Six Nations

Six Nations Review – Round 3

Of course, it’s impossible to reach the halfway point in a five round tournament, unless you’re pedantic and choose halftime in the France v Wales game on Saturday evening, but this is perhaps as good a time as any for a midpoint recap.

This weekend threw up two surprises, most notably in Murrayfield, proving for once that the bookmakers are not entirely prophetic. Scotland were pipped at the end by an Italian penalty try and while bad luck played its part; Giovanbattista Vendetti’s try; Scotland, like Charles Stewart Parnell were in many ways the architect of their own downfall. At least Parnell’s troubles were instigated by, amongst other things, his presumably enjoyable dalliance with Katherine O’ Shea. Scotland’s failings have been brought about largely by incompetence and a failure to execute.

Inaccuracy has been a real problem for Scotland. Late on in Saturday’s game, having been somewhat fortunate to win a penalty on an Italian scrum, Peter Horne, in as an enforced replacement, was entrusted with, what the entire of Murrayfield would have presumed to be, a safe kick to touch. When the friendly confines of touch were all that were required, Horne, like Finn Russell in the defeat to Wales, unforgivably missed and returned the ball to the Italians. An ensuing maul and further indiscretion by the Scottish pack handed Italy a hugely welcome and genuinely unexpected victory.

It seems patronising to say that Scotland needed this victory more than the Italians but frankly, they did. The Scots are coached by the man, Vern Cotter, who along with Joe Schmidt brought Clermont Auvergne to their rightful place at the top table of French club rugby and consolidated their position there. Sergio Parisse aside, how many of the Italian team would honestly force their way into the Scottish team. The Scots sparkled intermittently in the opening two rounds of the tournament so, perhaps on Saturday, they, like this column, failed to regard the Italians with the respect they merited. After the French defeat, there was a sense here that Scotland would have a real shot at home victories against the Welsh, Italians and Irish, and a chance to go to Twickenham with, at the very least, a puncher’s chance. Fool me once Scotland and all that jazz. Scotland’s response to this latest defeat will prove just how much character and resilience Kiwi, Cotter has instilled in this genuinely talented side. Skills and talent are only so impressive. After all, it is execution more than ability, which invariably sees a side over the line. Only a brave man or a fence sitter will honestly believe that Scotland travel south in two weeks with much more hope than a man with a lottery ticket.

Italy, on the other hand, will look to their upcoming Stadio Olimpico clash, with a French side in disarray, with real belief that they can cause an upset, the French monkey having been lifted off their back following 2013’s dramatic victory. The Italians rode their luck at times this past weekend but their pack, their rolling maul in particular, was infinitely superior to their hosts. Kelly Haimona is not an international outhalf and how Italy long for a reliable place kicker, in the mode of all-time great Diego Dominguez. Sides like Italy, limited in attack, simply can’t afford to leave points behind and they must find a kicker whose success rate is, at least, somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent. Still, if metaphorically, Italy went to sleep on Friday to relentless rain and gloom, on Sunday morning they will have awoken to a rather unexpected but welcome Indian Summer.

Wales’ championship ambitions are well and truly alive and kicking once more. To his and their credit, Warren Gatland and his big boppers went to France looking for a fight and, beyond any shadow of a doubt, won the physical battle comprehensively. The most experienced centre pairing in the Six Nations stood strong and there were also exceptional performances from Dan Lydiate and outstanding captain, Sam Warburton. Dan Biggar was accomplished and composed throughout, taking his try extremely well and, as ever, Leigh Halfpenny’s accuracy from the dead ball was close enough to faultless. George North responded well to Gatland’s demands that he become more involved in the game, his carries visibly sapping the will of the French defenders. Adding guile to the brawn was the nippy, dangerous, livewire Rhys Webb at scrum half. We accept that Gatland’s gameplan requires far more straight lines than arcs but a slippery customer like Webb is vital for variation. Still, for the most part Wales stuck to the tried and trusted and, as France are limited and wholly ineffective for large parts of each of their contests, the Welsh blueprint worked just fine. Ireland, their next opponents in what is sure to be a complete hum dinger in Cardiff, play a very specific style of rugby. Their game is somewhat rigid but remember, more importantly, that it is extremely effective. Following a system and sticking to a job, almost Germanically, should not be confused with being limited. Wales will fancy their chances in two weeks and based on their last two outings they should do, but beating this particular French side, even away from home, will pose far less problems than Joe Schmidt’s side.

