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Wales vs Ireland
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday 2nd February 2013, 1.30pm GMT
In many regards this first game could be the pivotal match of the entire Six Nations – the team that wins will set itself up to challenge for the Championship while the team that loses will struggle. It’s also a key game for Lions selection, 23 of the 30 players starting have appeared in Lions team predictions in the last few months. Wales vs Ireland is always close and the last two games have not been without controversy – two years ago Wales won thanks to a try that should not have been given and last year the Welsh started their Grand Slam with a win in Dublin after two questionable yellow cards in the final quarter. I think Wales will just take a victory, but it will be very close.
Rob Howley has now taken charge of Wales full-time with Warren Gatland on Lions duty. The key changes are forced ones – Rhys Priestland, for the last year the recipient of much criticism, is injured and out for the championship, while Dan Lydiate, arguably the best player of the 2012 Six Nations, is out for the first few matches as he recovers from a broken ankle. The 2009 Lion front row is reunited but injuries have massacred the second row. One of the biggest debates on Welsh selection continues as captain Sam Warburton gets the nod at openside ahead of in-form Justin Tipuric. For Wales the key test this weekend is not about players, it’s about restoring confidence, and that will be the difference tomorrow.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney is playing a team that should genuinely excite rugby fans – the combination of Gilroy and Zebo on the wings may not match the size of the Wales’s Cuthbert and North but they make up for it in terms of speed and agility and with Brian O’Driscoll back for what could be his last Six Nations campaign, they match the youth with experience and leadership. I’m not at all happy with continuing to play Sean O’Brien at openside even though Ferris is injured – Ireland’s lack of a true openside has cost them before. If Welsh heads drop I expect Ireland to capitalise on it and it’s not inconceivable that this could be the start of a new era of Irish dominance.
Wales team to play Ireland: 15 Leigh Halfpenny (C Blues), 14 Alex Cuthbert (C Blues), 13 Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), 12 Jamie Roberts (C Blues), 11 George North (Scarlets), 10 Dan Biggar (Ospreys), 9 Mike Phillips (Bayonne); 1 Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), 2 Matthew Rees (Scarlets), 3 Adam Jones (Ospreys), 4 Andrew Coombes (Dragons), 5 Ian Evans (Ospreys), 6 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), 7 Sam Warburton (C Blues, capt), 8 Toby Faletau (Dragons). Replacements: 16 Ken Owens (Scarlets), 17 Paul James (Bath), 18 Craig Mitchell (Exeter), 19 Olly Kohn (Harlequins), 20 Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), 21 Lloyd Williams (C Blues), 22 James Hook (Perpignan), 23 Scott Williams (Scarlets).
Ireland team to play Wales: 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster), 14 Craig Gilroy (Ulster), 13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster), 12 Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), 11 Simon Zebo (Munster), 10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), 9 Conor Murray (Munster); 1 Cian Healy (Leinster), 2 Rory Best (Ulster), 3 Mike Ross (Leinster), 4 Donnacha Ryan (Munster), 5 Mike McCarthy (Connacht), 6 Peter O’Mahony (Connacht), 7 Sean O’Brien (Leinster), 8 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin (Leinster), 17 Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), 18 Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster), 19 Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster), 20 Chris Henry (Ulster), 21 Eoin Reddan (Leinster), 22 Ronan O’Gara (Munster), 23 Keith Earls (Munster).
England vs Scotland
Saturday 2nd February 2013, 4pm GMT
Here are two teams which have it all to prove for very different reasons. While expectations of England are sky high following their victory over the All Blacks, the Scots just need a victory. Calcutta Cup matches are strange affairs – the Scots always up their game but England usually win and I expect it to be the same this year.
Stuart Lancaster has made some tough decisions and has gone with form over reputation and experience. Except for Chris Ashton the entire back division is being contested and the big surprise is playing Twelvetrees at inside centre (the general expectation was that he’d play Farrell and Barritt in the centre and Flood at 10). I’ve rated Twelvetrees for some time and I’ve never understood why he’s been excluded from the England team. The Goode/Brown/Foden contest for the 15 jersey seems to be heading Goode’s way with Foden not even making the bench. The selection of Youngs and Launchbury tells us that Lancaster is revelling in this newly found strength in depth – the fact you could put together an England team that could challenge for the Six Nations from players on the bench, not selected or currently injured says it all.
Scott Johnson’s first Scotland team is, by all accounts, excellent; but it’s not individual play that has been the problem for Scotland, it’s the collective – the team as a unit. The hallmarks of the Andy Robinson era were basic errors, the inability to attack the try line and the lack of confidence. Man for man, the Scotland players are stronger than the England players but as a unit England are on a different planet. Johnson’s biggest task is to get the team playing to be the sum of their parts and he’s made some key personnel changes, notably switching Laidlaw back to scrum half and bringing back Johnnie Beattie to number 8. If this Scottish team can figure out how to play as a team and put in a truly decent performance against England they’ll be able to build on it and stand a decent chance in the next three games against Italy, Ireland and Wales – all at Murrayfield.
