Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

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

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

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

Wales8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France – 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland – 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care and stay safe everyone!

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

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

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

France vs Wales – Saturday, March 20th – Paris

Of Relative Strengths

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

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

The return of the Cat

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

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

The Stats Master

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

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

A very healthy rivalry

Who is the understudy – Matthieu Jalibert or Romain Ntamack?

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

Six Nations frequent flyers

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

Italy vs Wales – Saturday, March 13th – Rome

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

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

No more Mr. Nice Guy

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

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

Another of Wales’ unsung heroes

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

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

The three Horseman of the Apocalypse

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

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

A bit more than an impact player

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

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

Bench press these two if you can!

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

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

Verdict

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

England vs France – Saturday, March 13th – Twickenham

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

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

The Statistics aren’t all that bad

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

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

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

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

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

Easy target but not the problem

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

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

An alternate reality

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

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

Catch him if you can

French centre Virimi Vakatawa building up a head of steam

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

Verdict

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wales – THE Surprise Package

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

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

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

France – Les enfants terribles

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

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

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

Ireland – I want to break free!

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

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

England – Train Wreck?

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

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

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

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

Scotland – Sadly missed

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

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

Italy – Looking for the right recipes

Skilled – but still lacking a firm and consistent base

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy vs Ireland – Saturday, February 27th – Rome

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

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

The Jukebox is back!

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

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

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

Captain on the left – Coach on the right

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

Italy’s reliability factor

Mr. Dependable for Italy – Sebastian Negri

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

New World Chianti

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

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

The more we see the more we like

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

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

Verdict

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

Wales vs England – Saturday, February 27th – Cardiff

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

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

A player who has suddenly come of age

Prop Wyn Jones has become the real deal

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

It’s all about the future in Wales

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

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

A question of loyalty under pressure

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

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

Not all there

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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

England – Dissatisfied

Eddie and Owen share their feelings about haggis

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

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

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

France – Excited

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

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

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

Ireland – Confused

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

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

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

Italy – Optimistic

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

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

Scotland – Frustrated

Down but definitely not out!

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

Wales – cheerful

This was the try of the weekend for us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs Italy – Saturday, February 13th – Twickenham

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

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

Not what they were expecting

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

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

We think he is more than just an impact player

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

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

Extra study required

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

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

The Kids are alright

Italy’s favorite Welshman – scrum half Stephen Varney

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

A shot in the arm

George Ford feeling excited about playing some attacking rugby

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

Verdict

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

Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, February 13th – Murrayfield

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

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

A complete team performance

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

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

Depth issues – Really?

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

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

A contest for the ages

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

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

Stop me if you can

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

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

A Leader Comes of Age

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

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

Verdict

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

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

In the last of our previews of this weekend’s Six Nations action we look at Sunday’s clash between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff. Ireland travel to Wales surely feeling more than a little confident given Wales annus horribilis in 2020. But before the Irish get too carried away with themselves, if they reflected on their own 2020, the term mediocre is perhaps the strongest adjective they could come up with. They fell drastically short against the big teams, and simply got the job done against everyone else but rarely got your heartrate up. Wales heading into 2021 must surely feel that they can’t be any worse than last year, and with that behind them and some very painful but valuable lessons learnt they can now get back to being one of the Six Nations more reliable sides. In short, two teams with EVERYTHING to prove on Sunday, and two Coaches who are no doubt desperate to beef up their resumes should they need to start putting them out on the jobs market come March 20th. So here’s what got us talking over our pints of Guinness this week.

Wales vs Ireland – Sunday, February 7th – Cardiff

These two sides Six Nations opener is no doubt causing both Coaches to have difficulty sleeping this week. Both desperately need a win, and not just any old win. After 2020 it has to be a win full of fireworks and drama and rugby for the ages, all qualities we didn’t see much of from these great Six Nations competitors last year, especially Wales. In that respect Ireland and their beleaguered Coach Andy Farrell probably have the edge over Wales and Wayne Pivac, as Ireland met Wales twice in 2020 and came out smelling of roses on both occassions. However, both those fixtures were played in Dublin, and although the Principality Stadium as the largest cathedral in Wales will be empty of fans, you can bet that the WRU will have the strains of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Tom Jones’ Delilah thundering around the stadium at a volume that would put a Who concert to shame, along with all the appropriate piped Welsh crowd sound effects.

Is this the motivational link that Ireland have missed?

One of the most important ingredients in Irish rugby is passion, and it was sadly lacking in a lot of Ireland’s performances in 2020. There are few greater Irish motivational speakers than former Ireland and British Lions Captain and second rower Paul O’Connell. The famous “Manic Aggression” speech in the video above is one of rugby’s greatest changing room performances and it had an enormous effect on his charges that day back in 2007 against France, even if it didn’t quite get them the result they sought as a bit of French magic at the end stole Ireland’s glory. What it did provide though was one of those Six Nations matches for the ages and one we all still talk about today. That passion and fire in the belly was a key missing ingredient in Ireland’s approach to the game in 2020, without it they simply are not the team they could be. With O’Connell back in the mix we expect Ireland to roar once more. POC has almost godlike status here at the Lineout and we sincerely hope that the broadcasters will be letting us into the dressing rooms at half time this year, as a bit of O’Connell motivational speaking will do us all good in these COVID times.

