemisphere and while they may not have had as much flair as the Celtic nations at times, they were brutally effective when it mattered most.  Coach Eddie Jones has more than enough to work with as he prepares to be a tourist in his native land in June.  The second row combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is a bright beacon for the future while Jack Nowell proved his weight in gold on the wing.  England’s scrum still creaks somewhat but Hooker Dylan Hartley as Captain has been outstanding.  England’s back row still remains a problem, as they are essentially having to ask too many questions as to who really is their number seven?  However, with the burden of the Captaincy removed from his shoulders Chris Robshaw has really come back into the fold as one of England’s most reliable and experienced assets. However, Billy Vunipola at number eight is playing some of the best rugby of his career and as seen against Ireland is akin to a one-man panzer division.  Questions still remain around the halfback partnership with Danny Care and Ben Youngs having equal amounts to offer to the number nine jersey, but the questions surrounding George Ford’s lack of form in this tournament in the fly half berth need to be answered before England make the journey to Australia.  Owen Farrell, Mike Brown, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are all proven commodities but the question of what England’s centre pairing really should look like still remains up in the air.  In short, England are in a very good place as they look ahead to an exciting tour to Australia and a full slate of top drawer Internationals in the Fall.  The progress that Eddie Jones has made in three short months is remarkable and England look in very good health.  However, before England and their supporters get too carried away, it’s only once the Australian tour is over will we really know how far England has come, but so far the omens look good.

As for France, they have been ambitious and exciting at times but are clearly still very much a work in progress.  Captain Guilhem Guirado has rightly been labelled one of the standout performers of the tournament and he has provided France with some exceptional leadership in trying times.  However, the problems that continue to plague French rugby are still no closer to being answered despite Coach Guy Noves’ best efforts.  Until the domestic structure allows France to rest and train a national squad in line with the demands of International Test Rugby, it is unlikely that France will achieve much more than one-off spectacular results.  The likelihood of them stringing together a set of consistent wins still looks like a flight of fancy.  On their day they soon will be at the stage where they can beat anybody but then still proceed to implode a week later.  France needs consistency and so far it doesn’t look like they are going to get it.  They face a challenging tour to Argentina in June which has already been sacrificed to the needs of the domestic competition.  Up against a Pumas side revelling in their Super Rugby exposure and champing at the bit to set the right tone for the Rugby Championship in August, this is going to be an incredibly difficult tour for an exhausted and depleted French side.  However, it could be turned to France’s advantage if they use it as an opportunity to blood a new generation of up and coming youngsters.  France at least for this year will need to learn to work in spite of their domestic structure and as a result could end up learning some interesting and perhaps encouraging lessons for the future.  There is enough talent in France that the future should be viewed with a healthy dose of optimism especially now they seem to have in Guy Noves a Coach who is learning how to work with the constraints imposed on him.  There is still likely to be more pain than gain in the French camp over the next year, but I genuinely believe that France will be back and sooner rather than later.  For a nation with such a proud tradition in the sport we hope that this is genuinely going to be the case and that the management problems plaguing France regarding club versus country debate are hopefully worked out for the greater good.

While it may not have quite the edge of the seat aura that last year’s Championship had, there is no question that this Six Nations has finally got the energy and excitement that were so conspicuously absent in the first three Rounds.  England have quietly but assuredly rebuilt themselves from the ruins of the World Cup, and it will require an extraordinary effort from France in Paris on Saturday to deprive England of a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam.  England already have the Championship sewn up, and while there have been moments of doubt in their campaign, the England of 2016 looks an infinitely more structured and focused side than the 2015 edition.  Wales will have to somehow forget a match against England a week ago that had they played with the same level of intensity they showed in the final ten minutes, it could well be Wales competing to lift the trophy this weekend.  Either way they should finish a strong second.

It’s the middle of the table where it is all up for grabs.  France themselves have shown some considerable promise at times this Championship and infinitely more enterprise and intent under new Coach Guy Noves than we ever saw under his predecessor Phillipe Saint-Andre.  However, France’s crippling domestic structure has left the national squad with a talented but ultimately exhausted group of individuals.  There is always the chance that in front of a home crowd France will lift themselves to produce their one extraordinary performance of the tournament as they always seem to manage to do, but it is a big ask and would also have to assume that England could be caught off guard for a full eighty minutes.  England were completely caught off balance by Wales last weekend for ten minutes, but it would seem unlikely that they haven’t prepared for such an eventuality against France and how to contain it.

However, it is the match up between Ireland and Scotland that is probably the most eagerly anticipated fixture of the weekend as these two duke it out for third place.  Ireland showed last weekend against Italy what a joy they are to watch when they are given space and allowed to run the ball.  Scotland meanwhile have managed to do this all tournament and as shown against France have honed it to a fine art, with probably the most dangerous strike runner of the tournament in the shape of fullback Stuart Hogg.  Saturday’s contest in Dublin will hopefully be a showpiece of expansive running rugby, and do much to answer questions regarding the gulf between Northern and Southern Hemisphere playing styles.  Lastly, Italy looks destined to hold aloft the wooden spoon this year as they take on Wales in Cardiff.  Italy have shown some genuine promise at times in this year’s tournament, however under pressure from better sides they have sadly imploded dramatically in the second half.   With a raft of injuries affecting Italy’s final fixture in this year’s tournament, it is hard to see a break from this pattern taking place on Saturday.

Wales vs Italy
Saturday, March 19th

With absolutely no disrespect to Italy of all the fixtures this weekend this is the easiest match to predict.  Wales pretty well have second place sewn up barring some sort of miracle in Paris on Saturday.  Italy on the other hand are in the same position for cementing their grasp on this year’s Wooden Spoon.  To avoid it they would have to put in a performance akin to the Second coming in front of a packed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.  While Italian Captain Sergio Parisse is renown for inspiring his charges to produce the unexpected, such a reversal in Italian fortunes on Saturday would require a truly superhuman effort.  Wales meanwhile will be licking their wounds from only showing up to spoil England’s Six Nations party last weekend in the last ten minutes.  Only a massive score line against the unfortunate Italians will help ease the pain of that error in judgement last Saturday.  As a result, Italy will as always be brave but ultimately sacrificial lambs to a Welsh team looking to erase the memory of last weekend in a red rage.

Up front even without the likes of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones and Sam Warburton, Wales has more than enough power to push Italy all over the park.  The Welsh front row although coming uncharacteristically unstuck against England last weekend, should easily have the edge over an Italian unit that has rarely fired this tournament.  The Welsh front row of Rob Evans, Samson Lee and Scott Baldwin needs little introduction and is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of last week.  This platform should be the blunt and highly effective edge of Wales forward dominance on Saturday.  In the second rows, once again it should be all about Wales.  Wales’ Bradley Davies alongside Luke Charteris should dominate the lineouts and Italy’s offerings in Quintin Geldenhuys and Valerio Bernabo are simply not of the same calibre.  In the back rows the contest is slightly more even, let’s face it Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been no slackers this tournament, but up against Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate who comes in to replace the injured Sam Warburton as Captain they will be pushed hard.  For me Justin Tipuric is one of Wales most underrated players and whenever he is on the pitch Wales develops an extra set of teeth as he is fast, agile and seemingly tireless in getting Wales turnover ball.  This Lydiate/Tipuric axis with the superb Taulupe Faletau backing it up at number eight should give Wales total dominance in the back rows, at the breakdowns and in any resulting loose play.  Italy’s Sergio Parisse at number eight will be a constant thorn in Wales side and alongside Zanni and Minto is a clear threat but just not quite of the same stature and reliability as the Welsh three.

In the halfbacks it is great to see Tommaso Allan make a return for Italy as he was one of Italy’s standout players for me in last year’s tournament and the World Cup.  He along with Carlo Canna is clearly the way forward for Italy at number ten.  However, he and Italy’s Kelly Haimona are still no match for the Welsh all star pair of Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, with the latter turning the game dramatically around for Wales last weekend when he came off the bench.  At scrum half, continuing injury problems mean Italy is more than up against it on Saturday, as newcomer Guglielmo Palazanni is simply no match for Welsh danger man Rhys Webb and his bench replacement Gareth Davies.  Expect total dominance by Wales in this department on Saturday.

In the backs, if Wales play with any kind of purpose here as they did in the final ten minutes at Twickenham last Saturday, then expect them to run riot over the Italians.  Welsh winger George North was on fire last weekend and expect to see him shredding Italian defences if given the green light.  The centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts are tried and trusted and when the former was allowed to really cut loose last weekend he added an enormous amount of variety to an otherwise far too predictable Welsh game plan.  Expect more of the same on Saturday.  Italy has the chance to challenge with Leonardo Sarto and Mattia Bellini on the wings though Sarto’s defensive skills last weekend were highly questionable at times.  Gonzalo Garcia is always a threat in the centre and a strong ball carrier but Italy will feel the absence of arguably their best player of the tournament Michele Campagnaro, with his replacement Andrea Pratichetti having to fill an enormous pair of boots.  At fullback David Odiete has impressed me for Italy in his first season with the Azurri but is no match for Wales’ Liam Williams especially under the high ball.  Italy can compete in the backs but given the sheer pedigree of the Welsh offering, and without the superb Michele Campagnaro Italy are likely to be playing catch up rugby in this department all afternoon.

In short, I fear a rather one sided contest in Cardiff, with Wales potentially running away with a cricket score.  If Italy start losing control of the match by the first quarter, which tired and dispirited as they now are is highly likely, this should be Wales day by at least 25 points.  I hope for Italy’s sake that they can dig deep and find some pride and hopefully keep themselves just in touch for the first quarter, but Wales have everything to prove on Saturday as they set their sights on a truly daunting tour of New Zealand in two months’ time.  Anything less than a clear display of total dominance by Wales on Saturday will have many wondering if it won’t be Wales who like Italy this Saturday will end up sacrificial lambs on the altar of World Rugby in June.

Ireland vs Scotland
Saturday, March 19th

Grand Slam aspirations aside by England later in the afternoon, we have to be totally honest and admit that this is the fixture we are looking forward to the most this weekend.  Even though Italy were very poor last weekend, Ireland were an absolute joy to watch as they ran in nine superb tries.  Scotland against France also provided us with examples of sheer brilliance at times and are definitely the ‘flair’ side of the tournament matched to a set of basic skills and decision making that has finally come of age under Coach Vern Cotter.  With superb conditions forecast for Dublin on Saturday, we are hoping for a contest of free flowing and expansive rugby akin to what our Southern Hemisphere rivals are able to dish up on any given Saturday.  While we are always wary of hyping up a contest in this competition lest it degenerate into a tedious defensive slugfest, we can’t help feeling that Saturday’s tussle in Dublin should be a fascinating spectacle that should keep us on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes.  Whoever you may be supporting Saturday, we doubt you will leave feeling you haven’t just watched something slightly special.

Up front two very solid and experienced front rows go up against each other.  Ireland’s Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross are clearly the more experienced trio, but Scotland’s WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford showed France who was boss last weekend.  However, in front of an Aviva Stadium in full voice at every scrum, I can’t help feeling that Ireland are just going to get the better of Scotland at times on most occasions here.  In the second rows, Ireland should also have the edge at lineout time with Devin Toner rediscovering some much needed form and Donnacha Ryan rapidly becoming a key component of a strong Irish challenge for the future.  Scotland’s Ritchie Gray and Tim Swinson are an impressive unit but they will miss Ritchie’s injured brother Johnny who has been instrumental in Scotland’s stellar rise in the last few months.  While I am delighted to see Ireland’s Tommy O’Donnell back in the back row mix for Ireland, and think the Irish flanker is clearly part of the enormous depth Ireland is developing in this area of the game, he and outstanding newcomer CJ Stander are going to have their work cut out for them trying to contain Scotland’s back row pair of John Barclay and John Hardie.  Scotland’s duo has been outstanding all tournament and are devastating in the loose and in defence, with a tackle rate that is off the charts.  Ireland will compete here make no mistake and this will be one of the most fascinating match ups of the afternoon, but I am giving the Scottish pair a slight degree of dominance here.  Lastly at number eight, Jamie Heaslip had one of his best days out for Ireland in recent memory last Saturday.  However, Scotland also seems to have a depth of talent in this position as well.  Ryan Wilson has impressed me in this tournament, and his bench replacement Josh Strauss is of equal calibre, though I am pleased to see Ireland having Ultan Dillane on their bench who has been outstanding every time he has come on for Ireland and another bright star for the future. I still can’t help feeling that Scotland’s back row is just that more ferocious and edgier than Ireland’s.  Close call to make but Scotland might just have a slight dominance in this area of the park on Saturday.

In the half backs, quality meets quality once more.  Johnny Sexton is back to his best as we saw last weekend against Italy and Conor Murray has rediscovered much of the confidence he has lacked at club level this year by playing alongside his Irish halfback partner Sexton.  Although Scotland are missing the exceptionally talented Finn Russell at fly half due to injury, his replacement last week Peter Horne proved to be an exceptionally capable replacement and I must confess to being surprised to not see him start this weekend.  Admittedly he is on the bench and Duncan Weir provides a certain X-factor at times to Scottish play, so Scotland are certainly fielding some quality in this department.  At scrum half Greg Laidlaw may not have the adventurism of Conor Murray but is more than reliable and a calm head when needed.  His replacement Sam Hidalgo-Clyne however has more of the ability to break a game up than Ireland’s bench warmer for Conor Murray in the shape of Eoin Reddan.  Still given the sheer Test quality of the Sexton/Murray partnership, it should be Ireland’s day in terms of game management on Saturday.  Off the bench though I would argue Scotland has the edge here, but should Ireland have a commanding lead by the time Hidalgo-Clyne and Horne come on then it should be Ireland’s day.

In the backs, no matter who you support there can be little question that everyone is looking forward to seeing Scottish fullback and playmaker Stuart Hogg in action once more this Saturday.  In terms of X-factor and the unexpected the contest between him and Ireland’s Simon Zebo should be one of the most entertaining match-ups we’ll see all Championship.  The Irishman is full of dancing feet and remarkable offloads, but Scotland’s Hogg has been consistently outstanding for Scotland all tournament.  Both players are exceptionally skilled but Hogg’s abilities in defence as well as in attack just give him the clear advantage here.  His decision making and eye for an opportunity is just that much better than Zebo’s so Scotland should get the better of this duel.  On the wings I can’t help feeling that Scotland’s Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour have twice the fizz, spark and speed that their accomplished Irish rivals have in the shape of Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble.  Given also that the Irish pair are prone to injury I can’t help feeling that Scotland will be running the touchlines just that bit better on Saturday.  It’s in the centres that the contest swings back in Ireland’s favour, even though I must confess to being very disappointed to see Ireland’s new rising star Stuart McCloskey once more not even make it onto the bench.  However, Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw has been outstanding for Ireland all tournament.  A ferocious tackler and exceptionally strong and fast with ball in hand he is going to be a complete handful for Scotland all afternoon.  His partner Jared Payne has also had a strong campaign for Ireland and this pair at home should give Ireland the edge they need.  Scotland’s offering in the centres of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor put in a superb body of work last weekend against France and will provide a potential nightmare defensively for Ireland’s Henshaw and Payne, but I feel that the Irish pair’s defensive abilities are more than up to the task, whereas the Scots may struggle to contain the Irishmen in this area of the park.

In short, Ireland should win the battles up front even though they will be exceptionally close at times, but linked to Ireland’s tried and trusted halfback pairing of Sexton/Murray, the Irish platform should prove slightly more reliable under pressure than Scotland’s.  In the backs it really is open season and could go either way, with Scotland’s Stuart Hogg being such a danger that I actually feel that in terms of the running rugby we’ll see on Saturday, Scotland will actually be the better team.  However, that Irish defence coupled to the Schmidt/Sexton brains trust should just get Ireland home on the day.  It is going be close, ever so close and have spectators bouncing in out of their seats for the full eighty minutes, but Ireland to come out on top by three points.  Either way here’s hoping that it truly ends up being the spectacle it is being billed as!

France vs England
Saturday, March 19th

While France vs England matches these days may not quite have the aura of “Le Crunch” that they had in years gone by, they are always a fixture on the Six Nations calendar that is eagerly anticipated.  There is always the possibility of the element of surprise in this fixture with France usually providing it as they somehow manage to rise to the occasion.  France are not the Six Nations force of old as they struggle with a domestic structure that has hijacked the national cause, but in this match they still somehow manage to raise their level of intensity and produce their one ‘big’ game of the tournament.  It is hoped that this Saturday will be no different.  England have won the title and now only France stands in the way of their first Grand Slam in 13 years which seems hard to believe.  England while perhaps sticking to tradition in not being the most exciting team to watch in this tournament have clearly been the most effective and well structured.  Under new Coach Eddie Jones, they have a clear sense of purpose and the basic tools to get results.  While they almost dramatically imploded against Wales last weekend in the final ten minutes, the wake up call that provided is unlikely to be repeated in Paris on Saturday.  England look confident though not arrogant, and must clearly be the favourites to finish a strong Six Nations in style in Paris and reflect on a successful resurgence after the horrors of the World Cup.  England may not be the finished product yet that they need to be if they are to challenge the Southern Hemisphere sides on a regular basis but of all the sides in this year’s Six Nations, along with Scotland they have made the most progress in getting there.

England’s forward pack as a traditional staple has been exceptionally reliable this Six Nations.  Some new talent, most notably in the form of outstanding second rower Maro Itoje, have settled in well alongside more experienced players such as Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley, Billy Vunipola and Dan Cole.  Captain Dylan Hartley has really impressed in the leadership role and has simply left his critics with nothing to say – in short job well done and a superb character transformation.  In the front row, England will have clear advantage on Saturday.  Hartley, Cole and Mako Vunipola will be evenly matched by France’s exceptional Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani.  However, for France prop Jefferson Poirot is likely to be the weak link and ultimately see England have dominance here.  Should Joe Marler be brought in for England early in the match then the contest would even up, as despite his colorful commentary in the scrum, I still think he is England’s weak link in the front row, especially in terms of technique.  In the second row, England’s offering of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is rock solid and offers some dynamism, strength and speed which France simply doesn’t have in their counter of Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart.  Meanwhile in the back row, England once again should have the edge with the experience of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, even though for me the latter is not England’s most reliable asset.  France will compete here especially in the form of flanker Damien Chouly but England should still be dictating the pace at the breakdown.  At number eight, England has all the right cards in the shape of Billy Vunipola whose one-man tank brigade assaults on the Irish lines last month are already the stuff of legends.  I doubt that French newcomer Loann Goujon will be able to match the intensity of the Englishman.

At halfback, England should clearly have the run of play, as despite his dip in form this year English halfback George Ford is more of a reliable commodity than the mercurial Francois Trinh-Duc for France.  Danny Care at scrum half is perhaps a tad quicker out of the blocks than France’s Maxime Machenaud and benefits from having a clearer idea of what the need to offload should achieve than his French counterpart.  Unless Ford gets really rattled then I would expect England to have a much better system of game management in place than France on Saturday.

In the backs, expect to see plenty of offloading by France, but the problem seems to be that it is often slightly directionless and a tad predictable as breathtaking as it can be at times.  England on the other hand are more conservative but much more reliable when it comes to running the ball and spreading it wide, with a much better sense of what they are trying to achieve with it.  Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have been outstanding for England on the wings, and Nowell in particular has really impressed in attack and defence.  France will be hoping that in their wingers Virimi Vakatawa and the superb Wesley Fofana they will have the X-factor that will keep England guessing on Saturday.  It is certainly possible with Vakatawa being a genuine force of nature.  However, doubts remain about Fofana’s place on the wing as opposed to his preferred position in the centre.  Vakatawa as devastating as he may be, has rarely had the support he needs once he cuts loose so far in this tournament, and unless France address this on Saturday, I can’t see them giving England to much to worry about on the wings.  In the centres, there are still some question marks around Owen Farrell, especially as with George Ford’s dip in form many are wondering why he is not running the fly half berth.  However, for the most part Farrell does seem to be working well with Jonathan Joseph in the centres for England.  Farrell’s vision compared with Joseph’s lightning bursts of speed make this a very hard pair to read and contain.  Gael Fickou is a quality centre as evidenced last Saturday, but for me the jury is still out on Maxime Mermoz and given the inconsistent delivery from France’s halfbacks, I can’t help feeling that England should be much more visible in centre field than France on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, Mike Brown’s cocky demeanour is likely to be in for a bit of a bruising from France’s Scott Spedding, and I actually feel that this is one area where France are likely to teach England a few lessons on Saturday.  On top of that Spedding possesses a monster boot that is able to punish any English indiscretions from deep.

