Marginal Gains

Baring one of the biggest shocks in recent times England should cruise to a win in Llanelli tomorrow but Wayne Pivac’s team selection rather shows that he’s not too concerned with the result, he seems more concerned with evaluating the players he has available and analysing who fits his plan for the future. Even so he won’t want to watch his team get run ragged and there’s a chance a few players could pose their opponents a problem, I thought I’d try to predict who wins the individual battles –

Wyn Jones v Kyle Sinkler – Sinkler actually claimed that he’d only been playing at 20% for his club Bristol in an interview this week which seemed either self-deprecating or worrying for anyone who plays against him when he’s back to 100%! If Sinkler is only at 20% tomorrow then Wyn Jones should have a relatively quiet evening but Eddie Jones doesn’t often select players who aren’t firing on all cylinders so one can only imagine Sinkler will come out on top in this one.

Ryan Elias v Jamie George – one has looked completely out of his depth, which is worrying given he’s playing at his home ground, the other is either the 4th or 5th best hooker in the world. Can’t see a way for Elias to suddenly become a Test hooker against such an established international.

Samson Lee v Mako Vunipola – this one is going to be particularly fascinating, they both look born to be props. They both look like they’re most comfortable doing things not many humans would relish, the only real difference is Mako never really looks fatigued whereas you always know Samson has put a shift in. Both played 62 minutes last week but Samson played against a Tier 2 nation who seemed unable to challenge the Welsh scrum too often so maybe he’ll just have a bit extra in the tank.

Jake Ball v Maro Itoje – Jake Ball might be the toughest man in world rugby and he’ll need to be to go toe with the most in form second row in the world. This an absolutely mouthwatering pairing and Itoje will almost certainly come out on top but it will have to be a decision on points rather than a K.O, they’re both bound to knock each other around a bit.

Alun-Wyn Jones v Joe Launchbury – Alun-Wyn seems to have reached the era of his career where the quiet games appear a bit more readily than anyone wants them too whereas you always know what you’re going to get, he’ll be a solid 8.5 to 9 out of 10 every game. Launchbury is 6 years younger than Alun-Wyn but a big game from the veteran would go a long way to quietening the armchair experts and would absolutely raise the level of the rest of the squad.

Shane Lewis-Hughes v Tom Curry – Lewis-Hughes had a very accomplished debut against Ireland 2 weeks ago opposite Peter O’Mahony but a 22 year old Tom Curry is a very different prospect than a 31 year old O’Mahony. Curry is actually younger than Lewis-Hughes but has 25 more caps a World Cup final under his belt. I can’t imagine Wales’ young flanker will take a backward step and it might get a bit feisty but as the old saying goes “youth and enthusiasm is no match for age and skulduggery”

James Botham v Sam Underhill – you actually have to fear for Botham here, he must be showing Pivac some pretty amazing power in training for him to get the nod ahead of the other back row options (granted most of them are either injured or on their way back to fitness, but he picked the squad). Botham played well against a Tier 2 nation last week but he’s giving away the best part of 2 stone to Underhill who looked pretty close to the peak of his powers last week against Peter O’Mahony and when he’s at 100% Underhill is one of the 2 or 3 best 7’s in the world.

Taulupe Faletau v Billy Vunipola – whatever happens you know this is going to be fun and everyone will keep reminding you that they’re cousins and they’re pretty close. But who doesn’t like teaching their closest relatives a lesson? Faletau has been used out wide rather than close to the breakdown by Pivac and if it is possible to get the ball in hands in any sort of space he’s bound to perform some feats of magic. It’s hard to imagine Billy drifting out into the 13 channel when he could be pounding the ball down the channels closer to the ruck so depending on which area of the pitch they end up in will determine the result of this one. Lovers of an underdog story will definitely be cheering for a win for the bloke in red though.

Lloyd Williams v Ben Youngs – it’s absolutely impossible to know which version of Williams or Young will turn up on any given day but with the dominant pack in front of him it’s sensible to expect Youngs will have a better chance to shine.

