Posts Tagged ‘Six Nations 2021’

With the dust now settled on what for us has been one of the most riveting Six Nations in years, it’s time to hand out the marks. Despite the lack of crowds, the quality of rugby for the most part did not suffer and we were treated to a series of vintage games that are likely to stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.

So who got it right and who got it spectacularly wrong? For most of the participants there was lots to be learnt with the majority taking the lessons to heart and making good use of them. For a small minority of participants it appeared to be a tournament where opportunities to grow and prepare for the next World Cup and even the next Six Nations were completely wasted. For the Celtic nations and France it is a time for optimism. For Italy it is yet another year to forget. Perhaps the most worrying lesson though in all of this is that for England the clock is ticking with increasingly little time left to find the answers to a series of problems that really haven’t been addressed since England’s defeat in the last World Cup final.

So agree to disagree but here’s the second part of how we judged the overall performances of this year’s Six Nations participants looking at the bottom 3 in this year’s table.

Scotland – 7/10

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With Hamish Watson Scotland are phenomenal – but once again this tournament showed that consistency is Scotland’s Achilles Heel

In many ways Scotland’s fourth place finish somehow just doesn’t add up. They were without a doubt one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the competition who consistently applied maximum effort and wore their hearts on their sleeves. In short, we thoroughly enjoyed Scotland’s romp through the Six Nations and they provided some of the tournament’s best moments. Sadly though they occasionally got a bad roll of the dice, most noticeably falling victim to France’s Wafflegate which arguably had a more detrimental effect on them than France, and threw their Championship momentum completely off kilter. Nevertheless, international sport these days excels at throwing teams curve balls and a measure of a team’s success is how well they cope with such disruptions. Add to the fact that consistency week in week out is still a problem for Scotland and sadly despite some stunning performances, the cards didn’t quite fall in Scotland’s favor this year. But make no mistake this is a very good Scottish team that is only going to get better in the build up to the World Cup, and Scottish supporters can feel excited about their team’s fortunes.

Scotland got their campaign off to the best of possible starts by achieving a convincing win over the ‘auld enemy’ England at Fortress Twickenham, the first since 1983. It got the tournament as a whole off to a thrilling start and proved that its billing of possibly the most open Championship in years had some merit. Next up Scotland suffered a heartbreaking loss to Wales at Murrayfield by one point and were hampered by having to play with only 14 men for most of the second half due to a red card being handed to Prop Zander Fagerson. Scotland were in it to the death however and were unlucky to lose and in the process provided us with an absolute thriller.

After that Ireland made a visit to Murrayfield, but due to Scotland’s third round match with France being postponed, the Scots had been without game time for a full four weeks. A slightly more match fit Ireland got the better of them, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Scotland fought their way back into the match in the second half and were arguably the better side at times. Nevertheless it wasn’t good enough and another match went begging and with it their hopes of Championship glory. However, now match fit they made short work of Italy at Murrayfield and came away with a healthy 52 point haul.

All that remained now was their postponed match with France. With France having put paid to Wales’ Grand Slam ambitions on Super Saturday, all the focus was on whether or not France could rob Wales of the Championship. Scotland clearly resented all the talk about France, especially as Les Bleus faux pas had put paid to their own tournament momentum. In a match full of poetic justice, Scotland ended their Six Nations campaign in the same vein as they started it against England. The thriller in Paris was one for the ages and another one of those 110% team efforts from Scotland. Scotland took the lifeline given to them at the death by French fullback Brice Dulin, and in an epic display of grit and determination hammered away at the French try line for the next 5 minutes of extra time, managing to keep the ball in play for an incredible 20 phases. An impressive end to what had been a solid tournament for the Scots despite only finishing fourth.

Put aside their fourth place on the table and watch the highlights reels of their Six Nations and there is little doubt that Scotland played some of the most attractive, exciting and at times daring rugby of the tournament. Occassionally their inconsistency in decision making or attempting the impossible through fly half Finn Russell cost them, but this is a very good Test team who are already showing signs of causing Ireland and South Africa (their main pool opponents) some serious headaches come the World Cup. Furthermore they will be serious contenders for Six Nations glory in the remaining two tournaments before the next World Cup in France. Scotland seem to revel in the underdog label, though given their performances against England and France this year, it’s unlikely to be one associated with them much longer.

Our department picks this year for the Scots were all fairly straightforward, with one player perhaps being the best back rower of the tournament. Starting off in the front row, it has to be Prop Rory Sutherland. He was already registering on opposition radars before the tournament, and while he may not have been Scotland’s flashiest player he was arguably one of their most quietly efficient and consistent. In the second row, it has to be Jonny Gray until injury sadly knocked him out of the competition after the Ireland match. In the back row, the mighty Hamish Watson was simply Scotland’s best player and one of THE players of the entire tournament. Despite his size the man was simply a monster and one of the hardest working players in the sport. In the half backs some may be surprised to see us give scrum half Ali Price the nod over fly half Finn Russell. Russell may be a genuine magician but he tends to live a bit too much on the edge for our liking. Price had a stellar tournament making quick and sensible decisions and providing fast and accurate service, and in our opinion is one of Scotland’s most undervalued assets. In the centres, despite our initial reservations, you have to give a standing ovation to Chris Harris. He may not be the quickest or sharpest player on attack but defensively he was superb, a trait which was key in helping Scotland seal the deal in Paris. Finally in the back line it’s a hard call to not give winger Duhan van der Merwe top honors as he scored some crucial tries, but we simply have to give it to fullback and Captain Stuart Hogg. Hogg really came of age as a leader of men this tournament and his counterattacks from deep were the stuff of legends this Six Nations. Although these six individuals may have really stood out for their team they were able to do so in large part because of the outstanding team effort made by Scotland as a whole.

England – 5/10

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England need to learn how to master Plan B no matter how good their Plan A is

We have to admit we never really thought England would be duking it out with Italy this Six Nations for the Wooden Spoon. However, we were convinced that the reluctance to blood new talent and look to the future would seriously dent England’s chances this year. In that respect we were not proven wrong. England were way off the mark in terms of performance and creativity. Eddie Jones and his staff have completely wasted a golden opportunity to blood new talent in preparation for the next World Cup. Instead they now run the risk of having it all to do in a very short space of time, while at the same time continuing to rely on a group of players that increasingly look like something from the dinosaur age.