Front row meat grinder

Our heart goes out to Wales on Sunday in having to deal with these two

Ouch and more ouch. We can’t help feeling that Wales are going to get pulverized at scrum time on Sunday. They failed to impress in this department in 2020 and up against Ireland’s prop combo of Andrew Porter and veteran Cian Healy, all we can see is a world of hurt coming their way this weekend. These two individuals are perhaps the only candidates for the manic aggression in an Irish jersey award in 2020, and we expect no let up in 2021 especially with Paul O’Connell giving them some helpful advice.

Ireland’s lineout woes may be at an end

If Ireland can get Rob Herring’s dart throwing skills sorted out expect Beirne and Ryan to cause Wales all kinds of misery at lineout time!

While there has been much experimentation in the Irish second row, James Ryan being the only constant, we think that Sunday’s partnership with Tadgh Beirne is Ireland’s long term solution in this department. While they will be up against Welsh legend and talisman Alun Wyn Jones, the Welshman’s partner Adam Beard doesn’t even register a signature on our radar. The Irish duo on the other hand are the definition of dynamism coupled to a seemingly tireless work rate that is second to none. With Beirne you have the added advantage of a marauding loose forward when he and Ryan are not causing havoc at the lineout and in the set pieces, and this is a package that their Six Nations opponents over the coming weeks may want to pay close attention to.

Just Reward

Still a lot to learn but worth sticking with – Ireland’s Hugo Keenan

There were few genuine standout performers last year for Ireland, but winger and fullback Hugo Keenan kept grabbing our attention in his first full year of Test rugby. Although he made some mistakes, that proved costly at times, there was a core of skills there that were impressive. For quite a while now Ireland have been looking for someone with the kind of skill set under the high ball that former Ireland fullback Rob Kearney possessed. While you could argue that Jordan Larmour has the more electric all round skill set, between the two of them Ireland has surely found the answer to depth in the 15 jersey building towards the next World Cup. Larmour features on the bench for this match and should things not go according to plan expect him to turn Wales upside down, but up to that point we respect Coach Andy Farrell’s choice to continue building Keenan’s confidence by giving him the starting berth.

Something for Welsh fans to get excited about

Coach Wayne Pivac will be expecting big things this year from youngster Louis Rees-Zammit

We apologise to Welsh fans that we haven’t said much about their side in this piece and much of what we have said isn’t overly flattering. The Lineout’s back row role model Justin Tipuric naturally starts at 7 and his partnership with number eight Taulupe Faletau started to show some genuine promise towards the end of 2020. They were about the only two players who appeared to understand the kind of game that Wayne Pivac wants them to play. However, for us the future of Welsh rugby is embodied in winger Louis Rees-Zammit, and we sense Pivac feels the same. The twenty year old is the most exciting thing to happen in Wales since 70s all time great Gareth Edwards. We’re delighted to see him get a start on Sunday, and sincerely hope that this will be the norm in terms of selection decisions for 2021. He will only achieve the greatness he potentially has at his fingertips if he gets some serious game time. He may well meet his match facing up against Ireland’s James Lowe, but if he holds his own and even gets the measure of the Kiwi import in a green jersey then we rest our case.

Verdict

So that’s it for this first weekend of one of the greatest shows on earth. We can’t wait and sincerely hope it lives up to its billing, and is the start of the long road out of the rugby wilderness caused by COVID-19. Perhaps the best way to approach the next 7 weeks and celebrate it despite the constraints is best summed up by our fan favorite on YouTube – the mighty Squidge. Enjoy, stock your fridge, turn up the volume, get together on line with your mates and revel in one of our glorious sport’s most wonderful festivals.

We couldn’t say it any better ourselves – thanks Squidge as always for yet another excellent piece!

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

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

Georgia asked Ireland some uncomfortable questions

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

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

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

Come fly with us – the Flying Fijians!

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

World Class as long as the stretcher bearers stay away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a kind of magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia vs Fiji – Saturday, December 5th – Murrayfield

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

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

Now that’s entertainment!

The most fun we’ve had all tournament!

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

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

The definition of extraordinary!

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

Rugby’s most underrated Coach

Always welcome in Murrayfield

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

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

Ireland vs Scotland – Saturday, December 5th – Dublin

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

Man in the Hot Seat

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

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

A good team on paper – but the right team?

There are some development markers gone missing in this one

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

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

Scotland the bold and the brave

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

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

Remember this guy?

A troublesome character but worth the risk

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

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

Wales vs Italy – Saturday, December 5th – Llanelli

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

One to watch for Italy

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

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

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

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

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

Wales in name only

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

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

What works across the Bristol Channel may well work in Llanelli

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

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

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

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