Dan Biggar v George Ford – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility than vintage Biggar turns up and bosses the game. He won’t want to go back to Northampton in 2 weeks and listen to his team mates bang on about he got his hat handed to him by the Leicester half backs but he seems to enjoy being the pantomime villain a bit too much at the moment and without a thousands of people there hanging on his every move he appears largely disinterested. Ford on the other hand definitely looked like he could have been reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar when he came off the bench and steered England around Twickenham for 10 minutes last week.

Josh Adams v Jonathan Joseph – this has got box office written all over it. The top try scorer at last year’s World Cup against one of the best defenders in rugby, Joseph tends to rely on his pace if he gets caught out of position though and Adams has got plenty of pace of his own so if Wales can find him on the outside he’ll be off to the races.

Johnny Williams v Owen Farrell – this could be where Wales have the most joy, Williams is only in his second Test but he has played for London Irish and Newcastle Falcons so he’ll know all about Farrell and he will surely know that without Brad Barritt alongside him he can be exposed in defence. Williams has looked very impressive as a ball carrier this season (and he’s huge) so if the Welsh set piece can yield any ball they shouldn’t have to to be too expansive to get over the gain line.

Nick Tompkins v Henry Slade – it’s Saracens versus Exeter Chiefs, hold on to your hats everybody. Even Tompkins doesn’t know what he’ll do next and the new chunky Tompkins has definitely got a defensive mistake or 3 in him but if he lines up Slade it’ll definitely be memorable.

Louis Rees-Zammit v Jonny May – this will be hilarious, the Gloucester team mates want to knock seven bells out of each other but they will definitely be far more successful if they pin their ears back and run like the wind. Provided Wales can provide some sort of service for their teenage sensation he should get on the score sheet.

Lee Halfpenny v Elliot Daly – they’re both Lions, they can both kick it an absolute mile and they’re both pretty fearless under a high ball. Halfpenny’s extra experience will definitely be key but if he has to spend the majority of the game tearing around the backfield catching Youngs’ and Ford’s raking kicks he’ll be struggling by the 70 minute mark.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s anything Wales can do about England’s monstrous pack but if they can generate a few turnovers the way Pivac needs them to then they absolutely have the firepower out wide to scare England. Whoever prevails in games between these two nations rarely win by a huge margin but I have to think a dominant set piece will give England the platform to win by about 12 points this time out.

Wales v England 2020 (the sequel)

38 weeks ago Manu Tuilagi was sent off for a dangerous tackle on George North and Wales sneaked in for 2 late tries to put provide a glossy finish to what had been a simple walk in the Twickenham park for Eddie Jones’ England as the first indications that Wayne Pivac’s rebuild was going to be tough to watch for Wales fans. This weekend Wales are set for an even more difficult task than they had back in March, last week’s captain Justin Tipuric is set to miss the game with a head injury, his replacement will probably be Josh Navidi who is yet to feature in this Test window and whoever they’ve picked Wales have struggled to demonstrate any sort of consistency at the line out and as if that wasn’t worrying enough they struggled against an Ireland scrum that looked far from comfortable against England last weekend. On that optimistic note I thought I’d try and guess who Pivac is likely to select for what could be a very uncomfortable in Llanelli –