The other Six Nations competitors embraced change this year – England did not and it cost them dearly. There is a basic trend with this current England squad that when things are going their way they can hold their own against the world’s best, but the minute they are either found out or the opposition starts playing in a way they can’t understand England’s wheels fall off quickly and dramatically. We don’t think we’ve ever witnessed a team so bereft of a Plan B let alone C and D. Very good when a game goes according to script but at sixes and sevens the minute the opposition starts to improvise. Is this over coaching or a simple lack of imagination and creativity? England need to find the answers quickly before South Africa shows up at Twickenham this fall, especially given the fact that very few English players are likely to be on the plane to South Africa this summer for the Lions tour.

England got their campaign off to an ominous start against Scotland and recorded their first defeat to the Men from North of Hadrian’s Wall at Twickenham since 1983. England looked lethargic and completely bereft of ideas in attack. They made a much better showing against Italy a week later, but Italy are usually a golden opportunity to haul in the maximum amount of points while conceding none of your own. On this count England failed miserably as although they scored six tries, they only managed to convert 4 of them while allowing Italy to get two tries against them. Although it was an emphatic win the points difference was only 23, the smallest by any side against Italy during this year’s tournament.

England then travelled to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side brimming with confidence and on song for a possible Grand Slam. Put aside some of the more controversial refereeing decisions and Wales would still have won as a shambolic and exceptionally poorly disciplined English side never really fired a shot, and in the final quarter simply capitulated. Licking their wounds they headed back to Twickenham and finally found some redemption by beating tournament favorites France. It was a tense and close run affair and France almost snatched it at the death. England won but it wasn’t overly convincing in the process, while France were clearly suffering from a lack of fluidity and cohesion after a month out of the Test window courtesy of their earlier ‘Wafflegate’ antics in Rome.

England’s last hurdle was a difficult trip to Dublin to face an Irish side who was rapidly gaining confidence after a shaky start to their own tournament. However, the Irish showed all the invention, organisation and resilience with England showing none of the same qualities. Ireland dismantled England comprehensively and the Men in White spent much of the eighty minutes looking completely out of their depth in how to respond. In their confusion, their discipline also went out the window. In the end an abject England team wandered off the pitch in Dublin clearly at a loss as to how to explain what had just happened yet again.

Put a picture of England’s facial expressions after the World Cup final up against one taken after the final whistle in Dublin and they are disturbingly similar, with almost no lessons learnt in what has been a year and half. It begs the question as to what what is going on in English rugby? Eddie Jones complete exoneration this week after the Six Nations inquest, leaves us wondering if any learning is likely to happen between now and the next World Cup. There is no reason for England to be as poor as they were this Six Nations. There is a wealth of young talent in the country which would be the envy of most rugby nations and Coaches. Sadly however, none of it is being tapped and there seem to be no plans in place to do so and develop it into the World Cup winning resource it could be come 2023 which is only 24 months away. Until England learn how to adapt under pressure and develop an effective Plan B using the right talent at their disposal, the next two years could sadly be very lean ones indeed for the Men in White. It’s something that both existing players and Coaching staff must take responsibility for equally.

Given England’s rather lukewarm performance this year, we really struggled with picking our department heads from the Championship but here goes. In the front row we ultimately settled on Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie. Although he wasn’t always consistent when he did produce, most noticeably against France, his presence was really felt and his youth lent some dynamism to England’s front row efforts. In the second row, the choice was easy, Maro Itoje. As we said in our piece on the Welsh game, although the giant lock led England’s penalty count that was more due to the fact that he was one of the few players actually putting in an effort. Consequently by being at the centre of every piece of action on the field he was bound to catch the attention of the referee. It doesn’t excuse his digressions, and he is lapse to letting his emotions and frustrations get the better of him, but his value to England simply cannot be underestimated. He is the right side of the age curve for the next two World Cups and as a result given his undeniable raw talent, one of England’s most important assets for the future. His work rate is phenomenal and he is quite simply a massive thorn in the side of any opposition. In the back row we really struggled once more. Tom Curry is usually our go to man, but at times his discipline and understanding of the laws of the game was laughable this tournament. Nevertheless, like Itoje his is such a raw and powerful talent that he is integral to England’s future. In the half back department, we have to offer up George Ford who although outclassed on numerous occasions did at least attempt to offer England some creativity in attack. In the centres, we’d go with Henry Slade over Owen Farrell. Once again although Farrell has the greater experience and in theory has the better rugby brain, Slade we feel has the potential to make a greater contribution to England’s future if coached properly, whereas Farrell has been in a constant rut since the World Cup final. Lastly in the back line we are going to salute the return to form of winger Anthony Watson. While his colleague Jonny May scored some trademark spectacular tries, it was Watson when unleashed on attack with some exceptionally powerful runs that impressed the most. May’s talents are a given, but England seemed desperately short on skill out wide until the resurgence of Watson this year. Like we say we really struggled with this short list, from a group who sadly defined mediocrity this Championship.

Italy – 4/10

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Italy stare in disbelief once more at the scoreboard – a look that has become depressingly familiar

We were so optimistic about Italy at the start of this Championship as we vainly hoped that maybe, just maybe, this year would be different. As the tournament wore on and such hopes and dreams rapidly sounded like yet another broken record, we realised with a crushing sense of disappointment that come the end of the Championship we would once again be struggling to find something positive to say about another miserable year of Italian Six Nations trials and tribulations. There are one or two glimmering lights in Italy’s performances this year, but they are all individual and as a team Italy sadly have little to offer in terms of a new dawn for rugby in a land more renown for its skills with round rather than oval balls. They have plenty of passion of that there is no doubt and at times some genuine skill in attack, but overall their discipline makes England look almost saintly and they seem positively incapable of any kind of defence. Until some traction is made in both these areas, then the talent that Italy does have will simply be wasted. As much as the responsibility for this lies in the Coaching box, it equally lies with the players who have consistently failed to collectively address these frailties for over twenty years now.

Italy’s campaign got off to the worst possible start with a 40 point deficit against France, with an understanding of the offside law clearly something completely beyond the grasp of most of the Italian squad. Next up was England and to give Italy their credit they did make life complicated at times for England, but given England’s abilities this tournament that wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence, even if they were doing it at Twickenham. Italy then hosted Ireland who finally got their campaign on track with a thumping defeat of the Azurri who simply had nothing to offer. Things continued to go from bad to worse as Wales paid them a visit and ran in a similar score against them as Ireland had managed. Their tournament ended with a whimper as they were annihilated by the Scots at Murrayfield. The only positive thing you can say about this Italian squad is that the vast majority of them are barely out of rugby kindergarten. So they definitely have youth on their side, and if Coach Franco Smith can finally get them to grasp some of the key basics of the game such as defence and discipline then there could just be hope for this generation of Italian players. Nevertheless it’s a big ask and one which their fans and every rugby neutral have been making for the last two decades. It’s time for the players to exercise that famous Latin expression “carpe diem”. If they don’t Italian rugby is to be permanently cast as International rugby’s greatest failure in the development of a global game.

