After two matches, England claim top spot due to their late points surge against Italy. France join them after narrow wins over Italy and Ireland, whilst Wales look to be getting into their stride after a clinical final quarter against Scotland.
For the twice-vanquished men in blue, aspirations of a golden post-World Cup era have faltered. Ireland’s creaking post-O’Connell cohort are also struggling to replicate the form of seasons’ past. Finally, we have Italy, who despite glimmers of promise look set for their annual scrap Wooden Spoon showdown.
Though not perfect, Eddie Jones’ men will be pleased with the development of an effective kick-chase-defend strategy that came to fruition in the final quarter against Italy.
Their bench has proved pivotal in both encounters. Against Scotland, Mako Vunipola and Courtney Lawes had significant impact; in Rome, it was Joe’s Marler and Launchbury alongside Danny Care, bolstered by new-boys Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford.
In the latter two, England’s future is bright. The ex-England U20 captains added pace and energy on debut. Though unlikely to start against Ireland, it will be hard not to sacrifice a backs replacement to accommodate the two, as was done against Italy. Elsewhere, Jamie George is showing promise at hooker and is pushing Hartley for the starting spot.
A somewhat patchy set piece has nonetheless been encouraging. The scrum gained strength as both games progressed, and George Kruis will look to replicate the fine lineout he orchestrated against Scotland. Billy Vunipola has been repeatedly destructive in attack, as has James Haskell in defense.
Behind the scrum, Care should return to the starting lineup. Ben Youngs failed to dictate the game against Italy early on, and Ireland will come out with even greater intensity at Twickenham. England will look to Jonathan Joseph to replicate his devastating performance against Italy with ball in hand.
Ford and Farrell look increasingly comfortable shaping England’s aggressive territorial game: England have put boot to ball 69 times over the first two games. Whilst Jones may be tempted to consider Alex Goode at fullback to compound this strategy, Mike Brown’s security under the high ball will be needed to combat Ireland’s own aerial bombardment.
The men in green will be immensely grateful for the weekend of rest. In a bruising opening fortnight that included a six-day turnaround and an away fixture, Ireland were forced to make 314 tackles, an ordeal that has added key names to the injury list.
The influential Sean O’Brien and Dave Kearney are out, the latter for the tournament, whilst Mike McCarthy and Jared Payne remain under observation. Jonny Sexton was targeted heavily by Wales and France—in dubious fashion by the latter—and is not at his best.
Coach Joe Schmidt will be frustrated with his side’s inability to find their rhythm thus far. They lack confidence and seem to be in transition to, well, somewhere not here. The normally prominent Jamie Heaslip has struggled to impose himself in the loose, as has Rob Kearney from fullback. Ireland would not have enjoyed the trip to Paris and will find little respite against a tenacious English kicking game that will look to pressurize them in their own half.
For Scottish fans, the time has come to acknowledge the dire truth: their near miss in the World Cup quarter finals, losing out to Australia by virtue of a last-minute penalty, was a one-off.
The emphasis on that result has unfairly inflated expectations above and beyond this Scotland team, whose Six Nations’ win rate stands at less than 25%. Salt into wound? Eleven of Scotland’s matchday squad against Wales had never won a Six Nations match. Eleven. Standoff Ruaridh Jackson said that they ‘had not become a bad team overnight’. That’s true: Scotland have been a bad team for a while.
Most maddening about Scotland is that they are capable of some real gems. Finn Russell’s deft chip for Jonny Seymour’s try against Wales was outstanding, and in Stuart Hogg, Jonny Barclay and the Gray brothers, there is real class in this outfit.
They will hope that their trip to Rome ends a miserable 13-match losing streak in the Six Nations. A win there would give the players a huge confidence boost, and could be the spark needed to produce meaningful results further afield. This team needs to learn how it feels to win and hold onto that feeling.
Contrastingly, the victors of Cardiff’s latest showdown will be confident entering the second half of the tournament. Wales look increasingly in form, and like England are looking to utilise their strike runners.
Warren Gatland faces a dilemma in his back row selection. Accommodating two opensides in Justin Tipuric and captain Sam Warbuton has previously enabled Wales to play an expansive style, but the two have struggled to establish the same presence as in previous years. All eyes will be on Dan Lydiate as he turns out for the Ospreys this weekend.
Jamie Roberts, talismanic so far in both attack and defense, typifies the direct style of play known as ‘Warrenball’. However, this has previously been found wanting by more street-wise sides and Wales lack a viable alternative. Expect a test of tectonic proportions when Wales take on the French next Friday.
As it stands, unless other results go their way, Ireland are out of the race. They join Scotland and Italy in the scrap for pride. England and Wales should beat France, meaning that the title showdown will come in the penultimate round when the two sides meet at Twickenham—though England’s final round game in Paris is just begging for an upset…
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