Ireland v England Preview

All eyes will be on Dublin this evening. The English will be hoping to break records. The Irish will be looking to make amends. We will be looking to spoil the party. We did it against the All Blacks but can we do it again?

Playing for a record breaking nineteen straight wins, this English side are not short in confidence. Steamrolling a worn down Scotland last week, they brought their game to a new level. Eddie Jones has said his team will bring it to a higher level against Ireland. Crap. He loves this game. If England play to their best and Ireland to theirs, England will win. The big question is, can Ireland stop England from playing?

Quick line speed, a solid piece and success at the breakdown will be the foundation for an Irish victory. Target the playmaker axis of Youngs/Ford/Farrell and it’s half the battle. Ireland will need to be quick off the blocks to slow any quick ball from the English.

With Ireland’s line-out a weakness of late, it must function to have any chance in the game. I believe Schmidt, the cunning tactician, will have something up his sleeve. On the flip-side, the Brits boast a 100% line-out success rate this championship. It’s a major facet to the English attack and one where lock/flanker Maro Itoje has been sublime. At scrum-time the sides are evenly matched. Either front trio could start the Lions test. Both have set a high standard in this years Six Nations but I believe Ireland may just edge this battle.

With Henderson starting, I believe Schmidt has his eyes on the breakdown. Starting the Ulsterman, with the excellent back row, provides good options for ball turnover and retention at the ruck. I envisage Ireland picking up penalties on the deck. Referee Jerome Garces may perceive Ireland’s work at the breakdown positively. In Ireland’s November clash with Australia, we gave away three penalties to Australia’s thirteen. Some of the same this eve please.

As always, the half-backs need to be on point. As the Welsh successfully showed by targeting Murray and Sexton, Ireland’s chances were faltered. Injury prone Sexton will need a full game. His partnership with rookie Kieran Marmion will be interesting. Marmion provides quick ball which will be an asset to Ireland’s game. The English will look to target his inexperience. Expect powerhouse Billy Vunipola to steamroll down his channel. After reviewing England’s games, I believe there is a weakness in George Ford’s defense. On numerous occasions the opposition ran down his channel, making some headway and line breaks in the process. Expect O’Brien and co. to pressurize the fly half.

After a lacklustre campaign, the Irish will be hoping to finish on a high. Not only is pride a motivational factor but World Cup seedings are on the line. Should Wales beat France and Ireland loose, the Irish would slip to 5th in the world, swimming with the sharks of world rugby in the process.

The English are the most likely victors. If Ireland don’t close down quick ball it may be a long day. Defensively, Ringrose needs a big game. Payne at fullback offers another dimension to Ireland’s less than impressive attack. Let’s not forget the Welsh and the French were unlucky not to seal victories against their foe. The main point is the English grind out results. They have grit and determination.

For the weekend that’s in it, and how the Irish love to spoil the English party, I’m going for an Irish win. I believe we will kick to goal more often and build up the scoreboard. Ireland by 9 points.

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Six Nations Round Three Preview

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Scotland v Wales, Saturday, 2:25pm

With six games completed of this years championship,this match up has been the closest to call. The two Celtic Nations put in good performances in round one and round two, respectively. The Scots beat the Irish in Murrayfield, and the Welsh, although not firing on all cylinders against Italy, put in a strong performance against the English. With great rivalry between the sides, this is sure to be a captivating game of rugby.

Depleted Scottish bodies were astrew in the battle royale against the French. That game took a toll – the Scots are now without talisman Greg Laidlaw and No. 8 Josh Strauss for the remainder of the championship. A big loss, one would hope the Scots can function effectively without them. On the flip side the Welsh have winger George North returning. A physical back, the Scots will be hoping their defence doesn’t go south when North is on the ball.

