Guinness Six Nations: Round 4 Preview

Wales and England should secure wins!

With Ireland and France facing off at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the Saturday fixture schedule sees two intriguing clashes. Wales travel to Murrayfield with momentum aplenty but will the upheaval in the regions stifle certain player’s performances? England name personnel changes for their home trip over Italy. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Scotland banana skin for Wales?

The Welsh side have been picture perfect in the tournament so far. 3/3 and after a superb second half showing against England are on the cusp of a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Guinness Six Nations Championship.

Cue this week and the news has not been on the Welsh Rugby National team. It has focused on Project Reset, it has focused on the merger talks between Ospreys and Scarlets, it has focused on the shambolic events that unfolded on those discussions and the uncertainty that kicked up as a result.

For anyone associated with those two clubs, the distress and anxiety for those players involved, the employees at both clubs who support the team was excruciating to watch and view. To say that this week’s shambolic events have not impacted the Welsh preparations would be disingenuous and wide off the mark.

Wales travel to Murrayfield to face a Scottish side who are smarting from two disappointing test match performances. A tame loss to Ireland Rugby in round two was then compounded with an inaccurate performance over France in Paris. Defensively misreads and botched try scoring opportunities the order of the day.

Gregor Townsend has wielded the axe and made the squad take note as Greig Laidlaw is dropped for the test match. Ali Price comes in with the manager looking for fresh impetus and tempo in attacking play. A big opportunity for Price to impress and right the wrongs against Wales after last season.

Nel in the front row is a progressive move. Nel’s performances before injury with club and county have been excellent and will aid stability to a set piece which has creaked in recent weeks. The back three is altered with Darcy Graham coming in for Sean Maitland.

The opening exchanges look intriguing. Can Scotland disrupt Wales and put pressure on Anscombe at ten? Can Scotland’s back row compete at the breakdown where Josh Navidi to me may have a standout day? Can Scotland’s half back pairing of Price and Russell provide sufficient cohesion in attacking play to upset Wales?

I think for Wales, this is an even more complex fixture to negotiate now than compared to last week. Wales may need to answer a few key questions early but suspect that Wales will also look to expose Kinghorn and Graham in the aerial battle.

Wales to win but this is a banana skin fixture where a nervy ending may ensue for Warren Gatland’s side. Wales by seven points.

England hold the aces against Italy

Italy cannot get a break. It is bad enough to face England at Twickenham without England looking to bounce back after their second half showing against Wales when they were unable to respond to Wales’ superior work rate and well organized discipline in all areas of the park.

Eddie Jones was always going to make personnel changes for this test match regardless of the result at the Principality Stadium and so it has proved. Several players getting cameos to impress; the back three threat looks potent and May could seal the top try scorer accolade potentially come Saturday evening.

The pack has several personnel changes. Lawes is injured so Launchbury comes back into the side. George Kruis is named along the Wasps clubman. Ellis Genge gets game time in the front row along with Kyle Sinckler. Both players like to get involved in the verbals; expect no different on Saturday.

Brad Shields as well comes into the starting lineup to complement the outstanding Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola. This is a strong side led by Youngs and Farrell at half back, they will give Italy absolutely nothing.

Italy for their part have three key changes. Ghiraldini is benched for this test match. Parisse and Negri come into the back row. It looks a daunting challenge despite Conor O’Shea stating that they have prepared to win this test match, lofty words indeed!

The Azzuri have shown good progress this year in this championship but when push has come to shove, opposition have been able to create easy scores when required evident in Jacob Stockdale’s try in Rome two weeks ago; a soul destroyer of a score after working so hard to get points themselves immediately before hand.

Expect Cokanasiga to have a field day with ball in hand. Expect May to have a proverbial field day. Expect Italy to chase shadows for long periods. England are out to issue a statement of defiance and intent. England to win by twenty points plus and look to Wales to slip up to potentially snatch the Championship on the last day next weekend!

Guinness Six Nations Round Three Preview: Wales vs. England

All roads lead to Cardiff this weekend

After a week hiatus, the Guinness Six Nations tournaments roars back into action. Wales and England is the box office test match this weekend; shadow boxing aplenty in the lead up to this fixture so expect explosive opening exchanges. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Gatland places trust in Anscombe

The main talking point from the Welsh selection was who was named at fly-half. A straight shootout between the experience of Dan Biggar or the attacking flair Gareth Anscombe. Gatland has made his decision. The ten jersey goes to Anscombe and shows faith in the Cardiff Blues man to deliver in a hot test match environment.

This is a good decision from Gatland. It runs the rule over Anscombe in a test match fixture where he will be put under immense pressure in defensive, kicking and attacking game management. It will provide further evidence for the Welsh management can they depend on Anscombe to deliver in the RWC 2019 if Dan Biggar is unavailable due to injury. Anscombe is the insurance policy for Wales at ten if Biggar goes down with injury in Japan. Rhys Patchell may have things to say on that statement but for now, the Cardiff Blues player has the control of the ten jersey. He needs to deliver and make a positive impact to retain the jersey long term.

As I have said from the outset of this tournament, I have liked Wales to go extremely close to win this championship. The scheduling of games, their unbeaten form heading into the tournament, the emergence of young talent to challenge the existing marquee names has driven the side further on. Their performance against Italy may have been patchy at times but they provided the likes of Wainwright and Watkin with valuable test match minutes and they impressed.

The pack looks mobile and solid in the set piece. Ken Owens is a reliable line out thrower and with an array of line out options in Hill, Jones, Tipuric and potentially Navidi; they will look to execute well in this set piece early doors. The scrum is also solid and Tomas Francis role is key as he packs down against Ben Moon who is playing superbly this season. Francis needs to pose questions early for Moon and hope to sway the official crew to set the platform. No Mako Vunipola is a blow for England in this contest. An intriguing contest nonetheless.

The back row unit for Wales has mobility, breakdown and ball carrying nous aplenty. Navidi has been a standout for Wales in this tournament. His skill set is superb and his ability to create turnover ball will require England’s back row unit to pay particular attention to the Cardiff Blues player. Ross Moriarty has got the game time required in recent weeks to make an impact in this test match. Justin Tipuric is a world class back row operator and his all round game complements Navidi and Moriarty perfectly.

