50 hours from now, we'll have a pretty decent idea who'll be winning the 2013 Six Nations - and whether Declan Kidney will be leading Ireland into the 2015 World Cup. To do the occasion justice, we enlisted our Rugby Nerds to preview the weekend's big action.
Paddy Logan surveys the battlelines between Ireland and England.
There’s been an enormous amount of chat about the scrum this week, which is understandable given last year’s horror show at Twickenham. Regrettably we can all recall the torture of watching the unfortunate Tom Court being bent into all sorts of unnatural positions by Corbisiero. Since then there has been untold wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Irish tighthead crisis, which has become more agitated since we discovered that Michael Bent was more Borlase than Afoa.
So as England pack their bags at Pennyhill Park for their trip to the Aviva on Sunday, should we be concerned? Well, yes but not because of the scrum.
The front rows last year were identical to those that squared up to each other in Dublin the year before. It was my first visit to Aviva, and I recall the trepidation as the packs set themselves for the first scrum in the Ireland 22. The English 8 were well regarded and fancied to do a number against Ireland, but we got the shove on and the crowd went wild. It was a fantastic moment, which propelled Ireland to their comfortable 24-8 victory.
Last year, Mike Ross was clearly hurt at the first scrum and struggled on for another half an hour before Deccie was forced to go with TC. Props who can perform at international level on either side of the scrum are even rarer than Irish qualified tightheads, and I remain convinced that if the tables had been reversed and England had brought the penalty machine that is Matt Stevens on for Cole, the result would have been very different.
So I don’t see a repeat of last year’s scrum debacle, but it will be tough. This England side, whilst still unspectacular, is definitely improving. The result against New Zealand may have been the result of an untimely bout of the winter vomiting virus, but it was impressive nonetheless and in their comfortable victory over Scotland, they rarely looked stretched.
I am hugely impressed by Stuart Lancaster. He has built this team from the ground up, and made some fairly audacious selections that have, on the whole, paid off. He has backed Joe Launchbury, who looks like the leading contender for Lions bolter, and stuck with Tom Youngs after Dylan Hartley recovered from a knee injury. Both have rewarded his faith. Last week, he eschewed the conservative option to pick Flood and Farrell, and went with ‘36’ who produced an excellent debut that suggests he’s much happier at Kingsholm than Welford Road, where he had the look of a journeyman.
Lancaster’s team has always been big and physical, but last weekend we saw signs that they are now highly organised, and playing much more with their heads up. They weren’t as clinical or silky as Ireland were in their first half against Wales, but they are considerably better than they have been for some time while developing a dangerous off-loading game. They have real depth and will be able to call on the likes of Care, Flood, Lawes and Hartley which will really test the Irish stamina. Their only change is forced upon them with Haskell coming at Flanker and Tom Wood taking Ben Morgan’s place.
The Ireland camp appears to be in high spirits after their excellent win in Cardiff. Having completed an extraordinary 200 tackles against some massive units in the Millennium Stadium, let’s hope that a week at Carton House will restore them to full fitness. Happily our prayers have been answered and D’Arcy will start, as I really don’t fancy Earls at 13. In my opinion, his defence is much better than many make out. He’s a great winger and is capable of beating people in traffic, but his distribution is not of the required standard for a centre.
Ross is also fit and O’Mahony will be available after following the IRB’s return-to-play guidelines (which don’t seem that demanding to me) so we can expect an unchanged 15. Personally, I’d have SOB at 6 with Henry at 7, but given O’Mahony’s performance on Saturday, it would be harsh to drop him.
I have issues with Kidney’s bench though. Henderson is an exciting and dynamic ball carrier, and could offer an impact off the bench that the highly dependable DOC wouldn’t. I’d also like to see Lukey Fitz in for Earls, as I think he is a much better all-round footballer. Finally, I think that PJ should shine the pine instead of ROG. He might not be as sound off the tee, but at least he can be relied upon to tackle strongly. No doubt the great man will make a complete fool of me by coming on to win the game: I really hope so.
As the great Jeff Probyn said on Newstalk’s fabulous Off the Ball this week, this game has the look of a final trial for the Lions tour. Here are some of the key battles:
Hooker: Best v Hartley. In recent outings it’s been a walkover for Rory. Hartley starts on the bench, which won't help his Lions chances/
Lock: Ryan/McCarthy v Launchbury/Parling. Many pundits are now opting for the England 2nd row to form the engine room for the Lions. Both are extremely mobile and highly proficient in the lineout. Ryan and McCarthy are highly effective ruckers and magnificent in defence. It will be really close but I fear that the English pair might shade it.
Openside: SOB v Robshaw. Robshaw carries a lot and is very secure, but rarely makes many yards. He’s also competent at the breakdown but not spectacular. The Tullow Tank looks back to his best, which is awesome. SOB
Stand-off: Sexton v Farrell: off the tee and out of hand they are both close to perfect. Both excellent in defence too. In attack, it’s no contest, despite Farrell’s floaty pass last week. Sexton the Lions starter, Farrell on the bench.
