Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Six Nations update - part one

Now that the dust has settled on the first weekend of the Six Nations, its a little easier to dissect the teams and the games and look at where they all stand.
The opening match of Wales versus Italy was, as expected, somewhat of a dull affair. Italy looked better than we might have expected and Sergio Parisse continues to look like the class act he's always been. Since the retirement of Diego Domingo though, the Azzurri continue to struggle to find a decent fly-half. Wales played without Warburton and Davies but were otherwise at full strength. They made hard work of their victory but you can expect them to step out of third gear for next weekend's fixture in Dublin.
A short time after the final whistle blew in Cardiff, it was kick-off in Stade de France for the fixture of the weekend, France versus England. I tipped France to win and while they did, it was far from convincing. They started well but once England stepped up the physicality, the French struggled. The early lead kept them in contention on the score-board and a fatal lapse of concentration in the final minutes allowed them to strike and steal the match, grand larceny indeed. They won't ride their luck like that too often in the championship though and I believe teams like Ireland and Wales will push them hard later in the tournament. France seem to be struggling to find the right half-backs also and I was disappointed that both Fofana and Bastareaud had such quiet games (credit to England for that though). England on the other hand were impressive and I would expect them to kick on from the disappointment and put the Scots to the knife in the this weekend's Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh. They had some excellent ball-carriers in Billy Vunipola and later Ben Morgan. If I have one criticism its the lack of a real game-breaker in their back five. But they will be hard to beat make no mistake and represent Ireland's toughest challenge of the remaining matches.
And so to Ireland. I had hoped and expected to see them start where they had left off against the All Blacks by bringing a high level of pace and intensity to the opposition right from the kick-off. Scotland owned the ball for most of the first half and I began to worry that it would be last November's Australia match all over again. That said, we still went in at half-time five points in front. The Scots must have been scratching their heads! In the second half, Ireland played much tighter, hung onto the ball and took the opposition through the phases. This created mis-matches and gaps that lead to scores or penalties from which we gained ground or kicked three-pointers. In the end, the final score was a fair reflection of the difference between the two sides. Ireland scored three tries and went to the TMO for another two which were disallowed. The most encouraging aspect for me was with the introduction of a completely new front row in the second half (Marty Moore, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath), there seemed to be no apparent dip in scrummaging performance or the team's general cohesion, when was the last time we saw that happen?
It'll be a tougher test this weekend, Ireland have a shorter turn-around than Wales. I believe Ireland's more convincing victory over Scotland will have them better prepared mentally than Wales' sluggish win over Italy. Paul O'Connell should start as will Gordon D'Arcy, otherwise I expect the team to remain unchanged. There's a case to be made for starting with the exellent Tommy O'Donnell but Chris Henry did enough to hold onto his place.
So how are the matches going to go this weekend. England will have far too much for Scotland so I expect to see the poor Scots on the end of a thrashing. France will beat Italy in Paris but you can expect the Italians to do well. Ireland versus Wales is the fixture of the weekend, two closely matched, high quality teams going at it. Everyone says that the goings-on in the Welsh regions have no effect on the national team, but I'm not completely convinced yet, To sway me, they need to wallop Ireland and I don't think that will happen. Wales will play a hard, physical and direct route one game. Ireland will need to defend bravely and play for 80 minutes. But home advantage and a returning Paul O'Connell may just tip the balance Ireland's way, but only just.
 Prior to the opening round of this year's Six Nations Championship, I gave my prediction of how things would finish. I pitched Wales in at the top followed by France, Ireland, England, Scotland and Italy. Last weekend the results went the way I expected....just, but at one match apiece the balance has shifted. I think its now looking like England, Ireland, Wales, France, Italy and Scotland.

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