Can Sexton produce a performance against France?
The Ireland team selection in essence yielded little surprises. Best and McGrath were recalled after being left out of the starting lineup against Italy. The only selection of interest was at fly-half with Sexton replacing Jackson for the jersey despite playing no game minutes in recent weeks.
Schmidt has plumped for a player who has produced for Ireland consistently over Jackson who did little wrong in Rome two weeks ago. Is Schmidt sending a statement that he still does not trust Jackson to execute the Ireland game plan against France?
For Ireland, you hope that the switch works but I have massive reservations on the selection. Sexton’s recent form and early departures from games are two main concerns and one that France will target throughout.
The ten and thirteen channels were to be targeted by France anyway and with Sexton introduced to the starting lineup, there will be more focus on the ten channel in the opening exchanges to test out Sexton and see if he is fully fit and defensive ready for a test match of this intensity.
Sexton’s ability is undoubted but the recent injury problems and lack of game time (don’t care who are) will affect your performance. Murray will need to provide Sexton with the time and space to launch his back line but also for his defensive duties. Ireland, Joe Schmidt and management will hold their breathe on Saturday evening. Intriguing stuff.
Ireland prepared for pack trench warfare
The fact that Joe Schmidt has named an abrasive subs bench (5 forwards, 1 backs and two half-backs). The decision to leave Dillane was made purely because Ireland management believe that this game will be won in the pack exchanges. The closing quarter will be a pivotal time for Ireland to potentially use their conditioning advantage or a France team who have flagged in their last two matches in the closing exchanges.
Peter O’Mahoney coming off the bench is a stellar substitute to spring into action for his open play, breakdown and lineout option capability. His willingness to do the hard work and go deep into the tackle count can only help Ireland at the death of this test match. Henderson gets the nod over Dillane who is still struggling for optimum form this season.
France will look to set their platform at the set piece and the onus is on Ireland’s front five to deny this advantage. The scrum will be sublime; the French pride themselves in a dominant scrum but with the likes of McGrath, Best, Furlong packing down, it promises to be an epic contest.
The lineout options to Rory Best are solid with Toner, Ryan and potentially Stander / Heaslip in the opening exchanges. The promise of Henderson and O’Mahoney to come into the fray will add bolster to the lineout in the closing quarter. This is not going to be an offloading exhibiton game; expect hard hits throughout with the pack exchanges pivotal to who wins this contest.
How much will England score against Italy?
England’s point spread bets will vary wildly this weekend. Italy are on a hiding to nothing as their backs are proverbially against the wall. Their media do not rate the team, their media has questioned why the team are in the RBS 6 Nations (prompting talks of why Georgia are not in the tourney).
Conor O’Shea realized that this job would take time to cultivate a winning culture and a team whose undoubted passion would convert into a more cohesive unit with ball and defensively. The reality check has being swift. A second half thrashing at home to Wales set the prelude to an embarrassing reversal to Ireland two weeks ago.
There was precious little to take as positives for Italy; the set piece was exposed. The scrum was a weak point in both games. The lineout usually so solid disintegrated against Ireland and gave Joe Schmidt’s endless opportunities to launch attacks deep in Italian territory.
With this backdrop comes their first road trip of the championship and what a daunting challenge with a run out at Twickenham. England will be relishing this fixture to demonstrate their flair, offloading and attacking dimensions to their side. Their pack are excellent; no genuine weak point in the England ranks. The set piece is solid, scrum could be targeted if any officials dare ping Dan Coles for not driving straight. Love him or hate him, Dylan Hartley throws good lineout darts and with the man mountain Maro Itoje becoming a standout pack leader, quick ruck ball from Youngs and Care allows the likes of Ford and Farrell to unleash an incredibly pacey back line. Joseph omission is an opportunity for others to impress.
Eddie Jones constantly tries to change up the side and keep the players on their toes. Joseph was a standout for England last season so Jones is not afraid to be the hard calls. Daly has being a revelation this season with his long range kicking and scorching pace (do not remain Alex Cuthbert of that try) which won England the game against Wales two weeks ago. England will look to probe Italy’s fringe defense throughout and there is only one winner; potential floodgates to open on fifty minutes and expect 30 / 40 point thrashing for the Azzuri. Expect more talk of Georgia and their inability to join the RBS 6 Nations party to develop next week.
Scotland vs. Wales – Creativity appear?
Wales enter this contest on the back of a traumatic loss to their arch foe England. A game which they could have won was taken away from them thanks to poor game management both on and off the pitch. The on pitch events preceding the game winning try have being much documented. Davies and Cuthbert have heard enough about their roles in video analysis but the Welsh management have to put their hand up and admit that key substitution switches were made at the wrong time. Ross Moriarty was having an absolute belter of a game but then Howley decides to take his Gloucester charge off in his prime. Momentum built was then destroyed and gave England an opportunity to regroup and execute their game plan.
Wales showed flashes of the creativity which they have in abundance. Liam Williams has being sublime in this tournament; his running lines and all round game makes him a cert for the Lions tour. George North continues to perform at a high level. Williams and Davies form a superb three quarters where pace and power are in abundance. Wales need to make a decision on what style of play they want to adopt for the rest of the tournament?
Wales need as many points as possible. The answer would point to a more expansive style but Wales have at times gone back to prototype and being a little one dimensional using their pack and defense nous to beat opponents.
Wales need to make a statement this week and with a Scotland team minus a couple of first choice players including influential Laidlaw, it is a game that is there for Wales to secure a win and a potential bonus point win.
Scotland under Vern Cotter have improved their consistency this season. The loss to Paris had plenty of positives. Hogg at full back continues to impress in open space. The defensive fringes were good for large parts.
However, the scrum and defensive maul were areas of weakness and Wales will look to target these areas in the opening half this weekend. The inclement weather may make the ambition to be expansive a long shot and it could be another pack battle, hoping it will not be as both sides process two stellar back lines. This could be the most entertaining contest of the weekend.
Hawkeye Sidekick Predictions
Ireland by three points (won’t be pretty but a result will be secured)
England by thirty points (bonus point by half-time)
Wales by seven points (weather determines bonus point)