It’s less than fortunate that Ireland’s game this Sunday comes with a fortnight break either side of it. Few believe Italy will pose much of a problem yet perhaps still chastened from our opening round defeat to England, it appears few changes will be made. And, in the midst of the malaise that Italy seem to induce, Gordon D’Arcy has gone all Mick Jenkins and encouraged Ireland to go play some jazz in the Stadio Olimpico. .
Not so long ago, Joe Schmidt spoke about finding options for the World Cup quarter final and it seems that Joey Carberry has already jumped from adequate replacement to a genuine threat to the throne. Johnathan Sexton is still the undoubted first choice number ten but Carberry’s recovery from the intercept and subsequent 50 minute performance in Edinburgh provides more than just food for thought.
Given the fact that the encounter in Rome is close to a foregone conclusion, we’re going to change it up a little this week and provide a short preview of each game starting with the next step in Ireland’s strangely off-key performances to date.
Italy v Ireland – 3:00pm, 24th February 2019, Stadio Olimpico
Given the mixed results Ireland have achieved in Scotland in recent visits, it’s hard to be overly disappointed with a two-score victory over a resurgent side who we’ve been promised are on the cusp of something. To be fair to Scotland, they looked very threatening at times in the first half but like Parnell, they are too often the architects of their own downfall.
That said, after half time, Ireland closed the game down as a contest, guided wonderfully by a man, Joey Carberry, who couldn’t have started his time on the field in worse circumstances. Carberry’s loose pass may have been well picked off by Finn Russell, but it shows how far the Athy man has come since his disastrous outing against the USA in June 2017 that he was able to bounce back, produce the moment’s outstanding moment of offence, and, steer Ireland home down the stretch. Even his sealing kick, fifteen to the right, thirty out – historically not a great place for place kicks late in games – was completely nerveless. Carberry may have endured a torrid night in Castres back in December, but he’s been faultless from the kicking tee since and his general game continues to evolve.
It seems remiss to be talking about a player who won’t be playing but in a bizarre about turn, it appears the Irish coaching staff want their 80 cap, reigning World Player of the Year to get some game time under his belt. Surely a tune up in Rome won’t reveal anything we don’t already know about Sexton and he didn’t look in fantastic nick when he left the field in Edinburgh. Before Joey Carberry was ruled out through injury, it appeared Sexton was going to play anyway and while he is short on game time, it just didn’t seem necessary. Carberry is out, however, so there’s no point in exploring hypotheticals.
Perhaps it’s a little disrespectful to view Italy as such a weak opponent but Ireland have obliterated them in recent years. The legendary Sergio Parisse misses out, though of late, the great man’s body refuses to do the bidding of his mind. Italy need to find a number of players to carry the load of their record-breaking captain. By all accounts, Conor O’ Shea has revolutionised the Italian under-age set up but reports suggest that he may not be there to be see the fruits of his labour.
The clamour, or murmur really, for the introduction of relegation and promotion to the Six Nations will probably rear its head on Monday if Ireland run riot but unless Italy have crafted some extraordinary version of the rope-a-dope, then the result will be another resounding Irish victory.
For the past 12 months, this game has always stood out as the opportunity for Joe Schmidt to try some of the peripheral players: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Carberry, David Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne, Seán Cronin and now, perhaps, Robbie Henshaw at full-back. His decision to, if not err on the side of caution, then certainly remain conservative, will serve Ireland well in the short term but in reality it’s the last opportunity – outside the unpredictable interloper, injury – to provide these players with game time before the Samoa game in October. Only Kilcoye and Cronin start out of the players named above and Beirne doesn’t even make the bench.
Still, Ireland are actually back in a place from we thrive, slightly underrated by outsiders and gradually building up a head of steam. It’s not clear to anyone where Italy are. All 23 Irish players should get a decent run out and if the margin of victory is hard to predict, the result is most certainly not.
SUS Prediction – Ireland by 20
Tips – Sean Cronin, Andrew Conway and Chris Farrell to score anytime @ 17/2
France v Scotland, 2:15pm, 23rd February 2019, Stade de France
It’s actually quite difficult to assess what progress, if any, Scotland have made since last year’s Six Nations. While shorn of a number of forwards for the visit of Ireland, the same sloppiness and general lack of accuracy at vital moments prevented Scotland from mounting any real threat to Ireland in the final 30 minutes.
In addition to depleted front row stocks, the Scots are now also without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones for their visit to the Stade de France. While Russell and Hogg, in particular, are massive losses this match will provide the Scottish with an opportunity to test their strength in depth. However, if any single player in the tournament was to provide an active definition of ‘x factor’, it would be Hogg.
The closest comparison you can draw to France at the moment, at least in terms of haplessness and a complete lack of accountability, is the HSE. To be fair to France, though, at least their future looks bright with a cohort of successful under 20s hopefully set to make their mark in the next two years.
For now, Jacques Brunel’s side are a complete mess. And, the main reason we don’t know what France side we’re going to get each week is because of the wholesale, largely whimsical changes in personnel.
The French effectively contrived to twice win and yet still lose their opening day contest against Wales. While Yoann Huget’s insouciance – and not in the traditionally cool, French way – and Sebastian Vahaamina’s ill-timed midfield skip pass were pivotal events in the defeat to Wales, no one moment could explain the humiliation handed out to France by a resilient England a fortnight ago.
France have made it clear that Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez have not been dropped from the match-day 23 for criticism of their coaching, or lack thereof, but you’d have to wonder. In reality, France weren’t a million miles off against Wales but Jacques Brunel’s knee-jerk reaction to drop seven players and move Joann Huget to full-back backfired spectacularly.
Perhaps Brunel didn’t see Robbie Henshaw’s uncomfortable evening manning the back for Ireland – it genuinely wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t – but the decision to move Huget proved disastrous as England profited from Huget’s absence from the backfield to score four tries directly from kicks into open space.
Tomorrow, Thomas Ramos gets to join the party, making his test debut at full-back. There are high hopes that Ramos can fill the shoes of France and Toulouse legend, Clement Poitrenaud, and he will be joined by club mates Antoine Dupont – a world class scrum-half in the making – and Romain Ntamack. France may win tomorrow, in fact we’d be surprised if they didn’t as Scotland are an average side and Paris is always a difficult place to win. However, what’s more important is that they provide the three Toulouse youngsters with a concerted run in the team.
Brunel seems to be picking his teams from a hat at the moment and players must be either terrified or completely indifferent at the thought of losing their place on the team. While it’s too late to find the right coach for Japan 2019 – unless the players follow the self-taught manual which proved so successful in the 2011 Rugby World Cup – France have an opportunity to bed in some players who possess a raw skill set that other countries would kill for.
With Russell and Hogg in the saddle, you’d give Scotland a great chance but, as we said, the Paris effect shouldn’t be ignored and Dupont, an all action buzz saw of a scrum half, might just grab this game by the scruff of the neck.
SUS Prediction – France by 6
Tips – Handicap draw France -6 @ 22/1
Wales v England, 4:45 pm, 23rd February 2019, Millennium Stadium
While history and fact fade further into irrelevance in political and general society, sports fans are always cognisant of the great achievements of the past. Even now, more than 40 years later, the Netherlands are revered for introducing the world to the concept of ‘Total Football’. Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens, Johnny Rep and the rest of that side – though no doubt tainted with a sheen of romanticism – are better remembered than the actual winners of the 1974 World Cup, where they brought the brain child of legendary Ajax manager, Jack Reynolds, to a global audience.
Perhaps in generations to come, rugby fans will look back and ask where were you that memorable evening in February 2019 when Eddie Jones’ England side revolutionised the game of rugby? Through myriad, complex techniques, England unearthed an astounding new weapon……. the kick into open space. Yes, as Owen Farrell and Henry Slade moved Robbie Henshaw around endlessly and effectively, we were witness to a development like none other.
Perhaps we’re being unfair, but the sense of amazement at England’s success against Ireland first and then a pathetic French team and its absentee full-back was a tad surprising. England have been brilliantly effective to be fair and it’s unusual that a back line would include such a slew of quality kickers. However, the fanfare over their prudent use of the boot – Ireland could take note – would not exist if not for the devastating effectiveness of the Vunipolas and a brilliant supporting cast of Jamie George and Tom Curry.
Like those before them, England exposed a narrow Irish defence, caught some breaks and dominated Ireland at the breakdown and in the tackle. Against France, England did as they pleased and if it wasn’t for the occasional shot of an exasperated Joann Huget, you’d have thought the fullback was in the sin bin, such was the space afforded to Farrell, Slade, Elliott Daly and rugby’s form winger, Tom May.
To England’s credit, they kick judiciously and not just up in the air – which can sometimes appear a little aimless when other teams adhere slavishly to this tactic – and they’ve puzzled opposing back threes so far. In Cardiff, however, they will face an orthodox full-back in Liam Williams and a fired up Welsh pack that will be, you would presume, better primed emotionally than Ireland were.
A visit of England always gets the home crowd worked up – apart, unusually, from the Irish crowd throughout much of the recent defeat to England – but the Welsh crowd bring a healthy air of vitriol to proceedings when their neighbours cross the Severn.
Eddie Jones has prodded away all week – in decades to come, Jones will be identified as the forefather of trolling – while a relatively serene, Warren Gatland continues to shift the focus from the Six Nations to the overarching importance of what is to come in Japan.
The first two rounds of the tournament do suggest that England are ahead of the pack and that Wales are genuinely focused on the World Cup. Having said that, this fixture, particularly when played in Cardiff takes on added significance for the Welsh.
The Welsh pack won’t want for intensity and Gareth Anscombe may provide the creative spark that Dan Biggar lacks, but it’s hard to look past a side led by two of the form players in the world in Billy Vunipola and Farrell.
England aren’t quite at the ‘immortality beckons’ stage just yet but win tomorrow and they’ll travelling east with a grand Slam under the belt.
SUS Prediction – England by 6
Tip – England half time/full time @ 11/10