Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

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

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

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

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

Japan vs Ireland – Saturday, September 28th – Fukuroi

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia vs Uruguay – Sunday, September 29th – Kumagaya

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

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

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

Australia vs Wales – Sunday, September 29th – Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland vs Wales – Saturday, September 7th – Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again it’s another powerhouse back row contest

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, August 31st – Cardiff

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

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

Welsh experimentation could be the salvation Ireland needs on Saturday

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

The Rory Best question

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

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

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

Contest of the afternoon – the back rows

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

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

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

Verdict

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

 

 

Yes we know, Scotland also travel to Toulon to get their World Cup preparations underway but we won’t be covering it as we are unable to watch it here in Canada (though we will be able to get the return fixture at Murrayfield next weekend and thus will cover that).

However, there is plenty to look forward to this Saturday, as the matter of the Bledisloe Cup will be settled between New Zealand and Australia, and Argentina travel to South Africa to take on a Springbok side that is positively humming after lifting the Rugby Championship (or TriNations as it was formerly known) silverware for the first time in 10 years last weekend.

Meanwhile in Cardiff, England arrive to really up the ante in their World Cup preparations with Coach Eddie Jones already having named his Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players, 23 of whom will be seeing action on Saturday. Wales have already started to reel from pre-Japan injuries and without the depth at their disposal that England has, will no doubt be taking a cautious approach to this weekend’s proceedings.

So without further ado, here’s what got us pondering this week in relation to Saturday’s showdowns.

New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, August 17th – Auckland

First up, our heartfelt apologies to the Wallabies after we had essentially written them off last weekend. That was a quality performance that was long overdue for Australia, and one we always felt they had in them, but were struggling to figure out how to execute. The radical turnaround in their fortunes against the number one team in the world, was however not what we were expecting. So as we say egg all over our faces and congratulations to the team and their supporters.

New Zealand were not their usual sprightly selves and one could argue they haven’t been for quite some time now, and there is no doubt that being reduced to fourteen men for the last half of the match didn’t help their cause much either. However, New Zealand foibles aside, Australia put in the best performance we’ve seen from a Wallaby side in at least two years. They were clinical, efficient and downright enterprising at times, as well as making sure they capitalized on the All Blacks’ mistakes of which there were many. It was a sparkling Australian performance and one which give them plenty of confidence in the buildup to their World Cup – the trick now is to maintain that standard.

New Zealand are clearly a conundrum at the moment. Whether or not it is a case of Coach Steve Hansen trying to lull the opposition into a state of complacency is debatable. However, there is no getting away from the fact that even if he is reluctant to show his hand this far out from Japan, New Zealand are looking a long way from being the self assured side that for the last five years has comfortably kept the opposition at arms length, barring the odd hiccough. Nevertheless, we still don’t buy the argument that they are all of a sudden a World Cup pushover. In the last twelve months they have only lost three times. Admittedly they have also been pushed incredibly close at times in the last year, but their win ratio is still pretty impeccable and the envy of most teams.

It is after all Eden Park we are talking about on Saturday, as well as the fact that lightning rarely strikes men dressed in black twice

If ever there was a hallowed ground for a team then Auckland’s Eden Park surely ticks all the boxes. As the All Blacks spiritual fortress the ground has been kind to them like no other team on earth. New Zealand have not lost a rugby match here since July 3, 1994 (in an epic match against France which I can remember to this day). So yes it is over 25 years and 42 matches later, that anyone has had the gall to upset New Zealand’s finest on this cherished turf. As good as Australia were last weekend against New Zealand, they are going to have to be even better by at least another gear or two to pull off the same unthinkable feat in Auckland. Throw into that equation the fact that the All Blacks simply do not suffer back to back losses very often – 2011 to be precise and by two different teams. So Australia may fancy their chances, but unless New Zealand play worse than they did in Perth (which on home ground is rather unlikely) then Australia will need quite a bit more than just a few lucky rabbit feet and one hell of a game plan this Saturday.