As woeful as Italy were as a unit, it was a slightly easier task to pick some players who stood out in Italy’s Six Nations campaign this year. In the front row, although he struggled to keep his emotions in check we still hold that Prop Danilo Fischetti is a talent to build on for the future. In the second row, we really like the look of David Sisi and England’s loss is clearly Italy’s gain here. In the back row however, Italy does have reasons to get excited in both their imports from Southern Africa Johan Meyer and Sebastian Negri. For us though Negri was arguably Italy’s most consistent performer this Six Nations. In the half backs scrum half Stephen Varney is worth getting excited about for the future but fly half Paolo Garbisi was without question Italy’s most enterprising and accomplished player this tournament, all at the tender age of twenty. In the centres, although we saw less of him than we would have liked due to injury Marco Zanon remains a genuine threat on attack, but new Argentinian import Juan Ignacio Brex showed some real promise. Lastly in the back line winger Monty Ioane produced a handful of spectacular tries and if he can learn how to defend as well as he can attack then Italy could get some consistency finally in this part of the field. Like our England selections though we struggled to group all these individuals, as talented as they may be, into a team that can actually use them properly, and until that happens Italy will remain a loosely knit collection of mercurial talents.

Endnote

So that’s it for this year’s Six Nations and what a ride it’s been. We enjoyed every single moment of it, and if we get the privilege of adding fans to the experience next year, the 2022 edition could be even better. However, even without the fans this year it was a tournament we’ll remember fondly.

Last but not least it’s time for us to echo our support for the man who earned Player of the Tournament and is a definite fan favourite and folk hero here at the Lineout. Yes you guessed it Scotland’s very own the “Mighty Mish”. Back rower Hamish Watson turned in power house performances in every match of the Championship no matter where Scotland was on the scoreboard. The man is a legend plain and simple! Scotland and the rugby world as a whole are genuinely privileged to have him grace or more appropriately chew up pitches across the globe!

We’ll be back in the next week or so as we start to unpack the Toronto Arrows performances this season and look ahead to the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Till then stay safe everyone!

With the dust now settled on what for us has been one of the most riveting Six Nations in years, it’s time to hand out the marks. Despite the lack of crowds, the quality of rugby for the most part did not suffer and we were treated to a series of vintage games that are likely to stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.

So who got it right and who got it spectacularly wrong? For most of the participants there was lots to be learnt with the majority taking the lessons to heart and making good use of them. For a small minority of participants it appeared to be a tournament where opportunities to grow and prepare for the next World Cup and even the next Six Nations were completely wasted. For the Celtic nations and France it is a time for optimism. For Italy it is yet another year to forget. Perhaps the most worrying lesson though in all of this is that for England the clock is ticking with increasingly little time left to find the answers to a series of problems that really haven’t been addressed since England’s defeat in the last World Cup final.

So agree to disagree but here’s how we judged the overall performances of this year’s Six Nations participants starting with the top 3 in this year’s table.

Wales8/10

We said at the end of last year that where there was smoke there would be fire – and the Welsh dragon did not prove us wrong!

Wales are always the tournament’s smoking gun, well except perhaps last year. However, we couldn’t help feeling all along that the Welsh misery of 2020 was simply a bump in the road, and their superb effort this year shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise as it did to most. Wales has an excellent balance of youth and experience, it just needed to gel with new Coach Wayne Pivac. There is little question that the gel is now set, and Pivac has a team that looks the business as well as one that can grow and develop during this World Cup cycle.

Why not a score higher than eight then you might ask? Wales were rightful Champions, but it was awful close at times, and the odd element of luck occassionally had a bit too much of a say in proceedings for our liking. Furthermore, despite their Herculean effort in the final match in Paris, Grand Slam winners they are not, at least for the moment. There were times in the French match where that trademark Welsh grit just wasn’t enough to overcome a more inventive and arguably fitter French side. Perhaps Wales strongest asset is their ability to remain calm under pressure, something England could do well to copy, but the French match saw it start to weaken slightly.

Wales opened their campaign well against an Irish side struggling with discipline, and the Men in Red benefitted from being able to play against 14 men for almost the entire game after Peter O’Mahony was red carded 13 minutes into proceedings. Next up was an incredibly tight affair against Scotland where once again Wales benefitted from a red card decision reducing the Scots to 14 men for most of the second half. Then it was the thriller against England which saw the Men in Red come out resoundingly on top, even if you took away what some considered were questionable officiating decisions. Their Roman holiday against Italy saw them come away with the inevitable hefty points haul, which would ensure that even with the loss to France in the final round the points difference would see them home.

Their last match against France was an extraordinary game that had more twists and turns than a Game of Thrones episode. However, this time Wales couldn’t use the red card given to France towards the end of the match to their advantage. After holding off multiple French assaults in their 22 Wales themselves succumbed to an inevitable yellow card as fatigue set in and the numbers on the pitch were level again. France got the measure of a clearly exhausted Welsh side and robbed the Men in Red of that elusive Grand Slam. Wales would still emerge champions after France came short against Scotland six days later, but as we suspected given the quality of the opposition this year, Grand Slams were never really on the cards for any of the teams.

It was an extraordinary performance from Wales, and they were deserved winners of not only the Triple Crown but the Championship as well, even if that dream Grand Slam was lost at the death in Paris. Halfway through this World Cup cycle they must surely feel pleased with where they find themselves. They have some extraordinary young talent coming through the ranks, a Coach who has now proven how to get results, and a wealth of experienced and seasoned veterans who have one more big World Cup performance left in them. Perhaps the only question hanging over Wales is who will replace Captain extraordinaire Alun Wyn Jones, who now at 35 is unlikely to be in the running to lead the Men in Red in two years time.

There were a host of notable performances, but here is our list of who made the biggest impression in each department for Wales. In the front row, Loosehead prop Wyn Jones was stellar, providing some much needed stability to the Welsh scrum which last year had proved problematic. In the second row, Captain Alun Wyn Jones was absolutely immense and without a doubt the leader of the tournament. In the back row Josh Navidi and Talupe Faletau put in some massive shifts, but as always it was Welsh Superman Justin Tipuric who consistently stood out both in ability and a work rate that is simply off the charts. In the half backs, fly half Callum Sheedy’s performance in the second half against England showed what talent Wales have in their youth. In the centres George North seems to have rediscovered himself and as a result made a huge contribution to Welsh efforts this Championship and was back to his try scoring best. Finally in the back line, as good as Liam Williams and Josh Adams were, it was newcomer Louis Rees-Zammit who impressed the most off the wing and showed that all the hype surrounding this latest Welsh prodigy was completely justified at Test Level. While these six individuals may be our picks of the tournament, it was a complete Welsh effort and every Welshman who donned the red jersey over the past two months can and should feel proud of their achievements, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for this remarkable group of players.

