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Tom May Column: The Key Battles Up Front That Will Determine Saturday’s Outcome

This weekend’s fixture between Scotland and England will be keenly contested by both sides but we all know where the game is won. Everything starts up front.

Even with Ireland’s delight in throwing the ball wide from early phases, every team remains dependent on their pack delivering them good, clean and quick ball from set piece or the breakdown.

As annoying as this may be for backs, the forwards set the tone. It will be exciting to see some of the contests between the players and I have highlighted the ones I’m looking forward to below.


Back Row

Let’s start with the number 8s.

If you take these two players and look across the NatWest 6 Nations some might see them as a couple of the less fashionable players in this position but I think the contest between Ryan Wilson, with his aggressive hard edge and Nathan Hughes, who is back fit after a long injury lay-off, could be great viewing.

Both are desperate to win each collision they are in be that in defence or attack.

If Scotland had fewer injuries in the back row, then Wilson might not have started but I think his performances have been good in the opening two rounds and he’s worked tirelessly for his side. Hughes will surely be tested physically in this game having only played 24 minutes for Wasps since returning from injury.

He may well have been put through Eddie Jones’ brutal fitness schedule but there is nothing like playing the game.

He may be exposed in this area as the game moves on, let’s see.

His offloading game will give England options when he carries and Scotland defensively may have to cover him, along with the lines of the support runners which may open spaces for others.

Hamish Watson is a machine.

He’s one of the small lads compared to many of the lumps patrolling the back row in international rugby but he has been one of the most dynamic and frequent carriers for Scotland in the competition.

He has the stature which allows him to get in below players looking to clear out rucks and turn the ball over which is a great way to launch fresh attacks but it is his attacking play which has impressed me so much.

Watson sprints full tilt into the defensive line and more often than not gets over the gain line and makes several crucial line breaks.

A wrecking ball of an openside. When you compare him to Chris Robshaw he is far more visible through the game  – though perhaps that’s the brilliance of the Harlequins man.

Chris Robshaw allows his other back row teammates to do what they want to do; in the case of Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes, carry the ball and hunt down attackers making offensive tackles.

You couldn’t find a better player to balance the back row, get his head down and dirty, doing the work the other two don’t have top of their list of priorities. It works though and Scotland have John Barclay to almost do the same for them.

He’s been a great leader for them since he has come back into the team and he’s never far from the centre of what is going on – generally somewhere near the bottom!

Two fairly well balanced and well matched back rows will go toe-to-toe on Saturday but I think it could be the direct influence of Watson and Hughes on the game that makes the telling difference.


Grant Gilchrist v Joe Launchbury

Scotland have some strength in depth in the second row at the moment and Grant Gilchrist has been setting a good standard for the competition to follow. His carries and work around the field have been what has stood out for me and that’s why I have highlighted this head-to-head for the weekend.

I think both Gilchrist and Launchbury offer so much more than the traditional player in ‘the row’ has done for years.

Rugby players are changing and these two mirror those changes brilliantly. In years gone by, you would expect players in this position to jump in the lineout and hit a few rucks and lumber into the defensive line when carrying the ball.

The game has moved and so have these two.

Both are big guys but they move with considerable power around the field and make dents into the defensive line their teams can benefit from.

Very rarely do they get hit backwards when carrying and it’s good to see them finding holes to run into rather than flopping into the nearest defender.

Both have ‘rugby brains’ which means they can tip pass the ball into space for other attackers to run on to. It looks simple but it makes a massive difference running into an arm rather than a front on collision with a set defender.

Decisions in this area are key and both Gilchrist and Launchbury make good decisions on the ball.

One has been Scottish captain while the other, somehow, lost out to Lions selection over the summer, which shows their value to their respective countries and should one of them pull a moment of brilliance like Launchbury did against Wales with his deft left-handed offload, they could well make the point of difference.

Tom May, Pundit Arena

Author: Tom May

Tom May enjoyed a 19-year rugby career at the very top. He represented England, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Northampton Saints and London Welsh . Since retiring, Tom has worked for ESPN, BT Sport and Pundit Arena.

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