However, just as against Wales this is England’s game to lose and France’s to win.  England are clearly right on target for the Grand Slam.  France could upset their party but it will require a superhuman from an already exhausted and slightly disjointed side.  French Coach Guy Noves has made remarkable progress in the space of five matches in lifting a shattered national side from the ruins of the Saint-Andre years.  However, in the case of France, it is very much a work in progress that without a corresponding change in attitudes at the domestic level is unlikely to produce the kind of dramatic results needed on Saturday.  There will be some entertainment at times on Saturday in Paris, make no mistake, but it should be England’s day and ultimate Grand Slam by 12 points!

Yes, it’s back!  The Six Nations after one of the most uninspiring initial three rounds many of us can remember for a long time suddenly found a new lease of life this past weekend and provided us with three highly entertaining matches.  It wasn’t always pretty especially if you were Italian, Welsh or French but there is no doubt that after three false starts the tournament finally found some much needed tempo and excitement.  Ireland completely annihilated an admittedly very poor at times Italy, in a glorious display of running rugby which saw the Men in Green run in nine tries.  England then went on to take a step further in clinching the Championship with a win over Wales which in the last ten minutes almost slipped spectacularly away from them.  Finally, at Murrayfield, the Scots as we always knew they would provided us a display of skill at times that would have been the envy of any Southern Hemisphere team in arguably the most entertaining match of the weekend.  We cheered, cried and forgot to breathe on several occasions in 240 minutes of rugby that reaffirmed our faith in this much loved tournament.  We can only hope that it has set us up for a champagne finish this coming Saturday, even though unlike last year England has already won the Championship by being undefeated in the first four rounds and on track for an elusive Grand Slam for the first time in 13 years.  Although the Six Nations trophy is England’s already this year, next weekend will shed light on so many questions about the future of all six competitors, and with a weather forecast of sunny European skies it should provide for compelling viewing.

Ireland vs Italy
Final Score – Ireland 58/Italy 15

We thought that in Dublin, Ireland were always destined to win this match by a comfortable margin as they desperately sought their first win of the season, but we never thought for a minute that they would do it in such an emphatic fashion.  Italy has looked promising at times in this year’s Six Nations and despite missing some key players, there is enough of a core for Italy that they should be able to provide any of the Six Nations teams with a healthy challenge.  Indeed, there were times last Saturday where Italy showed brief glimmers of promise, but sadly they ultimately imploded in the most spectacular fashion against an Irish side which grew in confidence with every score.  Ireland, had injury woes of their own, and despite some of us scratching our heads over some of Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections they nevertheless paid off and Ireland completely outclassed their Italian rivals.  Whether or not Ireland will be able to repeat this kind of effort against arguably the most exciting attacking side in this year’s tournament, Scotland next weekend, is a huge ask but they certainly laid some solid foundations this Saturday in Dublin.

You sensed that as Ireland took to the field the pressure was all on them, especially in front of the Aviva faithful.  Italy too were without a win, but they didn’t have the pressure of dipping so low from being back to back Six Nations champions.  Ireland looked slightly nervous in the opening few minutes and to their credit Italy capitalised on this and almost got the first points of the match through a near try from centre Gonzalo Garcia who at the last moment was bundled into touch by some desperate Irish defence.  This Italian wake up call seemed to settle Irish nerves and for all intents and purposes Ireland proceeded to dominate Italy for the next 75 minutes.  Ireland came surging back at Italy and the resulting pressure caused some defensive madness from Italian winger Leonardo Sarto as he batted the ball backwards deep in his own 22 which Irish centre Jared Payne gleefully pounced on and took to ground.  Ireland quickly recycled the ball allowing winger Andrew Trimble to get the first of Ireland’s many five pointers that day.  Ireland had their tails up and were full of running rugby with the centres Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw putting in enormous work rates in attack and defense as fly half Johnny Sexton provided the game management.  Irish prop Jack McGrath who was in fine form would secure Ireland’s second try, with flanker CJ Stander getting Ireland’s third minutes later.  Italy had responded with a penalty well taken by their fly half Edoardo Padovani, but trailing 20-3 it was starting to look like a whitewash by the first quarter.

Italy tried to respond as the clock wound down to half time, and in their defence put in some solid phases, with their superb centre Michele Campagnaro being at the heart of much of it, as he would be all match.  In essence for me Campagnaro was the only real stand out player for Italy on Saturday, and he is a real talent for the Azurri and a world class Test player.  However, despite Campagnaro’s and Italy’s efforts as half time approached, this happened producing probably the try of the tournament and putting Italy in an impossible starting position in the second half.

Ireland were now on a roll and starting to look almost unstoppable.  As Italy headed to the dressing room trailing 25-3 you couldn’t help feeling that there was only more pain to come as they increasingly looked out of ideas against an Irish side clearly revelling in the opportunity to be able to run freely again.

Italy looked rattled and dare I say it almost resigned to their fate as they came out in the second half and an easily read pass from Italian fly half Padovani, saw Irish centre Jared Payne streaking across the field to get Ireland’s fifth try.  Irish number eight Jamie Heaslip made an inspirational return to form and would go on to get his second try shortly after Payne’s efforts.  With thirty minutes to go, fly half Johnny Sexton’s work was considered done and he was replaced by Ian Madigan who put in a solid effort for the rest of the afternoon as well as bagging a sound try of his own later on.  Ireland were simply running riot now and as an exhausted and completely disorganised Italian effort sought to stem the green tidal wave, Ireland would run in a further four tries from Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan.  Italy would get two consolation scores of their own from Winger Leonardo Sarto and fullback David Odiete, but it was little consolation from an afternoon which saw them well and truly outplayed.  Ireland put in a complete team performance and all 23 players stood up and were counted.

Ireland now face a massive final tussle for a probable third place with Scotland next Saturday in Dublin, and with the Scots showing that they can score from almost anywhere on the park, Ireland will face a much sterner test than what Italy provided.  For Italy, their tournament is all but over and it will be exceptionally hard for them to pick themselves up for their last game under Coach Jacques Brunel, as they go up against Wales in Cardiff.  Wales have their own questions to answer but nothing less than an emphatic win such as Ireland’s will do, meaning that next week’s encounter for Italy is likely to be just as painful as the lessons they learnt in Dublin.  For Ireland this performance should help get the team back to winning ways as well as bringing on some of the key new talents they have waiting in the wings.  While Ireland has had a tough time adjusting to life after the World Cup, last Saturday showed that this team when allowed to play with imagination and spirit has more than just a few tricks up its sleeve.

England vs Wales
Final Score – England 25/Wales 21

As this match was rightly being considered the title decider many feared it would degenerate into a cautious defensive game with few risks being taken by either side.  Fortunately, this was not the case, as England played with plenty of intent, and Wales despite living up to the billing for the first hour, suddenly and especially in the last ten minutes turned the game upside down, leaving us all to wonder what might have happened had they played that way for the full eighty minutes.  As England carved out a well-earned but nail-biting win at the end, it was an interesting contrast in styles.  England Coach Eddie Jones has clearly helped shaped the way he wants his team to play and allowed them the expression to do so.  Welsh Coach Warren Gatland on the other hand has stuck to a game plan that may have worked in the past, but increasingly looks set to be a relic of years gone by as the Northern Hemisphere sides seek to break free of traditional playing styles.  Once Wales ditched the formula in the last ten minutes and started playing the kind of rugby they clearly want to play, the match suddenly almost got turned on its head.  England have won the Championship, and can now focus on their first Grand Slam in 13 years, while Wales can hopefully afford to throw caution to the wind in their final game against Italy and really start to break free of the constraints in terms of a game plan that is clearly holding them back from achieving their true potential.

England were clearly relishing the prospect of this contest at home in front of a fervent and very vocal Twickenham crowd.  Right from the opening whistle they asserted their dominance over a Welsh side that suddenly looked desperately predictable.  England came out of the blocks full of intent while Wales on the other hand seemed to lack any kind of intent whatsoever in the first half.  Poor discipline in the scrum, endless missed tackles and numerous penalties going against them meant that Wales looked a shadow of the side that had put up such stiff resistance to an Irish side a month ago at the start of the tournament.  England on the other hand looked like they were just getting better with every outing and were not only clear tournament favourites but also on track for a Grand Slam.

England applied relentless pressure and Wales were struggling to keep a sense of composure in containing the English onslaught in the first quarter.  This allowed the boot of center Owen Farrell to put England in a commanding lead 9-0 within the first quarter, and England clearly running the show in terms of possession.  England’s back line in the shape of Nowell, Watson and Brown were constantly sniping and testing gaps in the Welsh defence but it would be England’s newest sensation and ultimate man of the match lock Maro Itoje who would set the stage for the first try of the game.

Wales would continue to struggle for the remainder of the first half, and continued indiscretions in terms of discipline would see England take a commanding lead 16-0 at half time.  As ecstatic English supporters cheered their heroes into the tunnel, Welsh supporters took out their binoculars frantically scanning the pitch to see if there was even a Welsh team out there.

The second half started in much the same vein and yet another penalty would see England leading 19-0.  It seemed likely to generate into a complete whitewash, and although exciting in terms of the play on offer from England and certainly not the snooze fest that many had predicted, without Wales offering much in the way of resistance it still had the feel of a slightly lacklustre contest.  However, as we headed into the final half hour of the match something changed in the Welsh outlook.  A degree of adventurism kicked in and who better to spark the Men in Red into life than fly half Dan Biggar.  After some heavy but ultimately fruitless assault work deep in the English 22, Biggar charged down a poorly gauged kick from English fly half George Ford, and the Welshman had acres of space to tear off into unopposed and set the ball down between the posts.  Trailing by 12 points was still a mountain to climb given the level of confidence on display from England, but Wales suddenly looked like a side with intent once more.  Welsh Captain Sam Warburton was stretchered off moments later, and it suddenly looked like perhaps the turnaround in Welsh fortunes was to be nothing more than an illusion.

With twenty minutes to go, the substitutions started coming thick and fast for both sides.  English fly half George Ford was having another match which clearly showed up the dip in form he has suffered this year, while his opposite number Dan Biggar was replaced by Rhys Priestland.  In my opinion Wales’ most valuable player at the breakdown and in the loose, flanker Justin Tipuric also came on to the field and Wales all of a sudden appeared to be throwing away the game plan and playing a game that relied less on Coach Warren Gatland’s ideas and more on their own instinct.  As we headed into the final ten minutes, Welsh winger George North finally got a chance to showcase just how dangerous and powerful he is when given space.

All of a sudden it was game on again, and although Wales still needed to score two more tries and convert at least one of them, given the new-found intensity they suddenly possessed and given their track record in this fixture at the World Cup last year, it didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that they were perhaps about to pull off a comeback that would be talked about for years to come.  Sure enough Welsh number eight Talupe Faletau would oblige five minutes later with another well worked try after some scintillating Welsh running and offloading.  Rhys Priestland would convert for Wales and all of a sudden Wales were within four points of derailing the English Grand Slam Express.  George North would make one more daring break down the touchline with less than a minute to go, but England’s Manu Tuilagi would bundle him into touch and then scrum half Danny Care would boot the ball into the crowd from the restart as Twickenham erupted in a collective roar of relief that could probably have been heard as far away as Cardiff.

We can only wonder what might have been if Wales had thrown away the Warren Gatland playbook and played with the risk and enterprise they showed in the last ten minutes.  England were deserved winners on the basis of a superb first half and exceptional composure and skill from key players like Maro Itoje who surely must now be considered an indispensable component of any England starting XV.  However, although now surely on track for the Grand Slam against a French side battling with direction, England must also be concerned about the nature of the Welsh comeback and how close they came to suddenly staring defeat in the face after essentially sewing up the game in the first forty.  That Wales were able to score two superb tries with ease in five minutes at such a critical juncture in the game is surely ringing more than just a few alarm bells for England Coach Eddie Jones.  That kind of breakdown and lack of focus against the Southern Hemisphere sides in the summer and autumn Internationals will cost England dearly and potentially unravel all the solid work that has clearly been done in the past five weeks.  Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides England have clearly made the most progress since the World Cup along with Scotland, but as evidenced by the final ten minutes of this match plenty of work still lies ahead of them if they really want to restore their place amongst the elite sides in World Rugby this year.

Scotland vs France
Final Score – Scotland 29/France 18

For us here at the Lineout this was the game, despite the hype surrounding the clash at Twickenham, that we were all looking forward to the most and we certainly were’nt disappointed.  Scotland entertained in a superb display of sound decision-making and dazzling skills.  France were for the most part outclassed but had moments of their own most notably through their Captain, Hooker Guilhem Guirado who once again scored another superb try for his country and provided his charges with some rock solid inspiration and motivation for the full eighty minutes.  Scotland though really have become an exceptionally exciting team to watch, and now that their execution which so often let them down in the past has really been fine tuned, coupled to some excellent decision making and game management, they have become a side that any team should approach with a great deal of respect and caution.  While England has rebuilt since the World Cup, Scotland has experienced a genuine Renaissance and surely must be considered title contenders for next year’s tournament if they are able to continue to build on their momentum of the last few weeks.

This was a standout effort from the entire Scottish team, but there is little doubt that at times Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was in a league of his own.  Hogg is clearly one of the most exciting players in international Test Rugby at the moment, but what really made his contribution so valuable on Sunday was how well the rest of his teammates were able to capitalise as a unit on the opportunities he created.

France meanwhile, were often outplayed but looked far less dire than they did against Wales a fortnight ago.  However as mentioned in the tries by Guirado and later centre Gael Fickou, France showed that they are not without ideas or intent, it just hasn’t gelled to the point where it can provide a genuine threat for a full eighty minutes, especially when key platforms of their game such as the scrum and multiple handling errors are constantly throwing them back on the defensive despite a clear willingness to attack and spread the ball wide.  It was clear in this match that despite an admirable willingness by France to offload as much as possible, there were clearly times when this was not the right option and a balance needs to be struck between spreading the ball and hanging onto it.  Once they do hang onto it then the platforms to ensure they retain possession need further work and better organisation.  Still there are signs that a reversal of fortunes in French rugby is taking place albeit slowly, and it was France who would make the first statement of intent in the match.  Winger Virimi Vakatawa showed just how good he is to ultimately put his Captain over the line for the first try and points of the match.

The build up to this try would see Scottish fly half Finn Russell leave the field with concussion and Scottish supporters suddenly shared a collective sense of anxiety as the young number ten has been such a pivotal part of Scotland’s recent successes.  They need not have feared.  Russell’s replacement Peter Horne played out of his skin and showed that at fly half Scotland now seemingly has some real strength in depth.  Horne was magnificent for Scotland on Sunday and calmly picked up where Russell left off.  France still seemed to have the initial momentum though and Scotland appeared slightly phased by the ferocity of the French surprise attacks and Russell’s early departure resulting in a few breakdowns in discipline.  Fortunately for Scotland, French fly half Francois Trinh-Duc had a horrendous day with the boot and as a result Scotland rarely had to pay for disciplinary indiscretions.

Scottish scrum half, Greg Laidlaw would soon get Scotland’s first points on the board through a penalty.  Scotland their calm restored suddenly looked the more dangerous of the two sides.  Horne and Hogg were clearly running the flow of play for Scotland and the fly half made a superb break through bewildered French defences which set in motion a series of phases that would ultimately see Stuart Hogg crash over in the corner.  What happened next as the wind really started to catch Scotland’s sails was just one of the many examples of glorious running rugby that Scotland seems gifted with these days.

As Scotland found themselves 18-5 ahead it looked like an epic rout was destined to take place.  France however, would not be left out of the limelight.  The Men in Blue managed to string together some good phases and some polished offloading saw centre Gael Fickou squeeze into the corner for France’s second try.  Trinh-Duc would finally manage to hit the gap between the uprights and the teams headed into the dressing rooms after a thrilling first half with France trailing 18-12.

Scotland put themselves back on the scoreboard again quickly after the restart from a thumping penalty kick from Jack of All Trades Stuart Hogg from inside the Scottish half.  France quickly returned the favour with a penalty kick from scrum half Maxime Machenaud who took over the kicking duties from Trinh-Duc who was struggling to make any of his footwork count.  This led to a brief period of French ascendancy in attack, but handling errors and a fanatical obsession with offloading at all costs saw a promising but ultimately fruitless passage of play from France.

However, it would be Scotland and that man Stuart Hogg who would once more show off a set of skills that in days gone by would have been most likely attributed to legendary “French flair”.  Indeed, after this tournament it would appear that the Scots are now the bearers of this lofty accolade.  Just have a look at the skill and decision making of Hogg in setting up Scotland’s third and game breaking try.

Scotland would remain camped in the French 22 for the remainder of the match and the constant pressure would see Laidlaw bag another three points for the Scots as fatigue and discipline problems started to take their toll.  France would make one last breakout from their own Maginot Line and a final assault on Hadrian’s wall, but better Scottish focus would see it disintegrate and as referee Glen Jackson called time, the Scottish players and Murrayfield erupted in a joyous and justified celebration.  Scotland played a complete and scintillating game, and France while bold at times just lacked the execution and imagination of their Scottish rivals.  It had been an enthralling contest that showed that expansive running rugby is alive and well in the Northern Hemisphere and being honed to a fine art in Scotland.

We can now look forward to a potentially thrilling encounter in the final round between Ireland and Scotland as these two sides most likely battle it out for third place.  Meanwhile France head back to Paris with the daunting task of trying to scupper the English Grand Slam juggernaut.  It will be the biggest test yet of French Coach Guy Noves, but if the decision making and execution by France improves in the space of a mere six days, in the way Scotland’s has in the last six weeks, then you never know – an upset of monumental proportions is still possible.  The finale of this year’s tournament is unlikely to be as nail-biting as last year’s, but we will certainly be glued to our television screens next Saturday as our much beloved tournament has once more learnt how to breathe fire!

Round 4 of the Six Nations sees England look to consolidate their position at the top of the table and edge closer to not only the title but also a Grand Slam.  Wales, as they have been all tournament, look to be the side most likely to derail the English steamroller as the two meet this weekend at Fortress Twickenham.  Meanwhile Ireland find themselves having to fend off an Italian challenge in Dublin, a failure to do so would mean that Ireland would plummet from the dizzying heights of being back to back champions to suddenly finding themselves staring at a potential wooden spoon.  Italy have shown plenty of promise this year but as in years past look to possibly fizzle out in the dying stages of the tournament.  Last but not least a revitalized Scotland take on France at Murrayfield on Sunday, and given that Scotland have provided us with some of the most entertaining displays of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere this year, this in many ways could end up being the best game of the weekend.  France are trying to rebuild and have shown that the potential is there, but continued selection problems and a lack of direction at times have meant that France still has a long way to go before they become title contenders again.

Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, March 12th

To say that Ireland have to win this weekend is probably the rugby understatement of the year so far.  Italy are under equal pressure but their track record in this competition since 2000, reflects their current position.  For Ireland however, as back to back champions they find themselves in a very uncomfortable position.  Ireland has plenty of talent and a bright future, but so far this Six Nations none of this seems to be coming to the fore.  Their opening draw against Wales left most Irish supporters with plenty of scope for optimism, however the lack to close out that game repeated itself in their next two encounters in a messy game against France and a spirited but disjointed effort against England.  Ireland is in transition and the big question is what risks should be being taken in terms of building for the future? Based on current selections it would seem very few.  Meanwhile Italy have looked surprisingly good for the first sixty minutes of each of their three games to date in the competition.  If they could catch Ireland off guard and keep them that way for eighty minutes, then in theory an upset is not beyond the realms of possibility especially with the incomparable Sergio Parisse leading the charge.  However, one can’t help feeling that to pull off such a miracle in Dublin is likely to be too much to ask.  Ireland are playing one of the best halfback pairings in Test Rugby in the shape of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray while Italy field an untried combination and it is likely to be this if nothing else which should tip the balance firmly in favor of Ireland.

