Ireland v Wales – Saturday, 2.30pm, Aviva Stadium
The Brian O’Driscoll/Warren Gatland saga is great to give the papers something to write about in the build-up to the game, but the players on that pitch this Saturday don’t give a flying f*ck about it. It’s great for stoking the flames and building the hype, but it won’t change a thing about how the players approach the game. There’s too much riding on this game to have a grudge and risk losing the head at a crucial moment from being too pumped up.
There were times in my career when Lawrence Dallaglio would say something or get misquoted by the press in the build-up to a game with us and that would spur you on. It would make beating them all the more enjoyable, but if you get too passionate, you’re liable to make a mistake and cost the team some points.
The rivalry between the two teams have crept up in recent years to become the game of the 6 Nations. The intensity, partially because of Gatland’s history with Ireland and partially because there’s been some big prizes at stake when they’ve met lately, makes this more of a grudge game than any of the other games, even the ones against England. It’s brilliant because Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium) will be an absolute cauldron on Saturday afternoon.
Italy were never going to beat Wales
I wasn’t worried about the Wales performance against Italy because they had things under control. I was at the ground and the feeling was Italy were never going to win and Wales were always capable of moving up the gears whenever Italy got close. It’s no harm that they got a bit of a scare either because when you enjoy a couple of years of success, complacency can kick in and that should serve as a kick up the arse for the players. It’s like the habit the All Blacks have of just doing enough to win. Yes, sometimes they’ll blow you away, but they also know they’re good enough to just keep edging away from you when it’s called for. That’s fine for the All Blacks, but when you’re a young Wales team, you won’t always get away with it.
Ireland were good against Scotland. The Scots chucked everything they had at Ireland in the first half and the Irish stood firm. They defended well and then took their chances when Scotland started to tire. Ireland looked composed, professional and never panicked. They didn’t manage to run up the score, but what impressed me about it was how clinical they were.
Back rows will decide this game
There’s a lot being made of Ireland’s six day turnaround versus Wales’s seven days and in my experience, it does make a difference. Not so much in conditioning and recovery because Ireland managed to empty the bench when the game was won, but it gives the Wales coaching staff an extra day to work on the things that didn’t work so well on Saturday. They’ll benefit by having more time to correct the errors, but Ireland won’t be at too much of a disadvantage because of how well they played.
Both sets of back rows will decide this game. Jamie Heaslip was immense last weekend. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else and if he’s allowed to do that again this weekend, Ireland will win. But Wales have brought Sam Warburton back in and Ireland will have it tougher than they did last week. It will be brutal. The packs are very evenly matched, so it’s in the back row and the battle of the breakdown where the game will be won and lost.
It’ll be close, but I’m going to go for Wales to win it.
Scotland v England – Saturday, 5pm, Murrayfield
After a flat performance last week, England come to town at just the right time for Scotland. Playing for a Calcutta Cup usually gets the best out of them, but after England’s impressive performance in Paris, you’d have to wonder if it’ll be anywhere near enough. The way Stuart Lancaster’s team lost last weekend will make them even hungrier for victory at Murrayfield. When you get hammered, you hold your hand up and say ‘we were beaten by the better team’, but the manner in which they lost after leading for so long makes you desperate to win next time out.
Like they did against Ireland, Scotland will try to make it an arm wrestle, but the problem with that is there are few teams better suited to an arm wrestle than England. It might work for a while, but you’d expect England to take control at some point in the match.
The pitch may be a factor. It sounds like a bit of a mess and if it turns out to be as bad as they say, it’ll slow down the tempo of the game and upset the plans both teams have made during the week. It’s right out of the amateur days and it’s a surprise to have to deal with it in the modern era. You train on good pitches and you play on good pitches, you’re just not used to anything else.
It could be a leveller for Scotland, but I’d expect England to beat a 10-point handicap.
France v Italy – Sunday, 3pm, Stade de France
They left it late and were dominated for large parts of the game against England, but I was impressed by France. They were under real pressure going into that and they produced a big performance. When you’re not playing well in France, the crowd don’t take long to let you know and the players responded to that in good style. They dug in even though England were in control for a lot of the game and showed great character. I expect them to go from strength to strength after that. It’s a great feeling to win like that and they’ll take real confidence into the rest of the tournament.
France’s problem for years now has been inconsistency, but after the shambles that was last year’s campaign, the players realise they need to step up to the mark more often and I’m certain they will. They’re real contenders for the championship now.