Outside Centre: BOD v Manu. Tuilagi was immense against New Zealand but has looked a bit of a one trick pony in the past. BOD is a genius and a born leader. He will have his hands full whenever the huge Samoan comes in but he’s on a mission this season and I fancy him to win this one. If he does, I reckon he’ll be Gatland’s captain.
The result? It will be a belter and I agree with GT that there will only be one score in it. If Ireland can replicate the accuracy and intensity of the first 45 minutes against Wales, and refrain from kicking the ball away, they will win.
Ronan Murphy looks at the weekend's major talking points
Come Sunday evening there'll be just one country standing (yes I am writing off Italy's Grand Slam chances, even if they win). I said before the tournament started that I didn't think there'd be a Grand Slam this season and I'm still of that opinion. If Ireland win, they still have to take on the French and a serious mental block. If England win, the French and and trip to Cardiff lie in wait. The game is far too close to call. Both sides have form and momentum. Ireland have the more established and experienced leadership contingent but England are developing all the time. Home advantage may swing it in Irelands favour.
England have won consecutive games so Owen Farrell is the worlds best outhalf. The English media may proclaim the young pretender is closing in on Johnny Sexton but it seems a bit premature to be equating the 20 year old with a 3 time HCup champion just yet. Farrell is a high percentage kicker with a cool head but his distribution needs works (one loopy pass does not a distributor make) and poses very little running threat. Having a playmaker outside him like Twelvetrees is a big help to Farrell. We all know what Sexton brings at this stage (and how much it costs) and the Lions No 10 jersey is his to lose.
Centres of Excellence?
There's been a lot of talk this week about the 12 and 13 shirts across the competition. In Ireland we've been marveling at the heroics of BOD. In England, the return to fitness of Manu Tuilagi left Stuart Lancaster with a dilemma; stick or twist. By retaining the Twelvetrees/Barritt partnership, England keep the continuity going and allow a pretty big impact from the bench. Barritt is the defensive leader and Twelvetrees' playmaking takes the pressure off Farrell. But Barritt doesn't pose a huge threat at 13 and facing Scottish centres isn't much preparation for the D'Arcy/BOD axis (approaching it's 50th test runout) either offensively or defensively.
In Paris Mattheau Basteraud's 18st comes into the centre against the Welsh pair Roberts/Davies. Boshtastic.
After the France and Wales clash one country will be back on track while the other will be staring at a genuine Six Nations disaster. It seemed unlikely this time last week that both of these teams would be in such dire need of a win in only the second weekend. France appeared to have moved on in November but had a massive setback in Rome. Lax in defense and often pedestrian in attack, they seemed to take Italy lightly and suffered an emphatic backlash from an inspired team.
Wales are in a particularly curious position. With Rob Howley temporarily in change, they can't change their coach because, well, he's not their coach. Injury has been a good selector this weekend bringing in Tipuric, one of their only in form players and someone who hasn't been tainted by the losing streak.
Backing It Up
Italy had a magnificent win against the French last Sunday. They were skilful and accurate and Luciano Orquera played the game of his life to guide them through. Italy have only managed to win two games in a Six Nations season on one occasion, so backing that win up with another in Murrayfield would be a huge step forward for them. Scotland, meanwhile, were fairly easily outclassed by England and will be keen to avoid the trap France fell into of taking the Italians lightly. The Scots and Italians have claimed all bar one of the Six Nations wooden spoons and this hasn't been a fixture to illuminate Test rugby. If Italy continue to embrace the style of Jacques Brunel and Scotland can release their back three, this could be the most entertaining Wooden Spoon clash ever seen.
Andy McGeady looks at the stats to see if Stuart Lancaster made a fatal mistake in starting 36 over Manu
England will retain their centre partnership of Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees for the match on Sunday afternoon against Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
Stuart Lancaster has opted to use Manu Tuilagi from the bench on Sunday, joining a formidable second wave of England power that includes Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley.
In their opening match against Scotland both Barritt and Twelvetrees acquitted themselves well with the debutante notching up a try and 78 metres with ball in hand on the day.
Manu Tuilagi had been a human metre-muncher in the Autumn internationals, carrying the ball a massive 42 times at an average of 7.5m per carry. In opting to leave Tuilagi out, what sacrifices might Lancaster have made? And what advantages does his new centre partnership potentially provide?
In his 17 test appearances, Tuilagi has been used in a very straightforward way. He runs about three quarters of the time and he does it well, making 6.6m per carry. He almost never kicks, having put boot to ball just three times in those 17 international games.
Looking at all England international matches since June 2008*, there have been 94 centre performances in an England shirt. Tuilagi's tackle success rate is a decent 87% but it's a tick below the 90% of all other England centres in that time.
* excludes 13/06/09 tour match in Argentina for which data was unavailable
Billy Twelvetrees' first cap performance was thrilling, almost Tuilagi-esque. He ran 73% of ball at 4.9m per carry and didn't kick the ball once. Looking at one cap in isolation can't tell us a huge amount about a player; looking at the thirteen Aviva Premiership games Twelvetrees has played this season might tell us more. The odd thing about his England debut was that it was very much at odds with how he has played centre for Gloucester this season.
