Scotland vs Italy
Saturday 9th February 2013, 2.30pm GMT
Scotland vs Italy has become the wooden spoon encounter but this time it will be taken far more seriously by the other nations and by supporters. Scotland played well against England but their traditional strength, the scrum, was under immense pressure – a major turnaround from the Andy Robinson era when Scotland would expect to match or dominate up front but then fluff the ball once it came out to the backs. Italy have built their reputation on the scrum and now they have the ability to kick drop goals and take point from penalties – this makes them a big danger to any team that is unable to match them up front. I’m going to predict a narrow Scottish victory based on their home advantage but this will be a tight and frustrating match. The front row battle should be a classic but it’s also worth watching for the fullbacks – Masi and Hogg can electrify any game they play in.
Scott Johnson makes two changes to the team that lost to England – Ross Ford for Dougie Hall at hooker and Robert Hartley for Alasdair Strokosch at blindside. The surprisingly poor forward play last week should be boosted by the experience of Ford but the loss of Strokosch is a big blow.
Unsurprisingly Jaques Brunel has made only one change to the team that beat France – Gonzalo Canale for injured Alberto Sgarbi at inside centre. I feel Canale will be more powerful but not as creative as Sgarbi so this could have a big effect on the Italian midfield. Crucially, the forwards and half backs who handled the French so well have not been touched.
Scotland team to play Italy: 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 Ross Ford (Edinburgh), 3 Euan Murray (Worcester), 4 Richie Gray (Sale), 5 Jim Hamilton (Gloucester), 6 Robert Harley (Glasgow), 7 Kelly Brown (Saracens, capt), 8 Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier).
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall (Glasgow), 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 team to play Scotland: 15 Andrea Masi (Wasps), 14 Giovanbattista Venditti (Zebre), 13 Tommaso Benvenuti (Treviso), 12 Gonzalo Canale (Clermont), 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 vs Wales
Stade de France, Paris
Saturday 9th February 2013, 5pm GMT
Last week’s result in the Italy vs France game has thrown the expectation of a big French victory over Wales into doubt but the last time France lost to Italy they hosted Wales in Paris the following week and played them off the park; for this reason there will be very few backing Wales to win and this may work in their favour. The expectation of Welsh victory has plummeted and a change in atmosphere can only be a good thing for a team that has hit an all-time low. It seemed unthinkable a few months ago but this match could be the wooden spoon match and it’s between two World Cup semi finalists. I predict yet another defeat for Wales which will be masked by some periods of excellent play; the talk will, once again, be of positives in defeat.
Phillipe Saint-Andre makes two changes to the team that lost in Rome: Bastareaud for Fritz at outside centre and Jocelin Suta for injured captain Pascale Pape on the second row. Thierry Dusautoir takes over the captaincy and this may be no bad thing as the lack of leadership appeared to be a key factor last weekend. Saint-Andre will have been under pressure to make wholesale changes but appears to have put last week down to a blip rather than a serious change in form.
Rob Howley makes three changes to the side that face Ireland – in-form hooker Richard Hibbard replaces Matthew Rees, the most in-form openside in the northern hemisphere Justin Tipuric replaces Sam Warburton after the latter picked up a shoulder injury in training and the experienced Ryan Jones replaces Aaron Shingler at blindside and takes the captain’s armband. Calls for Paul James and James Hook to start have not been taken up but this is not that surprising given Howley’s reluctance to make changes based on form and performance.
France team to play Wales: 15 Yoann Huget (Toulouse), 14 Wesley Fofana (Clermont), 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), 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 Jocelin Suta (Toulon), 5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier), 7 Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), 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 Florian Fritz (Toulouse).
Wales team to play France: 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 Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), 3 Adam Jones (Ospreys), 4 Andrew Coombs (Dragons), 5 Ian Evans (Ospreys), 6 Ryan Jones (Ospreys, capt), 7 Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), 8 Toby Faletau (Dragons).
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens (Scarlets), 17 Paul James (Bath), 18 Craig Mitchell (Exeter), 19 Lou Reed (C Blues), 20 Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) 21 Lloyd Williams (C Blues), 22 James Hook (Perpignan), 23 Scott Williams (Scarlets).
Ireland vs England
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Sunday 10th February 2013, 3pm GMT
The big one – the likely championship decider which will set up Grand Slam possibilities and the biggest battle for Lions places. This is a tough game to call as Ireland’s speed, efficiency and breakdown play comes up against English confidence and ability to play at a good tempo for the entire 80 minutes. On the face of it you’d have to say this is Ireland’s game to lose – they not only have home advantage, they also have a more creative style which makes them harder to play against. The battles for Lions places are everywhere – the front rows, O’Brien vs Robshaw, Sexton vs Farrell. While Ireland should dominate up front the England team have a habit of making things work well on the day and while Ireland have far smoother back play the England team are generally considered to excel in defence. For England to win they must deny Ireland possession and disrupt their attack – the classic cynical England style of grinding out victories which is a bore to watch but very successful. One factoid of note – in the 10 games between Ireland and England since the 2003 World Cup, England have only won three times, and on every occasion when England won, Brian O’Driscoll has not played.
Declan Kidney has stuck with the exact same lineup that beat Wales last weekend having delayed his team announcement by 48hrs after a handful of injury scares. The Wales match may have been a convincing victory overall but there is no denying the pressure Ireland came under in the second half after Rory Best was sin-binned, so the key to an Ireland victory is going to be maintaining discipline throughout the game and continuing their habit of getting some points on the board every time they get possession.
Stuart Lancaster takes an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality to his team selection, keeping Billy Twelvetrees at inside centre ahead of Manu Tuilagi after Twelvetree’s excellent performance last weekend. With Ben Morgan injured, Lancaster has shifted Tom Wood from blindside to number 8 and brought James Haskell in at blindside; a move that may surprise some given Haskell’s preference for 8 and Wood’s for 6. Thomas Waldrom goes on the bench and Tuilagi takes Strettle’s place – meaning there’s only one dedicated winger (Ashton) in the entire England squad. Except for Youngs at 9 and Twelvetrees at 12 I’m far from convinced by the England backs, but there will be no greater test for them than Ireland.
Ireland team to play England: 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 Mike McCarthy (Connacht), 5 Donnacha Ryan (Munster), 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 Team to play Ireland: 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 James Haskell (Wasps), 7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), 8 Tom Wood (Northampton).
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley (Northampton), 17 David Wilson (Bath), 18 Mako Vunipola (Saracens), 19 Courtney Lawes (Northampton), 20 Thomas Waldrom (Leicester), 21 Danny Care (Harlequins), 22 Toby Flood (Leicester), 23 Manu Tuilagi (Leicester).