  1. Wyn Jones – he seems to be preferred for his scrummaging but in reality neither him or Carre have been dominant at set piece time.
  2. Elliot Dee – looks to a safer pair of hands than Ryan Elias.
  3. Samson Lee – what he lacks in pace he makes up for by being completely immovable in a scrum.
  4. Alun-Wyn Jones – he’s still the captain.
  5. Jake Ball – he does everything you want a Lock to do.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – Suddenly Wales have a plethora of young 6’s.
  7. Josh Navidi – more out of hope than expectation, but he’s tough as teak.
  8. Taulupe Faletau – he’s got the sort of knowledge and temperament you need against a Deathstar like this England pack.
  9. Lloyd Williams – he’s more likely to endure the pasting Wales’ 9 is going to suffer in the first 60 odd minutes.
  10. Dan Biggar – might as well go with the experience, none of the 3 10’s Wales have used recently have looked eye catching because they’ve had no platform to work from.
  11. Louis Rees-Zammit – he’s familiar with all the English players and he has the ability to create space for himself.
  12. Jonny Williams – likewise he’ll also be familiar with the opposition and he looked more than comfortable doing everything he was asked to on Saturday.
  13. Jonathan Davies – he’s a very important defensive cog and in the unlikely event that the ball gets into his hands he easily disrupts opposition defences.
  14. Josh Adams – he can play 15 so he won’t mind the number of times England are likely to kick the ball his way and he’s a great finisher if Wales can get him the ball and a one on one matchup.
  15. Lee Halfpenny – tactically he’s one of the best fullbacks in Test rugby, he tackles anything that comes at him and he doesn’t mind a game of aerial tennis.
  16. Ryan Elias – I have no idea why Pivac keeps selecting him, but he does.
  17. Rhys Carre – if the game breaks up a bit late on it’ll be a good chance for the youngster to carry some ball, but again nobody has really stood out.
  18. Tomas Francis – very much a safe pair of hands and someone who will have played with or against all the English players.
  19. Cory Hill – the Alun-Wyn understudy never seems to combine well with the captain but he usually brings some energy off the bench.
  20. Aaron Wainwright – he can cover 6, 7 or 8 and will be unlucky not to start after working his socks off last week but that was against a Tier 2 Nation and he is still only 23.
  21. Rhys Webb – he could start but he usually pilfers a try against a tired defence so why not see if that works this week?
  22. Callum Sheedy – looked reasonable enough against Georgia and if Pivac needs a point of difference Sheedy has the ability to find get the ball to his attacking threats more quickly than most.
  23. Liam Williams – I’m not entirely convinced he’s fit enough to play 80 minutes against England after a near 12 month lay off but you know he’ll create some excitement and liven up his team mates when he comes off the bench.

Looking to the future

Let’s be honest, hope is all we’ve got at the moment and the hope of a brighter future seems as good a reason as any to try and cobble together some words however incoherent. Hopefully (you see what I did there?) in 2023 there should be a Rugby World Cup in France and in theory at least this should provide the Northern Hemisphere teams with a slight edge in terms of conditions so I thought now would be an opportune time to wonder who Pivac might pick for Wales in 3 and a half years time (plus RugbyPass did it and I have absolutely no shame when it comes to borrowing other people’s ideas, and nobody’s reading this nonsense anyway)

