The pre-match hype for the clash between Ireland and England and the surprise result, the drama of the record second-half fightback by Wales against France and the three late Italy tries in an otherwise one-sided clash against Scotland does not diminish the fervour that awaits this weekend.
In the second round of the Six Nations Championship, Scotland are at home against Ireland in Saturday’s first match, Wales travel to Rome for the second clash and on Sunday England play France at Twickenham.
SCOTLAND vs IRELAND, Murrayfield, Saturday, 16:15
England, for the past two seasons, have shown that they can no longer be taken lightly, and the disappointed Ireland, rattled and beaten by England’s defence and physicality last weekend, will not feel assured of a win against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.
With Ireland’s defence of the Grand Slam now something of the past, will simply have to prove that they have what it takes against a team that is confident they can turn the 8-28 defeat of last season around.
Ireland will be more physical than last week, even without the injured CJ Stander, and it is unlikely that Jonny Sexton will again be as uncertain in his general play and execution as last weekend.
Or was it simply the England physicality that unsettled him? Scotland will undoubtedly test this possibility.
Ireland will nevertheless go into the match as firm favourites.
15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell. Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 D’arcy Rae, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Ali Price, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Blair Kinghorn.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy. Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
ITALY vs WALES, Rome, Saturday, 18:45
Italy have their moments, but their inconsistency and, quite candidly, their lack of enough players of international standard, trips them up more often than not.
Italy go into the test against a second-string Wales team that shows 11 changes (one positional) from the side that scored the biggest second-half comeback win the competition’s history against France last weekend with 18 straight defeats ‒ a record ‒ in the Six Nations.
Wales, on the other hand, have 10 straight wins behind them and should tie their own test record of 11 wins between 9 March 1907 and 1 January 1910.
Can Italy beat even this weakened Wales side? No. If they do, it will be a great surprise, even a shock, to everyone including themselves.
One says that notwithstanding the near-win against Scotland last year, when they lost 28-29 right at the end.
It should be reasonably easy for Wales to win their second Championship match away from home, which sets them up nicely for the run-in against England, Ireland and Scotland.
15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Braam Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 David Sisi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Nicola Quaglio. Replacements:16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore’, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.
15 Liam Williams; 14 Jonah Holmes, 13 Jonathan Davies (captain), 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Nicky Smith. Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Hallam Amos.
ENGLAND vs FRANCE, Twickenham, Sunday, 17:00
The question is not whether England can beat France in Saturday’s second round of the Six Nations Championship, but rather whether the French can at last break through against one of the top sides after setting the pace in many a match in the past two seasons.
In 2018 their record was blighted by a series of near-misses. It took 41 phases from their own tryline for Ireland plus a monster drop goal by flyhalf Jonny Sexton after full-time to beat France 15-13 in the opening Six Nations match; then followed a seven-point loss to Scotland and a defeat to Wales by a single point. They had the All Blacks stretched on the three-test tour to New Zealand, although the final margins did not do them justice.
France then had one-score losses to the Springboks and Fiji in the year-end tests, and they were 16-0 up against Wales in their first Six Nations match before they self-imploded with silly mistakes after the break to lose a to a record Championship second-half comeback last week.
For France to keep on believing is one thing, to win is something totally different. But England, cock-a-hoop after beating arguably the best team in the word last weekend, will have their work cut out on Sunday when they face France at Twickenham on Sunday (kick-off 17:00).
Complacency could cost them dearly ‒ especially if France fight to the bitter end as they did two years ago when they beat Wales after a full 100 minutes.
There is also considerable interest in the clash of the two macro centres, Mathieu Bastareud (120kg) and England’s Manu Tuilagi (115kg) who both look like and have the strength of props but have more guile and skill in their armoury than the scrum’s strong men.
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 George Kruis, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola. Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Jack Nowell.
15 Yoann Huget, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Félix Lambey, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhelm Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot. Replacements: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Romain Ntamack, 23 Thomas Ramos.