France – 7/10

A FABULOUS team in the making – but clearly still in the design stages

Magnifique, incroyable, extraordinaire – these were all terms used to describe this year’s edition of France’s Six Nations ensemble. Tipped by many as favourites to take the title, they did not disappoint. However, there were moments where despite all the panache and flair, France looked a little a ways off from being the finished product just yet. At times you sensed they perhaps got carried away with all the hype surrounding them, and still have quite a bit of fine tuning to do before they can consider themselves a shoe in for World Cup glory in two years time. Consequently, despite the fact that we probably enjoyed watching France’s rugby joie de vivre more than any other team in this year’s Six Nations, their ability to blow hot and cold in the blink of an eye cost them a slightly lower score. However, the current foundation is so strong that there is little doubt that France are going to be the team to watch over the next two years.

France got their campaign off to a blistering start against the hapless Italians, and made sure that like Wales they used the fixture to maximise their points haul. Next up however, a lot of the shine of Nouvelle France wore off as they struggled to get past a disjointed but feisty Irish side in Dublin. They got the win but it felt labored and was often error strewn, with star playmaker scrum half Antoine Dupont proving that he is most definitely human and not some extraordinarily gifted extraterrestrial rugby being.

After that France had to live under the self-inflicted cloud of “Wafflegate” after the team was forced into isolation after testing positive for COVID 19 due to a poorly thought out excursion in Rome for said breakfast delicacies, and Coach Fabien Galthie leaving the bubble to watch his son play in Paris. While the latter may be more understandable than the Roman breafast faux pas it is still hard to justify as they both almost scuppered the tournament and meant the postponement of France’s match with Scotland.

After a month break it was time to take on England, and perhaps as a form of poetic justice France’s lack of playing time clearly had an effect as they were beaten by arguably the second worst team of the tournament. Still it appeared to snap them out of both their complacency and sense of entitlement that the tournament was theirs to win. They needed a massive performance to beat Wales and remain in the hunt for Six Nations silverware. They produced it, even if at times it looked as if the day was going to belong to Wales. They held their nerve right to the end and in perhaps one of the greatest final ten minute comebacks in the history of the tournament, pulled off one of the Six Nations greatest wins. With all the attention now on them, they perhaps got carried away once more with the hype and focused more on what they had to do to win the Championship rather than keep a Scottish side that had seemingly slipped completely under their radar at bay. Scotland simply looked like they had a more of a point to prove, and as a result walked away the winners, robbing France of the Championship. France will be back bigger and better next year, but perhaps more than any other team they have embraced change and the huge resources of talent and youth at their disposal. Their squad come the World Cup should be at the absolute peak of their game, and the rest of the world has been warned that the Northern Hemisphere’s strongest contender for the ultimate Webb Ellis souvenir is likely to be singing “La Marseillaise”.

Our department picks were a challenge in this rather talented squad to say the least. However in the front row we simply have to go with Hooker Julien Marchand, who was perhaps one of the most underrated players heading into the tournament but consistently ensured that France were competitive at scrum time and in the lineouts. In the second row we struggled but ultimately, and possibly as a surprise to some, settled on Romain Taofifenua whose performance in the Welsh game was so critical, as well as numerous impact appearances from the bench. In the back row, we really struggled to pick between Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt. Ollivon was an excellent leader but Alldritt went above and beyond in all five of France’s Six Nations games, and in the two games France lost he was the standout performer for les Bleus. In the halfbacks, despite Emile Ntamack’s late return from injury towards the end of the tournament and scrum half Antoine Dupont’s star quality, it was fly half Matthieu Jalibert who got top marks from us. Given that he has had to live in Ntamack’s shadow for the last year, he clearly stamped his authority on the role to the point where France have two very healthy starting options in the number 10 jersey. In the centres Gael Fickou gets the nod by a country mile. He was outstanding at marshalling France’s midfield attacks and defences and the veteran is probably close to the top of his game. In the back line, despite his wobble at the eighty minute mark against Scotland which ultimately cost France the game, fullback Brice Dulin was one of the standout performers of the tournament in the 15 jersey. Even against Scotland you could understand his seemingly inexplicable decision to keep the ball in play at the death, given that France were still chasing the elusive points they needed to get past Wales for the Championship. At the end of the day, given his stellar performances for France in the rest of the tournament and his absolute solidity under the high ball it would be remiss of us not to sing his praises.

France are so close to being the real dea,l and the next year will be all about fine tuning a squad that is destined for greatness. France have fired the opening shots of the next World Cup and the world has been warned.

Ireland – 7/10

Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne was one of the standout performers of the entire Championship – but Ireland are starting to click as a unit again

Once Ireland found their groove this Six Nations, they finally looked like a team starting to go places once more after what can only be described as two years in the wilderness. The transition to new Coach Andy Farrell has raised many an eyebrow, with many pundits ourselves included, being less than convinced that he was the right man for the job. However, after this Six Nations Irish supporters may just be feeling a tingling sense of optimism. Some of the youngsters are really coming to the fore, the veterans are stepping up to the plate once again and players who have been overlooked in the past are finally getting the recognition they so fully deserve. Lastly add into the Coaching mix an Irish legend and patron saint of forward packs Paul O’Connell, and Ireland are definitely once more on the rise.

Ireland got their campaign off to a poor start it has to be said. The ill disciplined and shambolic effort against Wales had all the hallmarks of a team at sixes and sevens in terms of direction. Their next encounter showed a more positive effort against France, as they put the title contenders under pressure and forced them into uncharacteristic mistakes. However, it wasn’t coherent enough to get the win, and the error and penalty count were still too high. There seemed to be very little evidence of any sort of plan in attack as Ireland dominated possession and territory but did little with either.

Their trip to Rome however, saw them finally come together as a unit and give them something to build on. Given Italy’s woeful defences it was always a golden opportunity to try out an attacking style of play and Ireland seized the opportunity with both hands running in six superbly executed tries. Next up it was Scotland and Ireland continued their run of form against their fellow Celts with a hard fought victory at Murrayfield against a clearly rusty Scottish side, after their enforced COVID 19 break courtesy of France’s Wafflegate. Ireland saved their best performance for last however, and put in the most solid effort we’ve seen from them in the new Andy Farrell era. They dismantled England from start to finish in a masterful display of defence, discipline under pressure and attacking prowess. Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations was very much a case of an improved showing from one match to the next. The second round against France was a marked improvement which culminated in a complete team effort against England in the final round earning Ireland a well justified third place.

