Ireland Grand Slam Champions: Reflections

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament is in the books. A highly impressive Ireland performance securing a 24-15 victory over an English side who were kept at arms length throughout. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the success for the new Natwest 6 Nations champions.

Defining Ireland Performance?

Ireland’s performance at Twickenham personally was a defining moment for the national side. This was a controlled, clinical performance where the players executed the coaching game plan to the letter of the law.

The coaching mismatches were evident as early as six minutes into this contest. Ireland identifying Watson’s vulnerabilities under the high ball with Sexton executing the aerial bomb on point. The chase from Rob Kearney to disrupt in that aerial challenge, coupled with Ringrose’s support running to Kearney if the ball went loose was sublime.

The clinical nature in which Ireland set out about exposing England’s defensive gaps was astounding. The move to open up England for the second try was sensational. The roles of Sexton, Furlong, Aki to Stander who crashed over. Simmonds exposed badly in the England defensive line as Bundee Aki carved out a massive hole in the England defense.

England may have thought that the Ireland attacking threat was done for the opening period when the impressive Sexton went off for a blood substitution. Think again. Murray identifying slack defense in the England ranks allowing the try scoring machine Jacob Stockdale to create; nice kick over the top exposing Brown and May defensively to score the decisive third try before the interval.

The second half may have seen a reduced possession count for Ireland but the visitors were still dangerous with ball in hand. The fact that Ireland consolidated rather than hit the line for attacking line outs spoke volumes. Murray kicking on point as Ireland hit 24 points; now was time to soak up England pressure and close out the contest. Mission accomplished.

Ireland performances in the past would have being error strewn, nervy at times, winning a cliffhanger to secure the win but this was a calm, collected performance from Ireland. The performance level at Twickenham from Ireland is the blueprint going forward. All players were on point. Kudos to the back row, they dominated the open and breakdown exchanges which then saw England lose discipline thereafter.

Leavy, O’Mahony and Stander deserve huge credit for the work rate, ball carries and defensive work against England. The front five fronted up superbly as well against a lively opposition pack. Henderson’s selection was truly merited with a performance full of work rate, ball carrying and game management of the line out. James Ryan was outstanding; ball carrying and set piece execution on point. The front row continued to probe England in the scrum and work rate around the fringes was on point. Best in clear out work exceptional.

Ireland Squad Depth Identified

This was a challenging Natwest 6 Nations tournament for many teams due to injuries to several standout players. Ireland were no exception. When you consider the opening round of the tournament, Ireland were on the brink.

Teddy Thomas’ try had given the edge to France; more late heartbreak for Ireland to contend with but the team have shown incredible resiliency. 41 phases! 41 phases of hard work, fronting up, looking to break a resolute French gain line. The Sexton diagonal kick to Earls. Henderson’s ball carry making a couple more precious meters. Sexton drop goal. We know the rest! The momentum machine was now on overdrive.

Ireland squad injuries has created interesting test match selections and also provided key indications to the neutral whether Ireland have the squad depth. The answer with respect to the personnel drafted to the front row, second row, three quarters is an emphatic yes.

Andrew Porter’s cameo against Italy and Wales. James Ryan coming into the side to replace Donnacha Ryan. Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier provided quality support in the seven position along with Jack Conan at the eight channel. Sean O’Brien’s absence, a worry coming into this tournament negated well.

The thirteen channel was a source of injury woe throughout the tournament. Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Gary Ringrose all played massive parts to this side. Henshaw had an encouraging start to the tournament; his try showed his potential with ball in hand but then injury struck. Farrell then was summoned to fill the breach and what a contribution against Wales. Man of the match. Physically imposing, prominent in ball carries and game management but then injury struck again. Enter Ringrose who gave Huw Jones the run around in round four and then provided assured gain line breaks and the pivotal opening try against England.

Ireland Squad Depth Concerns?

At the start of the tournament, I questioned the squad depth of this side. Suffice to say that the injuries have helped answer this question in certain units. The nine and ten jersey are areas where squad depth is not yet fully determined.

Marmion played his part as the backup to the imperious Conor Murray; it was a shame that Luke McGrath was not able to play more game minutes as well.  Will John Cooney get an opportunity to impress after a promising Ulster debut season?

