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Gareth Thomas Exclusive: Here’s why Michael D Higgins could influence the Ireland v England match, and what Wales need to do to find their swagger

Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas tells us how he used to hate standing around in Dublin for the pre-match rituals, and how the Welsh side need to mix it up in order to rediscover their top form...

by Gareth Thomas | February 26, 2015

The pre-game ritual is very strange in Dublin. The anthems are always very passionately sung, but combined with the process of meeting the President on the field, it becomes a very long drawn-out process. The hype and the excitement of the changing rooms is stopped abruptly. Any momentum you build up before you go out is halted as you have to meet all these random dignitaries. You’re stood there thinking, ‘Can we not get on with the f***ing game already?’ It takes a long time to get to kick-off.

That’s all positive energy for the Irish, but for anyone in the opposition it’s like, ‘For f***s sake, who else have we got to meet? Are you going to bring your mother and father down next? This is f***ing crazy.’ It can be easy to lose your concentration and lose your focus on the game plan because of the build-up and the hype, but the Irish are used to it. They feed off that.

Ireland v England (Sunday, 3.00pm)

The Irish crowd love their rugby and they love their side, so that can make it a very intimidating place to be. Joe Schmidt should focus on putting the young wingers under pressure with the high balls because of this. When the ball goes up, coaches tell you to blank out the crowd, but that’s very difficult to do when 50,000 Irish fans are trying to put you off catching it. The fact it is Ireland v England only adds to the passion, and Ireland can use this to their advantage.

Aviva-Stadium-Ireland-England

Ireland will win this game, and that will probably decide the Championship. This Irish side turn up to every game and although they’re on a brilliant winning streak, every game beforehand is irrelevant, and the next game is always more important. That is a really refreshing attitude.

Ireland are under a ‘good pressure’ going into the game, but it will be interesting to see how they cope with the tag of favourites. It will also be interesting to see how this hyped-up England side cope under pressure. All the young and exciting talent in this English side isn’t unknown anymore. They are now expected to come out and perform, so will they crack?

England-6-Nations

Ireland will have to match England up front because that’s where the English are strongest. They have to physically dominate this English side and they have to keep that scrum solid. Johnny Sexton will have to have his kicking game spot on and the Irish won’t be able to give the back three any time to run with the ball. England’s exciting runners will punish you.

This will be a tight game but Ireland are on a roll, and unless they come up against a southern hemisphere team, or hopefully Wales next week, they will win.

  • Alfie’s bet: Ireland to beat England: 4/5
  • Get the latest match odds here: Desktop | Mobile

France v Wales (Saturday, 5.00pm)

Player-wise, Wales have probably the best players on the field possible, but these guys are capable of more. The structure and the style Wales play is being found out, and although the players are talented enough, the structure is too rigid.

Two years ago we discussed the way Wales play, and nothing has changed. Granted it is effective, but ultimately in the World Cup year, it would be nice to mix things up and show we can play a different style depending on the opposition. To compete Wales have to become more flexible and unpredictable.

Jamie-Roberts-Wales-6-Nations

Jamie Roberts (above) is a key example. Everyone says that he is a one-trick pony who is going to kick it up all the time, but the kid can really play. He can pass, he can kick, but within the game plan he isn’t given the opportunity to do that. We have players with a lot of ability, but at the minute they’re not being pushed to the max.

Wales played well against Scotland, but they were not as dominant as people expected. Last year Wales beat Scotland by 50 points, so the question is have Scotland improved that much, or have Wales digressed? For me, the other countries are catching up.

Ever since rugby was first invented, people have been scratching their heads with France. They could be absolutely sublime or simply awful. Most of the time they are very effective, but you just don’t know. They have some incredible players on the field but at times they look lost out there. They have a typically organised and strong French pack, they are good at the line-out and tough at the scrum, so the basis is there for a really great team. Yet they don’t produce the performances.

Mathieu-Bastareaud-France-6-Nations

In the same breath, anyone that has ever played international rugby will tell you not to write the French off. This team has the potential to be brilliant and it is disappointing watching them knowing they are better than they actually are.

The Welsh line-out and scrum was so dodgy against Scotland, and that will cost them this game. As much as it pains me to say it, Wales cannot win out there in Paris. The French are so solid in the scrum they can build a platform off that and Wales won’t be able to cope.

  • Alfie’s bet: France to win by 1-5 points: 10/3
  • Get the latest match odds here: Desktop | Mobile

Scotland v Italy (Saturday, 2.00pm)

Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni (below) will miss the game after needing 14 stitches in his nose because of a dog bite, in one of the strangest injuries you’ll see. But that isn’t as weird as former Welsh captain Colin Charvis. He decided to braid his hair in Australia, in the same way you might see young girls do on holiday in Benidorm. An Italian guy grabbed a handful of the braids and ripped them off his head from back to front. So basically he was left with a bald Mohican going through the middle of his head. He was in absolute agony for the rest of the game. I was never folliclely blessed enough to grow braids, but that freaky injury put me off them completely.

Martin-Castrogiovanni-Italy-6-Nations

The most frustrating thing about watching Scotland is that they seem to do everything in their power not to score. You don’t see it sometimes on the TV, but there were times at Murrayfield when they were camped on the Welsh line, two or three passes away and someone could have walked over. They appear to have a significant dose of ‘white line fever’. There is a thin line between nativity and dumb, and Scotland were in danger of crossing it.

It hasn’t helped that they have played both France and Wales, but this weekend Scotland face an Italian side whose defence won’t be as tight, and this is their chance to start moving forward and racking up some tries. The Scots can take confidence from their two defeats, but at this level of rugby it’s about winning, and you take a hell of a lot more confidence from getting the result.

Stuart-Hogg-Scotland-6-Nations

Not having a place kicker is hurting Italy and it will continue to do so. Every top side in the world has a reliable kicker and you need that ability in your side. Teams who face Wales or Ireland will never play on the edge anywhere near their own half, because they know Leigh Halfpenny or Johnny Sexton will kick it over from anywhere. It’s not necessarily just the ability of the kicker, but the mind-set it puts the opposition in. Against Italy there is no fear of giving away penalties. Until they find someone who punish teams with the boot, they will never be a top International side.

  • Alfie’s bet: Scotland to win and cover (-11) handicap: 10/11
  • Get all the latest match odds here: Desktop | Mobile

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