Our biggest surprise last week – the Wallaby scrum

It was competitive – plain and simple – and provided Australia a solid platform and Tolu Latu’s dart throwing skills at lineout time were for the most part pretty accurate. New Zealand have decided to change things up a bit here on Saturday with Owen Franks not even making the bench in place of Nepo Lualala. Even Dane Coles was fairly ineffectual as a backup winger, a role he usually causes all kinds of havoc in. In short Australia seemed to have the measure of New Zealand at the coalface and how to contain the nuisance factor of Dane Coles in loose play. It will be interesting to see this weekend if that was simply a temporary reprieve for the Wallabies.

That Australian second row means business

We stuck our necks out last weekend by saying we felt that Australia’s stocks in the second row were in exceptionally rude health. We were certainly not disappointed. Izack Rodda and Rory Arnold played a huge part in the Wallabies success in Perth and the long awaited return of Adam Coleman from injury when he came off the bench also did not disappoint. This week Rodda keeps his place, while Coleman gets a starting berth. Arnold gets given a much needed break to be replaced by Rob Simmons on the bench which may be one of the few weak links in the Wallabies armour in this part of the park.

New Zealand’s back row needs to step up

With the exception of Ardie Savea, who despite being out of position continued to play like a man possessed, New Zealand looked well off the boil here last Saturday, with the Australians grabbing all the headlines in this part of the park. We doubt they will have it that easy again this weekend, but New Zealand really need to assert some authority once more here.

Given the events of last weekend we were once again surprised at the halfback combinations for New Zealand as well as those in the backs

We’ve said it before and last weekend seemed to bear us out – Aaron Smith is not New Zealand’s first choice scrum half anymore and in reality hasn’t been for quite some time. Consequently, given the events of last weekend we were more than a little surprised to see him get the starting berth for Saturday’s match. TJ Perenara is a much more difficult proposition for opposition sides, and while he makes the bench again in this match, expect to see him sooner rather than later if things are not going well for New Zealand from the outset. Furthermore, the Richie Mo’unga/Beauden Barrett 10-15 axis is not really working, and Mo’unga seems to be struggling to bring his Super Rugby game to the Test arena. For a match with Bledisloe silverware on the line we would have thought Hansen would have reverted to the tried and trusted formula of Barrett at 10 and Ben Smith at fullback instead of the wing as he was last weekend.

Talking of the rest of the backs the omission of Ben Smith really caught us off guard. While we didn’t quite get to see him at his best last weekend on the wing, his experience at fullback is pretty hard to replicate. Furthermore much like the Mo’unga experiment we’re not sure George Bridge or Sevu Reece will translate their Super Rugby form to the Test arena. Add in the fact Sonny Bill Williams’ one dimensional play is unlikely to be able to counteract the high stepping antics of the Wallabies James O’Connor and Samu Kerevi, and New Zealand’s selection policy for a match where one of their most prized pieces of silverware is on the line, is slightly baffling.

Verdict

All these variables aside, it is still hard for most of us to get our head around the fact that New Zealand would a) lose at Eden Park, b) lose two back to back matches to the same opponent and in the process c) give up the Bledisloe Cup. If this Wallaby team plays anything like they did in Perth, then they will be good but we still find it hard to believe they are THAT good to pull off the unthinkable scenario above. If they can play to that level, and we think they are more than capable of doing so, then one thing is for certain – we are in for one hell of a Test match! However, as close as it may be at times, this is one occasion where it is simply impossible for us to buck the form and history books and thus we give it to New Zealand by six!

Wales vs England – Saturday, August 17th – Cardiff

Wales World Cup anxiety is now in full swing after last weekend’s tussle with England at Twickenham. All the teams are now playing Russian Roulette with the injury wheel in these warmup games and Wales have been the first to list a fatality. Last weekend’s match saw fly half Gareth Anscombe who played such a large role in Wales’ Six Nations Grand Slam campaign, succumb to a World Cup ending injury. Wales now have to dig deep into their depth stocks in a race against time to find a reliable second choice fly half to support Dan Biggar.