Our department picks were pretty straightforward for the Men in Green and we doubt they’ll raise too many eyebrows. In the front row, the return from injury of Tighthead Prop Tadhg Furlong had an enormous impact on Irish fortunes at the coalface. Add to that his rather dazzling dance moves in the loose and Ireland have a real live wire in the front ably complimented by the likes of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher. In the second row, our choice could not have been more obvious – Tadhg Beirne. The second row monster was immense for the Men in Green, dominating lineouts, creating turnovers, making line breaks….the list goes on and he’s also equally capable in the back row. No matter what kind of day the rest of his team was having Beirne was having a day to remember, and is justifiably one of the players of the tournament. In the back row despite some very healthy competition from the likes of Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan it has to be Ireland’s favourite South African, the mighty CJ Stander in his swansong Six Nations appearance in an Irish jersey. One of the hardest working back rowers in Test rugby over the last five years, Stander did his adopted country proud from start to finish this year. In the halfbacks, it was Conor Murray’s return to form in the scrum half berth that would have got Irish eyes smiling culminating in his superb final round effort against England. In the centres, another nominee for player of the tournament, Robbie Henshaw, gets the nod. Another player who has suddenly rediscovered his form and is arguably now playing at the top of his game. Lastly in the back line we were severely torn between veteran winger Keith Earls and newcomer Hugo Keenan at fullback. Keenan has clearly made the 15 jersey his and was one of Ireland’s most consistent performers all tournament and best finds of the last year. However, we have to hand the honor to Earls who we think has always been one of Ireland’s most underrated players. He produced some spectacular tries this tournament and can often be relied upon to shore up Ireland’s problematic last line of defence. Perhaps not one of Ireland’s most talented players but arguably one of their most capable and reliable.

Under Andy Farrell, Ireland have clearly shaken off the rather rigid shackles of the Schmidt era, and appear to be revelling in the new found freedom to be slightly less structured and as a result more unpredictable on the pitch. It appears to be paying dividends, whilst the the discipline and defensive systems put in place during their time with Joe Schmidt are serving them well when under pressure. There are still question marks around some key positions in the build up to the next World Cup, most importantly around the fly half berth, but after this Six Nations, Irish supporters can breathe a little bit easier as like Wales, they are developing a healthy balance of youth and experience.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back next week with part two as we look at the three residents of the bottom half of the Six Nations table, Scotland, England and Italy. Sorry that it has taken so long to get this out, but with the pressures of work and COVID lockdowns it’s been a struggle to get our thoughts together. To keep you going till next time here’s a highlights reel of all the best tries of what was a remarkable tournament.

Take care and stay safe everyone!

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

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

France vs Scotland – Friday, March 26th – Paris

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

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

A time to focus on what really matters

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

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

Life really is all about how you cope with Plan B

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

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

It’s all in the throw

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

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

Les Magiciens

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

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

Tied at one apiece

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

We should, had COVID-19 not got in the way, be toasting this year’s Six Nations Champion by the time referee Luke Pearce blows for time on Saturday in Paris. If Wales complete their Grand Slam journey and beat France, then we will indeed be toasting all things in Red. However, should they come unstuck in France then it gets complicated and once more it becomes a two horse race between Wales and Les Bleus only to be decided once Wayne Barnes blows the final whistle in Paris next Friday night. For France to emerge victorious they will have to beat both Wales and Scotland with a bonus point, while at the same time denying Wales a bonus point this Saturday. Failing that it all comes down to points differences and everyone getting out their calculators. In short, nothing is guaranteed and Super Saturday’s final match carries with it plenty of suspense and what ifs.

Wales must surely be feeling confident as they head undefeated to Paris, as well as having made a handy points haul in Rome last weekend. Italy it must be said were rather weak opponents so Wales were not exactly tested ahead of a very tricky fixture on Saturday, but they certainly looked well drilled in their approach to the Italian game – traits they are likely to bring to their biggest encounter since their World Cup semi-final encounter with South Africa.

France looked good for the first sixty minutes against England last week, but much like Scotland the four week hiatus from Six Nations rugby caught up with them in the final quarter where they started to look rather puffed against a shiny English side that seemed able to take the intensity of the match comfortably in their stride. France had a strong rally in the final five minutes that looked like they were just about to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but their chief magician Antoine Dupont fumbled the ball forward in the dying minute and France kissed their Grand Slam ambitions goodbye. With two games left, their sole focus must be on denying Wales the Grand Slam and keeping their own Six Nations silverware dreams alive. It’s going to be a tall order, even in Paris but this French side have shown that they do have that composure when they need it most, especially now they are match fit once more. The Championship couldn’t ask for a better 80 minutes of nerve wracking tension for fans and players alike.

France vs Wales – Saturday, March 20th – Paris

Of Relative Strengths

What do the numbers mean you may ask, especially when you consider that these are two very good teams chasing silverware? Wales may have more confidence and be feeling slightly more pumped given their run up to this point than France who perhaps are not feeling as invincible even on home turf. The numbers indicate though where the two sides have their greater strengths. For Wales we feel they have the edge in the front and second rows and the blindside flanker position. For France we feel their offerings in the backs from scrum half to fullback is the stronger unit, as gifted as Wales are in some of those positions. But hang on we hear you say where is 7 and 8? They are not included as for both sides they balance each other out. France’s openside flanker and number eight combination of Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt is every bit as good as Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau – in short there is nothing to choose between the two sides here.

We think Wales are going to dominate the set pieces and France the back play. The two sides are likely to be even in matters of open play and overall Wales are likely to be the more disciplined side when it comes to keeping on the right side of Luke Pearce’s whistle. Do the maths and if you take out passion and emotion, the numbers would give Wales the slightest edge. However, there is still this nagging doubt that Wales’ fairy tale ride has got to end at some point and France are the most likely party spoilers that the Welsh dragon will face this year. It’s our belief that France have it all to do on Saturday and Wales simply have to stay the course and keep their wits about them. Either way it still looks like some pretty big dice are being rolled on Saturday afternoon in Paris and we won’t be laying any bets – it’s just that close.

