The second round of the tournament has arrived and with it has come management conundrums on how to freshen the starting lineups without losing continuity and performance levels. The weekend fixtures have thrown up some intriguing subplots and Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key pointers to look out for.
France vs. Ireland
Ireland have come out the wrong end of the fixture scheduling this season. After a bruising draw against Wales last Sunday, Joe Schmidt’s charges travel to Paris on less than six days rest and preparation. The fixture has come too soon for Simon Zebo (knee niggle) and Keith Earls (concussion) but Joe Schmidt can rely on Rob and Dave Kearney fill those starting berths respectively. Dave Kearney’s inclusion may raise eyebrows but the player has a chance of redemption after a disastrous RWC quarter-final against Argentina who exposed his wing throughout with power and pace. His afternoon of redemption could be potentially hard earned considering who will be up against in the speed merchant Thomas and try scoring machine Vakatawa whose power and speed is scarily good with ball in hand, whether he is as good defensively remains an entirely different story.
France have named six changes to the starting lineup but Noves has kept faith with his half-back pairing. Bezy and Plisson along with Jonathan Danty have the skills and power to break the Ireland defensive line. The decision to retain his half-back pairing is in stark contrast to Noves’ predecessors who consistently were tinkering with scrum-half and out-half position leading to rudderless France game management. The attacking side of the ball looks extremely interesting on paper but defensively they have shown that there are spaces to exploit so the question is whether Henshaw and Payne have the skill set to take advantage.
The game will be decided in the front five and I fear for Ireland. The scrum was second best against Wales last weekend even though Schmidt is quick to quip on the officiating of the set piece. The microscope will be focused firmly on Nathan White who needs to hold his own in the scrum against a French scrum which showed positive signs for long periods last weekend. With Slimani waiting for his chance off the bench, Ireland’s front row will receive a stern examination. Does Jack McGrath have to play a full game again? Why have James Cronin on the bench if management does not have any obvious faith in the player? The second row battle looks like advantage France. Maestri and Flanquart provide both beef and lineout solidity where Ireland showed massive vulnerabilities at second and third lineout options last weekend. McCarthy as a lineout option is mediocre at best and France will look to identify that weak point.
France even not playing well scored three very well worked tries last weekend. An attacking system is forming under Noves and Ireland’s defensive structures will be tested and due to the scheduling, gaps will open in the last twenty minutes. France require payback for some abject performances against Ireland in recent games. Despite the inclusion of O’Brien to the back row, Ireland are looking to struggle to gain parity in the breakdown due to the inclusion of Camara in rhe side, his pace and power will be a massive bonus for Le Bleu. France by ten points for me and Ireland’s schedule will catch up on them in the final quarter, damn those blasted computational algorithmic fixture programs.
Wales vs. Scotland
Wales have the Ireland scenario to contend with; a six day turnaround but they have home comforts to fall back on as they welcome a Scotland side whose indifferent performance against England makes them underdogs. Wales name Dan Biggar in their lineup even though the Ospreys half-back did not look comfortable last weekend. The Wales team is among familiar lines and the back row options that Gatland has at his disposal is the envy of the other teams in this tournament. The interesting point from this game will be how Wales improve their attacking play; extremely one dimensional last weekend against Ireland with ball carriers crashing ball into a resolute Ireland defense with minimal offloading opportunities. Roberts and Davies at three quarters need to vary their attacking lines and for their colleagues to support them off their shoulder to receive the ball. Wales need to show a different side to their play in the attacking sense so as to boost their points difference come the end of the tournament.
Scotland enter this fixture after a indifferent showing against perennial rivals England at Murrayfield. The six point loss to anyone who saw the result on Sunday morning at the breakfast table a close run thing but in reality the game should have being a fifteen point defeat such was England’s dominance for long periods in the pack. Owen Farrell’s kicking performance left Scotland in the contest but the hosts were unable to string any continuity to their play. The out-half options are scarce and Finn Russell’s cameo was indifferent at best who failed to launch his three quarters and botched a genuine try scoring opportunity by fly kicking the ball after intercepting an England attack close to the Scottish line. It is this lack of game management which is losing games continually for Scotland in this tournament. Hogg is the standout player in the side but his ball touches are minimal from full back which surely must spark managerial conversation in switching Hogg to three quarters or even at fly-half to provide creativity and attacking line speed.
Wales enter this contest as slight favorites but with the six day turnaround and the fact that the same players are predominantly featuring for the Welsh, Scotland have a chance but they need to show significant improvement in all aspects of play to cause the upset. The scrum battle will be a key tussle and Wales’ Evans and Lee will be buoyed by their display against Ireland last weekend while Scotland’s scrum buckled under intense England pressure. The game for me will be decided in the back line and Wales have more weapons and a out-half who looks capable of unleashing his three quarters while his counterpart does not. Scotland to be competitive but Wales to edge this by seven points. Cotter will need to rethink his approach to out-half and back line after this contest as more holes will be picked on their attacking strategy and over-reliance of Laidlaw from the kicking tee.
Italy vs. England
The Sunday matinee and this could be the proverbial stroll in the park for new look England. Eddie Jones’ charges should flashes of offloading and attacking play against Scotland and given the efforts exerted by Italy last weekend, suspect that the level of performance will dip and allow England to score several tries. The England pack produced the best performance of the opening round last weekend; line-out was solid and the scrum was dominant with Coles superb. The maul created Kruis’ try and one suspects more joy against an Italian pack who at times struggled against France. Parisse was immense lasr weekend, showed leadership when others flat out shirked responsibility evident in the last three phrases of play in Paris. The lack of leadership will have hurt the Italian camp in the lead-up to this fixture.
No new faces to energize the camp means that Italy are going to be on fumes come the end of the tournament. The negative thoughts of losing another close contest will be in their minds and England will gratefully lap up any weakness. Eddie Jones’ team need to show their attacking strategy. Nowell in the wing has the pace and power to top the try scoring sheets in this tournament but he needs Ford, Farrell and Joseph to provide the attacking line speed and pass evident in his try last weekend. England to win this fixture at a canter. Italy are going nowhere fast; one dimensional pack orientated game with minimal options out wide. This could be a long, long afternoon for the Azzuri and one wonders where they go from here for the rest of the tournament and their long term strategy leading to the next RWC. England by twenty points despite Parisse’s herculean efforts.