Up front, Ireland should be able to get the edge over Italy.  In the front rows Ireland clearly has the advantage in terms of experience and technique.  The Irish front row of Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross packs significant big game temperament.  Italy will sorely miss the presence of Leonardo Ghiraldini, and as a result are likely to get given short shrift by their Irish counterparts.  In the second row however, the battle becomes slightly more balanced with Italy’s Marco Fuser a real workhorse.  However, Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should still see that Ireland runs the line of play here especially at the lineouts.  In the back row however, I regard it as an even contest.  Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been outstanding all tournament and the battle between them and Ireland’s CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier should be superb entertainment on Saturday.  The two Irishmen have had outstanding debuts, but I would argue that the slightly longer time together for the Italian pair could well give Italy the edge here.  CJ Stander had a superb debut for Ireland against Wales but was strangely quiet against England.  Van der Flier is an enormous new talent for Ireland, but his lack of experience may at times be a liability.  Lastly at number eight as reliable and committed to the cause as Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is, he just doesn’t have the ferocity, intensity and sheer work rate of his opposite number Italy’s Sergio Parisse.  Therefore, in the forwards I am giving the battle of the tight fives to Ireland but in the back row it could well be Italy’s day.

As mentioned above, it’s in the halfbacks where the cracks in Italy’s structure are likely to be most evident.  To be honest I know very little about Italy’s halfback pairing, other than the fact that their club showings in Europe have been poor to say the least. Fly half Edoardo Padovani and scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani both ply their trade with Zebre who are languishing at the bottom of the PRO 12 table.  Up against the world class experience of their Irish counterparts fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray it is for all intents and purposes a non-starter in terms of a contest.  The Irish pair will simply dominate the run of play on Saturday, putting Ireland firmly in the driving seat.  I doubt that the two inexperienced Italians will be able to offer much in terms of a reply.

In the backs there is room for optimism from both sides.  Italy’s centre pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro are world class.  By the same token Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have also proved themselves.  However, when allied to Johnny Sexton’s vision I give this contest clearly to Ireland.  Italy will be intensely competitive here, but without the brains trust Ireland has in the halfback department Italy will struggle to make the best use of their talented centers.  On the wings I have been impressed by Italian debutant Mattia Bellini and Leonardo Sarto is always a threat out wide.  However, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble are proven commodities for Ireland in both attack and defence and should just give Ireland a slight edge over the Azurri on Saturday.  At fullback I have also been impressed by Italy’s new fullback David Odiete, although his lack of experience does lead to errors in execution in big matches like this especially as the pressure builds.  I must confess to being surprised at Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt choosing Simon Zebo at fullback.  Rob Kearney although injured has not impressed of late, and if anything Jared Payne would to me have been a much more logical choice having really stood out for Ulster this year at fullback.  This would also have allowed Stuart McCloskey another chance to gain experience in building an Irish centre pairing for the future alongside Robbie Henshaw.  Simon Zebo can be absolutely brilliant on attack and he stood up well to the defensive challenge against Wales, despite the fact that in the past there have been justified concerns about his defensive abilities.  However, if Zebo plays anything like he did against Wales this should help cement Ireland’s overall superiority in the backs on Saturday.

I imagine Ireland to play a conservative game as they look for a safe win, despite a very strong challenge from Italy.  If Ireland let the pressure of potentially being left with a wooden spoon get to them, then Italy could end up pulling off the upset of the tournament.  It should as a result be an entertaining contest, but ultimately one which should see Ireland pull away comfortably as the victors in the last quarter by 12.  It is after all being played in front of an expectant Dublin crowd.  The Championship may be well and truly consigned to history but Irish pride has never been more at stake and home advantage should clearly give the Men in Green an edge that Italy will find it hard to overcome.

England vs Wales
Saturday, March 12th

Many are billing this as the big game of the weekend, and given what it is at stake this comes as no surprise. However, as a result I can’t help feeling that of all the matches it will provide us with the least in terms of spectacle and entertainment.  It is likely to be a tight tense affair built around a solid defence that sees both sides reluctant to take chances.  Of the two sides England is likely to be the slightly more adventurous and expansive of the two sides, but I very much doubt the match is going to be a high scoring free flowing contest.  England look the more comprehensive side in terms of game plan, whereas Wales is clearly the more settled of the two sides.  Wales have the experience and cohesion of a team that has been up against it on a regular basis.  England on the other hand are bursting with talent and as their combinations continue to strengthen and develop they look to be the side that has the greater potential for the future.  England seem to have a clear idea of who they want to be and the type of game they want to play even if at times their execution is somewhat lacking.  Wales have a tried and trusted game plan that while lacking in imagination at times still seems able to produce results.  Wales may not be exciting but they are effective even if in the long run this inability to evolve their game plan may ultimately become their Achilles Heel.  It is going to be tight and perhaps not the most riveting of spectacles but I still can’t help feeling that much of the excitement to be generated on Saturday will come from England buoyed by them seeking revenge for being so unceremoniously knocked out of the World Cup by Wales.  If Wales can contain and dampen this English excitement and intensity they will be in a good position to derail England’s Grand Slam aspirations.  However, I can’t help feeling that England’s willingness to take more risks than Wales will ultimately give them the game by the finest of margins.

This is going to be an intensely physical encounter from the get go.  The Welsh front row despite its youth has proved impressive and seems to get better with every outing.  However, England’s experience in the front row in the shape of Captain Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Joe Marler is significant.  Cole was immense against Ireland and Hartley kept his composure and worked hard at keeping his charges on track, especially when discipline was proving to be a problem.  For me though the weak link in the English scrum is still Joe Marler and Wales’ Samson Lee is going to give him a stern examination on Saturday.  Despite England’s experience I am giving the battle of the front rows to the more dynamic Welsh offering.  In the second rows, my money is clearly on England.  Alun-Wyn Jones is immense for Wales but the English pair of George Kruis and debutant Maro Itoje are rapidly developing into a real powerhouse second row.  Kruis has enormous power while Itoje’s ability to get England turnover ball is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends.  In the back row I give the advantage back to Wales.  Sam Warburton is an outstanding Captain and a real menace in the loose along with Dan Lydiate.  Add to these two Welsh superhero Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and Wales should dominate this area of play on Saturday.  England’s Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have plenty of experience but they simply don’t have the wrecking ball qualities of their Welsh counterparts.  The battle between England’s Billy Vunipola who was a one-man Panzer division against Ireland and Wales’ Talaupe Faletau should be one of the highlights of the match at number eight.  Vunipola’s sheer power will be exceptionally difficult to contain.  Faletau is equally powerful in broken play but what he lacks in terms of strength in comparison to Vunipola he more than makes up for in terms of agility.  Overall, though in terms of the physical battle, given their scrum and their back row, I am just giving the edge to Wales.

In the halfback pairings though it is almost impossible to choose, though on form I would give Wales a slight advantage here.  Fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Gareth Davies for Wales have been outstanding and work exceptionally well together.  England’s scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford are absolutely top drawer but the latter has struggled at times in terms of form in this year’s Six Nations.  He was much better against Ireland and alongside Ben Youngs his regular English half back partner he seems to be much more confident.  Of the two sides though I would argue that the Welsh pair has slightly more of a big game temperament and the experience of tripping England up last year at the World Cup should just give them the nod on Saturday.

For me though it’s in the backs that England can and should win this match.  The English backs are much more adventurous as a unit than their Welsh counterparts and if provided with quality ball are much more likely to create opportunities than Wales. The centre pairing of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph is proving to be the vision and pace in this department that England has lacked for so long.  Wales’ Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are outstanding talents, but Roberts tends to be very predictable at times.  Jonathan Davies is the more expansive of the two and more likely to use the space available to him with more imagination.  However, as good as these two are, I can’t help feeling that England’s pair at Twickenham will just rise to the occasion that much more.  On the wings, England’s Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have got better with each outing in this tournament, and Nowell in particular is proving to be a real handful in defence and attack.  Wales’ George North and Alex Cuthbert although impressive are for me just not as good as their English counterparts.  When he fires George North is one of the best in the world but I can’t help feeling that he has lost a lot of his intensity in the last year and his schoolboy fumbling try against France was an example.  When in the right place at the right time he is unstoppable, it’s just he rarely seems to get there much these days.  In the last line of defence at fullback and at Twickenham then it has to be Mike Brown’s day for England.  Whether you like him or not, you can’t deny that his tenacious if somewhat obnoxious attitude gets results.  In front of a home crowd Brown’s intensity is likely to get ramped up that extra notch.  Wales’ Liam Williams has impressed, and some of his individual skills may actually be better than Brown’s but as the complete fullback then I would say that the Englishman is more the overall package in tight encounters like these.

A high stakes match that will have plenty of tension awaits.  However, the tension itself may produce a conservative match that sees both teams unwilling to take risks.  Consequently, expect a tough first hour with few points up on the scoreboard.  If England are able to release their backline in the last quarter and really start to tire the resolute Welsh defence, then England should just pull away.  Close and almost impossible to call, but sticking my neck out here and giving it to England by five.

Scotland vs France
Sunday, March 13th

For me this should be the most exciting game of the weekend.  In years gone by it was always France who were given the label of the flair side, but in our opinion this title has now gone to Scotland.  They may not always get it right in terms of execution but you can’t fault them on intent and willingness to play adventurous and exciting rugby.  In the match against Italy they finally managed to connect all the dots and Scotland’s exciting and expansive playing style are really starting to pay dividends.  For France they have shown plenty of intent and lots of potential, but still seem to be struggling with direction.  Perhaps the difference this year is how much we have seen in France that could be used for the future.  French Coach Guy Noves seems to be developing an idea of the team he wants after only three matches in charge, and when not handcuffed by the vagaries of the French club structure in terms of selection, he seems to be taking France in the right direction.  However, it is early days still for a new France whereas Scotland are finally starting to reap the rewards of tearing up the old playbook and embracing a bold new future.

In the front rows it is clearly an even battle.  Scotland in the shape of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel have one of the best scrummaging units in European rugby.  France boast the exceptional talent of Rabah Slimani and their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado who was France’s standout player and source of inspiration in an otherwise dire effort against Wales.  However, Jefferson Poirot seems to be the weak link in the chain for France, and as a result this contest should be Scotland’s.  In the second rows the Gray brothers, Johnny and Richie are just that much more settled and effective as a unit than their French counterparts Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart and once again Scotland should have the edge here.  In the back rows it also should be Scotland’s day.  John Hardie and John Barclay were absolutely outstanding against Italy and expect the same on Sunday.  France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara show plenty of promise for the future but as a unit are just not there yet in comparison to their Scottish counterparts.  At number eight it should be an even contest between Scotland’s Josh Strauss and France’s Damien Chouly, though the greater experience of the Frenchman should just see him have an advantage here.  Overall though I can’t help feeling that Scotland should be the master of the forward battles on Sunday.

In the halfbacks once again I would hand the benefit of the doubt to Scotland.  Fly half Finn Russell is electric and scrum half and Captain Greg Laidlaw is the steady hand on the tiller.  France’s Francois Trinh-Duc may have more experience and a slightly cooler head than his Scottish counterpart at fly half, but the Scotsman is more likely to take his chances when they present themselves.  Maxime Machenaud may have a greater burst of pace and intensity at the breakdown as scrum half than Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw, but his lack of composure at times coupled with occasional indecision means that France’s loses momentum at key moments.  Therefore, once again as long as Russell keeps his wits about him Scotland should be more effective at running a game plan than France.

In the backs there is plenty of excitement on offer from both sides.  France boasts a wealth of talent that could potentially be a nightmare for any defence.  However, once more though Scotland seems more effective at using their backs and creating opportunities with them than France.  France has some devastating ball carriers in the shape of Virimi Vakatawa and Wesley Fofana but often these players are expected to perform miracles on their own.  In the centres France have two talented players in Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou but without direction these two are likely to flounder in linking their attacks to a concerted team effort as we saw against Wales.  Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor may be the slightly less experienced pair but more likely to create opportunities that the rest of their team can build on.  On the wings, Scotland packs a tight unit in the shape of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour with the latter rapidly becoming one of the masters of the high ball.  Visser’s speed and agility coupled with Seymour’s ability to read the aerial battles make these two a handful for any defence.  France’s Wesley Fofana and Virimi Vakatawa can rip defences to shreds in the blink of an eye but without adequate support which is something France is struggling to provide; their attacks rapidly lose the hard earned momentum that these two talented individuals create.  Once again two very talented sets of wings but given the fact that Scotland’s pair are likely to be better supported it should be Scotland’s day here once more.  Lastly at fullback Scotland boast one of the best players of the tournament in Stuart Hogg.  He has simply been inspirational this tournament and every time he gets the ball something happens.  One of the tournament’s most exciting players to watch by a country mile, Hogg should be at the forefront of getting Scotland deep into the French half.  France’s Scott Spedding has one of the biggest boots in Test Rugby and is a hard man to bring down but all too often is far too predictable.  He may be reliable but is unlikely to really spark a passage of play that is likely to surprise Scotland.  France has some exciting backs, but Scotland do as well and their ability to both create opportunities coupled with the support play needed from the rest of their teammates should clearly give the Scots the edge on Sunday.

Expect plenty of free flowing rugby especially from Scotland.  The Scots greater sense of vision of what they are trying to achieve should get them through a fascinating encounter on Sunday.  France will pose a serious threat, but Scotland who are now really starting to click as a unit and in front of an ecstatic home crowd should be the better team.  Consequently, we feel Scotland should ultimately walk away the victors by eight points!  Despite the high stakes taking place at Twickenham the day before, as a celebration of our glorious sport we have a feeling that this is the game you’ll really want to watch this weekend.

Round 3 of this year’s Six Nations saw England assert their authority in their race to lift the trophy this month while Wales made it clear that they have every intention of being the team to upset England’s party at Twickenham in Round 4.  Ireland and Scotland meanwhile provided plenty of entertainment, particularly in the case of Scotland as they recorded a much needed and emphatic win in Rome.  Ireland played with plenty of heart and their handful of new caps provided some exciting insight into what Ireland could look like in the very near future.  Meanwhile, despite the truly heroic efforts of their Captain, France failed to impress in what was a fairly dire effort in Cardiff and Italy showed plenty of courage but were ultimately blown away by Scotland’s composure and devastatingly quick back line.

In many ways despite what was at stake for all teams at the midpoint of the competition, Round 3 was not the most riveting weekend in Six Nations rugby with the exception of the Scotland game which provided us with a glorious spectacle of attacking rugby.  The match in Cardiff between Wales and France was more like a comedy of errors at times and it was only a spectacular Welsh defence and some heroic marshalling of the troops by French Captain Guilhem Guirado that sparked our interest.  The game in Rome was visually the most entertaining of the three contests and while there was plenty of tension in the match between England and Ireland, as expected it was a gritty encounter at times with both teams leaving plenty of points on the field that could have and should have been taken.  England were the more effective of the two teams and the sight of Billy Vunipola providing a one-man tank assault on the Irish defence was quite awe inspiring at times, but we were left feeling that there could have been so much more from a fixture that had been so built up in terms of expectations from both sides.  England were clearly the better side on the day, and from an Irish perspective it was good to see some new caps really make a statement, but overall the match saw England get the job done and Ireland wonder what might have been.

Wales vs France
Final Score – Wales 19/France 10

Like most people we were all really looking forward to this contest.  France had shown some signs of serious recovery after their time in the wilderness known as the Philippe Saint-Andre years and Wales looked good value for money as main title contenders with England.  Wales’ defensive abilities are rightly considered to be the best in the tournament so far this year, but the French scrum after some tweaking in the first two rounds is showing some clear promise for the future allied to a new generation of exciting and competitive forwards.  France seem to be developing some attacking flair and prowess once more, and Wales through a solid halfback partnership of Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies clearly have the potential to pick apart defences at will unleashing a powerful Welsh back line.  Consequently, we anticipated a relatively high scoring game with some good running rugby.  In essence we got neither as we watched two sides play a slightly unstructured game riddled with schoolboy errors.  In short, the French looked confused and at times the Welsh looked comical.

The first half had few if any highlights.  Wales looked solid defensively and in the set pieces but failed to capitalise on the few attacking opportunities they had.  Furthermore, endless scrum resets by referee Wayne Barnes slowed the match at times to a snail’s pace.  Although Wales looked the more settled of the two sides, they seemed more content to simply sap French energy than genuinely try and create opportunities of their own.  Meanwhile, France looked completely confused for much of the first half and without any sense of purpose in attack.  French winger Virimi Vakatawa did his best to spark an energetic French attack to suddenly find himself facing a Welsh wall with no support players in sight.  At the breakdown French play was typified by a few bodies on the floor and several others milling about aimlessly on the fringes or stumbling into each other not quite sure what if anything was supposed to happen next.  Wales seemed content to simply soak up the pressure and let the French tire themselves out while capitalising on any penalties that came their way.  Just before half time, Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies took matters into his own hands through a blistering break, but much like France’s Vakatawa suddenly found himself with few if any options in the form of the rest of his teammates at the breakdown.  As Wales led 6-3 at half time, we hoped that the inevitable dressing room question and answer periods would produce a slightly more interesting second half.

The second half wasn’t that much better and despite an initial spark of brilliance from Welsh centre Jonathan Davies who masterfully put the ball into acres of space for a charging George North, what followed next from both sides can only be described as a schoolboy friendly at its best.

George North would be happy with the try and French fly half Jules Plisson may be considering other sporting professions, but although a crucial score for Wales, apart from Jonathan Davies initial effort there was very little skill involved.  It seemed to put the nail in France’s coffin.  Instead, it served to galvanize French Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado to put in an heroic effort at rallying his dysfunctional troops.  France seemed reenergized and once more went on the offensive with Guirado being in the thick of everything.  However, despite repeated heroic assaults on a Welsh defensive line that would simply not crack, France by the final quarter had nothing to show for their efforts and a humiliating thrashing at 19-3 seemed to be a harsh reward for all their efforts as disjointed as they may have been.  Francois Trinh-Duc came on for the flailing Jules Plisson at fly half and some order was restored to French efforts.  Finally, Guirado’s perseverance paid off and he secured a consolation try for France and just reward for his superhuman efforts in service of his country.  The final whistle blew much to the relief of players and spectators at 19-10 for Wales.

Welsh supporters while elated with the win know that Wales will have to step up their game tenfold if they stand any chance of upsetting England’s Grand Slam ambitions at Twickenham on March 5th.  As England look willing to attack and are becoming more confident in the process, Wales will need to match them not only in defence but also make sure they are taking the initiative in the offensive battles.  From what we saw in Cardiff last Friday, Wales and Coach Warren Gatland have more than just a little homework to do.  For France as they too look to be the final hurdle in denying England a Grand Slam, there are sadly still far too many questions to answer in the space of three weeks made worse by the incessant and unrealistic demands of a gruelling domestic season on national players.  France are clearly making progress but the results are likely to be thin on the ground for a while yet.

Italy vs Scotland
Final Score – Italy 20/Scotland 36

In terms of spectacle and entertainment this was clearly the best game of the weekend.  Scotland desperately needed a win, and a big win to boot.  They managed both and must surely be feeling more than just a little optimistic about their forthcoming clash with France at Murrayfield.  Their execution was absolutely top drawer and was complemented by some sound and composed decision making.  Italy were not as steamrollered as the score line would suggest, but in terms of ability and flair they were completely outclassed by their Scottish rivals.  Italy still looked good at times and Captain Sergio Parisse as always was in the thick of things.  Italy scored two well worked tries that are a credit to the endeavour and skill levels that Italy has available to them.  The renaissance in Italian Test Rugby is still ongoing despite the woeful fortunes of Italian teams at the club level in Europe.  However, as good as Italy were at times, Scotland ruled the Stadio Olimpico both in attack and defence, leaving Italy to try and catch up as best they could.

Scotland were without regular number eight David Denton, but we weren’t overly concerned as from our point of view he was remarkably quiet and almost ineffectual against Wales.  His replacement Ryan Wilson on the other hand had a barnstormer of a game against Italy and proved a match for his Italian counterpart, the legendary Sergio Parisse, on several occasions.  Although Italy would get the first points on the board from a monster kick from fly half Kelly Haimona, the momentum would swing firmly in favour of Scotland as they would score two outstanding tries in the space of six minutes to put them ahead 14-3.  In the first try Scottish danger man and fullback extraordinaire Stuart Hogg would scythe and weave his way through a dumbfounded Italian defence and then going to ground provide flanker John Barclay with a spectacular offload to see the forward get Scotland’s first try.  Three minutes later Scottish fly half Finn Russell would provide his own magic by dancing his way around several Italian defenders and putting Barclay’s back row partner John Hardie over in the corner for the Scots’ second try.

Italy would regather their senses after the Scottish whirlwind and go on to score a fine try of their own, through centre Gonzalo Garcia and Hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini.  Italian fly half Kelly Haimona for once seemed to have brought his kicking boots and the score was 17-10 in favor of the Scots at half time.

Italy started the second half full of intent but slightly lacking in execution and discipline allowing Scotland to widen the margin through Greg Laidlaw’s boot to 23-13 as both sides traded penalties, with the count being in the Scots favour.  Italy maintained the pressure and were rewarded for their efforts in the Scottish 22 as lock Marco Fuser crashed over for Italy’s second try.  With 20 minutes still to play and the score 26-20, Italy looked to make the comeback that the home crowd was baying for.  However, Scotland’s superior fitness and bench would come into play and Scotland quietly took charge of proceedings for the last quarter in Rome.  Italy maintained the pressure but bodies and minds were beginning to tire for the Azurri and the finishing skills just weren’t there anymore as discipline also started to break down.  To rub salt into the wound, Scottish winger Tommy Seymour would score yet another try for Scotland at the death after some more stellar work from fullback Stuart Hogg.

In the end, it was clearly Scotland’s day as they finally really looked like the side they have been promising to be for so long.  Here’s a superb view of Scotland’s remarkable skills against Italy in Round 3 to illustrate the point.

Italy can take heart from the fact that they simply never gave up against a Scottish side that was just firing on all cylinders at long last.  Italy remained competitive to the end, but Scotland’s remarkable skill set just proved too much on a day where they finally managed to connect all the dots.  Whether Scotland can do it all again against France remains to be seen, but based on what we’ve seen so far, and in front of an ecstatic home crowd, we think the answer will surely be yes!

England vs Ireland
Final Score – England 21/Ireland 10

We’ll have to confess that this was the game we were all looking forward to the most in Round 3, and while not nearly as turgid as the contest between Wales and France it didn’t quite live up to the weight of expectation going into the match.  While still a good contest it somehow lacked the sparkle and exciting exuberance of the game earlier in the day in Rome.  England clearly lay down the marker that they are the team to beat this year and new Coach Eddie Jones’ initial outings in charge certainly seem to be hitting all the right notes.  However, as good as England are and truly extraordinary as Billy Vunipola was last Sunday, you can’t help feeling that there is still work to be done before this new look England really can be called a finished product.  For Ireland, they are clearly in transition and searching for the leadership and direction they have benefitted from in the last few years but is now painfully absent at times.  However, there were plenty of signs of promise as Irish Coach Joe Schmidt finally got a chance to blood some new talent, most notably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey and Flanker Josh Van der Flier, both of whom acquitted themselves superbly last Saturday.  Ireland are clearly out of the running for Six Nations glory this year, but the last two rounds of the Championship should hopefully see some solid foundations laid for the future with the pressure of having to defend their Six Nations title now removed.

It is only fair to say that the score line is not an accurate reflection of how close this game was in reality.  Indeed, Ireland were only trailing by three at half time, and a late resurgence by the Men in Green could have swung the game in their favor had they been slightly more efficient with the run of play.   However, England were the clear winners in a match that never looked a certainty for them until the last ten minutes.  England have finally got the composure and mental fortitude to close out tight and emotionally charged matches like this one, and in his defence I have been impressed by how much English Captain Dylan Hartley has contributed to this process.  Hartley has more than silenced his critics and been a model of discipline for the rest of his teammates, and his legendary short fuse which was once England’s Achilles Heel has been notably absent from England’s performances in this tournament.

England had much of the possession and attacking play in the first half but problems with execution and discipline in the heat of the action were causing them problems, and when you have the likes of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton as your opposition fly half, such lapses will always prove costly.  Consequently, penalties were traded for much of the first half, with England looking the more enterprising in attack but let down by a lack of essential skills at crucial moments.  To Ireland’s credit, although rarely looking a threat in attack they were solid in defence and forcing the English into numerous errors.  At half time it was 6-3 for England but there had been little to genuinely lift the spirits for both sets of supporters.

The second half however would provide the fireworks that this match so desperately needed, with England Number Eight Billy Vunipola at times acting like an entire Panzer division as he set up countless opportunities and breaks in the Irish defence for his teammates.  However, it would be Ireland who would get the first try as scrum half Conor Murray would take full advantage of England being a man short due to a yellow card, and squeezing himself through a tunnel in the English try line defence.  Ireland all of a sudden led 10-6.  England would then strike back as Vunipola set off on a personal crusade into the Irish half.  His superhuman efforts would ultimately lay the foundations for England scoring two tries to put them firmly in charge of proceedings.  Winger Anthony Watson would benefit from a timely offload from flanker Chris Robshaw for England’s first try, soon followed by some superb interplay from centre Owen Farrell and fullback Mike Brown for the second try, as England streaked ahead and began to look the clearly dominant side.

However, it wasn’t to be all England’s day as a concerted Irish effort was made to respond causing some heroics from both sides.  Irish centre Robbie Henshaw looked dangerous all afternoon and a spectacular last minute try saving tackle from England winger Jack Nowell just managed to keep Ireland from getting back into the game after a searing break from Henshaw.  Some refereeing decisions that clearly didn’t go the way of the Irish saw them denied a sure fire try from the two new forward caps Van der Flier and Ultane Dillane who both had a superb afternoon and who show enormous promise for the future.  Ireland attacked again and unfortunately as Irish scrum half Conor Murray decided to hang onto the ball rather than release it, he received some undue cosmetic surgery from the boots of English fullback Mike Brown.  French referee Romain Poite then proceeded to completely lose the plot as he made several different and inconsistent decisions on a rather complex passage of play.  The result was a loss of momentum for the Irish and a lucky reprieve for England.  However, the referees’ decisions will often be up for debate and it is the responsibility of teams to focus on the task at hand.  In this case England clearly had the upper hand, and turned the pressure back on Ireland.  Ireland would give it one more heroic effort but England clearly had the measure of them in defence and the English scrum and lineout was proving to be key, along with the one-man army efforts of Billy Vunipola.

In the end, refereeing decisions aside, England emerged the deserved winners against a very spirited Irish challenge that at times just wasn’t as well executed and planned as that by the Men in White.  Although an epic tussle at times, it somehow lacked the spectacle most of us have come to expect from this fixture, with both sides seeming unsure of themselves at times.  However, what you can’t take away from this match is the fact that England are on a roll and if you are going to stop them, then stopping this man is going to have to be a very big part of your strategy.

While they may not look the finished product just yet, England are still the most likely Championship material this year, and Wales will be racking their brains as to what they need to do to eke out a win at Fortress Twickenham a week today.  As for Ireland, they can return to Dublin with their heads held high and their new young guns eager for a crack at an equally spirited and enthusiastic Italy.  Ireland’s Championship may be over but the first steps to Japan and 2019 were taken last Saturday, and as a result Irish eyes should be smiling.

In this weekend’s third round of the Six Nations, England and Wales seek to consolidate their position as the two contenders for top honors in this year’s competition.  Meanwhile France get their first proper test of the tournament and we get to see how much the massive underdog label suits Ireland at Twickenham.  Lastly the two traditional competitors for the Wooden Spoon, Italy and Scotland do battle in Rome.

England clearly have it all to prove in their sternest test to date under new Coach Eddie Jones in front of a Twickenham crowd demanding excellence at the highest level.  Ireland, partly as a result of injury, are forced into playing at long last some of their promising provincial up and coming talent, most noticeably in the shape of centre Stuart McCloskey.  Despite wearing the underdog’s shirt, it’s still a solid looking Irish side which under Coach Joe Schmidt is more than capable of upsetting the English band wagon, even at Fortress Twickenham.  Meanwhile in Cardiff a Welsh side that needs no introduction takes on a French team that is finally looking like it is settling and has the potential to enable French rugby to finally rise from the ashes of the last four years.  Wales although put through their paces in no uncertain terms by a feisty Scottish side two weeks ago still showed that they have a remarkable ability to regroup and turn a game around when it matters most and this Saturday should be no exception.  In Rome, Scotland have it all to do and finally prove that the clear potential they keep displaying is now more than just that with an emphatic win over the side that gave them the Wooden Spoon last year.  This is a Scottish team boasting some serious talent and in the game against Wales their execution and decision-making was finally starting to show some of the finesse and polish it so desperately needs.  For Italy, home advantage and the rampaging form of Captain Sergio Parisse will as always provide them with more than enough inspiration.  Italy have looked extremely good at times this tournament with some superb emerging talent.  However, a number of injuries to key players for this weekend’s fixture may cause them to come unstuck against a full-strength and highly motivated Scottish side desperate for a win.

Wales vs France
Friday, February 26th

Wales will be wanting to seal an emphatic win on Friday in Cardiff to really prepare them for a tough assignment away against England in a fortnight’s time at Twickenham.  Although they got the run around from Scotland a fortnight ago, the character and composure in Wales at the moment ensured that they never really looked as if they felt the game was slipping away from them – stirred but definitely not shaken!  France meanwhile look like they are finally starting to settle as Coach Guy Noves in only his third outing appears to have the nucleus of the squad he wants to work with this year.  That stability and consistency is an ingredient French rugby has lacked for far too long.  Admittedly there is still some tweaking going on, but for the most part we have a much better idea of the type of France that will turn up in Cardiff and for the rest of the tournament than we ever did under Noves’ predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre.

France have chosen to try and replicate the front row that rescued France against Ireland a fortnight ago with Captain and Hooker Gulheim Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani, but without Eddy Ben Arous they will be hard put to match up to Wales here.  Arous is unavailable for this game and in his place is Jefferson Poirot, who did little to impress against Ireland a fortnight ago.  The minute he was replaced by Arous in that match, France’s fortunes in the front row improved dramatically.  Given a solid and experienced Welsh front row boasting the likes of Samson Lee and the more than capable young talent of Rob Evans, Wales should easily dominate the war of the front rows.  In the locks it is more of an even contest especially as Wales are without Luke Charteris who has had an outstanding tournament so far.  However, with the talismanic figure of Alun Wyn-Jones bludgeoning his way through the forwards and towering over the lineouts, Wales should have the edge over France here.  However, I do like the look of France’s new second row partnership and definitely think there is a sound platform here for the future in the shape of Alexandre Flanquart and Paul Jedrasiak and these two will certainly provide plenty of problems for their Welsh counterparts on Friday.  In the back row, Wales should have the edge here with Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate being tireless workhorses for Wales with some seemingly indestructible physicality.  If Lydiate can’t cope, then Welsh superman Justin Tipuric is waiting on the bench to add to French nightmares.  France’s Wenceslas Lauret is getting better with every outing, and Antoine Burban is a quality player, but for me they just don’t have the pedigree of their Welsh opposite numbers.  Lastly in the number eights, Taulupe Faletau is playing out of his skin for Wales at the moment, and Damien Chouly although no slacker for France just doesn’t have that same intensity.  As a result, up front I expect it to be an exceptionally tough day at the office for France with Wales calling all the shots.

In the halfbacks, once more Wales has the edge and then some.  French fly half Jules Plisson is a bright prospect for the future but for now he is simply nowhere near the quality of Wales’ Dan Biggar.  Meanwhile Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies is simply too quick off the mark and able to cover so much of the park that there shouldn’t be much of a contest here either.  The Welsh partnership of Biggar and Davies is now so well-honed under pressure that the French offering of Plisson and the impressive Maxime Machenaud at scrum half should really be no contest despite the talent the French possess here.

In the backs, I don’t regard it such a one-sided contest in Wales’ favour as some pundits are predicting.  The French backs are all proven commodities with the exception of winger Djibril Camara.  Fullback Maxime Medard is back to his dangerous best, winger Virimi Vakatawa is rapidly proving to have Jonah Lomu like tendencies as defences struggle to bring him down and centre Jonathan Danty has impressed me so far in a French jersey.  However, it’s that Welsh partnership of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts both of whom have played in France and have a good idea of what they’re up against that for me should give Wales the edge on Friday coupled with a George North on the wing who appears to be back to his very best.  Wales’ proven commodities under pressure should get their side the advantage over some impressive French flair in the contest of the backlines.

In short, it should be another interesting and at times genuinely exciting look at a French side that seems to be emerging quite well from the wreckage of the last four years.  There are still many questions to be answered in French rugby over the coming months but there is clear progress and France are well and truly out of the intensive care ward and showing signs of a genuine recovery.  Meanwhile Wales just look settled and with a crystal clear idea of what it is they want to do and how to get the job done.  It’s this experience and ability to really pull together as a well-oiled machine that is making me give this match to Wales by 12 points!

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, February 27th

Scotland travel to Rome desperate to seek revenge on a side that has so cruelly ended up leaving them with the Wooden Spoon in the previous year’s tournament.  Last year’s loss at the final whistle to Italy at home in Murrayfield was clearly something that Scotland will want to forget as quickly as possible.  Scotland’s execution and decision making against Wales a fortnight ago was for the most part superb, and they only really lost it in the final ten minutes.  If they can take that kind of intensity and focus into this match, then it is most likely going to cause a spirited Italy all kinds of problems.  Italy are certainly buoyed by their performances in this tournament despite coming into this match on the back of two losses.  However, injuries to key players especially the up and coming fly halves Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna, mean that Italy despite their best intentions will be hard pressed to get one over a full-strength Scottish side with an axe to grind.

Italy has a ferocious and gritty forward pack and Scotland will have to really up their game from that against Wales to match up to it, especially if Italy keep their discipline.  At times especially as the match wore on against Wales, Scotland looked in trouble up front with the scrums and lineouts unravelling quite dramatically at key moments.  If Italy can hold their own here for the full eighty minutes Scotland will struggle to release their devastating backs.  I’d actually go as far as saying that the front rows are completely evenly matched, but if Scottish prop W P Nel can have a slightly more productive afternoon than he did in Cardiff then Scotland could just get some dominance here as the game wears on.  It’s the lock partnership where I don’t really see so much of a competition especially if Hooker Ross Ford can get his lineout throwing for Scotland to work properly unlike a fortnight ago against Wales.  The Gray brothers for Scotland are real quality and are more than a match for Italy’s Joshua Furno and Marco Fuser.  It’s in the locks where I think it once more becomes a completely level playing field.  Francesco Minto and Alessandro Zanni have been absolutely immense for Italy this tournament, but John Hardie and John Barclay have been the same for Scotland with Hardie tackling everything that moves.  It’s at number eight where Italy should on paper have the clear edge.  Captain Sergio Parisse is a proven force of nature, while Scotland’s David Denton is impressive but was strangely quiet in Cardiff a fortnight ago.  Denton will really have to up his game against a Parisse who has more motivation and energy than an entire Roman legion would know what to do with.  On form alone the contest is clearly Parisse’s.

In the halfbacks though the day belongs wholeheartedly to Scotland and should be the difference that ensures the Scots are able to dictate the flow of play all afternoon.  Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw and Finn Russell are a superb blend of youthful energy and experience.  Finn Russell has some exceptional skills and as he continues to mature the Scottish fly half’s playmaking ability improves in leaps and bounds.  Laidlaw at scrum half is a reliable if not extravagant workhorse of Scottish rugby and his boot at penalty time means that Italy will pay dearly for any indiscretions.  With Sam Hidalgo-Clyne waiting on the bench Scotland should have this aspect of the game nicely sewn up.  Italy’s Kelly Haimona has done little if anything to impress me at fly half and I sadly am expecting little change on Saturday.  Meanwhile, Eduardo Gori is a feisty and increasingly skillful scrum half for Italy but still has a way to go before he can match up to the quality Scotland will have on offer on Saturday.

It’s in the backs where the wheels are likely to fall off quite dramatically for Italy as they come up against Scotland’s racing slicks.  While I like what I see in Italy’s backs with Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia and Leonardo Sarto providing some real edge to the Italian attack they are going to have a tough afternoon containing the likes of Scottish speedsters Tim Visser, Mark Bennet, Duncan Taylor and Tommy Seymour.  Seymour was exceptional under the high ball against Wales two weeks ago and the Scottish winger is going to be a big problem for Italy.  Add to the mix the form of fullback Stuart Hogg, as he spends the afternoon slicing through opposition defences from all corners of the park and Italy are probably going to end up running out of pace by the last quarter from simply having had to try and contain Scotland’s backs for sixty minutes.

If Scotland execute as well as they did against Wales and show the kind of decision making that was often lacking at times last year, then they should run in comfortable winners in Rome on Saturday.  Italy will continue to put up a significant challenge and no doubt will see this as a game they have every chance of winning.  However, Scotland under Coach Vern Cotter simply has too much talent.  If the likes of Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour are given any kind of space to work in then Scotland should have built up a comfortable lead by the last quarter.  Italy’s bench just won’t have the power to bring them back from the edge and therefore it should be Scotland’s day by 10 points.

England vs Ireland
Saturday, February 27th

For many this is England’s first real test under new Coach Eddie Jones.  Ireland may not be the force of the last two years anymore but they possess enough talent and shrewd tactical nous in Coach Joe Schmidt to upset England’s initial Six Nations celebrations.  Ireland are clearly the underdogs, if anything this is more England’s game to lose than Ireland’s to win.  England should win this match and I must confess to being in the camp that agrees with that prediction.  Ireland however, will have some surprises up their sleeves and if new Irish cap and centre Stuart McCloskey keeps his head and wits about him in such an auspicious debut, it could be a very exciting afternoon of rugby.  England are still likely to emerge the victors and continue the solid work being done to recover from the pain of the World Cup.  However, Ireland hopefully will start to have a performance to get genuinely excited about in terms of the future of Irish rugby regardless of whether they win or lose.

The Irish scrum and front row hasn’t always looked the best this Six Nations and their lineout work still has room for improvement, whereas England are starting to look increasingly dominant in this area.  English Hooker and Captain Dylan Hartley seems to be adapting well to the leadership role and motivating those around him.  Meanwhile Dan Coles is becoming a real workhorse in the scrums as well as in the contact areas.  I still feel that Joe Marler is the weak link in the English front row and a potential liability.  Ireland’s Rory Best and Jack McGrath are sound opposition up front, but Mike Ross could be as much of a cause for concern for Ireland as Joe Marler.  Tough battle but England should still just have the edge here.  In the locks, it should be England’s day.  There is nothing wrong with Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan and they will be more than competitive but England’s George Kruis and new cap Maro Itoje are just looking outstanding at the moment and are more than likely to outshine the Irish duo on Saturday.  However, in the flankers my money is on the Irish offering of C J Stander and Josh Van der Flier.  The South African import Stander, alongside Van der Flier who is getting his first cap Saturday, are real class through and through while being absolutely devastating ball carriers, especially in the loose.  England’s Chris Robshaw and Jeff Haskell may be the more experienced pair, but offer far less in sheer explosive power and unpredictability.  Expect to see Ireland on the front foot here with England struggling to contain the Irish pair.  At number eight as much as I admire his work rate and ability Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is no match for a barnstorming Billy Vunipola who seems to have rediscovered some spectacular form this year.  Ultimately though despite the headache that Stander and Van der Flier should cause England, it is likely to be Ireland reaching for painkillers in the forward battles more than England on Saturday.

