One week down in the 2020 Six Nations and it’s easy to jump to conclusions: Ireland’s scar tissue from Japan remains, Italy show no signs of progress and a victory for anyone over England is as good as an Irish win.
We’ll look at the Ireland Wales contest in detail followed by previews for Round Two’s other fixtures: Scotland v England, and, France v Italy.
Ireland v Wales – 8th February 2:15pm, Aviva Stadium
Not many thought that Ireland would ultimately rely on a butchered try and a defiant goal-line stand to overcome Scotland in last week’s Six Nations opener.
Perhaps hubris raced past pragmatism, with public and pundits alike happy to overlook the latter stages of the World Cup, instead focusing on Ireland’s comprehensive victory in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend.
Moreover, Scotland were missing their attacking dynamo, Finn Russell, and Ireland, under a new coaching ticket would be rejuveanted after a winter of relative discontent. Who knows what would have happened if Stuart Hogg hadn’t commited an error that would have under-12s coaches seething but a first game victory will be just fine for Andy Farrell.
Remember, Joe Schmidt’s first proper test – with apologies to Samoa – as Irish coach was a bit of an abomination, the home side losing 32-15 to Australia yet only eight days later, they almost made history against a record- breaking New Zealand side.
This is not to try and mirror the experience of a coach on debut but it’s probably a bit hasty to decry the new regime as turgidly stuck in the old ways. Just yet.
Farrell had relatively little time to change it up and it’s difficult to see where the spark is going to come from. Conor Murray kicked regularly and to little effect, and, while the execution can’t be laid at the feet of Farrell, the choice of tactic can.
It’s concerning that Ireland have already lost their attacking fulcrum, Garry Ringrose, to a hand injury that may yet jeopardise his particpication in the rest of this year’s tournament. Ringrose looked sharp in the few opportunities presented his way and he tends to really come to life as defences tire late on in a game.
Robbie Henshaw, while certainly an outstanding defender and a mainstay only eighteen months ago, just does not possess either the speed or nous to attack in the manner which Ireland apparently intend.
Having said that, Henshaw and his old Connacht teammate, Bundee Aki, always formed a formidable pairing and it could be iust the opportunity the Athlone man needs to rejuvenate a slightly stalled international career.
The key, as with last week, is to bring Ireland’s hugely talented back three into the game, particularly Jordan Larmour, who seems to be that one signature game away from elevating himself from outstanding talent to international star.
Flanking him, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway did little wrong last week – neither would have enjoyed Murray’s weapon of choice – but with Keith Earls back in the 23, there is little room for error.
There is a sense, largely misguided – not with the bookies mind – that Wales’ hammering of Italy and Ireland’s struggles in beating Scotland will likely lead only to an away victory this afternoon. Italy are, unfortunately, in a bit of a heap at the moment and Scotland, like Ireland as we well know, perform better as underdogs.
Also, perhaps more importantly, recency bias may be playing a hand in how the two sides are viewed coming into this year’s tournament. Warren Gatland, the most successful coach in the northern hemisphere in the last decade, left Welsh rugby on a high. Incidentally, he has started his Super Rugby coaching career with the Waikato Chiefs with two vicories further elevating himself up the New Zealand coaching tree.
Wales are Grand Slam champions and when beaten semi-finalists by enventual winners, South Africa, last October, they had simply taken too many body shots to keep moving forward.
Ireland, well we know how 2019 went, but people were quick to forget the five outstanding years that preceeded it. Indeed, during that period, Ireland collected three championships but World Cup failure has hung like an albatross around their neck.
Irish rugby has been in rude health for years and there may have been a perception from Wales, justified or otherwise, of a sense of superiorty emanating from their Celtic neighbours. Yet, when this World Cup came round, a Welsh side shorn of their best player, Liam Williams, came within a kick of beating the World Champions in-waiting.
It should count for very little today as Gatland and Schmidt are now both gone but until such time as Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac carve their own paths, the recent past will weigh heavily on this fixture.
Wales are still without Williams, their outstanding full-back has not appeared since suffering an ankle injury in training prior to the World Cup semi-final. Their back line is further depleted by the long-term absence of Gareth Anscombe and Lions centre, Jonathan Davies.
Anscombe’s replacement, the hugely experienced Dan Biggar hardly weakens the team but the inclusion of Saracen’s Nick Tompkins gives the Welsh midfield a perceived callowness.
The back three draws on buckets of experience in Leigh Halfpenny and George North – still only 27! – and buckets of tries in Josh Adams.
Still, this side is not one to fear for Ireland and while Pivac enjoyed some success with the Scarlets, his interntional head coaching experience mirrors Farrell’s, in that he has none.
Today there is an obligation on some of Ireland’s established stars to step it up, none more so than Murray. Some of the rugby loyalists who think you should never be dropped once you’ve earned your spot seem to think Murray is being unduly criticised but the fact is he has not been particularly good for Ireland in the last year.
