6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for this weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

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Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 3 Prediction

Spain Vs. France:

Throughout the group stages both France and Spain struggled for fluency at times and both flirted with elimination from the competition on match-day three of the groups when they were each given a real scare by ‘inferior’ opposition.

Spain France Euro 2012

Spain and France have struggled to find their best form so far in the competition

France in particular struggled to find form in the group stages and qualified from group D as runners-up having managed a total of just four points from their three matches, their most disappointing performance of all coming in their final game against Sweden where they were beaten 2-0 by a side already assured of elimination from the competition.

Arguably their best performance of the groups was against England in their opening game where they dominated the game for long periods but even with the amount of territory and possession they managed against the English they still didn’t look hugely threatening as they were all too often limited to long range strikes at goal.

If France are to have any hope of shocking the reigning European and World Champions Spain then they will have to find much more fluency and will have to find ways of getting in behind their opponents which is something they have really struggled to do in their group matches against England and Sweden.

When the French are at their best they find a way of getting their danger men into the action on a regular basis and it is essential that they provide the likes of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery with plenty of ball so that they can use the full width of the pitch and stretch the game. If they don’t manage to do so then it is likely that Spain will be allowed to play within their comfort zone in the narrow areas of the pitch where they can really hurt France with their tight and slick passing.

If Spain have their own way then they will try and dictate the play as mentioned and keep the game in the central areas of the field where they are arguably more blessed than any other nation. In their final group game against Croatia they may have eventually snatched the points through Jesus Navas’ late tap-in but for long periods of the game they looked fragile against the counter-attacking willingness and talents that Croatia had at their disposal and they should really have been punished in the last half an hour when Ivan Rakitic failed to head home the easiest of his side’s chances.

Had Rakitic applied the finishing touches to Croatia’s most threatening break then Spain could well have been the tournament’s biggest opening round casualty but they managed to pull through in the end and they will be hoping they can re-find their best form in the knock-out stages where it really counts.

Spain’s finest performance of the competition thus far came when they defeated the Republic of Ireland by four goals to nil. In this match they found a balance between their suffocating midfield play and their ability to stretch the game when required and as such they created several good chances and made their opponents look horribly out of their depth.

Tonight Spain will have to do much the same if they are to get the better of a France side who will arguably provide Spain with their toughest challenge so far in tournament if they can find anything like their best form. I think that Spain will just about get the job done but I expect them to find the going tough throughout periods of the match before coming out of the game on the right side of a 2-1 final scoreline.

Euro 2012: Day 11 Predictions

Croatia Vs. Spain:

This fixture places the top two teams in Group C against one another and if either side wins the match then they will top the group and face the runners-up in Group D in the quarter-finals.

Torres Spain

Torres found his best form against Ireland and will be hoping to keep it up against Croatia tonight

Up to this point Croatia have surpassed the expectations of many and they have been well worth the four points which they have gained so far in the group stages. Their opening  3-1 win against Ireland was clinical and then they followed this result with a strong second half fight-back against Italy to earn themselves what could prove to be a crucial point.

They will again have to dig deep if they are to get anything out of their match against Spain and given their  opponents’ suffocating style of possession-play Croatia are likely to have to be even more clinical than they have been already in their opening two games. The key to Croatia getting a win or a draw will be the solidity and stubbornness of their defensive play and the link play between star player Luka Modric and their two impressively clinical front-men Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic.

Having struggled to break down a stubborn Italian side in their opening game, Spain will have been buoyed by their thumping of Ireland four days ago. Vicente Del Bosque decided to ditch the ‘4-6-0’ formation from their opening fixture and opted for a recognised front man in the form of Fernando Torres. He then had to do little more than sit back and reap the rewards of his decision as Torres bagged himself a couple of confidence boosting goals in an emphatic victory, which sees them head into the last game of Group C as the favourites to win the group.

They may be the favourites to win the match and win the group but Spain will have to be very wary of the threat which Croatia have posed to the other sides in Group C and this match is unlikely to be anywhere near as comfortable as the other night against Ireland. I’m going for a 2-1 win for Spain with Torres to add to his goals tally for the tournament.

 

Italy Vs. Ireland:

Up to this point Ireland have failed to do themselves justice at the Euros and as old and stubborn as he may be, Giovanni Trapattoni will surely be left ruing his side’s missed opportunity to announce their return to tournament football with real gusto. Two games and two unimpressive losses is a record which Ireland will be determined to nip in the bud and they will be very eager to put things right by at least going home with a point courtesy of their final group game tonight.