The ten jersey belongs to Sexton but we need to see the backup in this position during the Australian tour. Joey Carbery is the designate backup and should feature against Australia.

Can we determine a third option at the fly-half position? With Paddy Jackson currently in legal proceedings, other options need to be explored and assessed. Carty, Hanrahan, Keatley come into the mix. Tyler Bleyendaal’s injury woes continue. Does Rory Scannell come into the mix as an utility ten?

Key positions for Ireland ahead of the RWC 2019 to determine squad depth. Ireland’s fulcrum is Murray and Sexton and contingency is required in these positions if 2015 RWC injury crisis hits in the half-backs.

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.


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: Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland Reflections

Clinical Ireland

Test matches are decided on fine margins. With Scotland superior in the first quarter, Ireland were forced to defensively regroup but a very ambitious Peter Horne pass out wide was superbly intercepted by Jacob Stockdale and hence saw Ireland gain a foothold on proceedings. From 0-3 down, suddenly the hosts were 7-3 up and Ireland never looked back. The next time Ireland got into the Scotland red zone, a second try was scored by Stockdale in the corner. This after Scotland had squandered a glorious try opportunity themselves when Huw Jones’ pass to Stuart Hogg failed to stick. Ireland were more precise with ball in hand in the red zone. Scotland were off and several try chances went a begging. A twenty point loss is harsh on Scotland but test match rugby is sometimes extremely cruel.

Tackle Count Key

An incredible statistic after thirty-five minutes was that Scotland had a combined eight-six tackles made. One hundred tackles and you tend to see defensive gaps and so it proved. Ireland were patient with ball in hand; making Scotland work their tackle count in the opening period. The closing exchanges of the opening period and start of the second half saw the tackle count after effects in full view. Ireland making a sixty meter line break with ease. Yes, Ireland were stopped just short of the line but the resultant scrum setup Stockdale for his and Ireland’s second try. 14-3 at the break was suddenly 21-3 with Ireland again finding gaps in the Scottish defensive immediately after the restart. Ireland structured game plan working to full effect putting Scotland into the red in terms of tackle count and the bonus point try was a matter of when and not if.

Sub Impact

Scotland bench strategy was thrown into disarray as early as the first quarter with two early changes. Ireland’s sub impact was huge. Everyone contributed off the bench. Jordi Murphy was prominent in ball carrying. The prop options continued to build a platform. Marmion and Carbery introduced to close out the game. Mission accomplished. Scotland were forced into their bench far too early due to HIA incidents. Iain Henderson in his work rate and line out kept Scotland at bay. Sean Cronin crashed over for the bonus point try. Sub bench impact was massive today for Ireland particularly in the second half.

Defensive Ireland on point?

A work in progress. As mentioned, Scotland’s lack of precision with ball in hand for a couple of try scoring opportunities was duly noted. Ireland defensively in the second half were sucked too far in at times, exposed on the outside several times. Maitland’s try coming about as Ireland defensive were sucked inside. Kearney, Stockdale perhaps could have made better defensive calls but given the number of tries leaked against Italy (3) and Wales (3), progress was made today by Ireland defensively.  Bundee Aki defensively was on point throughout. A much sterner test awaits at Twickenham on the outside wing exchanges. Encouraging.

Ringrose sublime

The talk before this game was about Huw Jones but Gary Ringrose dominated the three quarters battle. His sniping line running and ability to find the soft shoulder was on point today. Ringrose provides genuine world class thirteen ability and complements Aki’s physicality and abrasive ball carrying perfectly. Ireland’s depth chart at thirteen looks great with Henshaw, Farrell filling the jersey in recent weeks. When you add Ringrose to the mix, it is a lovely problem for Schmidt to have. Ringrose personally was my man of the match, different class today.

Ireland Championship secured?

Another bonus point effort from Ireland leaves them on the brink. It is all down to England later to determine if the Twickenham fixture next weekend is a championship decider. If England win without a bonus try point, Ireland win the championship. If England win with a bonus point, the championship is still up for grabs. Ireland chasing for the Grand Slam and Championship. It is a tall order to win at Twickenham but it is a great opportunity for this management and group of players to win this tournament in style.