The back line from Wales is vastly experienced in the three quarters. Davies and Parkes forming a consistently high performing partnership. Davies’ game management at key times will be pivotal. The Welsh back three will be fully aware of what happened to Ireland’s back three in the opening round; they received an artillery aerial bombardment where England targeted Earls, Stockdale and Henshaw. Williams, Adams and North will need to be prepared for this defensive onslaught. Their attacking play has been excellent but the key this weekend is how good they are defensively.

Eddie Jones deflecting the pressure off his players 

You love him. You hate him. Eddie Jones if he was your national team coach, you would love. You would love him if you were a media rat packer or fan as his sound bites always deflect the pressure and criticism away from his players. Jones has placed the pressure this weekend firmly on Wales; he is contend with England’s progress in the tournament so far but you know that he is not really?

The England demolition of France in round two came at a cost. Mako Vunipola who impressed against Ireland and France cameo is unavailable for selection for the rest of the tournament. Ben Moon gets the nod to stake the claim for the prop jersey; it is a good depth chart evaluation for Eddie Jones and management with RWC 2019 fast approaching.

The pack looks formidable even without the services of Mako Vunipola. There are still question marks on the composure of Kyle Sinckler, he just cannot avoid getting involved in incidents that he has no business been involved in. Sinckler will cost his side dear soon, whether it is this weekend for an act of indiscipline remains to be seen but his temperament will be tested by the Welsh pack.

Quality half back pairing in Youngs and Farrell who has elevated his game to new levels for his country this season. His kicking game and attacking calls have been nothing short of sensational. The Tuilagi factor has helped Farrell no end; the Leicester Tigers center has reveled with fast ruck ball. Jonny May try scoring exploits to the fore but it will be interesting to see if Wales can defensively test the Leicester Tigers wing with deft kicking in behind the player. Jack Nowell at full back provides creativity and solidity under the high ball, further proof that Eddie Jones has lost confidence in Mike Brown.

Verdict:

It is the marquee NH rugby test match this weekend. Wales and England have had epic tussles in Cardiff in recent fixtures, this will be no different. The question is whether Wales can cope with the kicking game and pack physicality of the visitors? Can Gareth Anscombe deliver? England have impressed in this tournament but there is something about this Welsh side that impresses me this season. The balance of the side looks solid and if Anscombe and the back three can deliver an assured performance against an England side who will pepper all four players early doors, then no reason why Wales cannot win this. A very close fixture, slight edge for Wales given the attacking options on the bench late.

Guinness Six Nations: Round 1 Preview

Two home wins, one road win predicted

Hawkeye Sidekick has tried to temper his excitement for the start of this tournament all week but tonight resistance has been futile. Hawkeye Sidekick is akin to a child waiting for presents on Christmas Day. Time to call these opening round fixtures.

Welsh consistency to beat unpredictable French 

Wales are my tip for the championship. They will start the tournament with a road trip win in Paris. France are truly coming into this tournament with zero momentum after a miserable November test series, zero selection policy from a head coach who is throwing options at the wall hoping that it sticks.

What happens if Romain Ntamack does not deliver tomorrow night? Does Jacques Brunel persist with the player or shun him? Where does Mathieu Bastareaud come into the equation? Does Mathieu Bastareaud have a future in the national side? The vibes from the French camp leading into this fixture is frenzied panic. Individual talent usurps any cohesive unit here and that is a massive concern. Dupont omission from the squad is a baffler too.

Wales on the other hand have gone for players who are on form and the lineup has a consistent feel to it. A strong twenty-three man squad selected by Warren Gatland. I like the pack setup, their mobility and work rate will cause a beefy French pack no end of issues. The Welsh set piece should run well with Ken Owens calling the line out and with a host of world class jumpers in Jones, Beard to chose from.

The half back partnership is exciting. Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe are having excellent seasons. They are been pushed hard for their places by Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. A great problem for management to have. The back three and three quarters are potent with ball in hand, defensive solid under the aerial ball and have kicking options in Parkes and Davies to steady the ship when required.

The bench impact for me is weighed towards the visitors. France at the breakdown look vulnerable as Navidi and Tipuric will look to isolate Iturria early doors. If Wales can settle and execute efficiently, they should be able to win this test match. France will provide the flash of brilliance but the cohesion issues in the pack and three quarter defensive vulnerabilities due to a net new partnership makes Wales a strong bet for a win here.

Scottish pack to provide platform for victory 

This is an exciting side named by Gregor Townsend. A lengthy injury list has not diluted the quality in the side with Sam Johnson getting his debut in the twelve jersey. The back three looks potent with Hogg, Kinghorn and Seymour primed to impress with ball in hand. Hogg hitting the line should have devastating results for Italy at the weekend.

The half back partnership has vast experience. Finn Russell has had a superb opening to his Racing 92 career. Greig Laidlaw is consistently a high performer and his kicking game and shrewd game management will provide the pack with assured leadership.

The front five has evolved and is progressing well. Nel scrummaging and overall play has been excellent for club and country this season. Gilchrist and Toolis will bring physicality, work rate and set piece execution to proceedings. Hamish Watson’s injury means an opportunity for Jamie
Ritchie to impress and if the player impresses, it provides Townsend with another player to call upon in the depth chart.

Italy come into this tournament looking for much needed momentum. The emergence of Benetton Rugby in Guinness Pro14 and European Challenge Cup pool performances coupled with Zebre Rugby improvements means that Conor O’Shea should have a player base who are playing with confidence and belief in their ability to win matches.

The strengths are in the pack for the Azzuri. Ghiraldini wins his 100th cap, a selfless performer for his country. Sisi and Budd form a potentially promising exciting second row partnership while Sergio Parisse is the focal point of the back row with his ball carries and creativity from the base of the scrum.

The issues for Italy continue to be their cohesion between half backs and back line. The back line and particularly back three need to step up to the party as their defensive performances have fallen short of the standard required in test rugby. Their aerial ability at times is poor and provides opposition with easy pickings. Their attacking threat is a mixed bag and can sometimes squander chances when patience with ball in hand is required.