Remarkably, or maybe not, the Scots have never beaten the Welsh in ten years. To have any chance of breaking that streak, the Scots must have a stronger set-piece. Their scrum is a major weakness, clearly evident against the Irish and the French. A major strength for the Scots is the breakdown. At ruck time, they have been the quickest for players getting into the ruck at 0.88 seconds, with 82% ruck effectiveness. Compare that time to the Welsh who have averaged 1.36 seconds. Not much on paper, but in a high tempo game, minuscule differences are crucial.

With the Scots missing their most influential player in Laidlaw, a victory may be hard fought. If we were to analyse each position on the park, the Welsh, in my view, are marginally ahead. Providing they don’t implode, or kick the ball aimlessly to the opposition, they should get the victory. Wales by 2.

Ireland v France,‭ ‬Saturday,‭ ‬4:50pm

The French are finding some structure in their performances of late. Coming off the back of a strong series in November, they put on a solid showing against the English. Losing by only three points in Twickenham is no mean feat. Could they back that performance up?

Skillful offloading and crashing over the gain-line have been‭ ‬plentiful in their past few games.‭ ‬The thing is,‭ ‬the French cannot perform like that for‭ ‬80‭ ‬mins.‭ ‬They make mistakes.‭ ‬They wear out.‭ ‬They turn on,‭ ‬then they turn off.‭ ‬After their strong performance in London they did not back that up against the Scots.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a core issue in French rugby,‭ ‬and one the Irish can take advantage of.

Schmidt,‭ ‬ever the tactician,‭ ‬will have studied endless video analysis of the French.‭ ‬One area I believe he will target is the French indiscipline.‭ ‬If the Irish can hammer away after numerous phases of attack,‭ ‬we will cause them to make errors.‭

It goes without saying,‭ ‬expect the fly halves to play a pivotal role in the game.‭ ‬With Sexton returning,‭ his bossing on the pitch will be a major asset for Ireland. A world class operator, h‬is ability to return ‬100%‭ ‬after his numerous layoffs will sway any doubts about his performance. When Jackson comes off the bench, I’m hoping it’s not sooner rather than later. The French will inevitably put in some hard hits on Sexton, although I’m a lot more confident in Jackson’s ability than before.

As pundits alike will echo my words,‭ ‬the French have the ability to put‭ ‬in a strong performance.‭ ‬With a rested period between games,‭ ‬they are a physical side and will stretch the Irish defence.‭ ‬France have size and power but ultimately do not possess the same fitness as the Irish.‭ ‬If we can keep their offloading to a minimum,‭ ‬defend well on the outer channels,‭ ‬and maintain a solid set piece,‭ ‬we should‭ ‬claim the win.‭ ‬With‭ ‬80‭ ‬mins of‭ ‬heart stopping rugby on the cards,‭ ‬a‭ ‬relentless war of‭ ‬attrition‭ ‬awaits.‭ ‬Ireland by‭ ‬10.‭

Image courtesy of Sean O’Brien’s Instagram page

Six Nations Round 2 Preview

As we look to round two there are a number of things we can dissect from the first weekend of games. Scotland started on a high. Ireland on a delay. France had finesse. England were relatively flat. Wales never heard the starting pistol. And Italy. Well Italy were Italy….

As the weekend looms there is room for improvement with very side. General rustiness should be ironed out if teams wish to progress their game-plan. With World Cup seedings on the line, every game is knockout rugby. Needless to say, it should be a feisty weekend of oval ball action.

Ireland v Italy

As Ireland have shown, the rustiness of the first game was clearly evident from the start. As the Italian game looms, that rugby shine must well and truly come to the fore. No rust can remain.

Pundits and internet forum bandits were quick to point the finger at the Ringroses and the Kearneys after the loss to Scotland.  The delay from the start may have played a part in the teams pre-game preparation, but collectively, the system failed. The game-plan and the players implementation of said plan must be fixed or stronger teams will run riot.

Ireland were uncharacteristically poor in the line-out. Last season Italy scored the most tries from line-out out of every other nation (63%). To counter this I believe Donnacha Ryan will come in replace of Henderson. Trimble may replace Earls and that would be my only changes.