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.

Scotland Rising

Scotland have announced their starting lineup who will face Ireland in a mouth watering Natwest 6 Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium this weekend. A fixture which promises plenty of fireworks. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the Scottish challenge and Ireland will need to be at their very best to come out with a test match victory.

Team News

Speculation on the possible inclusion of Richie Gray and John Hardie were wide off the mark. You have to give props to Gregor Townsend for resisting the urge to recall these two standout performers and reward the players who produced back to back victories over France and England in this tournament.

The only change to the starting lineup is the inclusion of Blair Kinghorn to the wing who replaces the injured Tommy Seymour. Kinghorn has an excellent season with Edinburgh, his pace and line breaking ability to the fore. Lee Jones and Fraser Brown come into the replacements.

Pack Selection

The continuity in the front five is key here for Scotland who have impressed in the set piece in their recent tournament victories. A solid front row with McInally an absolute standout for Scotland. His performance against England was superb; his open play contribution and work around the breakdown was duly noted against England. The line out was on point too.

The scrum will be a fascinating battle at the weekend. With the expected return of Tadhg Furlong to the starting Ireland lineup, pressure will be applied by the hosts at scrum time. Berghan and Reid will need to quell the opening exchanges. Wayne Barnes initial impressions will be critical. The front row squad depth is excellent with the likes of Nel, Brown and Bhatti to come on in the third quarter, Experience and mobility in abundance.

The second row partnership of Grant Gilchrist and Johnny Gray provide physicality and set piece control in the line-out. A great compliment for the unit is that Richie Gray who has recovered from injury does not feature in the match day squad. Management are happy with their current second row partnership. Gilchrist’s work rate coupled with Gray’s leadership and organization has being a superb mix.

The back row performance against England deservedly won plenty of plaudits. John Barclay’s cameo was outstanding. His influence on proceedings this weekend will play a huge factor on who emerges victorious. England were quite frankly unable to quell Barclay’s influence. His work at the breakdown was superb, slowing down opposition ball and sharp to identify opportunities to steal ball as well.

Barclay was ably assisted by Ryan Wilson whose ball carries were abrasive and set excellent platform for Scotland to execute an effective exit strategy. Hamish Watson has being another standout in this Scottish side. His tackle count, work rate is immense and provides the perfect foil for Barclay to do what he does best and cause havoc for opposition.

The pack depth is stacked with experience. A big fan of David Denton who will lead by example with his lung bursting ball carries and high octane work rate around the fringes. Tim Swinson will continue to provide work rate in the engine room of the pack. No weak link in this pack selection despite the omission of Richie Gray and John Hardie from the test match squad.

Half Back Game Changers

A predictable pairing from Scotland for this test match. Massive test match experience in the nine and ten jerseys. Laidlaw provides leadership, unerring kicking off the tee and out of hand. The Clermont Auvergne scrum-half will look to get his half-back partner Finn Russell early possession to settle into the contest.

Russell was outstanding against England. His vast skill set was highlighted to the fore; clinical game management and passing to open England apart during the contest. His drubber kick for the opening try was inventive. His superb passing range seen for the Scottish third try. England were unable to stifle Russell which was due in part to Laidlaw varying the game plan and the Scottish pack provided quick ruck ball.

The half-back pairing on Saturday is going to be fascinating. Which partnership gets the platform from their respective pack to control proceedings? Murray’s kicking game is paramount to Ireland creating territorial platform. Scotland have in the past negated this with their ability to put pressure on the scrum half around the fringes. Fascinating tactical battle ensues.

Explosive Three Quarters

A nice contrast of styles in the three quarters unit. Huw Jones provides explosive line speed and line break potential. His ability to create seen to good effect against England when both Anthony Watson and Mike Brown were unable to laid a finger on the center crashing over in round three of this competition. His ability to collect the drubber kick for the opening try was excellent. A clinical try scoring thirteen.

Peter Horne is such an underrated player and his deft variation in attack with astute passing and an excellent kicking game keeps opposition three quarters off balance. The balance in this unit will pose issues for another new three quarter Ireland pairing. Aki and Ringrose most possibly will need to accurate on both sides of the ball. This Scottish three quarters have the ability to create game winning line breaks if given the chance.