  1. Rhys Carre – he’s huge, he can run and he’s a ball player and he’ll be 25 by then.
  2. Elliott Dee – seems to be the safest pair hands at set pieces and he’ll be 29 by then so should be starting to hit his peak
  3. Tomas Francis – he’s also huge and gets better with every Test season so when he’s 32 he should be almost unplayable.
  4. Christ Tshiunza – the teenager signed for Exeter Chiefs last season and I’m not one to miss a hype train. He was 6 foot 6 at 17 years of age so when he’s 21 he could be a certifiable giant who’s learned from Johnny Gray
  5. Alun-Wyn Jones – the only human I’d back to defeat age, plus he’ll have a 22 year old running around like a gazelle alongside him.
  6. Shane Lewis-Hughes – I’m a really big Jim Botham fan but a healthy 25 year old Lewis-Hughes would be a handful for anyone.
  7. Ellis Jenkins – why have just one Ellis in the pack when you could have 2. Plus a fit Jenkins genuinely challenges for the role of best open side in world rugby.
  8. Sam Moore – he’s 6 feet 5!!! Yes, I have abandoned the notion of subtlety in the forwards. Plus he’ll be 24 by the time the tournament rolls around.
  9. Tomos Williams – he’ll be 28 in 3 years and he’s got all the skills you could want in an exciting half back. And hopefully (again) he will have played with Moore at regional level for a while by then.
  10. Gareth Anscombe – he will be 32 by then but Dan Carter won the RWC when he was 33 (yes, that’s absolutely an apt comparison don’t you judge me).
  11. Mason Grady – it’ll probably be too soon since he’s just 17 at the moment but he looked a constant threat at U20’s level this season and at 6 feet 5 Cory Allen’s younger (not little) brother is full of potential.
  12. Nick Tompkins – he’ll be 28, he’s tough as nails and probably more adept at operating in the heavy traffic around the breakdown than he is in the 13 channel (and he’s pretty solid out there too).
  13. Corey Baldwin – another migrating to windy Exeter but he’s the most talented age grade Centre I’ve seen since Hal Luscombe made Italy’s U21’s team look like an U18’s team at Sardis Road way back when.
  14. George North – he’ll be in his early 30’s by then but even he loses a yard of pace he’ll still be huge and tricky to stop. Could well be Louis Rees-Zammit though
  15. Ioan Lloyd – he is seriously quick and although he’s technically a Fly Half his ability to ghost in space out wide is spectacular and he could just as easily outstrip his support as make defenders miss.

Ok, so it’s more of a list of bolters as it is a possible starters but even for a very miserable pessimist the options that Pivac has in terms of exciting attacking players are pretty exciting.

RWC Power Rankings (week 5)

In the final week of warm up games Connacht arose as a surprise dark horse as they beat Russia in Moscow (that’s 2 wins for Irish provinces against teams going to the world cup during the warm up games).

  1. New Zealand – George Bridge carried the ball 247 metres and scored 3 more tries against Tonga than Wales did against Ireland as the All Blacks romped to a 92-7 victory. They seem to be rounding into form nicely!
  2. Ireland – like every good church Ireland run a lot smoother when there’s a good Sexton around and they dominated territory and possession on their way to a 19-10 victory. The World Cup Final we’ve all been waiting for is back on.
  3. England – despise a fairly experimental backline Eddie Jones’ boys thrashed Connor O’Shea’s Italy who can only really take comfort in having Canada and Namibia awaiting them in Pool C.
  4. South Africa – they travelled to Japan to dish out a 41-7 whooping to the very convivial hosts. Just imagine Amanaki Mafi and Eben Etzebeth in the same car park, actually don’t.
  5. Australia – the Wallabies dominated their game over Samoa but didn’t put the game to bed until the 70th minute. Just to add insult to the Samoan injury Matt To’omua scored a try. no really, he did, I swear.
  6. USA – they look to be in a seriously good place at the moment, unfortunately they share Pool with England and France but they could have a very real chance of upsetting Argentina if they avoid too many awkward scrums.
  7. Scotland – 2 wins in 2 weeks for Gregor Townsend’s team doesn’t happen too regularly but they were both against Georgia!
  8. Wales – Ireland have given plenty of teams problem in the Aviva over recent years and while Wales won 100% of their set pieces against a strong pack their ineffectual breakdown work should be a concern.
  9. Japan – losing 7-41 at home is never ideal but when it’s to a team who have beaten and drawn with the All Blacks recently it’s not disastrous. They won 100% of their scrums, only conceded 7 penalties, beat 22 defenders and the brave blossoms snaffled 18 turnovers so there’s plenty of positives to take away.
  10. Samoa – if they had a 10 they’d be dangerous Tusi Pisi looks out of his depth in the Gallagher Premiership so in a Test match he’s a liability. Despite losing 6 line outs and missing 36 tackles they were within 7 points until the 69th minute.
  11. Tonga – they might have been pasted, but they got pasted by an All Black team going for a third successive RWC title. They did only concede 5 penalties (3 fewer than the New Zealanders) in the whole game which is a huge improvement for a traditionally “feisty” team. They will probably on the receiving end against England but there’s no clear favourite to finish second in Pool C so who knows.
  12. Georgia – they scored 9 points in Murrayfield but conceded 8 fewer points than they did last week, small victories an all that.
  13. Italy – even against a hot England team a 37-0 loss is pretty tough to polish.
  14. Canada – Sir Graham Henry seems to have had an instant impact, they lead 12-0 at half time against a very good USA team but tailed off as the substitutes rolled on. Their first Pool B game is against Italy on a short rest week for the Azzuri and their final game is against Namibia after the Welwitschias have played the All Blacks, so with a bit more Henry magic they could have some very close games ahead.
  15. Russia – Lyn Jones had already gone on record bemoaning how their late qualification has effected their build up but losing to a Connacht preseason team should set all the alarm bells ringing!

RWC Power Rankings (week 4)

Just the 4 games this week, but a few of them point toward who could be successful in Japan.

  1. Ireland – James Ryan comes back into the squad and Ireland win again (sunrise, sunset). But that hasn’t stopped Irish rugby twitter having a Jean Kleyn sized meltdown, well done everyone.
  2. France – they always beat Italy but they don’t always do it with 7 tries and a 28 point margin. 2 forwards binned for repeated infringements might be a concern though.
  3. Scotland – Townsend’s boys have discovered how to win away from home, play in Tbilisi in a half empty Dinamo Stadium.
  4. Fiji – another win for the Flying Fijians but only by 10 points against Tonga who are probably going to get a 60 point spanking in Waikato next weekend.
  5. Wales – Rhys Patchell dusted off his mercurial best and dragged Wales to within 5 points of an equitable draw with a bit of help from half back partner Tomos Williams. They now go to Dublin with Gatland weighing up whether or not to throw caution to the wind in his last 3 months or to stick to grinding opponents into a fine dust.
  6. Italy – Bellini (the 6 foot 3 winger, not the cocktail) and Polledri scored 3 tries against a resurgent French team. Bellini even managed to find time to get sin binned too, busy boy.
  7. Tonga – took an early lead against Fiji through Piutau but then allowed Fiji to score the next 22 points. Yikes!
  8. Georgia – They did score a try against Scotland but their overall performance was so alarming they dragged 35 year old Mamuke Gorgodze out of for retirement for a sweaty trip to Japan.

RWC Power Rankings (week 2)

  1. New Zealand – they’re back in black. They nilled the Wallabies in Eden Park a week after they lost in Perth.
  2. Wales – held England to just 2 penalty kicks even though England welcomed Maro Itoje back to the starting line up and had Owen Farrell on the bench.
  3. South Africa – another win for the Springboks, albeit controversially with some interesting refereeing decisions from Luke Pearce.
  4. Argentina – made 10 changes to the starting XV and could have beaten a changed Springboks team in Pretoria.
  5. England – well they did score 6 points.
  6. France – pummelled Scotland 32-3 as Fabien Galthie’s influence appears. But Scotland always struggle in France.
  7. Australia – missed Rory Arnold and still have a huge problem filling the 6 jersey
  8. Italy – scored 13 tries in an 85-15 thumping of Russia including 3 from Minozzi who was restored to the wing.
  9. Russia – they scored 15 points away in Italy even if it was against a changed Italian side
  10. Scotland – just 3 points against a relatively new French team, even for a team who struggle outside Murrayfield that’s quite worrying.

Ireland, Japan, Samoa, Namibia, Canada, USA, Tonga, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay all avoided games this week.