In hindsight, the Scotland game was a real eye opener. It takes out of character displays for straight up action. With a much improved set piece, better communication and effective utilization of the replacements, the Irish should come out on top. Ireland by 28+.

Wales v England

Wales host England in the cauldron that is the Principality Stadium. Although both sides weren’t firing on all cylinders last weekend, expect a war of attrition.

In what will be a tactical and territorial showdown, both fly halves will need to be on point. After his second half performance against the Italians, Sam Davies may get the nod over Dan Biggar. Setting up North’s try, Davies ran some sublime lines against the Italian defense. Not only has he the confidence to back himself , but he has the vision required to be a world class number 10. If Biggar or Davies are on their game then their opposite number must be on par. Step up the Ford/Farrell axis. With great link up play, they played an integral part in England’s victory over France. Like Davies, Farrell’s line for Ben Te’o’s try was world class. In what was a very well worked team play, the centre partnership has that vision and finesse to put teams away.

With England’s bench having a major impact vs France, I’d expect the same against the Welsh. Always an enthralling fixture, a largely physical 80 minutes awaits. As clichéd as it sounds, the battle will be won at the breakdown. England by 6.

France v Scotland

The French flare is well and truly reignited under Novés. Succumbing to a three point loss over their foes, a lot of positives can be taken from the French performance. If France were reignited then the Scots were on fire. Tactically superb they executed their game plan perfectly against the Irish. If the backroom team have their analysis spot on against the French, then a tight game may await.

Crossing the line on two occasions, and with 12 carries, the French must not give Stuart Hogg any room to perform his magic. The same could be said for French fullback Scott Spedding. With 5 defenders beaten and 116 metres carried, the Scots can not afford to give this man space. That’s where the importance of accurate kicking comes to the fore. Whether it’s box kicking from the in-form scrum halves or territorial kicking from the fly halves, every kick will be of importance. The battle of the half backs will be a fascinating area to watch.

As ever, the set piece will be of huge importance. Here’s where I believe the French have the upper hand. The French scrum was strong against a physical English pack. The Scots not so much against the Irish. Expect a few penalties here. Also expect Louis Picamoles to make headway against the Scots. His MOTM performance against England reinforced his position as the best Number 8 in world rugby. With 15 carries and 122 metres gained, if he replicates that performance this Scottish team will have their work cut out. Saying that, I believe there will be too much work for the Scots to contain this traditional French side. France by 12.

 

Six Nations 2017 Preview and Predictions

Springtime. Nesting season. The transition of darkness into light. The beginning of the greatest annual championship on earth. The Six Nations. What can only be described as a tantalising few weeks, the Six Nations Championship has never been more competitive. With the new bonus point structure introduced for the first time, there are a number of incentives for each nation as the tournament progresses. Let’s look at each team – and their influential players  – and see what they can bring to the tournament.

Ireland

After a successful November Series the Irish will be looking to build on an historical result by beating the All Blacks for the first time. Beating New Zealand, South Africa and Australia for the first time in the same year is a great achievement….the last Northern Hemisphere side to do so was England in 2003…and we know what happened that year.

As this goes to post we learn that Sexton is out injured. I’m not surprised, better off recuperating than inevitably not lasting the full 80 mins. Luckily Jackson is fit and Carbery is returning in a few weeks after an injury layoff. Squad debutant Rory Scannell is there to provide additional fly half cover, an exciting prospect, along with his brother Niall. Throw Jack Conan in the mix and the conveyor belt of rugby personnel is laughable.

This year the pundits are earmarking the Grand Slam decider on 18th March between Ireland and England. I believe there won’t be a Grand Slam as every team can beat each other on the day, it’s that close. Ireland have strength in depth. They have a mix of experience and youth. Some players have that x factor but I feel we sometimes lack that clinical edge and try-scoring ability. Saying that, I’m predicting Ireland to come 2nd on points difference. With his majestic form, for both club and country, expect CJ Stander to have a rock solid tournament. Expect a few MOTM awards also….

