DUBLIN, IRELAND – With the first round of Six Nations fixtures in the rearview mirror, little has become clear about the tournament. The Welsh did not look in top form against Italy, though those may have merely been first game rust and jitters. While Ireland put forth a strong performance, they were always likely to dominate against a thin Scotland side that rarely travels well. England’s torrid first half hour probably doomed them to defeat, in spite of their brave fightback which eventually fell short. The French are, well, the French. In short, the remaining four weekends of action should be among the most exciting and least predictable in the rugby calendar, and RugbyWrapUp is here to preview all three of this weekend’s matches.
Wales v Ireland
Probably the pick of the weekend’s matches, and the most difficult to call. Though Brian O’Driscoll has been upset by commentary focusing on Gatland’s refusal to select him for the third test, such a focus was inevitable in the run-up to this match. In more substantial news, Ireland dominated Scotland despite a rocky start in Dublin last weekend, and will be looking to make a real mark with a victory against their Celtic league compatriots. Gordon D’Arcy returns to the starting fifteen for the Irish, who will also be welcoming back talismanic lock Paul O’Connell. Jamie Heaslip has been a rock at the heart of the team for years now, and will be looking for his first pair of back to back victories as Irish captain. Ireland do look a little thin on the bench, with Paddy Jackson and Isaac Boss providing half-back coverage.
Wales look to be in a good place this tournament. However, worries remain that the massive Lions contingent will need a break some time, and squad rotation has been practically non-existent in the Wales camp for the last three years. Leigh Halfpenny continues to kick everything in sight, and Alex Cuthbert and George North give the Welsh great attacking options outside. Jamie Roberts was able to get right back into the swing of international rugby, and Scott Williams is the form center in the Wales camp. The scrum remains rock solid, anchored by Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard, and Adam Jones. Sam Warburton returns to the starting lineup after beginning last week on the bench, and the talismanic captain should make an immediate impact in the back row.
The Welsh will certainly make the Irish pay for any ill-discipline, and the home side cannot afford the same number of mistakes they made against the Scots. Ireland tend to up their game for big matches (see their victory over defending champions Wales last year in Cardiff), but it may be a bridge too far for a side that is still coming together under new manager Joe Schmidt.
England v Scotland
The Calcutta Cup is always billed as “the oldest rivalry in rugby.” That may be so, but it can no longer lay claim to the most competitive rivalry. Though tempers always flare between the Auld Enemies, the English have won the last four matchups, in addition to hoisting the Cup in ten out of the last twelve years. Stuart Lancaster named a completely unchanged side for this weekend’s match, with the same starting fifteen and the bench running out on Saturday. Jonny May will get another game, having recovered from his broken nose in time for the match. Billy Vunipola will try to cement his reputation as one of the brightest new talents on the world stage, while Chris Robshaw, newly secure in his captaincy, will focus on turning in another strong performance after being named man of the match in last year’s corresponding fixture. Tries have been hard to come by for the English in the past few years, and they will try to use the occasion against Scotland to put a few points on the board.
Scotland’s management provided the talking heads with plenty of work on Wednesday when they announced that skipper Kelly Brown would be left out of the match day twenty three against England. Brown has received praise from nearly all quarters in the past three years, and was considered unlucky by many to miss out on the Lions tour. Scott Johnson opted for Chris Fusaro, claiming that the flanker’s style of play better suited the game plan for this particular match. Sean Maitland has been ruled out for the rest of the tournament, a big loss for both spectators and Scotland’s offensive capabilities. Duncan Weir and Greig Laidlaw will continue to try and build a productive partnership. At this point, Scotland seem to be looking for some kind of continuity in the 9-10 pivot, and will likely stick with Weir through the tournament in an attempt to develop a valid international fly-half.
A lot of focus in the build-up to the match has been upon the state of the Murrayfield pitch. While conditions will likely be poor, it seems clear that a mudbath will only slow England down, not stop them entirely. Scotland are expected to fall at home, and will do well to keep the margin small. A small chance of an upset always remains in the clashes between the Auld Enemies, but now more than ever it seems an unlikely occurrence.
Italy v France
The Six Nations schedulers were either canny geniuses or utter fools when scheduling this as the only match on Sunday this weekend. The lack of another fixture on the day either makes this essential viewing or totally disposable, depending on your level of devotion to Northern Hemisphere rugby. While the Italians shocking victory in Rome last year adds a dash of intrigue to the match, all reasonable souls expect the French to run away with this year’s match up in Paris. Caveats are necessary, as the French are known for wildly varying levels of performance, and the Italians are a much improved side.
Michele Campagnaro impressed during the Italians brave loss to the Welsh last weekend, and looks like a real long term answer to the center position for Jacques Brunel. Sergio Parisse will always put in a titanic shift, and the Italian scrum remains a strength of an ever-improving side. Brunel famously claimed that the Italians would be able to compete for the title at the 2015 World Cup. While such a prediction still looks wildly optimistic, it may not be completely unreasonable to suggest that the Italians could be pushing much harder for a quarterfinal berth than ever before. Their ability to compete against elite competition has improved every year. When they prove able to win on the road, they will be a perennial threat, rather than an intriguing outsider.
France saw the rise of a new star last weekend when Yannick Nyanga put in an immense shift for Les Bleus. While young Jules Plisson and Jean-Marc Doussain struggled at times for the French, their partnership should flourish given time, and it appears that Phillipe St. Andre is ready to give them exactly that. Mathieu Bastareud will try to make up for a disappointing match against England, and while Wesley Fofana was immensely threatening with ball in hand, he did not have nearly as many runs as his stature demands. Yoann Huget stole headlines with his brace, but will be looking to make a fuller contribution to the match this time around.
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