Dunne Given

Ireland have disappointed thus far and Italy will be confident of inflicting another defeat upon them

Their opponents today are Italy who will be fairly satisfied with their first two games of the tournament in spite of only having picked up two points. Their opening day draw against Spain will have been of particular satisfaction as they matched ‘the world’s best side’ for long periods of the match and as well as negating much of the threat of their much-vaunted opposition they also created some very decent chances of their own and could even have won the game had they been a little more clinical. Their second game of the group stages will have been have been less pleasing, as a win would have put them in contention to win the group and they failed to push on from what was a very impressive first half performance against the Croats and ended up with another 1-1 draw.

This record of having led both of their matches but having failed to win a game so far in the tournament will be a real concern for Cesare Prandelli and his Italian side but they know that they must win against Ireland tonight  if they are to have any chance of progressing to the last eight and I think they will do so. I think Italy will win the game 3-1.

Euro 2012: Day 7 Predictions

Italy Vs.Croatia:

Both of the sides involved in the first of Thursday’s matches will be very pleased with how they acquitted themselves in their opening fixtures of Euro 2012.

Di Natale Italy

Di Natale’s finish was sublime and he may well start against Croatia

Italy dealt well with Spain’s unusual ‘4-6-0′ formation for the first hour of the game and looked consistently threatening on the break with Balotelli and Cassano both spurning decent opportunities before second half substitute Antonio Di Natale popped up with a delightful finish to give them a surprise lead.

Unfortunately for Italy the lead wasn’t theirs for long as Spain hit back quickly through Cesc Fabregas’ equaliser but ultimately the Italians will be fairly pleased with the draw and with how they dealt with Spain’s unexpected formation and typically constant threat in and around the box.

Croatia will also be in good spirits heading into the Italy clash as they were at their clinical best against an Irish side who are often very difficult to break down. Croatia manager Slaven Bilic set his team up in a positive fashion and knowing that Ireland would play on the back foot seemed to grasp the fact that his team would need to make the most of any opportunities that came their way and his players

Mandzukic Croatia

Mandzukic was the two goal hero Croatia in their opener

delivered.

The game between these two sides is arguably the most pivotal of the entire group stage as many believe it will decide who qualifies from the group along with tournament favourites Spain. However, if Croatia win and Spain fail to beat Ireland in the second of Thursday’s matches then Croatia will already be through as group winners.

Italy will be pleased with their point against Spain and will back themselves to beat Ireland so a draw on Thursday wouldn’t be an awful result and I think that is what the outcome will be, I’m going for a 1-1 draw.

Spain Vs. Ireland:

Ireland and their fans may well just be happy to be in the Euros as many are suggesting but they will still be feeling a little flat after a disappointing defeat in their opening game of the tournament.

McClean Euro 2012

The Ireland manager has been put under great media pressure to start James McClean against Spain

Spain on the other hand certainly have more lofty ambitions about the tournament as a whole and though they may view Italy as their greatest challengers in Group C I think they too will be left a little underwhelmed by their opening day performance and result.

Time will tell of course whether Spain’s point against the Italians was actually a very good point in the context of the group but with the players that Spain have at their disposal they would surely have hoped they could start building some momentum with a win right from the off. The second round of group fixtures though provides Spain with the perfect opportunity to kick-start the defence of their European crown against an Irish side who looked a little lacklustre at this level in the opening round of fixtures.

Fabregas Spain

Fabregas was probably the most advanced player in Spain’s surprise ‘4-6-0’ formation

The reason Ireland’s performance was so disappointing was that not only did they try and play defensive minded football as everyone had expected them to, but their display at times crept beyond this and into the realms of negativity and damage limitation. Within the context of major tournament football they simply appeared a little shell-shocked.

Sadly for Ireland I simply can’t see how they are going to drastically improve on Sunday’s showing and avoid being eliminated from the tournament on Thursday and I expect Spain to win comfortably. I’m going for the reigning champions to win 3-0 but if they play with an ‘out-and-out striker’ then they could even win by more.

Euro 2012: Day 3 Predictions

Italy Vs. Spain:

Spain and Italy could hardly be going into this tournament having had more contrasting preparations for the tournament.

Spain Italy football

Spain will be big favourites to defeat Italy and are the favourites with the bookies to win the tournament

Spain have won both of the last two major tournaments and are heading into the Euros with a strong, familiar and for the most-part experienced squad and as such are very much being targeted by the rest of the field as ‘the team to beat’ to.

Italy on the other hand have disappointed on their two most recent outings in major tournament football, have a younger and more inexperienced look to their squad than usual and their domestic leagues have once again been embroiled in a wide-scale match-fixing scandal.

On the plus side  though for Italy, the last time their nation was under scrutiny amidst match-fixing issues they went to the World Cup in Germany 2006 and they came home as champions of the world. Also, as much as Spain may possess a squad packed with talent, class and depth they are missing a couple of the key players from their recent triumphs, Carles Puyol and David Villa, both of whom have failed to recover form injuries in time for the defence of Spain’s crown.

