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: Italy vs. Ireland Reflections

Bonus Point win secured but questions raised for Ireland

At the start of the day, the objective was clear for Ireland. A bonus point try win was the minimum requirement on a perfect February afternoon in Rome. The mission was accomplished but not before a nervy examination from an Italian side who were abrasive and impressive with ball in hand when given the opportunity. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Now is not the time to panic

The mass hysteria from the Irish Twitter feeds during this game was surreal. You thought that Ireland had lost this test match quite heavily such was the commentary on the performance. The players and management will be the first to acknowledge that elements of the performance were patchy but after going in at half time 16-12 down, they won the second half 0-14.

It feels like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Ireland had trounced Italy today, it still would not be good enough for some. A second successive win and Ireland are within striking distance of both Wales and England. After the England loss, this is as good as it can be for Ireland at this juncture of the tournament.

It is time for the Irish sporting public to take a deep breathe, relax and give the management and players the time, the support, the space to regroup to address the issues exposed today and move on with confidence for the French fixture in two weeks time.

The Good

We have to start with the good news. The Ireland attacking threat of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls lit up this contest from an Ireland perspective. Both players when give sufficient ball impressed. Stockdale for me was our biggest threat of the afternoon and anytime he got the ball, gain line yards were made with ease. Keith Earls nous and ability to create something from nothing was seen to full effect in that second half; sublime line breaks and then his try was about pure opportunism.

The ability to dust themselves down at half-time when down 16-12 was admirable given the circumstances. The team were caught rotten on the
Morisi try, looking to play expansive and a breakdown in the move led to the kick downfield. This was an afternoon where nothing seemed to stick for Ireland; the more harder they tried, the more unforced errors came. It was a frustrating afternoon but to come away with a bonus point try win given the scenario at half-time was pleasing.

Italy”s attacking play was negated somewhat in that second half. Tebaldi’s influence on proceedings waned on fifty minutes and Ireland took control of the aerial battle. Tebaldi had a good afternoon up until that point as he played off the cuff, something that I have not seen him do. Italy were expressive with ball in hand, this is what they should be looking to do from now on.

Unforced errors capped off the Irish performance but at least Ireland were creating genuine try scoring opportunities. Earls and Stockdale line breaks in the second half on another day could have seen tries scored.

Aki injury affected rhythm and tempo

The opening quarter was decent from Ireland. Yes, there were a couple of early knock on incidents but Ireland with Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell looked dangerous when given quick ruck ball to work with. The two players were central to the Quinn Roux try.

Whether it was related to the withdrawal of Bundee Aki but Ireland’s threat in the three quarters for the second quarter was minimal and contained. Italy’s defensive line speed easily preempting Ireland’s attacking moves as Ireland ball carriers more often than not received the ball in a static position. Ireland were not probing the outside channels nor where they creating territorial platform with any type of kick game from open play.

Frustrating day for the Ireland half backs

Sexton at ten set the tone with his usual playing on the gain line but the tempo and cohesion around him was not there this afternoon. As a result, Sexton was more often than not getting a late Italian hit such was the delay in ball carriers getting into the position that Sexton required of them. It was a frustrating afternoon.

Murray will have mixed feelings on the afternoon. Ireland’s presentation of ball at ruck time has been poor so far in this tournament and it continued today. The new pack personnel perhaps not cohesive enough but Murray needed to get a stray Ireland forward leg out of the way more often than not to get the ball away; precious few seconds wasted and allowed Italy to defensively setup.

The scrum-half did score the crucial bonus point try for Ireland; crashing over when Ireland’s maul delivered. Murray will wonder on some of the protection issues that were clearly apparent today. The sight of an Italian forward coming in straight through the gate unchecked ripping the ball from Murray will not be an image or sequence that the Irish players or management will want to see.

Breakdown Imbalance

The breakdown area saw O’Mahony have several marquee moments but Italy had their own moments in that second and third quarter. The breakdown nous of a Leavy or van der Flier was missed. O’Brien tried hard without success. Murphy was ineffectual. Leavy, van der Flier will have duly noted the back row imbalance today.

Squad players get chance with mixed results

The key element from this test match from my perspective was how the squad players who were given sufficient game time to impress today fared. It is fair to say that it was a very mixed bag with some perhaps missing their big opportunity to secure a place for the Ireland RWC 2019 squad.