For me, Scotland hold all the aces here. Despite Italy running Scotland close last season, I sense Scotland have moved on a further level since then. Italy continue to flounder looking for an elusive 6 Nations win. Scotland with a bonus point try win; the key aspect of this game is the three quarter partnership and whether Jones and Johnson defensively and offensively can provide the quality required to suggest Scotland are genuine title challengers.

Ireland disciplined approach the key to victory

This test match could be the story of the full backs selected for the Ireland / England fixture. Daly and Henshaw have question marks over their selection. Daly and his abilities to deal with the aerial game have been called into question in recent weeks. His inclusion instead of Mike Brown has raised eyebrows.

Robbie Henshaw plays in a position where he impressed in as a Connacht Rugby player a couple of seasons ago. Whoever provides their side with assurance in this position could be a key positive and factor in who wins this game.

The England pack is Saracens led. Vunipola’s, George, Itoje and Kruis should provide cohesion in the set piece. The scrum and line out should be on point and look to pose questions on Ireland’s line out in particular. The back row is abrasive but whether they have the breakdown nous to unsettle Ireland is an entirely different question.

The back three options for England ball in hand look potent. Nowell has shown well in recent weeks. May’s pace and creativity unquestioned. Their ability under the high ball will be tested; will the England back three have learned from their encounter with Ireland in Twickenham last March?

Ireland apart from the Henshaw full back selection has little surprising news. The side on paper is along predictable lines. A strong Leinster Rugby contingent in the pack. A potent back row with O’Mahony, Stander and Josh van der Flier looks well balanced and with Sean O’Brien to be summoned from the bench, the pack looks strong.

The three quarter partnership of Aki and Ringrose continues to flourish, one of the reasons why Henshaw is playing in the full back berth. The full back depth chart is stacked for Ireland. Larmour, Addison, Conway and Carbery could fill the void. Henshaw’s versatility is been tested this weekend.

This game comes down to two key points. Discipline and the kicking game. England are vulnerable of getting on the wrong side of officiating crews; offside indiscretions setting the tone early. They need to nip this in the bud. The kicking game will be the key point. Ireland’s ability to box kick and win the kicking game has provided the platform for the side. England need to provide variation in their play but I do not see it in this selection.

Manu Tuilagi at twelve is an asset with ball in hand but at times defensive and discipline issues can surface. It will be fascinating to see how Aki and Ringrose look to expose Tuilagi in open play with ball in hand? A brutally physical test match beckons, slight edge to Ireland given their defined and disciplined style of play but they need to hit the ground running from minute one.

Rugby: Ireland U20 vs. England U20 Preview

Intriguing opening fixture for Ireland

Irish Independent Park (Cork) plays host to Ireland U20’s opening fixture, a daunting fixture on paper against an England U20 side who contested the 2018 U20 World Cup final against France. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the team selections.

What time is kickoff?

The game is on Friday, Feb 1st with a 7:15pm kickoff time. If you cannot get to the fixture, the game is live on RTE 2.

Form Guide:

After a disappointing campaign last season, Ireland head coach Noel McNamara will look for an upturn in fortunes for his charges. It was a challenging season last year for the side who struggled for cohesion.

There was a third place finish in the 6 Nations tournament but the U20 World Cup was a complete disappointment. A win against Japan prevented Ireland from been relegated from the U20 World Cup tournament.

England U20 were competitive last season. They finished second to France in the 6 Nations tournament; a road trip loss to Scotland was a pivotal result in their campaign. Their encounter against France was incredibly abrasive and physical. Players taking out at regular intervals with minimal intervention from match officials. A strong U20 World Cup campaign for England saw a final appearance but this time France avenged their 6 Nations loss with a 33-25 win.

Team News:  Ireland

Ireland’s side has potential to impress. Scott Penny has been a standout for Leinster Rugby senior team this season when given his cameo. The back row player will be ably assisted by John Hodnett (UCC / Munster Rugby) and Martin Moloney (Old Belvedre / Leinster Rugby).

Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Dylan Tierney Martin (Corinthians/Connacht) and Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) need to execute at set piece to provide a platform for an exciting half-back pairing for Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster) and Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster) who will look to launch their captain David Hawkshaw (Clontarf/Leinster) in the three quarters.

The Cork crowd who will attend this fixture will see plenty of county talent in full view. Josh Wycherley (Bandon), John Hodnett (Rosscarbery) and Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) will start and exciting Sean French (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) to make an impact off the bench. The home crowd will be fully behind the side.

Team News:  England

England’s side named is loaded with experience at this age level. The big news from their team selection today is the inclusion of three key players. Marcus Smith starts in the ten jersey, a player who has the full array of skill set to test out this promising Ireland U20 side.

Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors) is well regarded by Eddie Jones so much so that the player got his senior debut against Japan last November. Marcus Street starts his third U20 campaign, vastly experienced and his set piece has been consistently good.

Players to Watch: The Ten Jersey

The battle of the ten’s will be intriguing. Harry Byrne (brother of Ross Byrne) is a player with massive potential and upside. He will require the Ireland pack to set the platform but has an excellent kicking game and his ability to launch his runners at the right time was seen last season.

Marcus Smith is a player who potentially is a dark horse for England RWC 2019 inclusion. His dynamism with ball in hand is to the fore; he will look to engage defenders in order to create gain line breaks for colleagues. The kicking game is good (can be improved upon) but it is his flair with ball in hand which will be highlighted in this fixture.

Verdict: England

Out of the England side who lined out against France in the U20 World Cup final last year, nine players start on Friday night. This experience speaks volumes at this level of competition; the cohesion and understanding between these players gives England the edge in this fixture. Noel McNamara’s charges will do well to get anything out of this encounter. England look too slick, too experienced for an ambitious Ireland side. Cohesion issues to start the tournament but England have the experience and understanding to secure this win with a potential BP at the death.

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Team Expectations

Team expectations vary

The opening weekend of the tournament is fast approaching with a couple of standout fixture. France entertain Wales on Feb 1st and on Saturday, Scotland host Italy before Ireland and England clash in a game which looks like a massive physical contest already. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at each side’s expectations for this tournament.

Ireland: The side to be shot at 

Reigning tournament kingpins. The side who toppled New Zealand last November. The side are on the pedestal and will be shot at during this tournament. E

The expectations will be to retain the championship but it is a tough ask with progressively improving England, Scotland and Wales on the schedule. No grand slam this year.

