While there weren’t any high scoring affairs last weekend, there was some intriguing rugby on display. England opened their campaign with a hard-fought six-point victory over a brave Scottish outfit. While France illustrated why they are considered the most unpredictable team in world rugby with a timid performance against the Italians, that saw them just manage to avoid defeat. The final game of round one was the most tightly contested affair of them all. Despite conceding 13 points in the opening 26 minutes of their game against Ireland, Warren Gatland’s Wales managed to come back and rescue a 16-16 draw.
Let’s see what round two has in store, shall we?
Saturday 13 February
France v Ireland | Saturday 13 February | Stade de France | 16:10
To Win Match
France (-1.5) 9/10
Ireland (+1.5) 9/10
They are as unpredictable as a lottery draw but that’s what makes the French national side such an interesting prospect. Last weekend saw them don their under-performing caps as they struggled to find any fluency on attack against a fired-up Italian side. While the reason for this can be put down to the wholesale changes made by recently installed head coach Guy Noves, I personally think there’s always going to be a little voice in the back of any French squads head reminding them that they are capable of producing a performance that shifts from brilliant to mediocre to pitiful in the blink of an eye.
They’ll have to be at their best for the full 80 minutes this weekend, as Ireland will be coming to the Stade de France with only victory on their minds. Joe Schmidt’s men put in a near flawless performance during the opening quarter of their game against Wales last Sunday. Pivot, Johnny Sexton was at the heart of that initial blitz that saw Ireland go 13 points up with only 25 minutes of the game played. Wales would come back into the game before the half-time whistle blew however with third choice Bath flyhalf Reece Priestland slotting a penalty on the 31-minute mark and eighthman Taulupe Faletu crossing the whitewash three minutes before the half-time whistle blew. The second stanza was a considerably more dull affair with Sexton and Priestland trading penalties, and when all was said and done, the scoreline remained deadlocked at 16-16.
Both teams looked rather rusty last week, but I think the opening round fixtures will have helped them shake off some of the cobwebs, so we should see more fluid displays this week. There isn’t much in lieu of team news coming out of either camp at the moment but I suspect both teams will be forced to make changes. Ireland’s talismanic ten, Johhny Sexton took a hell of a lot of contact during the game against Wales and after kicking the penalty that restored parity, he was promptly hauled off the field under the instructions of Joe Schmidt.
The Ireland coach has declared Sexton fit to play this coming weekend, although, I’m extremely skeptical of his early prognosis. If Schmidt’s words do prove to be false, and Sexton is forced to sit out, then Ian Madigan is likely to replace him. Sexton’s understudy is a tidy player with a deft range of passing and a solid boot. Another change to Ireland’s starting XV could see Simon Zebo drop to the bench with Rob Kearney coming in to fill the fullback berth. While Zebo was solid at the back, he struggled to really offer himself on attack.
While Sexton’s absence is yet to be confirmed, one man who will certainly miss the game is French eight Louis Picamoles. The Toulouse man suffered a hamstring injury during last week’s clash with Italy and looks set to be sidelined for the next 2-3 weeks. His absence may see Noves shift his backrow around with Damian Chouly moving to eight and promising youngster Yacouba Camara coming into the openside flank berth.
Verdict: Ireland (+ 1.5) 9/10
What are the odds on France pitching up and playing the game of their lives? Well, it’s currently sitting at bellow evens which is not enough to make me back them. Instead, I’d recommend taking Ireland on the plus. With the game set to be rather tight, this market offers a much safer option.
Wales v Scotland | Saturday 13 February | Principality Stadium | 18:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Wales (-10.5) 9/10
Scotland (+10.5) 9/10
If the last eight years of rugby history have taught us anything, it’s that you can never write a Warren Gatland-coached Welsh side off. They went into their game against Ireland missing a plethora of their stalwarts and then had their most influential player leave the field with only 22 minutes of the game elapsed, but still they found a way to grind out a result. Such is the grit and determination that has symbolized Welsh rugby under Gatland.
While they did have a sluggish start to the game – which may have been down to Biggar’s injury and subsequent substitution – the Dragons came roaring back into the contest just after the 30-minute mark had past. Their display during the final 50-minutes of the game fully merited their one point reward, and in all honesty, it would have been an injustice of note, had Wales ended up losing that game.
While Gatland will have been happy with the point his side claimed from last weekend’s draw, he’ll probably be more pleased with the performance put in by replacement flyhalf Rhys Priestland. The one-time golden boy of Welsh rugby has seen his stocks drop since the emergence of Dan Biggar. His move to Bath at the beginning of last year hasn’t helped his cause either as he currently sits behind Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson in the selection pecking order. So for Priestland to come into the game cold – he’s barely touched a rugby ball in a competitive setting for the last for months – and put on the display he did is really impressive. He may need to replicate that form for the remainder of the Six Nations however, as Dan Biggar’s ankle injury could rule the first choice pivot out for the next few months, although there have been rumours floating around that Biggar’s injury is nowhere near as serious as first thought.
It’s not all gloom and doom for the Dragons, though, as gifted nine Rhys Webb could make his return this week, alongside utility back Gareth Anscombe who was forced to withdraw from last week’s matchday squad with a hamstring strain.
Onto the Scots now, and boy did they put in a fine display against their southern rivals last weekend. Having conceded an early converted try, the Scot’s came back into the game through scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw’s boot. The Gloucester man slotted two penalties to send his team into the half-time break only a solitary point behind the much-fancied English. The second stanza followed a very similar script to the first with England scoring an unconverted try on 50-minute mark and then converting a penalty on the 62-minute mark. Laidlaw managed to pull three points back for his side with a 68th-minute penalty. The Scots threw everything at the English during the final ten minutes of the game but couldn’t find a way through a solid Roses defence. Vern Cotter’s men went on to lose the game by six points but their performance would have fired a massive warning shot to the rest of the tournament’s competitors.
So the Scot’s will come into this one with a lot of confidence and a clean bill of health – which is quite surprising when you look at how hard they went into the contact situation against the English last week. Greig Laidlaw will once again be the key man for the Thistles. The diminutive nine’s goal kicking will be crucial as his side often struggles to score tries.
Verdict: Scotland (+10.5) 9/10
The Scots will be buoyed by last weekend’s display and I think they’ll give the Welsh a real test this weekend. My tip for this one is to back the visitors on the +10.5 handicap.
Sunday 14 February
Italy v England | Sunday 14 February | Stadio Olimpico | 16:00
To Win Match (80 Mins)
Italy (+15.5) 9/10
England (-15.5) 9/10
A whole hearted display from the Italians last weekend almost saw them upset France for the third time in the space of five years. The Azzurri came into their game as complete underdogs – which is the common trend for Italian rugby sides – but when all was said and done, there were probably a huge amount of bookies regretting their decision to give the Italians a huge + handicap.
Having conceded an early try, I really thought the writing was on the wall for the Italians. The Azzurri fought back bravely, however, and by the 25th minute, they had taken the lead. France would restore parity on the 32-minute mark though, as flanker Damian Chouly crossed the whitewash to draw the sides level. The scores remained locked at 10-10 as the teams headed in for the half-time oranges. Itlay came out for the second stanza like a team possessed, and they were ten points to the good as the sides entered the final half an hour of the fixture. France found their way back into the game via the boot of Jules Pilson and a try from Hugo Bonnival. The final ten minutes of the match would be a tense affair as replacement flyhalf Kelly Haimona and Jules Pilson traded penalties. Pilson would ultimately win the kicking duel and in the process, gave his side a vital two-point victory.
Italy may have gone down but they were by no means disgraced. Their forwards laid a solid foundation for their exciting backline – yes, I just mentioned exciting and Italian backline in the same sentence – to work off. The question I’m left to ask now, however, is why on earth would Jaques Brunel leave it so late in his tenure to start playing an exciting brand of rugby? It honestly defies logic. But that’s a debate for another day. The one thing that is certain though is that Brunel’s exciting young backline has given this Italian side another dynamic.
While the Italians managed to give the French a fright, the English were given a scare of their own by a determined Scottish outfit. Vern Cotters’ men gave Eddie Jones and his charges a real run for their money at Murrayfield, and if it hadn’t been for some solid shifts from the English pack members, then Jones may have seen his tenure start with an embarrassing defeat.
You can’t really read too much into England’s performance last week. Yes they were nowhere near their best, and yeah, a six-point victory over a team they’ve managed to hammer over the last nine or so years isn’t the most inspiring of results, but you’ve got to take the circumstances into the equation. Firstly this is an England side who are yet to really be moulded by Eddie Jones. Secondly, the weather at Murrayfield really wasn’t conducive to playing an open brand of rugby. And finally, the Murrayfield crowd was as hostile as the Bobby Moore stand on a West Ham match day.
With all of the above considered, I don’t think Jones will be too displeased with the victory – particularly after England’s two main title rivals managed to draw their fixture. He will, however, demand more from his players this weekend. He’s likely to stick with a very similar squad to the one that took to the Murrayfield pitch last Saturday and I think the likes of the brothers Vunipoala, Dan Coles and Joe Launchbury will play pivotal roles once again.
Verdict: England (-15.5) 9/10