England have no such problems, and in an almost cavalier attitude, Coach Eddie Jones became the first to name his 31 man World Cup squad, 23 of whom see action on Saturday. Last weekend he got a chance to have one last look at a few players on his shopping list and it would appear they ticked all the right boxes in the Coach’s estimation. Consequently it is a strong England side that runs out onto the Cardiff pitch on Saturday, and one which knows it has two tough matches in which to really refine structures and combinations, without the need to compete for places. Some may say it was bold and brash to name your squad so early, but it certainly has its merits if you ask us, whether you’re a fan of Jones or not.

England’s front five will be hard to beat and Wales clearly struggled to get any traction here last Saturday

England were dominant here last weekend, and even with the noise of the Cardiff faithful as encouragement for the Men in Red, we don’t see much change here on Saturday. England’s substitutes really didn’t get much of a look in here last weekend except for George Kruis, but except the England bench to provide plenty of niggle and frustration for an embattled Welsh tight five on Saturday.

Where you might see a change in Welsh fortunes is later in the game off the bench in the back row

Wales were competitive here last weekend make no mistake, even if at times they were shaded by an all star English contingent of Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry and a suprisingly robust performance from Lewis Ludlum. In the half hour he was in the match Tom Curry showed what genuine world class pedigree he already offers England despite his youth, and seeing him leave the field with injury must have caused consternation in the English camp. However, it would appear it is only a temporary setback and he was more than ably replaced by Courtney Lawes who had a barnstormer of a game. This weekend, sees Wales have Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler on the bench and in our opinion these two are superb individually, but together they are something special for Wales and an attack threat that England will really need to contain.

How much of a loss will Gareth Anscombe be to Wales – while England’s new half back pairing shone

The loss of Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe last weekend was a bitter blow for Wales, especially as he will miss the World Cup. England on the other hand can feel absolutely delighted with the partnership of debutant scrum half Willi Heinz and established fly half George North. Once again we feel we perhaps owe the Leicester Tigers playmaker and fly half an apology after last Saturday. Ford put in a superbly controlled and measured performance, while scrum half Willi Heinz ensured fast and crisp delivery off the base of the scrum and at the rucks. England looked sharp here and with Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs on the bench this weekend, this is a powerhouse quartet for the Men in White. Wales look good as well with Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies but should they suffer any further injuries here it could be a very long afternoon for the Welsh with nothing in the tank to provide the kind of quality cover they need to match England’s offerings.

The English backs were outstanding last weekend and another powerhouse display looks to be in the making

England really topped the charts last weekend in back field play, and that was without the likes of winger Jonny May. We thought the return of centre Jonathan Joseph and winger Anthony Watson was something England have been missing, with neither player seeming to miss a step. Joe Cokanasiga showed that he is not just a new Jonah Lomu in the making, as he also proved pretty handy in the forward battles close to the try line. Elliot Daly took a cheeky drop goal and continued to reinforce our belief that despite the odd “off” day he is one of England’s most valuable assets in both defence and attack. This weekend sees one more Test debut for England in the shape of winger Ruaridh McConnochie, but given his supporting cast we doubt he’ll disappoint. Wales were competitive here make no mistake with Jonathan Davies and George North in particular catching the eye on numerous occasions, but there is no denying that England ran the show for the most part in this part of the park.

The English bench should seal the deal on Saturday

As mentioned above, for us the only Welsh bench offering that should really set alarm bells ringing for England is the back row partnership of Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler. Otherwise that is a rather daunting English bench facing up to a capable but still relatively green Welsh bench.

Verdict

Wales are always tough to beat in Cardiff, but there is no denying they looked rusty and a little creaky against England last weekend. The loss of playmaker Gareth Anscombe is a further setback, and despite a vociferous home crowd rising to the occasion that encounters between these two traditional rivals always generate, form would seem to favour England for this one. England look well drilled, disciplined and very sure of what they want to achieve. Wales on the other hand know what they want to be, but perhaps lack the same degree of clarity as to how to go about getting it. They have had a good year leading up to this point make no mistake, but after last weekend there is the inevitable question being asked as whether or not they peaked too early in a World Cup year. As always expect this to be a ferocious contest with no quarter given and much tighter than last week, but a more settled and focused English side to take it by five points!