Blair Kinghorn for some may be a surprise inclusion but the Edinburgh player has being rewarded for an excellent season so far. Gregor Townsend has rewarded the player for his excellent form and if given the opportunity will provide a threat on the wing. Ireland will look to test Kinghorn in the aerial exchanges but the youngster will look to contribute from the opening whistle. A player with great potential.

Sean Maitland in contrast is a player of vast experience and class. His ability to create gain line meters in tight confines is an outstanding trait. Defensively solid, the British & Irish Lions wing is more than capable to finish off sweeping expansive Scottish attacking moves.

Full Back Maestro

The Scottish back line maestro is Stuart Hogg. The full back with ball in hand when joining the back line is incredible. His gain line statistics are sublime and provides opportunities for his back line colleagues to shine. Ireland have to be so careful with their kicking game. Any ponderous kicking down the field will be pounced upon by the Glasgow Warriors player.

Hogg’s organizational skills defensively are on point and is solid in the aerial exchanges. Ireland will look to negate the influence of Hogg with quick defensive line speed but Hogg will have a couple of opportunities to shine with ball in hand particularly in the second half if Ireland start to get loose defensively around the fringes.

Game Plan

Tempo is a key word for Scotland at the weekend. The ability to present quick ruck ball for Laidlaw is imperative for Scotland to have a realistic chance of victory in Dublin. Tempo is required from Ali Price whose pace off the ruck will look to ask further questions of Ireland defensively.

Ireland will look to play a more structured game plan, utilizing the front five to create the platform. It will be difficult given the performance of this Scottish front five in recent rounds. Ireland will look to test the Scottish maul defense early doors but it again has improved from a Scottish perspective.

This test match for many in Ireland was a banana skin fixture. As the test match approaches, the dangers which Scotland possess and the upturn in form since the opening day disaster at Cardiff loom large on the Ireland horizon. 50/50 contest despite Ireland’s home field advantage. Ireland have to produce their best performance of the tournament. Roll on Saturday!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – England

The warning signs of round two were not heeded by England who fell to a road trip loss to Scotland at boisterous Murrayfield. It is a reality check for England and the decisions that Eddie Jones and management make now post this test match loss could define their ambitions for World Cup glory in 2019. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects.

Blunt England

25-13. The final stages of this test match summed up England’s attacking style perfectly. England continually looking to smash their way through the Scottish defense who were solid throughout and superior in the breakdown when the opportunity arose.

England were incredibly blunt in their attacking play throughout this test match. May, Nowell and Watson received precious little quick ruck ball to test the Scottish defense out wide. The pack were tasked with building the platform with numerous punishing ball carries but it was quite one dimensional. Barclay, Watson and McInally lapped up the breakdown exchanges as a result.

Half Back Struggle

Finn Russell was sensational throughout, started the game with confidence and England were unable to temper his influence thereafter. Russell’s ability to create line breaks for colleagues was evident in the tries scored. The grubber kick was on point for the opening try. It set the tone for Scotland to create further opportunities. Kudos to Laidlaw too as the scrum half was decisive in his passing.

Care and Ford in contrast were struggling to create any attacking tempo or rhythm during this contest. Care’s ability to create line breaks off the fringes was quickly nullified and Ford was unable to effect the game at ten as the Scottish back row continued to grow in confidence with each passing minute.


Owen Farrell to his credit provided the leadership last weekend. His penalty kicking was good and his running line for England’s try was sublime and gave his side hope of victory early in the second half. England though continued to use their big men to bore holes in the Scottish defense. No distinct change in attacking plans which was disappointing. No subtle changes to the game plan to throw Scotland a different look.

Missed Opportunities

There were missed opportunities. Danny Care’s intercept was called back and then Courtney Lawes knock on (in the tackle) which saw England only to be also called back. Two key incidents on another day which could have turned the tide but it was not to be.

Adapt Game Plan

If England learn anything from this loss, it is that they need to evolve their game plan on the pitch when the need arises. The England players looked drilled to death at times; executing the same game plan for limited results.

England were exposed by Italy last season for not adapting on the pitch to a left field tactic. It was a similar story last weekend and until England players can take on this mantle, questions on their game management will continue. There is so much that management can do for the playing group.

