So here we find ourselves, the 2015 6 Nations Championship not a month old and already the only two real contenders slug it out for glory and much-needed momentum before the curtain raises on the biggest prize in world rugby. At this stage of the tournament it’s always customary to take a bit of a breather and look back at what has gone on in the opening rounds; analyse every result, every performance, speculate over who’s on top and who has fallen and debate every missed tackle, penalty and refereeing decision. However it’s also the point where the tournament takes shape and looking ahead, sometimes a step too far by a foolish few, is inevitable. The foundations have been laid already for most teams.
Scotland, so often flattering to deceive since the era when five became six, have shown green shoots under new coach Vern Cotter. Gone are the days where the same old stalwarts trotted out at Murrayfield only to fall short, in both results and performance, to all but Italy. Yes, the results part has yet to come but Scotland look a different prospect under the kiwi.
A raft of in-form young players have given them much more attacking bite, with the likes of Seymour, Bennett and the revitalised Stuart Hogg all showing what they can do in the opening rounds. True, the kilt-wearing fans will still be rueing agonisingly close defeats, particularly against Wales, but this team are building something impressive and it should come as no surprise to people if they get very far in October.
Italy, on the other hand have sadly taken a step back. Their injection of new players into the squad may tell in a year or two’s time but they have all come in too late. It’s the same old cliche with the Azzurri as every year – Parisse is lauded as one of the world’s finest Number 8s (something that is beyond question) and they still struggle to find a fly-half who can not only kick points but consistently take games by the scruff of the neck and orchestrate a limited backline.
The Stade Francais man can’t be expected to do it all on his own, much as he may try, so Jacques Brunel needs to find some leaders elsewhere pretty quickly if he wants to avoid reverting to embarrassing defeats.
Wales are a tricky one. Undoubtedly one of the fittest, most well-drilled squads in the 6 Nations, they are always capable of winning the thing but they continue to use the same dated game plan. Battering opponents into submission with waves of big runners coming around the corner seemed like a winning formula….in 2008. Gatland, despite what many may say at this point, is a smart and shrewd coach but you feel his days must be numbered if the performances and therefore the results continue as they are.
Yes, they finally got the Southern Hemisphere monkey off their back in the autumn and won a game they shouldn’t have in the last round, but this is a team falling far short of their huge potential. They have unearthed a diamond in Rhys Webb. A pacy half-back to worry opposition back rows and deliver zippy ball to the monster backs is just what they need after Mike Phillips. In the pack too there are bright talents like Samson Lee and Jake Ball. It’s long overdue for the Welsh to go back to a more fluid attack, utilising deception and guile rather than a bludgeon.
Warren Gatland is not afraid of dropping players and to stand any chance of evolving he needs to stop relying on his old guard who aren’t performing anymore and bring in the likes of Scott Williams, Eli Walker and Justin Tipuric.
Similar lessons could be learned by France too. I’m not suggesting for a second that they get all misty-eyed and go back to the age of Sella, Blanco and Saint-Andre – the game has moved on from such times – however they need to find that creative spark from somewhere, that verve, that passion.
French teams of late have too often looked rudderless and when they do eventually pull out wins, it says more about the resources at their disposal rather than any kind of coherent strategy. On their day France have a pack to beat you with one hand and then the backs to slice you open with the other. Admittedly much of this lack of focus is down to the last two coaches and their selection policy that seems to come from voices that only they can hear. I think they have been guilty of trying to bring in big, physical players who would put an elephant on the back foot but are so bereft of ideas when it comes to creating space or selling a dummy that their presence on the pitch is useless.
We’re only now starting to see some consistency in selection week-to-week and you can see glimpses of it paying off. Morgan Parra was brilliant when he came on for his 20 minute cameo against Ireland and Remi Lamerat looks a good bet in the centre for a long time to come. Perhaps, as England have realised over the last couple of years, fielding intelligent players rather than bodybuilders, and keeping the core of your starting XV the same eventually pays dividends. The sooner the French realise that what they need is less Bastareaud, more Fofana, the sooner other teams should start to get worried.
To the Main Course then and the two title challengers. I don’t think it is paying a disservice to the other nations in branding them as this, even so early on in the championship. It was always going to come down to these two and this game to decide who will be crowned as Europe’s elite.
Both Ireland and England had tricky starts to navigate. Even with solid November Internationals behind them, especially Ireland’s, the opening weekend is always a nervy affair with players renewing acquaintances and getting used to a different pattern and pace of play.
The Irish team wore the slightly unfamiliar tag of favourites before a ball had even been kicked and rightly so. However Italy, in Rome as ever proved to be a much sterner test than many would have hoped. Granted a team missing four of their starting players and key leaders within the group was bound to shake things up a bit. It took a nice bit of pace from Munster flanker Tommy O’Donnell to put a bit of breathing space between the sides and eventually decide the outcome. Head honcho and universally admired coach Joe Schmidt could feel understandably frustrated with the performance, such is the depth of the squad he has built and the level of performance this team demands.
