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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Friendship turns into rivalry for Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones as England and Wales get ready for Twickenham showdown

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Jones and Itoje will be on opposite sides come Saturday.

Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones will shift from friends and former room-mates to rivals when England host Wales on Saturday.

Emphatic wins by both teams in the opening round has elevated the excitement surrounding the NatWest 6 Nations showdown at Twickenham and the clash between Itoje and Jones will among the duels taking centre stage.

The pair grew close on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand after rooming together for two weeks and their bond has led to a public exchange of ribbing centred on cocoa butter and baldness.

“We got on very well during the Lions tour, although his musical tastes are very different to mine,” Saracens second row Itoje said.

“He let his hair down. I’m fortunate enough to have quite long, free-flowing hair. He’s severely balding, but I think he’s come to terms with that now.”

In response to Jones’ complaint over his refusal to share his cocoa butter, Itoje replied: “First of all he didn’t ask and secondly he doesn’t use it. He’ll be all right.”

Itoje and Jones are at contrasting stages off their international careers, the Englishman’s 18 caps comparing unfavourably with the 123 held by his rival from Wales.

“Alun’s very professional, trains hard and is diligent with his preparation,” Itoje said.

“Obviously going on tour you spend time with the other home nations and you pick up things. The Welsh players are like this, the Irish players are like that etc etc.

Jones has 137 caps for Wales.

Jones has 137 caps for Wales.

“Alun has a good work rate and works very hard. He’s a nice guy as well. I got on very well with him on tour. It was a good experience.

“I know him better because I played with him and I’ve played against him twice already this season when Saracens played the Ospreys.

“But that isn’t even in the slightest bit difficult for me. It’s a completely different setting, different team, different environment.”

The Lions tour also offered Itoje the chance to work under Warren Gatland, the long-serving Wales coach who is plotting England’s downfall this weekend.

“Warren is very experienced and he’s a good coach,” Itoje said.

“He gives his teams confidence and I’m sure he will give his Welsh team a lot of confidence this week – especially after their game against Scotland.

“The rivalry with Wales is big. This was my first start a couple of years back, so the whole magnitude of that occasion was massive.

“There will be a lot of passion. It will be intense. It will be physical. It is a great game to be a part of and I’m sure Twickenham will be rocking.”

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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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