A look ahead to this weekend’s top action by Fergal Nolan aka @IrishRugbyBlog…
Ireland v Italy
Schmidt hasn’t rung the changes in a more or less unchanged side to face Italy on Saturday. Henderson comes in for the injured O’Mahony and Ruddock on the bench, as expected. I am a bit dismayed there isn’t one or two more changes. For once, I believe Sexton shouldn’t be starting. Whether his thumb is injured or not I believe Jackson should get game time, with Madigan as cover. Johnny should be rested for the French game. An aggravation of the thumb would be a major setback. I can’t fathom how the FFR claimed he would be side-lined for up to 6 weeks…let’s hope he isn’t after today!
Schmidt is sticking to a side that has performed consistently and excelled brilliantly in the set piece. It’s only his seventh game in charge, mixing it up at this period would not be a wise move. Stick to what you know. I would have liked to have Zebo on the bench. I’m counter-arguing with myself, but he could bring that flair onto the pitch. I respect Schmidt for keeping the players ; choosing a fringe player over the consistent 15 could be a major confidence blow at this late stage. (Take Trimble for example, didn’t feature last season, and now , given the chance, he is really stepping up the mark).
Sergio Paisse’s absence is a shock. He’s a great player and it’s somewhat disheartening that he will never win silverware with Italy. If Parisse was dropped, it’s a bad decision….I would have expected such from Brunel’s French counterpart!! If he’s injured and just being rested, with one eye on England next week, then I won’t complain. The half back pairing of Orquera and Tebaldi is a boost. Orquera is a good fly half who will tactically kick better than Allan. The Italians won’t be afraid to play some rugby either – the likes of Campagnaro and McLean will dance and dart with ball in hand. They will show this championship that they can play a different game, without the might of their talisman.
With both Parisse and Zanni missing, I can see Ireland being dominant in the scrum (injury wise or not). Brunel has started some heavy forwards in the hope of targeting this area but our scrum is growing with every match up. The powerful rolling maul will be utilised more frequent than v England. The line out will be another area where we can provide the backs with clean ball. From this, I am anticipating some tantalising plays. I believe the first half will be physical and we should hope to tire the Italians. The second half should be more open with back-line moves echoed from the training ground.
The man in charge will play his part too. The vibrant Owens provides clear instructions and is decisive in his decision making. He lets the game flow which will suit Ireland.
With the end of an era in one Brian O Driscoll, the charged emotion will be mirrored in the team performance. We have an excellent set piece. This is the perfect game to execute that finishing touch and build up the scoreboard. I’m hoping the players will be more clinical and less robotic as the game progresses. I believe they will read the game accordingly and adapt as they build confidence. Ireland by 26, with
GOD BOD on the score-sheet.
France v Scotland
If this is the weekend for coaches making rash decisions, then it’s clearly mirrored in Scott Johnson . After shipping Kelly Brown in the previous two games he is reinstated in the starting 15….as captain. If some of these rugby sides were consistent, and had acute coaches, then we’d witness teams that can play to their true potential.
The visiting side have players side-lined for numerous reasons, but still have individual class. The Maxime backline (9-12) will cause the Scots trouble. If Dunbar can play like he did againist Italy he will give the French some pain in their derrière. Let’s hope the kicking of Hogg and Weir is on form and Scotland can contain the French in their own half.
If ever there was an ample time to lick salt in the French wounds, it’s now. With the talisman leading the backrow with Beattie and Denton, there’s no shortage of passion and determination. Unfortunately, I think the individual talent of the French will progress. France by 5.
England v Wales
The big one. I’m really looking forward to this. The winner will progress to the final round knowing a championship is there to be won. The looser is out of the running. With so many physical match ups, and individual flair, this game will be a joy to watch.
Like Ireland, England’s one replacement is enforced in the backrow. The injured Vunipola makes way for Ben Morgan. This is more or less a like for like replacement.
Meanwhile Gatland has shipped in Jonathan Davies from his four month absence. In contrasting circumstances Alun Wyn Jones returns to the starting 15. Luke Charteris aggravated his neck so Jake Ball takes his place. Webb remains at scrum half. He performed very well against France, Gatland is correct in retaining him.
These two sides have shrewd coaches and great rivalry. The atmosphere will be electric. North, Cuthbert, Davies vs Nowell, Burell, May. The Lions Player of the Tournament (Halfpenny) vs The Player of The Tournament, so far (Mike Brown). Enticing.
The English have built a fortress of Twickenham. They are not going to let the Welsh soldiers annihilate them like last year. If they play like they did against Ireland, and keep their composure, it’s theirs to be won. Meanwhile, if the Welsh bring that power, and create the space, then it’s very hard to overlook them. I feel the English will just about edge this one. Home advantage will be a factor. Lancaster has built a well disciplined, youthful side, with individual finesse. Their determination should take it. England by 2.
Fergal is on twitter as @IrishRugbyBlog