IRELAND v ENGLAND – Sunday 1st March – 3 p.m., Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road
So weekend three is upon us and come Sunday evening this year’s Six Nations Championship should finally begin to take shape. Just one side will be left in the hunt for the grand slam, three sides will have realistic championship ambitions and the final destination of the not so sought after wooden spoon will be much clearer. We look first to Sunday’s game in Dublin, a Grand Slam eliminator barring a very possible draw, and a game which both sides will view as an opportunity to lay down a marker for the upcoming World Cup.
Both sides come in to Sunday’s showdown with unblemished records in this year’s tournament and while both sets of players will wake up bruised and battered on Monday morning, only one can possibly still have their Grand Slam hopes intact.
Ireland and England, indisputably the two best sides in this years tournament thus far, enter this weekend having faced markedly different challenges in the most recent round of the tournament. England overcame a sloppy start against an, as expected, fired up Italian team to pull away convincingly in the second half, finding real cohesion in their attacking play as the game progressed. There was also the very welcome return, for anyone who enjoys attacking rugby, of the mercurial Danny Cipriani. By the end of the game Twickenham was bouncing again and you sense that the English are coming with little fear of losing. Once their tail is up, their demeanour can betray arrogance but Stuart Lancaster is working tirelessly to remove this trait from the team. The team and Lancaster himself do emanate a real sense of confidence, an attribute, which once instilled in a side makes them very difficult to beat. England do confidence the way Ireland used to do hard luck stories. Very well. However, the confidence in Lancaster’s side, unlike say Andy Robinson’s or Martin Johnson’s version, is well placed. England’s pack, relatively callow, have the usual Anglo combo of sheer physical presence and innate obduracy. The side are led fantastically well by the tireless, prototypically English flanker Chris Robshaw. Billy Vunipola has found form again and the new second row pairing of Dave Attwood and George Kruis are growing in stature, no doubt buoyed by the fact that Lancaster has released a fit again Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes to play for their respective clubs this weekend.
Ireland certainly pose a bigger threat than Italy and most probably Wales. The loss of Jamie Heaslip, seemingly bullet proof before this season is crucial, but Joe Schmidt in the manner of Bill Belichick, one of the NFL’s greatest ever coaches, does not curse the fates when a player goes down injured. Instead, he chooses his replacement and ensures the player is on board with the team’s battle strategy. The Irish, and their backrow in particular, went to all our war with the French in their recent victory, and the ferocity and intensity of the collisions produced a visceral spectacle. More importantly, for the players and coaches, it produced a win against a side lacking in creativity but certainly not aggression or commitment. Ireland defended heroically from numbers one to fifteen, Jonny Sexton confirming once more that he is both fearless and brilliantly effective in the tackle.
Incidentally, this column found the media’s admonishing of France for, shock horror, sending their big runners high at Sexton about as enlightening and relevant as a George Hook half time rant. My suspicion is that rugby coaches have sent their big men down the ten channel since the advent of the game. Just ask David Humphreys or Ronan O’Gara. It is a tactically sound approach and will continue as a successful means of achieving gain line advantage, while also occupying additional defenders. To free up their big runners Marler, Vunipola and Burrell, England need to nullify Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, for whom this game surely represents the biggest challenge of his professional career to date.
The returning Cian Healy and the extraordinary O’Brien, of whom so much is already expected, will need to provide the explosive ball carrying which has been somewhat amiss in Ireland’s game of late. So too Robbie Henshaw. It is perhaps becoming a bugbear of his column, but there is the nagging sense that Henshaw would be better utilised at outside centre, where his pace and awareness could be better used in open country. It is a shame that Ian Madigan hasn’t played at twelve with Henshaw outside him, but with sixteen stone international first centres all the rage these days, it seems Madigan may be unlucky in this regard.
If England can give George Ford the required time, then he will have the opportunity to bring Jonathan Joseph, wonderfully impressive in the centre against the Welsh and during his wing cameo against Italy, into the game. Ireland’s defence has been exemplary though and the feeling is that England will need some real magic to unlock the sturdy green door. Meanwhile, Ireland have proven talent in their back three but do not seem to know how to maximise its potential. Jared Payne and Henshaw, wonderfully talented full back and outside centre at their respective provinces, have yet to develop any kind of creative understanding, in a partnership that is admittedly in its infancy. If Conor Murray and Sexton, both of whom will have come on from the French game, can control the tempo of this game, preferably at an up tempo, then the holes will appear in England’s defence. Remember, Burrell and Joseph are a double act who while fantastic in attack, have yet to develop a real trust and understanding in defence. Italy found gaps in the English line on more than one occasion; early on in the game it looked as though they could breach it at will.
Interestingly, England’s thirty point home victory over Italy garnered considerably more plaudits than Ireland’s twenty three point victory over the same opposition. Ireland were clinical, if far from spectacular in most areas of the game, while England were progressively impressive in attack, whilst also worryingly porous in defence against an offensively limited side.
Last year’s meeting between these two sides at Twickenham went the way of the home side 13-10. While England’s execution and decision making were key to victory on the day, the passionate, pumped up home crowd helped carry them over the line, as much as anything else that day. England will be able to enjoy home comforts come the World Cup and while they will strive desperately for victory come Sunday, the feeling here is that Ireland’s need is greater. The teams match up in almost every department and both will have a serious baring over where the William Webb Ellis trophy, hopefully, finds its new home. The baying Dublin crowd should see Ireland get home by the skin of their teeth.