While discussing the finer points of purgatory with his colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) in 2008’s In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character Ray exclaims, “You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.”  Perhaps he was prophetically talking about the current French rugby team and, of course, Tottenham. In any era. France made sweeping changes for Saturday evening’s game against a, let’s be honest, above average but far from spectacular Welsh side. Early on the French threatened without ever looking like cutting the Welsh midfield to pieces. The Remi Lamerat experiment never really took off, injury robbing the Castres centre of the opportunity to impress his coach and equally importantly, a decidedly frustrated French rugby public. Mathieu Bastareaud came on early in his place and barring his involvement in Bruce Dulin’s try; incidentally the first French try against Wales in four years; the Toulon man provided little more than hard carries into the arms of the improved Jonathan Davies and ever dependable Jamie Roberts. France, rather alarmingly, despite a raft of changes showed little or no ability to bring the ludicrously talented Wesley Fofana into the game. The future, or more pertinently the upcoming World Cup, looks grim for France, but, since they were able to dispense with their coach, Marc Lievremont’s advice following a chastening defeat to Tonga in the 2011 World Cup and lead themselves to the final where they were unlucky to lose to the final to New Zealand, in Auckland, we would simply say…. watch this space and dispense with all rationale when it comes to the French.

The weekend’s final game saw a good, honest slobber knocker between the two form sides, Ireland and England. Ireland won because, unsurprisingly, they were superior in a number of facets of the game, particularly in their kick and chase game. England seemed a little perturbed by Ireland’s insistence on kicking the ball with great regularity. Perhaps they should have done the same. Except better. Perhaps we’re being facetious, but given they spent most of the week informing everyone how they were preparing for the aerial bombardment, by Sunday evening it looked like a classic case of the dog eating the student’s homework. Ireland had star performers all over the pitch, each adhering diligently to coach, Joe Schmidt’s fastidiously prepared game plan. It would be impossible not to single out Robbie Henshaw for individual praise. This column is open to correction but it appeared that he never once took a backward step with ball in hand. England, always robust in every facet of the game rarely breached the Irish defensive line, Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson aside, and Henshaw was to the fore of the exceptional, home rearguard effort. The skill, awareness and timing for his try looked like a hybrid effort one might see from Tommy Bowe and Ireland’s greatest ever player, Brian O’ Driscoll.

Ireland have been accused of being limited, indeed strictly speaking they are, but if you keep on winning then how necessary is change? Remember, the English World Cup winning side in 2003 were blessed with standout players all over the pitch but it was very rare, particularly as the tournament progressed, that you saw any sort of ‘heads-up’, creative play, aside of course from the irrepressible Jason Robinson. What about the mighty All Blacks in the 2011 final? They overcame the French in the final on a whopping score line of nine points to eight. It is agreed that those teams that have won the World Cup are built on rock solid defence, a mobile pack who are ferociously competitive at the breakdown when necessary, a near faultless place kicker, and a commanding pair of half backs. New Zealand for all their glorious talent have won the tournament the same number of times as the, dour by reputation, South Africans. Perhaps Ireland will need to bring something different in Cardiff but if it’s a dog fight that the Welsh are looking for, and it most assuredly will be, then Paul O’ Connell and his charges will relish the challenge.

For all the praise of Ireland’s performance yesterday, it is hard to say that they were ten points the better side than their visitors. A number of moments had a huge baring on the outcome of the game. The instance most observers will highlight was Devin Toner’s first half lineout steal, deep in the Irish 22 after George Ford and Chris Robshaw decided to forego a relatively easy three pointer. Setting down a marker? Arrogance? It doesn’t really matter as the big second row’s excellent rob gave Ireland renewed vigour.