England

Six Nations holders England come into the championship on a 14 game unbeaten run. Will they match the All Blacks record of 18 consecutive victories?

England coach Eddie Jones is the personification of English rugby. Arrogant. Aggressive. In your face. He’s not afraid to stir things up. If Jones is the personification of English rugby then Dylan Hartley is their twin brother. Retaining Hartley as captain may be seen by many as rewarding the indiscipline. Giving a man leadership and authority to someone like Hartley is a masterstroke.  He can project the English rugby culture we love to hate..

There is something about playing England that gives teams that added bit of spice. With their physical forwards, a strong half back pairing and exciting backs, there is every reason for this team to be confident. Confident they are but ravenous with injuries. First team players Haskell, Robshaw, Watson and the two Vunipola brothers are sidelined. Injury ridden this may interrupt their championship plans but like Ireland they too have strength in depth. Expect 21yo Maro Itoje to cover flanker in place of Robshaw. Making his debut in last years six nations, he set the stage alight receiving MOTM in his second competitive start. Predicted finish : 1st, no Grand Slam.

Scotland

Will the Scots be the stereotypical dark horse and get the results pundits have been calling on for years?  Head coach Vern Cotter’s last tournament with Scotland , he will be hoping to show the rugby world that he has progressed this team. Two points away from beating Australia in November. They beat a strong Argentinian side. Twenty seven point winners over the physical Georgians. I believe this team have never been in a better position to take scalps from the top four (Ireland, England, Wales, France).

With most of this Scotland team enjoying European success with Edinburgh and Glasgow, this side has no lack of confidence and talent. Last years People’s Player of the Tournament Stuart Hogg is vital for the Scots. He has that skill-set, pace, and confidence to make a mark on any game. He splits defenses open, his aerial game is sublime and should be the number one choice for the Lions come June. Another man that can sting their opponents is two time capped, Super Rugby player, Huw Jones. Scoring two tries against world number two side Australia, he can rip up any hardened defense.  I’m secretly hoping Scotland can produce the results and truly believe this will be their best tournament in years.  Predicted finish : 3rd.

France

The inevitable question that is asked every year – which French side will turn up to this years Six Nations? Needless to say they have regressed over the past few years. Now they have a decent coach and seem to be progressing in the right direction.

Guy Noves is growing this French team. In the Autumn Internationals they came close to beating the All Blacks, just an intercept try separated the sides. They succumbed 25-23 to Australia. Hints are there that this side can claim a few scalps this year.

A major cog in the French fluidity style of play is Fofana. Sidelined with injury, he is a big blow to the way they play the game under Noves. I’ve watched Machenaud and his goal kicking isn’t great. He missed a number of place kicks against Samoa. If fly half Camille Lopez can be consistent in his role, they have a great chance. All and all I believe France will raise a few eyebrows but will succumb to 4th place. Expect Fijian born winger and 7‘s player Virimi Vakatawa to light things up. Scoring three tries vs Samoa , and another vs Australia, he reminds me of a dancing Nemani Nadolo, side stepping opponents for fun.

Wales

Roll back 4 years. Rob Howley was caretaker coach for Wales. The pundits dismissed the Welsh side, little expectation was made. That year they went on to rustle a number of feathers and claim the Six Nations title. Given the underdog tag, Wales will relish the media’s subdued approach to their chances in this years tournament.

Unlike the other teams, the Welsh did not lay down a marker in the Autumn Internationals. Getting the results, it was scrappy at best. I believe this Welsh team peaked a few years ago, but they still possess some great talent. Italy first up could give them the momentum they need into round two where they meet England at home.

Scarlett winger Scott Williams is on form and will be sure to carve defenses open with his agile, quick pace. Fly half Biggar and his sublime place kicking will be key to Wales’s chances.

It’s very hard to foresee what Wales can do in this years Championship. First or last is a distinct possibility. This week the bookies have cut them from 50/1 to 25/1 for the Wooden Spoon. 50/1 was value….I’ll stick my neck out and say a 5th place finish.

