CASTRES, FRANCE – Italy’s 109-cap tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni will sit out this week’s Six Nations’ match against Scotland after a friend’s dog ate his nose. The excuse generally employed by students to explain away a suspicious absence of homework has been described by Italy as “a minor household incident” – although, it doesn’t sound as “minor” as they would want anyone to believe – the Toulon star needed 14 stitches after a friend’s dog chewed up his face. But Scotland, beware. Castro’s replacement, Zebre’s Dario Chistolini, is a ferocious scrummager, while Wasps fans and rival Premiership props will tell you that the man on Italy’s replacements bench – Lorenzo Cittadini – is shaping up to be among the best in the business.
Scotland v Italy
Saturday, 28 February 2.30pm (local time)
Italy have made six changes from the side that scored three tries against England in defeat at Twickenham a fortnight ago for the trip to Scotland – a match that looks almost certain to be the wooden spoon decider.
Ex-Gloucester man Chistolini moves up off the bench to replace Castrogiovanni at tighthead as part of a new-look starting front-row, with Matias Aguero cuddling up to the other side of Leicester hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini.
Josh Furno comes in at lock to replace the injured Marco Bortolami, and Simone Favaro has the job of filling – and probably outpacing – the experienced boots of the aged Marco Bergamasco in the back row of the scrum.
Treviso inside centre Enrico Bacchin and Zebre wing Michele Visentin – in for Andrea Masi and Leonardo Sarto respectively – are set to win their first senior international caps.
The youngsters are being blooded early. The 22-year-old Bacchin made his Pro12 debut last February and only scored his first try last weekend in the 40-22 win over Cardiff Blues that became the straw that broke Blues coach Mark Hammett’s will after just a few months in charge.
The promising but untested Visentin is more raw still – the 23-year-old made his Pro12 debut against Connacht in November, after a pre-season injury delayed the start of his top-flight career.
The new boys in the Azzurri camp demonstrate the lack of depth at coach Jacques Brunel’s disposal, and his squad selection suggests that he believes this game will be won and lost up front.
That could be a problem for Scotland. The Italian pack is, not to put too fine a point on it, bigger. The Azzurri’s numbers one through to eight have been selected to put the hurt on the Scottish scrum. And that’s just what they will do if the Scots aren’t at the top of their game.
It means that there’s a lot resting on the shoulders of the home side’s front row – though Alasdair Dickinson is in rare form, and has been touted as a future Lion.
The Scottish pack has been weakened by a tournament-ending injury to lock Richie Gray, who had been a permanent fixture since Vern Cotter took over as head coach. Tim Swinson is set to start in his place.
The hosts have also been forced to find a replacement for fly-half Finn Russell, after Six Nations officials threw out an appeal against his two-week ban for a dangerous tackle on Dan Biggar. It means he will be forced to sit out this match against Italy, but will be available for selection for the Calcutta Cup match against England at Twickenham on March 14.
In Russell’s absence, Glasgow Warriors stand-off Peter Horne has been handed the keys to number 10, and given the chance to bring his club form to the international stage.
Vern Cotter has made two more changes to the starting XV. Glasgow Warriors wing Tommy Seymour has returned from injury, while prop Euan Murray starts after missing the Wales game because of his religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, promising young Edinburgh duo Ben Toolis and Hamish Watson are poised to make their senior international debuts from the bench in place of injured lock Jim Hamilton and back-row Alasdair Strokosch.
Yes, this may turn out to be the wooden spoon match – but these are two sides that have more about them than many of the more dismissive rugby pundits would have you believe. This one could be tight – maybe even as tight as last year’s match, which was won in the dying moments with a drop goal from man with balls-of-steel Duncan Weir.
What the Expert Panel Says: It’s unanimous. Scotland’s more impressive performances in defeat so far in this Six Nations has RWU’s entire pack of *ahem* experts on their side. Italy for the wooden spoon it is, then.
France v Wales
Stade de France
Saturday, 28 February 6pm (local time)
French coach Philippe Saint-Andre couldn’t resist tinkering with his teamsheet – and has found the 15th starting halfback pairing of his three-and-a-half-year tenure in charge of the national team. That’s 15 different starting halfback pairings in 35 matches.
At least this nine-10 duo makes some sort of sense, as it unites Clermont clubmates Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez from kick off for the first time.
Parra replaces Rory Kockott, who returns to struggling club side Castres with the double whammy of an injury and the bulk of the weight of French disappointment on his shoulders.
Unlike Kockott, Lopez survived the latest halfback cull. If he lasts one more week and starts against Italy, he will become the only 10 to play seven consecutive matches under Saint-Andre. But he shouldered a sizeable share of the blame for France’s defeat in Ireland, with the coach accusing him of passing to Les Bleus’ blunt instrument Mathieu Bastareaud too often during the match.
Perhaps this is why Bastareaud is on bench-warming duties this weekend – without him barrelling up the pitch from 13, Lopez will be obliged to do something a bit different. Like pass to new starting centre Remi Lamerat, who is a little less direct in his running, but can still play the battering ram role if necessary.
At least Bastareaud won’t be short of company on the bench. Toulon team-mates Jocelino Suta and Sebastien Tillous-Borde are also there.
