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Six Nations Preview 2011 - Weekend Three

Saturday, 26 February 2011

  • Italy v Wales, Stadio Flamino, 14:30
  • England v France, Twickenham, 17:00

Sunday, 27 February 2011

  • Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, 15:00

There's no doubt that the game of the weekend is England v France at Twickenham!

The only two unbeaten teams go head to head in what's being widely seen as the championship decider, even with two more rounds to go after this. The French haven't been great so far and were lucky to get out of Dublin with a win after conceding three tries for the second game running. England's sweet chariot is in full swing though after their rampant destruction of a pathetically poor Italy team. With the smell of success in their nostrils, old character traits are returning swiftly too with the arrogant try celebrations of Chris Ashton summing up the national mood. The feeling in their media is beat France and the Grand Slam is theirs!! Never mind that they still have to come to Dublin and beat an Ireland team that they've only beaten once since 2003.

England certainly were impressive against Italy, although it must be said everything after the first twenty minutes was closer to a training match. Once Ashton scored his second try, Italy pretty much gave up and some of their tackling thereafter was frankly disgraceful. It was such a shame for them and they'll feel they're back to square one after their brave performance against Ireland in the first round. However England could only play what was in front of them and it was a clinical destruction capped by four tries from Ashton who took his tally to a remarkable six in two games.

One of France's biggest challenges will be to stop Ashton and their English defence coach Dave Ellis (the one Englishman coach Marc Lievremont seems to like) has already announced he has special plans to corral him. Part of the plan is recalling Vincent Clerc to play opposite him, with Maxime Medard moved to fullback in place of the out of form Clement Poitrenaud. However since very few of Ashton's tries come out wide, it's going to take more than just a winger of even Clerc's class to stop him. As a former league player he's a master of the trailing run, popping up on the shoulder of the ball carrier in all sorts of positions to finish off moves.

France's plans to stop him will have to encompass the whole team and to that end they're helped by the recall of Yannick Jauzion at inside centre and Dimitri Yachvilli at scrum-half. However it wouldn't be Lievremont if there wasn't at least one daft selection and in the backrow he's recalled Sebastien Chabal with the world-class Imanol Harinorduquay shifted to the flank and Julian Bonnaire dropped. Now admittedly Bonnaire has been strangely quiet in this championship but recalling Chabal is a farce. While he was once an asset in his days with Bourgoin and Sale, these days he's more marketing tool than player. Witness his efforts for Racing Metro at the RDS against Leinster. After one decent charge against Jamie Heaslip, Isa Nacewa then put him on his ass, not once but twice! After that he faded from the match and was eventually replaced. The media will still focus on him because of how he looks, so when the England pack start to batter him, it will be a big lift for the crowd and a psychological blow to France.

The game will of course be a lot more than just Ashton v Chabal though. The last time France played at Twickenham, they were humiliated so that will be fresh in their minds. However you simply can't say which French team will turn up. If they're on form, they could rip England apart but you suspect that England will grind out a tight win.

In Saturday's other match, Wales travel to Italy on the back of their surprisingly easy win over Scotland. It wasn't a vintage Welsh performance as they basically won the game in the first twenty minutes and then just defended against a remarkably inept Scottish team. James Hook played well at ten, but because of Jonathan Davies's hamstring injury, he's been moved once again to outside centre allowing Stephen Jones to reclaim the out-half spot. Wales broke a winless streak of nine games in Murrayfield and coach Warren Gatland will be hoping to notch up another win to keep the momentum going. For Italy, it will be a case of trying to wipe the England match from their minds and go out and play more like they played against Ireland. If they can do that, they have a chance but you'd have to think Wales will win.

Finally to the Scotland-Ireland match in Murrayfield. Both teams have made changes, in particular Scotland who've made seven changes in total, a number of them forced by injury. Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie are back in their pack and Moray Low is in for Euan Murray who won't play on Sundays for religious reasons, but could well have been dropped in any case. They've also changed their half-backs with Mike Blair in for Rory Lawson and Ruaridh Jackson given his first championship start ahead of Dan Parks. Jackson is the most interesting selection. Parks is a good kicker but not much more but Jackson is a beautifully balanced runner who will play attacking rugby, especially with the powerful Sean Lamont at inside centre. He's not great with the boot but with Chris Paterson back at full-back he can look after the kicks at goal and let Jackson focus on running the offence.

So while Andy Robinson has made a positive selection at out-half Declan Kidney had made a conservative choice in bringing back Ronan O'Gara with Jonny Sexton dropped. Kidney will deny it but Ireland's experiment with an expansive style of play has essentially been abandoned as O'Gara has been brought back to kick the ball. In fairness to O'Gara, this is the great strength of his game and it's not his fault, but it's severely depressing that Kidney has so little imagination or genuine belief in a positive game. Sexton has perhaps ran the ball too much but he's been following the gameplan. He has shown that he is a fine tactical kicker when required, maybe not in O'Gara's league but very good. What's not in doubt is that O'Gara is nowhere near Sexton's standard as a runner because he simply doesn't possess the same pace or power. Of course Sexton will take his solid defence with him too, a big part of nullifying the French attack the last day. O'Gara, much as he bravely tries, couldn't tackle a fish supper and David Wallace and Gordon D'Arcy will be called on to do most of his tackling for him. With O'Gara back in the 10 channel, you can bet Jackson and Lamont will come flying down it every chance they get.

The braying simpletons on RTE and Kidney's lapdogs in the press will be thrilled that O'Gara is back to kick the ball out against a team that hardly ever loses it's own lineout. How will Irish rugby ever change though, when a new playing style is abandoned after only a couple of games? It may be enough to beat a talented but brittle Scotland team, but while the coach persists with his dark ages game plan the rest of the rugby world will be passing us by, sniggering as they go.

In another move that just highlights Kidney's innate conservatism, Fergus McFadden is dropped to accommodate the return of Tommy Bowe on the wing. Now there's no problem with bringing back a player of the quality of Bowe but of all of Ireland's outside backs, McFadden has been the most impressive or certainly the least error-prone. Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls were all more deserving of the chop but in Kidney's mind it's 'last man in, first man out." McFadden's omission from the squad entirely in favour of Paddy Wallace adds insult to injury. Kidney's chief press lapdog tried to justify this on the basis that he covers fullback, a comment that would provoke raucous laughter among Ulster fans who've seen him play there.

At least Irish fans will be spared the tortuous sight of Tomas O'Leary passing the ball in what seems like slow motion as his back injury means Eoin Reddan comes in. He might actually generate some quick ball from the ruck, but it was be largely wasted by an out-half who's first instinct will be to kick it away. After being hobbled by O'Leary's slow service in the first two games, Sexton must be tearing his hair out.

So will Ireland win? Perhaps. They should have an advantage in the scrum but the lineout could struggle like it did last season with quality Scottish jumpers in Gray, Ali Kellock and Kelly Brown. With John Barclay around, the breakdown will be tricky as well, especially with the inconsistent Nigel Owens refereeing the match. Unfortunately we could be looking at another error-strewn match, basically a kicking contest between O'Gara and Paterson.

You can't escape the empty feeling though that this Championship has already passed both Ireland and Scotland by and this is just a battle of the also-rans.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-02-25

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