For only the second time in the Championship, the opening weekend finished with three home wins but never has this happened in the second round. And it’s unlikely to on this occasion though the 6 Nations is nothing if not unpredictable.
Ireland v Wales
Ireland kick off proceedings by welcoming welcome Wales to the Aviva Stadium in what will most likely be the game of the weekend – and perhaps even a title decider. The only side to beat Wales in the last two Championships, Ireland are probably the most likely to in 2014, especially if first round performances are anything to go on.
Heaslip was monumental to the extent Ireland barely missed the presence of Paul O’Connell but with the second row likely to be recalled having recovered from a chest infection, Ireland will have another weapon in their armoury.
Retaining (and stealing) ball at the breakdown will be a massive focus for both sides as Sam Warburton is reintroduced into the Welsh ranks. The combination of Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony worked well in Round 1, the latter making three turnovers against Scotland, but they will have their work cut out for them keeping the Lions captain and the artist formerly known as Toby Faletau at bay (Faletau himself claiming three turnovers against Italy).
In the set-piece, both sides are strong. Ireland may ever so slightly have the edge, as they claimed 100% of their ball in the scrum against the Scots (while Wales only managed 75% against Italy), and the thought of Cian Healy going head-to-head against Adam Jones is a mouthwatering prospect, with Jones the scrum technician, while Healy offers an outstanding work rate around the park.
Alun-Wyn Jones dominated the individual lineout stats in Round 1, winning seven and stealing one of Italy’s, but the reintroduction of O’Connell into the Irish ranks should also provide a stable platform for fly-half Johnny Sexton and co. to play off. Speaking of which …
The key battle will be in the no 10 slot. Sexton has the edge on his counterpart Rhys Priestland in terms of his distribution and eye for a gap, epitomised by his scything run through the Scottish defence which put Andrew Trimble in for a try before half-time (and four other line-breaks), compared to Priestland, who kicked possession away 17 times. Ireland may not have the firepower of Wales outwide but with Sexton marshalling his troops the way he does, one senses the Irish may have more scoring opportunities. Prediction: It’ll be tight – Ireland by 4.
Scotland v England
Next up, Murrayfield, where somewhere in the deep dark recesses of the stadium it’s written that it’s impossible for an exiting game of rugby to be played at the venue. No more is that the case than the biennial snoozefest when England come to town. Pop quiz … how many tries have been scored in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield since 2006? Answer: one. That’s correct, ONE. Scored by Charlie Hodgson in 2012. And it was a charge down. Zzzzzz.
Expect more of the same from the Scots this time round as fly-half Duncan Weir had a shaky display against Ireland, often getting caught with ball in hand, and despite Stuart Hogg having a good attacking day – with four offloads, three clean breaks and six defenders beaten – Scotland never looked close to scoring. Despite at one point clocking up 18 phases of play they never looked like getting anywhere and the fatigue of repeatedly running into a solid defence took its toll in the second half.
There’s scope though, on paper at least, for England to introduce a little bit more spark into the equation. Jack Nowell, despite an initial defensive wobble on his debut last week, came back with a fine attacking display, making the most metres of any England player. Jonny May has been cleared fit and providing Luther Burrell can bring the back three into the game we could be in for some exciting rugby.
England’s pack will have to work hard to avoid being dragged into the way Scotland will typically wish to play the game – slowly. The battle of the back rows will be huge, with Billy Vunipola and Dave Denton boasting a similar power with ball in hand, and both sets of flankers will have their work cut out to keep the other in check at the breakdown.
England will have taken confidence from their performance against France and if they are able to prevent Scotland slowing the ball and provide Danny Care with the kind of quick ball on which he thrives, then expect the first decent England display at Murrayfield for some time. Prediction: England by 12.
France v Italy
Sunday marks France’s 700th official test match and they will be looking for a more rounded performance than against England when they defied the stats to clinch victory in the closing minutes. In fact, France beat England despite only having just 41% of the possession and only 37% of the territory, as well as being out performed in ball carries and metres made.
The first area they’ll rely on is playing off a solid foundation of set piece that saw them win all of their own scrums last weekend, whereas Italy struggled with only 57% of their own ball. French loosehead Thomas Domingo is a very squat prop and his battle with Martin Castrogiovanni will be key to the respective sides’ set piece success.
Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga will provide Les Bleus’ principle go-forward in the pack, the latter beating the most defenders out of any player in Round 1 – seven. Meanwhile if the likes of Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and Brice Dulin actually get front foot ball, they pose a scintillating attacking threat. The tank-like, moving brick shit-house that is Mathieu Bastareaud was actually managed well in defence by England and it’s likely Phillipe Saint-Andre will opt for the slightly more subtle Gael Fickou, given the youngster’s impact from the bench last week.
Italy have beaten France on two of the last three occasions they have met but not away from home. Expect Italy to come out of the blocks firing and be competitive for 60 minutes but tail off in the last quarter. Prediction: France by 15.