Dave Kilcoyne put in a combative, abrasive performance in the front row. His scrummaging winning Ireland early attacking platform. His ball carrying and tackling were on point; it was a satisfactory performance from the UL Bohs player and should see more action before the end of the tournament.

Sean Cronin started his first Six Nations test match today and it was a trying day on a number of fronts. The line out malfunctioned; the misfires were not all down to the hooker but there were a couple of overthrows in that second quarter which coughed up easy field position. Cronin was also caught offside in his eagerness to get off the line.

The fact that Cronin was whipped off after forty-seven minutes was a statement that Cronin was the fall guy for the set piece issues; harsh. Niall Scannell came on; the line out was still inconsistent and a high tackle yielded an Italian penalty. Rory Best and Rob Herring will have watched the proceedings with interest. Best will come back in for the France game. Herring may be given game time given the difficulties at hooker today. Hooker depth chart and the backup slot is up for grabs.

Dillane and Roux had mixed afternoons. Roux started the game well and his try was well executed; his drive to the line emphatic. The line out that went so well against Scotland was exposed at regular intervals today as Dean Budd in particular proving an absolute hindrance for Ireland to execute the line out with any confidence of efficiency. Dillane was all action; had key moments in his tackling and ball carries but there were also some unforced errors (not the only one to commit this). Dillane continued to pick himself up and it showed his spirit and resiliency to keep going until the end.

James Ryan is guaranteed to start against France and whether Iain Henderson features looks to be an intriguing question right now. Henderson was all action in his cameo appearance and whether Quinn Roux will be given another opportunity will rest on who was at fault for the line out misfires during video analysis this week at Carton House.

Jordi Murphy and the number eight experiment will surely be consigned to the filing cabinet where Robbie Henshaw and the full back experiment was consigned a couple of weeks ago. Minimal impact with ball in hand, no significant go forward ball for Ireland to capitalize on as Murray continued to use other runners at regular intervals. Jordi Murphy has flexibility to fill the other back row positions but the eight channel option is questionable after today. Jordi Murphy missed a big chance today to impress.

Andrew Conway came in unexpectedly early due to the HIA withdrawal of Bundee Aki. Conway was sharp with ball in hand, was put under pressure defensively once or twice due to Tebaldi’s game management to switch play out wide at regular intervals during that second and third quarter. Conway was not given ample quick ball to truly impress but it was a solid outing and one that management will have duly noted.

The other substitutes that came on did their jobs sufficiently well in the short amount of allocated time given. John Cooney looked sharp with his passing and kick game to close out the contest. Jack Carty’s cameo saw a couple of decent plays hitting runners with good speed. The forward bench options all contributed to the win late on.

A win for Ireland in Rome. Italy contributed to the test match with a good display but Ireland know that there is work to be done on the training paddock in the next week to get to the level required to compete and beat France.

Italy Rugby National Team: Project In Progress

Italian side has improved but still big vulnerabilities

The Italian Rugby project continues to progress with minimal results for the national team but scrap away the senior team results and you will see improvements in the U20 side (beat Scotland a couple of weeks ago) as well as Benetton Rugby who are in the thick of Conference B playoff mix. Hawkeye Sidekick profiles the Italian challenge and what to expect from Conor O’Shea’s team against Ireland next weekend.

Form Guide:

The form guide is pretty depressing from an Italian Rugby fan perspective. A pivotal win against Georgia in November which was required to quell the talks of the need to look at Italy and potentially losing their place in the tournament was accomplished with a good performance. Apart from this win, it has been loss after loss after loss. The Scottish RBS 6 Nations game last season potentially was a game where the Italians could have won but for the most part, they have been second best. With a RWC 2019 tournament looming large in the horizon, confidence from recent results is sparse to say the least.

Team Selection:

Conor O’Shea has been clear in his selection policy; the squad overall has a consistent look and feel to it with the head coach providing stability in the hope that his charges can start to deliver better performances. The player pool squad depth continues to evolve and it is hoped that a couple of the U20 players who have impressed in recent seasons can make the step up next season.