Ireland by 2.
(Ireland -1 at Paddy Power)
SCOTLAND v ITALY, Saturday 28th February, 2:30p.m., Murrayfield, Scotland
While Italy’s season has unfortunately panned out as expected, Scotland’s for various reasons hasn’t. This column puts its hands up and admits they were wrong about Scotland last time out, who only succeeded in notching another glorious defeat to their belt. The Scots should be mindful of the fact that they are running out of rope. Italy are coming, despite five replacements, with all guns blazing and nothing really to lose. Sergio Parisse will truly go down as one of the all time greats and his performance against England testifies to this. The Argentine born number eight was colossal and continues to rage even in the dying of the light. His backup cast however, are not producing as they should and the extras, such as Kelly Haimona, are merely taking up space. Italy have to improve considerably if they’re going to ruffle the feathers of Scotland let alone Wales.
Scotland failed to deliver against Wales, when this column believed that the dawn of a new era would be ushered in. Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt are cut from the same cloth but unfortunately for Cotter he does not have the same raw material to work with. When everybody expected two weeks ago, Scotland fell flat on their face and lost at home to a Welsh side who were there for the taking. Stuart Hogg is a particular favourite around here; offensive lock pickers are hard to find; but true to form he managed to mix the ridiculous with the sublime. His try, a result of searing pace from a turnover and two further, fantastic breaks were countenanced by a borderline, unforgivable missed tackle on Jonathan Davies for Wales’ second try. Scotland’s problems were exacerbated by some loose kicking from promising outhalf Finn Russell. Peter Horne gets his chance today in place of the suspended Russell. Scotland must realise that they need to make use of possession deep in enemy territory.
While the Italians will match the Scots up front, the home side’s backs should overcome the visitors, even with Russell missing. There is no doubt in our mind that Stuart Hogg will run amok.
Scotland could not mask the huge disappointment of failing to dispatch of the Welsh, who to their credit looked far more dangerous than their hosts. Scotland will not win at Twickenham, so their last real litmus test will come on the 14th March when they host defending champions Ireland. In the meantime, they must, and will overcome Italy, a victory to halt regression, as opposed to ensuring progression.
Scotland by 12 points
(Scotland -11 at Paddy Power)
FRANCE v WALES- 5 p.m., 28th February, Stade de France
The Stade de France may very well host the most exciting game of the weekend. Wales showed a marked improvement in their victory in Murrayfield, particularly in their willingness to put width on the ball from the off. Scrumhalf Rhys Webb now looks very much the Welsh number nine, as opposed to the replacement for Mike Phillips. Wales scored two excellent tries and generally looked more menacing with the ball in hand than in their previous encounter against England. Webb and Liam Williams, George North’s replacement on the day, brought that extra bit of exuberance that has been missing from the Welsh game for so long.
France, though unsuccessful in Dublin, would have taken heart from their performance, full of aggression and a willingness to just dog it out. On Valentine’s Day they had a good old fashioned scrap and no one in France could say they lacked heart on the day. In addition, their defence was superb, with Ireland’s only try scoring chance appearing when France were reduced to fourteen men, following Pascal Pape’s sin binning for a nasty and ultimately costly foul on Jamie Heaslip.
Philippe Saint Andre still insists on confusing and has made five changes to Saturday’s team. Of the four changes in the back line, it is the omission of Mathieu Basteareaud that, unsurprisingly, has attracted the most attention. Basteareaud has unquestionably been one of France’s best players thus far in this year’s series. However, his game is invariably built, at least under this coach, on straight, hard running with little or no subtlety or sleight of hand. France have been criticised heavily from all quarters for their failure to utilise the fantastic array of talent available in their back line, particularly their three quarters. Thus, Philippe Saint Andre has dropped his most dynamic player because he has been unable to bring his back three into play. So, just to recount, the French coach has dropped his most dynamic player because he has adhered to his coach’s gameplan. Whatever the problems in the French team, the feeling here is that their midfield partnership is as good as any in the world. Picking a winner for this evening’s game becomes increasingly difficult considering the number of alterations to both sides. The impressive Liam Williams keeps his place, with Northampton superstar George North replacing Alex Cuthbert on the right wing. Warren Gatland seems to have accepted that crash, bang, wallop is not the only way to breach a defence. Three further changes in the pack should strengthen the side, particularly the returning Samson Lee.
France come into the game with five changes, none more welcome than Bruce Dulin replacing South African Scott Spedding at full back. Morgan Parra comes in at scrumhalf, admittedly as a replacement for the injured Rory Kockott, but one suspects he’ll be at ease with his Clermont Auvergne halfback partner Camille Lopez.
Sofiane Guitone and Bastareaud’s replacement, Remi Lamerat are relative unknowns, complete unknowns in this quarter, so frankly, anything could happen. Of all the replacements, Lamerat will be under most pressure, although his opposite number Jonathan Davies, while sharp in attack has missed an alarming number of tackles, so opportunities will present themselves to the Castres man. France’s changes suggest a degree of panic, while Galtland’s appear to have strengthened his side. The bookies, who traditionally have a better strike rate than this column, have favoured France by three points. The loser of this game, both coach and team, will come under considerable pressure from both the general public and their national media. Interestingly, the respective selections of both sides suggest that the ball will see width early and often. The initial thought was that Wales’ stability will see the job through. However, opinion is leaning towards France now, and should the Lamerat experiment work, the home side will see this through.
France by 4
(France -3 at Paddy Power)