England looked very dangerous on occasion. Billy Vunipola showed outstanding pace to race fifty yards untouched off a messy scrum and Anthony Watson looked menacing anytime the game broke up. Additionally, the English spent the majority of the final fifteen minutes sending wave after wave over the top of the line but, with credit to the home defence, the leading point scorers in this year’s Six Nations were unable to cross for a try. A last gasp try, disallowed for a forward pass to Jack Nowell, would probably, on the balance of things, have been justified but the game was up for England by then. England probably left these shores a touch chastened, knowing they were outfought by an incredibly disciplined, aggressive pack, which incidentally looked none the weaker for the loss of back row stalwarts Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Still, while Ireland may have won the battle yesterday, one suspects the English will believe that they can finish the war on their terms in October.

Six Nations

Six Nations Round 3 Preview – Bring The Noise

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)

Rugby, Six Nations


Can the Real France Please Stand Up!

Ireland v France: 14th February 17:00 Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road

Philippe Saint Andre’s side arrive in Dublin this weekend without the usual whirl of excitement and unpredictability surrounding them. Last week’s victory was routine, insofar as they beat Scotland, but the Gallic flair missing in action since the turn of the decade, most certainly did not make its long awaited return. In fact the secret to success last week was a full out assault by their massive pack and the nerveless boot of outhalf experiment 257, Camille Lopez. The carefree, predictably unpredictable French really seem to be a team of the, admittedly recent, past.

That said, Ireland didn’t exactly pull up trees in Rome but a twenty three point victory away to the Azzurri should never be sniffed at. If Italy are the barroom brawler of this tournament then Ireland are the measured, risk free counter-puncher, picking you off with jabs rather than going for the lights out haymaker. Make no mistake, Ireland came out of this particular scrap, extremely comfortable victors. Joe Schmidt would have been happy with the clinical use of the numerical advantage after Italy’s Leonardo Ghiraldini was sent to the sin bin. That’s not to say that the expected accuracy was there throughout and imprecision and sluggishness were clearly evident throughout the opening hour. Whether this can be explained by the usual opening weekend rustiness and the Six Nations starting debut of five players remains to be seen.

‘Write off France at your peril ‘ was a statement that always carried weight, particularly around these parts, where a victory over France was a largely mythical concept, until Brian O’ Driscoll’s hat- trick and David Humphrey’s nerveless accuracy put paid to that, in Paris, in March 2000. That was Ireland’s first victory over France in Paris since 1975 and in that intervening period the French had been defeated in Dublin just once in 1983. After a period of minor dominance at the turn of the millennium France proceeded to register 12 out of 13 victories against Ireland in all tournaments up until the drawn game in Paris in 2012. The last three games between the sides have ended in two draws and last year’s win for Ireland, meaning for the first time since 1974 France will be looking to avoid a run of four games without a victory over the Irish. Now, I’ve used the facts to suit my argument but there is no disputing the fact that Ireland are undefeated by France in four years. A similar, once in a generation blip like this occurs between the hurlers of Kilkenny and Wexford.

As of this morning France are six point underdogs for tomorrow’s game. This could be more if half-cut, patriotic Irish fans decide to skew the market even more. I would be confident, though clearly open to contradiction, in saying that France have never in their history arrived in Dublin with the locals favoured so heavily. I have heard numerous people say this week that the bookies have this one completely wrong. My understanding, as a casual and largely unsuccessful gambler, is that the handicap line is set in response to where the public’s money is going, not because Messrs. Power and Boyle think France are rubbish and that everything Joe Schmidt touches turns to gold, although it kind of does.