RWC Power Rankings

As the World Rugby ranking algorithm seems to be at best “complicated” I thought I’d come up with a way of ranking the Rugby World Cup teams based on their most recent performance –

  1. Australia (there may have been a Scott Barrett brain fart involved but that’s the most points New Zealand have ever conceded)
  2. South Africa (winning away by 33 points is mighty impressive)
  3. England (winning at a canter with most of the stars on the bench has to be a positive)
  4. Ireland (5 tries in a 19 point win with only 1 first choice forward starting deserves plenty of respect)
  5. Japan (they beat a USA team but who had made a few changes by 14 points and they had made several changes too including positional switches)
  6. Fiji (held Samoa to 3 points without Tuisova, Yato or Murimurivalu in the starting XV)
  7. New Zealand (obviously still RWC favourites, but in terms of recency there’s not many positives in a 21 point drubbing)
  8. Wales (lost by 14 points at Twickenham which is pretty normal stuff but lost the Grand Slam winning 10 who brings the calm and confidence to the whole squad)
  9. Samoa (lost to Fiji’s changed team but only by 7 points)
  10. Argentina (Los Jaguares exploits in Super Rugby seem to be kicking in now and Nicholas Sanchez seems to be Ledesma’s Emperor’s New Clothes)
  11. Italy (picked a bit of a mish mash backline but losing by 19 to an underpowered Ireland seems cause for concern)
  12. USA (lost by 14 points to Japan but they’re trying to blend some new players and integrate 2 of the successful 7’s squad into the 15’s set up)
  13. Tonga (they made a few changes and actually won but they conspired to concede 23 points against Canada who hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a Pacific Nations Cup game since 2014)
  14. Canada (its a mystery how Kingsley Jones gets so little out of that squad).

Russia, France, Scotland, Namibia, Georgia and Uruguay all avoided games this week and therefore any unnecessary (see also heart breaking) injuries.

An alternative RWC prognostication

Rugby World Cup 2019 doesn’t start until the 20th of September and there’s a Rugby Championship, Elgon Cup, Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup warm up games to squeeze in before then too. Coaches don’t have to name a final 31 man squad until the 2nd of September and with so many games to be played injuries are virtually guaranteed so it’s far too early to make sweeping predictions about who will definitely make the final so here’s a “what could happen if the underdogs come good” view.

Pool A only had two teams who are currently ranked inside the top 10 in Ireland and Scotland but in Japan they have the team ranked 11th who drew with France in November 2017 and who lead England after 56 minutes at Twickenham last autumn, so there’s definite upset potential with a home crowd behind them. The brave blossoms have the enviable task of playing Russia in their first game (Russia are ranked 20th and have win – loss record of 8 – 9 since 2017) while Ireland and Scotland get to battle it out in the most brutal conditions the tournament promises to provide. Then Japan have a shot at an Ireland team coming off 6 days rest (Japan have an 8 day rest since they open the show) while Scotland take on a Samoa team who are always physical and look to have some incredibly large humans in their Pacific Nations squad. Japan v Scotland will be the final pool game so Japan have a very real chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals and for the purposes of this highly imaginative story let’s say they do (outside Murrayfield where Scotland look like world beaters and terrified the All Blacks in 2017 Scotland have a pretty dodgy record). Historically Ireland have had mixed results at World Cup’s but its difficult to see them losing a pool game even in a fantasy land scenario.

Pool B is more of a forgone conclusion than all the other pool’s, really only New Zealand and South Africa can qualify, Italy did beat South Africa by 2 points in 2016 but they have only won 3 games since) and Canada and Namibia are the two lowest ranked teams in the competition.

Pool C is the polar opposite of B with England, France and Argentina all incredibly close as England seem to be stalling slightly under Eddie Jones, France have had to parachute new coaches in to save them and Argentina appear to be on the rise as they welcome back their overseas stars. USA can’t be completely ruled out of the running either as Major League Rugby seems to be developing their talent pool and they’ve called 3 of their 7’s stars into the training squad. USA are actually afforded the luxury of taking on England just 4 days after England’s bruising encounter against Tonga in what will be the Eagles first game of the tournament. USA’s fixture list actually throws a lot of opportunities for them to cause some upsets, their second game is 6 days later against a France team coming off an 11 day break (imagine France spending 11 whole days in each others company, what could possibly go wrong), then they have a whole week off before they play Argentina just 4 days after the Pumas take on England. The USA’s short rest week is before they play Tonga and by then they could have already qualified for the next round. Purely hypothetically let’s say Argentina top the pool and USA qualify second.

