Guinness Six Nations: Round 4 Preview

Wales and England should secure wins!

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

Scotland banana skin for Wales?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England hold the aces against Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Six Nations Round 3 Preview: France vs. Scotland

Defining test match for France

After a week hiatus, the Guinness Six Nations tournaments roars back into action. A key test match for France in Paris against a Scottish side who despite injuries will look to secure a road trip in France for the first time since 1999. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Jacques Brunel and France need to deliver 

To say that this Guinness Six Nations tournament has been an unmitigated disaster for France would be the understatement of the year. Their Waterloo moment at Twickenham in round two has prompted Brunel to make more key personnel changes in hope than expectation.

Brunel has heaped faith on the Toulouse back line unit to come to his aid. Ramos comes into the full back slot to relieve Huget from the position. Fickou partners Bastareaud in the midfield, a better coaching decision from France. How France thought that Fickou was a world class wing is more evidence of the erratic team selection currently at play.

The half back combination is a Toulouse pairing. Dupont gets a deserved starting test match, the player has impressed for club this season but his ten partner is no other than Ntamack who has plied his trade at twelve this season for Toulouse. The player is more than capable but in the heat of a test match, this is another iffy selection from Brunel and management.

The pack looks robust, physical with the likes of Bamba, Poirot and Guirado in the front row. Lambey continues in the second row while there is a change in the back row where Lauret comes in for Camara. Picamoles and Iturria need to provide ball carrying dominance early.

The individuals are excellent but the team dynamic is entirely different question for me. Scotland will hope that this is the case and expose the frail confidence with the French camp. The exclusion of Lopez and Parra from the national team squad has wasted energy for Brunel and team when it should have been focused on the game plan this weekend.

Scotland will look to win in Paris for the first time since 1999. The task for Scotland is tough considering the injury list compounded by the withdrawal of Finn Russell at the start of the week. The perils of the player plying his trade in France came to haunt Scottish management as Russell suffered the head knock in their loss against Toulouse. A big blow considering that Stuart Hogg also misses out for Scotland; another creative force unavailable.

What to expect from Scotland? The pack need to provide a platform this weekend. It will be tough in the opening half considering the size and bulk that they will face in France but hopefully for Gregor Townsend’s side, the French pack will start to tire and could provide some try scoring opportunities. The key is to stay in the contest until half-time and then look to strike in the third quarter.

Peter Horne is entrusted to execute the Scottish game plan from the ten jersey. A talented player but at times can be a little predictable in his passing plays; interceptions are not far away. Horne’s kicking game has to be varied to keep France defensively off balance, otherwise Fickou and Huget will sense intercept opportunities.

The back line looks potentially exciting provided that they were given sufficient quick ruck ball. Kinghorn, Seymour and Maitland need to take the game to France with their ball carries. The pack is a mixed bag. Nel’s absence means less scrummaging presence which is a concern. Ireland enjoyed good periods of dominance in the set piece in round two and Scotland need to compete in the line out from minute one. They cannot be as passive as they were against Ireland.

Magnus Bradbury is a welcome addition for Scotland. The Edinburgh forward has just returned from injury; his abrasive ball carries will assist Scotland no end and should complement the breakdown nous of Ritchie and Strauss who will look to impose himself in the eight channel; looking for Ntamack at every opportunity.

Verdict:

This was a contest last weekend that I thought Scotland had a massive opportunity to win but the injury to Finn Russell has tipped the balance. I question how Peter Horne will control this test match sufficiently to see Scotland home here and coupled with Scottish pack vulnerability at the set piece, this looks to me like a France victory provided that they do not hit the self destruction button (questionable to say the least).

Guinness Six Nations: Scotland 13 – 22 Ireland

Ireland win secured

It may not have been pretty but the end justified the means for Ireland as Joe Schmidt’s pack took the game away from Scotland in the second half to secure a nine point victory. In a game played in blustery conditions, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the result and post-game talking points.

Dominant Scotland start

The first ten minutes saw Scotland start with tempo and attacking threat. The usual suspects for Scotland looking to create gain line breaks. Strauss, Gilchrist and Hogg all involved early with Finn Russell looking to orchestrate the game from the ten jersey.

The early dominance potentially could have led to more than the three points for Scotland. Greig Laidlaw slotted over after their initial concerted attacking salvo was stopped by a determined Ireland defensive line. Hogg’s afternoon ended prematurely with injury as Blair Kinghorn was summoned from the bench. 3-0.