If the championship is off the table, perhaps it would be wise to get more game time for squad members who are vying for those final spots for RWC 2019; solidify squad selection ahead of Japan later in the year.

The scrum half options are looking stretched with Marmion, McGrath out of the selection plans for now. Blade comes into the squad as third choice and it is an superb opportunity for John Cooney to secure valuable ground on Marmion and McGrath in the battle for the backup scrum half berth.

Wales: Serious championship contender

The final goodbye for Warren Gatland and this tournament. An end of an era for Wales this season as Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones take over the national team reins after RWC 2019.

I sense that this will be a superb championship campaign for Wales. A couple of injuries but the squad has the right blend of youth and experience. The pack looks formidable with Owens, Lee, Jones, Tipuric in fine form at present.

The half back options look really good with an explosive back line containing Jonathan Davies in the three quarters to game manage and then you see Jake Ball coming back from injury against Leinster Rugby last night, squad depth will be boosted by the end of the tournament.

They would be my pick for the tournament. No grand slam but they have Ireland at home which could be a winner take all fixture finale. Gatland may get his hands on the 6 Nations in his season finale with Wales.

England: Eddie Jones Show  

England have the talent pool to be a viable contender for the championship but discipline issues still are a question mark for me. The back three will need to improve their aerial ability; it will be tested next weekend in Dublin.

The plus point is the pack setup. Their set piece should be extremely strong with Maro Itoje playing superbly well for Saracens this season. The pack contains the Vunipola brothers who will provide platform ball for the half backs. The fitness of Owen Farrell is a concern heading into the tourney.

Eddie Jones will look to unsettle opposition teams and officials with pregame comments; there will be some good sound bites too but the pressure is on Jones ahead of the RWC 2019. Another mediocre tournament showing here and his position could be under serious threat before departing for Japan.

Scotland: Squad progression key 

The injury list is big and Gregor Townsend has been forced to shuffle the squad personnel for this tournament. I think it is a blessing for Scotland; make decisions on the RWC 2019 squad and further confirm the depth charts across the side.

What to expect from Scotland? High tempo attacking offload game. The players are well suited to the game plan and they will look to expose defensive lapses from anywhere on the field with Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn in the ranks.

The issue is potentially the pack. The set piece at times could be under considerable pressure from the likes of England, France and Ireland. How will Scotland improve their maul defense? It was exposed last season in this tournament. A strong showing against Italy next weekend is a must.

France: Destination Unknown 

Serious limbo. Serious anarchy in the French national side. Brunel is throwing the dice with this squad selection with Ntamack leading the squad selection sheet as a marquee player even though he is yet to be capped.

We are fully aware of France’s player pool, talent and ability to play off the cuff but the squad and team have suffered so much in cohesion issues in recent years. Players come in, players go out. No continuity and the team has suffered.

What am I expecting? Strong set piece execution with a mixed bag in open play. The half back pairing is up in the air. Who does Brunel go for? Less than twelve months from a RWC and there are still massive questions on the first team selection let alone the squad.

Wales at home on Friday night is the most important game for France in over four decades; a loss here and this spirals out of an uncontrollable tailspin. A nation will look on with interest, fear and intrigue all in equal measure!

Italy: Improvement the key 

Italy will not win this tournament. Italy probably won’t finish in the top three but for Conor O’Shea, there needs to be viable signs of improvement and optimism going into the RWC 2019.

The Benetton Rugby’s resurgence this season should provide momentum for the national side but the international test match arena is a different animal and their defensive organization was cut to ribbons in November. Abrasive pack phases but precious little in attacking play in the back line.

Scotland on the road to start the tournament. A key fixture to see how Italy fare; they will be buoyed by their performance last season when the two sides met but lack of composure and game management to close out the fixture was punished by Scotland’s late push.

Improvement is the key here, otherwise Italy enter into the run in for the RWC 2019 with minimal confidence and optimism. Let’s hope for the tournament organizers that they can win a game here; otherwise the Georgia debate will surface yet again!

Predictions:

  1. Wales
  2. Ireland
  3. England
  4. Scotland
  5. France
  6. Italy

November Rugby Union Internationals: Squad Announcements

With less than twelve months to go to the RWC 2019 tournament in Japan, the squad announcements for the November internationals in recent weeks have being more scrutinized than an usual squad announcement. For some players, it is an opportunity to stake a late claim for RWC 2019 squad inclusion.

For others, misdemeanors and lack of form have usurped an international recall meaning squad inclusion is bleak for the World Cup next year. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads announced in recent days. 

England: Squad Selection Debate

England squad selection interesting reading

The England Rugby Union squad selection is always keenly observed and this announcement did not disappoint. Eight uncapped players join the camp and there were some surprising omissions. 

The new players coming into the squad for next month’s are Joe Cokanasiga (Bath Rugby), Nathan Earle (Harlequins), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby), Ben Moon (Exeter Chiefs), Michael Rhodes (Saracens), Nick Schonert (Worcester Warriors) and Elliott Stooke (Bath Rugby). 

The omissions though are the main talking points. Danny Ciprani on the field has had a superb start to the season with Gloucester Rugby; his play making and game management have being on point but did the early season arrest scupper his squad selection? Don Armand is also excluded, the player is so consistent for Exeter Chiefs and his abrasive style of play I thought would have being invaluable for England for next month’s test against New Zealand in particular. 

There are several withdrawals in the form of  Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Dan Robson (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby) so it is a genuine opportunity for the uncapped players announced today to take their opportunity with both hands but it is going to be tough with New Zealand and a re-energized South Africa coming up. 

New Zealand: Focus on RWC 2019

Steve Hansen looking to RWC 2019 with extended squad selection

New Zealand have named a very strong 32-man main squad. Dane Coles, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick and Liam Squire all return.

Dalton Papalii is a new face to the All Blacks side and Matt Todd is a surprise selection given that the players is playing his rugby in Japan and the policy to only name players plying their trade in New Zealand. 

An additional nineteen players have being called up to train and prepare for the Japanese test match. Tyrel Lomax, Reuben O’Neill, Gareth Evans, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, George Bridge and Matt Proctor are all uncapped players; a chance to impress Hansen and coaching staff. 