Italy

The Italians produced one of the greatest upsets (not THE greatest 😉 ) in November by beating South Africa. Albeit, a week later they lost to minnows Tonga. Can the Italians iron out their inconsistencies and take this years championship by storm?

Italian head coach Conor O’Shea is a world class man manager and great motivator. The former RTE pundit claimed the Aviva Premiership title with Harlequins in 2012. In 2011 they won the European Challenge Cup under the Irishman. A few riches under his belt – the Italians have a gem on their hands.
In November, I feel O’Shea targeted a depleted South African side to give this Italian team some confidence and belief. Fantastic for the players, most of whom play with the less glamorous Italian club sides. Replicating that result is the big question. One man who knows about persistence is Parisse. A must have in any fantasy team, other players must step up. Centre Campagnaro, with his skill and experience, can radiate that desire amongst his teammates. But one player, whom I feel will play an integral part in the Italians progression, is fly half Carlo Canna. Being of major influence in Zebre’s first ever win on Scottish soil in October, then orchestrating the win over South Africa, Canna has the vision to properly manage the game on-field. The Italians will cause an upset or two but lacking the bonus points, a 6th place finish awaits.

Image courtesy of BBC

The Final Hurdle

With 3 teams left for the crown, all eyes will be on Paris come 5pm. Can England spring a monstrous points haul over Italy? Can Ireland take a French side on home soil – a feat accomplished just once in 42 years? Tout sera révélé.

If you could write a fairy tale ending then this was it. Ireland trounced Italy and one man was at the centre of it all. Brian O’ Driscoll. In my weekend preview I earmarked him for a try. He did everything but score. Directly set up 2 tries and indirectly another. His work-rate was fantastic. His passion sublime. He never fails to deliver and I feel this weekend will be the same.

The first 40mins of the Italian game didn’t yield nice viewing. Although, like I noted before, we would pull away in the second half. How many times have we heard “We wore them down as the game progressed”? This was the underlying success of the game. Schmidt has his players holding possession (75%) and wore the Italians down. After a Six Nations record 208 tackles, they were well and truly worn down. They failed to score a single point in second half. We had the luxury of subbing players and unloading our bench. Strength and depth is abundance in this team, it will stand to us in the cup games.

Looking to the game this weekend, it is a major task. My confidence is off putting. Confident going to Stade de France…perhaps I should look at the statistics!! In the last 12 years France have only lost 3 home games in the six nations. If we can overcome that, how about this – we have won once there in 42 years. 42 years. These figures are daunting, so let’s boost our enthusiasm. In the last two years, we have drew with Les Bleus, both in Dublin and in Paris. In 2009 we beat them at home. In 2000 O’Driscoll stepped onto the scene. That day he scored a hat-trick and gave Ireland our first win since 1972. Tomorrow will be his last for Ireland, where the magic all began. That’s why I’m hopeful.

This is why I’m confident. France are not the side they used to be. They have the players, no doubt about that. What they don’t have is discipline. They lack structure. Individual players fail to show leadership and passion on the park. They have no game management. Phillipe Saint-Andre has chopped and changed the team from day one. By making these changes, the squad don’t have time to gel, and ultimately do not fully trust each other.

To sum it up, it’s the opposite of the Ireland team. We have conceded just 27 penalties in this tournament, France 36. Good discipline. We haven’t received any cards, France have one red and three yellow against them. Passion is brought to the pitch by every Irish player. I haven’t seen much by the French players, albeit moments of genius by their back-line. With so many leaders and with new ones evolving, the decision making of the men in green feeds into their game management. In contrast to the French team, Schmidt has retained the same starting 15 from day one, bar one or two injuries. They understand each other and therefore trust each other.

Like the Italian game, I believe Ireland will hold onto possession as much as possible. They have done so very successfully in the previous games. We will build on the phases and hope to create space for our back-line. If this proves ineffective, then retaining possession will be key as I believe we can gather penalties as the French get impatient.

Our kicking game must be accurate. We do not want the French back-line running at us, nor do we want them playing the kick and chase game. These are their biggest threats, and my greatest worry. If they create space they are extremely dangerous.

I believe they will target Rob Kearney. From the two tries we have conceded, Kearney missed both tackles on the running man. Dulin and Huget are extremely fast paced with ball in hand. There will be some crucial match ups, I just hope Kearney wins those battles and comes out on top.

From the set piece, I can envisage Ireland being dominant in the scrum. In total, we have lost 2. France have lost 6, although Picamoles and Szarzewski back in the pack is a major boost. As the game progresses, utilisation of the bench will be important. The replacements in McGrath, Moore, Cronin, Henderson and Murphy provide optimism in the scrummage.

From the outset, we have witnessed the line out and rolling maul to be an effective weapon. I can see us targeting their line out and being effective in controlling our own. France have had 39 line outs and lost 12. That’s a success rate of 69%. Ireland have had 57, lost 4. A success rate of 93%. If we don’t target this area I will be shocked. Clean ball from a stolen line out would provide a great attacking threat. Inside the French 22, a successful line out should see the driving maul being utilised. If Ireland can draw the French players in, we could create a try scoring opportunity like the final moments of the Welsh game.

The partnership of O’ Driscoll and Darcy in the centre is a contrast to Basteraud and Fickou. While one duo fully trust, and understand each other, the other lacks that partnership. Like any relationship to be effective, communication is key. Defensively, Ireland have the upper hand in this crucial area.

Sexton playing his rugby in France is very positive for this decider. He plays amongst these players. He understands their game. Scoring two tries v Italy mirrored his fantastic performance. If a certain 13 wasn’t retiring then it was his Man of the Match. Sexton is crucial in the management of the game. If his kicking is up to his standard then I have no fears.

We have conceded just 29 points in this tournament. France have conceded 78. With two tries conceded and France seven, the numbers show how well organised and disciplined this Irish squad are. In total, there have been 710 passes by the men in green. 485 by our French counterparts. These points mirror the management of the Irish coaching team – holding ball and building phases.

The French are like a puzzle with no instructions. If they can fit the pieces together, they are very hard to beat. If we mirror our performances to date, and kick intelligently, then we have a great chance.

We can turn their weapons against them. We should bring our intensity game and hit the ground running (mirror the performance against the All Blacks). Get a lead at half time and the French crowd will turn against the team. Get under the players’ skin in the hope to yield penalties, and ultimately, points on the scoreboard. If things go horribly wrong for France, the guillotine will drop on French rugby…and Saint-Andre….d’être libéré.

As I have outlined, it won’t be easy. The statistics against us are daunting but the statistics of the tournament so far are extremely encouraging. If any side can win, it’s this one.

With the magical Brian O’ Driscoll signing out, for one last time, fairy tales can come through. Ireland by 6 plus.

 

Six Nations Round 4 Preview

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Ireland v Italy

Schmidt hasn’t rung the changes in a more or less unchanged side to face Italy on Saturday. Henderson comes in for the injured O’Mahony and Ruddock on the bench, as expected. I am a bit dismayed there isn’t one or two more changes. For once, I believe Sexton shouldn’t be starting. Whether his thumb is injured or not I believe Jackson should get game time, with Madigan as cover. Johnny should be rested for the French game. An aggravation of the thumb would be a major setback. I can’t fathom how the FFR claimed he would be side-lined for up to 6 weeks…let’s hope he isn’t after tomorrow!

Schmidt is sticking to a side that has performed consistently and excelled brilliantly in the set piece. It’s only his seventh game in charge, mixing it up at this period would not be a wise move. Stick to what you know. I would have liked to have Zebo on the bench. I’m counter-arguing with myself, but he could bring that flair onto the pitch. I respect Schmidt for keeping the players ; choosing a fringe player over the consistent 15 could be a major confidence blow at this late stage. (Take Trimble for example, didn’t feature last season, and now , given the chance, he is really stepping up the mark).