The return of the Cat

France’s replacement Hooker Camille Chat is in the mold of the original French caveman second rower Sebastien Chabal

French Coach Fabien Galthie enjoys the luxury of a problem most Coaches would dearly love to have. When you have two genuine World Class Hookers who do you choose? Much has been made in the media of France’s neckless wonder Camille Chat, but Galthie has stuck with Julien Marchand in the starting role for Saturday’s match. It’s the right call, Chat brings that X-factor and body crushing impact you need from a replacement front rower, while Marchand will get through a mountain of work quietly, efficiently and often with spectacular results for the first three quarters. You felt that Chat could have been brought on a bit earlier in the England game, but you still couldn’t fault an outstanding shift from Marchand. They’ll be up against it in the form of Wales’ Ken Owens who has been superb for the Men in Red, but if Elliott Dee comes off the bench sooner rather than later expect to see Chat make his appearance. If that proves to be the case we fear that France are likely to take complete control of front row proceedings at that point as well as causing havoc in broken play.

The Stats Master

Making the numbers work for him – Welsh second rower Adam Beard

We feel that we owe Adam Beard an apology. As regular readers know we’ve never really rated the Welsh lock, and if anything found him rather anonymous, an opinion shared by many others. But here’s an interesting fact Beard’s numbers in the Championship make for impressive reading even if you’re not actually noticing him producing them on the pitch. He’s made the second highest number of passes by a second rower in the Championship (Italy’s David Sisi holds that honor) and ranks second in lineout steals alongside CJ Stander, Tadgh Beirne and Maro Itoje. If you actually look across the entire player statistics for this year’s Championship Beard features highly in all the positive numbers. We were delighted to see Cory Hill back in action last week, but he’s going to have to work extra hard this year to unseat Beard and his quiet efficiency.

A very healthy rivalry

Who is the understudy – Matthieu Jalibert or Romain Ntamack?

The architect of Wales’ defeat in this same fixture last year, Romain Ntamack, makes his return from injury once more on the bench. However, in his absence Matthieu Jalibert has really come of age, leaving French Coach Fabien Galthie with another delicious dilemma when it comes to selection time. There is no question that Jalilbert has taken the opportunities given to him with both hands and matured into a genuine world class fly half. It would be hard to argue against him not being Ntamack’s equal if not better than the Toulouse playmaker based on current form. France will need to develop both these exceptional players for the World Cup, but balancing big match game time for both of them is the kind of headache most national team Coaches would dearly love to have.

Six Nations frequent flyers

France’s Damian Penaud and Louis Rees-Zammit have been burning up pitches for the last two months

French winger Damian Penaud is no stranger to the razzle dazzle of Test Rugby, but newcomer Welshman Louis Rees-Zammit has proven that all the hype surrounding his debut in the International Arena was fully justified. Consequently the contest between two of Test Rugby’s fastest men will be something to savor on Saturday. Penaud is more of an offload specialist and breaking the gain line from loose play, whereas Rees-Zammit’s all out speed and rather remarkable footballing skills have been a revelation this tournament. Two very different but equally gifted players should provide us with a genuine spectacle of attacking rugby as well as making our sport give its rival the so called “beautiful game” a genuine run for its money on Saturday.

Verdict

So the question on everyone’s lips is who is going to win? Will it be Wales and the Championship draws to a conclusion this Saturday, or will France claim the spoils and with it keep us in suspense till next Friday? Coming into this Championship it was clear that France were going to be the side to beat, but it’s been Wales steady but impressive course that has perhaps stayed with us the most. France have the talent and skill in bucket loads but Wales have shown a resolve and sense of purpose that has Champions in waiting written all over it. We didn’t see it coming but now we have it’s hard to argue against Wales’ deserved claims to the title this Saturday. A side that has gone from strength to strength as the tournament unfolded have surely saved their best performance for last. As accomplished as France are, we have a hunch that it’s Wales story to write on Saturday in a tale of high stakes drama that will be won by the narrowest of margins. We’ve struggled more than most years to pick winners in every round of this year’s Championship and Saturday’s finale in Paris is no exception – but if we have to and without any great sense of conviction we’re giving Wales a last gasp win by the smallest of margins.

So stay safe everyone, stock up on your libations of choice, connect with your rugby mates either at a distance or virtually and get set for one of the best Saturdays of the year!

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

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

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

Ireland vs England – Saturday, March 20th – Dublin

Jukebox tango

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

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

Clash of the Titans

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

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

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

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

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

Old boys clubs

It’s business as usual between two rival companies

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

The baby faced warrior makes his return

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

Scotland vs Italy – Saturday, March 20th – Edinburgh

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

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

Rugby’s most frustrating job

Coaching Italy must be an exercise in frustration

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

A notable inclusion joins on paper a good squad

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

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

Talking of conundrums

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

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

Back where he belongs

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

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

The Gas Man

Scotland winger Darcy Graham with a full head of steam

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

Verdict

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

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

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

Scotland vs Ireland – Sunday, March 14th – Edinburgh

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

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

An enviable dilemma

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

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

You CANNOT be serious????

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

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

The Dynamic Duo

Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie and Hamish WatsonMasters of the loose

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

A welcome return

Scotland’s Sam Johnson has been missed

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

Often overlooked but rarely undercooked

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

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

Verdict

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

We imagine that at the end of the weekend, Wales will still be on track for a Grand Slam after their Roman holiday courtesy of Italy, but could a beleaguered England have something to say about France’s lofty Championship aspirations? For Scotland and Ireland it’s a chance to get their campaigns back on track. Scotland with three games in hand could still very much be in the hunt for a strong finish. Should Ireland come unstuck once more in Murrayfield on Sunday, then for all intents and purposes, like England and Italy the Men in Green’s Championship will essentially be over. Everything to prove for all sides and some very high stakes matches on offer in what should be an outstanding weekend of Six Nations action!

The action all starts this Saturday with Wales travelling to Rome to face an Italian side full of ambition but low on confidence, as once again the Azurri find themselves winless heading into Round 4. Wales on the other hand seem unstoppable and Saturday’s encounter is likely to set up what should be the Championship finale next weekend in Paris as France and Wales face off. That’s assuming that France’s visit to Twickenham on Saturday goes according to plan for Les Bleus. England after losses to Scotland and Wales are clearly struggling and are a shadow of the side that made it to the Final of the last World Cup. On paper France should take advantage of an English side that seem to have clearly lost their way, but this fixture rarely if ever goes according to the form books!

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, March 13th – Rome

This match should for all intents and purposes be no more than a training run in the sun for Wales on their seemingly unstoppable journey to a potential Grand Slam. Wales have been the surprise package of the tournament, and put on display some genuinely world class youngsters while playing some very efficient and solid rugby. With each outing this year Wales have simply got better, and their demolition of England a fortnight ago, even if you take away the two controversial tries was impressive. Wales like France seem to be on the right path to building the kind of squad they want for the next World Cup. Like most sides making the trip to Italy, Wales will be looking for a maximum points haul, in case the issue of points differences come into play at the end of the Championship if neither Wales or France pull off a Grand Slam.