A potent squad brought to the NH, there is no complacency in this player group. The focus and eyes are set on RWC 2019 on this selection. Anyone out of this squad selection can probably kiss their World Cup hopes goodbye apart from anyone injured (Sam Cane a classic example). 

Australia: Backs Against Wall Selection

Surprise midfield inclusion for beleaguered Australians

It has being a tough tough couple of months for Michael Chieka, backroom staff and Australian Rugby Union playing squad. Apart from a spirited second half fightback on the road to Argentina last time out, there has being precious little to cheer about. 

Changes were required, a chance to run the rule over new players and see if they are up to test match standard. Step forward 
Jed Holloway, Jake Gordon and Angus Cottrell to impress and they are joined by Samu Kerevi (center) and Jack Dempsey (back row) who return after a stint on the sidelines injured. Kerevi’s ball carrying ability in the three quarters has being keenly missed. 

The squad selection right now is the third Bledisoe Cup fixture in Japan but the nucleus of this squad will feature in the NH next month. 

Wales: Solid squad selection 

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad for the November test match series. Holmes (winger) and Morgan (winger) come into the squad; both have had excellent starts to the season. 

The squad selection is teak tough with few surprises thereafter. Faletau and Scott Williams will be missed but there is substantial back row cover and the three quarters is boosted by the return of Jonathan Davies. 

Wales look formidable and test matches against Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and Australia (yet again). Patchell is following return to play protocols. A solid squad selection and one that should look to run the tables against their SH opposition. 

Scotland: Notable Inclusions Key

Scotland squad selection looks exciting

Three uncapped players join Scotland’s squad. Blade Thomson, Sam Johnson and Sam Skinner have being standouts this season and are noteworthy inclusions for Scotland. 

Alex Dunbar, Jonny Gray, Huw Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson all return to the squad as well to boost quality in the ranks. 

The interesting development will be on the club vs. country row with Thomson and Johnson having to request approval to play against Wales because it falls outside the test match rugby calendar. You may not hear the end of this before this fixture is over. 

France: In Bamba we trust 

Brunel calls up Bamba, drops Slimani 

November test match series has to be the catalyst for an upturn in results and performances from France. Key note inclusions are Demba Bamba (twenty year old prop) and Louis Picamoles who returns after being dropped after the Scotland game (disciplinary issue). Julien Marchand also comes into the side as well. 

Long term injuries Dupont (scrum-half) and Lopez (fly-half) make welcome returns to the squad. France are scheduled to play South Africa, Australia and Fiji in November. It will be interesting to see if there is any genuine improvement to the side. 

Argentina: Homegrown Talent Selection

A provincial 38 player squad was selected by Mario Ledesma who focus on homegrown talent is evident in that only Herrera (Stade Francais) and Figallo (Saracens) are the only players plying their trade away from Argentina. The majority of the squad are playing for Super Rugby side Jaguares. 

What to expect from Argentina? Aviva Stadium faithful will be pleasantly surprised by the game plan of Argentina next month. It is far more expansive with back line flair coming to the fore. Ireland have a tricky squad selection to decide on this fixture. 

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group G

Group G sees England and Belgiium pitted against Tunisia and Panama. Can a youthful England side with little pressure deliver good performances in this group? Can Belgium’s golden generation produce the results and progression that the squad depth in their ranks deserves? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the group setup.

Belgium: Potential Fulfilled?

This is an ideal group for Belgium to settle into this tournament, looking to rid the ring rust and gain confidence heading into the second round of the competition. The squad depth is stacked with talent. The spine of the team looks strong with Courtois, Kompany, Vertonghen, Dembele, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku to name but a few and a squad depth whose performance levels are high.

The question for me about Belgium is how versatile and adaptable the team is given the game time circumstance. Recent tournaments have seen Belgium resort to Plan A with little deviation from that plan. Given their manager Roberto Martinez was critiqued for the same failing in club football, it will be interesting to see if Belgium can adapt as in the knock out rounds, they will be asked to change their game plan. If they can, then this is a serious contender.

Their final group game against England will determine who tops the group. Given their experience and caliber in the ranks, Belgium should qualify with ease to the second round and win the group but as mentioned the ability to change tact during the knockout rounds to achieve a result is their real test.

England

The hype about England has reduced considerably for this tournament. The side is a work in progress with question marks on defense and goalkeeping key. The goalkeeping position is up for grabs. Pickford, Butland or Pope have precious little experience at this level, not sure who will be lining up in goal for the Tunisian game? Enough said and the fact that Pickford and Butland have a mistake in them does not inspire sufficient confidence either.

The defensive side of the game has the potential to be on point. Walker, Rose and Trippier on the full back flanks will provide midfield sufficient width and their ability to defend is on point. The key question is the central defensive position and who fills the position? Will England go three at the back? Cahill or Stones need to be dominant, huge ask given their lack of first team action with their clubs this season. Question marks defensively for me.

The midfield and attacking options look exciting. Kane will score goals provided that the service from out wide is on point. Can Dele Ali start this tournament with energy and positive attacking mindset? His partnership with Kane looks key to England’s success from an attacking sense.

England should be more than capable to advance from this group but I think lapses defensively and goalkeeping are not far away. England to advance as runners up in the group with a couple of scares. For England to be a dark horse, Sterling has to deliver. Time will tell.

Tunisia

Their opening fixture against England is their proverbial cup final. They need to get something from this tie to realistically have a chance of qualifying for the second round. Tunisian’s squad looks solid and compact with the majority of players plying their trade in France, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and in Tunisia.

Massive onus in this side will fall to Leicester City’s Yohan Benalouane who will need to marshal his team mates around him from central defensive to ensure that the side is compact, hard to breakdown and organized because the attacking options while pacy have no proven goal scoring threat in this level of competition. Khazri is the focal point in attack; needs good service but given possession issues against England and Belgium, it could be a forlorn experience.

What is the hope for Tunisia? The hope and expectation is to be competitive and look to be in these group games come the final twenty minutes and look to score on the counter-attack or set-piece. The lack of goal threat is an impediment, the goal ratio in the squad is low. Tunisia to offer plenty but an opening round exit looks on the cards provided they can turn the tables on England tomorrow!