Ireland respond in quick fashion 

Ireland had precious little to offer from an attacking sense but they were in front on eleven minutes. Good hands from Ireland in midfield saw Jacob Stockdale put in a kick deep into Scotland territory. Chris Farrell pressure on Tommy Seymour seeing the Glasgow Warriors winger to throw a panicked pass to Sean Maitland which flew over the Saracens winger’s head. Conor Murray on hand to collect the ball and score. Sexton who was receiving treatment for an injury snatched at the conversion. 3-5.

Six minutes later, Ireland extended their lead with the move of the game. Ireland in midfield looking to setup go forward ball. The ball finally came to Sexton who spotted Stockdale with a fine running line inside. The pass was precision personified and Stockdale was through. With Hogg off the pitch, Stockdale was untouched as he dived for his try under the posts. Murray slotted over the extras. 3-12.

Sexton injury sees Carbery game time 

The crunching tackle on Sexton from Allan Dell was the cue for the Leinster Rugby fly-half to call it quits. Joey Carbery was summoned from the bench and his initial cameos were good, looking to take the attacking play to Scotland with flat running lines and passes to colleagues.

However, the tactic was executed once too often as Finn Russell identified the opportunity to come out from the defensive line and intercept just inside Scotland’s half. Russell was stopped just short of the try line by Keith Earls but the composure of the Racing 92 fly-half to remain calm to identify a supporting runner was to the fore; a delicate pass to Sam Johnson to score. A bad moment for Carbery. A great opportunity for Scotland to get back into the contest. 10-12.

Pivotal exchange on half-time 

Scotland buoyed by the Johnson try and the success of their kick game and gain line breaks in open play saw the hosts force Ireland penalty concessions. The five meter line out for Scotland the cue for an extended period of play. Phase after phase from Scotland looking for that elusive gain line break to secure the try to go into the break ahead.

Ireland’s defensive line speed was on point, not committing and looking to prevent the Scottish offloading game in the tackle. The work rate of Aki, Farrell in midfield to stem this threat noticeable. Scotland huffed and puffed but Ireland forced the unforced error from Scotland. Carbery kicked the ball into touch. 10-12. Half-time.

Decisive third quarter for Ireland 

The blustery weather conditions reduced the expansive attacking game plan for both sides. The conditions saw a couple of turnovers for both sides in the opening second half exchanges; pressure from both sides in defense impressive but lack of cohesion in attacking play also self-evident.

Cue the key game winning moment of the game. Joey Carbery who was posed serious questions by Scotland in this test match received a nothing ball just inside Ireland’s half. Instead of looking to pass the ball away or kick deep, the Munster half back decided to run the ball. He beat Rob Harley and suddenly acres of ground was in front of the Athy native.

His composure to wait and identification of Keith Earls who would be applauded for reading the potential game was to the fore. An excellent sweeping pass to Earls who touched down. Carbery had arrived to this test match. His conversion unerring. 10-19.

Scotland try to fight back 

A two score game and Scotland looked to score quickly but found Ireland’s back row in feisty mood. Slow ruck ball meaning that Finn Russell was unable to execute any potential dangerous Scottish attacking plays. Laidlaw had to settle for three points as Ireland defensively held their line well. 13-22.

Ireland immediately looked to secure pack platform and wear down their opposition. Several attritional phases later and Scotland were pinged for rolling away. Carbery stepped up to kick three points off the tee after a lengthy discussion with his side in the huddle. A key score. Scotland were facing down the barrel of a home loss. 13-22.

Reflections

Ireland’s mantra was clear from the first minute; a win was all that mattered. The game plan was at times conservative, ball carrying approach was to rule protect then offload.

The set piece, an area of potential Irish vulnerability was the standout. 12/12 from Ireland line out. Roux, O’Mahony called the line out well, did not complicate matters and utilized the key jumpers at various points. Ultan Dillane cameo in the line out to the fore in the closing stages; a couple of quality line out takes and stole a pivotal Scottish line out close to Ireland’s line.

A performance which provides Ireland with a platform to impress for the rest of the tournament. The performance at times today was a bit rushed, composure issues with ball in hand negating the good work seen by the pack.

