CASTRES, FRANCE – The chocolates and roses may be flowing on this Valentine’s weekend, but for rugby fans, the two days that mark the end of this particular week means only one thing – the second round of the RBS Six Nations.
After the dramatic Friday-night start of the tournament’s opening weekend, the schedule has adopted a more traditional look, with two matches on Saturday and one on Sunday – so, without much more in the way of ado, let’s look ahead to the second round of an already enthralling 2015 Six Nations.
England v Italy
Saturday, February 14, 2.30pm (local time)
England coach Stuart Lancaster has been able to name an unchanged matchday squad for the second round of the RBS SIx Nations. That’s no surprise after last week’s epic win. What’s more surprising is the fact that it is the first time he has been able to name the same 23 for two matches in a row since the opening two rounds of last year’s tournament.
It means that last week’s try-scoring hero Jonathan Joseph will make his first appearance in an England shirt at Headquarters, teaming up again with Luther Burrell in what appears to be the start of a beautiful midfield partnership.
Lock George Kruis also makes his Twickenham debut, lining up alongside Dave Attwood in the boiler room. The consistency also gives Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood another two weeks to prove their fitness ahead of the trip to Ireland on March 1, while Ben Youngs and George Ford have been charged with directing matters once again from the half-backs.
Lancaster said: “It’s always good to be able to name an unchanged team and to build some consistency. We did the same last year after France heading into the Scotland game.”
But he added a note of caution. “Italy are going to be fired up, they always are when they come to Twickenham, especially after last week’s loss to Ireland. We know what’s coming at us but we have prepared well and are looking forward to getting back home and playing in front of our fantastic supporters.”
Italy, in fact, are the only side to ring the changes. In the pack, Alberto de Marchi starts on the loosehead in place of Matias Aguero, while Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco replace Josh Furno and Alessandro Zanni – and bring with them a vast amount of experience.
In the backs, Andrea Masi moves into the centres to replace the injured Michele Campagnaro, with Luke McLean switching to fullback and Giovambattista Venditti taking the empty spot on the wing.
What the Six Pack says: After last week’s opening round, only Hall and Loyd boast perfect records, having picked England to upset the not-so mighty Welsh in Cardiff. For this match, you’d think that all our ‘experts’ (ahem) would agree that coach Lancaster is being a little disingenuous with his comments and that England would be unanimous favourites to win, but no… Proud Irishman Declan Yeats has let his hatred rule his head and plumped for Italy.
Ireland v France
Saturday, February 14, 5pm (local time)
Ian Keatley kicked five penalties out of five last week in Ireland’s journeyman victory over Italy in Rome. But he is not even in the 23-man squad for the visit of France.
He’s been replaced by a certain Jonny Sexton, who was available for selection again this week after completing a mandatory 12-week stand-down period for concussion, and forms the halfback partnership with Conor Murray.
Sexton and Jamie Heaslip are the only two changes to the side that won easily if unconvincingly last weekend. He joins Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien at the back of the scrum, while Jordi Murphy – who filled in for Heaslip at Stadio Olimpico – returns to bench-warming duties.
Cian Healy is also among the replacements alongside Sean Cronin, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan and Felix Jones.
Like his opposite number and unusually for him, France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has resisted the chance to tinker with his team – despite fairly unanimous criticism from the politely feral French media of his side’s performance last week.
Prop Eddy Ben Arous will make his first start for Les Bleus, coming in for the injured Alexandre Menini. It’s the only change to the starting XV that won 15-8 last week.
Worryingly, perhaps, for the hosts, Clermont’s prop-monster Vincent Debaty takes his place among the replacements. Ireland’s own front-row replacement Marty Moore, in particular, will be slightly unnerved to see Debaty’s name on the teamsheet, having struggled against him last year in Paris.
Scott Spedding will have another shot at fullback. The French were guarded and double-edged in their faint praise of him, saying he ran powerfully but predictably against Scotland last week
South African-born Rory Kockott holds on to the number 9 shirt, despite pressure from Clermont’s Morgan Parra – who marshalled the forwards with more urgency and effect when he came on 15 minutes into the second half against Scotland.