South Africa vs Argentina – Saturday, August 17th – Pretoria

Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup do not appear to be going according to plan. Despite holding the All Blacks close in their Rugby Championship opener, they have looked a shadow of the team that set the last Rugby World Cup alight. A humiliating defeat to Australia and then a comprehensive schooling by South Africa in the final match of the tournament, has left this Pumas side with little confidence as they prepare to face South Africa in this World Cup warm up match. This is their last game before their World Cup opener against France, and consequently even though there may be no silverware on offer the Pumas really need a strong showing here. The last time these two met in a World Cup year, Argentina not only claimed their first ever victory over the Springboks, they did it on South African soil to boot. They will be hoping that some of that same inspiration that served the 2015 squad so well will be with them in Pretoria this weekend.

South Africa on the other hand are riding high. Deserved winners of the Rugby Championship, they swept past both Australia and Argentina, and held the All Blacks to a draw in New Zealand. Coach Rassie Erasmus seems to know how to get the most out of his charges, despite a constantly changing team sheet. He can feel pleased with the depth he has available, while at the same time not having to lose too much sleep over his selection decisions for any given match. The players are clearly enjoying themselves and the pride in the famous jersey, which had seemed absent in recent years, is back with a vengeance. In short the Boks are back and are a team to be feared once more.

With some silverware in the cupboard it’s clearly time for one last bit of experimentation for South Africa

South Africa are not exactly throwing caution to the wind on this one, especially given what happened in 2015, but as a “friendly” and the Rugby Championship not on the line, the focus of this match is one last look at the depth tank. That is the only reason we can think of when we look at the front row selections for South Africa. We would imagine that Coach Rassie Erasmus has his front row World Cup squad already picked with perhaps just one floater left to fill. Of the selections for Saturday’s match we’d argue that the spot likely has Vincent Koch’s name on it, but no harm in having one last look at what else you’ve got in case of injury between now and the World Cup. Therefore for the other five front rowers turning out in a Springbok jersey on Saturday the pressure is on for a BIG game.

Talking of scrums – where has Argentina’s gone?

Argentina are in the emergency ward in this department – plain and simple. Once a key foundation of their game, the scrum is now for the most part an enormous liability for the Pumas. This is made all the more ironic when you consider that Coach Mario Ledesma in his playing days was one of the cornerstones of that foundation. We really haven’t seen much evidence that Argentina is making much progress in getting its house in order here. If this doesn’t happen soon then Argentina may find themselves on the plane home after the pool stages in Japan. We are not quite sure why this is the case as there are some quality players in Argentina’s front row offerings, but somehow as a whole the unit just isn’t working. South Africa’s piecemeal scrum offering on Saturday should provide the Pumas a perfect opportunity to start getting back on track here and restoring some much needed confidence to a clearly beleaguered unit.

Argentina need to play to their strengths and not let an inexperienced halfback duo waste good possession gained by a powerful back row.

Argentina’s second and back rows can compete with the best on any given day, and in Saturday’s offerings we’d argue they have the kind of edge they had back on that famous day in Durban back in 2015. However, the Pumas young halfback partnership tends to squander an awful lot of good possession by either reckless passing off the back of the scrum and rucks, or aimless kicking by the fly half. Given that Argentina will be looking to scrum halves Felipe Ezcurra, Gonzalo Bertranou and fly half Joaquin Diaz Bonilla to provide backup to incumbents Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez during the World Cup – Saturday’s match is crucial in terms of World Cup preparation. They will be up against one of South Africa’s finest returning sons Cobus Reinach, so will have to be on top of their game, with Faf de Klerk frothing at the mouth on the bench to get involved if Reinach fails to rise to the occasion. Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies seems to have gotten over his own penchant for aimlessly kicking the ball away so the Pumas will have to be at their best here.

If you fancy a flutter on the horses then we’d put your money on the Pumas

This is one area of the park where we think Argentina could really lay down a marker for that type of free flowing game they seem to really excel at come the World Cup. Ramiro Moyano is a well known commodity to the racing fraternity out wide, but for us it is Sebastian Cancelliere who is also likely to be generating a lot of excitement come the World Cup. For the Argentina XV side in the Americas Rugby Championship and more recently with the Jaguares, the twenty five year old has consistently impressed and we are surprised that it has taken him this long to secure a regular Pumas starting jersey. South Africa pack some punch here make no mistake, but our money is on the Pumas out wide on Saturday.

