I was a little taken aback by the team Eddie Jones selected to take on Italy. This weekend’s game was an opportunity to hand the likes of Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler starts against an opponent that looks ready to be carved open.
The Italians were way off the pace in their opening games, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see England do a real number on them in Twickenham. Saying that, they are to be respected, and Eddie will want his team to attain a bonus point before thinking about running up a massive score.
I fully expected to see Owen Farrell start at fly-half with Ben Te’o coming in at inside-centre. So for George Ford, it’s a real endorsement of his ability and status. While better sides might be able to exploit the Worcester Warriors centre in defence, Italy just don’t have the players to take advantage of his lack of experience.
Although Italy might be capable of stifling England for a period, I simply can’t see them being able to deal with England’s pace and power. Ireland put 63 points on Italy, so I would expect England to rack up a similar score.
I have heard some people say England need to go all out in search of scores so as to positively impact upon their points tally at the end of the Championship, but the introduction of the bonus point system has changed the landscape of the Six Nations.
If England were to run in a record number of tries against Italy, it would be of very little benefit if Ireland scored a bonus point win over France, a result that’s not outside the realms of possibility.
France have made changes to their lineup to negate Ireland’s advantage when it comes to physical conditioning. Although Uini Atonio may have destroyed both England and Scotland at scrum time, he does very little around the field and would have been a liability in defence.
Likewise, Yoann Huget has been brought in so as to counter Ireland’s kicking game, but I just can’t see France containing Ireland for 80 minutes. Yes, Louis Picamoles will give them go forward, but Ireland have the ability to retain the ball through over 20 phases.
France have yet to show the capacity to defend against such a sustained and lengthy offensive. When England upped the tempo through James Haskell and Ben Te’o in Twickenham, the French players struggled to get up off the floor and compete at subsequent phases.
If Ireland can play with similar precision and speed on Saturday, then it is possible for them to attain a bonus point. What’s more, Guy Noves didn’t select a replacement for Camille Lopez on the bench.
Throughout the last week or so there has been much talk of France targeting Johnny Sexton, but I expect Ireland to try and rattle the Clermont playmaker by sending Stander and O’Brien down his channel at every available opportunity in the opening 30 minutes.
If they force Lopez off the field, then Noves will be left with no option but to move Baptiste Serin into the number 10 slot. If such a scenario were to come to pass, it would be a disaster of Noves’ own making and give Ireland every possible chance of achieving a bonus point win.
I feel French physicality could have undone the Scottish revival. Vern Cotter and his side continue to feel the effects of their defeat in Paris, with the hugely influential Greig Laidlaw and Josh Strauss missing out this weekend.
Without Strauss, Scotland will struggle for physicality in the back row, while Laidlaw’s leadership will be missed. The scrum-half might not supply the quickest service, but he controlled the game brilliantly in the final ten minutes against Ireland.
While Ali Price’s passing is much quicker from the base, it’s hard to see Scotland being able to benefit from the scrum half’s snappier service if Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric dominate at the breakdown.
The Welsh flankers will have seen how Scotland caused Ireland all sorts of bother by producing quick ball and being able to ship possession wide at the earliest opportunity. Warburton and Tipuric will not measure their success by the number of turnovers won at the breakdown, but by the number of seconds Price has to spend digging the ball out of the contact area.
Every second Scotland spend trying to shift the Welsh fetchers off the ball will reduce the space available to Stuart Hogg.
Rob Howley will also have learned from his own failings against England. Wales were in control of that game and looked the most likely winners when he took Ross Moriarty and Rhys Webb off two weeks ago.
The void left was Moriarty was filled by James Haskell when Eddie Jones introduced the flanker in the Principality Stadium. The Welsh number eight was hugely physical in defence, but after he was withdrawn, Wales had no one to counter England’s power.
Howley may have fallen into the trap of relying on match data and statistical driven analysis instead of trusting his own judgement and instincts.
Jones shows little regard or mercy when he sees something not going to plan. We have seen in the past how he’s not afraid to make alterations or substitutions in the opening half-hour of matches.
Howley will have learned the hard way following his side’s defeat in Cardiff and I doubt he will be tempted to change a winning formula if his side are on top in Murrayfield after 60 minutes.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena
On this week’s Oval Office Podcast, Rob Henderson tells us about Ireland’s 12 potential Lions, Paddy Butler identifies weaknesses in the French game plan, Mako Vunipola discusses the challenge of facing Tadhg Furlong and historian David Toms relives Ireland’s 2007 clash with England in Croke Park.