This coming weekend is brewing nicely with little sub plots all over the place. The only Friday evening game of this Six Nations sees Ireland with the Championship trophy in their sights face a fragile Wales team who have points galore to prove. Should Ireland lose they could be handing England the chance to win the championship this weekend. Will Scotland upset the sweet chariot at Twickenham with an historic win and do Italy have a little more magic up their sleeves to confuse the French? Finally think of all those individual battles for players up against competitors for a Lions place.
Starting with Wales you just know they somehow have to find a performance that matches the one against England. Motivation should not be hard to find for the boys with the pressure of 3 defeats looming and the home venue is going to be so important in lifting the players’ performance. I personally don’t think they have played that badly so far. For most of the England game they were brilliant and for 40 minutes against Scotland had the game totally under control. The head scratcher for outsiders is how with the talent in the back line Wales struggle to finish off scoring chances. It is this area where they are lagging behind the other Home Nations teams. With Alex King now helping out with the attack I would be amazed if this part of their game does not improve but it could be that Kinga just does not have enough time to make the changes he needs to get this backline firing.
Ireland to me just look so polished. There is a fluidity and intelligence about their play which comes from a mix of familiarity of the players with each other especially the wonderful half pack pairing of Murray and Sexton and the canny Kiwi Joe Schmidt. From what I have heard the coach is a perfectionist and hard task master but supremely thorough in his match preparation.
The Irish back row is very threatening and ball carriers are dotted throughout the pack. Interestingly Ireland don’t seem to have an out and out 7 like Wales do with Warburton but nonetheless they look balanced with plenty of options. The Irish scrum has been pretty solid and they mashed the Scots up in Murrayfield. Look out for the young tighthead Tadhg Furlong another farmers’ boy like me who I think is looking the real deal. He is an explosive ball carrier with pretty good feet and is such a ball of energy on the pitch.
Tight one to call on who will get the win and so I am going to go slightly against the grain and suggest Wales will sneak it.
For the England v Scotland fixture you would have to be very chilled indeed not to already feel the swirls of excitement. This is the ‘olde’ enemy, an ancient fixture which is simply another battle against Edward’s army fought on a rugby pitch. You can’t under estimate emotion and passion in rugby and the Scots will bring that as they always do however this time they will also bring some very scary weapons indeed in the shape of a scintillating set of backs.
The back line featuring the multi talented Stuart Hogg at full back, hugely exciting fly half Finn Russell, flying Dutchman Tim Visser as well as powerful and ball playing centres just know how to score tries. In my day playing Scotland it was the one area they struggled with often having a great pack but lacking finesse and cutting edge in the backs. I am sure the supersonic rise of Glasgow Warriors has helped with that team playing such an attacking style and including most of the Scotland players but it has been seriously good to see Scotland back to being such an enormous threat.
As for the Scotland pack there are some very fine forwards in there including the Gray brothers at lock who are playing out of their skins at the moment. The back row will miss Josh Strauss but this is another area Scotland has got some enviable strength in.
As for England, they have to be slight favourites simply because that self-belief and confidence is so strong and we have yet to see a complete performance so I am backing them to have their best game on Saturday. Big Billy Vunipola should be back in that number 8 shirt and he will make a difference. Hughes is a fine player but does not dent the line as much as Billy who tends to always get beyond the tackle. This ability gives England valuable front foot ball as defensive lines have to reset once a player goes over the gain line and that always opens up more chances for an attack.
I hope to see another favourite of mine back in the starting line up and that is Jack Nowell. I just love watching this guy. He makes very, very few mistakes, is an explosive runner in tight spaces and defends like a demon. Also good under the high ball and his reading of the game means he supports well and often gets on a shoulder.
The beauty of sport is the unexpected and with two teams as good as England and Scotland they are both capable of beating each other. England’s scrum will dominant as this is an area Scotland are missing some excellent players and the England line out usually functions with machine like efficiency. With such a powerful pack England can force Scotland to make mistakes and cut down their time on the ball. To win this however England will need to be as disciplined as possible and control the game from half back. Anything sloppy or loose kicking will hand an advantage to Scotland.
Twickenham should be absolutely jumping on Saturday and if you heard Jim Telfer’s cutting comments about the Twickenham crowd believe me they are just not true. This is a crowd that is mostly made up of members of English rugby clubs from big to tiny and they are knowledgeable and passionate fans. Those fans plus the Scottish, Irish and Welsh ones that travel in huge numbers are part of what makes our Six Nations tournament the best in the world. I would not swap it for anything.