The Ireland back three stood up to the test today. Rob Kearney’s experience was invaluable today; his assured display under the high ball and his ball carrying provided assurance for Ireland in the back field. Earls was peppered early but settled to the task. Stockdale (my man of the match) was a threat with ball in hand whenever the ball came to the Ulster Rugby try scoring machine.

Joey Carbery and Ireland management will have learned heaps on this showing from the ten. Carbery responded to the nervy opening period cameo, it can only assist the team and the player to see the second half performance. Sexton’s injury withdrawal presented an opportunity for Schmidt to evaluate Carbery and the Athy native’s second half display was excellent.

Scotland’s loss will be a disappointment for Gregor Townsend and management. A sloppy opening try to concede provided Ireland a platform into the contest and then a defensive line failure saw Stockdale cross in quick time. The Earls try coming from a missed midfield tackle; the defensive shape once Ireland got over the gain line is something that needs to be reviewed and addressed for Scotland.

Finn Russell’s form and attacking threat was excellent. The back line had their moments but the weather conditions negated additional impact. The pack was exposed in the set piece and expect England, France and Wales to target the set piece in the coming weeks!

The bench impact was huge today. Ireland’s impact players came to the fore with key contributions. Kilcoyne set the tone early with some abrasive ball carries. Porter, Dillane, van der Flier, Cronin and Cooney provided good moments. Dillane in particular winning a penalty, two line out and a line out steal.

Quinn Roux should view today as a success. There was plenty of pressure on the player ahead of this test match but his work rate, scrummaging and line out calls were what was required on the day. Roux should look to start against Italy and provide more cameo time for Schmidt and management to see the player in full flow.

Sean O’Brien for me was the other standout performer for Ireland. His ball carrying was excellent, his breakdown work and fringe defense standout. A player who delivered for Ireland today when it was required. If the player can keep injury free, then Schmidt has a player who can deliver for the side in spades!

Ireland look to rebound at Murrayfield

Injuries mounting for Ireland

The reaction to Ireland’s opening round loss to a well drilled England side has been interesting to say the least. The mantra ‘you don’t become a bad team overnight’ should be the cameo but the social media reaction has been hilarious to see. Ireland look ahead to their second round fixture against Scotland realizing that their performance needs to improve but this performance needs to improve with a mounting injury list. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the selection posers for Ireland management.

Where are Ireland after last weekend?

It was a slow start to the tournament from Ireland. England hit the ground running and their line speed from minute one was incredible. They never let Ireland to settle into the contest and their physicality and aerial (yes) dominance in their back three laid the foundations for victory.

Ireland’s pack had a forlorn day. The line out creaked at pivotal times and were unable to compete against a well drilled England side who executed their line out with quick line out throws; the cohesion from the Saracens contingent massive. The line out dominance from England and the quick ball distribution had Ireland defensively on edge throughout.

Ireland fought hard and were leading this contest after thirty minutes (somehow) but the second England try after more defensive mix ups from Ireland’s back three saw the visitors sense their moment to win this contest. You have games where nothing comes off and Ireland’s half backs were under pressure from minute one. Murray and Sexton struggled for game management and the late intercept by Slade by Sexton summed up the day.

It was a disappointing result. The work rate was not in question but the tactical game plan and units unfamiliarity contributed no end to this loss. The game plan never deviated last weekend; was akin to the RWC 2015 quarter final loss to Argentina. Ireland continued to execute the same game plan and attacking line moves which were so behind the gain line that England were sprinting with intent on each defensive set.

The lack of variation in the game plan for me was the disappointing element to this performance; players did not execute the kick with the quality required in international test arena. One hopes from an Ireland that this facet of play fundamentally improves for the Murrayfield test match!

People have focused on the Robbie Henshaw’s full back positional switch. The experiment was unsuccessful this time but I sense that Ireland management may continue to trial this experiment potentially further. There were positional issues and lack of aerial dominance early doors saw England continue to pepper Henshaw. The back three unit defensively looked vulnerable all day collectively.

It was a timely reminder for the Irish sporting public and team last weekend. The performance was not at the level required to win the test match, the tempo control was England’s. Lessons need to be learned for the team and management particularly with a RWC 2019 tournament coming. A repeat performance against Scotland in this tournament and Ireland are facing a quarter final mission impossible potentially.