In spite of their high-profile injury absences Spain still have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal and I expect them to win 2-1 in the opening game of Group C. Just as an aside to my score prediction, I think it will be intriguing as it always is to watch Mario Balotelli and to see whether he looks like producing the sublime or the ridiculous at the Euros, both of which we know he is all too capable of…

If Balotelli and fellow front-man Di Natale can link well with each other then don’t write off Italy’s chances of getting themselves a draw but I think Spain will be a little too good for them on the day.

Croatia Vs. Ireland:

The second match on the opening day for Group C sees Ireland return to the big time and although they have a very tough looking group draw they will head into the tournament with great enthusiasm and the hope that they can spring a few surprises.

Giovanni Trapattoni Slaven Bilic

The opening game for Ireland and Croatia will depend much on the respective strategies of their two managers

Their opening game pits them against Croatia who have at times really impressed in tournament football since returning as an independent nation in the early nineties and who possess a few of European football’s most sought after and most in-form players.

The two names that spring to mind immediately with Croatia in terms of their biggest assets are Luka Modric, who is on the radar of several European super-clubs, and Nikica Jelavic who has proved an instant hit in the Premier League with Everton. If Modric is at his superb best then it is likely that Jelavic and his fellow forwards will have plenty of scraps to feed on and if they do then Ireland could be in for a torrid evening.

Ireland are likely to set up in typical fashion as their manager Giovanni Trapattoni is very sure of his first XI and how he thinks they can be most successfully deployed. The manager tends to side with defensive responsibilities and his Ireland side are expected to soak up pressure and to try and produce match-winning chances on the break with the likes of skipper Robbie Keane ready to pounce at the top end of the field as and when chances might come his way.

It is essential that Ireland try and keep Modric under wraps as he has the potential to pull the strings and eventually pull Ireland apart with his clever running and eye for a killer pass. I think Ireland will give a decent account of themselves in this game but I expect Croatia to triumph either 2-0 or 2-1.

 

Euro 2012 Group C: Can anyone topple Spain?

Italy:

The Italian national side may have endured a few years of indifferent form but they remain the most recent side to have won a major trophy aside from Spain who accompany them in group C.

Spear-headed by ‘Super-Mario’ Balotelli the Italians will go into the Euros knowing that in being drawn with the reigning champions they have immediately become only the second favourites to progress from their group but also that they have a huge chance to send out a statement of intent by either beating Spain or by finishing above them in the group.

Balotelli Italy

Balotelli will have to keep his emotions in check if he is to deliver for Italy at the Euros

As ever with the Italian national side there is plenty of experience to call upon in the form of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgo Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Anrdrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale but the squad they’ve named for the Euros is arguably their most exciting and refreshing selection for quite some time in major tournament football.

In and around the experienced figure-heads of the squad there is plenty of youth and plenty of talent and it isn’t limited to just one area of the field either. At the back the likes of Angelo Ogbonna and Ignacio Abate look like big prospects and up top they have included the likes of Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco to support the ever-eccentric Balotelli.

One to watch… Mario Balotelli: It may well feel like Balotelli has been around forever given the antics on and off the field which have made him so well known but this will be the very first major tournament appearance for Italy. There is no doubting his ability to succeed and be a star at the Euros but huge questions still remain about his temperament and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his emotions in check.

Euros nostalgia: Italy have a rich history in World Cup football but their Euros record is poor by comparison. In two of the past four tournaments they have failed to get out of their group but they did reach the final in 2000 when they were felled by an extra-time winner from France’s David Trezeguet. The only time Italy have won the tournament was way back in 1968.

Tournament prospects: It appears to me as if Italy will be hugely reliant on the ability of Balotelli up-front as he is their real stand-out player. There is a decent blend of youth and experience at Italy’s disposal for the Euros and in spite of the turmoil in domestic Italian football at the moment it would still be a surprise if they weren’t to make it out of the group.

Spain:

Reigning champions Spain have an awful lot to live up to this summer given their fantastic performances in the last two major international competitions but their technically gifted squad should be confident of landing a third straight piece of silverware.

Iniesta Xavi

Spain’s ‘Golden Duo’ in midfield will team up once again

One area which could be exploited by other teams is their defence which will be missing their rock of a centre-half and the man that would have been their captain, Carles Puyol. Any potential problems at the back for Spain may not just be caused by Puyol’s absence but also the form and versatility of their other defensive options.

Their other truly world class centre-half, Gerard Pique, hasn’t enjoyed his finest season with Barcelona this year and he may well be partnered by Sergio Ramos, a man far more accustomed to playing at full-back, in the heart of Spain’s defence.

