France and Ireland's Grand Slam aspirations are on the line.
France's Friday night collision with Wales in Cardiff is set to be quite a test of their credentials while Joe Schmidt is busy telling the rugby world that England at Twickenham represents the severest barrier to dreams of a Grand Slam in his first year in charge.
He is probably right. England are definitely improving. Stuart Lancaster's team are playing with greater tempo and, with the extra zip to their game, are getting onto the gain line with far more frequency. Owen Farrell has played with some degree of threat on that line while looking tentative controlling a game from deep.
Where he plays will be crucial to the result. If he drops deep Ireland will have succeeded in slowing England down. If the pace of the home side's game is checked the chances of Danny Care being as effective as he has for the first two games diminishes and with it the improving England game.
Paul O'Connell is playing some superb stuff, bringing all his test match experience to bear. He faces Courtney Lawes, who is fulfilling his potential as the finest English second row since Martin Johnson.
Quotes of the week
The Irish coach has a reputation for assembling teams with great passing skills. He did it when backs coach at Clermont Auvergne and he did it with spectacular success at Leinster. But Schmidt's greatest asset is his capacity to cover every angle of a game. If Ireland need to keep it tight, drive some lineouts and apply their trademark choke tackle so they will.
Their first two games have been dominated by the capacity of the forwards to control the flow and speed of possession and their excellent half-backs to put them in the right place with the boot. In contrast, England's attacking game has been the sharp and inventive element of greatest note. On Saturday they will need to roll up their sleeves and fight for every bit of quick ball against an experienced Ireland pack. If they manage this, Ireland will possibly send Jonny Sexton flatter and introduce that exquisite passing game rather more than we have seen to date.
So much for the light and shade; the personal confrontations are fascinating. Ireland will hope for an injury-free week and afternoon for Cian Healy. The loose head is playing just about as well as anyone in Europe at the moment. His usual excellence in the loose is being matched by an added edge in the tight. A fit Dan Cole might have struggled, and presumably it will be Bath's Davey Wilson tasked with shouldering the critical burden of guaranteeing a solid England scrum.
At hooker Dylan Hartley and Rory Best will be doing their part to influence the front-row battle. Both men are in fine form with Hartley, in particular, bordering now on world class. He might need to be because Best has left his Lions malaise well and truly behind him.
Behind them is arguably the most compelling clash of them all. Paul O'Connell is playing some superb stuff, bringing all his test match experience to bear. He faces Courtney Lawes, who is fulfilling his potential as the finest English second row since Martin Johnson. The Saint has the edge in dynamism, the Munster man the know-how. Their battle alone will be worth the heady Twickenham ticket prices.
Behind the scrum Conor Murray's power and growing maturity meets the razor sharp and also maturing game of Care while Sexton seeks to show Farrell that the master/apprentice relationship of the Lions remains the same. Beyond them in the backs there is another clash of the ages with the venerable Brian O'Driscoll bringing all his tricks and defensive wiles to London to combat the raw power of Luther Burrell. Behind them all Mike Brown and Rob Kearney are two of the best full-backs around.Sexton, in particular, given the right platform, is bound to test the inexperience of the exciting English wings which means Brown will be busier than usual - and that is normally worker bee busy. England are improving, physically powerful around the park and at Twickenham. Ireland are more experienced, the form team in the tournament to date and have fewer seeming match-losing weaknesses.
Don't write off Wales
On Friday Wales must bounce back from their drubbing at Irish hands. They did it last season, not losing after Ireland won in Cardiff on the opening day. I would not be in any hurry to write off Wales. They have plenty of power and are a determination to deliver a performance in front of what is always a wonderful home crowd. There are signs of ageing and worries ahead with the World Cup looming but this team has a performance in them this week, if not next year.
Mike Phillips needs to find the game he brought to Cardiff against England while Sam Warburton and Warren Gatland will be desperately hoping that an extra match at the weekend for the Blues will have stripped the captain fitter after being comprehensively outpointed by the Ireland back row.
I travel to Cardiff on Friday with high hopes of seeing George North tearing into France. I would love to see him still on the wing but with the power obsession of Wales's management it is likely that he will play 13 in the absence of Scott Williams and James Hook will remain on the bench. It was not so many years ago Hook cut open England from 13 but he is out of favour and coaches are like teachers, remembering and forgetting what they want.
France will have to remember to play at some sort of pace. For ten minutes against Italy they were electric, for seventy a funereal. They were a threat to England when the pace of their game was raised but more often than not they have dropped the tempo required to bring an exciting set of backs into play. France have a big pack but it is a lumpy one and Wales will back themselves to move it around, keep the ball in play and run them off their feet - aka 'Gatland-ball'.
Less dramatic but no less important for the teams involved, the likely battle for the Wooden Spoon will be fought out in Rome between Italy and Scotland. On a form line Italy are clear favourites. They played well against Wales and were able to go toe-to-toe with France for most of the game in Paris. Scotland, in contrast, were hammered by both Ireland and England.
Scotland may have played the best two teams in the tournament, however, which makes the form line a less simplistic reading. I would love to see Stuart Hogg in full flight as he has been in years past against Italy but in a weekend where results are not easy, I venture from the fence just the once in this column to tip Italy to win.
Stuart answers your emails...
Got a question for Stuart? Email him at email@example.com or use the feedback form below...
Stuart, Do you think Sam Burgess has any chance of breaking into the England squad ahead of the World Cup, as he says he wants to? I just can't see it. Where would he even fit into the Bath backline? And if the reports are right, what do you make of the RFU's policy of putting up the cash for a Premiership team to sign a player such as him - surely unfair on the rest of the Prem sides? Thanks.
STUART REPLIES: Phil, forget the back row... it is centre or nowhere as far as 2015 goes. Having said that it would be hard on Kyle Eastmond if Bath dropped a fast improving ex-league man for another of a very different style, they could actually be a tasty partnership in time. As for Bath being funded, I think my old club has quite enough money but the RFU would clearly like some degree of control over Burgess. On a slightly different subject, if this deal goes through it further illustrates the gap growing between the rich clubs and the rest.....
Stuart, do you think Ireland's lineout and maul can be as effective against England and the thoughtful planning of the English coaching team?
STUART REPLIES: John, maybe it will, maybe it won't. The key for Ireland (and any smart attack) is to keep England guessing. Maybe they won't even attack through the lineout, rather commit England's pack with the threat and play Sexton on and over the gain line. This is a right old game of chess ahead of us.
Hi Stuart, at what point do you think Tom Young's throwing into the lineout becomes a real issue and the coaches think of dropping him from the matchday squad? And can England win the Six Nations now Dan Cole has been ruled out?
STUART REPLIES: England can win the Six Nations with or without Cole, the title is in their own and Welsh hands. As for TY I think he is lucky to stay ahead of Rob Webber on the bench because his set-piece work has let England down at crucial moments. I would keep Hartley on for 80 if his legs and lungs take him all the way at Twickenham.
Hi Stuart, the French press over here are waxing lyrically about France winning the Grand Slam (and they might), but after watching their first two games they really seems to be no game plan, or leadership. Individual performances (Fofana, Nyanga) are one thing but they seem lacking in any collective creativity and go forward...any thoughts?
STUART REPLIES: I am not yet impressed. Much more is needed on Friday.
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Bryn Mullett says...
Still seething,hope England put those paddys were they belong.
Posted 21:25 19th February 2014
Ben Southcombe says...
Healy is not as good as Corbs simply put. He is performing well and i do like him but he just is not as good as Corbs at his number 1 jobs. Corbs being injured is a huge blow especially coupled together with Cole being injured ( not that i rate him as highly as i used, seems to have gone off the boil ). Packs will be fiercely competitive, backs will be interesting as i cant see our centres matching BOD still! Goode should not be in the squad, nor Dickson. Youngs and Watson/ Eastmond should ( Kyle has the pace and footwork to play wing with ease )
Posted 09:49 19th February 2014
David Short says...
I have to agree mostly with SBs comments.He has written a good concise article,and ticked most of the issues..The England -Ireland match is in my opinion to close to call,these so many factors ,that can turn the game one way or another.As for the Wales-France match,i have misgivings that Wales can play at the required tempo,and power.Its a huge powerful french pack,and they will look to play from set piece to set piece .Where i feel they really have an edge at the moment.Also France are a leathel counter-attacking team .Any mistake and they will punish Wales severely,and Wales are making alot of mistakes these days.Scotland-Italy also looks a forgone conclusion.Italy at home in Rome,against a misfiring,and lackluster Scotland.They should win easily,by 10 or more points .But Italy do have this habit of starting a campaign well,and fading,so there is hope for Scotland ,although i do feel that this year its a slim hope at best.