Regular watchers of English top flight rugby will know that Billy Twelvetrees demonstrates many more dimensions to his play than the running merchant seen last weekend. The stats back this up; in league play Twelvetrees kicked 13% of ball and ran just 51%; a far cry from the 0% and 73% of last Saturday.
In contrast, Tuilagi is the very same player for club and country. This season in 12 Premiership and Heineken Cup matches Tuilagi has demonstrated the same skills that he shows on the international stage: kicking seldom, running often and a good rate. His club defence has been poor this season, succeeding in just 78% of tackles. This
defensive flaw was also seen in the Autumn internationals where he had just an 81% success rate.
Brad Barritt, in contrast, is a tackling machine. In 13 Premiership and Heineken Cup matches this season he's missed just four of 92 attempts for a 96% tackle rate. He backed this up in the Autumn with a 93% rate, missing fewer tackles than Tuilagi in over double the number of attempts.
So what of Sunday?
Well the Billy Twelvetrees who played in Twickenham is not the real Billy Twelvetrees; he played more like Manu Tuilagi.
In that vein, it's far more likely that the young Gloucester man will exercise his kicking boot more often than the zero times he did so last Saturday. This is especially likely given Lancaster's decision to explicitly omit such a powerful runner as Tuilagi; perhaps seeing how well Ireland coped with the huge Welsh runners in the second half at the Millenium stadium, Stuart Lancaster has opted for a more creative approach.
Defensively, the partnership is potentially more sound than any involving Tuilagi, who has been somewhat porous this season. But he poses great danger for Ireland if he comes off the bench in the second half.
Gordon D'Arcy has struggled with fitness this week. If he should come off he'd be replaced by Keith Earls; the Munsterman has also struggled to shrug off an injury and was responsible for an awful missed tackle last week in Wales. Both Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo made highlight-reel hits on Leigh Halfpenny and Aaron Shingler
respectively, but both were also responsible for missing half their tackles on the day.
After an hour of Barritt and Twelvetrees absorbing Irish midfield pressure, with Twelvetrees assisting fly-half Owen Farrell in the tactical kicking game, a fresh and fired-up Tuilagi could come into the fray and cause chaos in the Irish ranks. And that's what Stuart Lancaster might be hoping will happen on Sunday.
Gavin Grace looks at what's at stake for Ireland coach Declan Kidney
Week two of the Six Nations, and we've already hit the biggest game of the competition. Don't you love how the media and fans can combine to make a big match become a gigantic encounter?
Sunday's winners, some claim, will be in pole position for the Grand Slam and already have one hand on the Championship trophy. Yet inside the camp, that's not the train of thought. Speaking to one former Ireland international this week, and putting to him this widely held belief, I was put firmly in my place. This tournament has a long way to go, and Scotland, France and Italy will all pose difficult tests of varying degrees and in their own ways. Take it one game at a time may be an old sporting cliché, but that is the approach this team will take.
It's also the approach of the coach. Declan Kidney hasn't silenced his doubters with last weekend's win in Wales, but he has turned shouts of disapproval into murmurs, for now. Strong defence and a blistering attack were both in evidence at different times in Cardiff, and in my eye there was no doubting that this was a team that was fully committed to the green shirt and to the man who put them there. It's a largely young Ireland team, but they have done well so far. This Sunday though is another test.
Lansdowne Road Mk II may be home, and it will be a cauldron of noise and sea of green on Sunday afternoon. The Irishmen will have the groundswell of support, but nonetheless it is an environment which poses its own challenges. Their opponents will do the same. Nine of the likely starting Ireland XV, including the entire front row, started this corresponding fixture last year. One of the most dominant scrums you're ever likely to see directly led to 27 points for Stuart Lancaster's men - they won 30-9. The pack is far from England's only strengths, but if they're on top again on Sunday, then the middle of the Aviva pitch, surrounded by nearly 50,000 of their countrymen, could be a lonely place for Ireland's players.
It could also be a difficult situation for their coach. Yes, the focus is not on Declan Kidney's future, but a bad loss will change that quickly. A 30-9 demolition will bring his posterior ever closer to Mick McCarthy's bacon slicer. If things went only slightly differently last weekend, then that would already be the case. If Zebo's flick dropped to ground, or if Wales punished O'Driscoll's poor box kick or if some of the nigh-on 100 tackles in the second half didn't go as well, then Ireland could have easily lost. That is how fine margins can be in this sport.
A loss Sunday does not mean that Declan Kidney is out of a job, even if a bad one as per last March would not help the situation. And though I'm reliably informed that a win doesn't make a Championship more likely than not, there is one long-term consequence from the result all Irish fans want - the affable Kidney signing on the dotted line on a new deal in the weeks ahead. To get that he needs his young charges to perform in a difficult situation once more, but they've done it once aleady and I'm hopeful they'll do it again. I just wish I could say I were confident too.