Sergio Paisse’s absence is a shock. He’s a great player and it’s somewhat disheartening that he will never win silverware with Italy. If Parisse was dropped, it’s a bad decision….I would have expected such from Brunel’s French counterpart!! If he’s injured and just being rested, with one eye on England next week, then I won’t complain. The half back pairing of Orquera and Tebaldi is a boost. Orquera is a good fly half who will tactically kick better than Allan. The Italians won’t be afraid to play some rugby either – the likes of Campagnaro and McLean will dance and dart with ball in hand. They will show this championship that they can play a different game, without the might of their talisman.

With both Parisse and Zanni missing, I can see Ireland being dominant in the scrum (injury wise or not). Brunel has started some heavy forwards in the hope of targeting this area but our scrum is growing with every match up. The powerful rolling maul will be utilised more frequent than v England. The line out will be another area where we can provide the backs with clean ball. From this, I am anticipating some tantalising plays. I believe the first half will be physical and we should hope to tire the Italians. The second half should be more open with back-line moves echoed from the training ground.

The man in charge will play his part too. The vibrant Owens provides clear instructions and is decisive in his decision making. He lets the game flow which will suit Ireland.

With the end of an era in one Brian O Driscoll, the charged emotion will be mirrored in the team performance. We have an excellent set piece. This is the perfect game to execute that finishing touch and build up the scoreboard. I’m hoping the players will be more clinical and less robotic as the game progresses. I believe they will read the game accordingly and adapt as they build confidence. Ireland by 26, with GOD BOD on the score-sheet.

France v Scotland

If this is the weekend for coaches making rash decisions, then it’s clearly mirrored in Scott Johnson . After shipping Kelly Brown in the previous two games he is reinstated in the starting 15….as captain. If some of these rugby sides were consistent, and had acute coaches, then we’d witness teams that can play to their true potential.

The visiting side have players side-lined for numerous reasons, but still have individual class. The Maxime backline (9-12) will cause the Scots trouble. If Dunbar can play like he did againist Italy he will give the French some pain in their derrière. Let’s hope the kicking of Hogg and Weir is on form and Scotland can contain the French in their own half.

If ever there was an ample time to lick salt in the French wounds, it’s now. With the talisman leading the backrow with Beattie and Denton, there’s no shortage of passion and determination. Unfortunately, I think the individual talent of the French will progress. France by 5.

England v Wales

The big one. I’m really looking forward to this. The winner will progress to the final round knowing a championship is there to be won. The looser is out of the running. With so many physical match ups, and individual flair, this game will be a joy to watch.

Like Ireland, England’s one replacement is enforced in the backrow. The injured Vunipola makes way for Ben Morgan. This is more or less a like for like replacement.

Meanwhile Gatland has shipped in Jonathan Davies from his four month absence. In contrasting circumstances Alun Wyn Jones returns to the starting 15. Luke Charteris aggravated his neck so Jake Ball takes his place. Webb remains at scrum half. He performed very well against France, Gatland is correct in retaining him.

These two sides have shrewd coaches and great rivalry. The atmosphere will be electric. North, Cuthbert, Davies vs Nowell, Burell, May. The Lions Player of the Tournament (Halfpenny) vs The Player of The Tournament, so far (Mike Brown). Enticing.

The English have built a fortress of Twickenham. They are not going to let the Welsh soldiers annihilate them like last year. If they play like they did againist Ireland, and keep their composure, it’s theirs to be won. Meanwhile, if the Welsh bring that power, and create the space, then it’s very hard to overlook them. I feel the English will just about edge this one. Home advantage will be a factor. Lancaster has built a well disciplined, youthful side, with individual finesse. Their determination should take it. England by 2.

