England vs Italy
Another week, another win for England. After their disappointing opener against France, their match against Wales in Cardiff was truly epic, and England will have been relieved to overcome the challenge that Wales presented them. What was most impressive was the sheer determination not to lose that is the hallmark of any great team. It was highly reminiscent of several All Black performances, where the team have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (the 2013 game against Ireland being the clearest example). They now sit just two wins away from matching New Zealand’s win record, and the wind will be in their sails as they return to Twickenham this weekend.
At the other end of the table are their opponents. Italy will know that their performance against Ireland was woefully inadequate, but the most concerning part of their loss was the way they seemed to just give up once it became apparent that Ireland were going to win. This is surely an attitude that Conor O’Shea will be looking to stamp out when they visit the reigning champions this weekend. He will be keenly aware however, that history is certainly not on his side in this particular fixture. In the 25 years these two teams have been playing each other England have won all 22 matches.
The big team news for England has been Eddie Jones’ decision to drop centre Jonathan Joseph. Joseph has played in every game under Jones so far, which shows how even the most permanent of players is not safe under this regime. In his place, Jones looks set to give a first international start to Ben Teo’o, whose late try against France secured England’s win in their last home game. It also looks as if Jones will experiment with a Teo’o, Daly combination with Owen Farell taking George Ford’s place at fly half. James Haskell, is likely to start at number 7, and Danny Care is rumored to replace Ben Youngs at scrum half. Jonny May will also be looking to return to the starting XV after being dropped for Jack Nowell against Wales. Italy have made 4 changes from the side that suffered a recod breaking loss against Ireland. At fly half Carlo Canna is dropped for Tomasso Allan. Exeter Chiefs’ Michele Campagnaro starts in midfield and Giulio Bisegni starts on the wing. In the pack, flanker Abraham Steyn replaces Maxime Mbanda.
Tactically, England will continue to do what they have done so well for so many weeks now. Drive, quick ball to a wide first receiver, and use the abundance of pace on the wings to get around defenses. If there is an area they can improve on, it is in their forward play. With the return of Haskell to the starting line-up this is certainly possible, as his experience will benefit the team more than the makeshift back row that was fielded against Wales. For Italy, their goal unfortunately seems to be more in the region of damage limitation rather than ways they can achieve victory. One area they may be able to score some psychological edge is in the scrum. England are still operating with a relatively inexperienced front row, so this could be an area for Italy to focus on. They should also be looking to incorporate the talents of Campagnaro, who has been in excellent form for the Chiefs in recent weeks.
England know that they have the talent and the determination to see them past Italy on Sunday. While they should avoid complacency, and should certainly not believe they have already won the match before a single minute has been played, they seem too disciplined and have an abundance of talent at their disposal for this game to result in anything other than a 17th straight win. Italy will be looking at achieving personal goals, improving on their performances against Ireland and Wales will be their main priority and they certainly have the capacity to cause England some problems if they avoid psychologically surrendering the match before the final whistle.
Ireland vs France
Ireland bounced back in style following their opening loss against Scotland to register their highest ever win in the Six Nations, and earned themselves the first attacking bonus point to be awarded in the competition. However, in terms of improvement, Joe Schmidt will have learnt very little about where his side actually is. Italy seemed to mentally check out of the game at the halfway point, and so judgment will have to wait until the outcome of what is surely to be a more testing encounter against France. Their opponents, will have been pleased enough to emerge from a tough match against Scotland with a win, and will surely be looking to carry the momentum of that victory to Dublin. In the past 10 years, results have been fairly balanced. France have won 7 compared to Ireland’s 4 and their have been 2 draws. France won last year’s dire excuse for a match, but this year both teams have significantly improved, and have rediscovered some of the flair that deserted them in last year’s championship.
In team news, the big replacement for Ireland is Jonny Sexton taking the place of Paddy Jackson at fly half. Jackson has done a commendable job in the position, but what Sexton offers in terms of game management is something that cannot really be replaced. Captain Rory Best returns to the front row after illness prevented him from playing against Italy. Alongside him, Jack McGrath takes the place of Healy at prop. On the bench, Josh Van der Flier has been ruled out of the tournament, so has been replaced by Peter O’Mahony, who has recently recovered from a hamstring injury. Their opponents have made 3 changes for the trip to Dublin. Bernard Le Roux comes in at flanker to replace Loann Goujon following a sinus fracture against Scotland. On the wing, Virimi Vakatawa makes way for Yoann Huget, and at prop Rabah Slimani replaces Uni Antonio.