My gripe here is actually with the French. How have Les Bleus, comfortably Ireland’s toughest out historically, save for their nemesis in the deep south, allowed the Irish public regard them with such disdain? Recent memories are invoked of any one of Ntamack, Dominici or Bernat-Salles cutting us to pieces with such wilful disdain and exuberance. Despite the numerous humiliating defeats one couldn’t help but hold the rogue, carefree and infinitely skilful Frenchmen in such high regard.

And how could any Irish sports fan ever forget our bête noire, Vincent Clerc, tormenting us for years and finally putting the cherry on top by stepping John Hayes in open country; if only he’d run at him beside a ruck; and silencing Croke Park on rugby’s debut in, arguably, Europe’s finest stadium.

That’s not even ten years ago and yet France’s arrival tomorrow brings less trepidation than the arrival, in a fortnight’s time, of Ireland’s whipping boys of the mid noughties, England. The French, particularly their coaching staff, should be ashamed of themselves. Just watch Serge Blanco’s winning try in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against Australia, ideally with the French commentary, then switch to last week’s horrible slog in Paris. The build up to the try is ridiculous, equal part under 8s mayhem and uncoachable, glorious, heads-up rugby. Unfortunately instinct seems to have been shorn from the 2015 edition of France.

Tomorrow’s game unsurprisingly will be won up front, admittedly a lazy statement that applies to every rugby match outside the Pacific Island Nations. Ireland’s pack is aggressive, disciplined, ferocious at the breakdown and actually slightly heavier per man than France. The French are always incredibly abrasive though and their game will surely be predicated on tight carries by the pack, supplemented by some monsters off the bench and the assistance of the bulldozing, borderline unstoppable when he’s on form, Mathieu Bastareaud.  The French backline, on paper, where everyone bar the players themselves play out these games, is every bit as impressive as Ireland’s, and considerably better in one area, midfield. Here, France have Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, who if used correctly, are surely the greatest centre pairing in world rugby; a complimentary rugby equivalent of Laurel and Hardy. Fofana glides through defences in a manner similar to the great Conrad Smith and his strength belies his relatively narrow frame. The back of three of Yoann Huget, South African Scott Spedding and the superbly named, throwback left wing Teddy Thomas are every bit as impressive as opposite numbers Kearney, Bowe and Zebo. However the caveat with this French backline is that they can be unstoppable but only if used correctly or rearmed with their traditional licence to thrill. While solid last week, it didn’t look as though Lopez and South African scrum half Rory Kockott, see the theme here, were going to allow their outside backs rain hell on the Scots. There is no question that Ireland enjoy a clear advantage in this department, even taking into account Jonathan Sexton’s inevitable, early rustiness.

Perhaps both sides were keeping their powder dry last week but I don’t buy this theory for a second. Schmidt cuts his cloth to suit the measure while Saint Andre’s team have been rudderless and uninspired since the beginning of his stint as French head coach. If he’s playing the long game with the World Cup in October in mind, then I tip my hat to him. But let’s be honest, he isn’t.

Ireland’s back row has the potential to become a missile launch site once more with the return of the ever dependable Jamie Heaslip and Ireland’s most exciting and, when fully fit, devastating ball carrier, Sean O’ Brien. Thierry Dusautoir, Damien Chouly and Bernard le Roux, from guess where, bring plenty of ballast themselves and will be more than content to go to war. Whoever dominates at the breakdown should present decent go-forward ball to either Lopez or the returning Sexton. Ireland need to be more creative in midfield and the suspicion remains that Robbie Henshaw is playing one position too far inside. Bastareuad and Fofana will welcome traffic up the middle with glee and return it with interest.

Both back threes, as mentioned, are brimming with attacking potential and the midfield playmakers will need to employ subtlety, Bastareaud aside, to unlock two very well organised defences. Stuart Hogg had some moments of brilliance last week in Paris and the opportunity should present itself for Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe to find some unmanned green grass, particularly once the game breaks up a little in the second half. The Cork man seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder for Ireland and thus far it suits him. A moment of brilliance by him, Bowe or the electric Thomas may well decide this contest.