Panama

The fairy tale of making the World Cup for Panama is here. It is now time to deliver and produce good performances. The squad is comprised of players plying their trade in MLS and Central America. This is a significant improvement in opposition and I fear for Panama in all facets of play.

Their opening fixture against Belgium could be a potential nightmare unless Panama are defensively solid. Belgium have the ability to carve this side open at various stages; it is up to Panama to be compact and perhaps park the bus for the opening period and then look to probe Belgium thereafter with Perez and Tejada the key attacking threat.

Tournaments like this at times have glorious fairy tale stories but for Panama, the fairy tale ends here. Penedo and Baloy will have to produce heroics defensively for Panama to have any chance of securing a result in this group. Panama look vulnerable and an opening round exit is on the cards.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Five Preview

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament concludes tomorrow with all eyes on Twickenham where England will look to do what Ireland did to them last year and deny Joe Schmidt’s men of the Grand Slam and Triple Crowns titles to complement the championship accolade already won last weekend. Scotland and Wales will look to end their campaigns with victories over a hapless Italy and progressively improving France respectively.

Solid England Selection

Eddie Jones has wielded the axe for the last game of the tournament. A huge compliment to the Ireland half back pairing is the decision of Jones to pair Saracens team colleagues Wigglesworth and Farrell together in opposition. Wigglesworth is a solid operator at nine; game management, good kicking game and will look to release quick ruck ball for Owen Farrell who is now playing in his prime test match position. Jones is frightened of the threat posed by Murray and Sexton; this half back selection speaks volumes.

Owen Farrell now from the ten channel can dictate play on his terms. His kicking game is on point and his decision making to pass the ball so close to the gain line allows his colleagues a perfect platform to create line breaks. Joseph’s inclusion at thirteen a direct result of Farrell moving to ten. Joseph’s power and pace with ball in hand could seriously test Ireland defensively.

Ben Te’o retains his place at twelve and will provide the abrasive ball carrying aspect to this England three quarters partnership. It will be interesting to see if England’s support running is improved from last weekend; only five offloads last weekend and for England to seriously rumble Ireland, they will need to create tempo in their running play with good support line running throughout.

The pack was always going to have personnel changes given the injuries to Hughes and Lawes. The back row will have a wealth of experience as Haskell and Robshaw will look to create breakdown dominance. Simmonds come into the pack at eight; will be interesting to see if Simmonds can produce quick go forward ball at the back of the scrum. Questions on back row balance here? Time will tell.

Eddie Jones has recalled Dylan Hartley and Kyle Sinckler to the front row. Dan Coles and Jamie George are omitted. The two starting players have massive potential and skill set but question marks on their discipline at times will be tested tomorrow. Ireland may look to target both in the pack exchanges.

On paper, England have named a side which looks to be their best of the tournament. With an explosive back three as well as Daly for long range penalty kicks, England will look to establish supremacy early and force Ireland chase the game resulting in more opportunities for England to exploit down the stretch.

Ireland’s team selection went along familiar lines. Devin Toner for Iain Henderson is a coaching selection call. Toner has not put a foot wrong in this tournament since coming in against Wales in round three. Henderson provides incredible work rate and energy which will be required to stifle the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the England second row. Toner coming off the bench to call the set piece in the second half could be huge.

The structured game plan that Ireland have employed in this tournament has reaped the benefits; four wins, three of which securing the try bonus point which has allowed Ireland to claim the championship with a game to spare. Ireland’s pack will face their stiffest examination so far in this tournament; imperative a solid platform is created in the opening quarter.

The set piece will be tested by England who despite their struggles on the road have produced good front five performances particularly in the set piece. France struggled at times last weekend in the scrum and line out so Rory Best and his pack will need to play the percentages in the opening exchanges, not to let the home crowd get too involved early doors.

Garner’s officiating at the breakdown will be intriguing to watch in the early exchanges. How do Ireland and England adjust to his officiating style? Garner attempts to provide teams the opportunity to become expansive. Garner is at times resolute in penalizing teams attempting to kill the ball so both teams will need to adapt this facet of play.

I expect a strong England challenge tomorrow. There will be a backlash. Several England players looking to impress Jones and management; stake a claim for summer tour starting berths. 50/50 call. Ireland will need to cope with adversity at different points of this test match. The defensive structure will need to improve further in comparison to last week’s performance.

Hoping for an Ireland win but given the superiority and dominance that England enjoy in Twickenham and the fact that Ireland have not won at the venue for eight years, I am slightly leaning towards an England win. The losses to Scotland and France have awoken England and tomorrow, we will see the response.

Scotland stroll in Rome

I will not dwell too much on this test match. Italy’s work rate cannot be faulted but there are fundamental flaws in their game plan. A half back pairing whose game management is a mixed bag. No distinct kicking game from nine allowing opposition to gobble up Italian attacking threats with ease. The back line defensive shape at times has being very poor; soft tries conceded at a rate of knots and worryingly the pack has being second best in recent games.

If the weather allows, Scotland could put a big score up with their expansive play. Scotland will be keen to bounce back from the loss to Ireland last week. A twenty point loss was harsh considering the opportunities that Scotland created in that test match. Huw Jones’ pass to Stuart Hogg if it had gone to hand was a try. Peter Horne’s intercept try. A couple of second half breaks resulting in poor passing at the critical time.

Scotland’s pack will look to impose their authority on proceedings. Nel returns to the front row and will provide set piece stability. The Scotland back row will look to stifle Sergio Parisse and allow quick ruck ball to be presented to Laidlaw and Russell to cause damage in the back line featuring Seymour and Grigg; two superb ball carriers and with the ability to create line breaks at will here.

With Richie Gray back in the test match starting lineup, this has all the hallmarks of being an arduous afternoon for the Azzuri in front of their home crowd. Italy have not progressed in this tournament, the elusive tournament win seems as remote as ever (now entering into a full third season). The hope is that the U20 players and improving Pro 14 club success can be the springboard for future national team success.

Scotland to win at a canter,expect plenty of tries and phases of sheer brilliance from Scotland who will relish the track conditions on offer. Scotland to win by twenty points, bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. For Italy and Conor O’Shea, time to reflect and see where improvements in player recruitment can be made.