Pool D is also far from simple, Wales are currently ranked second in the world rankings, Australia are sixth and Fiji are 9th but as their name suggests the Fijians are currently flying on the pitch (they’ve won 5 of their last 7 and only lost to Ireland by 3 in 2017) even if they appear to be having a few issues with money and coaches leaving their camp. Australia appear to have the kindest schedule with 8 days rest before they play Wales, 6 days before they take on Uruguay and another 6 rest days before they face Georgia (although Georgia’s scrum could cause some issues for everyone especially the Wallabies). Wales get the luxury of resting most of their starters in the first game against Georgia while Australia have the tricky task of keeping a lid on Fiji (and that could be a particularly feisty encounter with a few Fijians opting to represent Australia). Wales and Australia meet in their second game of the pool so the pool could realistically be decided by how Fiji perform at the start of the pool games, but we’re not here to be realistic so let’s imagine Fiji top Pool D and Australia overcome their “annus horribilis” (take that republicans) and sneak into second place.

That would provide the unlikely Quarter Final matchups of Argentina v Australia, New Zealand v Japan, Fiji v USA and Ireland v South Africa (actually not that unlikely).

In the spirit of creativity let’s go with Argentina v New Zealand in Semi Final 1 (and they traditionally serve up absolute belters at world cups) and Fiji v Ireland in the Semi Final numero deux which could lead to the tantalising prospect of Argentina and their contingent of Los Jaguares playing possession rugby against the flying Fijians, sexy rugby all round! I reckon the Pumas would probably sneak it by virtue of having a better place kicker but it would certainly be fun to watch.

6 Nations preview – abridged version

There’s been a lot of overthinking from pundits and alleged experts in the build up to the 2019 6 Nations so I thought I’d offer an alternative perspective –

  1. Ireland – they’ve James Ryan, everyone else is fucked. (Tadgh Beirne, Sean Cronin and Jacob Stockdale are in some frightening form too)
  2. England – if they had Underhill they’d be my favourites to win it but they don’t so the speed of their ruck ball depends on the erratic Ben Youngs
  3. Scotland – Finn Russell is as likely to throw a spectacular misspass as he is to miss touch from 35 yards so they’re right in the middle (ish)
  4. Wales – Gatland looks like he’ll pick an 8 who hasn’t played since the Autumn Internationala and a 9 who was injured yesterday. This is strictly RWC prep time for the wiley old Kiwi
  5. France – if they all shared Guilhem Guirado’s intensity and focus they’d terrify every opponent in world rugby. They don’t and Cami Lopez is their experienced 10!
  6. Italy – less direction than a Gatwick drone hunt, but a pack who work their collective socks off. God love them. If they ever find a 10 who marries Claudio Canna’s flair with Tommaso Allan’s pragmatism there’ll be hell to pay.

Bold predictions for 6 Nations week 2

Ireland v Italy bold prediction – Ireland to win by 40 points

Last week Ireland did the whole ruthless efficiency thing as they squeezed past France with the last kick of the game in atrocious conditions (some would say very Irish conditions) in Paris. Whilst they did fail to score a try and Johnny Sexton was their only points scorer virtually the whole team outplayed their opponent. Ireland had 68% possession and territory (70% and 72% in the first half!) which is pretty spectacular for a team playing away from home. This domination was built on the solid foundation the forwards provided, they won 18 of 19 set pieces and won 162 out of 166 rucks alongside 4 of the 4 mauls they attempted. They only conceded 6 penalties (although it would be prescient to point out that Nigel Owens was on the whistle and he has definitely his own laid back approach to the laws of rugby), the only part of their game that was less than excellent was their defending as they missed 15 tackles, about 4 of which came as Teddy Thomas scorched in from 60 metres out.

