CARDIFF, WALES: Controversially, Friday night rugby will be returning to the Six Nations. Tonight’s match will be contested between Wales and France at 3 pm EST, marking the first time since 2011 that a match has been played on a weekday. After two rounds, the French and Irish are the only teams without a loss, while England will feel that they retain an outside chance if they can prevail at Twickenham this weekend by a large margin. After last year’s extraordinary tournament, which saw the collapse of the French and Irish, while the Scots and Italians seemed in the ascendancy, normal service has resumed, and the matchup in Rome on Saturday will likely determine the recipient of the Wooden Spoon once more. RugbyWrapUp has your Six Nations preview, this week and every week, as action resumes with two titanic clashes.
Wales vs. France
Warren Gatland could not have made his displeasure with his team’s performance against the Irish much more clear than he has over the past week. Mike Phillips will be warming the bench after Gatland declared him “too controversial,” while numerous players have supposedly received warnings that their international careers will be in jeopardy without a big performance this weekend.George North enters the centers in an international match for the first time in years, and Rhys Webb will certainly be trying to impress management with an all-round performance. For a more in-depth analysis, check out this week’s guest article. CLICK HERE.
France, on the other hand, are the picture of stability for once. Even Martin Bastereud retains his place in the side, following unimpressive performances in both rounds one and two. Jules Plisson looks like an international star in the making, while the French pack has done their job well. Phillipe St. Andre has been making few headlines this year, a welcome relief for the French manager who has been under fire so often in his career. One way or another, this match is likely to make or break France’s campaign. If they win, they will likely coast to a title decider against Ireland at home on the last weekend of play. However, by losing, they would throw the entire tournament into chaos. French supporters, ebullient over their turnaround after a difficult 2013, may have forgotten the narrow margin by which they defeated England, but the players will not be fooled.
England will be grateful that they will be able to host a resurgent Ireland at home, but concerned over the loss of ever-present Dan Cole. English management has built a set-up based around stalwart defense and taking chances when they come, and while England and Ireland’s last few matchups have been rather dire viewing, there is a hope that this week the offenses will be more expansive. To be fair to the English, the loss of Manu Tuilangi has hurt their ability to attack through the centres, while they lack both Marland Yarde and Christian Wade, who likely would have been the first choice pairing throughout the Six Nations if they had been healthy. However, Jonny May put forward an impressive display last week, and Jack Norwell has proven ready for the test stage after some major hiccups in the first twenty minutes against France. This should be a close contest, but England will enter it with confidence after their past two encounters with the Irish.
However, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are undoubtably a changed side, teeming with confidence and renewed brio. Paul O’Connell is an absolute rock in the heart of the Irish pack, while Jamie Heaslip continues to prove his worth time and again. The inspiration factor of Brian O’Driscoll’s last Six Nations campaign cannot be overstated, and whatever troubles Jonny Sexton has possessed adjusting to life in France, he appeared to be a renewed man in Dublin two weeks ago. The Irish will benefit from the stability of their setup, with the starting fifteen seeing no changes from the demolition against Wales. Dealing with the English crowd at Twickenham is always a challenge, but Ireland certainly possesses the experience and desire to make this one of the most mouth-watering clashes of the tournament.
Scotland vs. Italy
In contrast to Ireland’s stability, Scott Johnson appears to be desperately attempting to lose his job by nonsensically rotating the Scottish squad. David Denton was Scotland’s best player at Murrayfield against the English, but finds himself out in the cold, without any form of adequate explanation. Kelly Brown, the supposed captain of the team, is left out once more, and Scotland appears to be intent on selecting a “B” side that does not possess the youth to justify the claims that they are “building for the future.” There is a tendency in modern punditry to blame the manager when all goes wrong. It’s a simple explanation, and often incorrect, but in this case, it truly appears that Scotland’s management is absolutely adrift. They inspire no confidence from supporters or players, and the Scots could end the year without a win against a tier one side if they are not careful.
Italy were undone by a sloppy patch between the fiftieth and sixtieth minutes against France after competing well for much of the first half. It’s a familiar pattern, but the Italians will need to learn to compete away from home if they are to become true contenders. Fortunately, this match will be played in Rome, where the Italians are much more comfortable. Adding fuel to their fire will be the 104th caps of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parrise, The Italians made three changes to the side that lost against France, with Angelo Esposito, Robert Barbieri, and Alessandro Zani entering the fray.
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? We love to read ‘em. Please comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp,Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann, Jaime Loyd, Karen Ritter , Jamie Wall and Declan Yeats, respectively.