Personnel Changes

The key question will be whether Eddie Jones makes any changes to the side which will face France in round four of the tournament. Paris traditionally is a tough place to go and even more so for a player looking to make an impression when called into the test match starting lineup.

Daly comes into the equation as a back line option. His versatility and kicking game could prompt Jones to act as England’s back field defense struggled at times. Jones’ second try a perfect point as Brown and Watson collectively failed to take down Jones.

The England front row could see a change as well. Will Jamie George finally get his opportunity to stake a claim for the hooker position? Dylan Hartley’s subdued performance surely opens the door for George to impress. Joe Marler will be looking for game time as well given inconsistencies at scrum time in recent tournament rounds.

Second row changes probably will be minimal. Itoje is probably one of the first players on the team sheet. The only talking point here could be whether Eddie Jones feels that George Kruis should come in if he decides to draft Jamie George into the front row. The Saracens lineout axiis could feature in Paris.

The back row was a mixed bag for England. The absence of Billy Vunipola was particularly felt. No go forward ball from the back row unit who struggled in the breakdown exchanges. Sam Underhill comes into consideration but his yellow card raises question on his discipline. Hughes at eight failed to fire while Robshaw fought the good fight but was second best to John Barclay who was superb from start to finish.

A defeat against Scotland will always hurt England but the manner of the loss will be of more concern for Eddie Jones. England are at a critical juncture. Their squad is stacked with physicality, skill set and game winners but how do the England players improve their game management and decision making in test matches such as last weekend?

England will be a viable 2019 Rugby World cup contender provided lessons are learned. This loss will focus the minds as the 12-6 win over a Welsh side missing several experienced test match starters clearly did not. A critical end to this tournament beckons for England, another loss in this campaign and questions will be asked on whether the Eddie Jones revolution is regressing. Compelling viewing beckons!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – Ireland

A weekend which did not fail to disappoint. Ireland just about got over the line over a determined Welsh challenge in an exciting test match.  Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Ireland performance.

Ireland win but areas to improve upon

The moment Gareth Anscombe threw that sweeping pass out to the wing, it was heart in the mouth stuff. Jacob Stockdale had committed to coming inside, he needed to intercept the ball, failure to do so and Wales potentially had a game winning try well and truly on. Stockdale has to be commended for finishing off the intercept to make the game safe but it should not have come to that for Ireland to secure this test match victory.

The possession count for Ireland in this test match was excellent (78% in the opening period). Five tries scored against a Welsh defensive who have traditionally nullified the threat from Ireland. The back row produced a stellar performance to nullify the threat of Josh Navidi and contributed with endless ball carries to setup excellent Ireland field position so how come did Wales score three tries given limited opportunities?

The defensive shape of Ireland in the second half particularly last quarter was ragged. McFadden exposed several times in that last quarter due to lack of defensive cover. The Welsh third try will be a video analysis 101 moment for Ireland. McFadden’s decision to become the second tackler was fair enough but his inability to stop the offload was poor allowing Steff Evans ample time and space to score to setup a dramatic climax.

Rob Kearney at full back was exposed on more than one occasion in the aerial battle. Wales’ aerial kick strategy was on point in the opening period of this contest as Biggar executed his kicking to a high level. Stockdale is such a threat ball in hand but his defensive skill set is a work in progress; his decision making in defensive position will need to improve but the attacking threat is sublime.

Sexton with ball in hand was excellent but his kicking off the tee was a mixed bag. 3/7 off the tee told its own story. The first two penalty kicks were unconvincing at best and that set the tone for the day on this aspect of play. His decision to take a quick tap and go deep in the second half could have had massive consequences. Three points blown and potentially an injury worry with Conor Murray leg trapped in a ruck.

The Good

What worked for Ireland? The resiliency of the side again was to the fore. After a nervy opening where Halfpenny was unerring in his opening penalty attempt. Ireland went up the other end of the pitch to score. Sexton’s superbly identifying Halfpenny out of position setting up Stockdale for an excellent score. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Wales scored. Ireland responded.