Italy will once again be seeking to make a statement that they can be competitive with the big teams, but pulling off the upset of the tournament is to be honest probably not on the cards Saturday. There is promise in this young Italian side make no mistake, but they are not quite at the races yet and instead will be looking to Saturday’s encounter to once more gauge where they’re at in terms of squad development for the future.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

It’s time for Italian Captain Luca Bigi to step into the rather large shoes left behind by Sergio Parisse

Italian Captain and Hooker Luca Bigi seems like a genuinely nice guy who cares about his teammates. The problem is by being a nice guy how do you live up to the legendary status of your predecessor, the great Sergio Parisse? Parisse led from the front and took no prisoners, even if it meant dressing down his teammates when necessary. Italy’s discipline is woeful at the moment and it’s time for Bigi to start laying the law down and leading by example. He can start by improving his own performance in the scrum and impressing upon his teammates the need for a better understanding of the rules. 18 penalties and two yellow cards in the game against Ireland is simply inexcusable and on the pitch it’s the job of the man wearing the Captain’s armband to stamp it out quickly as well as lead by example. It won’t be easy consigning the shadow of Parisse to a proud history but it needs to happen sooner rather than later, with Bigi opening another memorable chapter.

Another of Wales’ unsung heroes

Cory Hill is another one of those Welsh players who deserves more attention

A bit like flanker Justin Tipuric, Welsh second rower Cory Hill is one of those players who somehow stays off the radar, yet when he is on the pitch gets through a mountain of work and is also rather effective at ratcheting up the scoreboard in favor of the Men in Red. In short, another of Wales’ highly underrated yet brutally effective players. Injury has sidelined him from taking much of a role in furthering the Welsh cause since the World Cup, but now he’s back expect fireworks aplenty from the powerful lock. He and and Alun Wyn Jones will be mixing it with a talented but ill disciplined Italian unit, and it’s hard to see Wales doing anything other than completely dictating play in the tight five exchanges as their powerhouse front row causes Italy to be reaching for some extra strength Tylenol.

The three Horseman of the Apocalypse

Nobody would want to meet these three together even for a waffle

Josh Navidi, Talupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric – if that’s not a combination to have you running for the hills behind Rome then we don’t know what is. Arguably one of the most impressive units in this year’s Six Nations the Welsh back row will take some beating on Saturday in Rome. Italy have some capable contenders in Sebastian Negri and the increasingly noteworthy Johan Meyer, but at the end of the day its division two meeting division one. All three Welshmen seem to be operating at their very best with Tipuric and Faletau combining exceptionally well together while Navidi is an exciting loose canon who is equally sound defensively. Italy struggle to score in the opposition 22 and defend in their own, and against a Welsh unit veritably humming from 1-8 in defence and attack, their job has suddenly got a whole lot harder.

A bit more than an impact player

After his stellar performance against England, we thought Sheedy was a shoe in for the starting 10 jersey against Italy

There is no denying the impact replacement fly half Calum Sheedy brought to the Welsh effort against England when he came on for Dan Biggar at the beginning of the second half. Consequently, you can perhaps understand our surprise at Sheedy not getting the starting berth in the 10 jersey for a game Wales should comfortably win. Giving up and coming young players a chance to start at Test level is key in our view and against a team that Wales should be able to get the measure of, surely this is an opportunity gone begging for Wales Coach Wayne Pivac. The only thing we can think of is that Italy’s up and coming fly half Paolo Garbisi is one of Italy’s few genuine attacking threats, and until Wales settle into a rythmn against the Azurri, perhaps Pivac prefers the more tried and trusted experience of Dan Biggar. We’ll know on the day but the battle between the Italian and Welsh youngsters once it does get underway on Saturday should prove fascinating.

Bench press these two if you can!

Italy’s bench stocks pale in comparison to what Wales have on offer – Aaron Wainwright and Jake Ball for starters!

Ultimately as brave as the Azurri will be on Saturday, the benches will seal the fate of this match and in this respect Wales can essentially put their feet up before referee Wayne Barnes has even blown the first whistle. There are some very big names on the Welsh bench, and Jake Ball’s stature alone is enough to strike fear into most normal human beings. Add in a dash of centre Willis Haloholo and fly half Calum Sheedy who we’ve already mentioned and Italy are going to have trouble keeping up, plain and simple, especially in the final quarter of the game when by tradition they go off the boil anyway.

Verdict

Wales seemingly inevitable march towards a Grand Slam decider in Paris, is unlikely to be halted on Saturday in Rome despite the best efforts of an Italian side still trying to figure out its talent base. In Wales they will get an outstanding opponent in which to test their mettle and really find out how far this Italian side have come in 2021, despite them marching in the opposite direction towards yet another Wooden Spoon. Their trip to Murrayfield as their final hoorah for this year’s Six Nations is an unenviable one, so expect perhaps their best performance of the tournament in their final home game, despite the superior pedigree of their Welsh opponents. An intriguing but most likely one sided contest awaits, as Wales set up that grand finale in Paris in a week’s time.

England vs France – Saturday, March 13th – Twickenham

This year’s edition of “Le Crunch” has some interesting subplots. Can England really continue to be as wretched as they have been so far this season? Will it be the final proof that England Coach Eddie Jones’ selections are simply not working? Will France’s month long hiatus courtesy of their waffle eating shenanigans and Coach Fabien Galthie’s indiscretion in cheering on his son, resulting in COVID exposure prove to be the undoing of France’s otherwise dream like start to 2021? Have France lost some critical momentum as a result? Is French scrum half Antoine Dupont really the world’s best rugby player? Make sure you tune in at 1145 AM Eastern on Saturday to find out.

We’d argue that France are unlikely to have lost too much momentum, as this is still just too good a team. Better coached and disciplined than their English opponents, France know what they are about and how they want to get results. England on the other hand would appear to be a lot more unsure of themselves and we can’t remember the last time we saw a team so clearly not enjoying what they’re doing. Saturday’s match carries enormous weight for both sides but for dramatically different reasons. For England, it is a last chance to silence their critics and prove that there really is life in what increasingly looks like a dinosaur. Meanwhile for France it’s time to banish the negative press surrounding their COVID 19 faux pas to the dustbin and get everyone focused back on their rather extraordinary brand of rugby.

