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Six Nations Preview 2011 - Weekend Two

Saturday, 12 February 2011

  • England v Italy, Twickenham, 14:30
  • Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield, 17:00

Sunday, 13 February 2011

  • Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium, 15:00

So after the first weekend of the Six Nations Championship what have we learned about the contenders?

Well, England beat Wales in a match that was high on intensity but low in quality. The English pack comfortably dominated but it still took a couple of classy moments from out-half Toby Flood to unlock the Wales defence in an otherwise muddled offensive display. After their recent history in Cardiff, they were rightly delighted with the win but it must be said Wales were absolutely rank.

They had the look of a team who've completely lost their way under coach Warren Gatland and in particular their ball retention was abject. Injuries have hurt them no doubt, but not in the backrow where Gatland chose to leave out Jonathan Thomas, Ryan Jones and Martyn Williams in favour of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Andy Powell. Warburton and Lydiate played like the novices they are and were completely schooled by their English counterparts but Powell's recall was surely some sort of joke by Gatland. For half an hour he provided the comic relief as he made one daft decision after another until a convenient shoulder injury saw him exit the stage. Gatland's pre-match media war on Dylan Hartley didn't have any discernable effect on the English hooker, which only casts more doubt on his judgement. He goes into the match with Scotland on Saturday under serious pressure.

Scotland will go into the game in good spirits after performing well in their loss to France. True, they were beasted in the scrums but they competed bravely and intelligently and scoring three tries in Paris is no mean feat. However the pressure will be on Scotland this week and that may be a factor. Wales have moved James Hook to out-half in the hope that he can spark something but when you see how deep he was taking the ball when he moved there against England, this may be overly optimistic. Scotland should have enough to win what could be the game of the weekend.

France looked devastating in attack but were curiously weak in defence. Last season their defence was rock solid but the try they conceded to Kelly Brown would have embarrassed a schoolboy team. It is definitely an area for Ireland to target this Sunday but that will only happen if they Ireland improve dramatically on their performance last week against Italy.

Though there were some positives in Ireland's display, overall it was pretty woeful stuff. They had a remarkably one-dimensional gameplan that was easy enough for the Italians to defend against. When they did get enough momentum to create a few chances, they screwed them up with some dreadful handling and passing. Jamie Heaslip is back for Sunday and with Sean O'Brien moved to blind-side this should improve the balance of the back row.

However one selection hangs over the team like a particularly dark cloud and that is the continued presence of Tomas O'Leary at scrum-half. Despite being in terrible form for his province, he was selected against Italy. So, Ireland fans had to endure an afternoon of him walking up to rucks, taking an age to make a decision and then delivering a slow loopy pass when he finally did. After he was subbed around the sixty-minute mark, fans would have hoped that would be the last they have to put up with him for a while. However the rumours that Declan Kidney has "TOL 4 LIFE!" tattooed on his arm gained more credibility as he selected him again for Sunday. A back strain may end up putting O'Leary out of the match regardless. However, it's galling to hear Kidney talk about playing an attacking game against France when he continues to shackle his team with a scrum-half who's incapable of providing the necessary quick ball to play that game.

Credit to the Italians though who defended very well and actually looked quite dangerous on the one occasion when they really attacked Ireland out wide. Their fitness levels definitely looked better for their involvement in the Magners League as there wasn't the customary fall off in the last twenty minutes. They can go to Twickenham tomorrow with nothing to lose; although it's unlikely the referee will be as kind to them in the scrum again. However if they back themselves to take on England a bit more in the backline, they could make things uncomfortable for the home team. Nonetheless, you'd have to back England to get a reasonably comfortable win in the end.

So with England and Scotland fancied to win, can Ireland complete the set of home wins in the first championship game at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road? It's hard to know. France were impressive last week but still looked vulnerable at times. A lot will depend on how Ireland start, as they can't give the French any encouragement at all. They will need to more varied in their attacking options to keep the French guessing. France will be favourites, but you just get a feeling that Ireland might just sneak a win though.

Whatever happens, hopefully it will be another fascinating weekend of championship action.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-02-11