Wales and France conclude the tourney

Warren Gatland has recalled the big guns to face a French side who after two consecutive wins in this tournament must travel to Cardiff in relatively high spirits. Captain Alun Wyn Jones returns to the pack along with flanker Josh Navidi, prop Rob Evans and hooker Ken Owens, while Aaron Shingler is on the bench. Dan Biggar is back at fly-half, and full-back Leigh Halfpenny and centre Scott Williams are also included.

France have being forced to make a couple of personnel changes. Guilhem Guirado is injured so his place at hooker is taken by Adrien Pelissie. Cedate Gomes Sa starts at tight-head prop in place of Rabah Slimani. Gael Fickou comes in on the wing with Benjamin Fall moving to full-back in place of Hugo Bonneval. Bastareaud captains the side.

Guirado for me is a big loss to this French side, his skill set and work rate set the tone for others to follow. Fickou is a thirteen playing on the wing, interesting to see how North and Liam Williams look to expose Fickou in the wide exchanges.

Wales are aiming to finish second in the tournament; considering the injuries that they have being dealt during this tourney, it is a good outcome. Squad depth is definitely improved in the Welsh setup with plenty of fringe players before this tournament now firmly in Gatland’s plans going forward.

The Welsh back line is exciting and I think given the personnel changes for France in this area, edge goes with the hosts. Parkes will look to negate Basteraud’s influence while Scott Williams potentially could produce a man of the match performance with his dynamic ball carrying and line breaks.

Wales to edge this one by seven points. France to show additional positives in this showing but the changes to the side ultimately could expose their squad depth down the stretch. Camara aside, question marks on the breakdown battle for France where Navidi’s breakdown work could be decisive.

England Team Profile

What a difference two games can make? Prior to travelling to Murrayfield, England were most neutrals tip to win this tournament. After a humbling loss to Scotland and a narrow defeat to France on the road, pressure is building on this England team and on head coach Eddie Jones. Can England scupper Ireland’s Grand Slam, Triple Crown ambitions? Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on this current England side.

Fortress Twickenham

Ireland enter this fixture with confidence aplenty. Four wins from four in the tournament so far but the toughest road trip fixture looms large. Since the RWC 2015 debacle, England have made Twickenham once more a fortress, formidable venue for all foes and one that Ireland have not had the best of memories in recent visits.

Ireland’s last win at Twickenham came in 2010 with a 18-10 win. It is a poor record for Ireland to arrest even against a England side who are struggling for form and cohesion.

England Front Five Pack Platform

England’s recent losses in this tournament have being surprising but the front five have played to a high level. England pride themselves on the set piece and the statistics from last weekend’s loss to France saw excellent numbers.

England won both their scrums and disrupted France’s scrum (4/6). The line out functioned well with a 92% success and disrupted the French line out (54% success). The front five played well as an unit. George had an excellent contest and it will be interesting to see if the Saracens hooker retains his starting berth. Jones may be keen to bring Hartley back into the fold (why?).

Maro Itoje is a phenom; set piece execution coupled with his mobility, pace and work rate means that the Saracens second row will pose the single biggest threat to Ireland in this tournament. A front five unit who will test Ireland in all facets of play.

Back Row Woes

There is a question mark on the England back row selection for the Ireland test match. Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will not feature due to injuries sustained against France.

No Billy Vunipola has being a massive loss to England in this tournament. The Saracens number eight provides the platform for the side to flourish. His ball carrying is incredible.

Given the injuries sustained by England in this unit, Chris Robshaw looks set to feature. An indifferent tournament so far, Robshaw provides experience but has being isolated in breakdown work as well as being penalized for offside infringements.

Simmonds and Haskell look set to feature for England; both will look to improve the breakdown facet of play. Simmonds’ mobility with ball in hand was seen to good effect against Italy with a brace of tries. The issue is whether the new back row unit has the balance required to offset at times rampant Ireland back row unit; question marks exist in the breakdown work.

England Game Plan?

After four rounds of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament, the England game plan has yet to take shape. The expansive side of play was seen against Italy and there were flashes against Wales. Progression so it seemed.

However, the last couple of test matches have seen England look quite one dimensional in their ball carrying with minimal offloading. Only five offloads from England against France last weekend; raising questions about ball carrying player offload options or is it a confidence issue within the ranks?

The Ben Te’o selection pointed to an abrasive ball carrying game plan and so it proved against France. I thought England would look to change things up and offload in the tackle more last weekend but it never materialized.

May and Watson received precious little quality ball to impress along with Daly. The game plan was conservative in nature. Penalties were slotted over from long range; no ambition to hit the touchline deep into France territory and test the hosts defensively on their own line until the death.

England right now have no game plan identity. The entertainment factor is in short supply. Will they unveil a more creative, expansive game plan against Ireland? Time will tell.

 

Penalty Count

The penalty count has being an issue in this tournament for England. Offside infringements the order of day against France particularly in the opening period when France were struggling to create a platform.

Fifteen penalties conceded by England. A yellow card issued to Anthony Watson whose high tackle prevented a near certain try. The penalty count is something that Ireland will look to expose; execute multiple phases of play and see if England come out of their defensive line too quickly.

Full Back Issue?

Mike Brown was the defacto England full back up until the Scotland test match in round three. Brown is an excellent test match full back. Defensively solid, good organizer and pace hitting the line.

It was a difficult game for Brown as England were defensively opened up against Scotland. Brown was the fall guy for the system failures.Anthony Watson was summoned to fill the role against France but it was an indifferent performance. Watson’s desperate high tackle on Fall saw a yellow card and a penalty try. It summed up his performance perfectly. Inaccurate.

England surely need to revisit the full back slot again. Will they decide to recall Brown or will they move Daly to the position? Intriguing management decision on a key position for England. Watson is a serious threat on the wing but the full back experiment failed in Paris.

Conclusion

In recent weeks, I have mentioned that this crisis for England is a blessing in-disguise ahead of 2019 RWC. Team issues have surfaced and England management have an opportunity to analyze and address these issues, improve and progress ahead of the tournament.

England is stacked with serious talent. Farrell, Ford and Care have the potential to create excellent line breaks if given the opportunity. Excellent kicking game when you add Daly’s big boot on long range penalties. All to play for. Ireland face their Mount Everest in the tournament this weekend, only a perfect performance from Joe Schmidt’s men will suffice to get over the line on Saturday given the expected England response!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Four Preview

A weekend with the potential to produce massive excitement and talking points. A confident Scottish side travel to Dublin to face an Ireland side who will look to retain their unbeaten run in the competition.