Even as an Irishman who gets giddily excited as to what may await us in the next eight months, I long for the return of the swashbuckling, give a flying shite, French team of years gone by.

Unfortunately they won’t make their return tomorrow. I don’t think we, the Irish public, are a million miles off this time.

Ireland by 6.


England –v- Italy – 14:30 – 14th February – Twickenham

A brief, lazy deferral to history to summarise this one.

On 14th February 1929, six members of Bugsy Moran’s Irish mob on Chicago’s north side were executed, the result of a long running feud with legendary, infamous Italian American mob boss, Al Capone. The incident would go down in lore as The St Valentine’s Day Massacre Tomorrow. Tomorrow in Twickenham history should repeat itself but unfortunately for the Italians, there’s little chance of them springing the surprise attack.

The weather isn’t forecast to be great for London tomorrow but frankly it’ll take a monsoon to stop this contest turning into a slaughter. The English juggernaut is most certainly up and rolling and Stuart Lancaster’s side will be well aware that, in a tight Championship where a Grand Slam looks unlikely, points difference will most likely come into play. Once the game gets loose don’t be surprised if everybody outside George Ford gets on the score sheet.

The Italians are always game, to a man, but that won’t be near enough here.

England by 35 (and the rest)

Scotland –v- Wales – 15:00 – 15th February – Murrayfield

This game is intriguing for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wales’ record, 51-3, beating of Scotland in last year’s closing round will be to the forefront of everybody’s mind, north of the Wall. However the Scottish sides of March 2014 and February 2015 are definitely not the same animals. Once aimless and toothless, Scotland’s performances in November and more so last week suggest that Vern Cotter has breadth new life into a team who had been lurking in the wilderness for far too long. The Scots, just like their opponents tomorrow, are a massively proud nation and Cotter has very adeptly tapped into this, at least from the outside looking in, latent pride.

Cotter, like his friend Joe Schmidt an alumni of Clermont Auvergne, has taken a rudderless team and instilled discipline and confidence, two cornerstones to any successful side. Tomorrow is a real litmus test as a narrow, brave defeat will no longer cut the mustard with either the players, it never does to be fair, or the Scottish public.

Wales come to Edinburgh on the back of a chastening defeat to England where they squandered an early ten point lead and failed to score in the second half. In truth the five point defeat could have been so much worse and the manner of the defeat, getting comprehensively outplayed in every facet of the game by your greatest and oldest rival at home, has to be disconcerting for Warren Gatland and his coaches and players, not to mention the wider Welsh public. Gatland ran home with his ball on Friday night and gave his players the silent treatment for letting him down. It’s tough enough for the players to deal with a defeat at home to England without being treated to Gatland’s childish histrionics. Nonetheless hooker Richard Hibbard rallied during the week and said that the “players owe him that (a better performance) for giving us a second chance.” As if he was going to drop the entire team!

It appears that Gatland’s template has become dated. To his credit, using huge men to smash smaller men has brought great success to Wales in recent years but change and variety are vital and the best coaches and teams are always evolving, even if only very slightly. This Welsh team misses Shane William’s trickery and the unfairly maligned Jamie Roberts can’t be relied on to batter down the castle gates every single time. It was intimated last week that Wales are performing with one eye on the World Cup. I prefer Clive Woodward’s blueprint in 2003; annihilate all in front of you and set down a marker for the World Cup later on that year. It’s defecate or get off the pot time for both sides on Sunday.

Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar and the mercurial Stuart Hogg should get plenty of opportunities on Sunday to usurp their more illustrious opponents. Hogg can and does match the ridiculous with the sublime but in an era of increasingly one sized giants, his potential to unlock a defence is invaluable. Scotland need to win to continue their development, Wales to dismiss the nagging feeling that theirs has ceased altogether.

As AC/DC’s Bon Scott and his inimitable voice squealed all those years ago, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if you Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Scotland aren’t even close to there yet but a victory on Sunday will confirm that their ascent continues in earnest.

Scotland by 2

Bill Lonergan – 13th February 2015