Verdict

How you call this one will depend very much on what Pumas team shows up on Saturday. If we get the kind of Pumas team we see so often at the end of the Rugby Championship, then for all intents and purposes you can write them off and hand it to the Springboks with no further discussion. It will also depend on what kind of Springboks team will show up as this has a much more piecemeal and experimental look to it than what we saw during the Rugby Championship. Argentina need to find their groove in their final match before the World Cup, so we’re hoping they will be like one of those French surprise teams that steals the show with some champagne rugby when you’re least expecting it. However, reality at the moment would tend to dictate otherwise and given the Pumas problems at scrum time, it’s fairly easy to argue that Argentina is the side with everything to prove and the Springboks the team with nothing to lose. As a result we hand it to the Springboks by eight, in a match that may not be quite the spectacle needed to cap off what should otherwise be a very interesting weekend of Test Rugby!

It may be a World Cup warmup match, but an encounter between Wales and England is always something special and an occasion to be savoured. This weekend is no exception, as these two great rivals meet at Twickenham and with it all the atmosphere that such matches bring. For Wales the goal will be to continue the momentum they built up as Six Nations Grand Slam Champions, and while England are probably more focused on getting their squad in order for the World Cup, there is also the small matter of avenging that defeat in Cardiff earlier this year.

Wales run with a trusty group of players and it would appear that they know the squad they want to take to Japan. What is perhaps of greater concern to them, much more so than England, is the risk of injury – as lose any of these players and all of a sudden the Welsh depth tank starts to look a bit empty. England on the other hand have no such problems, and consequently are clearly looking to this match and probably the other three this month to find out a bit more about the depth they have available to them. To that effect, for those of us not familiar with English club rugby there are quite a few names on the team sheet we simply know very little about. However, there are also plenty of familiar faces who haven’t quite had an opportunity to shine in an England jersey so far this year, and who will be really keen to lay down a marker that they deserve a seat on the plane to Tokyo.

Consequently, although this match may not mean that much in terms of what is at stake for the teams as a whole, there will be plenty on the line for some of the individual players involved to ensure that it is a highly entertaining contest. Here are the main question marks that came up for us heading into the match.

England vs Wales – Sunday, August 11th – Twickenham

Wales are clearly looking to this match to keep their momentum going in what has been a remarkably successful year. If they come away unbeaten in the course of the next four weeks, then the label of dark horse will be replaced by genuine contenders at the global showpiece in Japan next month. Expectations will be high and even with no silverware on offer for this match, rest assured that an opportunity for Wales to turn over England at Fortress Twickenham will be high on the agenda of players and supporters alike.

The question is will this slightly experimental English side let them have their way, and does Coach Eddie Jones even really care about Sunday’s result? Obviously he would not want to see his charges made a mockery of by the Welsh, but the win while potential icing on the cake, is probably not his main focus on Sunday. Instead it is a last chance for some players to stick their hands up for World Cup selection as he intends to name his World Cup squad this Monday. On that note you have to wonder how fair that is to some of the players who have hardly had a chance till now to prove themselves. Put your hands up if you know anything about Lewis Ludlum, Joe Marchant, Jack Singleton, Ruaridh McConnochie and the biggest surprise Willi Heinz. From a depth perspective it will be fascinating to see what hidden gems England are about to uncover.

There are no surprises from either sides in the front rows at least

The only possible omission being Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler for England, but otherwise it’s business as usual for both sides at the coalface. However, given England’s shambolic performance in their last Six Nations match against Scotland, perhaps the absence of George and Sinckler is no bad thing. England still bring plenty of familiarity in their offering, though we still wonder at the disciplinary liability that Joe Marler presents for England. The Welsh front row though needs no introduction and played a large part in Wales’ successful Six Nations campaign this year. As a result it presents a golden opportunity for England’s representatives to really make their case to Eddie Jones if they can keep the Men in White competitive here.