Saint-Andre defended his decision, saying: “Rory did some interesting things in his first start and he deserves to carry on with Camille (Lopez) for this match.”
What the Six Pack says: It’s unanimous across the board. Everything says Ireland will win at home. Even Harrington, who knows about French rugby.
Scotland v Wales
Sunday, February 15, 3pm (local time)
It came as a surprise to precisely no one to see that the name George North was not on Wales’s teamsheet for the RBS Six Nations trip to Edinburgh this weekend.
Wales coach Warren Gatland did not even wait to see whether the winger would be given the medical all-clear before announcing his side to face Scotland. North has been replaced by Scarlets back Liam Williams, who will win his 20th cap.
According to reports, North – who has not shown any after-effects from apparently being briefly knocked out in an accidental clash of heads with team-mate Richard Hibbard late in the game – was unhappy at being left out, but such was the outcry on social media and in traditional circles, that Gatland must have felt he had little choice.
At a press conference, Gatland said: “There is a high chance that George will pass the concussion tests, but we came to the decision that it was better for him as an individual that we did not consider him this weekend.”
North left the Millennium Stadium pitch for eight minutes of the first half of the opening game against England after receiving a kick in the face, but his later clash of heads went undetected by the Wales medical team, which is why he remained on the field.
“If we had seen the incident, we would have done something about it,” Gatland insisted.
The incident prompted World Rugby to launch an investigation, but the governing body has accepted the Welsh Rugby Union’s version of events. Medical teams will have access to TV replay facilities for the remainder of the competition.
Williams’ return means that Saturday’s Welsh backline is the same one that beat South Africa in the final autumn international.
Ospreys duo Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar continue their halfback partnership, while France-based centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are reunited in midfield, with Williams joining Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny in the back three.
In a late blow for Wales, prop Samson Lee, who also suffered a concussion in last week’s match against England, on Friday failed to come through the final stage of his return-to-play protocols. Aaron Jarvis comes into the starting lineup to replace him, while Cardiff Blues tighthead Scott Andrews moves onto the bench. Otherwise, there’s no change in the starting pack, which sees Gethin Jenkins make his 50th RBS Six Nations appearance.
Announcing his team, Gatland said: “The response from the players has been very positive in training this week and we are looking forward to having the opportunity to right last weekend’s wrongs.
“Scotland started the tournament well against France, building on their autumn campaign and they will be looking forward to welcoming us to Edinburgh this weekend.
“We know what we need to do and we hope our performance can reflect that.”
Gatland has every reason to be much more contrite than he appeared before last weekend’s defeat to England. His mind games then backfired miserably – and his flat-track bullies were as good as beaten even at the moment they scored the tournament’s opening try to go 10-0 ahead in the eighth minute.
As Gatland noted, Scotland come into the game full of confidence after their performance in defeat in Paris on Saturday evening.
Not that the Scots have their feet anywhere other than on the ground. Captain Greig Laidlaw said that they have nothing more on their minds than avenging last year’s 51-3 defeat at the Millennium Stadium, when fullback Stuart Hogg – their hero last week – was sent off early in the game.
“The last time we played Wales we were on the wrong end of a thumping – we need to turn that around,” Laidlaw said. “It was a bad day for the team, a bad day for the Scottish jersey, and we will be using some of that emotion.”
He went on to describe last week’s loss at Stade de France as a “missed chance”, adding that Vern Cotter’s side needed to beat Wales at what the marketing men would love us to call BT Murrayfield on Sunday to maintain the confidence and the momentum from last weekend’s free-spirited performance.
What the Six Pack says: Our experts are again divided. Three of them – Blaber, Harrington, and Yeats – believe the flowers of Scotland have been imbued with the spirit of William Wallace and will send the Welsh packing, while Loyd, Hall and JWB think furious Dragons will roar loudest in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat.
Feel free to add your thoughts below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Scheenagh Harrington, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.