Things to look out for in this weekend’s Six Nations

Things to look out for in this weekend’s Six Nations

Things to look out for in this weekend’s Six Nations

There were times during the autumn that you could not help feel for Leigh Halfpenny. It used to be the case that anything in the opposition half was within his range but it seemed that his lengthy troubles may have changed that for good. And as an attacking threat he was a fair way below the level he showed with the Lions four years ago; all the while Liam Williams was continuing to shine.

Against Italy however, Halfpenny was one of Wales's brightest players and his kicking was also on the money. Shaun Edwards expects discipline to be key and with Dan Biggar selected at fly-half against England, you get the impression Wales's best chance of victory will be to strangle the visitors to Cardiff and build a lead through Halfpenny's right boot.

Not very long ago it would have seemed strange for the fitness of James Haskell and Tom Wood to be so important to England. Nonetheless, it is a position they have found themselves in this week, and with neither deemed ready to start against Wales, Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford and Nathan Hughes form a back row that has just 10 international starts between them.

Only four of those have come in the back row and considering the experience Wales can boast, it is a concern for England. Itoje, Clifford and Hughes are considerable athletes but none is in the mould of Haskell, Wood or Chris Robshaw, and the danger is England's pack becomes a little lightweight, as was the case in Cardiff four years ago.

That said, they were roughed up by France and still found a way to win.

They will require similar resolve on Saturday. While there were instances when Conor O'Shea's frustrations regarding JP Doyle's decisions in the defeat by Wales did ring true, there can be no disguising the fact that Italy's discipline must be considerably improved against Ireland. There has to be some sympathy for O'Shea's side, however, not least because Doyle was admonishing them in fluent English.

At this stage it is important to acknowledge that both Doyle and Wayne Barnes, at the encouragement of the RFU, have been learning French, but the former did not seem to use it very often with Italy, plenty of whom play in France.

During England versus France, meanwhile, you have to wonder what Guilhem Guirado must have thought when told to "stop playing silly buggers" by Angus Gardner.

What made Scotland's victory at Murrayfield most impressive is the fact Ireland had nosed ahead by a point during their imperious second-half comeback. It also says something about how dominant they were that they left a number of scores on the pitch, which was in stark contrast to the ruthlessness Scotland showed. It is an aspect that Ireland must improve if they are to avoid an uncomfortable afternoon against Italy, while the lineout could do with some work too. Paddy Jackson played well but Robbie Henshaw was not at his best outside him and Garry Ringrose will be hoping for far better on his second Six Nations appearance. He still has time on his side, though – it took Brian O'Driscoll until his fourth match in the tournament for his first hat-trick.

Perhaps the old France is returning after all, for it is a rare thing indeed for Les Bleus to name unchanged half-backs for consecutive matches. But that is what Guy Novès has done for a contest – against Scotland in Paris – he and France simply cannot afford to lose. Baptiste Serin caught the eye in glimpses against England while Camille Lopez was solid if unspectacular having been denied having two Clermont team-mates outside him, with Wesley Fofana's injury.

Novès has made little secret of the fact that François Trinh-Duc is his first choice when fit but the problem is that happens very rarely, so Lopez will continue and hope to develop his relationship with Serin further. On the topic of Clermont, France's burgeoning openside, Kevin Gourdon, was let go from the club's academy when Vern Cotter was in charge so may well have a little more motivation on Sunday. It perhaps got a bit lost, owing to the fact he made a national record of 28 and that he played a considerable part in Scotland's second-ever opening weekend victory, but Jonny Gray actually missed a tackle against Ireland. In fact he missed two. His brother Richie did not quite match Jonny's 28 but he did not miss any of his 23 and offered more of a ball-carrying threat than his younger sibling.

Vern Cotter made a point of praising the way that the pair worked together and while Jonny's tackling stats are widely celebrated, Richie's contributions should not be overlooked. France's second row was quiet against England but in Paris the Gray brothers can expect to have their work cut out again.

– Entry was posted on February 10th, 2017 by James Haskell

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