The loss of Vakatawa will be a sore blow to French hopes in this game. France have been most effective when fully utilizing the talent of their wings, and Vakatawa has provided that in abundance. However, France should not abandon this approach entirely, but should look to form a more holistic approach to their game to compensate. In their pack, players such as Louis Picamoles has been one of the tournament’s most effective ball carriers, and it is this dimension that needs to be recreated throughout the pack. If France can draw multiple Irish defenders to bring down their forwards then that will open up the space for their wingers to score. Scrum half Baptiste Serin is the key, he offers a certain unpredictable quality and has the ability and spatial awareness to control the game from the ruck. If he can move the ball quickly then France will find space to score. For Ireland, the return of Sexton will surely herald a return to the kick and chase tactics Ireland have used so well in the pass. In their backs they have players with excellent aerial ability in Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo. Their back row is also arguably the best in the Northern Hemisphere and they will look to the likes of Stander, Heaslip and Sean O’Brien to carry the ball. The Henshaw/Ringrose centre partnership should also provide ample creativity, as evidenced by some of the tries scored against Italy.
If both of these teams play to their strengths then this could arguably be one of the most entertaining matches of the entire tournament. Ireland, buoyed by the return of Sexton, will be looking to continue where they left off against Italy, and will have their sights firmly of overtaking England in the championship table before England’s match against Italy on Sunday. France however, seem to have turned a corner in recent months and should not be taken likely. They are rediscovering some of that flair that made former French teams such a joy to watch. If they are able to tap into this flair then they could cause Ireland all sorts of problems in Dublin.
Scotland vs Wales
Both Scotland and Wales will feel hard done by after both narrowly lost their second round games to France and England respectively. Wales in particular will feel that, had it not been for Jonathan Davies failure to find touch in the dying moments, they could easily have brought England’s winning streak to a close. Scotland will feel that a little more cutting-edge could have seen them over the line. Their main concern now is injuries. Captain Greig Laidlaw and number 8 Josh Strauss have both been ruled out of this fixture, meaning Scotland have two enormous holes to fill. They will also be wary of their current record against Wales. In recent years this fixture has become completely one-sided, with Scotland failing to secure a win against Wales since 2007 (and bizarrely that game was the only match Scotland won in that championship).
Ali Price is given the number 9 jersey over the injured Laidlaw, slotting alongside Glasgow teammate Finn Russell at fly half. The opportunity that Price has to prove himself at this level cannot be overstated. Laidlaw’s ability as a leader and kicker are enormous, but Price offers speed and the ability to produce quick ball that sometimes deserts Laidlaw. In the front row, Gordon Reid replaces Allan Dell, and in the back row, John Hardie replaces Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson steps in at number 8 to replace Strauss. Ross Barclay takes on the role of captain in the absence of Laidlaw. In the backs, winger Sean Maitland has been ruled out through injury and is replaced by Tim Visser. For Wales, the only change is George North replacing Alex Cuthbert on the wing. Taulupe Faletau remains on the bench as Ross Moriarty starts at number 8. Wales have not opted to include any replacement wingers on their bench, which could lead to some shifting of positions later on in the game (although Wales’ win against England in the World Cup came when they played a scrum half on the wing so maybe this is an elaborate plan).
Tactically, Scotland will be looking to avoid turning this into an overly physical encounter. Against Ireland and against France, the Scottish scrum ran into all sorts of difficulties. Scotland were most successful when they played quick rugby, getting the ball out of the ruck and into the hands of the oncoming backs as fast as possible. As mentioned above, the inclusion of Price at scrum half may help in this regard, as his ability to give quick ball is greater than Laidlaw. In attack, their ability in the line out should be used to their advantage. In the absence of Laidlaw to assume responsibility for the kicks, scoring tries is likely to be Scotland’s key to winning this match, so they should kick to touch whenever possible. Defensively, they should look to do what they did against Ireland. Slow the ball down in the ruck in order to better organize the defensive line.
Wales on the other hand will look to their current rugby identity based on power and solid defense. A notable improvement against England was the better use of their backs, with the opening try coming about due to clever lines being run that opened up the space to score. This is the sort of play Rob Howley should be encouraging to complement Wales’ strengths. The key area to target will be the scrum. Scotland have struggled in this area, and unfortunately do not have the strength in depth to compete for a full game at this level. When Ireland visited Murrayfield, it was surprising that on penalties Ireland opted to kick to touch when they were in Scotland’s 22 instead of taking the scrum option. Wales would do well to learn from Ireland’s mistake and choose the scrum option if they are within sight of the Scottish try line. Wales will also be looking to slow the ball down in defense and will surely be using the choke tackle to achieve this.
Photograph: Google Images