The team that will face Ireland will be along these lines:
Jayden Hayward; Edoardo Padovani, Michele Campagnaro, Luca Morisi, Angelo Esposito; Tommaso Allan, Guglielmo Palazzani; Nicola Quaglio, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Ferrari; Dave Sisi, Dean Budd; Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Sergio Parisse.

What to watch out for?

Italy will try to bring the game to Ireland with Allan looking to hit the gain line and looking to unleash Campagnaro and Morisi, two excellent ball carriers given the time and space by defenses. This tactic has had mixed results in recent test matches so it will be up to the Italian pack to provide the try scoring platform for the side.

The second row partnership of Sisi and Budd looks to be a potential solid test match unit; management need to be patient with this pairing as both players bring a high level of energy and set piece nous to the side. The cohesion at times has been inconsistent but this will come in time.

The front row potentially could be in for an arduous task. The scrum exchanges so far have been a mixed bag; penalties in this area allowing Wales and Scotland in the opening round to launch attacking platform deep in Italy’s half. This is an area that Italy need to compete next weekend; otherwise they are going to be under their posts quite often.

The back row unit is abrasive and their ball carrying to the fore. Negri will look to disrupt at the breakdown to allow Steyn and Parisse the time to focus on their ball carrying and defensive duties around the fringes. Parisse is a talisman; his perseverance to line out for his country year in and year out is unparalleled. Steyn is an incredible physical player; his try against Wales was all raw power and the Ireland back row unit will be duly noted.

Weak Points:

Apart from the scrummaging issues, the ability of sides to create massive gain line breaks out wide continues to be an Achilles heel. If sides can recycle quickly, Italy defensively in the back three look incredibly vulnerable. The Josh Adams try in round two a perfect example; good quick ruck ball setting the platform where the Welsh back line carved out massive yards with ease.

The defensive line speed at times can be a bit static with little anticipation for kicks in behind. Watkin try in round two for Wales saw the Italy defensive organization not set properly. Fast defensive line speed with zero cover behind for the grubber kick. Easy score concession remains a scourge for the Italians.

Verdict:

This was always going to be a long term project for the Italian Rugby Federation. Conor O’Shea has delivered significant progress in his vision for the grassroots and underage structures. The senior side is not going to be an overnight success and I think for the most part, the Italian public realize this. With Benetton Rugby improving significantly this season in Pro14 action, this should be the springboard for national team success.

This RWC 2019 tournament could be a big reality check for the Italian national side if they cannot improve their defensive and disciplinary issues but Conor O’Shea (if he wants the job) should continue the work he has started here. Ireland should win next weekend. The question is whether Ireland are efficient in their attacking and recycling to expose the Italians. The answer is yes and it should be a big win for Joe Schmidt’s side.

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.

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

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.

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.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

The second round of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament saw Ireland totally outclass an Italian side whose defensive frailties were exposed at alarming intervals, England go to the trenches to beat a determined Welsh side who will rue the TMO decision not to award Gareth Anscombe an opening half try and Scotland coming late to beat an extremely ill-disciplined French outfit at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

The video clip above is probably the talking point of the round this weekend and whether you are in the England or Welsh camp, you will have your points on why the try was waved away or not? It was an incredibly close call for the TMO to make. Glenn Newman had several angles. Did Gareth Anscombe touch the ball down first before Anthony Watson? Did Gareth Anscombe have control over the ball?

The fact that Anthony Watson immediately touched the ball down fully after Gareth Anscombe’s initial touch made the decision more complex for the TMO. No try was the decision but you see tries given for less than Gareth Anscombe’s effort and pressure on the ball. It was an incredibly pivotal point in the contest that England won 12-6.

If the incident does anything, it raises the topic of how much downward pressure is required to award a try from a TMO perspective. You tend to see TMO’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side in cases such as this in NH rugby. It has created a massive hole in the interpretation of downward pressure when a try is scored.

Full control is now required according to Glenn Newman, the response of the tournament organizers and World Rugby will be interested (if any) in the coming days to clarify this situation. It won’t be the first time this happens on a rugby game with high stakes involved.

The test match itself was an arm wrestle. England were very impressive in the first quarter and did not give Wales a chance of impose their will on the contest. The opening try for May was sublime. Farrell spotting acres of space in the Welsh defense to set May free who finished with precision.