England lock horns against arch rival France, an opportunity to bounce back from their loss at Murrayfield in round three. Wales with a much changed lineup face an Italian side looking for momentum and confidence.

Aviva Showdown

The weather forecast looks bleak in Dublin tomorrow; periods of rain with a significant breeze could reduce the expansive nature of this contest. Ireland’s team selection sees two starting lineup personnel changes from the side which defeated Wales in round three.

Tadhg Furlong returns to the front row in place of Andrew Porter who did not put a foot wrong against Wales. Devin Toner retains his second row berth as Iain Henderson must be contend with a place on the bench. Gary Ringrose as expected slots into the thirteen channel for the injured Chris Farrell.

Scotland have kept faith by and large with the squad which produced an excellent win against England in the previous round. Blair Kinghorn comes in on the wing to replace Tommy Seymour. Gregor Townsend has resisted the urge to recall Richie Gray and John Hardie to the match day squad.

For Ireland to win this test match, the front five must provide the platform early in the contest. Expect Ireland’s front five to test their Scottish counterparts in the set piece, look to create maul situations. Conor Murray’s kicking game will be keenly noted. Scotland will look to give Murray no time to setup his box kicks but Murray should get the pack coverage to execute this facet of play to test Kinghorn aerially.

In stark contrast, Scotland will look to play a less structured game. They will look to create quick ruck ball and John Barclay will play a pivotal role in this aspect of play. Laidlaw and Russell if provided with quick ball will fancy their chances of creating game winning line breaks considering the form of Jones, Horne, Hogg and Maitland out wide

This contest given the forecast may see the officiating play a significant part in the outcome. Waynes Barnes and Ireland have in recent times not being on the same page. Ireland will need to adapt early to  Barnes’ officiating of the breakdown as well as scrum time.

50/50 contest. Slight edge to Ireland given the weather promised; feel the side with a more structured game plan could triumph. Scotland will look at the Italian and Welsh second half performances against Ireland for hope and optimism. Ireland have not produced an all round defensive performance for eighty minutes so far in this tourney. Expect an exciting contest despite the weather!

France lock horns with England

The loss to Scotland could be a blessing in-disguise for this England outfit. All facets of play were not at the level required to win at Murrayfield. Eddie Jones has responded by making a couple of personnel changes. Hartley (injured) is replaced by George. Brown is dropped which means a full back role assignment for Watson. Ben Te’o takes Jonathan Joseph’s place at outside centre. Eliott Daly comes in on the wing to provide attacking threat and balance to the unit.

France come into this contest with a much required test match in round three under their belt. Even though the opposition was Italy, France needed a win to come from somewhere to build squad morale and team momentum. Brunel has not tweaked his starting lineup significantly for this encounter. The only change sees Trinh-Duc come in for enigmatic Beauxis at fly-half.

What should we expect from this fixture? England surely will start this contest with gusto and tempo. The inclusion of George provides excellent upside to Hartley who has struggled at times in this tournament. England’s scrum performance will be duly noted; a set piece which England prides themselves on was put under pressure by both Wales and Scotland. Improvement is required.

Can England’s back row clear out work at ruck time allow Care, Ford and Farrell to launch their runners? Te’o will relish any quick ruck ball down the thirteen channel. His duel with Bastareaud will be keenly watched; utter physicality on show.

Can England’s rejigged back line unit provide defensive stability whilst presenting France with a menacing attacking threat. Daly on the wing is a key component to this test match. His kicking game, coupled with his ability to create gain line breaks will be fascinating to watch.

France have competed well for long periods in this tournament. The pack personally has their standout unit so far. Their conditioning on point and have provided opposition so far with plenty of questions to answer. The set piece has being good, back row abrasive in breakdown and ball carrying.

However, the rest of the units within the side have a question mark over it. The half-back partnership has fluctuated from week to week. Trinh-Duc gets the nod at ten to partner Machenaud.

Can Trinh-Duc keep England off balance with a varied game plan? Can the Toulon fly-half produce a flawless kicking game to establish territorial gains and also improvise with drubber kicks if England’s defensive line positioning is off. I have my doubts.

The threats out wide have diminished with the omission of Teddy Thomas. He was France’s go to attacking threat in the first two rounds of this tournament.

I am not sure France have enough in the back line selection to seriously threaten apart from Bastareaud who will look to use his physicality to create line breaks. Will his colleagues be alert to provide sharp, incisive supporting running lines for the thirteen? I have my doubts again.

England for me are poised to produce a performance which will nullify France’s pack after fifty minutes and expose France defensively out wide late on. I would not be surprised if England secured a bonus point try win here given the concerns in the French back line unit.

Wales change their lineup up

Ten changes from Warren Gatland for the visit of Italy to the Principality Stadium. The side is not diminished much as Faletau and North are included to the starting lineup along with Bradley Davies and Justin Tipuric. The squad depth for Wales still looks strong when you see the subs bench. Eliot Dee gets the nod at hooker; a player with massive international test match potential.

Centre Giulio Bisegni replaces Tommaso Boni in Italy’s only change from their 34-17 defeat in France. The continuity in team selection is to be applauded by Conor O’Shea but the half-back performance against France was bereft of quality. No kicking game from nine exposed Italy, their play was incredibly one dimensional, living off scraps throughout.

What to expect from Wales? Given the experience coming into the side, Wales will look to create quick tempo from the first minute. Liam Williams assumes his best position at full back and his line breaks could devastate Italy defensively whose back line defensive work has at times left plenty to be desired.

Italy will work hard but the onus is back on the front eight to establish a platform, try to win the breakdown battle which will be no easy task. I am looking for points to be optimistic for Italy but having very little given their first three tournament outings. Not enough creatively out wide. Not enough game management and leadership in the half backs. A long day afternoon beckons for Conor O’Shea’s charges.

Wales to win with plenty to spare; would be disappointed for Wales if they do not secure a bonus point try win from this test match. Italy will look to upset the odds but George North potentially could have the proverbial field day if given adequate ball which looks a dead cert consider Faletau and Tipuric in the back row.