An exhilarating round of clashes last week has laid the foundations for what could easily develop into one of the most fiercely contested Six Nations title races in recent history, with the hapless Italians the only side I’d feel safe writing-off just yet. Things got off to a bit of a dramatic start in Cardiff last Friday when the kick-off was delayed by six minutes due to a psychological stand-off in the tunnel between England and Wales after Chris Robshaw refused to lead his team out to the pitch ahead of their Welsh opposition.
The game finally got off to a rip-roaring start with the Red Dragons picking up a converted try and a penalty to take a 10-0 lead just eight minutes in, and things seemed to be going the way of the 30-3 drubbing dished out by Wales against England on the same ground two years back. But a defiant England started to gain momentum after their shaky start and claimed a try and a penalty with Wales adding a few more points through the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar. The half-time whistle went with the hosts leading 16-8. The second half belonged entirely to the plucky Poms who added thirteen unanswered points in the final forty minutes to secure a 16-21 victory, claiming the first upset of the season. Over in Rome, defending champions Ireland pulled off a comfortable 3-26 win against the Azzurri, but despite the healthy points difference the game highlighted several areas of concern for Joe Schmidt’s side, most notably the gaping hole on attack that has emerged since the retirement of stalwart Brian O’Driscoll last year. The final clash of the weekend saw an optimistic Scotland taking on the volatile French in Paris, where a solid Les Bleus defence and an accurate kicking display from Camille Lopez secured a hard fought 16-8 victory for the home side. But despite the loss the Scots have plenty of positives to take from the game as Vern Cotter’s young side were phenomenal on defence and continued to dazzle on attack. A few tweaks here and there and we could see the Scots having a real go at the silverware this season.
England vs Italy | Saturday 14 February | Twickenham Stadium | 16:30
To Win (80mins)
England (-28.5) 9/10
Italy (+28.5) 9/10
Having beaten the odds last week to claim a crucial win against the Welsh in Cardiff despite their incapacitating injury woes, it comes as no surprise that Stuart Lancaster has named an unchanged side for Saturday’s clash with the Italians in London. Lancaster had the option of bringing Saracens midfielder Brad Barritt back into the squad this week, but decided instead to retain Billy Twelvetrees who made a massive impact off the bench in the dying minutes last Friday. The Italians were less fortunate in their opening clash, suffering a 23-point home defeat to the Irish and losing Alessandro Zanni and Michele Campagnaro to injuries along the way. Coach Jacques Brunel has made four changes in all, with Marco Bortolami and Mauro Bergamasco joining the forwards and Andrea Masi and Luke McLean adding some fire to the backline.
VERDICT: Italy (+28.5) 9/10
The English are fielding a team of substitutes at the moment and not wanting to take anything away from their rousing victory last week but I feel the off-the-field antics in the lead up to the game, from the roof-dispute to the tunnel war, had a big part to play in the outcome. Saturday’s clash will be nowhere near as emotionally charged, so while I am convinced this young England team will do enough to pick up their second win of the season, I just can’t see them clearing the 28.5 handicap.
Ireland vs France | Saturday 14 February | Lansdowne Road | 19:00
To Win (80mins)
Ireland (-6.5) 9/10
France (+6.5) 9/10
Defending champions Ireland will be looking for a more convincing performance this week when they run out at home for the first time this season. Coach Joe Schmidt has made a few changes to the side that took down Italy last week, welcoming back the experienced Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy. French coach Philippe Saint-Andre has managed to fight off his natural desire to make sweeping changes to his side following their opening round victory over Scotland, with only one injury-enforced replacement as Eddy Ben Arous comes in for Alexandre Menini at tighthead.
VERDICT: Ireland (-6.5) 9/10
Neither side blew me away last week, but of the two it is Ireland I have more faith in being able to make massive strides as this competition goes on. And with a few big names back in their ranks, and a roaring crowd behind them, I think we will see an Irish side more than capable of retaining the crown for the first time in over sixty years.
Scotland vs Wales | Sunday 15 February | Murrayfield | 17:00
To Win (80mins)
Scotland (+3.5) 9/10
Wales (-3.5) 9/10
Scotland were certainly their own worst enemy last week in Paris where they were defeated by penalties alone, conceding eleven, with French pivot Camille Lopez needing to convert just five of those into points to steer his side to victory. Their defence proved impermeable against the French attack and Greg Laidlaw, Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg created some exciting attacking opportunities. There was somewhat of consolation prize for the Scots in having the only try of the match when Dougie Fife crossed just before half time. They take on a somewhat vulnerable Wales who were humbled in front of their Cardiff faithful by a depleted England, silencing Warren Gatland for the time being at least. Just the one change for Wales this week, with George North ruled out after suffering a concussion in last week’s clash, and he is replaced on the left wing by Scarlets full-back Liam Williams, who last started for Wales against the Springboks.
VERDICT: Scotland 15/10
Scotland have come a long way under Vern Cotter’s guidance but they have been unable to turn their sporadic threats of brilliance into match-winning consistency. And this week at home against the ego-bruised Welsh is about as good an opportunity as they are likely to find to prove they are on the right track as the World Cup closes in.