Another potential creak in the Spanish rear-guard is their lack of a natural left-back. They will probably opt to play Valencia’s Jordi Alba in this position but he isn’t exactly a natural defender. He is very strong going forward has the pace and stamina to get up and down the left flank all game long but it is unclear up to now whether he possesses the discipline to play in such an important position on one of world football’s biggest stages.

Another major miss for Spain this summer is that of David Villa who hasn’t recovered in time from a broken leg suffered at the back end of 2011. However, as much as Villa is a big loss one would have to think that Spain have more than enough in reserve to cover his absence as their squad still possesses so much attacking strength and depth that players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Fernando Torres all might struggle to find a place in the starting line-up.

One to watch… Fernando Llorente: The powerful Athletic Bilbao forward has played a huge part in his clubs impressive cup runs both in Europe and in domestic football this season and in the absence of David Villa and the absence of Fernando Torres’ best form it could be down to him to lead the line for Spain and to provide the bulk of goals needed to win a tournament like the Euros.

Euros nostalgia: The previous European Championships in 2008 saw Spain underline their undoubted potential. Inspired by the coinciding rise to prominence of Barcelona and their famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football, Spain passed their way to the most elegant of major tournament victories sealing their triumph with a 1-0 win over big-tournament specialists Germany in the final.

Tournament prospects: Given their recent successes in major tournament football Spain will go into the Euros as the team to beat and rightly so. They may appear a little damaged by a couple of major injury-enforced absences but the depth of quality at their disposal should allow them to cope with such losses and go deep into the competition. I have a hunch that this might be the tournament where they are finally denied victory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to the final once again.

Republic of Ireland:

This is the first time that the Republic of Ireland have qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup in 2002 and their Italian-heavy coaching contingent deserve an enormous amount of credit for the work they’ve done in getting their side back to this level.

There are a few survivors from the World Cup in 2002 still present in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and they will be hoping that these more experienced players can help them try and stand up to the likes of reigning champions Spain in the group stages.

James McClean Ireland

McClean has been a great find for Sunderland and he hopes to be much the same for Ireland

To be drawn in the same group as Spain on their return to major tournament football might appear a little unlucky for Ireland but their players and their fans will just be delighted to be back at this level and to be being thrust into direct competition with the world’s best side.

One to watch… James McClean: Sunderland’s power-house of a winger was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish leagues last summer and since Northern-Irishman Martin O’Neill has taken the helm at the North-East club McClean has been thrust into their starting line-up and has excelled . The youngster’s meteoric rise to prominence was sealed when Giovanni Trapattoni named him in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and now he has the opportunity to impress on an even bigger stage.

Euros nostalgia: Ireland’s only previous taste of the Euros came under Jack Charlton’s management back in 1988. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final place but took away with them the precious memory of defeating England 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament.

Tournament prospects: Ireland go into the Euros as huge underdogs and most people, myself included, will expect them to end the group stages propping up the rest of teams in Group C. The excitement surrounding them competing in one of world football’s biggest competitions will undoubtedly inspire them and I expect them to give everyone in their group a good game but ultimately I can’t see how they will get enough points on the board to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

Croatia:

Ever since Croatia took their first steps into international football as an independent nation in the early 1990’s they have never looked back and they have often impressed and punched above their weight in major tournaments.

Modric Croatia

Modric will be key to Croatia’s hopes at the Euros

This time around the Croats will head into the Euros armed with a squad including one of world football’s most highly-rated attacking midfielders in Luka Modric and they will hope that their chief playmaker can help them compete strongly in the group stages and get them into the reckoning for a place in the last eight.

Though they might not possess one of the more eye-catching squads in European football Croatia should not be underestimated as they have a lot of very decent players to accompany the likes of Luka Modric and perhaps none more so than their striker Nikica Jelavic who has been a major hit at Everton since signing from Rangers in January.

One to watch… Nikica Jelavic: Having established himself as the most threatening striker in the SPL in his time with Rangers, Jelavic has now made the big move south of the border and into Premier League football and in his first few months in England he has proved himself time and again and his form towards the end of the season was as good as pretty much any other striker in the league. If the Croatian front-man can carry this form into the summer then Croatia could spring a few surprises once again.

Euros nostalgia: Croatia are responsible for one of the most famous nights of English football’s recent history after defeating them by three goals to two at Wembley in the final game of their qualification group for the 2008 tournament. This victory saw Croatia become one of the teams to qualify at England’s expense and thus denying one of Europe’s finest sides on paper a place in the previous European Championships.

A brief summary of Group C:

On paper it appears as if reigning champions Spain will be the huge favourites to win Group C and I can’t see anybody preventing them from doing so.