For their part Italy endured a tough opening game at home against the doomsday device that is Eddie Jones’ England and while their scrum showed a similar consistency to panna cota they didn’t go down without a fight. Italy won the territory and possession battle against England with 52% of both and they did cross for 2 tries but ultimately their disorganised defence which lead to a complete lack of line speed meant England could dance over for 7 tries of their own (if Italy had managed to keep a lid on Sam Simmonds and Anthony Watson the final score would have been a more respectable 15-26). I can’t imagine Italy will be able to dominate either possession or territory against Ireland’s efficient pack and if Johnny Sexton can get some quick ball he will pick Italy’s passive defensive line apart.

England v Wales bold prediction – Wales leave west London with their 100% record intact

England haven’t lost at Twickenham in 14 games but the last 6 Nations team to win there were Wales. To paraphrase Phil Collins – I can feel it coming in the air this morning, even if it would be a huge upset. Although here’s a few reasons why Wales could do it:

  1. England are coming off a 6 day turn around so Wales have had an extra preparation day
  2. England had to fly back from Italy but Wales only had to travel down the M4
  3. Wales only made 98 tackles (they missed 15) compared to the 136 England had to put in (they missed 17) as they lost the territory and possession battles in Rome
  4. Last year in Cardiff England really struggled with the Welsh physicality until Ross Moriarty was substituted (well done Mr. Howley)
  5. England conceded 9 penalties and 1 free kick in Rome, Wales only gave away 7 and 1
  6. Wales made 18 clean breaks and 13 offloads against a Scotland team who tackled well but were very disorganised. England made 14 clean breaks and 11 offloads against a defence that ultimately conceded 46 points
  7. Eddie Jones has provided Wales with enough motivational material for about the next 7 seasons over the last few days. Calling out an inexperienced 10 is pretty bog standard bully boy stuff but ripping into a Lions captain with 123 Test caps is either desperate or nonsense.
  8. Jonathan Joseph replaces Ben Te’o to face the same Centre combination that beat his Bath team 35-17. And both Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams scored tries in that game.

Confidence is going to be the deciding factor in this game and it’s technically impossible to determine who will have the most once the game kicks off but the Scarlets have won 15 games in the league and European Champions Cup which is more than any English team in their respective competitions and this Wales team has 10 Scarlets starting so they shouldn’t be short on belief.

And for what it’s worth I personally can’t get on board with the whole “Test rugby is a big step up” platitude mainly because playing rugby (or any sport) is exactly the same when the ball is in play. Uncontrollable variables like who you’re representing or how big the stadium is or what the opposing coach said about you on Thursday are exactly that, uncontrollable. The ball is the same size, the rules are the same (although do vary from referee to referee) and the aim is the same, control yourself, keep a clear head and communicate with your team mates.

Scotland v France bold prediction – Good Finn Russell turns up and absolutely shreds the French defence

Not only did France have to make a lactic acid inducing 238 tackles against Ireland they also missed 15, conceded 10 penalties (plus 1 free kick) and spent more than two thirds of the game in their own half. They also suffered some controversial injuries too which have caused 3 changes in their starting XV with 32 year old Lionel Beauxis being recalled to start at 10 for the first time in six years.

Scotland weren’t terrible last week and on the stats sheet they were relatively close 48% territory (60% in the first half), they beat 19 defenders and they did score a consolation try in the 79th minute. A confused selection (Huw Jones at 12 wasn’t great) and Ali Price starting badly and descending into some sort of shame spiral were pretty fatal but Greig Laidlaw and his stoic solidity are starting this week. Scotland have scored 19 tries in their last 9 6 Nations games at Murrayfield including 3 the last time they played France there so I can’t see them repeating last week’s lacklustre showing. The return of Simon Berghan from a ban should bolster the scrum too, provided he keeps his cool a 6 foot 4, 19 stone Tight-head prop should bring enough physicality to trouble a French team who are still having nightmares about relentless Irish forwards running into them.