After a one week lay off, the Six Nations championship resumes with some big match-ups that will make or break several nations’ chances.
At the forefront of the tournament is France, who handily defeated Ireland and dashed their hopes of a Grand Slam repeat. France play visitor to a rejuvenated Welsh squad who had their spirits lifted from an inspirational performance in one of the finest rugby matches I have ever seen.
Then there’s the match everyone looks forward to watching, Ireland v. England at Twickenham. Both sides enter this match with a bit of baggage given Ireland’s embarrassing defeat against France and England nearly blowing it against a lackluster Italian side.
Finally, there’s what seems to be the 6 Nations annual wooden spoon match between Scotland and Italy. We’ve come to expect this every year the past few tournaments and while it’s a bit early to tell, this year is no exception.
Without further adieu, lets examine the weekend’s match ups.
France v. Wales
It’s no secret that France are the dominant side in the tournament at the moment. They have by far the strongest pack in the tournament, which has been the difference in their previous two matches. I thought that their rush-style defence was going to be exposed by Ireland, but I was clearly wrong. France are so powerful up front that they dominate almost every scrum and are constantly challenging rucks, preventing the ball from coming out quickly.
However, France have caught the injury bug this week with Benjamin Fall, Vincent Clerc and Pascal Pape missing out on this weeks action.
Wales are reeling right now. Injuries are piling up with Alun Wynn-Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees out from injury. Things have gotten so bad that the Gavin Henson talk has resurfaced again. As if injuries weren’t enough, Wales will be without starting blind side flanker Andy Powell because of his craving for a chocolate bar and sandwich.
On a positive note, Mike Phillips has returned from injury to feature on the bench. Phillips is the kind of player who would come off the bench and provide a spark if Wales find themselves trailing in the second half. While everyone is on the France bandwagon, Warren Gatland is still unimpressed.
This match is a tricky one for me. While I do think France are THAT good, I think they have weaknesses. Their line-out was absolutely dreadful against Ireland and they got off to a slow start. If Ireland had capitalized on a few scoring opportunities and had not been given a yellow card and a penalty reversal, who knows how the match would have gone. If you allow France to get going early, you will not win. Get them on the back foot early and their confidence starts to waver.
Wales are no doubt riding high after their unimaginable victory against Scotland and they certainly have the talent to win. After what I saw France do to Ireland, a stronger team than Wales in my opinion, I have no desire to roll the dice on this one. France wins comfortably.
Ireland v. England
This match features two sides who have a serious lack of identity at the moment. England barely squeaked by Italy two weeks ago due to an uncharacteristically bad day from Johnny Wilkinson. Martin Johnson has remained confident in his team and sticks with the same side that labored against Italy. Many have been critical of England due to their unimaginative, vanilla style of playing though. Regardless, Johnson has kept his focus on the important things, which is probably why his side are atop the 6 Nations table, tied with France.
Ireland bring in a few changes to their line up this week due to various reasons not limited to injury. The most intriguing of the changes is young Leinster fly half Johnathan Sexton.
Sexton missed the first clash against Italy due to injury and was featured on the bench against France. Sexton was absolutely masterful against South Africa in the fall where he kicked Ireland to a historical victory against the the World Champions. Ronan O’Gara has long been the fixture at fly half for the Irish and this match should tell us whether O’Gara’s days are numbered. Sexton proved he can kick like O’Gara, but he also brings a certain element that O’Gara lacks. The other significant change is Geordan Murphy at full back for the injured Rob Kearney. Even though Kearney is the in-form full back in the world right now, I don’t have any concerns about Murphy, who with his 62 caps and Gaelic football background, will fill in quite nicely.
This is the most intriguing match of the weekend for me. If Ireland loses, they can wave ‘buh-bye’ to their hopes of winning the championship. If England wins, their match up against France will clearly be the tournament decider (if France can take care of Wales this week).
I think England are out matched in this one. The biggest liability for the Irish is their scrum, which has been tested by probably the two best scrummaging teams so far. England are not going to challenge Ireland at the scrums and they should be very worried about an Irish line out that sees the return of Donncha O’Callaghan. I expect Ireland to bounce back from the loss at Paris and take it to England all the way. I see a MOM performance from Sexton in this one as well as his permanent claim to the number 10 shirt.
On a side note, Ireland prop John Hayes will receive his 100th cap in this match, an absolutely staggering accomplishment.
Very few will argue that playing in the front row is the toughest spot on the rugby pitch. Injuries, declining performance and age usually prevent any front row player from even sniffing 100 caps. At 36 years old though, John Hayes will accomplish the unthinkable. Hayes has shown no signs of slowing down and certainly no one in Ireland has been able to challenge him for his spot. For a great introspection into the man they call ‘The Bull’, have a read at this from Keith Wood, former Ireland captain and hooker.
Scotland v. Italy
While this will most likely be the wooden spoon match of the tournament, I hardly think that is representative of Scotland in this tournament. Scotland have been very impressive to me so far with a very potent back line attack and gritty forwards play.
They hung in against France and lost an absolute heart-breaker to Wales two weeks ago. Scotland could easily be right in the thick of things, but sadly they find themselves at the bottom and sinking as they were forced into making changes after some serious injuries claimed Chris Patterson and Thom Evans.
Things look very promising for Scotland’s future and I look for them to put on a show against Italy this week. While Chris Cusiter has given praise to Italy, I for one do not feel the need to patronize. Italy being in the match against England was more indicative of England’s play than Italy’s.
There’s not much else to say about Italy, I don’t find a single redeeming thing about their game. Can they win this match? Of course they can. It’s hard to think Scotland will have it easy against Italy, although that’s exactly what I think.
Italy know this is the one match they have a shot at winning, so expect them to give it their all. Should they win, it would be best to keep the champagne away from this guy.