What an opening round of 6 nations rugby and what a great advertisement for the game! This competition has been notorious for teams playing ten-man rugby, however, this week it was fast-paced, fierce and verging on a similar level to their southern hemisphere counterparts. Having predicted Ireland to overcome a struggling Welsh squad, and England to assert their dominance on Scotland, what could be one of the upsets of the year, when Italy put on an all-round display of running rugby and beat France at their own game. It must be said that the weather was conducive to an expansive game plan, however, in a competition that doesn’t award four try bonus points (it really should), I will settle with 16 five-pointers from 3 games any day. In fact, I would be surprised to see this mark eclipsed for the rest of the tournament, but we can only hope. No doubt the defensive coaches have been busy this week, but it certainly didn’t do the game’s reputation any harm. Let’s have a look at this week’s matchups.
Match 1: Scotland vs Italy
Location: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Date: Saturday, February 9, 2013 (local time)
Kick off: 14:30 GMT | 01:30 AEST
Weather: Overcast with a chance of rain
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Match one sees one of the form teams in the competition, Italy, travel to a very cold and foggy Edinburgh. As aforementioned, the Azzurri no doubt sounded an early warning to their remaining opponents after their impressive victory in Rome, and they would’ve had this game circled as a must-win if they want to make an improvement on last year’s resurgence (5th place). The Scots are not a team to take lightly, especially on their home turf. Scotland has managed to beat some top teams at home including Ireland and South Africa, not to mention their first win against Australia last year in Newcastle in Edinburgh-like conditions.
Scotland’s kept things close in the first half last week but eventually ended up missing 19 tackles and unless your scrambling defensive system is precise, you will eventually concede points. On Saturday, they conceded way too many. Looking at the positives, Sean Maitland, the flying Kiwi-turned-Scot enjoyed an encouraging debut as he scored the first try of the match after some brilliant work by promising 20-year-old fullback Stuart Hogg. He joined the line at speed and looked composed at the back. The two also combined for a scintillating length of the field second-half try. With big Tim Visser on the other wing, Scotland has an extremely dangerous and imposing back three. They are all certainly players to keep an eye on for the rest of the tournament and in the lead up to the next world cup.
For Italy, the two key players I singled out in last week’s preview stood up and were easily the difference on the scoreboard as Sergio Parisse was as dominant as always and the pocket-rocket flyhalf, Luciano Orquera set up both of his teams two maximums. This is the second time in two years that Italy has beaten France and any judgements about Italy just making up the numbers in this tournament have now been well and truly put to rest. However, consistency has hindered them in the past and a loss this weekend will only reiterate that.
This is one of the more difficult picks of the week. Do you go with an in form but inconsistent Italian team, or do you go with the home team who showed some positive signs against the old enemy, but clearly a team lacking confidence.
Prediction: This match could really go either way but I expect Italy will have their best start to a tournament ever and win a close one.
Best Bet: Italy +5 @ $1.90 (Sportsbet)
Second Best: Will there be a drop goal? YES @ $2.42 (Sportsbet)
Loose Bet: Hedge it with Scotland/Italy and Italy/Scotland in the double result market @ $10.00/$7.00
Teams (key players in bold)
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown (captain), 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Pat MacArthur, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 David Denton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Max Evans
Italy: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Luke McLean, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Francesco Minto, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Antonio Pavanello, 20 Paul Derbyshire, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Kristopher Burton, 23 Gonzalo Garcia
Match 2: France vs Wales
Location: Stade de France, Paris
Date: Saturday, February 9, 2013 (local time)
Kick off: 17:00 GMT | 03:00 AEST
Weather: Potential of light rain
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Wales had the worst start imaginable as they were outwitted and outplayed by a rampant Irish team in the first half at the Millennium Stadium. From the first few minutes, they were on the back foot and the crowd had been silenced. To their credit, they fought back valiantly; led by fullback Leigh Halfpenny and the Tongan born number eight, Toby Faletau. The red dragons kept control of the ball for sustained periods of time and the pressure finally turned into points. As Wales were trailing by as much as 27 points at one stage, they had no choice but to attack and play positive rugby. This created a magnificent spectacle which brought the crowd right back into the game.
A key problem contributing to the Welsh demise has been some of their key players working abroad and not giving their combinations a chance to develop. Some of the more financially successful clubs are luring some key Welsh players away from home, but this will never be able to be stopped. Wales will certainly look to carry over their second-half momentum to Paris this week where the almighty French await.
Inconsistency has plagued France for many a year and they regularly succumb to the pressure when they have the favourite tag. Their limited preparation was evident, but no excuses, they were beaten by a better team on the night. The majority of columnists around the world, either predicted the French to hit the ground running with a few early tries or that it would be close at half time and the French would find another gear in the second half once the Italians began to tire. How wrong were we, so credit must be paid where it is due.
