After an underwhelming second round of the Six Nations, appetites are being whetted ahead of the two big weekend clashes.
England breezed past Scotland without needing anything resembling a brave heart – how things have changed, sadly in some ways, and that’s ignoring slowworm infestation on the pitch, or should I say the Scottish attack.
Ireland’s Schmidt took Wales to the tactical cleaners, and perhaps there was a Lions/O’Driscoll element at work too. The Irish failed to make a big Lions impact in Australia, as did the English, but Wales seem to have shot their bolt after two years of success.
We will soon find out on Friday night, a kick-off time hardly suited to the fragile French.
Played two, won two is to flatter them hugely. They should have lost to England, and bar some Picamoles / Fofana wizardry were clueless, particularly in the last twenty minutes against the plucky Italians.
Those tipping France for a Grand Slam simultaneously condemn Ireland, England and the rest to mediocrity. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, and ultimately it’s in Ireland’s hands to determine the outcome.
First they have to get past a rapidly improving England. I have been consistently critical of a lack of attacking strategy for a team with a near world class pack. Some bold selections and the emergence of Burrell and Twelvetrees as a potent force signals some real excitement for English supporters and I applaud Lancaster for that.
Danny Care is also a revelation and in some ways the key difference (why oh why did he come off against France?) since the defences are having to keep a close eye on him.
I sense that Mike Catt is centre stage in driving this new approach, with both wingers encouraged to run from wherever, and Brown consistently outstanding. The positive chatter is being matched by the performance now, and this clash with the Irish will lay down another marker on England’s progress in creating the try scoring opportunities to challenge the best.
If the Irish needed to prove that the All Blacks effort was no flash in the pan and the Wales game something other than a grudge match, this one will show us where they really are.
Do they want this one as badly as England? Will they be satisfied with unravelling Wales? Have O’Connell and O’Driscoll got enough gas against a supremely fit home team? If Burrell takes O’Driscoll in a heavy tackle, I can’t see him retiring with a bad shoulder like Scott Williams, a psychological moment if there ever was one. Similarly, Lawes and Launchbury are on fire and on the up, whereas O’Connell is holding the line, whatever his past exploits.
I believe England will get to Sexton and Kearney, their two best players, and challenge the rest to pick up the baton. Psychologically, they will look back at the lost Grand Slam in Paris and vow not to be taken apart early with a slow start, as happened against both New Zealand and France. They will ask themselves to pick up the intensity in the last quarter if leading, unlike other matches they have failed to close out.
Bottom line, it’s a big ask for Ireland – can they combine the physical and mental strength needed? The home team, still building and with a key front row injury to overcome, may feel that to lose a thriller won’t be the end of the world. However, as Robshaw says, it’s time to start winning these big ones.
You have to back England to win at home. However, if France somehow find a way past a fractured Wales – half of who know their opposition rather better these days, so expect some uneducated chatter – it may all count for nothing with a French springtime tilt at dubious glory.
Can France win this year’s Six Nations? Or will the tournament winner come from the victor at Twickenham this weekend? Comments below…