In the halfbacks, two different styles and evenly matched on paper but form seems to be deserting some of the key actors.  English fly half George Ford has blown hot and cold this season and the same could be said of Irish scrum half Conor Murray.  Meanwhile English scrum half Ben Youngs is having a fantastic season and being George Ford’s regular halfback partner should help settle the English fly half’s nerves in such a big game.  Johnny Sexton is an injury worry for Ireland, with every Irish supporter becoming increasingly concerned about this outstanding servant of Irish rugby’s long-term health. However he seems to be relishing being back in an Irish jersey as well as playing his club rugby back home in Ireland.  In the game against Wales and at times against France, some of the old Sexton magic was there for all to see.  Murray and Sexton clearly got the better of George Ford last year in Dublin but it will be a much harder task at Twickenham.  Impossible to call and we wait to see who’s got the better A-game of these two pairs on Saturday.

In the second half in Rome a fortnight ago, England’s backs were outstanding with centre Jonathan Joseph putting in a truly remarkable twenty-minute shift. In front of a home crowd expect the same.  This is essentially a much more cohesive and established unit than Ireland’s and for that reason I give England the edge here.  Ireland’s Stuart McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw are clearly the centre pairing of the future for Ireland and if they gel could be an exceptionally exciting prospect in international Test Rugby, however as yet they are an untried quantity together.  However, if we only get a glimpse of their potential on Saturday then I think most Irish supporters will go away feeling pretty good about the future whether or not they win.  For England, the centre partnership of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell is a seriously daunting combination.  Joseph’s magic feet and Farrell’s eye for space and how to use it could make these two a nightmare for Ireland to contain Saturday.  My money is on the experience of the English pair getting those critical margins in England’s favour on Saturday.  On the wings I think the X-factor that England’s Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have in abundance is just too much for an injury prone Irish offering of Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls.  The two Irishmen have plenty of spark of their own but struggle to finish out a match so it once more should be England who end up running the sidelines on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, English bulldog Mike Brown will be in his element against Ireland’s Rob Kearney  with the Irishman becoming far too predictable and one dimensional in his play.  Whether or not you like Brown you have to admit that the Englishman is ferocious in attack and defense and seems to have far more fire in his belly for the task at hand than his Irish counterpart seems to be showing at the moment, so England should win the battle here.

If Ireland are to win, then it will be regarded as an upset.  While I think it unlikely it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.  England were surprised in the first half against Italy and if Ireland can catch them off guard and keep them that way for the full eighty minutes then it could be a chance for the Men in Green to get their Six Nations campaign back on the road.  However, for Ireland it is more likely going to be a case of trying to remain competitive for the full eighty minutes with a squad that is starting to show some potential for the future rather than a win at any cost.  In my opinion given their circumstances after the disappointment of the World Cup that is the right approach.  For England though it is important to finally break the run of being Ireland’s bridesmaid when the Six Nations trophy gets handed over next month.  I would argue that at home and with Coach Eddie Jones ringing the changes England must clearly be the favourites on Saturday.  If England get ahead comfortably in the first sixty minutes the quality of their bench should easily enable them to consolidate such a lead and close Ireland out for the last quarter.  Whatever happens as both sides look to the future, we all hope for a close and exciting contest between these age old rivals, but one that we reckon will go England’s way by 8 points!

The second round of this year’s Six Nations took place this past weekend and somehow didn’t quite catch the imagination as much as perhaps we might have hoped and if anything seemed slightly predictable.  France squeaked a win in the rain against Ireland which saw Ireland rack up a significant injury list while France continued to show some attacking flair despite struggling to break down Ireland’s defenses.  It was a poor match as a spectacle that left us eagerly anticipating the next fixture – Wales against Scotland under a closed roof.  This match had much more excitement but once again it too took on an air of predictability as a much improved Scotland in terms of execution, showed us what they are capable of in terms of attack.  However, once their key player fullback Stuart Hogg left the field Scotland seemed to revert to type and Wales’ superior organisation saw them get a deserved win.  Once again Scotland looked very promising but ultimately left empty-handed.  Finally, in Rome England put a song in the hearts of their supporters on Valentine’s Day, in a second half thumping of Italy.  Had Italy played like they did in the first half, then it could have been a very different story, but sadly as all too often when up against better quality opposition Italy imploded in the last twenty minutes and the scoreboard got completely beyond them.  England meanwhile, although looking clear favorites now for the title this year, must surely be wondering why they struggled so hard to make any kind of impression against Italy in the first half and will need to improve on this performance if they are to go head to head with a Welsh side that looks very much like the finished product in a month’s time.

France vs Ireland
Final Score – France 10/Ireland 9

There is no way that you could describe this grueling encounter in the rain in Paris as entertaining.  Most of us had to struggle to keep our interest going for the full eighty minutes.  France got a win by using their bench to greater effect and when they did get an opportunity using it more efficiently than Ireland.  To be fair to Ireland they defended well but continuing injury problems and a lack of a real attacking threat meant that if France were to up their game it was theirs for the taking.  Once more there were glimmers of French flair resurfacing again in attack and through their only try.  For Irish Coach Joe Schmidt as he faces the problem of facing an English side rapidly growing in confidence and ability in two weeks there are more questions than answers right now.  For French Coach Guy Noves, the win may not have been pretty but he surely, unlike his predecessor, must have a clear idea of the team he wants to use for the duration of this tournament, after the devastating turnaround in French fortunes once he replaced his front row.  France may not look polished in attack but the point is they are trying to attack again and that must surely make their supporters happy and their opposition sit up and take notice.

Both teams came into this match desperately needing to make a statement.  France needed to prove that last week’s labored effort against Italy was simply a new team adjusting to life together, while Ireland were keen to prove that the epic draw with Wales was an accurate reflection of Irish hopes and potential in this tournament.  Of the two France probably had a better day with their to do list than Ireland.  Like many we were surprised to see French Coach Noves change his front row for such an important game, and were all hedging bets as to how soon Props Eddie Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani would come off the bench to solidify the French forward effort.  As suspected the minute they were brought on France immediately got themselves into the driving seat in the match, and French supporters must surely be hoping that the experiment is over in this department.  Ireland meanwhile were riddled with injuries and as the game wore on they looked increasingly frail and bereft of ideas especially in attack.  Ireland’s chances of retaining the Six Nations title this year are for the most part done and dusted.  Surely the time is now right for Ireland to start looking for the depth they have available to them in their younger players if they are to gain anything from this year’s tournament which can be used to help rebuild and prepare the team for future success.

In fairness to Ireland they got the better of the very physical encounter between these two sides in the first half and the score line at half time, 9-3 in favor of the Irish, was a fair reflection of proceedings.  Guy Noves experimentation in the front row with Uini Atonio and Jefferson Poirot was just not working, and the resulting penalties awarded to Ireland was putting the game firmly in favor of the Men in Green through the boot of Johnny Sexton.  Furthermore, for France the experimentation with winger Teddy Thomas was also not working.  While he may have plenty of speed the French winger’s defensive skills in such a physical encounter as this are questionable and in wet conditions his handling skills simply aren’t there.  In a first half which did little to fire the imagination from both sides, Ireland could feel comfortable that they at least were a clear six points ahead of France at half time.

The second half would see France ring the changes, with most notably Teddy Thomas being replaced by Hugo Bonneval, who had performed so well against Italy, and Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous coming on to sort out the front row.  Once this was done France suddenly looked a lot more dangerous.  Had this been the starting XV it may have been a much more productive day for France.  That being said however, it still made the difference in ensuring that France got yet another nervous win.  Scrum half Maxime Machenaud came on and all of a sudden France’s offloading and attacks started to look a lot more promising as a clearly exhausted Ireland struggled to contain them.  The last twenty minutes were essentially a war of attrition for Ireland as they were required to defend continuously against constant pressure from France.  France struggled with execution at times in the wet but the intent was clearly there.  Number eight for France Damien Chouly was denied a try as the ball was not considered grounded but you couldn’t help feeling that it was only a question of time before France would cross the white line.

With ten minutes to go, France finally figured out how to break through the Irish wall as French danger man and flair specialist of old, fullback Maxime Medard, got the vital five pointer for Les Bleus just as he did the week before against Italy.  Plisson would convert and all of a sudden France simply had to last out for nine minutes to get win number two as they led 10-9.

To be honest Ireland simply didn’t look like they had the ability or game plan to get the win in those final minutes.  A faulty restart from Irish replacement fly half Ian Madigan set the tone for the dying minutes of the game.  Ireland were spent and essentially out of ideas.  The French bench had rejuvenated Les Bleus and the fresh legs were giving France the strength and conviction to hold on.  French Hooker and Captain Gulheim Guirado, had been immense throughout the game and once alongside fellow props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani, Guirado and France were clearly in the driving seat against a depleted Ireland.

There were the usual controversies around refereeing decisions most notably what should have been a yellow card against France’s Yoann Maestri for a late hit on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, even if it may have been slightly milked by the Irishman and there is no question that the rain took away any possible element of spectacle.  A messy and at times ugly win for France, but a win nevertheless.  However, all these excuses aside France still has a great deal of work to do if they are really going to be able to use this new found intent especially in attack to full effect against England and Wales.  Meanwhile Ireland really need to face up to the fact that with Six Nations silverware not much more than a pipe dream this year, it is time to start taking risks by giving new Irish talent some high level international exposure.  I would start with Ulster center Stuart McCloskey, but it appears I am likely to be saying this till the end of the tournament as a play it safe, conservative approach appears to be the order of the day in the Irish camp.  If Ireland are serious about standing up to New Zealand in their two tests at the end of this year, then now is the time to start developing their resources particularly in attack.  France find themselves in the strange position of sitting second in the Six Nations table after Round 2 despite England and Wales clearly being better teams.  If that position and France’s rejuvenation under Coach Guy Noves is to really mean something then France has an enormous amount of work to do as they prepare to face the most settled team in the tournament, Wales, in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium in two weeks.

Wales vs Scotland
Final Score – Wales 27/Scotland 23

In terms of an evenly matched contest that provided some genuine excitement this was definitely the match to watch this past weekend.  Wales continued to build on their performance the week before against Ireland, while Scotland made some significant improvements in their execution and decision-making only to have it slip away from them once more in the final quarter.  Wales look to be serious contenders for Six Nations glory come the middle of March along with England, while Scotland are still trying to find that complete 80-minute performance.  One can only hope for the sake of Scottish supporters that they find it soon as the frustration levels must be off the charts.  It is one thing to watch your team lose match after match if the skill set and talent levels are not there, but in Scotland’s case they are.  Scotland could have won this match but sadly fell short of the mark. However this was a better performance than against England and surely against Italy a week on Saturday, a much needed confidence boosting win will finally get Scotland on the right footing for the remainder of the tournament and allow them to realize their potential.

The intensity of this match was there for all to see from the get go.  Seven minutes in and Dan Biggar would set up this piece of magic for his half back partner scrum half Gareth Davies.

It’s this kind of quality and vision that is really making Biggar and Davies such a key weapon in Wales attack arsenal.  Davies managed to fool Scottish winger Tommy Seymour with a clever weave and the resulting footrace saw the Welshman ahead by a whisker to cross the try line.

Five minutes later with Scotland on the attack deep in the Welsh 22, it would be Seymour’s turn for revenge as a brilliantly weighted kick by Scottish fly half Finn Russell over the top of the Welsh defense would put Seymour in the corner and all of a sudden the scores were level once more at 7-7.  A special mention must be made of Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who was quite outstanding under the high ball all night. He is a real talent for Scotland and is likely to add plenty more spark to Scotland’s campaign for the remainder of the tournament.  Wales were constantly testing Seymour in the air throughout the match and he was rarely found wanting.

As he always is, fullback Stuart Hogg was electric for Scotland and his loss early in the match due to injury clearly had an influence on the final outcome and it is hoped he will be able to return for Scotland’s next game against Italy.  However, despite Hogg’s departure, Scotland maintained their focus and continued to probe on attack with the execution and decision making being leaps and bounds ahead of what we saw in their opener against England.  At half time, Scotland managed to get ahead with a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw and it appeared that Scotland were getting the better of their hosts leading 13-10.

However, the second half saw Wales seeming to have a clearer idea of where to probe Scottish weaknesses with Welsh danger man, winger George North, really starting to hit his stride.  Some solid work from the Welsh winger would ultimately see a penalty for Wales and Biggar would level the scores once more.  In a period of seesawing possession, both sides still looked evenly matched and Laidlaw would restore the Scottish lead again through another penalty.  At 16-13 for Scotland and heading into the last quarter the game was still poised on a knife edge.  As we headed into the final quarter, Welsh replacements particularly at the scrum were starting to take effect and Wales were slowly starting to get the ascendancy in the forward battles.  Wales’ center Jamie Roberts would crash over from a solid Welsh scrum effort metres from the Scottish line.  Eight minutes later Wales would strike again through George North as the Scottish defense started to fall apart and Scotland as a whole started to lose their cohesion and execution under pressure with 10 minutes to go.

It wouldn’t be all over for Scotland, as center Duncan Taylor would score a superb try of his own to allow Scotland to leave the match with their honor intact but bitterly disappointed as yet another game in which they had competed so well ultimately slipped away from them.  Wales meanwhile, look very much the finished product for the remainder of the tournament and will be a very tough proposition for England in a month’s time.  Wales’ title hopes are very much alive and with that in mind expect the Welsh dragon to be breathing fire for the remainder of the tournament.

Italy vs England
Final Score – Italy 9/England 40

In the second half of this match we finally got to see what a new look England side can do and a complete team performance from the Men in White.  England Coach Eddie Jones must feel happy with the momentum England has gained in the opening two weeks of the competition as they head into the final three rounds against slightly more problematic opposition.  For Italy, they will take great heart at how well they held England at bay in the first half, but then to implode the way they did in the second half is something that desperately needs to be addressed and quickly.  Italy played a superb forty minutes of rugby in Rome last Sunday and clearly rattled an English side that was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Italian challenge.  However, in the second half England quickly got the measure of the Azurri and adapted accordingly and as a result Italy was left wondering what might have been.  In England’s case they will be pleased that their ability to adapt their game plan and take risks when necessary in the last half of the match paid huge dividends.  The England of the second half was a completely different beast to that of the opening forty minutes.  Italy just did not adapt to England’s risk taking and opportunism and paid the price.  English supporters must be taking heart in the fact that England are becoming slightly less predictable and much more adventurous if the last forty minutes of this match are anything to go by.  There is still a long way to go, but the changes that Eddie Jones said were necessary in the English approach seem to be taking effect, albeit slowly.  England still have a long way to go before the Southern Hemisphere nations are likely to be losing too much sleep, and their next three encounters in this tournament will be much sterner examinations of what progress England really has made.  However, after a solid second half last Sunday in Rome which showed plenty of enterprise, the pulse of English rugby certainly seems to be racing a bit quicker at the moment.

Italy just as they were against France were exceptionally motivated and in all fairness to them played a superb first forty minutes of rugby, as always led from the front by the indomitable number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse.  England, although steady seemed to be having difficulty getting the measure of the ferocity of the Italian challenge, and certainly Italy appeared to have the edge in attack, with centre Michele Campagnaro putting in an outstanding performance for the Azurri in the first half.  Italy were tackling everything in sight and managing for the most part to hang onto possession in attack.  However, England would score the only try of the half through fly half George Ford after some superb interplay between him and center Owen Farrell.  Italian fly half Carlo Canna however would keep Italy in touch and at half time they were only trailing England by two points at 11-9 to England.

The second half however seemed to live up to the ending that many were predicting as England really started to tear away and this man below would score a hat trick of tries to give the Men in White a conclusive win.

Center Jonathan Joseph was very much a reflection of the overall team effort that simply derailed a very spirited initial Italian challenge as he would score three tries in less than twenty minutes.  England came alive in the second half and the pace at which they played the game, especially in the last quarter, left an exhausted and injury depleted Italian side with a mountain to climb.  England were expansive and exciting to watch in the second half as the solid forward platform they are renowned for linked much more effectively with the backs in this match than against Scotland.  Whether or not England will be afforded the same kind of space and opportunity against Ireland a week Saturday remains to be seen.

What is clear from this match is that Italy will still rise to the challenge of a Scotland desperate for a win when they meet in Rome in just over a week’s time.  The passion is there coupled with a real sense of cohesion from this relatively young looking but talented and enthusiastic Italian side.  If they can play with the same kind of intensity and composure they showed in the first half, Scotland could be in for a very long afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico.  For England this performance was clear evidence that they know the kind of game they want to play and are blessed with the talent and experience to achieve it both on the field and in the Coaching box.  England will now face three very stern examinations over the coming weeks which will really test their resilience and ability to deliver results under pressure.  However, after this match and if they maintain such momentum over the coming weeks, then they are clearly contenders for not only Six Nations glory but also in a position to challenge their Southern Hemisphere rivals for a greater share of Test rugby honors leading up to the next global showdown in Japan in 2019.

After an intriguing opening weekend of Six Nations Rugby we should start to get an idea of where the six competitors really stand as the second round of the tournament gets underway this Saturday.  After being written off by many post the World Cup, Ireland surprised everyone including perhaps themselves by playing their part in last weekend’s most gripping encounter as they held tournament favourites Wales to a gruelling draw in Dublin.  Although having to settle for a draw, Wales continued to show the incredible grit and depth they possess as they fought their way back from a 13-0 deficit and the loss of key play maker fly half Dan Biggar.  Meanwhile, the tournament started in Paris as Italy sought to defy all the odds and produced one of their most memorable performances of the last ten years.  Italy were to fall cruelly short of an epic upset, but this was clearly a side with a point to prove which they proceeded to do emphatically for a full eighty minutes.  France on the other hand looked extremely promising at times but still didn’t quite gel in the way necessary to erase the painful memories of the World Cup.  Nevertheless, Les Bleus looked increasingly more composed as the match wore on as they eked out a desperate win, and are surely only going to get better with every outing.  Lastly, the mostly eagerly anticipated match of the weekend enabled us to have a good look at England under new Coach Eddie Jones.  While there was a degree of predictability to England’s performance it still looked far more assured and structured than what we saw in the World Cup.  Controversial English Captain Dylan Hartley rose well to the challenge of a very emotionally charged encounter and led his charges to a solid if not spectacular win as England sought to move on from the nightmare of the World Cup.  Lastly Scotland looked as always exceptionally exciting and always a threat, but poor execution and decision making ultimately left us with the impression of different day same old problems.

This weekend should hopefully see the tournament open up and build towards a finale of last year’s epic proportions.  France and England claim a shaky position at the top of the table with England arguably having the easiest route to hanging on to the top dog position as they face an exceptionally fired up Italy in Rome.  England should get the better of the Azurri, but in Rome and with Captain Extraordinary, Sergio Parisse, leading the Italian charge, there are simply no certainties for England and any kind of complacency could see them slipping on a giant blue banana peel.  The same could apply for the Welsh against a Scottish side still trying to figure out what they need to really harness the wealth of obvious potential they possess.  Wales at home based on their form in their clash with Ireland must surely be the favorites, but Scotland pose an intriguing threat.  Once more Wales epic defensive structures should ensure that whatever threat the Scottish attack poses it will be neutralized.  However, any sense of complacency or lack of focus could be disastrous given the clear quality of the Scottish attacking threat especially if the Scots tidy up their execution and decision making.  The weekend kicks off with Ireland travelling to Paris to take on a French team and Coach with everything to prove.  Ireland turned all the predictions going into this tournament upside down as their B side held a Welsh A side to an enthralling draw.  With some key Irish players coming back into the squad for the clash with France, if Ireland play with the kind of ferocity and cohesion they showed last weekend, it could be a long afternoon for France.  All of a sudden Ireland find themselves in the position of being favorites as they prepare to take on France as the underdogs in their own Parisian backyard.