Beyond this though I am struggling to work out exactly what the outcome of the group will be but I suspect that Ireland will finish bottom of the group and therefore I think that it is between Italy and Croatia in the battle to qualify for the latter stages of the tournament.

If it were simply down to the quality of the sides on paper then I would plump for Italy every time but Croatia have demonstrated several times in the past that they aren’t afraid of a challenge and Italy may well be inhibited by the ongoing investigations into corruption and match-fixing in their domestic leagues. It is a really tough call and I am clueless as to who will progress alongside Spain.



6 Nations Review 2012 and Team of the Tournament

So, what has the 6 Nations taught us?

Wales:

Wales Grandslam 6 Nations

Super-Sam Warburton lifts the trophy for Wales

Wales have been fantastic. They may have suffered their fair share of scares along the way, think the Ireland, England and France matches, but ultimately they overcame every obstacle thrust in their way and they have landed another Grandslam.

Consequently, Wales are in a state of rugby-based euphoria once again but questions remain about the timing of their success, have they yet again peaked too early? Their three recent Grandslam wins have never come within a year of the start of the World Cup, in fact, both this weekend’s triumph and that of 2008 have come in the immediate aftermath of Rugby’s showpiece event.

For now Wales have every right to live in the moment and enjoy their hard-earned Grandslam glory but it is yet to be seen whether they can build on this and become one of the stand-out favourites for the World Cup in 2015, which must surely be their aim going forward.

England:

Second placed England have too been fantastic. After a sluggish but typically gritty and successful start

Stuart Lancaster England Rugby

Lancaster has helped restore pride for England

England have grown into the tournament with arguably one of their best performances coming in their only defeat of the tournament, against Wales.

Much has been made of England’s poor showing on and off the field at the World Cup and many thought that interim boss Stuart Lancaster would struggle to re-build and galvanize the troops but how wrong were they?

Lancaster has arguably been the success story of the entire tournament and the manner in which he has gone about his business has been truly admirable. He has demonstrated all that you need to be a success in the world of management in international rugby, from his media savvy to his raw enthusiasm and appreciation of the privileged position in which he has found himself, he has demonstrated extraordinary composure en route to guiding England to a pleasantly surprising campaign.

Three wins out of three on the road (a 6 Nations record) and two very creditable home performances in the narrow defeat by Wales and the romping victory against Ireland has made for a far more rosy outlook for English rugby. This tournament has been a far cry from the World Cup exploits of the touring party and that alone should be enough to ensure that Lancaster is favourite to grab the job on a full-time basis.

Ireland:

Ireland 6 Nations

Tommy Bowe has one of only a few exceptional performers for Ireland

Ireland managed to pretty much replicate their World Cup performance. They once again showed great promise but they lacked the bottle and killer instinct necessary to get themselves into real contention.

The performance against England was entirely regrettable, but arguably more disappointing were the failures to put away Wales and France when they had engineered themselves winning positions. They may feel a little aggrieved at the nature of their defeat against Wales given that there were some questionable decisions from the referee that contributed to Wales’ eventual triumph but really they need to focus more on their inability to close out games.

Wales were the better side in their head-to-head with Ireland, yet Ireland manufactured a match-winning lead going into the very final moments only to let an ounce of indiscipline undo all their hard work which should have earned them an improbable victory. To coin the old report-card classic… Ireland: ‘Could do better…’

France:

Saint-Andre France

Saint-Andre must find a better attack-defence balance for France

France’s first campaign under the tutelage of Phillipe Saint-Andre was rather bizarre. They were, as per usual, pretty unpredictable but the real surprise came in the way that Saint-Andre seemed to set them up in terms of their tactical approach to games.

The joy of French rugby has always been that though they are capable of implosion at any moment that they always look for a way to get on the front foot and take the game to the opposition and more often than not with the ball in hand, trying to produce flowing and exciting rugby.

This campaign saw an entirely different emphasis though. Saint-Andre had clearly tried to impress on his troops that defence was the priority, and for the most part their defence was indeed fairly decent (the first half against England aside).

The problem for the French though was adapting to this new style of play. Their more able attacking forces seemed inhibited and, as a result, their plan to hit teams on the break with counter-attacking rugby fell flat on it’s face at times.

Maybe Saint-Andre should stick to what the French know best. They have always been a bit of an all-or-nothing team and perhaps that is what they must remain. Turning the French into a disciplined and defensive unit is like turning England into a lethal, fast-paced team founded upon their thirst for try-scoring and flowing backs moves. It just doesn’t seem to fit. Lancaster seemed to get that in his first tournament in charge of England but sadly for France this didn’t appear to be the case for their new boss.

Italy:

Fifth-placed Italy deserve enormous credit once again for their efforts in avoiding the wooden-spoon.