Heading into this weekend’s fixture against Wales, the French team have a number of things to work on, as Wales will pose even more threats. Frederic Michalak simply had an off day and he positioned himself way too deep in the pocket and consequently failed to ignite what I believe was a promising backline. They were often caught behind the gain line and the Azzurri’s breakdown pressure led to some very costly turnovers. I have spoken about it before, but the French management need to take some responsibility when it comes to selecting players out of position. When they get it right, they are a joy to watch, but on Sunday they pushed the pass too often and their combinations were out of sync. But that is the beauty of sport; this week they have the opportunity to make amends.
Both teams have their backs against the walls, with Wales more so. After 8 consecutive defeats, a brave soul would back them. They certainly have the talent and when they get it right they will once again strike fear into their opponent’s eyes, but to win in Paris, against an under fire French team is a bridge too far to cross.
Prediction: France will give their supporters a reason to cheer, setting up an important clash against England next week.
Best Bet: Halftime handicap on France -4 @ $1.93 (Sportsbet)
Second Best: Will there be a yellow card? YES @ $1.53 (Sportsbet)
Loose Bet: Hedge it with France/Wales and Wales/France in the double result market @ $11.00/$7.00
Teams (key players in bold)
France: 15 Yoann Huget, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Benjamin Fall, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Jocelino Suta, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Yannick Forestier
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Florian Fritz
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Ryan Jones (c), 5 Ian Evans, 4 Andrew Coombs, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Craig Mitchell, 19 Lou Reed, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 James Hook, 23 Scott Williams
Match 3: Ireland vs England
Location: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Date: Sunday, February 10, 2013
Kick off: 16:00 GMT | 03:00 AEST
Weather: Chance of rain
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
The final match of the round sees the joint-tournament leaders England and Ireland clash in what should be a spectacle in Dublin. The victor in this match will be one step closer to the coveted 6 Nations championship and their tournament odds will shorten dramatically.
England hit the ground running last weekend by retaining the Calcutta Cup in style as they overcame a spirited Scottish side. Despite going down early on the scoreboard, England never looked like losing as they pressed and punched their way through a leaky Scottish defence on a number of occasions. Much was made of the absence of the bullocking centre, Manu Tuilangi, however, it is often said that one man’s loss is another man’s gain.
Introducing Billy Twelvetrees, the standout performer without a doubt and capped off a brilliant debut with a try of his own. His job was made easier by the foundation laid by a solid tight five, dominance at the breakdown by a balanced back row and another one of the most impressive young players in the game, Owen Farrell. This kid and son of dual international, Andy Farrell, is playing with poise and ambition well beyond his years. If his goal kicks continue to sail between the uprights, I am sure that he can make the number 10 jersey his own for many years to come, much like one his childhood heroes Jonny Wilkinson did.
Last weekend Ireland played their best half of rugby for as long as I can remember. They managed to cross the chalk three times in the first forty and managed to take the crowd out of the game. In the second half, Ireland had to hang on after a late resurgence from Wales but the damage was already done. Their defence was relentless for most of the match as they employed the choke tackle (turning the tackle situation into a maul) with aplomb. Furthermore, Ireland had the top five tacklers from all teams across the whole weekend. One of the most popular faces in world rugby, ex-Irish captain, Brian O’Driscoll, turned back the clock as he scored a try and setup another. He put on a master class and his performance last Saturday was one that very well could see him embark on his 3rd British and Irish Lions campaign. The man inside him, Jonathan Sexton played with composure and both his tactical and goal kicking were spot on. Like O’Driscoll, he did his chances no harm for the Lions sojourn. Another player that must get mention was winger, Simon Zebo whose rise on the international scene continued with some nifty footwork and enterprising play.
England coach Stuart Lancaster is developing what could be a formidable squad come RWC 2015, but this week’s test will be one of their toughest challenges yet. I mentioned in the tournament preview that this England side were a few consistent performances away from being a very good team. If they take care of Ireland this weekend in Dublin, England will set up a mouth-watering clash and a grand final of sorts against France at rugby headquarters next week. They have an imposing bench this week with an abundance of impact players including Courtney Lawes, Thomas Waldrom and the returning Manu Tuilangi. On the other side, Ireland will need to play for 80 minutes this week if they are to reign supreme. The hosts are in a jubilant mood and England has seen their dreams go up in smoke in Dublin before, however, I just don’t see it happening this time around, even in front of 50,000 screaming fans.
Prediction: England to prevail in a hard-fought encounter.
Best Bet: England to win @ $1.90 (Sportsbet)
Second Best: England to win by 1 – 12 @2.50 (Sportsbet)
Loose Bet: Double result – Ireland/England @ 8.00 (Sportsbet)
Teams (key players in bold):
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Mike McCarthy , 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Donncha O’Callaghan, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ronan O’Gara, 23 Keith Earls
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Brad Barritt, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Tom Wood, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 David Wilson, 18 Mako Vunipola, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 Danny Care, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Manu Tuilagi