Injuries mount 

The sheer physicality of last weekend’s encounter with England was there in the Ireland rugby press release this week. Stander, Toner and Ringrose scratched from the squad due to injury. There are lingering concerns on the fitness of the likes of Keith Earls who was subjected to massive physical test under the aerial high ball.

The Itoje incident last weekend still grates for me personally; not one Irish player went to confront the Saracens lock on it. The team of us? Nope. Are you in? It is a no given the reaction of Irish players to support their colleague in the heat of battle. Someone in the camp hopefully raised the issue during video analysis. It was unacceptable and it made Ireland look like an easy touch (officiating crew was weak too).

Team Selection

Robbie Henshaw surely will get another crack at the full back position. Ireland management have to stick to their guns, otherwise the question why did they make the selection will be raised?

The wing options if Earls is passed fit should be the Munster Rugby speedster along with Jacob Stockdale who will hope for better quality attacking ball. The three quarters options looks intriguing. Who fills the shoes of Ringrose?

If Henshaw is retained at full back, then a couple of players come into the reckoning. Chris Farrell or Will Addison look the viable options. I think either player would seamlessly fill the position. Addison for me is a player of great upside and needs to see game time in this tournament along with Larmour and a game fit Rob Kearney.

Wondering on the ten position? Does Schmidt throw Joey Carbery into the tournament on the road this weekend? I am not so sure, only a thought. Sexton will be eager to deliver after a subdued performance last weekend but we need to see Carbery in the heat of battle against a quality test match outfit. No disrespect Italy but Carbery may not get that test in round three. Intriguing selection poser there, one that be beneficial for RWC 2019.

Murray will start at scrum-half. Schmidt’s go to man for a road trip like this. His box kicking will surely improve this weekend. The Munster Rugby scrum half will look to set the tone early. John Cooney potentially could get a test match berth against Italy in round three; it would be the perfect cameo for the Ulster Rugby scrum half to be initially evaluated with a view for additional test match minutes against France and Wales.

The pack will have changes. The front row will remain unchanged; suspect changes to this unit once the Italian fixture is on the schedule book. Healy and Furlong battled hard on all fronts with minimal rewards. Best was abrasive but the line out was a mixed bag at vital times.

The second row should see personnel changes. Toner if not 100% does not start and maybe it is time to evaluate Quinn Roux in the second row. Roux has impressed for Connacht Rugby this season. Schmidt is a big fan and he needs to be put into the line of fire from the first whistle.

Ultan Dillane comes into the bench reckoning as well. Toner’s ankle has to fully recover (have serious doubts that this will recover) so would scratch him for this game. Depth chart second row analysis exercise. Holland, O’Connor and Treadwell will look on with interest if additional second row bodies fall this weekend.

The back row unit will also have changes. Stander’s horrific facial injuries means that Jack Conan or Sean O’Brien are primed for the eight jersey. Conan for me would be the choice but Ireland management have been anything but predictable in their selections so far. O’Brien audition at eight? Do not be surprised.

The back row unit will be completed by van der Flier and O’Mahony who will look to assert influence on all facets of play. Work rate was exceptional but the sheer brute force of England snuffed out their breakdown and ball carrying threat.

Bench Impact 

The bench impact looks excellent. It is dependent on the first team selection but the likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Porter should an abrasive impact in the front row and with Nel absence, it could tilt the test match battle in the third quarter.

Cooney and Carbery will look on with interest on the bench; will they get meaningful game minutes on the bench? Carbery and Larmour’s versatility could be tested early if Earls has to go off injured early. It is a strong bench and their impact needs to be decisive when called upon this weekend.

What to expect?

A week where Ireland players have said the right things. The hurt from last weekend needs to provide an edge this week in the preparations for this Murrayfield test match battle. There will be personnel changes and cohesion issues potentially could still emerge. For players like Henshaw, it is time to produce an assured performance.

Otherwise, the opening round loss may descend into media panicked frenzied headlines that the side are collapsing around their ears! Don’t believe it, this is a tricky assignment at the best of times. A win would be great but it is the performance that what matters. Players who get their chance hopefully impress to build the depth chart further. Roll on Saturday to see the end results!

Confident Scotland primed for Ireland scalp

Fortress Murrayfield.

Saturday afternoon sees Scotland take on Ireland at Murrayfield. The home side will pose attacking threats aplenty while their pack and defensive setup has improved significantly. Ireland will be fully aware of the challenge which faces them. In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key strengths of this Scottish side.