The second week brought about a much improved showing, albeit one that was not a hit with many in the Irish public and media. However it may have seemed to the casual observer in Dublin, this was a brilliant game of rugby. It had everything, if not tries; intensity, huge collisions and a masterfully controlled game (by the home team anyway).
More importantly than that though, it showed the maturity and execution that have made Ireland the team they are today. Too many complained that there was not enough of a passing game, no set moves or line breaks but they’re missing the point here. Offer them 4 tries as part of a losing effort and which one would they go for?
Yes these things will come later on but the platform that Schmidt has built with this team is astonishing. The defence and the kicking game has to come first and Ireland look very tough to beat in these areas. Add to that their excellent competition at the breakdown and you have a side that would concern any team in the world, even New Zealand.
So an uphill climb for their opposition then? Yes, but not one that they are incapable of meeting. England, like their opponents on Sunday, are not the finished article, far from it, but the performances and the mood coming from their camp is one that gives supporters reason to be confident. This has not been a vintage year for the men in white, with injuries and a string of sub-par performances causing the chariot to falter a bit.
Their has been large strides in terms of their style of play though. The two teams have almost switched roles in the last few months with Ireland becoming more pragmatic and dogged, whereas England have added some strings to their offensive bow with greater emphasis on an expansive game.
To be at their peak, both sides need to discover that middle ground like the England team of ’03, who could switch it on when necessary but knew how to grind out the wins very effectively. England showed a bit of both during the first two rounds with an impressively dominant performance at a hostile Millennium Stadium which perhaps wasn’t reflected in the scoreline. They seemed to take their foot off the accelerator against Italy and defence coach Andy Farrell would have been seething at the 3 soft tries they leaked during an otherwise easy victory against a flagging team.
No doubt that will be shored up when they arrive in the Aviva Stadium and it is important for them that the work rate off the ball is stepped up several gears by that time otherwise I can see Ireland building up a very healthy lead. Bath centre Jonathan Joseph has been the player of the tournament so far but will now be a marked man because of it and this will be a very good test to see if he has what it takes to make it at the top-level long-term.
As always England will look to their strong set-piece game first and foremost. It is an area that continues to go well for them, even without injury absentees in the front and second row. Joe Marler has developed into a very effective scrummager during this season, although he has a tendency to bore in on the tighthead which Ireland will no doubt be quick to bring to the attention of referee Craig Joubert before and during the game.
Ireland’s forward pack has also developed into a fearsome unit and despite still lacking genuine depth at tighthead, they will be a match for England here, using their two big men in the lineout, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner to great effect thus far. They will also try to continue the success they’ve had with the driving maul and look to hole up any isolated England backs with the choke tackle given any sniff.
The breakdown is always an incredibly competitive area between these sides and this is an area where it could go either way. The loss of Jamie Heaslip to a back injury through a reckless challenge from Pascal Pape will be keenly felt as he gets through a huge amount of work for whatever team he plays in. A tough environment for young Leinster back-row Jordi Murphy to be thrust in to but he has impressed so far this season in both blue and green.
In a similar vein England captain Chris Robshaw continues to top stats and be as effective as ever. I can see the battle of the turnover shaded by Ireland though as they tend to be quicker to get in good positions over the ball and have more members of the team who are adept at this facet of the game.
After the forwards win the ball, the half-backs will win or lose this match. Given how close the meetings between these sides have been in the last five years, whoever is more accurate and plays the territory game better will come out on top. Again Ireland have arguably the best 9/10 pairing in the world at the moment and the mental fortitude Jonny Sexton showed to come in against France after so long out and control field position was astounding.
Ben Youngs does seem somewhat rejuvenated in an England shirt, making the kind of breaks which got him there in the first place. I don’t see it being that type of game though so he will have to ensure his box-kicks are well placed and his passing quick and accurate. George Ford has also showed calmness and skill beyond his years and will relish testing himself in this environment. Given that he spent a lot of time in Dublin when his father was Ireland defence coach will mean he is more at home than others might be.
How much ball the backs get will be dependent on the conditions and the type of game each coach has decided to go for but I see a lot of long kicks and Garry Owens to chase for the respective back threes. England have dropped the defensively frail Jonny May for Exeter wing Jack Nowell and also been forced into a change after Mike Brown was concussed against Italy, with Alex Goode taking his place. Both are adept under the high ball so should fare ok but expect to see them peppered with balls in the opening quarter.
Tommy Bowe has, as always, been mister consistent in this regard and should have no problems, ditto for his full back partner Rob Kearney. The battle in the centres should be fascinating with both pairings relatively inexperienced at this level but with talent and enthusiasm in spades.
Robbie Henshaw has looked as though he has played there for years and Jared Payne showed a number of good touches against France. Luther Burrell for England hasn’t perhaps shone as much as his midfield partner but has created a lot of space for him by holding defenders which tends to go unseen.
Whatever the weather on Sunday, expect a fiery clash. The result of this game will go a long way to deciding not only the 6 Nations but who is most likely to challenge the big three Southern Hemisphere sides when September rolls around. Given the tightness of performance and home support, I’ll have to go Ireland by 5-7 points but I wouldn’t like to stake my house on it!
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Bench: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Bench: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.