Anyone remember the first weekend of this season’s Six Nations? Way back in early February when optimism reigned high, France were many people’s favourites for the tournament, and England still had a representative in the European Champions’ League? Well, on that first weekend, 16 tries were scored. England looked clinical in attack, Scotland had a new and exhilarating back three, Ireland and Wales served up a try-laden classic, lit up by some startling skill by Simon Zebo and Brian O’Driscoll. And Italy beat France. Not be out-grunting them in the forwards, but by outplaying them all over the pitch. My my, we thought to ourselves (probably), this season’s Six Nations looks like being a throwback to the early 2000s when scrums took mere seconds, tries were abundant, and Ronan O’Gara looked, well, exactly the same actually. Roll on the rest of the tournament.
And what has ensued? Turgid game after turgid game. Watertight defences, torrential downpours, butchered overlaps, endless penalties and as much excitement as watching beige paint dry whilst listening to Geoff Boycott explain the history of the forward defensive. 16 tries in the first 3 games has led to 15 in the next 9. The shrewd mathematicians amongst you will have noticed that makes 31 tries in total. The lowest total number of tries in Six Nations history came last year when 46 were scored. We’re on course for a record low by some margin.
I know what many of you will say (when I say many, I mean both. This blog isn’t popular enough to warrant the use of the word ‘many.’ Yet). Lack of tries doesn’t necessarily mean lack of excitement. And you’d be correct. Remember the Ireland v Australia game at the last World Cup? No tries, but a gripping game nonetheless. However, the games in this year’s tournament have been nothing like that absorbing contest – two excellent well-drilled defences snuffing out some inventive attacking play. Instead we have seen excellent well-drilled defences finding it pretty simple to keep out predictable attacks, with said attacks pissing all over any chances they do get due to lack of basic skills and calmness under pressure (exhibit A England failing to score with a 6 on 2 overlap v Italy).
So what can we expect from this weekend’s games?
Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.30)
Let’s be honest – any game that isn’t England v Wales this weekend is right on the back-burner as far as the tournament is concerned. Yes, there’s the scramble not to finish last, and both of these teams could yet finish in that ignominious position, which for Ireland would be a disaster and probably lead to some pretty strong questioning over Declan Kidney’s position as Head Coach. The main subplot to this weekend’s games, however, will be of course The Lions. Warren Gatland has said that he has yet to make his mind up on about a third of his 37-man squad, so a strong performance this weekend could force one’s way into Gatland’s thinking. For Ireland, that means Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Craig Gilroy, Conor Murray and Rory Best (among others) will be looking to play their way onto that QANTAS flight. Italy, on the other hand will be looking for their first Six Nations win over Ireland, and, following their strong performance at Twickenham, confidence will be high. Given stakes are low, and the pressure is off, one might hope that both teams will go on the attack. If Luciano Orquera plays well, then Italy could win, but I think Ireland, given the incentive of grabbing a Lions place, will win by 7 points. Hopefully Brian O’Driscoll will remain fit, and play the whole 80 minutes, as it seems this will be his final Six Nations games, and it would be appropriate if such a truly outstanding player (he’s probably the best number 7 in the Ireland team as well as the best 13) could bow out in style.
France v Scotland (Saturday 8.00)
Who would have predicted such a dismal tournament for the French? Yes, last season they were poor, but the 33-6 thrashing of Australia in November made many people sit up and take notice. They also have some of the outstanding performers in world rugby – Wesley Fofana is a gem of a centre, with speed, gracefulness, and an eye for a pass, not dissimilar to Jeremy Guscott; Louis Picamoles is a true man mountain, who always makes yards and saps the life out of the defenders who have to tackle him; and Morgan Parra is, you would think, the perfect French scrum-half, able to run the game, quick of pass, accurate of boot and fearless in defence. The decision not to start him in the early stages of the tournament appears ludicrous. It seems as though that defeat in Italy dented their confidence, and subsequently they haven’t looked like a coherent attacking force. Parra will start against Scotland, and given the huge amount of talent in the backs (Clerc, Medard and Huget is, on paper at least, a formidable back three), you suspect it’s only a matter of time before it all clicks.
After Scotland’s victory over Italy in Round 2, all the talk was of the Scottish back three, who, between them, had scored 4 tries in 2 games. The clamour for all three of Hogg, Visser and Maitland to go to Australia has subsided a little following Scotland’s try-less last two outings, but with positions on the wing for the Lions definitely up for grabs, a good performance in Paris could be crucial. The problem for Scotland this tournament has been the opposite of that in previous seasons. Instead of having plenty of ball, but failing to do anything with it, they have been starved of ball, losing the breakdown battle, but have looked dangerous, with Greig Laidlaw forcing the pace from scrum-half. I suspect that France, despite being under pressure to avoid their first wooden spoon in the Six Nations era, will finally come good and win with comfort, by at least 10 points.
Wales v England (Saturday 5.00)
And finally, the championship decider. One of these two teams will win the tournament (it could even be shared if Wales win by exactly 7 points, but England score two more tries. Just like I could own a Ferrari, date Jessica Biel and win several Oscars with a little more luck. And talent). But does either team deserve to? England have been rampant against Scotland, diligent against Ireland, resilient against France, and lucky against Italy, while Wales, apart from the first 50 minutes against Ireland, have been efficient and impregnable. Neither side has shown vintage form – Wales’ starting backline, unchanged during the tournament, always looks as though it will deliver something dazzling in attack, and never quite seems to, but the effort required to fell North, Cuthbert, Roberts et al, not to mention the forwards, takes its toll over the course of 80 minutes, and Wales’ fitness levels appear the best of all the teams. England have picked up the knack of finding a way to win, without always playing particularly well, but importantly, their big-game players have been excellent. Ben Youngs, despite always taking that fraction of a second longer than seems necessary to make a pass, has kept the tempo flowing, and made a couple of eye-catching breaks, Geoff Parling, unlikely-looking athlete that he may be, has ensured the lineout has remained steady, and Chris Robshaw has foraged constantly and led by example.
Warren Gatland has said this match is not a trial for selection for the Lions (he has also given hope to any Scottish and Irish hopefuls by stressing that they have big games too), but it is impossible not to see it as such in certain areas. Robshaw v Warbuton, Tuilagi and Barritt v Roberts and Davies, Youngs v Phillips, Launchbury v Alun Wyn Jones – all of those battles will be interesting subplots, and whoever wins each individual battle will not only help their team towards victory, they will also edge ever closer towards selection for Australia. Despite their stuttering performance against Italy, and Wales’ watertight defence, I’m going for the return of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell to make a difference, and for England to win by 5.