Six Nations: Where the second round of fixtures will be won and lost

Dan Owen 8/02/2018
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Jonny Sexton's last-gasp drop goal in Paris sealed what looked to be an unlikely win for Ireland

Last weekend the Six Nations got off to a flier with a round of matches full of incident and talking points.

As we enter week two, France and Scotland will be hoping to get off the mark, Ireland will want a more convincing performance against Italy, and England v Wales could be a blockbuster.

Here are the key battles ahead of the fixtures.

IRELAND V ITALY

On the face of things this should be damage limitation for Italy, with Ireland far too strong for them despite not exactly impressing in France next week.

The only real hope Italy have is in trying to suppress Ireland’s superb territorial game. This will demand an intense shift from the forwards limiting the amount of clean ball for Conor Murray, and ultimately Jonny Sexton.

When the ball does come out, the Italians’ defence needs to be on point. The rush needs to be in place to limit time on the ball, with an umbrella defence in place to try and stop the ball going out wide and the game becoming stretched.

A tall order for 80 minutes.

ENGLAND V WALES

Wales winger Steff Evans finished his try superbly

Wales winger Steff Evans finished his try superbly

It would be easy to point towards the two back rows in this one as that will be a battle of prodigious proportion. However, it is the clashes out wide that are likely to make or break things.

Anthony Watson and Jonny May versus Steff Evans and Josh Adams is one to make the mouth water to say the least. A brace from Watson in Rome and the evasive, languid running style of May helped England to a comfortable win against the Italians, and they will be a constant threat.

Watson is a superb all round athlete with stunning finishing power, while May has a genuine x-factor about him.

Evans and Adams may not have the caps of Watson and May, but they are the talk of the town in Wales. Evans has been lighting up the wings for Scarlets for the last couple of seasons and now, given his break, is showing the potential to do it on the international stage – his work-rate against Scotland was incredible, capped off by a picture-book try.

Adams may not have hit the same heights in Cardiff but is the top scorer in the Premiership and showed glimpses of the pace and power that has got him to that level. We know they can all attack, but it may just come down to those who can defend better on the day.

SCOTLAND V FRANCE

Scottish danger man Stuart Hogg was well contained by the Wales defence

Scottish danger man Stuart Hogg was well contained by the Wales defence

On the back of disappointing losses for very different reasons, both sides will be looking to get their campaigns on track at Murrayfield.

Set-piece is going to be critical to securing clean ball, and this is particularly true at scrum time.

Scotland’s injury woes when it comes to props has been well documented, but in Cardiff it was not until late that Wales were able to really assert domination, which will have been heartening for Gregor Townsend on an otherwise grim day.

Facing them on Sunday is a tight-head that can be considered to be one of the best around in Rabah Slimani. If he can turn the screw in the scrum then it could be a very long afternoon for the Scots.

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Ireland have incredible back-row options even amid injury crisis

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Growing the depth of the Ireland squad has been central to Joe Schmidt’s ambitions since he took over as head coach in 2013.

Now, five years on, Ireland are blessed with one of the most star-studded squads in world rugby.

Beyond the battle at 9 and 10 and the ferocity up front, it could be argued that Ireland’s winning and losing of games hinges on their options at the back-row and their ball-carrying abilities.

Schmidt’s current back-row hums with godliness, and aside from being a nuisance for the opposition at the breakdown, the Men in Green make it impossible for teams to generate quick ball.

With star men Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and now Josh van der Flier sidelined – the latter’s ligament damage injury last weekend curtailing his season – Schmidt still has options in abundance to select from.

Here, we take a look at six stars who have the potential to shine in most international teams:

PETER O’MAHONY
AGE: 28
CLUB: Munster
CAPS: 43
An absolute rock in the Ireland team. The Munster captain has been at the forefront of Schmidt’s exploits over the past five seasons and is always at the heart of Ireland’s defensive efforts.If Schmidt’s men are to go on and win the Six Nations, then O’Mahony is one of the marquee names they’ll be looking towards for innovation.

Shows up all over the pitch and is an outstanding line-out option. With 43 caps to his name, is the likely successor to the captaincy when Rory Best retires.

CJ STANDER
AGE: 27
CLUB: Munster
CAPS: 19

The Munster star carries the ball with ferocity and will be one of Ireland’s key talisman in the build up to next summer’s World Cup.

He plays his heart out at all times and is a menacing threat for the opposition.

Immense with ball-in-hand – apart from a mixed showing in last week’s win over France – the South African-born back-rower always rises to the occasion.

His decision to reject a staggering €800,000 contract to join Montpellier and remain in Ireland until 2020 shows his desire to shine on the international stage.

DAN LEAVY
AGE: 23
CLUB: Leinster
CAPS: 5

One of the most exciting names in Joe Schmidt’s squad, Leavy has been a totemic presence since his elevation to the Leinster starting 15 last season.

Won his first Irish cap against Canada in the 2016 November series, and has looked a class act since.

The Dublin-born player is an option at 6 and 7, which makes his presence even more useful.

At 23, Leavy has buckets of potential, and looks set for a starting berth against Italy in Van der Flier’s absence.

JORDI MURPHY
AGE: 26
CLUB: Leinster
CAPS: 18

The Ulster-bound player has been one of Schmidt’s trusted lieutenants since making his debut against Engalnd in 2015.