Posted 18:11 18th February 2014
Flloyd White says...
The Irish back row compliment each other superbly well with O'Mahony, Heaslip and Henry - even more so than when O'Brien plays who can go off on his own. For me that is where Ireland will win it.
Posted 01:00 18th February 2014
Dave Kerwin says...
andrew alexander I think if anyone is looking through tinted glasses it's you through your anti England ones. Hartley was picked ahead of Best for the Lions, and for good reason, Youngs was picked ahead of Best for the actual tests and for good reason and Hartley is playing head and shoulders better than Tom Youngs, Harts would have been the starter for the entire Lions tour
Posted 21:12 17th February 2014
John Feek says...
I think Rory Best would have had a far better 2013 if Paul O'Connell had not been injured,and he actually had somebody to throw to. Hartley is the class England hooker at the moment, Youngs is still struggling to find his jumpers and is a liability if he is on the pitch for more than the last ten minutes. Frankly I think all coaches ditch their starting front five too early, I know how hard it is for the forwards but modern day conditioning should enable them to play well in to the last quarter. Looking forward to a great game at Twickenham on Saturday,hoping to meet the Flameheads in Rome on the 15th March. Swing loww!!!!!!
Posted 21:02 17th February 2014
Thomas Pollock says...
i have watched cian healy loose head and im saying win or not , he is the best loose head in the world . but the english media wont let you know this as everything english is the best . not the case remember ireland beating england 204 05 06 07 etc ?the irish will be fired up for this so much to gain for them withe the world cup near and places up for grab , the irish will play their heart out passion pride . we must win our mauls and sexton must be allowed to play not held back . been at home is a big advantage and england are looking forward to their hq . and they can win with the backs and luck. watch out for ref . thomas age 16
Posted 18:48 17th February 2014
Thomas Pollock says...
ireland are in for a big battle but can be cute in the kicking the english half and keep them there . healy is a needed man on sat as is sexton close game england/just
Posted 18:37 17th February 2014
R T says...
Strange similarities between the full backs..... Both Brown and Kearney are average in my opinion. Slattery got it right when he called Kearney a blagger. Brown has everything it takes to be world class.....except pace. Oh dear! He WILL be found out against world class back threes. They are both pretty 'feisty' characters too. This is just code for chippy. But at least Kearney doesn't resort to the sort of behaviour that Brown indulged in when touching down against the worst Scottish team in living memory. That is the sort of thing that in the past would have seen him stretchered off with concussion the next time he got stuck in a ruck. I am a proud Englishman and am quite happy for us to be a target for the celtic nations.... But I don't like the arrogant label and think that it is for the most part misplaced but that sort of showboating behaviour will only reinforce the stereotype. Brown has no class as a player or a professional. We got rid of Ashton, now lets get rid of Brown. Get Foden back in ASAP please. Rugby is a professional sport now yes, but it needn't lose its soul.
Posted 17:02 17th February 2014
Paul Newman says...
Hi Stuart, 'Lion's malaise' I like that phrase - Tuilagi, Parling, Cole, Croft all with long term injuries after a draining domestic season and then the Lions and the Youngs brothers are either jaded (Ben) or under considerable pressure (Tom). English players need proper rest but who will give it to them? Clubs? Cole has been seriously over played by club and country. Country Gatland did more for England than Wales in his selections! Lions? the strongest nation is Ireland because they focus on two things - country and Europe and proper rest periods as do the All Blacks. What do you think? Paul
Posted 16:53 17th February 2014
Andrew Alexander says...
Bit harsh on Rory Best their Stuart about his 'Lions malaise' He has been one of the most consistent hookers in the Northern Hemisphere for the past 3-4 seasons. And Hartley I wouldn't consider as boardering world class as he is always going to be a liability to which ever team he plays with. But as usual you have your English tinted glasses on.....
Posted 12:38 17th February 2014
Michael Nash says...
Good article Stuart, but to say Cian Healy is playing almost as well as any loose head in Europe is crazy. He is so far ahead of all loose heads in Europe at the moment. I would go as far as saying he has more to his game that any other loose head in the world.
Posted 11:15 17th February 2014
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