James Harrington, one half of Black Mountain Editorial, takes time out to contemplate another love of his life
– rugby – and does his best to predict the winners of this weekend’s Six Nations matches
Who would have thought, when the Six Nations kicked off earlier this month, that we’d come into the third round of matches with France at the bottom of the pile, having lost both their opening games?
Italy outfought, outpaced and outplayed a sluggish French side on the first weekend, but the bigger shock came a week later in Paris. Everyone expected a Bleus backlash, an irresistible display of flair-filled running rugby that would have left Wales with a 100 percent imperfect record after two games.
Instead, if it’s possible, Les Bleus played worse than they did in Rome, while the Welsh – who only kicked off their own tournament in the second half of their opening match against Ireland – were inspired.
It has all left pundits, rugby journos and fans scratching their heads. How could a side that boasts so much talent play so badly? Not even the ‘mercurial French’ cliche can possibly account for two performances so abject they registered on the Richter scale.
Perhaps more importantly, that first victory in Paris since 2005 was a vindication of Wales interim head coach Rob Howley, who’s in charge of the team while Warren Gatland is on Lions’ duty.
His men were still singing the national anthem when Ireland ran in the first of three first-half tries at the Millennium Stadium, and were unable to pull back a 27-point deficit after 42 minutes, despite pounding the Irish line for much of the second period.
Zebo’s insane boot flip apart, once again, the Irish owed a huge debt of gratitude to Brian O’Driscoll, who turned a two-on-three into a three-on-me and still managed to offload in the tackle to Simon Zebo, who cantered in unopposed to score as the men in green threatened to run riot while the Welsh dragons were still clearing their throats.
A DIFFERENT GAME
Ireland’s second match – against England at the Aviva – was different again. Where the first weekend was a joyous celebration of running, attacking rugby, a downpour in Dublin meant for a war of attrition between two sides in a match that was rather cheekily being billed as a Championship decider.
Stuart Lancaster’s rejuvenated England demonstrated nous beyond their years as they out-thought the Irish in the three-quarters and outmuscled them in the forwards. Scrum half Ben Youngs, in particular, will look back on that game with pride, as it showed just how far he’d come since his nightmare here two years earlier.
That victory left the red rose nation as the only one in with a shout of a Grand Slam, not to mention a Triple Crown. They opened their account with a pretty comprehensive mauling of Scotland at Twickenham, and – given their shocking start to the tournament – should have nothing to fear from the French at Headquarters this weekend. That said, this will be a very different French side, after coach Philippe Saint-Andre made seven changes and promised that his new-look side would be: ‘courageous, audacious, unpredictable’. Typically French, in other words.
Scotland, meanwhile, after their Calcutta Cup disappointment, will want to build on a record Six Nations win over Italy at Murrayfield last time out when they face Ireland in Edinburgh on Sunday. They’ll be aware, however, that the Irish – even without Simon Zebo, who was injured in Dublin – still have arguably the best back division in the competition. That battered old talisman O’Driscoll, in particular, is enjoying his best tournament for years.
Which just leaves the first match of the weekend Italy v Wales in Rome. Both teams come into the game with one win from two – but the odds have to be in favour of the visitors, as the Azurri could well take to the field without their inspirational captain Sergio Parissi, who has been banned for 30 days for insulting a match official during a Top 14 game for club side Stade Francais.
So, England, Ireland and Wales to win on this third weekend seems a reasonable bet to us, but this Six Nations has already proved that prediction is a very dangerous game to play…