The newcomers to the Ireland side rose to the occasion. Andrew Porter in the front row provided solidity at set piece and was busy in open play with his tackle count. Chris Farrell was sensational in the thirteen channel. The Munster center was prominent from kickoff, rising high to win an initial aerial challenge and also was the fulcrum to create line breaks. A worthy man of the match winner.

James Ryan and Devin Toner were excellent in the Ireland second row. Line out accuracy. John Ryan’s scrummaging was superb at the death to yield a critical penalty in the last quarter. Everyone contributed to this side. Squad depth issues not seen.

The back play at times was sensational. Keith Earls complemented Jacob Stockdale with several eye-catching breaks. His pace, ability to create try scoring opportunities from nothing seen to full effect in the second half when his kick on the sideline in the second half nearly saw a try being scored.

Conor Murray provided leadership throughout and his passing was on point. His ability to slot home the vital penalty on seventy-six minutes showed massive courage and determination given his injury scare moments before. Murray did need the post to assist but the kick needed to go over and he stepped over superbly. His aerial kicks saw productive results after a shaky opening quarter.

Looking further afield

Fourteen points after three games is an excellent return from Ireland but Joe Schmidt and management will know that there is plenty of scope for improvement. However, the squad depth question prior to the Welsh contest was answered emphatically. There is squad depth to fill in several positions in the second row, front row, back row areas.

Questions do still remain with regards to the ten jersey until Carbery gets the game time to show his worth. The cameo of McFadden was a mixed bag defensively and is an area that needs to be evaluated. The full back position as well needs to be examined. Rob Kearney is solid but we need other players to stake a claim to the jersey. A summer tour to Australia hopefully will address these concerns.

However for now. this has being an excellent start to the tournament for Ireland Rugby. Three wins from three sets up the team well but with challenges against the live threat of Scotland and also the perennially strong England at Twickenham, the Championship and Grand Slam is still very much wide open.

The Welsh Challenge

Wales announced their side to face Ireland in the eagerly anticipated Natwest 6 Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium. An early team selection which shows confidence in the squad chosen for the fixture. It remains to be seen if Ireland’s team selection will look to focus on their strengths or focus on the Welsh threat. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the Welsh team announced.

Team News

With experienced players back for selection, it was inevitable that Wales would look to change things up against Ireland. Dan Biggar makes his tournament bow at fly-half, a move which sees Rhys Patchell who started against Wales omitted totally from the test match squad with Gareth Anscombe dropping to the replacements. Anscombe’s cameo at ten against England along with his versatility to play three quarters and full back positions were positives in the decision to retain his services this weekend. Patchell travels with the side as a reserve, a blow for the player but the Scarlets ten has shown his ability in this tournament to suggest that he will get further game time before this tournament concludes.

Worcester Warriors try scoring winger Josh Adams is also omitted from the squad. His place in the side going to fit again Liam Williams who impressed for Saracens last weekend against Sale Sharks. Williams is a sublime talent, his ability with ball in hand coupled with excellent defensive and kicking game meant that Gatland and management were going to find it extremely hard to not select the former Scarlets star for this test match. Adams is a player who is on the upward curve and similarly to Patchell, I expect the winger to gain further test match minutes before the end of the tournament. A superb find for Wales this season, one that should develop into an excellent test match winger in the seasons to come.

The other big discussion point was whether the colossal back row Toby Faletau would feature this weekend in Dublin. His knee injury problems have being addressed but lack of game time was a key issue. You have to say the decision of Welsh management to allow Faletau to play for Bath Rugby and get good quality game minutes is the smart move given the performance of Ross Moriarty in this tournament. Moriarty’s work rate has being on point in this tournament and to be honest, the Gloucester Rugby player would have being disappointed to miss on his test match starting berth.

Team Selection

The word continuity comes to mind when you see the Welsh starting lineup. The number of Scarlets players (current and former) in the team means that continuity and cohesion between the pack and forwards is incredibly high. Scarlets expansive style of game has being seen to full effect with Wales during this tournament. Their ability to create line breaks from deep was evident in their Scotland win and on another day Wales should have had two more tries on the scoreboard (TMO gaffe on Anscombe try as well as the Scott Williams effort) against England.

