Six Nations just starting to sizzle
February 11, 2010
Will France's Mathieu Bastareaud steal the headlines again this weekend? © Getty Images
With the Six Nations now underway, many will now be either changing their pre-tournament predictions or saying 'I told you so' based on the first round, but for me it's not quite that simple.
Before the tournament I wouldn't be drawn on a definite prediction, as I felt the competition was too tight to call with too many unknowns, and not much has changed after the first week. You can accuse me of sitting on the fence, but I don't think those three games have told us too much about how things will go, but there might be a far clearer picture after this weekend. Looking at last week's games, I think it gives you an idea of how the teams are shaping up, but no one looked like they were streets ahead of anybody else.
England will be more than happy with their victory, and whilst the performance wasn't one that was filled with attacking spark from all over the pitch, they did what needed to be done. I felt afterwards that if the same performance had come from a team that was settled and recognised to be in good form, such as a the southern hemisphere teams, then they would have received more credit for the victory. As it is England will at least have to go beyond that level this weekend to win over more of the press and even some supporters, which will be no easy task against Italy.
The Italians showed against Ireland that they can make thing difficult for all the teams, and whilst I don't think they'll record a win this year, they certainly won't give games away easily. When they pulled the Irish into a physical battle, particularly in the second half, they strangled the game, and despite the pride in the English pack, I think the best route to a more convincing win lies in moving the Italian forwards around, and not engaging them head on in the back line.
Wales will be disappointed with last week, but there will still signs that they can be a very dangerous side. There was a willingness to attack throughout the game, and they'll need to keep that to recapture their form from a couple of years ago. These are largely the same players from that team, so the quality is undoubtedly there, and I think it will take a couple of players to put in real star performances for the rest of the team to rally around to bring them straight back into serious contention.
That will be no easy task against Scotland, and even more so as the roof is to remain open with a weather forecast that isn't good. I do think it should be closed as it would make conditions easier, and if the ability to do that were there I would want to use it. That said, I have no problem with Andy Robinson electing not to. As he said himself, the rules allow him to choose, he's chosen not to and that's the end of it. Maybe Wales need to look into being able to make the decision their own.
Regardless, Scotland will go to Cardiff looking to improve on dogged performance against the French. Whilst their defence and physicality are both strong, they aren't scoring tries, and although they can rely on individual players to make a few breaks, the team needs to follow these opportunities up and convert them into points.
I imagine the French will be the team that are happiest with their opening weekend. They looked relatively comfortable against Scotland, often snuffing out Scottish attacks with turnovers, and looking dangerous on the attack. A lot has been made in recent weeks about the size of rugby players, and how supposedly size is replacing skill and many have pointed to Mathieu Bastareaud as an example. I have argued that whilst there is no denying the increased size of players and its affect on the game, the idea of it replacing skill is rubbish, and enjoyed watching Bastareaud's second try, where he didn't need his 18 stone bulk to score, but rather a good running line, the ball in two hands and a well timed dummy to cross the line.
France will take the momentum a solid opening win gives you into the biggest match of the second round, hosting Ireland at the Stade de France. Ireland will not be too worried by the stuttering nature of their win over Italy, as they did what needed to be done, but if they are the repeat the Grand Slam, they will have to be prepared to go far further against the French.
So, as I prepare to hop down and remove the splinters from the fence from my behind, I will make some half-hearted predictions. England will beat Italy, but the manner of their victory will show if they are serious contenders or not and the winner of Wales v Scotland will go on to derail one of the other sides title hopes. I can't make my mind up on the France v Ireland game, but I will say that regardless of who wins, I don't think any team will win the Grand Slam this year. Of course I'd love for someone (preferably England) to prove me wrong.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
The Wallabies showed flair in Dublin, but they still have a way to go if they are to do more than make up the numbers at the World Cup, writes Greg Growden
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales' lessons to learn in defeat by New Zealand are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards