Le Crunch and The Craic
What a crucial weekend we have coming up in the Six Nations. So much at stake for England, Scotland and Ireland with the opportunity still there for anyone of the three to win the championship. We also have Wales looking to show just how close they are to the other three with a big old statement against Italy.
Scotland after their historic win against England will be breathing fire and absolutely desperate to back it up and prove it was not a one off. Can they go out to Dublin and beat Ireland. Yes is the answer of course they can – the beauty of rugby and the Six Nations in particular is that anyone can beat anyone. However, the Irish pack is not only physical but smart and with an Aviva Premiership referee in Wayne Barnes, Scotland will find the breakdown reffed in a way that may not suit them as much as last weekend. Joe Schmidt the Ireland coach is one clever son of a gun and you can bet his players will not let John Barclay et al rule the contact area like they did at Murrayfield. For an upset Scotland will need to up the tempo and try to attack from loose ball and turnovers but Ireland are defensively brilliantly so that is not an easy task. Ireland has the superb tighthead prop Tadgh Furlong back from injury and with some dazzlingly talented newcomers looking to the manor born I can’t see too many weaknesses in that side at all. My prediction is an Ireland win but I really hope it is a close game and Scotland can prove they really don’t suffer that badly from travel sickness.
England is wobbling at the moment with the wheels on the chariot missing a few nuts and bolts.
Love Eddie as many of us do there are plenty who also think he has misjudged his selection on some crucial fronts. One on the bolts he needs for the ‘sweet chariot’ is shaped like an openside. I am really hoping for the game against France Eddie goes for Sam Simmonds or Sam Underhill at 7 so he can drop the idea of a lock playing at 6 and put Robshaw back where he excels. Instantly the back row has more balance and both Sam’s have the speed and athleticism England need at the breakdown.
Other selection head scratchers have been Eddie’s refusal to include a third choice scrum half leaving him now with an imbalance in his side that he has created himself. If he had had Dan Robson in with the squad for the last couple of years the Wasps half back would have slotted in seamlessly. Instead he has 34 year old Wigglesworth who is a very fine player but is a controller and box kicker not an impact player to bring on in the last 15 minutes to change a game. So (it’s easy this selection lark isn’t it) I would put Lawes on the bench, shift Robshaw to 6 and start Underhill at 7 with Nathan Hughes at 8. Sorted for you Eddie. And while you are at it give Mike Brown a rest and start Anthony Watson at full back allowing you to have two of your British & Irish Lions in the team – Nowell and Daly.
So to Paris we go where the England lads take on a France side in total disarray. England fans bemoaning two lost fixtures out of 26 might want to get some context by taking a peek at the Les Bleus stats. Their win ratio in recent years in the 6Nations has plummeted and it is only playing Italy each year that gives the stats a vague sense of respectability.
French rugby is not in a good place with the head honcho Bernard Laporte still under investigation for corruption, a coach sacked and the current coach struggling to keep his squad under control. The night out in Edinburgh after France lost to Scotland resulted in police investigations and mysterious bruises and cuts on members of the infamous 8 now suspended by coach Jacques Brunel. The bruises were apparently caused by collisions with hotel furniture! Dangerous things those bedside tables.
Reasons for the decline in French rugby are many. For starters there is so much power and money behind the Top 14 clubs who do not like to release their players to the international side and feel only a slightly begrudging obligation to do so. Unlike the RFU and Premiership Clubs who have hammered out an agreement which helps the national side France seems stuck with a power imbalance where the clubs hold the aces.
However, if England think this fixture is a sure fire way to get their show back on the road they will need to be beware. France, as we all know, when facing Les Rosbifs always go up a gear and it suits the French psyche to be backs against the wall. Heaven knows they have the talent even with a team that is unsettled and if big bad Mathieu Bastareaud gets a head of a steam running at our midfield plus the forwards decide they quite fancy beating up the England pack it could all go nightmarishly wrong for England.
What do England need to do to stop this happening? Eddie can’t, and I don’t believe he will, make wholesale changes. I think, however, he must change the back row. This is the one area in the squad where he has made the most changes in his time with England so he knows what he has got is not right. We may see Haskell which will give you a tackling machine who will wholeheartedly hunt down blue shirts - but my preference is for a faster more agile player. Other than that I think start Wigglesworth and think about Te’o at 13 to put some bulk in the mid field.
Eddie also needs to get more out of some of his forwards with Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley doing a bit more of the heavy duty carrying to take some of the pressure off poor old Mako who looks permanently exhausted. England need to get over the gainline to execute Eddie’s game plan so it will be good to see if our pack can smash it up like we know they can. So much of rugby is in the head and I think for Le Crunch the England boys will be unbelievably highly motivated and we will see a massive amount of intensity from the pack. If that happens England will have front foot ball for our backs to play off and we can then look dangerous. Hopefully Eddie has also recognised how knackered some of the players are and has gone a bit easier in training so they can peak physically on Saturday.
Before this Six Nations started this fixture was not seen as key although it suddenly has become precisely that. France at one time was always the team to beat at this time of the year. Games against them particularly in the concrete bear pit of the Parc de Princes in Paris were blood and guts type affairs that would under today’s laws cause a flurry of red and yellow cards.
I personally always loved playing against France as you rarely came across their players in the league and there was always a sense of occasion and feeling of going into battle. Some of the time it quite literally was a battle. Happy days!