The back line is loaded with pace and talent. Liam Williams and Steff Evans will look to exploit any defensive gaps from Ireland who have being guilty of several lapses in their victories over France and Italy. The Teddy Thomas try stemming from a quick line out, Ireland defensively not setup and Thomas took full advantage. The Italians took advantage of some poor Ireland defensive in the second half of their contest two weeks ago. Wales will be buoyed by this and Ireland will need to be on point defensively throughout particularly with a new Ireland three quarter partnership primed for the contest.

The Welsh three quarters will look to expose any defensive frailties in this new Ireland three quarter partnership. Aki will need to pick his moments to come off the line and make decisive hits to stop Welsh attacks in their tracks. How does Farrell or Ringrose look to protect the Ireland defensive line if Aki comes off the line and misses his tackle? Is the communication and understanding in the net new three quarters in two weeks sufficient in the Ireland ranks to effectively deal with the Welsh threat? I have my doubts.

Hadleigh Parkes provides power, physicality but also a good kicking game to keep back line opponents off balance. Scott Williams ability to break the game line is a positive for Wales and he will look for his back row players to create excellent quick ruck ball.

Leigh Halfpenny resumes service at full back. A sublime player whose kicking off the tee is unerring. Halfpenny will look to dominate the aerial battle in the opening period and look to come into the line when attacking opportunities allow. This is a quality back line for Wales and if the weather is dry, the Welsh side will be confident of creating out wide at regular intervals.

The half back battle this weekend in Dublin looks fascinating. Davies and Biggar lock horns against Murray and Sexton. Davies and Murray looking to create around the fringes but will look to their back rows to set the required platform at ruck time to execute this game plan. Biggar and Sexton will look to show different looks to keep their opposition off balance. Their ability to launch excellent diagonal kicks and aerial bombs could be key in the opening exchanges to create a territorial platform. Both players will also look to run the game at the gain line. Fascinating battle beckons in this area of the pitch. 50/50 for me.

The back row contest also looks like compelling viewing. Josh Navidi at seven has had excellent moments in this tournament. His performance against Scotland was sensational; his work at the breakdown to win opposition ball was to the fore. Navidi was closely watched by England but the Cardiff Blues back rower did have his moments, his work rate and tackle count were high throughout. A player who has the potential to be the decisive factor for Wales to win this contest. Both Shingler and Moriarty supplement Navidi with physicality, high work rate and mobility. The breakdown battle will be eagerly competitive. Josh van der Flier is a loss for Ireland in this area but Dan Leavy has filled the role with distinction against Italy.

The front five looks solid. The front row impressed against England who after reviewing the video analysis summoned the Georgians for scrum reps, a massive complement for the Welsh front row who were excellent at scrum time. Evans, Owens and Lee also provide mobility and excellent skill set in open play, recall Lee’s flick pass in the England test match.

The second row combination is the colossal Alun Wyn Jones and Cory Hill. Jones’ work rate and leadership sets the tone for others to follow. Cory Hill’s work rate is ferocious. The line out was an area which at times failed to fire in opportune attacking opportunities against England, an area Ireland could look to test out early in this contest. No weak link in this test side.

The subs bench has a good blend of youth and experience with undoubted match winners to come off the bench in the last quarter. Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe and George North are all solid picks. All players have international game minutes under their belt in this tournament.

Dee is a player of massive potential; his throwing to the line out and open play is on point. Jones and Francis provide excellent front row cover. Francis has played well for Exeter Chiefs this season; scrum technique has improved this season. The experienced Bradley Davies will provide solid work rate and leadership in the set piece upon his introduction. Tipuric in the second half at the breakdown could be an instrumental figure. Anscombe and North provide the creativity and nous to potentially unlock the Irish defensive late on.

This is an extremely solid Welsh side and when you consider that the likes of Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau are not in the squad, this is a formidable test team selected by Gatland. Wales will be defensively sound throughout. Their breakdown work on point if given the opportunity by Ireland. The key question is whether the layoffs for the likes of Biggar and Williams will affect their performance. They are both superbly talented players but can they hit the ground running at the weekend? Time will tell. Ireland bottom line have their work cut out to beat this side. Is Warren Gatland destined to add more woe to Ireland this weekend? Roll on Saturday to find out!