The Statistics aren’t all that bad

Some slightly more entertaining statistics from an English perspective – but in reality they are not as bad as they may seem

England may wish that their stats were perhaps as cheery as these ones from last year, but if you actually look closely at the stats between the two sides for Saturday’s match they don’t make for that unhappy reading, with one glaring exception – DISCIPLINE! But before we get to that here are some interesting positives to note. France have only scored one more try than England, although they have averaged twice the number of tries scored per match and have played one less match than England. England have parity with France in success at lineouts and in the scrums. Their tackle success rate is almost identical to France. There are only two real glaring disparities. The first is in only two games France has averaged almost five times as many offloads as England has managed in three. Second and most important is England has conceded 41 penalties compared to France’s 18. Even if France had played three games to date, based on the law of averages they would still be trailing England by 14 penalties. In short what does this tell us? France are better at controlling themselves under pressure while at the same time being infinitely more imaginative and creative in attack. It will be fascinating to see if after two weeks of number crunching England will have found a way to make the statisticians paint a more rosy picture of them.

France’s Weakest Link or Mastery of the Dark Arts?

Given England’s discipline problems they must have rejoiced at seeing French bad boy Mohamed Haouas on the teamsheets

If England have one shot at redemption on Saturday in the discipline stakes they could end up finding it in the front row. Have France deliberately put their red card specialist prop Mohamed Haouas in the mix to wind England up, particularly live wire prop Kyle Sinckler who is no stranger to the referee’s whistle himself? Even though Haouas and Sinckler will be on opposite sides of the scrum, the potential for sparks here is enormous and it will be fascinating to see who retains the cooler set of heads. Despite the pundits arguing that England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is the better of the two Hookers, we can’t agree and feel that France’s Julien Marchand is just as lethal. However, if England can keep their composure here they could finally start to get the penalty count to work in their favor and gain some early dominance in the set pieces.

Easy target but not the problem

England’s Maro Itoje may have led the Men in White’s penalty count against Wales but they simply can’t do without him

You may be puzzled to see us steadfastly defending the player who stood out amongst all others in terms of penalties conceded by England in their loss to Wales. Look deeper though and Itoje got into so much trouble because he was one of the few English players actually making an effort in Cardiff. Agreed he still has to get a handle on his discipline, but he is such a quality player that England simply cannot afford to leave him out of their starting XV. His work rate is off the charts and provided he can stay on the right side of the referee, then he is a talisman to the rest of his teammates. If he can keep a lid on his emotions, there is no denying the enormous value he brings to England’s set pieces and he is an absolute nightmare at the breakdowns. He is likely to make French scrum half Antoine Dupont’s life an absolute misery on Saturday, causing the French genius to think twice about box kicking. England need Itoje’s Herculean work rate and raw aggression, provided he can keep both within the boundaries of the laws. Despite his issues against Wales, we feel that this is one player that Coach Eddie Jones is right to continue placing his faith in.

An alternate reality

“You’ll be fine mate – this Alldritt guy is only twice as fast and fit as you are”

Take a player who has a reputation of some sterling performances a few years ago, who prefers running straight lines into direct contact with opposition defences and put him against a player who covers huge areas of the park and can make some rather handy offloads while dancing his way around defenders. Who do you think is going to come out on top? The former is England’s Billy Vunipola a great player in his day until opposition defences figured him out, and the latter is France’s Gregory Alldritt who everyone is just trying to get the measure of. There are a raft of young number eights in the English Premiership who display similar qualities to Alldritt but fail to register with Eddie Jones. We have a great deal of respect for Billy Vunipola who has put in some legendary performances in an English jersey. The problem is he is playing the type of rugby that would have worked 2 years ago, but Alldritt is playing they type of game that is required of a number eight in 2021 and beyond. Our heart goes out to Vunipola who may well find himself out in the cold for much of Saturday’s encounter, and as a result put out to pasture as England and Eddie Jones reluctantly start to think about the next World Cup.

Catch him if you can

French centre Virimi Vakatawa building up a head of steam

The much hyped return of French centre Virimi Vakatawa from injury, presents what we feel is another mismatch in the making. Just like Billy Vunipola and Gregory Aldritt, Vakatawa and his English counterpart Owen Farrell could not be more different. Vakatawa’s explosive ball carrying, offloading and ability to weave his way through and around defences could not be more different to Farrell’s slower and more tactical approach. Vakatawa may not have Farrell’s overall sense of how matches unfold but his reaction times and ability to seize the slightest of opportunities and turn them into something, make him the far more dangerous player. You always know where Farrell is, but the same cannot be said of Vakatawa who seems to pop up everywhere. Although defensively he may not be as solid as Farrell, he is improving and not prone to the costly lapses in tackling technique that the Englishman is often guilty of. Lastly without the pressure of the Captain’s armband affecting his nerves expect the French Fijian to be having a much more enjoyable afternoon on Saturday than his English opposite number.

Verdict

France on paper and if form is anything to go by look the side to beat on Saturday, even if it is on the hallowed ground of Twickenham. It remains to be seen how much the four weeks away from the competition has affected their momentum. Furthermore although they beat Ireland in Dublin in their last match prior to Saturday’s encounter, it required them to pull out every trick in their considerable arsenal. England will come into this game knowing that they simply have to throw everything at the French, as a third humiliating defeat in this year’s tournament will put a bruised and battered squad under even more intense and unwelcome scrutiny as well as making their trip to Dublin a week later an even greater challenge. France should win this one, but this is a game that very rarely goes according to script. Much like the match between Ireland and France almost a month ago, this one will be tight, but we can’t help feeling that France will set themselves up for a silverware showdown with Wales next Saturday in Paris at England’s continuing expense. In short, France have the confidence and sense of purpose that England would dearly love to have rub off on them.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the final match of the weekend, that between Scotland and Ireland in Murrayfield once the team sheets are out.

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

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

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

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

Wales – THE Surprise Package

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

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

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

France – Les enfants terribles

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

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

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

Ireland – I want to break free!

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

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

England – Train Wreck?

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

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

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

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

Scotland – Sadly missed

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

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

Italy – Looking for the right recipes

Skilled – but still lacking a firm and consistent base

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 27th – Rome

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

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

The Jukebox is back!

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

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

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

Captain on the left – Coach on the right

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

Italy’s reliability factor

Mr. Dependable for Italy – Sebastian Negri

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

New World Chianti

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

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

The more we see the more we like

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs England – Saturday, February 27th – Cardiff

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

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

A player who has suddenly come of age

Prop Wyn Jones has become the real deal

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

It’s all about the future in Wales

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

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

A question of loyalty under pressure

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

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

Not all there

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

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

Verdict

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

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