One of Saint-Andre’s five changes is unavoidable. Second row Pascal Pape was banned for 10 weeks on Thursday for kneeing Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip in the back in Dublin two weeks ago, and is replaced by Romain Taofifenua.
Meanwhile, Bordeaux’s Sofiane Guitoune comes in for the injured Teddy Thomas, while Brice Dulin replaces Scott Spedding at fullback, suggesting perhaps that the French may – finally – be willing to try something a little more adventurous.
Since the Bernard Laporte era, France have implacably and almost completely successfully purged the national side of just about anything that even hints at anything approaching the legendary “French flair”.
It’s a shame, as they have the players. And flair does exist at club level in France – just look at the Top 14 highlights on any given weekend. It is just no longer permitted on the international stage. The 21st-century France rugby side is bland and brutal and dull and indistinct.
Wales coach Warren Gatland may have one eye on his own future following the announcement that the WRU’s CEO Roger Lewis is to step down in October – but he won’t let boardroom ifs, buts or maybes detract from his day job: which this week involves masterminding a fourth consecutive victory over France.
Unlike his opposite number, Gatland likes to give his charges a chance to bed in – but this week he has left out two of his 2013 Lions, winger Alex Cuthbert and hooker Richard Hibbard.
Cuthbert makes way for the returning George North, while Hibbard pays the price for a dip in line-out accuracy. He has been replaced by Scott Baldwin, who played in November’s win over South Africa.
And the coach has made two more changes to his starting line-up. Luke Charteris comes in for Jake Ball in the second row and tighthead Samson Lee replaces Aaron Jarvis.
If France play as everyone expects them too, this is likely to end in a fourth win for Wales. If, however, France finally, belatedly, play as everyone except Wales wants them to – as rugby needs them to – anything could happen.
What the Expert Panel Says: Yeats and JWB think that there’ll be a Welsh dressing on the final score in Paris. Everyone else believes that there’s still enough of the old Bleus in PSA’s vanilla France to tame the Dragons.
Ireland v England
Sunday, 1 March, 3pm (local time)
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has arguably the finest tactical rugby brain on the planet – and it’s a safe bet that he has been working on ways to disrupt the natural game of England’s on-field rugby brainiac, fly-half George Ford in what has been billed as the decider of the 2015 Six Nations.
Expect someone like Devin Toner or Jordi Murphy – in for the injured Jamie Heaslip – to have one job on Sunday afternoon – do to Ford what Serge Betsen did to Jonny Wilkinson way back in 2002. Hunt him down. Put him down. Keep him down. Knock him off his game.
But Schmidt’s best-laid plans were themselves forced into a late change when Mike Brown failed to recover from the concussion he suffered against Italy in time to play in Dublin. It means England have a failsafe. Brown’s replacement, Alex Goode, can take over as first receiver if needed.
So, Ireland will need him to have something else to worry about. Enter Jonny Sexton and Connor Murray. They will probably launch bomb after box kick after bomb at England’s back three – Anthony Watson, Goode and Jack Nowell – who comes in for the disappointing Jonny May after more than a year in the international wilderness.
It’s not a subtle tactic. It’s brutally simple, in fact. But try to stop it. It can be almost impossible to deal with, especially if a pinpoint Sexton kick is set to arrive at the same instant as a chasing Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney or Simon Zebo.
The trick, the only trick, is to catch the ball clean and keep hold of it.
Alternatively, if Watson or Nowell try to creep forward, they will be pegged back by a kick into the wide open spaces they have left behind.
That’s probably – part of – Schmidt’s plan. The question is, what can England do to counter it?
Simple. Keep calm and carry on. Coach Stuart Lancaster has done his bit by keeping faith with the players who manufactured the wins over Wales and Italy.
It means there is still no place for Geoff Parling, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Alex Corbisiero, Brad Barritt or Kyle Eastmond. In fact, Lancaster has made only two changes to his side – and only one of them is tactical.
Nowell’s inclusion strengthens England’s ability to deal with Ireland’s predicted aerial assault – and comes as no surprise after May’s dismal form in the opening two games.
Meanwhile, Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph will cause trouble for better midfield pairings than Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw – who are admittedly no slouches but who are a little narrow in their thinking and their play.
This match, as it has been since Ireland ended England’s Grand Slam hopes in 2011 with a 24-6 win in Dublin, will be won by the best defence.
And, since that 2011 defeat, England have won every game against Ireland, including that brutal 12-6 encounter in a rainstorm in the Irish capital two years ago. Five in a row is not beyond them. Just don’t expect there to be much in it.
What our Expert Panel Says: More division among the RWU ‘experts’ here – though this is at least understandable. Yeats, unsurprisingly, has gone for the men in green, as has JWB and Blaber. Harrington, Hall and Loyd, however, think England can make it five in a row – and Loyd is so sure of himself that he says there’ll be an eight-point gap by the time the final whistle blows. Now, that’s confidence.
Feel free to add your thoughts below. And please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, James Harrington, Scheenagh Harrington, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, Jamie Wall, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Jake Frechette, Jaime Loyd, Karen Ritter and Declan Yeats, respectively.
And we just had to include this:
— USA Sevens Rugby (@USASevensRugby) February 27, 2015