ALFIE’S ENHANCED DOUBLE:
Italy -4 and Ireland +3 both to win – 7/2
England v Ireland
Saturday 4pm, Twickenham
This has the potential to be the game of the tournament. I’ve been so impressed by Ireland this year and England are really starting to go places under Stuart Lancaster. In just a few games under Joe Schmidt, Ireland look much more clinical and professional than they have done in recent seasons. Lancaster has brought consistency to England all the while just nudging up the attacking threat. This will be a cracker.
Ireland have the upper hand at fly-half. Johnny Sexton gets the back line going so well and his game management has improved consistently over the years. Owen Farrell didn’t have the best of days at Murrayfield. He was three from six and left nine kickable points behind him and he won’t get away with that against Ireland. I’ll cut him some slack because the pitch was terrible, there’s always a swirling wind in Murrayfield and it wasn’t a game England ever looked like losing. Kickers thrive on pressure and when games aren’t too tight and the kicks aren’t as crucial, the standards drop a bit.
Attack the English strengths
This is a strong England team, but if I was in charge of Ireland, I wouldn’t target their weaknesses – mainly because there aren’t too many of them – I’d go after the English strengths. If you attack where a team are supposedly strong and start to win that battle, you can see it gives a huge lift to the dominant team and heads start to drop on the opposition. In this match, that area is the front five.
In the last few years, England have had the upper hand in the front five, but I’ve been really impressed by the Irish front five this season. If Ireland can match England in the front five or even boss them, the match is theirs for the taking because they’re stronger across the rest of the pitch. If they’re dominated, it’ll be a lot harder to win in Twickenham. England are without Dan Cole, but that scrum is so strong that Lancaster can just slot David Wilson in there and it won’t be weakened to any great extent.
The centres of attention
The English 10-12-13 channel isn’t weak, but it’s inexperienced and against an Irish midfield with over 250 international caps between them, it might be an area where Ireland can gain the upper hand. What I like about the job Lancaster is doing is the gradual progress he’s bringing to the team. At the start, it was very much a forwards focussed game, but once he established that platform, he has moved towards a more expansive game.
The back line is strong and I’ve been particularly impressed by Mike Brown. I’ve always been a fan from his form at Harlequins, but now he’s got his chance in the international team, he’s grabbed it and he’s really opening things up from the back.
This is a coin toss, but I’m going for England to win this one. They bounced back well after losing in such a heart-breaking way to France. It’ll be close though and with +4 points, I’ll go for Ireland on the handicap.
Italy v Scotland
Saturday 1.30pm, Stadio Olimpico, Rome
It breaks my heart to see Scotland’s form at the moment because Scott Johnson is a good friend of mine and he’s a better coach than the results are suggesting.
It’s not the worst Scotland team I’ve ever seen, but they blow so hot and cold, it’s hard to see them putting together a performance that could win any game in the Six Nations. They can play five minutes of really intense, physical, high quality rugby and follow that with 20 minutes of being flat and generally terrible – missed tackles, silly errors, ill-discipline.
There’s been an immaturity to their play this year and there’s a lack of leadership and direction. They’ve players who’ve toured with the Lions, played in some huge games for their clubs, but when it comes to the national team, they haven’t been stepping up.
They were poor against England. They were never likely to win, but you want to see more spirit in a Calcutta Cup game against your fiercest rival. I’m sure the players and the coaching staff can’t quite put their finger on why things aren’t going to plan, but it starts with giving it everything you’ve got for those 80 minutes.
When things are going right for them, they get the pecker up and dig in, but when things are going wrong, there’s no answer. You find the true mentality of a player in adversity and at the moment, they’re lacking those leaders who can lift a team out of the shit. They can’t really freshen things up with new players because there aren’t that many options available to them. This is about the best squad they can muster.
Vern Cotter arrives at the end of the season and maybe the players are conscious of that. They might be thinking ‘Scotty won’t be here too much longer so he’s not the man I need to impress’, but that’s just an excuse. Game plans are important in international rugby, but more important is the commitment to implement that game plan. Regardless of the game or the coaching situation, commitment should be a given. Even if the gameplan is ‘eight man rugby, shove it up your jumper’ stuff, then do that, but do it with full commitment. A lack of commitment is obvious to the crowds. They say the crowd lift the players, but the crowd need to see the team lift themselves and that comes from energy and 100% commitment.
The first cutlery is the deepest
This was always going to be the battle for the Wooden Spoon and it’s always Italy’s World Cup Final. They target they Scotland game as the game they can win every year. It’s the Italians first home game this year and the stadium will be pumping. Both teams have lost their first two matches, but in very different ways. Italy go into this with tonnes of confidence and they’ll win this.