So here comes round two. The second round of games is always a pivotal weekend in the Championship. Those unbeaten in Round One can confirm their championship aspirations with a second win whilst those teams coming off a loss know a second defeat all but ends their challenge for the top.
I’ll take the games in reverse order starting with Sunday’s game in Paris.
France vs Italy
One of the nuances of this years tournament is that whilst one team will play its second consecutive home game, another faces a second consecutive away fixture. This is obviously a tough ask for the away team in any circumstances and the Azzuri will face Les Bleus buoyant after their opening day win. France will approach the game with renewed confidence but there remains much room for improvement and for them to convince that they are genuine contenders. Again their selection will be greeted with interest and with this being France, it will be a surprise if there isn’t changes to the starting line up. Italy impressed in Cardiff with their physicality and added sharpness in possession but can their veteran pack (the pack was the most capped to ever start an international last weekend) back up on consecutive weekends? France are not formidable but my hunch is that after a very competitive first 50-60 minutes, Les Bleus strength off the bench will see them through to another home win. France by 10.
Scotland vs England
On the evidence of the opening round of games there is only one winner in this years’ Calcutta Cup. Scotland were poor whilst England showed they are moving forward at a decent lick. Scotland will no doubt come out of the blocks hissing with passion and national fervour but it will not be enough against an England side better equipped to do the job. The only issue could be whether an inexperienced English side succumbs to the pressure of expectancy. If their collective mindset is overcome with the negativity of avoiding a second defeat then it will be interesting to see if they withdraw back into their shells. A possibility maybe, but I think unlikely. England are still some way from the finished article but the power running of their pack and midfield could overwhelm a Scottish side who were totally outmuscled in the second half in Dublin. Scotland cannot score tries and hence despite plenty of emotion I cannot see a way in which they can win. England will have too much in too many areas and after overcoming an initial Scottish storm, I have England by 15.
Ireland vs Wales
This is the pivotal game for both teams in this year’s championship. Add in the accumulated “needle” between the sides in recent years and the added nonsense surrounding “Dricogate” and it could be a very feisty affair. Ireland were comfortable against Scotland, where as Wales were less so against Italy. The teams appear well matched and there are numerous areas where the game could be won or lost. The breakdown will be huge. I’m a little surprised that Wales have not picked both Warburton & Tipuric to try and get one up on an Irish back row in which O Mahoney is a much under rated player. The Irish lineout looks superior to a Welsh one shorn of Evans and now Charteris. The Irish maul is also superior and will be a major tool. On the flip side, do Ireland have sufficient go forward options? Healy will be massively important in this respect and the selection of Lydiate to “chop” suggests Wales want to put pressure on the Irish ball carriers and make Ireland try and play their more open game on the back foot. Behind the scrum it’s the juggernaut Welsh backs against the smaller, slick and inventive Irish three quarters. I expect a full box of tricks from the Irish (in the Leinster vein) to play around and behind Wales rather than take the likes of Roberts et al head on. On the flip side I expect Wales to use Roberts and the wingers to blast away at the physically smaller opposition (an approach that proved the difference two years ago in Dublin). It’s tough to call but “revenge” is a very powerful motivator in sport and this Irish team are using their perceived grievances from the Lions tour to fire themselves up for this weekend. Head over heart tells me that Ireland will win. I hope I’m wrong but Ireland to win by 5-8.