Six Nations Preview: Round 2

England vs Italy, Saturday 2:30pm

Italy’s coach Jacques Brunel is up against England this weekend, a team that in twenty games, they have never beaten. The experienced pair of Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco are among the four changes made from last weekend.; the return of two vastly experienced players could have an impact, but it will no doubt have a negative influence on Italy’s long-term planning for the upcoming World Cup. On the bench they have an interesting player in Giulio Bisegni, a young centre that would undoubtedly benefit from some Six Nations experience. On that note, bringing back Bortolami and Bergamasco is a huge step in the wrong direction. If Brunel’s side are hoping to grab a few victories and do well in the World Cup they need to look to their talented players. The old generation have had their chance. It is time to see if Bisegni and his generation can take Italy to the next level.

Six_Nations_Championship.svgIt appears to be the same old story with the Italian side these days. Their fundamental gameplan is to be a ferocious pack that lives off  set pieces, and they are quite good at that. There is one recurrent issue though; a powerful pack is usually not enough against the big boys. Every now and then they pull off a tremendous team effort and secures an unforeseen victory. France and Ireland in 2013 are two prominent examples. However, they seem to struggle to maintain the level of intensity at the breakdown and the set-pieces for a full eighty minutes. That was the case against Ireland in the opener last week. An energetic and spirited defensive display in the first half produced no magic, and they never stood a chance as soon as the Irish side increased the tempo in the second half. The Azzuri are destined for another wooden spoon, unless they come up with something big in the next few games. That being said, don’t expect any Italian fireworks at Twickenham Saturday afternoon.

England, on the other hand, came back from being eight points down at half time to claim a tremendous victory at the Millennium Stadium. The starting XV to face Italy is unsurprisingly unchanged from last weekend, as Stuart Lancaster is looking to build on the momentum from last weekend’s second half performance. What England pulled off last week was incredible, given the injury crisis they are going through at the moment. The second-row pairing of Dave Attwood and George Kruis is particularly interesting to consider. With Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling ruled out with injuries, the Attwood-Kruis pairing outplayed and out-muscled the much-vaunted Welsh first string with Lions experience.

Prediction: Their performance in Cardiff speaks volumes about England’s depth and quality. Although the English side lack the Italian experience, they are going into this match with heaps of confidence and an increasing number of players with flair, speed and agility that will see England grab an easy win this weekend.

Ireland v France, Saturday 5pm

Both teams head into Saturday evening’s fixture knowing that a loss will cancel out any hopes of a Grand Slam and would dent any Championship hopes, too. Ireland beat Italy easily last weekend whilst France held Scotland conservatively, and unimpressively, reflected in the French sports press by Midi Olympqiue, who ran stories complaining about a lack of “Attacking Intent” and asking “Where has French flair gone?”.

Phillipe Saint-Andre has never beaten Ireland since becoming head coach of Les Bleus but Ireland haven’t beaten France in Dublin since 2009, when Ronan O’Gara scored 16 points in a 30-21 victory. In last year’s fixture, in what was Brian O’Driscoll’s final international match, Joe Schmidt’s team ran out 22-20 winners in Stade de France which saw Ireland claim their first Championship since 2009.

France’s matchday squad include six players who have never faced Ireland, Rory Kockott one of them. He seemed to bear the brunt of the French press following last weekend as they complained about his physicality and his over-readiness to commit to the breakdown as a third back-rower, leaving them without a scrum-half, but he retains his place alongside Camille Lopez in la charnière. Eddy Ben Arous is the only change coming in form injured Alex Menini, Phillipe Saint-Andre showing that he is capable of stable and consistent team selection. Pascal Pape will come up against Paul O’Connell in the second-row, Pape who is 34 years old now, and alongside O’Connell will probably not play another Six Nations after the 2015. A worry for the French will be the fore-mentioned lack of “attacking intent”, unexpected as they had Camille Lopez in the number 10 jumper. Their backline is full of talent, but Remi Lamerat on the bench will not bring any excitement from there; Gael Fickou would have been a better option. To win on Sunday, Les Bleus will need to cross the AVIVA’s whitewash and keep their discipline.

Jonny Sexton should return for Joe Schmidt’s team, after twelve weeks out suffering four concussions. Sexton, who is playing his final season for Racing-Metro in Paris, faces three of his Racing teammates on Saturday. Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best are also recalled to the starting fifteen as Leinster’s Cian Healy is named in the matchday squad, having not played since September. Rory Best wins his 80th cap and is named despite receiving a knock to his head in last weekend’s win in Rome. Connor Murray partners Jonny Sexton again, as Ian Keatley is not even in the matchday squad, even though he controlled the game finely in the Stadio Olimpico.

Prediction: In the biggest game of the weekend, Joe Schmidt will look to get one over some of his former Clermont-Auvergne players, and Jonny Sexton will look to parallel him by beating his Racing-Metro teammates. It’s a pivotal match for both teams before the Six Nations takes two weeks’ break. Expect France to attempt to suffocate Ireland’s possession, but with Sexton back he should steer the Irish ship to a first win over France in Dublin in 6 years.

Scotland v Wales, Sunday 3pm

In this year’s first Sunday fixture, Wales travel to Edinburgh with both sides knowing full well that a loss would dash any hopes of a Championship win, and for Scotland a Triple Crown (which they have not claimed since 1990). Since last year’s 51 to 3 win for Warren Gatland’s side, international Scottish rugby has seen much improvement, mainly due to Vern Cotter’s input as new head coach. Scotland have not beaten Wales since 2007, since then every Welsh victory has been accompanied by at least a 10 point margin.

Gatland has kept his team from the squad that lost last week to England, with George North out through concussion, Liam Williams taking his place on the left-wing and Scott Williams named as back-three cover on the bench. Aaron Jarvis comes in for Samson Lee at tighthead prop, as the Scarlet could not complete the return to play protocol for a head injury. This final change reminds us of a certain Adam Jones, not named in Gatland’s Championship squad; and so announced his retirement from international rugby. Aaron Jarvis has 6 caps, and has only tasted victory in the red jersey once against 100-time capped Adam Jones, a British and Irish Lion who made his debut just under 12 years ago. Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts were quiet last Friday night, so up against a relatively unexperienced centre pairing against them, people expect the two Top 14 based players to expose this.

For the home side Vern Cotter will face Wales for the first time, but has already faced many Welsh regional sides in Europe as head coach for ASM Clermont-Auvergne in the past. The majority of his Scotland team are Glasgow Warriors players. He has called upon Sean Lamont on the right wing for injured Tommy Seymour, and Geoff Cross will deputise for Euan Murray who is unavailable for religious reasons. Blair Cowan stood out last week, and neutralised the French rucks claiming three turnovers; Sam Warburton is known best for his ability to do the same. Brothers Richie and Jonny Gray partner up in the second-row, and it will be physical battle both in the air and on the ground between them, and Jake Ball and Alun-Wyn Jones of Wales. It’s also Cotter’s first home Six Nations fixture, and he will surely look to replicate the performance in Paris last week, but change the losing result. Aaron Jarvis will be targeted at scrum time by 40-cap Alasdair Dickinson, but Scotland’s backline will need to be sharper than last week as they attempt to pierce Shaun Edward’s renowned defensive lie.

Prediction: Scotland have changed their gameplay hugely not only since last season, but since their 2007 win over Wales. Wales are wounded following a home loss the old enemy. A win is needed for both sides; expect the tightest fixture of the weekend at Murrayfield.