The second England try was all about the imposing Joe Launchsbury who had the presence of mind to offload to the supporting May soon after with two Welsh players for company. 12-0 lead for England and it looked ominous for Wales.

Credit though to Wales whose work rate was immense throughout. The work rate was on point and the pack started to create a good platform from which penalties were being conceded by the hosts. Patchell had a mixed afternoon as England squeezed up with high defensive line speed minimizing his overall impact on the contest.

The key positive from the Welsh camp were the performance of the front row who were excellent at scrum time as well as the cameo of Gareth Anscombe when switched to ten. His flair and ability to get his colleagues over the game line was to the fore in the second half. The number ten position is very much for Anscombe after this display; assured performance.

Wales will rue the TMO decision but there was also the key try saving tackle from Sam Underhill whose tackle on Scott Williams saved a certain try. The lack of ball handling and composure at times from Wales also contributed to this loss. A key turnover just before half-time after Wales had turned down the opportunity of three points was a morale sapper.

England win this hard fought encounter; their defensive work was on point throughout. The back row stifled at the breakdown as Navidi struggled to gain a foothold in these exchanges. The half back partnership were efficient if not spectacular and Mike Brown produced an excellent performance at full back. Farrell was all action and his game management for the opening try sensational. To a man, England delivered the victory.

Ireland outclass poor Italy

Let us not beat around the bush here. Italy were shambolic. Ireland beat what was in front of them to the extent that the bench was fully cleared ten minutes into the second half. It was all very routine for Ireland as they set about dismantling the wafer thin Italian defense.

Line breaks were created with huge frequency in that opening period and it was no surprise that Ireland led 28-0 at the break. Henshaw crashing over from close range after the pack had sucked in the Italian defense. Naive Italian defending on the fringes saw Murray waltz in unopposed. Aki used his strength superbly to crash over from close range and the Connacht centre was again involved as his line break and pass saw Earls score for the bonus point try.

The fixture saw a couple of negatives from an Ireland perspective. Tadhg Furlong pulling up early doors was a concern; initial team report suggests that it is not serious but I am not so sure as the manner in which the Wexford man pulled up suggested more of a hamstring pull than a precautionary withdrawal.

Even more of concern was the shoulder injury sustained by Robbie Henshaw after his second try of the contest. The try was as a result of an intercept but the shoulder injury means a long period on the sidelines beckon. Disappointing for the player who was sharp along with Aki in their attacking duties.

Italy were hopelessly out classed but did manage to create a foothold in the contest in the third quarter as Ireland’s lack of cohesion (due to clearing the bench) saw three tries conceded in a seventeen minute spell.

The Ireland fringe players got good test match minutes. Larmour gave a glimpse of his attacking skills but also a realization that his defensive work is a work in progress. Carbery at ten looked to boss the game but lack of game minutes was evident in some questionable game management calls. Porter was superb in the front row. Marmion was efficient at nine. Stander and Healy professional in their work rate.

This game showcased Ireland’s ability to cut loose but the opposition was weak. The Georgia question and this tournament was a key thought personally in the opening period of this contest given how easy Ireland were creating and scoring tries at will. Italy can argue that they scored three tries but let us be honest, the scoreline flattered the Italians as Ireland’s continuity faded after fifty minutes. Italy lacked any guile up front and for all the back line intent with ball in hand, defensively were all at sea. Hard days to come for Conor O’Shea and management this season. 2019 RWC looks daunting already.

Ireland will look for positive fitness reports on Furlong but this was mission accomplished. Wales in two weeks time looks an incredibly tough encounter. Wales will not fear Ireland and given their personnel who will offload and create from expansive play, it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt approaches the fixture.

Sexton and Murray were excellent again. Keith Earls continues to impress; his last minute try saving tackle told you everything you needed to know about the player. Selfless, hard working, team player. The effort to save a last ditch tackle could be the difference between winning this tournament or not if points differences comes into play.

Scotland keep composure to beat France

A much needed morale boosting victory for Scotland against France at Murrayfield. The opening quarter was sensational stuff. France’s player of the season Teddy Thomas scoring a superb try to open France’s account. Their expansive approach to the contest a joy to see. Scotland facing an early period of crisis fought back well and recalled Maitland scoring well.

Laidlaw’s contribution today cannot be underestimated. The scrum-half provided experience and game management throughout, something that Finn Russell struggled with today. It was an out of sorts Russell today in terms of kicking, missing touch on a couple of key stages. Townsend down the stretch made the call to win this test match. Russell hauled off. Price on and Laidlaw switched to ten.

The move worked as Scotland’s pack started to win the 50/50 exchanges and French discipline issues surfacing at a rate of knots. John Lacey consistently pinging France for various offenses from not rolling away to offside. French composure was shot in the final quarter, such a critical juncture of the contest. The composure issues then saw some questionable game management decisions as well but by this stage, France were under the cosh. The game was as good as gone.

Laidlaw’s assured kicking securing the victory. The win was huge for Scotland; a backs to the wall week of preparation, another loss and it was curtains for the championship and would have raised questions on the recent Scottish team and their form leading into this tournament.

Gregor Townsend today delivered a message to his players on the park; failure to execute and you will be benched. To bench Russell was a massive call, it worked handsomely this time as Price was swift in his distribution speeding up play. The ten position ahead of the English clash will be duly noted. Russell needs to step up his performance levels. An intriguing two weeks to the England clash await.

For France, another test match which on another day should have seen a win. Their play in these last two games have at times being good but yet again the lack of discipline seen in the Guy Noves and Philip Saint Andre eras reared its head today. For the brilliance of the tries, France surrender penalties at an alarming rate and Lacey’s penalty count on another day should have seen a French player spend time in the sin bin.

France will argue with the officiating in these past two weekends but teams need to adapt to the officiating crew and in this second half, the discipline and pen count on show could not warrant a test match win. Plenty to address as Italy arrive to Marseilles in two weeks. France and Brunel in backs against the wall prep then.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Preview

After two blow out wins for England and Wales, both sides lock horns in a highly anticipated showdown at Twickenham. Ireland fresh from their last gasp (get out of jail card) win over France in Paris play host to an Italian side who travel more in hope than expectation. Scotland and France look to gain much needed momentum at Murrayfield. Intriguing fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Can expansive Wales upset England on the road?

The key question of this weekend. Wales were excellent in their defeat of Scotland last weekend but Warren Gatland and management will be first to admit that Scotland were well below their best. It is also debatable that England defensive line speed will be as ponderous as Scotland’s last weekend which saw Patchell control affairs and unleash his back line with unerring frequency.

The back row battle at Twickenham is evenly poised. With the decision to allow James Davies to return to the Scarlets for Pro 14 action, it is down to Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric coming off the bench to grapple and torment England at the breakdown. Navidi was sensational last weekend in his breakdown work, winning ball and slowing down Scotland ball to a crawl. Tipuric continued the good on his introduction and his ball carrying was on point.

England’s back row looks solid. Sam Simmonds has taken his chance superbly at eight in the absence of Billy Vunipola. His brace of tries last weekend showed the player’s mobility, strength and speed. His breakdown work was on point as well as Lawes and Robshaw.

The half-back contest will be fascinating. Care vs. Davies. Ford vs. Patchell. The scrum-halves on show will look to create at every given opportunity so do not be surprised if there are plenty of open exchanges during this contest. Joseph’s inclusion is a key inclusion, his pace and power have caused issues for Wales in the past.

This is a contest if Wales can compete well in the scrum have a realistic chance of producing a result on the road. Can Wales then get enough ball in hand to ask questions of May defensively? It is a huge ask and England do have serious threats with May and Watson playing superbly with ball in hand.

This is the standout fixture of the round. England to shade this contest but the margin of victory could be minute. Wales will come to this fixture full of confidence, nothing to lose with everything to gain. England are the team under pressure to deliver. Intriguing fixture and subplots await.

Ireland’s back line given chance to deliver or else

The Ireland team announcement was delivered with four pack changes but significantly no changes to the back line. No expected Jordan Larmour debut? Why?

Joe Schmidt wants to keep faith with the back line who faced France, an opportunity to see the back division if provided sufficient space and quick ball to showcase their talents. The three quarter partnership is retained. Aki and Henshaw were solid defensively but there were precious little moments of attacking play and platform last weekend, hope for better this weekend.

Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both looked dangerous with ball in hand. Earls’ contribution to the game winning drop goal cannot be underestimated. A marvelous take from an inch perfect Sexton diagonal kick, meters gained and momentum built.

Jacob Stockdale’s defensive side of play has being under the microscope this week. The Teddy Thomas try was a superb effort and plenty are pointing the blame for the try at Stockdale’s door given his missed first time tackle. Stockdale is still young and learning his craft, good to see management giving the player continuity in the position. No doubt Schmidt has worked with the player to address the defensive lapse this week.

The pack changes were spun in a strange manner. I was unclear whether Jack Conan was included or  CJ Stander dropped? Conan deserves his opportunity given his form with Leinster Rugby this season. Game time for squad members is paramount this weekend.

Dan Leavy was a no brainer inclusion in the back row. Toner gets the nod, looking to impress and probably needs with Beirne primed for international duty next season and James Ryan’s emergence as an international second row last weekend.

The prop competition between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath has being intriguing this season for club and country. Both players are driving each other on, superb to see. McGrath will relish the opportunity to cause serious damage to the Italian scrum.

The bench sees Kieran Marmion given the nod ahead of Luke McGrath, perhaps a horses for courses selection or was it based on training performance this week? Larmour will get his debut at some point and it will be interesting to see the player with space to impress. Solid team selection from Ireland.

Italy make three changes to their side, two personnel changes in the front row while Steyn comes into the back row. Ghiraldini’s lineout throwing was on point last weekend. 100% lineout success so to replace the experienced hooker will prompt Ireland to put pressure on the line out with Toner, Henderson and O’Mahoney looking to unsettle the Italian set piece.

Quaglio and Bigi will need to front up at scrum time but with Furlong and McGrath looking in ominous form, Ireland have the set piece advantage here and with it the platform to create try scoring opportunities. The back row battle will be interesting for the first three quarters but Ireland will be confident to improve their clear out work to allow Murray quicker ball despite Steyn and Parisse. Mbanda’s exclusion is a baffler.

The Italian back line showed glimpses of potential. Allan was composed with his distribution, kicking on point to unleash his back three but the back three were also guilty of some naive defensive game time decisions against England. Watson had the proverbial field day against Italy. Earls and Stockdale should follow suit. Ireland bonus point try win all the way.

Townsend wields the axe

Gregor Townsend does not do sentimentality obviously. No opportunity for the likes of Harris, Price, du Preez, Toolis and Welsh to redeem themselves after wretched displays against Wales.

Suffice to say that Townsend has gone for the shock and awe team selection to stir a reaction. The passive performance from Scotland last weekend was at odds to the side who impressed during the November internationals.

All facets of play were under par. Game management was mediocre. Price pivotal in the concession of the opening Welsh tries; intercept pass and then scrum infringement. Russell with a pack retreating could not affect influence.

The pack were second best. The scrum creaked at various points and then the line out system collapsed in the second half giving Wales ample opportunity to create a platform. Maitland, Horne did provide much needed impetus but it was not little too late. Hogg’s lack of game minutes also exposed in defensive work. A week later, will the wrongs of last weekend be remedied?

France were defeated last weekend but there was signs of optimism in their last gasp defeat. Their work rate and defensive structure remained until the final play of game. Ireland were unable to break France down in a well organized defensive display. Teddy Thomas with his only genuine cameo scored a sensational try. The young players in the side did not shirk their responsibility.

Brunel and the squad’s question this weekend is whether they can continue this work rate and defensive organization while also trying to open up their talented back line. It was not seen as Ireland did by and large control the tempo and territory last weekend.

The conditioning of the French side was on point last weekend. No last quarter collapse and the age demographic of the squad suggests that Brunel will focus on youth and players who will work hard for the cause. Machenaud again was excellent in his game management and kicking; more expected from the Racing 92 scrum-half this weekend.

Scotland are in a backs against the wall scenario. If they cannot raise their game this weekend, it will undermine everything that Scotland have built in the last two seasons. Townsend and management will be feeling the pressure and the team selection is designed to execute an open, expansive game plan whilst allowing Laidlaw to game manage when required. Scotland to win but it will not be easy.