Guinness Six Nations: Round 4 Preview

Wales and England should secure wins!

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

Scotland banana skin for Wales?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England hold the aces against Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness Six Nations Round Three Preview: Wales vs. England

All roads lead to Cardiff this weekend

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

Gatland places trust in Anscombe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Jones deflecting the pressure off his players 

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

Guinness Six Nations: Round 1 Preview

Two home wins, one road win predicted

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

Welsh consistency to beat unpredictable French 

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

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

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

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

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

Scottish pack to provide platform for victory 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland disciplined approach the key to victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guinness 6 Nations: France vs. Wales Preview

Paris Friday Night Lights

The 2019 Guinness Six Nations tournament kicks off under the lights of Paris on Friday night as Wales look to prey on French frailties and lack of confidence. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the team selections.

Team News:

France: Maxime Medard; Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget; Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado, Uini Atonio; Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse; Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bamba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gael Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou.

Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

Talking Points:

France: Confidence Low

Selection policy unknown

Jacques Brunel has given Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse their debut test match caps in this fixture. Ntamack has impressed with Toulouse this season and his inclusion means that
Mathieu Bastareaud is omitted from the match day squad entirely.

Paul Willemse debut is to run the rule over the Montpellier player and see if he complements Vahaamahina who has struggled for second row partners in recent games. I am not sure if Willemse is the answer; his performances in European Cup action have been a mixed bag. The jury is out on that selection truth be told and is an area where Wales could completely exploit.

The pack is beefy to say the least with the decision to include the likes of Atonio and Poirot in the ranks. The back row looks abrasive with the guile of Iturria at the breakdown and the ball carrying of Picamoles and Lauret who has played well in a strong Racing 92 outfit this term.

The half back pairing looks well balanced. Parra and Lopez will orchestrate the kicking game. It will be interesting to see if the half back pairing can evolve and launch their three quarters more than previously seen in recent fixtures. Ntamack demands quick ball to use his fast movement to create gain line breaks.

Wales: Well Balanced Selection

Well balanced side named by Warren Gatland

I do like this selection from Warren Gatland. He has rewarded players on form with the half back pairing. Tomos Williams gets the nod ahead of Gareth Davies, the scrum half has been excellent this season.

Gareth Anscombe when I have seen the player this season has been impressive for Cardiff Blues and Wales. It is an exciting half back pairing and their quick game management should create space for Parkes and Davies in the three quarters to exploit inexperience in the French three quarter partnership.

The pack named has a solid, consistent look to it. The front row of Evans, Owens and Francis will provide a solid scrum set piece, fancy them to turn the screw on the French front row in the second quarter.

The second row contains the mercurial leader that is Alyn Wyn-Jones and Adam Beard who has impressed this season. The back row of Navidi and Tipuric at the breakdown should edge this facet of play. Ross Moriarty’s lack of game time is a question mark but if fit will be his abrasive best with ball carries, tackle count and defensive work.

The back line has an exciting look to it. Josh Adams and George North pace on the wings. Liam Williams coming into the line will provide additional headaches for France in the back three defensive channels. Davies and Parkes at three quarters; complement each other well. Their ability to create with ball in hand coupled with an excellent kick game if required to manage a game time scenario will ease the pressure on Anscombe and Williams.

Verdict: Wales 

As I have said in previous blogs in recent weeks, this Welsh side is well setup to win this tournament. Their unbeaten record to this fixture will only inspire confidence in the ranks. The side looks more solid, more cohesive than a French side whose selection remains up in the air. I am wondering if Brunel knows what his best side is? A loss here and France are in complete free fall.

Wales’ bench looks stronger on paper. The sight of Biggar and Davies at half back to close out the contest in the final quarter is enough for me. The rest of the bench will provide the required impact. France’s squad bench individually looks the part but there is a lack of cohesion here on the selection. Demba Bamba should be starting this test match but is not. France could shock everyone (including yours truly and themselves) but this is a fixture which Wales need to provide a statement of intent early. A cohesive performance is expected from Wales. Wales for me win this fixture by seven points.

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 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.

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!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

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

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland outclass poor Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland keep composure to beat France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Preview

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

Can expansive Wales upset England on the road?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland’s back line given chance to deliver or else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Townsend wields the axe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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