“…in the chariot’s wake”

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I’m not totally dismayed by our loss on Saturday. We were consistent in areas of importance such as the scrum , line out and maul (when it was finally utilised). We were inconsistent in our decision making. I believe we also lacked that clinical finish which cost us the game. England deserved to win but they were moments where we had them rattled, namely in the first ten minutes of the second half. We failed to build on this and ultimately lost momentum.

As I noted in my preview, pre-planned moves direct from the training camp were clearly evident in the game. They had the Schmidt aurora about them. Great to see. My only qualm – the players were too robotic. All good when the moves materialise but the players have to get a feel for the game, and be spontaneous. This impromptu manner was somewhat lacking in the game.                                                                               When the moves do work they can be a joy to watch. Dummy runs from a line-out provided the backs with room on the outside channels. The English defence stretched like their armed men on the fields of Wytschaete. The Irish armoury built on this in the second half. The well worked Irish try was executed to perfection. Expect to see more of these plays with a more clinical finish under Schmidt.

As in all evenly matched games, decision making is key. I alluded to this in my weekend preview. What I didn’t envisage was the governing to be off in our most important player. Johnny Sexton. If it was psychological, concussion, or tiredness, his kicking was well below par. (If Sexton was tired Jackson should have come on sooner but I believe Schmidt rates Sexton tiers above Jackson – he shouldn’t have over-reliance on one choice out half). A fly half controls the game. The polar opposite of control is chaos. I won’t say Sexton caused chaos – that’s too harsh, but you can understand my point. Cause and effect.                                                                                              At the time of writing Racing Metro’s medical board have stated that Sexton will be out for ten days to six weeks. The IRFU are saying otherwise. Perhaps this is a ploy by the French to outwit Sexton into not playing against Les Bleus….This is the chance to have Jackson start against Italy (the injury has reinstated him starting) with Madigan as replacement. As I stated above, we cannot solely rely on one player in one position, others must get proper game time at this standard. Blessing in disguise?

Perhaps I’m being too critical, and maybe, just maybe this English team are that good. Evenly matched? A neutral watching the game would have said the same. They did deserve to win but they have areas to improve on just like us. Like our Welsh counterparts, the English have blooded big centres and wingers. They are extremely physical and hard to break down. This was clearly evident in the match.
We are lacking that physical touch and finesse in our back-line. We were lacking that player who can change the game. Albeit we had the upper hand in the bench but not that x-factor. The English have that flair. Mike Brown. He is England’s sweet chariot. Physical, Intelligent, Spontaneous, Skillful. I do admire him. The full back will be the player of the tournament. Conor O’Shea may have weeped as Brown pulled off those classy moves but inside he was smiling…just a little! The Irishman can be grateful to have such a player on his side.

My predictions were off in the Wooden Spoon match up. I did foresee the Welsh-France game to play the way it did although I didn’t see Wales winning by that score. French rugby is a mess and Ireland playing them for a potential Championship decider is not as daunting as it used to be. They lack structure and heart. Sheer talent spreads across the squad board but it’s not being utilised. The potential is there and I’m afraid if they do decide to turn up, they can really turn it on. For the Ireland game, Fofana will take no part. Morgan Parra will be back after his suspension (it would seem this is a regular occurrence in the Top 14 lately). He’s a dangerous half back who could inject some game management into this French side.

Schmidt will have some tough decisions in the run up to the Italian game. With a potential championship decider the week after, we need to fill the scoreboard. The Irish side need to play with ease and iron out the cracks. Schmidt needs to utilise the full squad. He has the weaponry at his disposal. Perhaps a physical Henshaw on the bench to cover 13 and 15? Bowe/Zebo to come in on the wing? Perhaps a talented Marshal in centre, alongside O’Driscoll for his last game in Ireland? Mix the old with the new. If the new generation are given time and experience, the future looks bright. Like the English team, we need to mould these players. Unlike the battle in Twickenham, we will need to provide better governing of the game. Hopefully we bring that added finesse. This time, we will not be left in the chariot’s wake…

Image © INPHO/Dan Sheridan