Italy vs Wales
Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Saturday 23rd February 2013, 2.30pm GMT
After the first weekend it looked as though Italy vs Wales would be a mouth-watering prospect, but much has happened in the last fortnight to dampen expectations, not least Italy’s loss to the Scots and Wales’s win against the French, but of even more importance is the loss of Sergio Parisse, Italy’s talismanic captain, after a disciplinary hearing where he was cited for being abusive towards a referee. Judge for yourself if you think it was worth the punishment. I’m quite certain of a Welsh victory now, but had you asked me two weeks ago I’d have been far from confident.
There are four changes for Italy, the most critical of which is at number 8 where Parisse is replaced by Fiji-born Manoa Vosawai. Vosawai is no soft replacement, so the Welsh cannot take the breakdown for granted. Elsewhere the half backs Orquera and Botes directly swap the starting team for the bench with Burton and Gori – a combination I rate very highly as Gori has more flare than Botes while Burton is more reliable than Orquera, who had a torrid time against the Scots after a superb performance against the French. Second rower Quintin Geldenhuys is benched and Antonio Pavanello is promoted to the starting lineup. Martin Castrogiovanni takes the captaincy.
Rob Howley named his team over a week ago to give a vote of confidence to the starting XV from the France game. This was good news for the Welsh team who need to build on their success in Paris with a solid victory in Rome, although it does leave the slightly bizarre situation of two of Wales’s star players returning from injury to find themselves on the bench – Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton. Both will have to play their hearts out to get back into the starting lineup.
Italy team to play Wales: 15 Andrea Masi (Wasps), 14 Giovanbattista Venditti (Zebre), 13 Tommaso Benvenuti (Treviso), 12 Gonzalo Canale (Clermont), 11 Luke McLean (Treviso), 10 Kristopher Burton (Treviso), 9 Edoardo Gori (Treviso); 1 Andrea Lo Cicero (Racing Metro), 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso), 3 Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester, capt), 4 Antonio Pavanello (Treviso), 5 Francesco Minto (Treviso), 6 Alessandro Zanni (Treviso), 7 Simone Favaro (Treviso), 8 Manoa Vosawai (Treviso).
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon (Zebre), 17 Alberto De Marchi (Treviso), 18 Lorenzo Cittadini (Treviso), 19 Quintin Geldenhuys (Zebre), 20 Paul Derbyshire (Treviso), 21 Tobias Botes (Treviso), 22 Luciano Orquera (Zevre), 23 Gonzalo Garcia (Zebre).
Wales team to play Italy: 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 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), 20 Sam Warburton (C Blues), 21 Lloyd Williams (C Blues), 22 James Hook (Perpignan), 23 Scott Williams (Scarlets).
England vs France
Twickenham Stadium, London
Saturday 23rd February 2013, 5pm GMT
England vs France games usually go like this: we gets lots of hype, BBC commentators declare this game “the decider”, England win. Since the start of the Six Nations in 2000, England have only lost to the French at Twickenham once – by a single point in 2005. It hasn’t even been historically close – an England win against the French at Twickenham in the Six Nations sees an average England win of 15.4 points. This year we’ll have the same hype, but the public are starting to realise that against France, England have made Twickenham something of a fortress – they simply do not fear the French, even when France have been a far better team than they are now and England have been on a losing streak. It won’t change this year – France will be better than they have been but England should sail past them regardless. The bookies have England as very clear favourites, I agree, and Phillipe Saint-Andre will be lucky to end the weekend still in post.
Stuart Lancaster makes three personnel changes from the Ireland game and one positional change. Brad Barritt switches from outside to inside centre, Manu Tuilagi goes to outside centre while Billy Twelvetrees, one of the players of the championship thus far, is benched. I don’t really see any merit in these changes given the way Twelvetrees has performed though it does allow Lancaster to test his strength in depth. Surprisingly Mike Brown stays on the wing and Alex Goode at fullback, shutting the door to other wingers and Ben Foden. Dylan Hartley starts ahead of Tom Youngs, a good move given the shambles at the lineout and Coutney Lawes goes to openside ahead of James Haskell which gives England more lineout options. I’m sure that some commentators will say breaking up a winning team to play France is a sign of confidence but I remain sceptical about the backs. When Twelvetrees off and Tuilagi on is the answer, one has to wonder what the question was.
