a Six Nations Round 4 Preview – Moving Day
WALES –v- IRELAND – Saturday 14th March, 2:30 p.m. – Millennium Stadium
So here we are. Moving day, to borrow from golfing parlance. The pivotal round of this year’s Six Nations, where the wheat and the chaff go their separate ways. All eyes will be on the Millennium Stadium at 2:30 this afternoon as two of the three remaining title contenders, Wales and Ireland, lock horns in what promises to be an absolute belter. The home side will look to prove that they do indeed belong in the same conversation as Ireland and England, particularly after their comprehensive defeat to the latter in the tournament’s opening round. Ireland, for their part, are seeking back- to -back titles in the northern hemisphere’s premier competition for the first time since 1949.
Immediately, our thoughts turn to the two head coaches, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, both of whom may be casting a long term eye towards their dream job back home in New Zealand. Gatland, the Six Nations current longest serving coach, having been appointed in 2007, has enjoyed fantastic success with Wales, winning three championships and two Grand Slams. Despite this success there is a suspicion that his game plan has gone stale of late. The fifty one year old has achieved great success through an incredibly physical, direct game plan, admittedly executed by some excellent players but right now his side seem to be missing a bit of guile.
Schmidt on the other hand is at the beginning of his international coaching odyssey. His side have drawn first praise and then the inevitable criticism for being one-dimensional. As Gatland can attest, there’s nothing wrong with one-dimensional when it works and again it should be noted that the Hamilton born man has led the Welsh to two Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final during his tenure.
Schmidt, to the untrained eye, seems to play them as he sees them, insofar as he adapts the game plan to suit his team’s upcoming opponent. In advance of tomorrow’s encounter Schmidt will have noted, along with everyone else that Wales just love to send Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau at the opposition midfield as early and as often as possible. Ireland’s back row, welcoming back the tireless Jamie Heaslip, and their centre pairing are happiest when taking down direct traffic. It’s clear at this stage that trying to breach the Irish wall by bludgeoning your way up the middle is about as sensible as telling Joe Pesci to go shine your shoes.
This may sound a bit obvious but the key to scoring is having the ball deep in enemy territory. Ireland generally achieve this through a couple of carries to create space for their half backs followed by incredibly well placed box kicks or booming up and unders. Through this style of play, they re-gather the ball or force turnovers, better than any other side in the world. It’s not pretty but unless you’re a neutral, who cares. Better to win ugly like Mourinho than lose beautifully like Wenger. Admittedly, Ireland have not been forced to show their expansive side because, to the best of our knowledge, they’re yet to fall two scores behind. If this happens, and they can’t dig themselves out, then the cries for a lack of perceived creativity may have a little more substance. But until we see this it’s like asking if Australians would be better than us at Gaelic Football if they played the game – We don’t know!
As has been the case recently, Ireland’s game will be predicated on Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray’s accuracy with the boot and a disciplined chase by Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo. Bowe’s aerial skills have long been lauded but it was in this facet of the game that Zebo really came to the fore against England, save for one over-exuberant chase. George North poses an obvious threat going forward but as with most men his size he can’t exactly turn like a ballerina. Also Sexton will most likely kick the corners more often knowing that Ireland’s line out definitely has the advantage over their Welsh counterparts.
Wales’ route one approach has as we noted before been bolstered by the addition of Liam Williams on the wing and the sharp, predatory Rhys Webb at scrum half. Wales obviously need to knock on the front door a few times but once there’s no answer, they should think about sneaking in around the side, utilising Williams and Webb. Roberts, Davies, Henshaw and Payne are going to be one big midfield demolition derby so the likelihood is that the magic, or just a clean line break, is going to come from a well- timed run from the respective back threes, or a little snipe from Webb. As has been pointed to us by a colleague of ours, this Irish team don’t tend to switch off all that much so the Webb threat should be somewhat neutralised.
If you run through both sides it’s hard to find an area where the Welsh are superior. Centres and back three perhaps, but only after an argument in relation to the latter.The back rows are on a par but in our eyes Ireland hold the upper hand in all other areas. So, then you look to the respective coaches. Boston’s Ken Casey, an old favourite of this column, once said, “Though it starts with a fist it must end with the mind.” In our view Gatland can’t help but endure with the fist. Schmidt’s sides are nothing if not physical but it’s in his more cerebral, methodical approach that he takes the advantage into tomorrow. Ireland are a better side, made even better than the sum of their parts by the excellent Schmidt. Ireland should go to Murrayfield next week with their Grand Slam hopes intact.
Ireland by 4 (Ireland -1 generally)
ENGLAND –v- SCOTLAND – Saturday 14th March – Twickenham
The home side will be smarting after being both outfought and out thought by the Irish a fortnight ago. They welcome back Courtney Lawes and Mike Brown, in place of George Kruis and Alex Goode. After the number Ireland did on his pack two weeks ago, Stuart Lancaster realises that his second row depth, Kruis, isn’t quite what he thought, and the bench spot goes to Geoff Parling. Meanwhile Brown, in our opinion, is the best full back in the northern hemisphere and obviously his return bolsters the English side. Having been humbled, and even with green tinted glasses on they were, they’ll look to get their title hopes back on track in front of an expectant home crowd. From the outset this all suggests a comfortable home win with a beleaguered Scottish side coming to town. However we don’t see this one being quite as straightforward.
Scotland, for whom perhaps we have had too much of a soft spot, are really not as bad as their basement dwelling, winless position suggests. They took the game to France in Paris and were with them right until the end. Against Wales, a game we thought they’d win, they kept shooting themselves in the foot at the most inopportune moments. We can’t really make any excuses for the Italian defeat though. Senseless errors, often by their out halves, and an inability to strike when the iron’s hot in the other sides twenty two means they go to Twickenham with pressure coming at them from all angles.
Vern Cotter has made five changes to his side but the bigger question is whether he has succeeded in a short space of time in instilling some mental strength and plain old cop-on into his decision makers, namely Finn Russell and Peter Horne. We discussed the relative strengths of Cotter and Joe Schmidt recently with a friend of the column and they made the interesting point that Cotter seems too willing to invest his faith in talented but flaky playmakers, Finn Russell for Scotland and more obviously Brock James at Clermont Auvergne. While we agree that he gave James too many chances at Clermont the same can’t be said of the younger Russell or Horne, both of whom have performed fantastically well for Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow. We expect Russell, on his return from suspension, to step his game up tomorrow.
Like Lawes for England, Scotland have recalled their enforcer the battle hardened Jim Hamilton. Also added is big ball carrier Dave Denton so, on the face of it Scotland have decided they need a bit of ballast after being humiliated up front by the Italians. Still, we think England’s pack is considerably stronger, particularly on their home turf. Their backline didn’t get much of a look in the last day, thanks mainly to the suffocating game plan carried out to perfection by the Irish. Tomorrow England will enjoy more joy up front and with great ball comes great opportunities. While we certainly don’t expect the floodgates to open after sixty minutes, we just don’t see the Scots having the firepower or the leadership to pick up their first Twickenham victory since 1983.
Scotland are obviously coming south of the Wall looking for more than a performance but a good showing here is necessary before they worry about taking on the world. England, meanwhile need to get the show back on the road and, regardless of the earlier result in Cardiff, put themselves in good shape for the finale against France. Both sides are hurt but while Scotland would cherish victory, Engand quite simply need it more. And, to put it bluntly, they are the better side.
England by 12 (England -16 generally)
ITALY –v- FRANCE – Sunday 15th March 3:00 pm – Stadio Olimpico
Two teams on one victory apiece but who come into Sunday’s game with very different dispositions. Italy were by all known measures the write off of this year’s Six Nations Championship. Still, they arrived in Murrayfield and bullied the Scottish, culminating in a last gasp penalty try and a very welcome victory. France on the other hand were man handled on their own patch, going down to a well organised, aggressive Welsh side, meaning France are Championship also rans after three rounds.
The home side welcome back Andrea Masi while their field general Sergio Parisse wins an Italian record 112th cap. The emotion on the Azzurri’s faces after their victory two weeks ago was fantastic to see and one feels that with a win under their belt they can go home to an adoring public and have a real cut at the tournament’s most spineless side. France will be reeling from their latest defeat, which in truth was as comfortable a seven point victory as you’re likely to see. Tomorrow, coming fresh off the centre carousel, we have Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou. The twenty year old Fickou showed flashes of his brilliance with his matching try against England in Paris last year but it’s anyone guess whether he gets to shine. We’ve found it very difficult to read the French under the turgid stewardship of Phillippe Saint Andre. The one shining light is their defence. They’ve conceded just two tries thus far, so while about as exciting to watch as an Eastenders omnibus they won’t give away all that much.
With the World Cup looming the last thing Ireland or indeed group rivals Italy want is for Saint Andre to be replaced after the Six Nations. The prevailing view, as pointed out by Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times earlier this week, is that a French victory on Sunday and a solid showing in Twickenham next week will keep Saint Andre entrenched in the role, much to the displeasure of the French public. We give Italy every chance here but think, and selfishly hope, that the French will sneak this one.
France by 4 (France -7 generally)