Fixtures this weekend

France vs Ireland
Saturday, February 13th

After Ireland’s heroic efforts in Dublin last Sunday and despite the quick turnaround and travel to this match, many are predicting that fortune may favor the Irish in Paris this Saturday.  After the titanic struggle that took place in Dublin, we here at the Lineout have to concur that Ireland look remarkably well placed for this fixture.  France are looking good with ball in hand as evidenced by their display against Italy and if they can sort out the kicking duties then they should pose a significant challenge for the Men in Green.  However, we can’t help feeling that Ireland may well just squeak a win on Saturday.  It won’t be easy but Ireland unlike France have a settled and shrewd Coach in Joe Schmidt who has the ability to work wonders with limited resources.  France on the other hand have a new, albeit capable Coach in former Toulouse boss Guy Noves but one who is still finding his feet on only his second outing in charge of Les Bleus.

On a day where the conditions are likely to be less than perfect for expansive running rugby, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is most likely to go with a tried and tested squad for the most part who know how to make the most of a challenging weather day.  After watching France’s opener against Italy, you can’t help get the feeling that Schmidt is likely to have the tactical edge over Noves with a group of players who for the most part are fine tuned to produce the kind of game he wants.  Noves will not have the same luxury and I must confess to being surprised at the number of changes he made to a side that struggled at times against Italy but still showed plenty of enterprise especially in attack.  French supporters must surely be looking at his selections and having flashes of déjà vu to the Saint-Andre era.  I doubt this is the case but am sure French supporters are feeling just slightly nervous as to what Noves may or may not be trying to do.  France’s single biggest problem to date has been continuity and this needs to be addressed quickly in this Six Nations, to the point where with three games to go after this Saturday, France will desperately need to have found a settled side.

In the forwards, I must confess to being really surprised at the wholesale changes Noves has made to the front row.  While not exactly dominant against Italy last week, Arous and Slimani are still the most likely way forward for France in the future.  I must admit to having been impressed by prop Uini Antonio and he adds some significant weight and grunt factor to the French pack.  Antonio will make life exceptionally difficult for Ireland’s Jack McGrath in the scrum, but after the Irishman’s solid performance last week I feel he will cope with the challenge in Ireland’s favour.  Captain and Rory Best goes head to head at hooker with his opposite number and French Captain Guilhem Guirado.  Of the two, Best although new in the Captaincy role has a better knowledge and understanding of his charges than Guirado and as a result should ensure that Ireland win the battle of the front rows and lineouts. Nevertheless, Arous and Slimani are waiting on France’s bench and if Noves initial experiment in the front row doesn’t quite bear fruit expect them to come to the rescue.  In the battle of the locks I am expecting Ireland to just edge out France, as Devin Toner seems to have found his feet again in an Irish jersey alongside Mike McCarthy who put in some solid work last weekend against Wales.  For me Yoann Maestri didn’t quite fire in France’s lineouts last weekend and it will be interesting to see if working alongside Alexandre Flanquart, the pair can provide better stability for France in both the scrums and lineouts.  In the back row battle, I just can’t see France getting past Ireland.  CJ Stander was outstanding on his debut for Ireland last weekend and the return of Sean O’Brien is eagerly anticipated by many Irish supporters.  Jamie Heaslip put in a huge and highly effective effort last weekend against Wales and expect to see more of the same and with flanker Tommy O’Donnell waiting on the bench, this aspect of Ireland’s game plan looks in much more capable hands than France and should see Ireland dominate at the breakdowns.  France will miss Louis Picamoles at eight and while Damien Chouly had a solid game last weekend he will be put to the test playing in Picamoles place at eight and I simply can’t see the French back row partnership of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret besting their Irish counterparts.

In the halfback contests, the upper hand surely has to go once more to Ireland.  The seasoned pairing of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray is a vastly more experienced unit than France’s Sebastien Bezy and Jules Plisson.  Sexton seems to have found the form that has deserted him at club level this year and the same seems true for Conor Murray.  Jules Plisson is an impressive talent for France at number 10, but he just doesn’t have the wisdom and experience of Sexton.  Although promising, Sebastien Bezy I felt had a poor game last weekend against Italy and we won’t mention his truly woeful kicking performance.  France surely will be giving those duties to Plisson for the entirety of this match.  Either way Ireland’s offering in this department should comfortably outclass what France is putting on the table.

In the backs the contest starts to even out a bit more.  Ireland’s centre pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw is for me a more effective unit than France’s Jonathan Danty and Maxime Mermoz.  However, both these French players, Danty in particular have some dazzling skills.  Certainly in the case of Danty these were very much in evidence last Saturday against Italy.  Danty is clearly going to be a very big part of France’s new lease of life under Coach Guy Noves.  Mermoz also boasts plenty of flair but as a relatively untested combination I can’t help feeling that the more established Irish partnership is likely to be more effective and ensure Irish dominance of the centre channels.  On the wings however, it is another story and the two sides are likely to be evenly matched all afternoon.  Ireland’s Andrew Trimble is going to have his hands full, as will most of the Irish squad, all afternoon trying to contain France’s Virimi Vakatawa.  This outstanding French winger made a seamless transition from the Sevens game to 15 a side Test Rugby last weekend and was simply everywhere.  A major headache for any defence to contain, Ireland are going to have to be exceptionally vigilant in ensuring Vakatawa gets very little access to the ball especially in space.  However, on the other wing, despite his speed French winger Teddy Thomas simply does not have the power and defensive abilities of Vakatawa and as a result he is going to have his work cut out for him against Ireland’s Dave Kearney.  While the Irishman’s form has been somewhat erratic of late, he has been key in the few performances where his club Leinster have sought to arrest their downward slide in European club competitions this year.

Lastly at fullback I am going to give France the nod over Ireland.  Although perhaps not the best defensive player, France’s Maxime Medard has plenty of flair and when on form is an exceptionally difficult player to contain as we saw last week against Italy.  Ireland’s Rob Kearney has a superb reputation but has sadly not had the form necessary to justify it in the last year.   Although good under the high ball, he has looked rather predictable and slightly pedestrian at times recently, whereas these are not labels that could be applied to Medard.  We all know what Kearney is capable of but at the moment are seeing very little evidence of it, so am giving the fullback contest to France and Medard’s potential element of surprise in attack.

In short, the balance sheet would seem to stack up in Ireland’s favour.  With an established and tactically astute Coach who knows exactly what to expect from his charges, Ireland will clearly have the benefit of experience on Saturday in Paris.  French Coach Noves is still getting to know his players and how they operate as a unit and as a result is still developing the platforms and combinations necessary to restore some much needed success to French rugby.  At times last week, although exciting France did look as though they were only marginally more cognizant of a game plan than they were under Philippe Saint-Andre.  I am confident that France are going to address a lot of the issues plaguing the side in the last four years, but it is probably unlikely that we will see results much before the end of this Six Nations tournament.  Ireland on the other hand surprised us all against Wales, but perhaps we really shouldn’t have been so taken aback.  Irish rugby is certainly healthy and despite the disappointment of the World Cup I don’t really think any alarm bells are ringing.  Ireland came bouncing back last weekend and expect them to do the same again this Saturday.  As a result, I’m sticking my neck out and giving this match to Ireland, in a tight contest by 5 points.

Wales vs Scotland
Saturday, February 13th

If anyone thinks Scotland are a pushover after their disappointing performance at times against England last weekend, they are sorely mistaken.  Agreed Scotland has heaps of potential but also serious issues when it comes to realizing that potential in terms of execution and decision making, but I still hold that this is a good team.  The will is there along with the ability, they just need to be a bit more diligent in their preparation.  Scotland has an excellent Coach in Vern Cotter and one who although frustrated at times, still believes wholeheartedly that this group of individuals can rectify the woes experienced by Scottish rugby in the last ten years.  Wales meanwhile have proven time and again what they are capable of and the depth of character they possess – what is needed is the ability to demonstrate this consistently.  Having said that though it is hard to see anything other than a Welsh win at home in this fixture.  Scotland are likely to provide a stern test, but as we saw from the Welsh last weekend against Ireland, even if Scotland streak ahead Wales’ ability to doggedly claw their way back into a match and turn it around in their favor is quite exceptional.

Despite their ability Scotland’s front row were clearly second best against England last weekend and I can’t see it being much different this weekend against Wales.  The Welsh front row is more than a match for Scotland, and Scottish Hooker Ross Ford clearly struggled with the lineouts last weekend against England.  The Welsh front row was able to absorb almost everything the Irish could throw at them, whereas the Scottish front row creaked against England.  Welsh Hooker Scott Baldwin had a more reliable afternoon throwing to the lineout than Scotland’s Ross Ford.  Consequently, unless Scotland has some surprises up their sleeves the front row battle should easily swing in Wales favor.  Although Scotland’s Johnny and Richie Gray form an impressive unit, Wales Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn-Jones are in a league of their own.  There will be some feisty battles here make no mistake, but with the rampaging figure of Alun Wyn-Jones serving as a mascot to the rest of the Welsh team, Scotland are going to have a hard time keeping up and Wales should comfortably come out on top in the locks department. In the back row, the experience and power of Sam Warburton and the ferocity at the breakdown of Justin Tipuric give Wales a clear advantage here.  Tipuric is a master at securing turnover ball for Wales and I expect to see him causing havoc again this Saturday.  Scotland have their own powerful combination in John Hardie and John Barclay but the two have neither the experience or finesse of their Welsh counterparts.  Scotland do have Blair Cowan on the bench and given his ability at securing good turnover ball for Scotland last year, I am surprised he is not being used more. Lastly David Denton at number eight had a very quiet and rather unproductive afternoon for Scotland against England, and he will really have to up his game if he is to have any chance against Taulupe Faletau who was outstanding for Wales last Sunday against Ireland.

In the halfbacks, Scotland has heaps of potential in the young Finn Russell but his youth and experience often result in poor decision making as evidenced last weekend in his wasting a golden opportunity for Scotland when a try was there for the taking.  I like Russell and think he will improve dramatically over the next year or so, but his obvious talent is just a bit too raw at the moment and lacks polish as a result.  Scrum half Greg Laidlaw is a solid and talented servant of Scottish rugby but as we saw last week, he tends to err on the side of cautious and conservative slightly too often. I, like many, think that Scotland need to start using Sam Hidalgo-Clyne more often if they genuinely want adventure and risk-taking in the scrum half department and I hope to see him come off the bench sooner rather than later in this match.  Compare these two to the Welsh offering of fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Gareth Davies and the shine is clearly on Wales.  Biggar is rapidly becoming one of the best fly halves in International rugby whilst Davies crisp service and sniping runs off the backs of his forwards are a potent weapon in the Welsh attack with Davies being no stranger to the try line.  Consequently, as much as I like Russell and Laidlaw, for me the Welsh pair are much more likely to orchestrate the killer blows when Wales needs them most than their Scottish counterparts.

It’s in the backs where Scotland has so much potential if they can manage to hang onto the ball in the contact areas.  Wales managed a staggering 28 phases in attack at one point last weekend in Dublin, whereas I think the most Scotland managed were 5 or 6.  Unless this is fixed the considerable talent of the likes of Scottish center Mark Bennett, winger Tommy Seymour and the exceptional fullback Stuart Hogg will amount to little in the grand scheme of Scottish fortunes.  Time and again quality ball got coughed up by Scotland after some superb line breaks from these three last week against England.  Wales have class, pedigree and most importantly experience in their centers, wings and fullback.  Centers Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are a powerful combination for Wales that most sides will struggle to contain.  Winger George North once given the space he is so often denied at club level with Northampton can find gaps in any defense while his partner Tom James made a credible showing in his first outing in a Welsh jersey last weekend.  Last but not least in the fullbacks, although Wales’ Liam Williams is a quality player he just doesn’t have the X-factor that Scotland’s Stuart Hogg has in abundance.  In the contest of the backs I feel it should be Wales’ day.  If Hogg can create opportunities for his teammates and they can keep the momentum he creates going forward Scotland could well have the edge over Wales here.  However, as mentioned above without the finesse needed in execution Scotland are going to struggle to get past the more settled and experienced Welsh backs.

In short, it should be a challenging but ultimately successful afternoon for Wales.  They will surely have settled after their epic tussle with Ireland last weekend, and in front of a home crowd in full voice they will want to put their bid for top honors in this Six Nations on an exceptionally sound footing.  Scotland will make them work hard for it and I for one believe that we are likely to see a vastly improved Scottish performance from last weekend.  However, Wales after last Sunday are in our opinion still likely to end up being the team to beat, and to try and beat them at home is likely to prove impossible.  Therefore, in a match that should live up to its billing as a highly entertaining contest, we still expect to see Wales take the spoils by 7 points!

Italy vs England
Sunday, February 14th

The days of an easy win in Rome are long gone and if Italy play like they did last weekend in Paris, England will be right to treat this match as a giant banana skin waiting to upset their tournament aspirations should they take the challenge put forward by Italy with anything less than 100% commitment.  While both sides can be pleased with their performances last weekend, there can be no doubt that England look to be in a stronger position going into this match in terms of the basics.  Italy were inspirational last week but lacked some key finishing touches that England had clearly mastered.  England will not be caught napping as France were, especially in the battle of the forwards.  This is a seasoned English pack up against a feisty and talented Italian outfit but one which ultimately lacks the experience and composure of their English counterparts.  As always with Sergio Parisse directing Italy’s efforts anything is possible for the Azurri especially at home, but England is probably too much of a lofty target.  England will need to build on the solid forward effort they put together at Murrayfield last week, and the focus this week should really be to get the back line firing.  The relationship between the English halfbacks, George Ford and Ben Youngs, and center Owen Farrell will be the essential key here.  If it clicks England could prove deadly both out wide and through the inside channels.

The Italian new look front row proved to be a formidable unit in Paris last weekend and certainly found the measure of their vaunted French counterparts.  Buoyed by that performance I fully expect them to match up to England’s front row contingent this Sunday, especially in front of a home crowd.  Mako Vunipola comes into the front row in place of Joe Marler who did little to impress last week in Scotland while Vunipola had a barnstormer of a game from the minute he came off the bench.  Dylan Hartley on his first outing as Captain performed admirably and certainly from a discipline perspective silenced his critics.  Meanwhile, Dan Cole was solid and reliable in ensuring that England had clear dominance come scrum time.  Despite Italy’s ability to match the French up front they are likely to struggle a bit more with England’s more experienced unit.  As a result, as they did last weekend, England should clearly have the ascendancy in the front row.  In the locks England’s Courtney Lawes and George Kruis are pure pedigree and are going to make life exceptionally hard for Italy especially in the lineouts. This should ensure that England gets some solid possession and turnover ball as well as huge hits being the stock and trade of the English defense.  In the locks though I feel that Italy could really spark some surprises.  Italian lock Francesco Minto was one of Italy’s standout players in Paris and alongside Alessandro Zanni these two should be able to match anything that Chris Robshaw and James Haskell can throw at them, while at the same time creating some great opportunities for Italy.  Lastly the battle between Italian Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse and England’s Billy Vunipola is the stuff of rugby fantasy leagues.  Given the fact that Parisse will be also managing his young and exuberant charges, a distraction that the rampaging Billy Vunipola will not have, I am just giving the edge to the English number 8 – still what a contest awaits!

In the halfbacks, most English supporters must be breathing a sigh of relief to see half back George Ford reunited with his normal partner Ben Youngs at scrum half.  I was very surprised to not see the two of them playing together last weekend given that George Ford is struggling to find form and the confidence that goes with it.  The familiarity of Ben Youngs alongside him should really settle George Ford and really start to see him take greater authority over England’s game management than he did against Scotland.  Italy’s Carlo Canna was a real revelation in Paris last weekend and I fully expect him to live up to the hype surrounding his role in the match this weekend.  Still he is still on a steep learning curve, albeit one he is adapting to remarkably well and quickly, but this lack of experience can’t really compete with what England has to offer.  A spirited and courageous performance from the young Italian fly half is to be expected with flashes of brilliance, however Sunday should be another valuable lesson in this promising Italian’s development for the future.  Meanwhile, Eduardo Gori is proving to be a feisty and increasingly capable scrum half, but given Ben Youngs form at Leicester this season it will be hard for the Italian to go toe to toe with the Englishman.  If Ford really clicks then Italy is going to have a very hard afternoon second guessing England’s moves, and England’s game management should ultimately be streets ahead of Italy’s.

In the backs, both sides have proved they have plenty of pace and attacking skill.  Italy’s center pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro acquitted themselves exceptionally well in Paris.  However, the sheer experience and game management skills of their English counterparts in the shape of Owen Farrell coupled alongside Jonathan Joseph should see the English midfield create more structured chances than Italy’s exuberant opportunism.  On the wings, although relatively quiet in Scotland, Anthony Watson is a proven attacking threat provided he is given the space he needs.  His opposite number Jack Nowell by contrast had a very high profile game against the Scots and has the ability to often create his own chances.  Given the prowess of these two if they are really let loose they should get the better of Italy’s Leonardo Sarto, no slacker in his own right, and Mattia Bellini.  Sarto is an impressive unit and when provided with quality ball he is a hard man to stop.  However, he also missed a few key opportunities in Paris mainly through poor service from his colleagues, but his execution under pressure is not as assured as England’s Nowell and Mattia Bellini is still too much of an unknown quantity.  Mike Brown as England’s last line of defense was busy last weekend and is usually in the thick of everything England does as he ferrets away at defenses, however he never really got the opportunity to cut loose last weekend and it will be interesting to see if he is afforded the chance to do so this weekend in Rome.  Italy’s Luke McLean is a reliable fullback but doesn’t have the defensive abrasiveness his English counterpart has, plus his kicking game often leaves much to be desired.  It should be Mike Brown’s afternoon in this department for England on Sunday.

In short, this will be a game worth watching for supporters and neutrals alike.  It should show us a more rounded new look England than what we saw against Scotland.  Meanwhile Italy, if they play with as much passion and skill as they did last weekend, will provide plenty of entertainment and give their supporters some real optimism for the future.  Ultimately though this is England’s game to lose, and as a result the Men in White should make it two from two by 12 points.  Italy may run them hard for the first hour but once England’s vastly superior bench starts making its impact then they should easily put the game out of sight.  England’s bench, boasting the likes of Joe Launchbury among others, is exceptionally strong whereas we know little about Italy’s substitutes.  England also will be calling off the bench a highly anticipated debutant in the shape of Saracens flanker Maro Itoje.  I for one am really looking forward to seeing Itoje in action, and personally think if he puts in a good performance he may well get a starting spot against Ireland in a fortnight.  If Itoje can shrug off all the justified hype surrounding his appearance in an England shirt, and I think he will, he could well be one of the real revelations of the tournament.  The evidence is there for all to see at club level, and if Itoje can deal with the weight of expectation on his young shoulders, he is likely to be the beacon of what a new England could ultimately look like.  We wish him well!

The opening weekend of the Six Nations rewrote all the predictions we had going into the tournament and provided us with plenty of excitement and more than a few surprises.  I for one feel I owe Italy and their Coach Jacques Brunel a serious apology as for all intents and purposes we had already consigned them to the wooden spoon.  What we saw in the tournament’s opening game in Paris was inspirational, and yes once again that man Sergio Parisse was at the heart of it, while his young charges put on a display that surely must have given Italian supporters enormous hope for the future.  France meanwhile looked slightly unsure of themselves as they started a new chapter under Coach Guy Noves but there were more than enough glimmers of hope to stir French hearts and send out warning signs to the other Six Nations competitors as the competition unfolds.

England and Scotland despite all the hype, served up the least excitement over the weekend.  England’s new beginnings under Coach Eddie Jones were essentially successful with a solid win, but England while got they job done clinically and effectively were hardly a revelation.  Eddie Jones said before the match that as their first outing post the World Cup, a win was all that mattered and that was very much what we got in Murrayfield on Saturday.  Like France there were glimpses of what this English side could do once it really settles but for now it is a case of get the job done and keep a lid on the excitement factor.  Scotland meanwhile showed plenty of promise, and Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg got us on our feet on several occasions only for it to all to go to waste as Scotland once again let themselves down with some poor execution and decision making at key moments.  For their supporters it was yet another tantalising look at what Scotland could be but sadly just isn’t.