Cian Healy and Iain Henderson are far from secure, while Peter O’ Mahony – in as a result of Caelan Doris’ head injury – knows he has 80 minutes to win back the jersey that had been nailed on him for the last three years.
A tip of the hat also to the Aviva Stadium last week who were almost perversely impressive in barely raising a whimper over the 80 minutes. Perhaps it was the stop-start nature of the game or an over-familiarity with Scotland but the result was a subdued crowd, even at the most atmospheric kick-off time.
Wales have garnered a reputation of being able to rely on their mental foritude when their game is not flowing, Ireland quite the opposite. This is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to tip the scales, on a day when the sides look very evenly matched.
Home advantage to swing it.
SUS Prediction: Ireland by 4
Tips: Ireland -3 @ 10/11
Wales H-T/Ireland F-T @ 6/1
Scotland v France , 8th February 2020 4:45pm, Murrayfield
Despite both sides losing on the opening weekend, England visit Murrayfield for today’s late kick off under significnatly more pressure due, as is custom, to Eddie Jones’ combined big mouth and victim routine.
Jones, who seems to neatly occupy the characterisation of ‘great guy if you actually know him’, continued in his quest to antagonise his opposition with little gain when announcing last week that England would unleash “absolute brutality” on France last week. Perhaps he meant brutal in the Irish sense, as a final quarter surge was the only thing that prevented the World Cup runners-up from enduring consecutive hidings.
England performed extremely well for long periods in the World Cup but were aided massively by the facts that they suffered few injuries and played a game less due to the fallout of Typhoon Hagibis. Tomorrow, they face an improved Soctland side without their two most powerful ball carriers, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.
Deprived of Vunipola in Paris, Jones sought to brutalise the French without a number eight and with a nominal second row at blindside flanker. Jones’ choices were quite perplexing and, in light of the defeat, he’s doubled down with a slew of flankers at the back of the scrum, Lewis Ludlam coming it to replace Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry remaining at number eight.
Hosts Scotland have a proud history of producing understated but excellent flankers so perhaps Jones decision is rooted in this logic. England were destroyed on the ground in 2018 so it makes sense that they want to be competitive in this area. However, there’s an argument for moving Curry to his natural role and bringing in a ball carrier like Nathan Hughes. The Scots will be delighted that Jones hubris has somewhat backed himself into this corner though.
Scotland’s tournament build up was, of course, blighted by Finn Russell’s Super Sunday, but they performed really well in Dublin. Their line speed was excellent, their scrum dominant and, as Stuart Hogg will be reminded for quite some time, they left a minimum of two points behind at a vital juncture of the game.
Adam Hastings did not look out of place at out-half and Townsend was absolutely correct to retain the Glasgow pivot for the Calcutta Cup fixture. Those 80 minutes should prove invaluable for Hastings and he can be expected to bring Hogg and Sam Johnson into the line at regular intervals.
Meanwhile, Owen Farrell has looked a little off – you’d wonder the mental toll this season has taken on poor, put-upon Saracens players this year – and without Tuilagi, the English midfield suddenly looks a little vulnerable.
England are seven point favourites but that seems a little disrespectful of the hosts, particualrly as they have plenty of positives to carry forward from last week.
Murrayfield will be buzzing, particualrly with the anti-English sporting sentitment having returned to the heady heights of the 90s. This game is already a must win for both sides and Jones has already made the wise decision to avoid the train home.
There’s a sense the flight won’t be much more enjoyable.
SUS Prediction Scotland by 3
Tips 1. Scotland to win @ 11/4
2. Huw Jones anytime try scorer @ 7/2
France v Italy, 9th February 3:00 pm, Stade de France
France returned to something resembling their best in their impressive victory over England last weekend. Shaun Edwards, a major coup for Les Bleus, has their defence working more efficiently and the Stade de France was, once more, cauldron-like.
Antoine Dupont is possibly the best scrum-half in the world right now – apologies to Faf de Klerk and his ridiculous hair – and Charles Ollivon looks an absolutely terrifying prospect. True, Teddy Thomas still has utter disdain for the concept of defence but France can always carry an entertainer.
Italy alas, are not in a good place. There were very few bright spots from last week’s heavy defeat in Cardiff, apart perhaps from their dominant scrum.
Their under 20s had an excellent victory in Wales last Friday week so the future is bright but that won’t give the today’s team much solace.
If you’re still reading at this stage, fair play to you, so we won’t keep you any longer. France are going to win here and it should be a fair hiding. Having said that, the French are contractually obliged to disappoint on the back of an impressive victory so the points may not flow.
The difference now is that Edwards is part of the coaching team. France may not run up 40 plus and that’s a good thing. However, it would be a surprise if they’re huddled under their posts at any point on Sunday afternoon.
SUS Prediction: France 32 Italy 6
Tips 1. Handicap draw (France -26) @ 25/1
2. First try scorer Anthony Bouthier @ 12/1