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┬áthis 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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Good but not good enough for England’s Grandslam chasers

Saturday evening saw a disappointing climax to England’s 6 Nations campaign, but lets not get too down about it. Indeed, the Grandslam was there for the taking against a previously out of sorts Ireland side, but all in all to have won the championship with an injury-hit and inexperienced side is still commendable.

Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll scores

The absence of England’s Captain, Lewis Moody, and Vice Captain Mike Tindall cannot be underestimated. A nervous looking England never got the bit between their teeth and struggled for a foothold, whilst the Irish turned the form-book in it’s head taking to the field in barnstorming fashion.

For the vast majority of the game the Irish appeared to have intimidated their opposition, with an admirably high intensity level matched only by their skill and clinical finishing. It was a performance of such high-class and control, epitomised by the young outside-half Johnny Sexton. His seeming lack of composure in pressure moments and inexperience have been highlighted in his more recent outings, but no such negatives were apparent this time out. What a luxury it is too for the resurgent Irish to have the hugely experienced dictator Ronan O’Gara there to call upon as the more than able deputy. His ten minute cameo demonstrated all you need to know about the Munster-man; passion, composure and a touch of real class under-pressure. His deft prod to the corner with the outside of his boot in the closing stages was nothing short of sublime, and conveyed beautifully the ‘midas-touch’ possessed by the Irish on the night.

England were however crowned champions of the tournament and have reason to celebrate this. It is an achievement perhaps not of the substance with which Grandslams are made of, but commendable nonetheless. The defeat itself must be taken as the Autumn defeat to South Africa was; a learning curve for an inexperienced squad striving to ensure they are ready to make an impression at the World Cup come this autumn.

The signs prior to today have been positive; the closing out of tightly contested matches against Wales, France and Scotland, and the clinical deconstruction of the Italians. Have no doubts that this defeat was a missed opportunity, but it was as much about Ireland’s rejuvenation as an attacking force as it was about England’s lack of nerve. All teams have good days and all have bad ones. This performance in isolation was well-below par, but Martin Johnson will do well to reinforce the positives to have come out of this campaign.

The fly-half partnership of starting 10 Toby Flood and class-act deputy Jonny Wilkinson has provided depth and balance, as has the emergence of youngster’s Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero. Depth is so crucial when it comes to World Cup year and with the likes of Moody, Tindall, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Andrew Sheridan ready to return in the Autumn it seems England have this base covered. The only major concern for the England selectors must be the consistently anonymous performances of Shontayne Hape, and the lack of alternative options in the centres, demonstrated by Matt Banahan’s pretty one-dimensional threat in the defeat.

Ultimately, it has been a good couple of months for ‘Jonno’s’ boys and it remains to be seen whether such promise can amount to a higher level of consistency. Never mind the disappointment of not quite finishing off the job, they have been leagues ahead of their Northern hemisphere competitors over the course of the tournament and appear to have to edge over the old-enemy Australia in recent times. The jury is out over whether we can compete with the All Black flair and the power of reigning World Champions South Africa, but with the exception of their most recent showing, England appear a force to be reckoned with.