On Sunday the lid finally came off this tournament as Wales and Ireland went to battle in Dublin.  Although a draw is something most of us never want to see, the manner in which it was achieved easily made this contest the most exciting and riveting of the three matches this weekend.  The sheer pace from both sides for the full eighty minutes was spectacular as two extremely well prepared teams desperately sought to find a weakness in the other’s game plan.  Ireland answered all their critics and showed that on the basis of this performance they are very much in the running to hang on to the Six Nations silverware for a third consecutive year.  Meanwhile Wales showed once more their incredible grit and determination as they battled their way back from a 13-0 deficit even without their star playmaker fly half Dan Biggar.  In the end there was nothing in it between two outstanding sides and a draw really was the only fair reflection of a spectacular eighty minutes of rugby.

France vs Italy
Final Score – France 23/Italy 21

I must confess to being way off the mark on my initial predictions as to how this match would play out.  Full marks have to go to Italy for a performance that clearly laid down a marker to their critics that they deserve their place in the Six Nations and will do so for a long time to come as a group of young players all stood up and were counted in a superb performance in Paris.  There is no denying that they were led from the front by a Sergio Parisse at his best, just watch the footage of the Italian dressing room before they ran onto the pitch to see how fired up Italy was.  Some have criticised Parisse for being too involved in Saturday at times, but I beg to differ.  Agreed his drop goal attempt was not one of his better judgement calls at the end of the match but you still can’t fault the man for leading from the front for the full eighty minutes and inspiring his young charges to one of the best Italian performances I have seen in a very long time.  The lacklustre Italy of the World Cup was nowhere in evidence in Paris on Saturday as they looked exceptionally well drilled in defence and attack.  France on the other hand in their first outing under new Coach Guy Noves showed plenty of promise of what they can do as they settle but at times looked a bit rudderless in direction.  There was some superb individual flair on display but as a team they looked far less cohesive than Italy.  Lastly, the decision to use scrum-half Sebastien Bezy as their first choice kicker for points over the much more accurate fly half Jules Plisson defied all logic as countless points went begging till sanity prevailed and the baton was passed to Plisson.  Had this been done right from the start then Italy’s heroics would not have had such a damaging effect on the score line.  Despite the result and the fact that France eked out a narrow victory, as far as we are concerned Italy won the hearts and imaginations of rugby fans around the world on Saturday and as a result should definitely feel a renewed sense of optimism about their fortunes in this Six Nations.

Italy came charging out of the blocks in this match and almost got a superb try for their initial efforts through winger Leonardo Sarto who once more proved in this match what a potent attacking threat he is for Italy.  A lovely little box kick from scrum half Eduardo Gori would have resulted in a sure try from Sarto had he just managed to hang on to the ball.  Still it was a taste of things to come.  Italy asserted a clear physical dominance over the French in the opening quarter for the game and turned the ball over on numerous occasions.  Fly half Carlo Canna in the first ten minutes justified my faith in his abilities through a superb drop goal after ten minutes.

There was no question that France were struggling especially in the physical contests and Italy clearly had the measure of them as well as ensuring that France’s new wonder weapon, winger Virimi Vakatawa, would be constantly tested and put under pressure.  However, France showed the class they are capable of at the end of the first quarter as Vakatawa showed just what a threat he can be as France continually probed the Italian defenses through some lovely passing.  After some sustained pressure Vakatawa broke free through a lovely offload from fullback Maxime Medard and dotted down in the corner.  It did look in the replay like Vakatawa’s foot had grazed the touchline, but it was never queried and still doesn’t take away from a superb passage of play from France.  Scrum-half Sebastien Bezy lined up the conversion but was way off the mark, a problem he would have all afternoon until fly half Jules Plisson was given the kicking duties.  Ten minutes later, with Vakatawa again providing enormous problems for the Italian defence, a rare disciplinary error from Parisse allowed France a quick tap and go which caught the Italians napping and flanker Damien Chouly would dot down in the right hand corner for another five pointer which Bezy would once more fail to convert.

As the second quarter got underway, Sergio Parisse put Italy back in the driving seat after a superb rolling maul from the lineout and fly half Carlo Canna made no mistake with the boot and put Italy in front with the conversion 10-8.  As mentioned above, for me Carlo Canna stood out all match and despite some inevitable mistakes given his youth and inexperience he showed some enormous potential for Italy in this match and surely must be a key part of Italy’s strategy in building towards Japan and 2019.  Canna started the second half for Italy in fine form kicking a solid penalty for Italy, and then feeding off some real skill and commitment from his Captain Parisse, the young fly half would score a superb try.  France’s Vakatawa pulled off a try saving tackle on the rampaging Parisse but the offload from Italian scrum half Eduardo Gori put Canna in space and an easy conversion followed.  The Paris crowd went quiet as they suddenly saw their side trailing 18-10.

The end of the third quarter saw France spark back into life and regain their composure.  Once more we saw some superb running lines from France and the offloading was exceptional.  Vakatawa was once more in the thick of things, shrugging off tacklers, but the ability of France to spread the ball wide and keep the ball in the contact areas must surely have given Coach Noves confidence for the rest of the tournament.  This time it was winger Hugo Bonneval’s turn to dot down in the corner and suddenly France seemed to have found their second wind.  The kicking duties were sensibly handed to fly half Jules Plisson and France were back in the hunt trailing by one point.

The remaining quarter would see penalties traded on both sides as a series of sniping attacks from both teams would come to nothing.  Italy’s Canna showed how fearless he was in defence as he brought down a thundering Vakatawa in full flight in a heroic tackle but one which sadly had to see him leave the field as the medics took him into the changing room for the mandatory concussion protocols.  Kelly Haimona came on to replace him and to his credit managed to kick a vital penalty to keep Italy’s noses just in front with six minutes to go before the final whistle.  However, now that the kicking duties had been passed to Plisson for France their accuracy with the boot had dramatically improved.  In a match that had left both sides exhausted France capitalised slightly more in terms of discipline.  Plisson booted a massive long-range penalty and France were in front 23-12 with five minutes left on the clock.  Italy were immense in the last few minutes of the match and it was all about the Azurri as they desperately sought to carve out an historic win.  As the clock ticked into the red and with Italy dominating possession Parisse suddenly found himself in the pocket in front of the posts.  However, Italy’s Captain may be many remarkable things for his team, but a kicker is not one of them.  One can understand him taking the option as Italy had few real chances left and the next time the ball went to ground or Italy lost possession the game would have been over.  Still history may say that it might have been prudent to hang onto the ball just one phase more as the momentum of play was all Italy’s.  Sadly, it wasn’t to be and Italy can only consider the what ifs as to what might have been.

France emerged the winners but it had a slightly hollow ring to it, as in many ways Italy had been the star of the show.  However, when it mattered France were slightly more clinical and had Plisson been kicking for points right from the start then the score line would have been much more in France’s favor.  However, when France clicked on attack they looked really impressive with Vakatawa making a superb transition from his sevens success.  France ran some lovely lines on Saturday and as they continue to grow in confidence they surely must be feeling optimistic about their chances in the tournament.  I can’t help feeling that ultimately Six Nations silverware may not be on the cards for France this year but they are likely to build a solid platform in the process for the future.  Italy meanwhile despite the loss can take huge heart from this match, as they looked very much like a complete unit with all their young guns firing.  Parisse was immense for his country and although he sometimes could be accused of getting carried away with his role in the team, he nevertheless inspires his team to incredible heights and the challenge for Italy will be to find someone amongst this group of youngsters who can carry his mantle in the future.

Scotland vs England
Final Score – Scotland 9/England 15

It may not have been pretty at times from both sides, but ultimately England can feel pleased that their first outing post the nightmare episode of the World Cup, was an effective endeavour that showed they have a platform for getting results.  While it still may appear slightly predictable and one which a more streetwise side could have found weaknesses to expose, England are clearly rebuilding and the speed and execution needed out wide to really challenge the likes of the Southern Hemisphere sides will come.  Scotland meanwhile once more showed plenty of promise but a seeming lack of conviction and killer instinct left them once more bereft of results.  As evidenced by fullback Stuart Hogg they are an exciting side to watch but their inability to hang onto the ball at key moments, poor execution and a lack of composure when it came to decision-making once more served to be their undoing.

To be fair to both sides there was very little in the match in the first quarter with both sides taking chances when they presented themselves.  England fly half George Ford is struggling with form this year and at times this was painfully evident in this match.  He found himself in the pocket ten minutes into the match but a drop goal that in the past would have been a sure fire 3 pointer for him went astray.  England’s clear domination of possession paid dividends as lock George Kruis would burrow his way through the Scottish defence to get England’s first try.  Owen Farrell playing at centre would add the extra two points for the conversion and England look comfortable.

This seemed to spark Scotland into action much to the relief of their supporters and the next twenty minutes up to half time would see the game ebb and flow between the two sides.  Greg Laidlaw would get Scotland’s first points through a penalty.  However, we would see a rare miss from him a few minutes later after Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg and winger Tommy Seymour put England’s George Ford under enormous pressure resulting in another shot at goal for Laidlaw.  Despite Scotland having the edge continued poor execution from Scotland was costing them dearly especially in the lineouts and at the breakdown.  Scotland would build a promising attack only to lose the ball in the contact areas time and again.  Another Laidlaw penalty just before half time would keep them in touch trailing 7-6, but it should have been so much more.  All credit to England however, as they looked the more composed of the two sides under pressure.

Scotland kept up the momentum as they came out for the second half, but ultimately England would once more show that they were the better of the two sides in terms of execution.  With the Vunipola brothers making life exceptionally difficult for the Scottish defences all afternoon, Mako Vunipola would set up a platform to allow the ball to be fed out wide to winger Jack Nowell who used every inch of limited space in front of him to maximum effect to put England ahead 12-6.  Farrell missed the difficult conversion but now although there was no need for Scotland to panic, you couldn’t help feeling that unless they fixed their handling issues it was going to be difficult to see them getting past England’s defences which were proving to be rock solid.  Then came a moment that perhaps epitomised the problems plaguing Scottish rugby despite its obvious talents.  A mistimed pass from English scrum half Ben Youngs as England attacked the Scottish line, would see Scottish fly half Finn Russell make a quick interception.  As he burst out of the blocks with fullback Stuart Hogg tearing alongside him on the outside with only a wrong footed George Ford to beat, Russell for some reason decided to hack the ball on with it wobbling into touch.  Had he offloaded to Stuart Hogg instead there are few that doubt Scotland would have suddenly found themselves with an easy five pointer and a conversion under the posts, putting them 13-12 ahead.  It is precisely this sort of poor decision making that Scotland has to remedy if this exceptionally talented and exciting team are ever to get away from being on the wrong side of the score line when the final whistle is blown.

Scotland continued to deteriorate as England’s superior quality bench started to take its toll into the last quarter.  A pointless scrum penalty saw England inch a further three points ahead to 15-6.  Laidlaw would get a chance for Scotland to narrow the gap with a well earned penalty kick, but that was far as it would go for Scotland as they would have to settle for a 15-9 loss to the Men in White.  England simply dominated Scotland for the last ten minutes and the Scots were left to ponder what might have been.  With such a talented backline spearheaded by the lightning speed of fullback Stuart Hogg, Scottish supporters must be frustrated beyond belief that they never really looked like ever crossing for a try.  Time and again a fabulous break spearheaded by Hogg would fade into nothing by the time it got to the English 22.

England may have not been as flash in attack at times, and most of their points came from a suffocating and dominant forward performance of old but in the end it was devastatingly effective.  England may not be making their Southern Hemisphere rivals feel concerned at the moment, but with their forward platform clearly intact and a set of backs who can light up a stadium when given the chance, then surely what we saw on Saturday was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this side can do in the new Eddie Jones era.  England will need to keep their wits about them against a fired up Italy in Rome, while Scotland has the unenviable task of travelling to Cardiff to take on a frustrated but clearly potent Wales.  Given the choice I think most of us would be feeling a lot more comfortable about the work ahead of them in preparing for next Saturday if they were wearing Eddie Jones shoes rather than Vern Cotter’s.

Ireland vs Wales
Final Score – Ireland 16/Wales 16

There is no question that this ended up being the game of the weekend in terms of spectacle, despite many people thinking that ultimately this game would swing in favour of the Welsh up against a depleted Irish side.  No such fear as two evenly matched teams went at each other hammer and tongs for the full eighty minutes with neither side giving an inch in the final quarter.  Intensely physical yet having more opportunities than we had seen in the previous two matches it was an epic conclusion to a weekend of Six Nations rugby.  While neither side will be happy with the draw, both must surely be considered as contenders for the Six Nations title if this kind of form is maintained for the rest of the Championship.  Both teams showed enterprise and speed on attack while being utterly steadfast in defence.  Wales leaked a try in the first quarter but then held firm for the remainder of the match and showed some superb defensive skills.  They responded to the Irish early dominance with a well worked try of their own early in the second half as they clawed their way back into a match where Ireland had streaked ahead by thirteen points.  The second half saw the pendulum start to swing Wales way as they dominated possession for the first quarter of the second half at one point recycling the ball through an extraordinary 28 phases.  The last fifteen minutes of this match seesawed from one end to the other and left the Aviva spectators enthralled and on their feet till the final whistle.  As two exhausted and battered teams left the field, despite the draw a marker had been laid for the rest of the competition.  Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt’s charges are without a doubt the two most streetwise and hardened units in the competition and are likely to only become more difficult to topple as the competition wears on.

Ireland were considered by many to be the underdogs in this match-up, a label they clearly relished.  I personally wouldn’t go as far as saying this was Ireland’s B-side as many were calling it, as up against Wales supposed A side the Irish acquitted themselves extremely well.  However, Wales clearly has some depth and plenty of the character they showed at the World Cup.  As Welsh fans held their breath as all star fly half and kicker Dan Biggar limped off the field in the first quarter, they surely must have taken heart in the fact that his replacement Rhys Priestland made sure that Wales stayed on track throughout the match and made a remarkable comeback from being 13-0 down at one point.  Meanwhile Irish fans must have been delighted to see fly half Johnny Sexton once more in full song in an Irish shirt while others whose form at club level has been less than stellar this year such as Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip put in a superb shift all afternoon and were clearly back to their best in the green jersey.  Meanwhile the backrow partnership of South African born Irish debutant CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell proved devastating and for much of the game clearly matched and even outplayed at times their much vaunted Welsh opposite numbers Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton.  Simon Zebo did, as predicted, display some defensive weaknesses at fullback but made up for it with some dazzling breaks through the Welsh lines.  Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw were an effective centre pairing for Ireland with Payne playing with some real adventure and enthusiasm.  Wales can still be pleased with the efforts of Tipuric and Warburton and for me Tipuric continues to be one of the most potent weapons in the Welsh attack and defense with a fantastic work rate at the breakdown. Lastly, Welsh lock Alun Wyn-Jones caused havoc at the lineouts and was often leading the Welsh charge through a resolute Irish defence.  In short, it was an epic tussle and made for a riveting spectacle.

Ireland got proceedings off to a blistering start and though it may have caught Wales slightly off guard they quickly started to match the intensity of everything the Irish were throwing at them.  However, the Irish were clearly dictating the pace of the game in the first half hour of the match.  Debut lock CJ Stander after providing the crowd with a rousing and passionate rendition of the Irish national anthem was a powerhouse of the Irish assault on the Welsh in the opening minutes.  Sexton was at his best in an Irish shirt again and the fly half made short working of kicking a penalty derived from some superb forward pressure from Stander.  The Welsh supporters winced in agony as Dan Biggar limped off the field within the first ten minutes but replacement Rhys Priestland quickly settled into the fly half role and showed once more the extraordinary depth Wales has to cope with injuries.

The first half hour though was all about Irish attack and Welsh defence.  The Irish ultimately got the better of their Welsh opponents through a welcome return to form of Irish scrum half Conor Murray.  Despite a subpar season so far at Munster, Murray’s return in an Irish jersey injected some much needed pace and vitality back into his game.  After some outstanding carrying work by CJ Stander and centre Robbie Henshaw, Murray was able to squirt through a gap in the Welsh defence to claim the first five pointer of the afternoon.  As you could hear a pin drop in the Aviva, Sexton made no mistake once more with the conversion.  After two successful penalty kicks and a converted try Ireland found themselves comfortably in the lead 13-0 approaching half time.

Wales would dig deep and a messy but still unfortunate tackle from Irish winger Keith Earls would see Wales getting a penalty which Priestland would successfully use to get Wales first points on the board.  Next up Wales used their brute power off an untidy scrum to send Welsh number eight Taulupe Faletau crashing over the Irish line.  Faletau had been threatening all afternoon and suddenly the playing field looked a lot more even.  As thirty players trudged off the field at half time with the score 13-10 in Ireland’s favour, the crowd took the opportunity along with the players to regain their voices and catch their breath.

Wales came charging out of the blocks at half time with their tails up and it was now Ireland’s turn to defend like demons.  Wales would get a penalty as Irish discipline slipped slightly and the sides drew level at 13-13.  The exhausting pace and physicality of the game was starting to take its toll though.  A superb break from Sexton looked like Ireland were about to get the upper hand once more only to have him offload the ball to winger Andrew Trimble who was bundled into touch in short order.  Wales then put together a phenomenal attack deep into Irish territory which saw them maintain possession for a remarkable 28 phases before getting a well earned penalty which Priestland used to put the Welsh in front 16-13.  Ireland hit back minutes later through the boot of Sexton as Ireland went on the attack and with minutes to go it was an even contest at 16-16.  Both sides played the remainder of the match as though it were a World Cup final and were clearly playing for the win and not the draw.  Neither side would take the easy option of booting the ball into touch to facilitate the final whistle.  In the end in one of the most evenly contested games of rugby I can recall, two very impressive sides had to settle for the draw and to be honest as frustrating as it was for both sides it was a fair reflection of the spectacle that both teams had produced.

While I feel that Wales are ultimately still going to be the team to beat in this tournament, Ireland certainly made everyone sit up and take notice that although wounded, as defending champions they rightly consider themselves very much in the hunt for the spoils.  With arguably the two most tactically gifted coaches in the shape of Wales’ Warren Gatland and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt directing strategy and a stable of highly talented and committed players, the other Six Nations competitors will have to raise their games significantly if they want to tame these two Celtic tigers over the coming weeks!

Although the debates have raged North and South of the Equator as to which Hemisphere plays a better brand of rugby, there can be no denying that as one of the oldest and most prestigious rugby tournaments in the world, the Six Nations, kicks off this weekend the excitement is palpable.  If last year’s epic tournament is anything to go by then the tedious, defensive slugfests of old are surely a thing of the past.  The last weekend of last year’s tournament, provided many of us with one of the most frenetic action packed Saturdays of rugby that most of us can remember in a lifetime.  In three matches that Saturday almost two hundred points were scored as rapturous fans screamed, wept and poured countless pints of beer on the floor in their excitement in pubs and bars across Europe and around the world for that matter.  The Southern Hemisphere may ultimately still have the benchmark brand of rugby to beat but there is a genuine attempt taking place to shift Northern Hemisphere rugby into the high-octane zone.  Whether your heart lies in the North or the South when it comes to rugby there is no denying that the sense of history, pride and passion on display in the Six Nations is hard to equal and for that reason alone it is a tournament that many of us cherish and eagerly look forward to every year.  As much of the Northern Hemisphere seeks to rebuild after the shell shock of the World Cup, this year’s Six Nations is potentially one of the most open in years making it almost impossible to predict the outcome.  Indeed, the only sure bet that the Lineout crystal ball gazers can come up with is that none of the six countries will pull off a Grand Slam this year.