England Team to play Scotland: 15 Alex Goode (Saracens), 14 Chris Ashton (Saracens), 13 Brad Barritt (Saracens), 12 Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester), 11 Mike Brown (Harlequins), 10 Owen Farrell (Saracens), 9 Ben Youngs (Leicester); 1 Joe Marler (Harlequins), 2 Tom Youngs (Leicester), 3 Dan Cole (Leicester), 4 Joe Launchbury (Wasps), 5 Geoff Parling (Leicester), 6 Tom Wood (Northampton), 7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), 8 Ben Morgan (Gloucester). Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley (Northampton), 17 David Wilson (Bath), 18 Mako Vunipola (Saracens), 19 Courtney Lawes (Northampton), 20 James Haskell (Wasps), 21 Danny Care (Harlequins), 22 Toby Flood (Leicester), 23 David Strettle (Saracens).
Scotland team to play England: 15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow), 14 Sean Maitland (Glasgow), 13 Sean Lamont (Glasgow), 12 Matt Scott (Edinburgh), 11 Tim Visser (Edinburgh), 10 Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow), 9 Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh); 1 Ryan Grant (Glasgow), 2 Dougie Hall (Glasgow), 3 Euan Murray (Worcester), 4 Richie Gray (Sale), 5 Jim Hamilton (Gloucester), 6 Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), 7 Kelly Brown (Saracens, capt), 8 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier). Replacements: 16 Ross Ford (Edinburgh), 17 Moray Low (Glasgow), 18 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), 19 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow), 20 David Denton (Edinburgh), 21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow), 22 Duncan Weir (Glasgow), 23 Max Evans (Castres).
Italy vs France
Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Sunday 3rd February 2013, 3pm GMT
Two years ago Italy finally beat France in the Six Nations, and with the Italian team undergoing a four year strategy under Jacques Brunel we may get to see another upset this year, but it is very unlikely. The French team of 2013 has consistency of selection and a clean sweep of victories against Australia, Argentina and Samoa in the autumn has given them a foundation to build on – the days of France swinging from glory to disaster seem to have gone.
Brunel’s team have a lot of work to do if they’re to beat France but the pack is now experienced and very reliable. Kristopher Burton had some good games for Italy last year so I’m a little surprised that he’s on the bench. Italy definitely have the personnel to make progress this year but, as always, the fixtures stack up against them – they play Scotland away and although Wales and Ireland travel to Rome it would be a huge upset if either of those teams lost to Italy. The problem with building a team over four years is that while progress in terms of playing style is good at some point you have to start winning matches, and while that may happen in 2014, it’s difficult to see Italy winning any games this year.
France coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has adopted a policy towards his backs that I can only describe as anarchy. He appears to be playing a fullback and a centre on the wing and a winger at fullback. I’d be concerned about this if it weren’t for Saint-Andre’s record and the fact Italy’s traditional emphasis on forward play means opponents could field a back line made up purely of scrum halves and get away with it. The French rugby press is currently showing the early signs of discontent – they’re not happy with the number of foreign players in the Top 14, they think Saint-Andre places too much focus on forward play (they see him as Anglicised) and they have had little resting time before the Six Nations (the Top 14 clubs did not release their international players until after last weekend), but the team seems united – there isn’t the chaos of the Lievremont era.
Italy team to play France: 15 Andrea Masi (Wasps), 14 Giovanbattista Venditti (Zebre), 13 Tommaso Benvenuti (Treviso), 12 Alberto Sgarbi (Treviso), 11 Luke McLean (Treviso), 10 Luciano Orquera (Zevre), 9 Tobias Botes (Treviso); 1 Andrea Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso), 3 Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys (Zebre), 5 Francesco Minto (Treviso), 6 Alessandro Zanni (Treviso), 7 Simone Favaro (Treviso), 8 Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais, capt). Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon (Zebre), 17 Alberto De Marchi (Treviso), 18 Lorenzo Cittadini (Treviso), 19 Antonio Pavanello (Treviso), 20 Paul Derbyshire (Treviso), 21 Edoardo Gori (Treviso), 22 Kristopher Burton (Treviso), 23 Gonzalo Canale (La Rochelle).
France team to play Italy: 15 Yoann Huget (Toulouse), 14 Wesley Fofana (Clermont), 13 Florian Fritz (Toulouse), 12 Maxime Mermoz (Toulon), 11 Benjamin Fall (Racing Metro), 10 Frederic Michalak (Toulon), 9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing Metro); 1 Yannick Forestier (Castre), 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing Metro), 3 Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), 4 Pascal Pape (Stade Francais, capt), 5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier), 7 Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse), 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse). Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser (Clermont), 17 Vincent Debaty (Clermont), 18 Luc Ducalcon (Racing Metro), 19 Romain Taofifenua (Perpignan), 20 Damien Chouly (Clermont), 21 Morgan Parra (Clermont), 22 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), 23 Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon).