Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Six Nations, PRO14, Clermont and Super Rugby
Last Updated: 19/02/18 5:17pm
Stuart Barnes looks ahead to this weekend's Six Nations action and reflects on the latest PRO14, Top 14 and Super Rugby talking points.
1. WP Nel is back for Scotland. But is he match fit and will Gregor Townsend throw him in at the deep end against England?
The Scottish scrum has survived in the absence of their leading tighthead but what a boost he would prove if ready for England. While all the talk will be of what the England scrum might do to their Scottish counterparts, Scotland might just fancy their chances of putting England under pressure via the inconsistent set-piece work of Mako Vunipola.
If the home side surprise the English scrum, Eddie Jones has the option of bringing Joe Marler - back from another suspension - off the bench.
2. I enjoyed an interview I read with the Harlequins prop last week. So often the professional player says nothing; not Marler.
He isn't worried about Scotland, Murrayfield, the whole Calcutta Cup affair. How refreshing to hear someone be honest, admit that Cardiff is regarded as a tougher personal test. Some will call it 'English arrogance' when it's no more than straightforward honesty. Wouldn't the game be better with more honesty and less rugby correctness?
3. As I wrote in my Sunday newspaper column, I just cannot see England losing in Edinburgh. Scotland have not impressed me thus far.
They needed a dollop of foolhardy play from France to turn around the last game whereas England were hugely impressive for 20 minutes against Wales. So often poor starters, few have mentioned the two fast starts made by England. It augurs well.
The pack controlled the game, Care controlled the pack and the half-backs have been excellent, both as a unit and as a split field pair of playmakers. Try as hard as I can, I cannot see England offering Scotland the territory and the soft penalties to let Greig Laidlaw kick Scotland to a first win against England since 2008.
More to the point, nor can Marler and his mates. England are swimming in self-belief, the handiest of commodities for a Test team.
4. Ireland are expected to beat Wales and remain on course for a St Patrick's weekend Grand Slam decider against England. With home advantage and far fewer disruptions than their visiting Welsh opponents, it would take a brave man to tip Wales.
I wouldn't necessarily be that brave man but Wales have impressed me a great deal this year. There has been far more fluency to their attacking game and the line speed of the defence was something to behold at times at Twickenham.
They could have gone under after the first 20 minutes but by the end it was Wales coming at England. A year from now Wales could be in outstanding shape. They are not in a bad one now. I wouldn't write them off, that's all I am saying.
5. It looks like Jordan Larmour's brief flirtation with Test rugby has come to an end, at least for the moment.
Released by Joe Schmidt to play for Leinster at the weekend, he struggled to find space and ended up trying too hard instead of just doing the basics and letting the moment come to him. Sometimes it doesn't. Such was Saturday. Had he been dazzling I think he still would have missed out.
Wales will be gunning for key Ireland playmaker Johnny Sexton. Ireland will want creative cover and they might just want them both on the field if Ireland are forced to chase at any stage. Joey Carbery looks the right call for the bench.
6. Considering the number of international absentees, that was a decent enough game at the RDS on Saturday. Tadhg Beirne returned to the Irish province that released him and delivered a magnificent performance.
Munster have already made the signing of this season for the next one. But it could be that the best signing, last year for this year, is James Lowe, the former Chief, now Leinster man. His commitment, his kicking, his finishing, his offloading, all are high quality.
An infectious character, he is fast becoming talismanic. A mention too for Scott Fardy. The Antipodean duo are exactly the sort of men to see a team through the tricky Six Nations period when most of the team is missing.
7. Two defeats on the bounce for the Scarlets but the losing bonus point was useful and the performance was none too shoddy.
The team that beat them last weekend, Benetton, made it back-to-back wins against Welsh opposition with victory against the Dragons where Spurs could not win, Rodney Parade. With eight wins from 15 games, they have more wins than losses. It has been a notable effort from the Treviso-based side.
8. There has been the usual chatter re Georgia and Italy, promotion, relegation, play-offs. Same stuff, same time of the year. So I'll reiterate what I said on the Offload last week.
Stop discussing it in terms of Italy and Georgia and start debating top versus bottom. It is not personal, not pro Georgia nor anti-Italy. It is a long shot but with so many players missing for disciplinary reasons, does anyone fancy Italy to shock France in Marseille on Friday night? No, thought not.
But hang on....yes, Italy have conceded more than 100 points in two games, but their attack is infinitely improved and if they are to start winning Six Nations matches they need to give themselves a target to defend. I reckon Italy will get far far closer to France than they did to England and Ireland.
9. On the subject of France, it looks like Clermont Auvergne are going to have to win the Champions Cup if they want to qualify for next year's competition.
Tenth in the Top 14 and a long way from the top teams, they were hammered by Lyon on the weekend. Looks like all 'les oeufs' are in the one basket. Racing, who they face in that quarter-final, move up to second with a win over La Rochelle.
10. On the weekend when Exeter lost to Wasps and Saracens claimed top spot again, you may have missed the fact that Super Rugby kicked off.
The Lions had quite a struggle against the Sharks while the Pumas, under their Jaguares name, lost yet again, this time in Cape Town against the Stormers. This is the time of the year when Mrs Barnes cannot find any space on the Sky Planner.