Attacking Threats

Finn Russell

Gregor Townsend has allowed his side to express themselves with ball in hand; carrying on the ethos from Glasgow Warriors. The play making options for Scotland are many.

Greig Laidlaw provides experience and shrewd game management from scrum half. His understanding of the game and unerring kicking off the tee means that Finn Russell can fully focus on open play and how impressive was the Racing 92 half-back last weekend.

A sensational diagonal kick exposing Italy’s vulnerable back three where Blair Kinghorn gleefully accepted for the opening try of their victory last weekend. It demonstrated invention, creativity and game awareness that Italy’s defensive line were too tight. The kick was on the money. The result thereafter was never in doubt.

The marauding Stuart Hogg also comes into the equation when it comes for attacking threat. His ability to create coming into the line from the full back position is world class. His invention to the fore in his try last weekend; a deft touch to put the finishing touches to another subtle kick from Russell in behind a shell shocked Italian defense.

Hogg’s big boot means that the kicking game from Scotland will also challenge Ireland in this department along with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn who will be full of confidence after his hat-trick last weekend. The pace and power of this back three will expose Ireland if the play opens up into an unstructured contest particularly in the third quarter.

Evolving Pack 

The pack has improved immeasurably in the past two seasons, evident in the record of the side at Murrayfield (unbeaten in this tournament for the last two seasons). The pack will be buoyed by the impressive form of the Edinburgh Rugby contingent who have impressed in the set piece exchanges for club and is translated to national team duty also.

Solid front five against Italy albeit Nel looks a scratch for the Ireland game which is a blow considering his form for Edinburgh Rugby this term. Dell and McInally are experienced international performers and with an abrasive and industrious second row partnership of Toolis and Gilchrist, the set piece has been on point. Solid line out call management expected.

The back row unit has fluctuated due to injuries. Skinner had his opportunity but had to withdraw early to be replaced by Josh Strauss who showed extremely well in the breakdown and ball in hand exchanges. Ryan Wilson is another abrasive ball carrier. Wonder if John Hardie will be involved in this fixture for his breakdown work ability?

The pack have been critiqued in recent years for their maul defense but this has improved particularly under Townsend’s watch. There is no significant weak link in this pack and their combative, workmanlike style will pose Ireland’s pack which has been disrupted with injuries.

Lengthy Injury List

Scotland do have injury issues of their own. The back row has been depleted with injuries. I have mentioned Skinner’s unfortunate injury against Italy but David Denton, John Barclay and Hamish Watson are also key marquee names unavailable for selection in this unit.

When you add also the likes of Richie Gray, Cornell du Preez, Zander and Matt Fagerson, Luke Hamilton, Byron McGuigan, Matt Scott, Rory Sutherland, Duncan Taylor, Blade Thomson, George Turner and Jon Welsh — that is a lengthy injury list.

One thing is for sure. Scotland’s depth chart will be fully identified at the end of this tournament and if it is any indication from last week’s performance, Scotland will be a live threat in the pool phase of the RWC 2019 for their opponent this weekend in Ireland.

Any vulnerabilities?

The only genuine disappointment for Scotland last weekend was when Berghan was sin binned. Italy who were second best suddenly came back into the contest and scored two tries in those ten minutes of the contest. The two tries were different score concessions; first one was pack intensive drives close to the line and the second one was open play where Italy offload suddenly opened a 2:1 opportunity.

It was the only negative from an excellent Scotland performance last weekend. No doubt Townsend has called this out in video analysis and the team will be primed for further improvement against Ireland. A nation expects. A nation demands a victory, that nation is Scotland!

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

November Rugby Union Internationals: Squad Announcements

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

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

England: Squad Selection Debate

England squad selection interesting reading

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

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

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

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

New Zealand: Focus on RWC 2019

Steve Hansen looking to RWC 2019 with extended squad selection

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

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

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

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

Australia: Backs Against Wall Selection

Surprise midfield inclusion for beleaguered Australians

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

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

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

Wales: Solid squad selection 

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad

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

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

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

Scotland: Notable Inclusions Key

Scotland squad selection looks exciting

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

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

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

France: In Bamba we trust 

Brunel calls up Bamba, drops Slimani 

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

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

Argentina: Homegrown Talent Selection

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

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

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.