One of the best in the business at the breakdown, the 26-year-old has pace to burn, solid tackling ability and reads the game to perfection.

Although he failed to make the 23 against France, the Dublin man should be selected in matchday squads before the end of the campaign.

If Schmidt has one eye on the World Cup then he needs to give the versatile back-rower – who can cover 6, 7 and 8 – chances to continue developing his skills on the international stage.

JACK CONAN
AGE: 25
CLUB: Leinster
CAPS: 5

One of the stand-out stars of the year, Conan has been a colossus for Ireland since making his debut in August 2015.

Injuries may have curtailed his development, but the 25-year-old’s towering presence and work-rate at the breakdown makes him a strong option if Schmidt needs power and pace up front.

Although he may not be getting a look in for matchday squads at present, expect the Leinster man to be pushing for a starting berth for next summer’s World Cup.

JOSH MURPHY
AGE: 22
CLUB: Leinster
CAPS: Uncapped

The 22-year-old may be uncapped but is starting to show signs of his class the longer he spends in the professional game.

Although he is a lot further down the pecking order compared to other names, Murphy has the chance to learn from some of the best in the business over the next few seasons at Leinster.

His voracious work rate makes him a key inclusion to any squad.

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Six Nations: Warren Gatland’s Wales evolution, and why 12 is the key piece in the puzzle for the Kiwi

Dan Owen 7/02/2018
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Warren Gatland has been in charge of Wales for more than a decade.

When Wales run out at Twickenham on Saturday, a decade under the stewardship Warren Gatland will come full circle.

On February 2 2008, Wales arrived at HQ with a new man in charge and the hope of a new dawn.

20 winless years at the home of English rugby, and an abject 2007 World Cup still a wound that was very much open, was enough to bring out the pessimist in even the most ardent of Wales fans.

A late salvo including tries from Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips and Wales were on their way to only their second Grand Slam in 30 years.

While the 2018 trip to London doesn’t have such a bleak backdrop, a below average showing in last year’s Six Nations couples with another autumn campaign blighted by an inability to beat Australia, or challenge the All Blacks, the optimism that has accrued in the last week is still somewhat unexpected.

The demolition job on what was supposed to be a rejuvenated and potentially title-challenging Scotland side, has brought back that sense of a new dawn in Welsh rugby.

New faces, a new style of rugby, and a new game plan may be in place but there is always one constant. Gatland himself.

Rarely has such a successful chief be so maligned – mainly outside Wales.

Even more rare is that person’s ability to take criticism from all corners and remain so resolute and confident in not only himself but those around him.

One of the biggest sticks used to beat the Kiwi is Gatland-ball. A high-power brand of rugby, focused on crashing the ball up the middle of the field bringing in and tiring defences until they are ultimately beaten in submission.

Gatland-ball may not have been the most attractive way of playing the game but did it yield results? Absolutely. Six Nations titles, and World Cup semi and quarter finals have represented Wales most successful era in generations.

But those heady days seemed in the dim and distant past.

Four Six Nations campaigns have now passed since a Welsh victory, the longest barren period in Gatland’s tenure, and again it’s time for a change.

The clamour from the Welsh public has always been for an idealistic game of expansive passing, jinking backs, and highlight-reel tries in the corner.

Contrary to popular belief, that’s what Gatland wants too. But such is his hunger for victory he will forgo the plaudits of the purist and do what it takes to win – however ugly that may be.

Take a look at a Warren Gatland team-sheet and the style of play isn’t dictated by the ten – it’s dictated by 12.

Jamie Roberts had been a mainstay for years, and while he will undoubtedly go down as one of Wales’ greats – a creative set of hands is not something he was blessed with. That in itself cause limitations in a side’s play.

Track back to that first game at Twickenham and it was Gavin Henson in possession of the jersey, and say what you will about the shaven-legged one, but he had the hands of a concert pianist with a gift of playing in other and unlocking defences in a heartbeat.

Fast forward to autumn 2017 and Owen Williams at 12 and the move was made back to the more expansive and open style. It may not have yielded the immediate results demanded by the Welsh public but the step was taken.

While the Gloucseter man wasn’t in the squad for the game against Scotland, Hadleigh Parkes was.

In Parkes, Wales have a centre the like of which Wales have not seen since the days of Henson. An all-rounder who can time and execute a pass, defend like a Trojan and also cross the whitewash as he proved with a brace on his debut against South Africa.

While there may be 10 Scarlets starting for Wales on Saturday, it’s unfair to say that it is simply the excellent work of Stephen Jones and Wayne Pivac in west Wales that is the driving force in the new-look Wales.

This form still has to be translated onto the international stage, and for that Gatland and his team have to be given credit.

Ultimately this Six Nations campaign will be a barometer for change, and just where Wales stand 18 months out from the next World Cup.

Can they hoist the trophy in March? Possibly. Trips to Twickenham and the Aviva will present much sterner tests than that of Scotland.

What matters to Gatland now is the preparation and development of the side leading up to next year’s World Cup and that situation looks a lot more promising.

A new dawn in Welsh rugby is on the horizon, and once again Warren Gatland is a man you question at your peril.

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