A new look and highly anticipated England and France take to the field, while back to back champions Ireland seek to rebuild after the shock of their World Cup humiliation by Argentina. Ireland are also seeking to weld together a new look side without the talismanic figure of former Captain Paul O’Connell but one which boasts a genuine wealth of emerging talent.  Wales and Scotland if anything appear to be the most settled of all the sides and their World Cup heroics must surely have given them confidence.  Scotland in their heartbreaking loss to Australia have shown they have the talent, while Wales incredible grit and determination in the face of an injury list from hell showed us the depth and courage of their side.  Perhaps Italy is the only side whose prospects are far from encouraging despite the leadership of their extraordinary Captain Sergio Parisse.  With Parisse on the field Italy can be capable of miracles but with the management of Italian rugby in serious transition and already depleted resources in terms of injuries to a player base lacking in depth, Italy will struggle to avoid lifting the Wooden Spoon this year.  Having said that though write Italy off at your peril and as mentioned with Parisse leading the troops especially at home an upset is always within the realms of possibility.

While it is almost impossible to predict who will walk away with the spoils this year, there are three things that we are fairly certain of at the Lineout.  Firstly, no country will achieve a Grand Slam.  Secondly, we are pretty confident that it will be Wales and England duking it out for top honors.  Lastly, France, Ireland and Scotland will all be battling hard to establish themselves in the middle of the pack while Italy sadly are left to pick up the wooden spoon.

In short a tournament to be genuinely excited by as we watch all six countries start to lay the foundations for the next global showdown in Japan in 2019 and attempt to lay down a marker that on any given Saturday the Northern Hemisphere can start to produce the kind of expansive rugby that will make their Southern Hemisphere rivals sit up and take notice.  There’s still a way to go in terms of catching up but the will has never been stronger.  So without any further ado let’s have a look at how this glorious tournament will shape up on it’s opening Saturday, starting with France vs Italy.

Fixtures this weekend

France vs Italy
Saturday, February 6th

Put your hand up if you’re not expecting any surprises tomorrow in Paris – we’re certainly not.  Of the three fixtures this weekend this is by far the easiest to call.  Sure it’s a new look France under a new Coach, but it’s also a new look Italy under a fairly disinterested Coach making his way to the exit signs.  As French clubs along with their English counterparts have dominated Club rugby in Europe this season while Italian clubs have failed to make any kind of impact whatsoever, France should emerge comfortable winners on Saturday.

This new look French side post the nightmare experience that was the World Cup a mere four months ago, boasts some exciting talent and on paper should be able to give any of the Six Nations competitors a serious run for their money.  While there is a healthy dose of new faces, there are also many that are familiar, the key here is will new French Coach Guy Noves and former Toulouse boss be able to maintain a settled side with this mix of youth and experience and settle the combinations?  His predecessor Phillipe Saint-Andre had no consistent selection policies whatsoever meaning that there was rarely any continuity whatsoever from one French outing to the next and France paid dearly for his constant tinkering.  Italy meanwhile boast a host of new faces that show plenty of promise but the lack of experience may simply be too much of a mountain for them to climb this year, despite being led from the front by one of the best Number 8s and Captains in Test Rugby, the indomitable Sergio Parisse.

Up front France should have the clear edge over Italy.  Eddy Ben Arous, Gulheim Guirado and Rabah Slimani need no introduction whatsoever, whereas their Italian counterparts are for all intents and purposes an unknown quantity at Test Level.  France should easily push Italy around in the scrums and expect to see plenty of scrum penalties going the way of Les Bleus.  France’s prowess in the front row should be also matched in the lineouts especially if Yoann Maestri really starts to fire.  The battle of the backrows should be slightly more of an even contest however, as Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto are not exactly strangers to Test Rugby and with Sergio Parisse behind them they should be able to challenge French efforts here.  Parisse is a well documented force of nature for Italy and can inspire his charges to produce miracles.  However, his opposite number Louis Picamoles for France is also one of the most bruising loose forwards in International Rugby at the moment and was one of the very few players who made a difference for France at the World Cup.  Meanwhile Damien Chouly should be more than a match for Zanni in the back row.  As a result, on paper the forward battle is going to be unequivocally in France’s favour.

In the halfback pairings plenty of questions abound but from Italy’s point of view, I feel it is the right call to give Carlo Canna the fly half berth over Kelly Haimona despite Canna’s lack of experience.  As readers of this blog know I have little if any faith in Haimona and if Italy is to build for 2019 then they need to start the process now.  It is unlikely that they are going to challenge for any real honors in this Six Nations but their younger players have a golden opportunity to gain some valuable experience in one of the most unforgiving competitions in international rugby.  As a result, I think it is a wise call and Canna may stumble on Saturday at times but he will surely grow in confidence as the tournament progresses.  Eduardo Gori at scrum half for Italy is a promising player and works hard at trying to capitalise on any opportunities provided by his forwards.  However, as in the forwards battle France should clearly have the edge here.  Toulouse’s Sebastien Bezy at scrum half for France has been one of the few things to get excited about in Toulouse’s European campaign this season.  Fast, elusive and a master of crisp offloads his exuberance will be exceptionally difficult for Italy to contain.  Meanwhile Jules Plisson at fly half has shown plenty of promise despite his form being erratic at times.  Despite his diminutive size Plisson does not shirk from the physical contact areas and when this young fly half is on form, as we have seen at Stade Francais on occasion this year, he adds some real excitement to any attack.  His kicking may be less than accurate at times and it is here that France may struggle, but then Italy’s Canna has also shown problems with nerves in this area as well.

It’s in the backs just as with the forwards, however that France clearly has the edge over Italy.  Guy Noves has taken a big risk with playing French Sevens superstar Virimi Vakatawa on the wing.  It’s always a gamble to thrust a sevens player into the full fifteen a side game, but Vakatawa is such a force of nature that it is probably worth the risk.  If he gels into the larger game, then he could be almost unstoppable and will cause defences endless nightmares.  Gael Fickou and Jonathan Danty are proven center commodities provided they click for France and should easily have the edge over their Italian counterparts.  Italy’s Leonardo Sarto on the wing is an impressive commodity and stood out in both Italy’s Six Nations and World Cup campaigns but I fear too much weight will be placed on his shoulders on Saturday as his team expects him to perform miracles.  Lastly, in the fullbacks France fields the experienced and always exciting Maxime Medard up against Italian newcomer David Odiete.  Odiete will learn a lot on Saturday but the Frenchman is likely to provide him with endless headaches.

In short, I doubt there will be any surprises on Saturday.  Italy will take a much needed step on the road to life after Coach Jacques Brunel, while France should hopefully start their new life under Coach Guy Noves with a bang and plenty of flair.  A comfortable win in the end for France with them taking the spoils by 20 points!

Scotland vs England
Saturday, February 6th

I have to confess to finding this to be the hardest game of all to call this weekend.  Of all of them I think it will be the tightest and certainly the most enthralling of the three contests.  If you only get to watch one this weekend, then this is probably the one to go for.  Put aside all the hype surrounding this match and you still have a battle of epic proportions on your hands with both sides having everything to prove.  Scotland will want to make a statement that their heartbreaking loss to eventual World Cup runners up Australia was no fluke.  Meanwhile, England will need to show that their disastrous World Cup is well and truly behind them and that this is a side who will be able to go toe to toe with the world’s best day in day out till the next global showdown in Japan.  Of the two, the pressure is probably more on England, but in front of a Murrayfield crowd desperate for the success they know Scotland should be capable of, Vern Cotter’s men will certainly be feeling the heat as well.  As new England Coach Eddie Jones has his first outing in charge of England he will find himself under one of the most unforgiving microscopes in International Test rugby.  His Captain Dylan Hartley will find himself under the same scrutiny, especially as his selection has raised more than a few eyebrows, even if many grudgingly agree that he lends an edge to the England squad that they have sorely missed over the last few years provided he can keep his emotions and thus discipline intact.

Scotland run out probably the most competent side they have fielded since the last time they tasted success in this tournament, almost twenty years ago in 1999.  There is no question that this is an exceptionally exciting and competent Scottish side.  While Scottish fortunes in European Club Rugby have been up and down so far this year, weld all these exceptionally talented individuals together into one team and under the expert guidance of Coach Vern Cotter and you suddenly find yourself up against a very formidable unit.  Put all the hype aside and England are rightly describing Saturday’s contest as a baptism of fire for both Eddie Jones and his rebuilt England.

Up front it is going to be an epic battle and I have to confess to giving it to Scotland.  Scotland’s W P Nel is an exceptional prop and while Scotland and England both have solid front rows, for me England’s Joe Marler is a real weak link, thus giving Scotland the edge.  Quite frankly I think Nel is going to make Marler’s life a misery and as a result Scotland should gain dominance in the scrums with the boots of Laidlaw, Hogg and Russell making every penalty count.  In the locks it should be a very even contest between Scotland’s Gray brothers and England’s Joe Launchbury and George Kruis.  Johnny Gray is outstanding and consistent but his brother Ritchie can have moments of inconsistency.  Therefore, I’m giving England the edge here.  In the back row, I’m swinging the battle back in Scotland’s favor.  John Barclay and John Hardie are superb talents and the latter is a devastating tackling machine.  Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have plenty of experience but when it comes to the edge required at this level I think the Scottish pair has it in bucket loads.  In terms of the contest between Scotland’s David Denton and England’s Billy Vunipola, the latter’s experience should see him get the better of the Scot in England’s favour.  However, Denton was a revelation last year at the World Cup and expect more of the same in this tournament and as a result Vunipola will have to raise his game for the full eighty minutes.

The halfback contest should be fascinating.  Scotland’s Finn Russell at fly half and Captain Greg Laidlaw at scrum half have quickly developed into a settled and effective unit.  Indeed, Laidlaw’s composure under pressure is key to Scotland’s growing confidence.  Russell’s youthful exuberance sometimes lets him down in terms of execution and his relative lack of experience can sometimes be a liability when the going gets tough.  England’s George Ford at fly half was a revelation in last year’s Six Nations with the exception of the match against Ireland, but this form has clearly deserted him this season at Bath.  He seems to play differently in an England shirt and it is hoped that Eddie Jones can bring out the best once more in this talented player.  I must confess to being surprised at the selection of Danny Care at scrum half over Ford’s usual half back partner, Leicester’s Ben Youngs.  Given Youngs’ form at Leicester this season and the fact that he and Ford work well together in an England shirt, with Ford’s lack of confidence at the moment, I was surprised to not see them paired together.  As a result, if Finn and Laidlaw can keep their composure and outsmart their English counterparts I am giving the halfback contest to Scotland by the smallest of margins.

It’s in the backs where I actually feel Scotland has the edge, especially in front of a home crowd.  If they can put aside the hype and not worry too much about living up to expectations and just go out there and focus on the task at hand, Scotland’s attacking threat is potentially lethal.  England’s backs are equally as dangerous and if they were playing at Twickenham I would give them the edge.  The big question here is given his outstanding form at Saracens, how much of an X-factor is Owen Farrell going to be at center, instead of his normal club position at fly half?  I personally think he is more effective at fly half than center, but paired with Jonathan Joseph he could really make a difference.  Scotland’s center offering of Mark Bennett and Matt Scott is an equally exciting prospect with Bennett being one of Europe’s form players at the moment.  However, when it comes to the X-factor I think England might just have the edge here.  However, out on the wings if they get good ball and the crowd behind them, then Scotland simply on home advantage if nothing else should get the edge in the shape of Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland.  England’s Jack Nowell is an exceptionally gifted player and Anthony Watson can light up a pitch on any given day, but erratic form this season at club level so far from him, and the fact that they are playing away from Fortress Twickenham means that I am just giving the nod to Scotland on the wings.  Lastly, at fullback an epic contest awaits between English bulldog Mike Brown and Scottish terrier Stuart Hogg.  Hogg is devastating with ball in hand while Brown’s sheer tenacity and guts are a force to be reckoned with.  If this match were being played at Twickenham I would give the battle of the fullbacks to Brown, but as it is being played in Murrayfield I am handing it to Hogg provided he can keep his wits about him.  As gifted as Hogg is, his decision making has sometimes let him down and provided he keeps calm under pressure I expect him to light up the field for Scotland and make some of those scintillating breaks that have become his stock and trade.

For Scotland to win this match they will need to build up a commanding lead in the first three quarters to the point where England’s better quality bench will be forced into playing catch up rugby and all the mistakes that come with such pressure.  The quality on the English bench in the shape of Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Alex Goode and Paul Hill speaks volumes about what this English side is capable of.  If the match is close as the bench starts to get used expect to see England quietly pull ahead.  Scotland packs some formidable figures in the shape of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Duncan Weir and Blair Cowan on their bench but it just doesn’t have the same weight and depth as England’s.  That being said I am actually sticking my neck out and giving the game to Scotland by the smallest of margins.  Scotland by 2 in a cliff-hanger right to the end!  Expect the noise to be quite deafening at Murrayfield on Saturday and this should drive Scotland to a solid lead going into the second half.  England will power their way back into the match and put the Scots under the most intense pressure and it is likely to look like England’s day as the crowd hangs on the referee’s final whistle.  However, Murrayfield as the sixteenth man should just and I emphasise just see Scotland home by a whisker.  Either way strap yourself in – we’re in for a cracker!

Ireland vs Wales
Sunday, February 7th

Six Nations champions for the last two years, Ireland are seemingly up against it this year while Wales along with England look to be the side to beat.  Much to the probable ire of Irish supporters, and to be fair remember I’m one of them, I can’t help feeling that Wales must surely be the favourites on Sunday in Dublin.  Ireland sadly look a shadow of the glory days of the last two years and without talismanic Captain Paul O’Connell they just don’t seem to have the drive and edge necessary. I say that with no disrespect to new Irish Captain Rory Best who I think is a superb choice and will provide Ireland with solid leadership especially as he grows into the role.  Furthermore, the linchpin of much of Ireland’s success in the last two years, fly half Johnny Sexton, has not exactly looked his best this year.  Injuries and more worryingly repeated concussions are seeming to take their toll on one of Ireland’s most gifted players as Sexton has struggled to find his rhythm on his return to Ireland after a stint with Racing Metro in France.

Wales on the other hand after a World Cup that saw some epic performances from the Men in Red, are on fire.  Despite an injury list from hell, they showed perhaps the most grit and determination of any side in the World Cup as well showing the world that there is some serious depth to Welsh rugby.  Coach Warren Gatland is as always a controversial figure, but whether or not you like the man you have to admit that he knows how to get the best out of his charges in most encounters.  Dan Biggar is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most exciting fly halves and seemed to possess a GPS guided set of boots at the World Cup.   His half back partner Gareth Davies at scrum half has rapidly established himself as a try scoring machine.  In the forwards, lock partners Justin Tipuric and Captain Sam Warburton seemingly possess super-human qualities in attack and defence while the sight of lock Alun Wyn-Jones barrelling his way through defences has become the stock of YouTube tribute videos.  This is a very complete and settled team boasting a healthy sprinkling of young and emerging talent.  Without a doubt one of, if not THE team to beat in this Six Nations.

As a result, an Ireland in transition are going to have their work cut out for them on Sunday in Dublin despite the Aviva faithful being in full voice.  Up front Ireland will be competitive but the Welsh front row should have the edge.  The battle will be close but Ireland’s weak link could prove to be Nathan White.  In the locks department there simply is no contest when you are up against someone like Wales’ Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris.  The towering form of Ireland’s Devin Toner will pose a threat but his form has not been consistent in the last year, and the same can be said of his partner Mike McCarthy.  So despite Rory Best’s efforts expect to see Wales dominate the lineouts.  In the back row there is a slightly more interesting match up on offer.  While once again I expect to see the Welsh have the advantage here in the shape of Tipuric and Warburton, Irish supporters must surely be taking heart in the possible development of a partnership of CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell in the back row for the long-term.  I was very impressed with O’Donnell in last year’s Six Nations till he was ruled out with injury and he was sorely missed in Ireland’s World Cup campaign.  Now eligible to play for Ireland, South African CJ Stander has been about the only thing to get excited about at Munster this season and the battle between him and Wales’ Warburton should be fascinating.  However, on sheer experience and ability I am still giving the contest in this department to Wales.  Lastly, at number eight, Jamie Heaslip is a quality player for Ireland but has failed to really stand out at Leinster so far this year.  Wales’ Taulupe Faletau put in some superb performances for Wales in the World Cup and expect to see more of the same in the Six Nations and as a result he should get the better of his Irish counterpart.

In the halfbacks contest I feel that Wales actually have this signed, sealed and delivered.  Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is not quite finding his rhythm whereas his Welsh counterpart is rapidly becoming a highly sought after commodity in International Rugby.  Irish scrum-half Conor Murray is a quality player but has had a completely lacklustre season with Munster so far this year.  Wales’ Gareth Davies on the other hand lit up the World Cup and I see no reason for him to stop doing so in the Six Nations.  If the partnership of Sexton/Murray fires, then it can completely turn a game for Ireland but based on present evidence I can’t really see it happening and as result expect to see the Welshmen running this aspect of the game more effectively than Ireland.

In the backs, I must confess to being slightly perplexed by Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections.  Jared Payne has looked really solid at fullback for Ulster this season, while Ulster center Stuart McCloskey has been one of the revelations of the European Champions Cup.  Schmidt has chosen to play Payne at center and McCloskey doesn’t even get a spot on the bench.  I am assuming that perhaps Schmidt knows something we don’t but I have my doubts.  Furthermore, Simon Zebo has a dazzling set of skills on attack but traditionally has a weak defensive game and putting him as Ireland’s last line of defence over Payne is something I fail to understand and I can’t help feeling may cost Ireland on Sunday.  On the wings both teams have quality and it should be a relatively even contest.  Ireland’s Andrew Trimble has looked good at Ulster after a return from injury and Keith Earls put in a good performance for Ireland at the World Cup.  However, despite Wales’ George North being relatively quiet at Northampton when cut loose he is still one of the world’s most exciting wingers.  New Welsh cap Tom James has looked good with Cardiff Blues and as a result given North’s pedigree I am giving the nod to Wales on the wings.  Wales center pairing of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts is quality through and through boasting plenty of power and pace and should give Wales the clear advantage in center field.  Ireland’s Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw seem to be Schmidt’s preferred choice at center, despite my reservations that the former should be at fullback. I still feel that Henshaw should be partnered with the absent McCloskey as the way forward in terms of a future for Ireland in the centers.  Lastly at fullback, this could go either way.  However, as much as I would have preferred to see Payne at fullback, I am actually giving Ireland the nod here.  Gareth Anscombe hasn’t really impressed me in a Welsh shirt and despite his occasional defensive lapses, I am giving Ireland’s Simon Zebo the upper hand in the battle of the fullbacks.  Zebo’s experience and remarkable skill and flair on attack is streets ahead of Anscombe’s and if he can keep his head in defense, Ireland should have the edge here.

In short a potentially exciting battle awaits.  In many ways Ireland have everything to prove as the clear underdogs in front of a home crowd desperate to see the pain of the World Cup banished from memory.  Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt and his opposite number and fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland are two of the most streetwise coaches in world rugby.  Despite the poor results of Irish sides in the European Champions Cup this year, with the exception of Ulster, an Irish side welded together by Schmidt is always capable of having some tricks up its sleeve and Sunday should be no exception.  It will be close at times but I can’t help feeling that a more settled and accomplished Welsh side will ultimately start to pull away in the last quarter.  As a result, Wales to take this by 10!  As a positive for Ireland though, it may give some players a real chance to shine while opening the doors to the likes of notable omissions like Stuart McCloskey for the rest of the tournament.  It’s a tough start for Ireland’s rebuilding process and ultimately a test that they may not pass but in the process should learn plenty to the lay the foundations for the future.  Ireland may be down but they are a long way from being out.  Just as Australia has risen from the ashes in the space of a year I fully expect to see Ireland do the same.  Therefore, whatever happens on Sunday for Ireland I doubt it will be considered the end of the world and expect to see plenty of glimmers of what they could look like in the future.  As for Wales they are on a roll and England will no doubt be watching this game with just a hint of trepidation as they see what lies in store for them in a month’s time.