Thursday, February 11, 2016

Six Nations Week 2 Preview

By Henry Best

Week 2 of the Six Nations is upon us, and the participants in Europe's premier competition have politely separated themselves into three distinct categories:  the Winners (England and France), the Losers (Italy and Scotland), and the Inbetweeners (Wales and Ireland).  None of the sides have looked all that impressive except for the Italians, but that is just relative to expectations.  The lack of quality is no surprise this early on, especially right after a World Cup with teams integrating new players and both of the Winners at the outset of new regimes.  Still, the Six Nations insist on producing tons of drama with the promise of more to come this weekend.

Ireland vs. France
Paris, France
9:25am EST

Before all is said and done a lot of us would expect France to be Inbetweeners and Ireland to join the ranks of the winners.  Such was the case last season with France only managing to beat basement dwellers Italy and Scotland.  Despite the win last week the French were one drop-goal from somebody who's paid to kick them (ie. Not Sergio Parisse) away from blowing it at home.  Ireland was perfectly mediocre, neither defeating nor being defeated by the Welsh.  The question here is who can find their rhythm first.  The strong veteran presence of the Irish squad suggests they should sooner or later get on a roll.  Whereas the youth of the French means it should continue to be a hectic ride and a quite enjoyable one for neutrals.

Take the jump to read more.

Who to Watch: 
The Irish: At the outset of a new World Cup cycle it's all about the kids.  With that in mind keep an eye on Robbie Henshaw.  The 22 year-old established himself as a star in Irish rugby with his performances during the World Cup and with Connacht.  On top of that his contract runs out at the end of this season.  His next contract will come with a serious pay raise, a strong Six Nations should see that explode.  At lock youngster CJ Stander will get his second cap and prop Tadg Furlong will be looking for his fifth coming off the bench.  All three will need to perform well to abate Irish fears of a down slide.

For France we're staying with the theme of young exciting centres with Jonathon Danty.  The 23 year-old has been a fixture with his club Stade since 2011, but is fresh on the scene for the French picking up his second cap this weekend.  Danty isn't the most explosive, but he's shifty, solid with the offloads, and often requires more than one man to bring him down opening up acres of space for his teammates to work with.  For explosiveness watch Virimi Vakawata.  Vakawata has featured recently for the French Sevens team and has been brought in to return France to the days of flair.  Let's hope he does.

Prognosis: This one should be a real barn-burner.  Look for France to create space both on offense and defense.  Poor weather is about the only thing that could slow this one down (Forecast for Paris 45 degrees and a 90% chance of precipitation.  More mud-bath than barn-burner.).

Scotland vs. Wales
Cardiff, Wales, UK
11:50am EST

Normally Vern Cotter coached teams are more fun to watch than this Scottish side was against England.  However, this is a very young team with just three starters aged 30 or over and Greg Laidlaw as the only back over the age of 27.  They can hang their hat on fighting England for the full 80 and should feel to have a good chance of beating a lackluster Welsh side.  For their part Wales joined Ireland in holy unsatisfactory matrimony last week.  Freed from Northampton George North did manage to see some space against the Irish racking up 78 meters gained on eleven runs (still not enough).  Despite the Welsh struggles they are still playing Scotland and if they show up they should win.

Who to watch: 
Scotland: All of their backs.  Greg Laidlaw aside this is a young bunch.  Over the next few weeks and years watch for this group to grow and develop together into one of the best in European rugby.  Pay special attention to the battle between Stuart Hogg and Liam Williams.  It's going to be a great match-up to watch for the next decade.

Wales:  Before kickoff step back a moment and appreciate this small nation that exclusively produces rugby players and sheep (and the sheep are only there as tackling dummies).  Now focus in on props Samson Lee and Rob Evans.  This pair of 23 year-old monsters, with another in Tom Francis waiting on the bench, is set to dominate the trenches for years to come.  Rugby is a game of time and space.  While backs see most of the benefit from this it's the work of the big guys in set pieces and at the breakdown that make it happen.

Prognosis: Clear skies in Cardiff and a Welsh side that has to be all too aware of losing last year's comp on points differential should make this more of an open game than any other thus far.  Look for Wales to try to get outside and take advantage of Scotland's youth to rack up the score.  Look for Scotland to find a way to hang in there.

England vs Italy
Rome, Italy
9:00am EST

Is it just me or do these Italians look like they might have more than just one upset in them this year?  Like the Scots this is another young group that the Azzurri faithful hope will finally grow into a competitor.  Italy's struggles with Canada at the World Cup exacerbated the mounting frustration with their recent stagnation.  Last week they showed signs of life in a thriller in Paris.  England struggled against themselves more than they did against Scotland.  While Eddie Jones is talking a big game his team is still less than the sum of its parts.  The forgiving early schedule will give this young team some time to figure things out.  And I mean young.  England has only one player on their roster over the age of 30 ***applause***.  However, this is still England and they are rightfully expected to walk all over the weaker teams in this comp.  They didn't do that against Scotland and if it wasn't the for the talent chasm between these two the Italians might be the favorites.

Who to Watch:
England: Eddie Jones.  The talent is there.  The youth is there.  He just has to do what Stuart Lancaster never managed: find the most effective combination.  That starts at fly-half.  Ford and Farrell don't seem to be able to coexist.  Line-ups haven't been announced yet, but look to see which one emerges in the battle for playing time.

It's impossible to miss Billy Vunipola.  The man is large and everywhere.  At 23 years-old look for him to impose his will on this Six Nations and many to come.

Italy: After being surpassed by Argentina as the next up and coming nation in the last decade, Italy needs a moment.  Expect 23 year-old Fly-half Carlo Canna to provide one.  He's having a good season with Zebre and was solid against France.  In what should be a soggy affair his ability to convert possession into points and use his boot to keep England playing in their own half will be crucial for any chance of Italian success.

Prognosis: Right this one off at your own risk.  England had one truly good moment against Scotland and Italy looked like the better team against France for entire stretches of that game.  Expected rain for Sunday should help the Italians keep England within striking distance.  One of these teams is going to make a statement, don't count out the kids.


  1. These match ups are widely available to the nation on basic cable right?

  2. For Ireland, CJ Stander is a flanker, not a lock, and the biggest news is that Sean O'Brien is back in the side after missing last week.