Where England need make no excuses is in the back row

If Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola are not on the plane to Japan, then something will be seriously amiss in Eddie Jones’ thinking. We very much doubt that these three gentlemen have anything whatsoever to prove to their boss on Sunday. Wales pack some heavyweights here, especially in one of the Lineout’s all time favourite players Justin Tipuric, as well as the long awaited return to Welsh service of Aaron Shingler who had to sit out the Six Nations due to injury. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that the English trio is the more dynamic and could really build the platform England needs to go on the offensive.

Who is Willi Heinz and is a game against Wales the right place to make his mark?

Sure the Kiwi, now England qualified, scrum half had a very successful domestic season with Gloucester, but on the European stage Gloucester fared very poorly raising question marks about his ability to handle high stakes matches with an international flavour. Furthermore, given the depth of resources in England, you have to wonder about Eddie Jones obsession with bringing in ostensibly overseas talent. Agreed other teams are doing it, but they with the exception of possibly France, have much smaller player bases – not the case in England. We would have thought that this would have been a golden opportunity to put Ben Spencer or Dan Robison to the test. Don’t get us wrong, we are not anti foreign born players by any stretch of the imagination, but given the depth of resources in England we still find this a slightly strange call so close to the World Cup.

As this is the last chance to have a look before the World Cup, we are amazed at the omission of Danny Cipriani at fly half

Sure George Ford rescued England at the death from a humiliating defeat at Twickenham by Scotland in the last match of the Six Nations, but in reality that has been his only claim to fame for quite some time now. His club Leicester Tigers have become the laughing stock of both the English Premiership and the European Champions Cup, and we find it hard to believe that he is the best England has to offer outside of Owen Farrell in the position. Despite the English public’s love/hate relationship with Cipriani, there is no denying he brings plenty of imagination and unpredictability to the position, something you would think England could really do with at the World Cup. By the same token is this George Ford’s last chance to shine? Has Jones already made up his mind to surprise everyone and simply announce on Monday he is taking Cipriani without having the need to look at him in an England jersey? The plot thickens!

The return of Joe Cokanasiga is something everyone wants to see

England’s supposed wonder weapon on the wing had to live in the shadow of the outstanding Jonny May the last time these two sides met in the Six Nations, and was sorely missed against Scotland. Quite why the turbocharged winger finds it so hard to find favour with Eddie Jones is a mystery. However, of one thing you can be certain, he is unlikely to let his chance to be noticed go missing on Sunday. Once again though we are scratching our heads at him starting on the bench, though we have a hunch we are likely to see him much sooner than we did the last time he was included in Welsh and English festivities. Is this, like the Cipriani question, another case of Jones not wanting to show his hand? Either way we’re looking forward to seeing Cokanasiga having an opportunity to scorch some turf on Sunday!

Verdict

This is a very good Welsh team – plain and simple, who are going to be very hard to beat on Sunday. They know each other exceptionally well, have the benefit of a winning culture behind them and know the kind of game they want to play and their roles and responsibilities in implementing it. England’s slightly eclectic mix of talented but unfamiliar players don’t quite have the same gel factor. Despite home advantage it’s England with everything to prove, but for once they may be genuinely relishing the underdog tag which could ultimately work to their advantage. Having said that however, we find it hard to imagine such an accomplished Welsh unit getting caught off guard by England on Sunday. Wales are more than likely to play it safe against an English team they are probably unsure of in terms of what to expect. However, the Welsh defence has been absolutely watertight this year, and despite whatever surprises this English team may have up their sleeves, Wales are likely to be too hard of a nut to crack on Sunday. Consequently, in what should be an entertaining match with England doing most of the attacking, we’re handing it to the Welsh defence to keep things safe and in order for the Men in Red by four points!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

England

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

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

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

France

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

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

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

Scotland

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

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

Italy

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

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

Endnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy vs France – Saturday, March 16th – Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antoine Dupont – France’s ultimate danger man!

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, March 16th – Cardiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland finally find their feet when it comes to game management

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs Scotland – Saturday, March 16th – Twickenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

England’s World Cup centre pairing?

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

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

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

Elliot Daly – England’s unsung hero

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

Verdict

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