Venditti Italy Rugby

Venditti crashes over to avoid the wooden-spoon

Their solitary win against the Scots may not have been attractive but it was ruthless. In Rome they gave Scotland a painful lesson in taking your chances when they come. Venditti may have resembled a baby rhino lacking in any natural running technique when he went over for the decisive score but the fact remains that he was the only person who managed to do so all game.

Italy’s campaign wasn’t though entirely based upon their final day win as they also performed well against England and France. They may have ultimately succumbed to defeat in both games but their willingness to take the game to France and the attitude they showed to come back from an early deficit and go in at half time with the lead against England suggests that the gap between them and the rest is shortening year on year. It is hard to tell just how much the Italians are progressing at times but I think they have shown enough in this year’s tournament to suggest that they are moving forward.

Scotland:

Scotland flattered to deceive. An opening day performance of decent promise against England was ruined

Scotland Rugby

Plenty of promise for Scotland, but ultimately failure

by a lack of composure, their great resistance in the early stages against Wales was eventually ground down and overwhelmed and they again had their moments against France en route to defeat.

It has been a very strange tournament for them really. The past few weeks have seen them receive plaudits for their much-improved style of rugby which will have made Coach Andy Robinson a very proud man but ultimately they have lost all five of their games and their performance against Italy was pretty sub-standard.

The likes of Richie Gray, Dave Denton and Stuart Hogg have shown in this tournament some real rays of light for Scottish rugby but Andy Robinson may pay for his side’s lack of killer instinct. Robinson does seem to me to have the right ideas to take the Scotland side forward but the lack of positive results may well cost him his job.

The Conclusion:

Wales are fantastic and have to now use this success as a foundation towards bigger and better triumphs in the long term.

England do still have a side with the potential to build towards 2015 and should stick with Lancaster after a very encouraging first taste of job.

Ireland need to learn how to win big matches and need to learn what life will be like without the killer instinct of Brian O’Driscoll, which they have sorely missed throughout the tournament.

France are better off being cavalier and arrogant than they are being resilient. Lievremont experienced something of a mutiny within his ranks at the World Cup but somehow they still nearly won it, Saint-Andre targeted unity and discipline and it seems as if this ended up blunting the French threat en route to a disappointing 4th placed finish.

Italy need to keep on plugging away. They are perhaps still a little too reliant on the likes of the brilliant Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni but they are making strides in certain areas and they appeared a little more threatening going forward in this year’s Championship.

Scotland need to either show great confidence in the new Andy Robinson ethos and accept that it might take a while for it to truly reap it’s rewards or alternatively they must move on to a new Coach with a new style immediately, they can’t afford to stick with Robinson in the short term and then get rid of him after losing their next couple of games. Their have been real signs of life in their ranks this tournament and it has been refreshing to see them taking on the opposition but no wins in five suggests there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

My Team of the Tournament:

Coach – Stuart Lancaster (My apologies to Mr.Gatland who has obviously done a great job as well…)

Front Row – Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley/Rory Best, Dan Cole

Second Row – Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray

Back Row – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Tom Croft/Sam Warburton

Half Backs – Mike Phillips, Owen Farrell

Centres – Wesley Fofana, Jonathan Davies

Wings – Alex Cuthbert/George North, Tommy Bowe

Full Back – Leigh Halfpenny

The 6 Nations: Game-Week 3 Predictions

England Vs. Wales:

Match of the tournament potential.

With England, the reigning champions of course, coming up against the form team of this year’s championships most true rugby fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of this encounter.

England will look to counter the size and strength of Wales' back-line with the returning Manu Tuilagi

On paper it seems that Wales have the potential to slaughter England and humiliate them on their own patch. England’s form has been no better than solid whereas Wales and their much-vaunted back-line have been rampant in their opening games.

It is true of course that Wales only just achieved victory against Ireland and that it took a considerable period of time before they broke down the Scottish resistance at the Millenium Stadium a fortnight ago but the confidence of their two performances to date has been a far-cry from the edginess and nervousness involved in England’s two gritty victories.

As it stands though, England are level with Wales in the standings and have shown enough to suggest that they are capable of giving at least a half-decent account of themselves at Twickenham tomorrow. Unfortunately for England though, a ‘half-decent account of themselves’ won’t be enough to beat this Wales side and it will take something rather more convincing to cause what would have to be considered an upset tomorrow evening. I think Wales will win, but they will be pushed.

Prediction: England 17 – 26 Wales

Ireland Vs. Italy:

Ireland have found themselves in a rather unusual predicament in this year’s championships after they lost out in last-gasp fashion at home to Wales and then had their second game of the tournament called-off due to a frozen pitch in Paris.

As such, the Irish players and supporting contingent will be looking to kick-start their campaign with a convincing home win over Italy and really this should be within their reach.

Though Italy have certainly had their moments against France and England in their opening two fixtures, they still lack a real killer instinct and failed to capitalise on their real moments of promise. This was particularly evident against England when they could easily have used the momentum of their late first half charge to inspire them to a victory on home turf. Sadly though, some slack play and some poor decision making both from the players and from the coaching staff cost them dear as they went on to lose narrowly.

It is hard to see how a side like Italy with their lacking attacking thrust and the loss of their talismanic front-row stalwart Martin Castrogiovanni to injury, can compete with a balanced side like Ireland’s where their attacking threat and defensive strengths are evident all across their line-up. I think Ireland will bag a few tries and get themselves the morale-boosting victory they desire.

Prediction: Ireland 30 – 14 Italy

Scotland Vs. France:

Scotland are a much improved side in many ways from a couple of years ago, but they still lack the ability to take full advantage of promising attacking situations and as long as that is the case it is hard to see them defeating any of Europe’s top International sides. They need to continue playing with the same solidity and determination, but they simply must add a more potent attacking threat to their list of strengths. They would do well to learn from this weekend’s opponents France who at times can be utterly indifferent with their form but still always carry a real threat when going forward.

Andy Robinson's Scotland side will need to be more clinical if they are to push the French

France’s opening game win over Italy was a great example of this as they struggled to keep control of the game for long stretches, but ultimately they won by a convincing margin due to their defensive composure and their clinical attacking rugby which consistently utilised their limited try-scoring opportunities.

It is a shame for France that their second game against Ireland was postponed due to poor conditions, as they would have liked to bag a home victory and reaped the rewards of a run of good results and the momentum that would have come with it. However, I still think they have enough to beat Scotland at Murrayfield. It will be a tough day’s work but I can foresee another wasteful Scottish attacking display undermining their work ethic and defensive capabilities and thus allowing France to steal a fairly narrow win.

Prediction: Scotland 11 – 18 France

6 Nations: Game-week 2 Predictions

Italy Vs. England

Italy played with great courage for long periods last week but simply couldn’t break through the French wall in defence, whereas England’s chances for glory were few and far between in a fairly messy game at Murrayfield yet they came away with the win and the points.

Stuart Lancaster’s side managed to edge out the wasteful Scots in his first game in charge and will be hoping for a little more go forward  against the Italians. England will of course go in as favourites and I do expect them to win but, just as they did to France last week, I expect the Italians to go after England and force them to work hard for their victory.

Prediction: Italy 14 – 24 England

 

France Vs. Ireland

Though they were made to look second-best for the majority of the game against Wales last week, Ireland should ultimately have closed the game out and landed a significant opening victory. As it is though, Ireland will surely have to win away to France today if they are to have any hope of placing themselves in serious contention to win the tournament.

France were awesome in defence against a spirited Italian offensive last week and when they needed to turn the magic on attack they did so. Their clinical and timely finishing kept the Italians at bay in a game that really deserved to have been made a lot more interesting in terms of the scoreboard.

If this game were being played at the Aviva then I would have fancied their chances of a first win in this year’s tournament but I am going for a narrow home win for the French in what I expect to be a very entertaining game of rugby. Ireland have little to lose having already taken a notable slip in their challenge for the title, but France have an enormous amount to play for and will be looking forward with ambitions of Grandslam if they land a win here.

Prediction: France 25 – 21 Ireland

 

Wales Vs. Scotland

Wales will be overwhelming favourites going into this one.

Though they were literally seconds away from losing their opener against Ireland, Wales were effervescent in attack with Mike Phillips running the show and the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North providing more than able support as the Welsh lines flooded forward time and time again. Though they were almost irresistible at times, if they had lost the game then perhaps they, like Scotland in their home match against England, would have been accused of being wasteful. Difference is though, that Wales just about made enough of their ambition and the chances that came with it whereas Scotland came out of their opening weekend with another confidence shattering defeat.

Scotland were pretty decent throughout against England and not many would have had any complaints about the result had they come away with something from it. They didn’t though and I simply can’t see them keeping with this Wales side.

I think Scotland resist the early thrusts of the Welsh attack but I can envisage Wales running in four or five as the game wears on.

Prediction:

Wales 31 – 14 Scotland

6 Nations: Predictions (with the benefit of opening round hindsight)

Usually, I and many other sports enthusiasts and writers, make the foolish mistake of trying to predict things as accurately as possible without the benefit of hard, and topical evidence. Having learnt the error of my ways, I have taken it upon myself to predict the outcome of the 6 nations with the benefit of some hindsight and, hopefully, some half-decent foresight.

Wales opened up with a last-gasp win in the pick of the weekend's action

With one game down and England, Wales and France all off the mark in the wins column here is my prediction for the outcome of this year’s tournament:

Wins       Losses

1. Wales                 5                 0

2. France               4                 1

3. England             3                 2

4. Ireland              2                 3

5. Scotland            1                 5

6. Italy                   0                6

 

Wales:

Predicted – Grandslam Winners

Against Ireland, Wales played with a similar determination and attacking prowess as they did throughout their highly praised World Cup run. They may well have had to rely on a controversial-ish last gasp penalty to get the job done but an away win against Ireland is a big scalp and I think their attacking threat deserved to see them through in the end. Jonathan Davies’ hard-run lines in the midfield caused havoc while Wales were in full flow, and as ever Mike Philips dictated the game beautifully at 9. They may no longer have the prolific Shane Williams amongst their ranks, but George North’s performance at the weekend was one of a true heir to the Williams throne. He has the strength, character, hands and pace of a world beating winger and he is continuing to prove why he is one of the hottest young properties in the world of rugby.

I have Wales as my favourites to win, not just the tournament but another Grandslam, because they play with real flair and the character shown to rescue the game at the Aviva was very impressive. If the likes of Philips are at their best then Wales will be the team to beat.

France:

Prediction – 2nd

The French enjoyed a fairly routine victory in their opener as they faced up to the team that everyone would like to start their competition against. The Italians, of course, are a lot stronger than their earliest years in the competition but they are still a little of the pace when it comes to the more dominant forces of European rugby and they tend to provide decent competition for the opposition to break themselves into the tournament.

France weren’t at their fluent best and Italy actually played very well for long stretches in the opening game but the difference between the two sides was to be found in their defences. France’s defence was tight, compact and unforgiving, whilst their attack found just enough holes in the Italian rearguard to take them to  a reasonably comfortable win.

Up next for France are Ireland and this will almost certainly provide a stiffer challenge, but, Les Bleus will be confident of making it two from two on home turf.

England:

It wasn’t exactly glamorous and it wasn’t exactly dominant but Stuart Lancaster’s new-look England side just about did enough to prise victory in the Calcutta Cup. There was little on show at Murrayfield worthy of great note as it was a game left bereft of really outstanding moments but England showed enough to suggest that they will at least bag themselves two victories in this 6 nations campaign.

England’s debutants all played fairly well against Scotland, with the two new centres Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt taking most of the credit for assured first outings, as well as Chris Robshaw for his characteristically workman-like showing in just his second game for his country and his first as captain.

I have a sneaking suspicion that England will beat one of the other members of the ‘big four’ and I think that win will come at home to Ireland in a few weeks time. If they manage to beat Italy next time out and take at least one of the big teams then a top 3 finish is on the cards.

Ireland:

Prediction – 4th

It is amazing how much one minute of rugby can impact upon a team’s success in the 6 nations ’round-robin’ format and Ireland are this year’s hard-luck story from the opening round of fixtures.

Had the game finished just one minute earlier then Ireland would have a victory of huge significance under their belt and all the talk would be of potential Grandslams, as it turned out though they are amongst a group of three teams on the bottom of the table and will be left feeling a little damaged.

For periods of the game they were overwhelmed by the Welsh attacking threat, yet they still managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over and just a little more composure in the dying seconds might have seen them triumph. I think this defeat will hit them hard and though I expect a decent reaction in Paris, I think they will come up narrowly short again and could then be left struggling for motivation when it comes to facing England at Twickenham later in the tournament.

Scotland:

Prediction – 5th

Scotland might have shown enough at home to England to suggest that they should avoid the wooden-spoon but their inability to take advantage of their very decent attacking opportunities against England will be a huge concern for Andy Robinson.

Sadly for Scotland, this has been the problem for way too long now and it must be getting very tedious indeed for their coaching staff and indeed the rugby enthusiasts that pack out Murrayfield consistently  to provide one of the greatest atmospheres in world rugby. I think they will have enough to beat Italy but their achilles heel of lacking composure in attack is too blatant for me to foresee them beating any of the major forces. 5th it is then…

Italy:

Prediction – Wooden Spoon

A predictably decent but ultimately disappointing day for the Italians saw them open up with a loss against the World Cup finalists, France.

For spells they were the better team and they had France going backwards and making simple errors in the midfield early on, only for them to be undone all too easily by one cohesive French move resulting in Aurelien Rougerie’s opening try.

Though the Italians continued to battle hard, they fell quite a long way short in the end and their inability to make pressure really count was undone by France’s contrastingly clinical show in the final third. I can’t see the Italians finishing any higher than 5th and in truth I think Scotland will probably beat them in the battle to avoid propping up the rest of the table.