Six Nations' key weekend battles: England v France; Scotland v Ireland; Wales v Italy

Sporting Life examines the key tactical battles in each Six Nations game
Sporting Life examines the key tactical battles in each Six Nations game

After a sparking first weekend of Six Nations action, which has made an already open tournament's possibilities expand further, round two takes on even more significance.

England v France

Summary

England blow the competition wide open with their stunning win over Ireland - their first on Irish soil since 2013. It was not just that they won, it was how they won.

There was so much to admire and applaud from the performance, but what truly wowed me was England's variety of play and incredible decision making to select the right play at the right moment. Try one in the second minute was the perfect example. Throw a surprise line out move, smash it in hard, but with clever lines, a few times and at the moment the opponent is expecting a repeat phase, get it out wide and reap your rewards. Keep the opponent guessing and never let them settle.

Yes England's kicking game and line speed in defence were marvellous, but it was this prefect execution of different tactics and styles at the correct moment that won this game for England and something we've been waiting to see finally click for Eddie Jones' side.

With the Australian in charge and a captain like Owen Farrell England will not be getting carried away with one win, however they will have to think careful how they approach France.

Henry Slade's two tries against Ireland showed the importance of creativity not just brawn for England
Henry Slade's two tries against Ireland showed the importance of creativity not just brawn for England

When it comes to France what more can we say? I wrote last week about France being so beautifully French with their inconsistencies in every element of their game.

As rugby fans and journalists we are all desperate to abandoned the classic, lazy cliches when it comes to Le Bleu but, alas, we sadly cannot. Why? Because they remain exactly that way, as demonstrated on that cold Friday night as they went yet again from the impressive to the idiotic to throw away a 16 point lead in their defeat to Wales.

They are now at a major crossroads and if they go the wrong way they will face the very real prospect of finishing the Six Nations fifth at best.

Tactical battle

It is easy to say that England should just play the same way as against the Irish, but elements will need to be refined.

France selected a huge pack against Wales - 154 stone to be precise, the heaviest in Test history - and if they do the same at Twickenham it would be easy for England to employ a more open running game to move them around the park. But one thing you don't want to do with the French is take risks, let them into a game and allow their creativity and ego spark into life. Then you are in for a game.

With the likes of the Vunipola brothers and Tuilagi, England will not fear France's juggernaut pack and they should continue to match fire with fire by playing a tight, hard, power packed game at first at least.

It might seem a strange suggestion at first, as it will be competitive and tight initially, playing into the visitors' hands. However once England gain supremacy in this area the Gaelic heads will fall and in the closing 20-30 minutes England should be able to stretch their legs and win by a comfortable score.

Prediction

England, while not perfect, are now streets ahead of France, and if they demonstrate the same levels of intensity, decision making and execution at Twickenham as they did at the Aviva Stadium, then they should expect to win this one by a very comfortable score.

Scotland v Ireland

Summary

An already intriguing game has taken on so much more significance following Ireland's defeat to the hated Red Rose.

This contest will now show if Scotland are still a developing mid-table side or real title contenders. It will also put a spotlight on Ireland's mental strength and ability to perform under real pressure.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight and they've recently responded from another big setback in fine style, when they lost the first Test in Australia to then fire back to win the final two Tests and take the series. We also know they are slow starters and get better as the tournament clock ticks on.

But this is different, from going into the Six Nations as favourites, to now facing the unthinkable prospect of two straight defeats. Great teams don't lose two in a row, even under enormous pressure, can Ireland prove they are a great team?

Finn Russell's kicking game will be key to a strong Scottish performance
Finn Russell's kicking game will be key to a strong Scottish performance

Scotland's ultimately conformable victory over Italy was a mixed bag - hard, cutting and devastating at points, slow, ill disciplined and directionless at others - especially in the final quarter. Any of the latter on Saturday will be punished by the hurting Irish.

Both teams have an opportunity to lay down a huge marker here. Ireland - demonstrating to the world that if they bitten once they will bite back 10 times harder.

The Scots van show the world just how far they've come over the past two years. Their next step is to be taken seriously by the biggest, best nations, and this is the first opportunity to winning that respect.

Tactical Performance

Ireland - and we don't say this often - were out kicked at the Aviva Stadium by England, stopping them from gaining momentum or strong attacking position. Owen Farrell's boot was superb and in Finn Russell Scotland have someone of similar ilk that can do the same. Scotland will have taken note of this, and if Russell can dominate this game Scotland have a chance.

Scotland's problem is staying switched on for 80 minutes, they normally dip at some point and Ireland will wait for that moment to pounce.

Expect a more polished Ireland performance, even with their injuries, they will need a greater variety to their play than last week, but I expect them to keep it tight. Plus Ireland's kicking will have to be spot on, as they will not want to give space and time to Scotland's back three.

Scotland's most iconic upsets down the years have been to the backdrop of Edinburgh rain and wet weather is forecast for Saturday.

However if rain does fall it will favour the Irish this time. Under Gregor Townsend Scotland are at their best when the game is open and fast allowing them to run the ball. While Ireland can do this too, after last week they will not welcome an open unpredictable game.

Their more powerful forwards should be the difference between the two nations anyway, but especially if it rains. Expect Ireland to be patient and harder, keeping it tight to smash the men in blue into submission

Prediction

If Scotland can keep a high intensity and focus for the entire game they stand a chance, and they will fancy their chances of getting around the outside of the Irish, like England did, if it stays dry.

However I'm not sure they have that level against the best teams yet and with Ireland's greater strength across the park, especially in the forwards, that should ultimately tell and get the champions back to winning ways.

Italy v Wales

Summary

They say a sign of a great team is winning when you play badly, and so Wales can take confidence from doing exactly that in France.

However, lets all be honest, the Welsh got away with one at the Stade de France. Yes they upped their tempo in the second half, which contributed to France buckling, but Le Bleu threw this one away - quite literally with that late inception pass for George North's second try. Wales will not get such generous help and luck again in 2019.

It was one of Wales' worst performances for a very long time, and it will serve as a timely wake up call. They won't be that bad again.

Jonah Holmes has the chance to impress on his Six Nations debut
Jonah Holmes has the chance to impress on his Six Nations debut

Italy will be buoyed by their three late tries at Murrayfield, and they delivered a better all round performance for longer against Scotland, without truly ever getting close to a upset.

Wales come into this one knowing victory will equal their best ever winning run of 11 straight wins, which last happened in 1910, which will focus their minds further.

Tactical Battle

This will be a battle of tempo, with Wales trying to resemble the road runner and Italy the sloth from Ice Age.

Having said that, I expect on home soil Italy to fly out of the blocks initially, smash Wales early to push for an early try and then slow down to snail pace. The Italians start will be aided by Wales' 10 changes, as you'd expect them to take time to click as a new unit.

Wales were so slow and clumsy in the opening half in France and Warren Gatland attributed their second half revival to doing everything quicker and with more intensity. Wales are so much better when they are quick in possession, although we've not seen it enough over the last year, despite their great form.

The Azzurri will give them the space and time - not deliberately - to allow even a vastly changed Wales to cut them to pieces.

Wales just need to keep ball in hand, be patient at first in possession, do nothing wild and wear down the Italians. Getting into a kicking game and squandering ball would play into home hands.

Grind them down first, do the basics right and then stretch your legs later on, that's the key for the Welsh.

Prediction

Wales, Wales, Wales.

What will be interesting, with Gatland making 10 changes, is how will they start, how joined up will their play be, how solid their defence, and ultimately what score do they win by?

This Six Nations could come down to points difference, so winning big against the Azzurri is vital.

I expect a couple of tries from Italy too.

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