After a hectic, exciting opening round weekend where France imploded, Ireland were brought to earth with an almighty thump and Scotland showed flair and creativity to see off Italy. The second round of fixtures sees intrigue aplenty. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key talking points and who may win this weekend.
Storm Erik makes Murrayfield 50/50 call
Both team selections had interesting calls. Scotland squad depth seen with the decision to bench hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn for Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss coming into the back row at the eight channel for the unlucky Sam Skinner. Kinghorn omission is a tad harsh for a player who has excelled with club and country this season but has Townsend looked at the fixture last season between the two sides where Kinghorn was exposed in defensive play? Ben Toolis also will feel a bit forlorn about his exclusion, a quality cameo last week not enough to keep his place in the side. Johnny Gray has international experience and x-factor aplenty but is the shoulder injury fully addressed? Ireland will test it out early.
Ireland for their part have juggled the side around. Rob Kearney returns at full back for dead leg victim Robbie Henshaw. Kearney’s experience will be invaluable for the side but does he have sufficient game time and sharpness to deliver an assured performance from the full back berth? Chris Farrell gets the thirteen jersey and it looks like an abrasive three quarters unit with Bundee Aki. Huw Jones and Sam Johnson will be tested in their defensive first up tackles on Saturday. The pack sees Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien enter the fray. Roux will co-call the line out with Peter O’Mahony so potential vulnerability for Scotland to exploit. A big game for Jack Conan to establish himself in the eight jersey. The back row unit for Ireland looks abrasive and physical but wondering if the breakdown will suffer particularly if Ritchie in the Scottish ranks? Time will tell.
It is a delicately poised contest. The weather conditions could be an absolute leveler. A wet and windy Murrayfield could negate Scotland’s back three attacking threat. This test match could turn into a pack orientated contest and with a big bench impact, Ireland potentially have the edge but only just. Ireland’s performance is the focal point; if the side can produce a good solid performance in the kicking game and set piece, Ireland will win this fixture. If the performance is a mixed bag like last week, then Scotland win this. Heart says Ireland here, pack platform will be paramount and I think Ireland have sufficient quality here and physicality to secure the win.
New look Wales looks primed for Italian job
Ten changes from Warren Gatland and Welsh management for this test match, a perfect opportunity to run the rule on squad players and allow these players to feel vested in the team in the tournament. Win. Win. The selection is exciting and bold; liking the back row unit selection with Wainwright, Young and Navidi packing down. The depth in back row for Wales is frightening.
The half back unit gets a revamp. Davies and Biggar have the nous and experience to create and execute the game management to trouble an Italian side who were defensively exposed for being too rigid and tight last week.
The back line unit sees exciting Watkin and Holmes in the ranks. Jonathan Davies is captain and his experience for the debutantes in the back line will be invaluable. A side which potentially could produce fireworks and when you see the likes of Dee, Lee, Ball in the pack, it could be an arduous task for the hosts.
Italy make two changes to the side which were dogged yet totally outgunned against Scotland last weekend. Campagnaro slots into the thirteen jersey; a good move as the player has plenty of upside in his ball carries. Quaglio starts at prop. The squad is by and large unchanged, a clear indication that Conor O’Shea has decided on his core squad for RWC 2019. The pack looks abrasive as always but the back line cohesion and defensive organization is the issue and it was exposed last weekend.
Wales may endure cohesion issues early but with a dry weather forecast promised in Rome, this side will score potentially at will with their pace, movement and offloading style. Wales to secure the bonus point try win here. Italy will show some flashes of optimism but it will be another loss I am afraid.
England look to hold all the aces against Le Bleu
The reaction of English players at the Aviva Stadium last weekend said everything; this was a fixture that they had earmarked for months and to win with a bonus point to boot exceeded expectations. A win that should be the platform for further improvement in this tournament ahead of RWC 2019.
The only concern that I have for England this weekend is whether they can produce a performance similar in intensity, work rate and defensive precision to last weekend. They were so revved up for this contest that a repeat this weekend is overly ambitious. Injury to Maro Itoje is a blow but sufficient cover in Lawes, Launchbury and Shields if the need arises.
England will look to Henry Slade to provide the creativity and Manu Tuilagi with the abrasive ball carrying to setup the attacking platform. Owen Farrell’s form in recent has been outstanding and if provided with front foot ball could expose France’s feeble defensive shape.
France implosion last weekend. France opening period brilliance but it was the second half debacle which raises further questions on the coaching and direction of this side. The revelation of communication issues on the pitch from France in that second half (players unaware of their captaincy role) summed it up. The lunacy to throw a wide skip pass in wet conditions is only something that France could look to execute in a tight test match.
I will be blunt. If you want to watch England vs. France on Sunday, may I suggest watching the ladies international before this fixture as I sense England will provide further evidence of progression in defensive and attacking play. England to win with a bonus point try as I have my doubts on France’s mindset for the fixture.
Bastareaud is rumored to be back in the starting lineup. Where yet again is the selection policy from Brunel? France underage structures are reaping rewards but the senior team stinks at present. They will do well to get within seven points here. England by 15 points for me.