“Finally, stability in selection” was the mantra that made us all so confident of French success prior to this championship, but Phillipe Saint-Andre has come to realise that changes do have to be made after two successive defeats. No fewer than seven personnel changes and one positional change make this a French team so different to last time that Stuart Lancaster must be licking his lips in anticipation but quietly worry that he is effectively up against an unknown team. Wesley Fofana switches from the wing to his more-suited inside centre position which sets up a nice clash in midfield against Tuilagi and Barritt. Vincent Clerc returns to the wing and Maxime Mermoz is dropped. It’s all-change for the half backs as Trinh-Duc and Parra replace Michalak and Machenaud. The front row, which didn’t have the best of times against the Welsh, sees loosehead Yannick Forestier dropped and hooker Dimitri Szarzewski benched with Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser starting. A surprise on the second row as Jocelin Suta is benched in favour of Christophe Samson, a late call-up to the squad, and Romain Taofifenua is dropped from the bench. The back row sees a similar surprise as blindside Fulgence Ouedraogo is dropped along with back row replacement Damien Chouly to be replaced by Yannick Nyanga with Antonie Claassen on the bench. Claassen was born in South Africa and will get his first cap if he comes on – a controversial selection in the French press.
England Team to play France: 15 Alex Goode (Saracens), 14 Chris Ashton (Saracens), 13 Manu Tuilagi (Leicester), 12 Brad Barritt (Saracens), 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 Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester).
France team to play England: 15 Yoann Huget (Toulouse), 14 Vincent Clerc (Toulouse), 13 Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon), 12 Wesley Fofana (Clermont), 11 Benjamin Fall (Racing Metro), 10 François Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), 9 Morgan Parra (Clermont); 1 Thomas Domingo (Clermont), 2 Benjamin Kayser (Clermont), 3 Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), 4 Christophe Samson (Castres), 5 Yoann Maestri (Toulouse), 6 Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), 7 Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), 8 Louis Picamoles (Toulouse).
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski (Racing Metro), 17 Vincent Debaty (Clermont), 18 Luc Ducalcon (Racing Metro), 19 Jocelin Suta (Toulon), 20 Antonie Claassen (Castres), 21 Maxime Machenaud (Racing Metro), 22 Frederic Michalak (Toulon), 23 Florian Fritz (Toulouse).
Scotland vs Ireland
Sunday 24th February 2013, 2pm GMT
This century Ireland have only lost to Scotland twice in the Six Nations, in 2001 and 2010, and it’s fair to say that this has become a game where it’s fair to expect an Ireland win, so it’s with some confidence in the improvement in the Scottish team that this is all set to be the nail biter of the weekend. Based on performances so far the contest between the forwards should be quite even but it’s the back play that will show us which team is growing – and the contest between the fullbacks Rob Kearney and Stuart Hogg, could really stir up Lions selections, with Kearney yet to hit full power and Hogg being one of the star men of the championship thus far. I’m going to go against the bookies on this one and tip Scotland for a victory – they have home advantage, confidence after beating Italy and Ireland’s forced changes could make it difficult for them to develop a coherent style of play which gives the Scots something to target and exploit.
After a comprehensive victory against Italy, Scott Johnson has stuck to the same team with the exception of Euan Murray (who does not play on Sunday for religious reasons). The loss of Murray is always a big blow to Scotland as he is one of the best scrummagers in rugby but with Ireland loosehead Cian Healy suspended there is no reason why Scotland cannot compensate for the loss of Murray.
The Ireland team has been devastated by injuries following the loss to England in Dublin and with Cian Healy’s suspension there are several changes. Tom Court comes in for Healy and Donncha O’Callaghan replaces Mike McCarthy on the second row with Devin Toner and Iain Henderson starting on the bench. Among the backs there’s little surprise at Keith Earls replacing Simon Zebo on the wing and Luke Fitzgerald starting on the bench but the big surprise is two new caps for Ulstermen as Paddy Jackson replaces Jonny Sexton at fly half and Luke Marshall replaces Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre. Both players have been in-form for their province but Declan Kidney is not known for radical changes and many would have assumed that Ronan O’Gara and Fergus McFadden would have started.
Scotland team to play Ireland: 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 Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), 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 Jon Welsh (Glasgow), 18 Moray Low (Glasgow), 19 Alastair Kellock (Glasgow), 20 David Denton (Edinburgh), 21 Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow), 22 Duncan Weir (Glasgow), 23 Max Evans (Castres).
Ireland team to play Scotland: 15 Rob Kearney (Leinster), 14 Craig Gilroy (Ulster), 13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster), 12 Luke Marshall (Ulster), 11 Keith Earls (Munster), 10 Paddy Jackson (Ulster), 9 Conor Murray (Munster); 1 Tom Court (Ulster), 2 Rory Best (Ulster), 3 Mike Ross (Leinster), 4 Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster), 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 Devin Toner (Leinster), 20 Iain Henderson (Ulster), 21 Eoin Reddan (Leinster), 22 Ronan O’Gara (Munster), 23 Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster).