After the excitement of the first couple of weeks, we have had a bit of a breather and time to reflect on how the Championship is shaping up. The key issue facing each team is that of consistency. Or conversely, from a coaching perspective, inconsistency!
Take Ireland for example.
They blew Wales away in the first half of the first match at the Millennium Stadium, and for the next a match and half they have been infuriatingly inconsistent. Wales, on the other hand, having given up in that first match, responded with an impressive away win against a French side who have not only been consistently underperforming, but also have been lacking flair and energy.
Scotland, so poor against England, rose to the occasion against Italy who were unable to gain the consistency needed at this level and to deliver consecutive high performances.
Of all the coaches involved this year, by far the most satisfied must be Stuart Lancaster, the English coach. England has been able to vary their style of play and have recorded 2 outstanding wins, in markedly different styles and circumstances.
Open, aggressive rugby against Scotland and a tight, forward dominated performance in extreme condition against Ireland, has given them the consistency needed to set themselves up for a Grand Slam.
In terms of player performances, in this a Lions Tour year, a number of names must already be pencilled in to Warren Gatling’s book. Irrespective of the politics, the bulk of the selected Lions party will be English, but the flavour of the Touring party comes from the cross section of other Home Nation players selected.
Stuart Hogg, Ryan Grant, Johnnie Beattie, Richie Gray from Scotland, Andrew Coombes, Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Justin Tipuric from Wales are all performing exceptionally well and must come into consideration, especially if they can keep playing consistently well over the last 3 matches of the Championship.
The Irish contingent conversely seems to be either playing themselves out of consideration at present, or picking up injuries or suspensions at a crucial time.
Jamie Heaslip, an early season favourite to captain the Lions squad is off form, as is Brian O’Driscoll, and an suspension to Cian Healy will not have done his Lions selection chances any good. Rory Best and Sean O’Brien also will want to put their hands up for selection, and both need a good game, as does Rob Kearney, in direct comparison to Scotland’s 6 Nations hero, Stuart Hogg.
As for this week’s matches, Wales play Italy in Rome, and that is a trip which has many worrying memories for the Welsh. Playing at home, Italy will wish to repeat their early season performance against France. Playing without their Captain and talisman Sergio Parisse, suspended for 6 weeks for his attempts at instructing a French referee in nuances of the Italian language last weekend, Italy will struggle particularly against a rejuvenated Ryan Jones inspired Welsh team.
Wales playing Italy in Rome is a trip which has many worrying memories for the Welsh. Italy will wish to repeat their early season performance against France. Playing without their Captain and talisman Sergio Parisse, suspended for 6 weeks for his attempts at instructing a French referee in nuances of the Italian language last weekend, Italy will struggle particularly against an inspired Welsh team.
An away win for Wales to keep alive a 6 Nations play off at the Millennium Stadium, against England.
England, on fire and capable of paying rugby in all conditions, must start the second match of the weekend against France as clear favourites. However, France have not become a poor team overnight, and if they can find some consistency, they may well surprise the 6 Nations favourites and beat England at Twickenham.
The safe money however is on England!
The Sunday match this weekend is Scotland against Ireland, a match which is likely to be high scoring and open, with Scotland on a high, and Ireland wishing to re-establish their standing in the Championship. Momentum, home advantage and consistency of selection are important factors and that suggests a home win for Scotland.
Irrespective of the outcomes of any match this weekend, the 6 Nations Championship will not be decided until the last match, with only France as the team surprisingly out of the running. Yet France has the capability of turning the Championship around completely, and with 8 changes made to their team, they might just do that at Twickenham!
So, if you cannot get to one of the matches this weekend, crack open a bottle of 10 year old Glen Grant, and enjoy another instalment of 6 Nations rugby!
By R.F.Cunningham, former Scottish Rugby Internationalist, is HR Adviser to Glen Grant Distillery in Speyside.