Saturday February 8, 9:30 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

Conditions in Dublin are supposed to be dreadful, which may ruin this match as a spectacle, but either way it will be a fantastic battle, and I can’t see more than a few points in it either way.

Both sides are at full strength as Irish captain Paul O’Connell and Welsh captain Sam Warburton return from illness and injury, respectively, to lead their sides. For Ireland, Gordon D’Arcy replaces Luke Marshall at inside center, mostly for defensive reasons. The speculation is that D’Arcy is trusted more than Marshall by his clubmate Brian O’Driscoll outside him, and his former clubmate Jonathan Sexton inside him. It is no secret that the Welsh love to attack down the 12 channel through the power of Jamie Roberts, so the Irish defense will have to be stout. For Wales, Gethin Jenkins returns at loosehead, and it will be interesting to see whether he can gain an advantage on Mike Ross at scrum time. Elsewhere in the front row, the matchup at hooker between Rory Best and Richard Hibbard, both Lions last summer, is a tasty prospect. They have very different approaches to the position – Best often plays like a fourth back-rower, winning penalties and turnovers at the breakdown, while Hibbard is just a tank who seems to relish massive collisions on both sides of the ball.

Both Best and Hibbard will need to get their throws right, because the lineout will be vital. It will be fascinating to see O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones, both  experienced and skilled lineout operators, try to outsmart each other in this area. Wales will miss the height of Luke Charteris, who has a hamstring injury. Andrew Coombs is a fine player, but at 6’4″ is 5 inches shorter than Charteris.  Ireland have their own giant in 6’11” Devin Toner, as well as Peter O’Mahony, who is excellent in the air.  Ireland know that if they can disrupt the Welsh lineout, they will deprive Wales of the perfect platform to attack on first phase through Roberts. Ireland will also seek to establish the rolling maul which was such an effective weapon against Scotland last week, although Wales will provide a sterner challenge.

There’s not much to separate the two packs, although Wales have a slight edge in carrying, as Hibbard and Taulupe Faletau (as Toby now wants to be known) are both immense with ball in hand. Without Sean O’Brien, Ireland have only Cian Healy as a top-class ball-carrier, although he is a major threat as Scotland found out last week. The Irish backrow and O’Connell will need to share the workload.

There is separation at 9 and 10, where Ireland are clearly superior, and that may be the difference in the game. Irish discipline has been good since Joe Schmidt took over, and they have to maintain that because Leigh Halfpenny will kick goals from anywhere. They also have to contain George North – that is the best they can hope for because the big Welshman is impossible to stop entirely. Rob Kearney and the rest of the Irish kick chase can deny him counterattacking opportunities, but the problem is that North has become increasingly adept at coming off his wing to get involved in the game all over the pitch. A nightmare for any defense.

Should be a cracking match, and could go either way. Ireland by 1

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Cardiff:

 

Saturday February 8, 12 PM Eastern – Murrayfield, Edinburgh

Scotland coach Scott Johnson has made a big call, as well as a statement of intent, by dropping captain Kelly Brown for Chris Fusaro, who will be making his international debut. Scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw will take over the captaincy. Johnson admitted it was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make as Scotland head coach… [Brown’s] a guy I admire but it was the right decision.” Relatively slight for an international back row, at 5’11” and 210 pounds, Fusaro is a more traditional 7 who will be expected to do a lot of work slowing down English ball at the breakdown.

Johnson has been pretty clear on why he has selected Fusaro for this role: “He’s low to the ground and plays below a lot of people… it’s not always brute force that wins these games.” No doubt Johnson and his staff saw how easily the powerful English ball carriers got over the gainline against France, and have decided Fusaro is the best option to cut off the England attack at its source: quick ruck ball. With the Murrayfield pitch expected to be in very bad shape, the breakdown could be one hell of a mess, and a lot will depend on the interpretation of referee Jerome Garces.

In other changes to the starting XV, Tommy Seymour comes in on the wing for the injured Sean Maitland, who will miss the entire tournament with knee and ankle injuries, while the experienced Matt Scott replaces young Duncan Taylor at inside center. There is a bit of interest on the bench as British and Irish Lion Richie Gray drops out of the matchday squad altogether in favor of his younger brother Jonny.

Meanwhile, England coach Stuart Lancaster is absolutely correct to name an unchanged squad. Captain Chris Robshaw said that his men are “seething” after the bitter disappointment of the loss to France, and Lancaster trusts his young team to put Paris behind them and put in a big performance in Edinburgh. Jonny May has been passed fit after breaking his nose against France, which means there is still no room for young Anthony Watson, but his time will come.

As discussed above, the breakdown will be crucial – Robshaw and Tom Wood need to neutralize the threat of Fusaro and secure quick ball. The lineout will also be vital for England, both in attack and defense. Scotland struggled to defend Ireland’s rolling maul last week – England should take them on in that area as early as possible. Scotland also had difficulty securing possession on their own lineout last week, losing 5 of 15 throws. Wood and Courtney Lawes are both excellent lineout operators – England should look to get these two up in the air early and often, and force Scotland to prove they can win the ball at the back of the lineout. When a hooker is lacking confidence, that’s exactly where he doesn’t want to throw, so England need to deprive Ross Ford of the safe option at the front.

Finally, England need to deny Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg counterattacking opportunities. Hogg is the Scots’ most dangerous player. When they do kick to him, they need to make sure that the kick is high, and that the kick chase is good. Essentially, do what a defense is always trying to do: take away time and space.

England did a lot of good things last week, and it was particularly pleasing to see Danny Care at 9 and Owen Farrell at 10 ask a lot of questions of the French defense. If they get quick, front-foot ball, I don’t think the Scottish defense will be able to cope. A lot will depend on the conditions – if they are bad, this could turn into a very ugly match. But either way, I can’t see England losing. England by 7

Below, highlights from last year’s match at Twickenham:

 

Simply put: the competition looks like it will be as close as we all thought it would be. Any of Ireland, Wales, France, or England could win it, and Italy may well beat one of those teams.  Scotland were poor, but I expect them to bounce back and scare a few of the top four.

Ireland were the most impressive team of the weekend, comprehensively beating Scotland, and Joe Schmidt’s men must be viewed as legitimate title contenders, although they face a perilous route through the tournament. Wales visit Dublin next weekend, and then Ireland must go to London and Paris. A Grand Slam is thus unlikely, but then again I don’t believe any team will go through undefeated this year.

The Welsh will have to significantly improve on their performance against Italy, but one gets the feeling that they will find a higher gear when required. Sam Warburton will be restored to the captaincy for the all-important Ireland match, and Alun-Wyn Jones, Richard Hibbard, and Jamie Roberts, among others, are all in excellent form.

And France-England – what a Test match, heart-breaking for the England players and fans. The game was there to be won in what would have been England’s greatest comeback, but they just weren’t quite clinical enough, and credit to France for staying in the game mentally and waiting for their opportunity. The French only have to leave Paris to visit Cardiff and Edinburgh, so they are in the driver’s seat at the moment. I thought they would miss Dusautoir more, but Yannick Nyanga rose to the occasion magnificently, taking on more responsibility in the back row.

The young English side showed tremendous character, and they cannot be ruled out of contention either. If they can cut down on the mistakes and put together a more complete 80-minute performance in Edinburgh next week, they will feel confident as they prepare for the visits of Wales and Ireland to Twickenham. But they mustn’t overlook the Scots,  who are always up for it when they play at Murrayfield. The pitch is apparently in an awful state due to a nematode infestation, so it may be quite a scrappy affair.

Bring on Week 2!

Below, highlights from France-England:

Saturday February 1, 9:30 AM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

This is the most uneven of the weekend’s fixtures on paper – Wales is favored by around 20 points – and the match could be even more lopsided than that. The Welsh Rugby Union announced this morning that the roof at the Millennium will be closed, a condition which will hopefully encourage the Welsh to play a more attacking, open style – the exact opposite of what the Italians want.

Italy will field a starting XV composed of a pack with a massive 587 combined caps, and a backline with just 115 caps between them – perhaps the largest disparity ever in an international rugby team. Injuries have forced coach Jacques Brunel to pick a very inexperienced backline – Angelo Esposito makes his debut on one wing, while on the other wing, Leonardo Sarto will make just his third appearance for the Azzurri. At outside center, Michele Campagnaro will also be making his third appearance, while flyhalf Tommaso Allen is the relative veteran of this young group, playing in his fourth Test. The experience of scrumhalf Edoardo Gori, inside center Alberto Sgarbi, and fullback Luke McLean will be vital as Italy seek to contain the huge threat of the Welsh backline, currently the most potent attacking force in the Northern Hemisphere.

For Wales, British and Irish Lion Jonathan Davies misses out on selection, as he is just coming back from a pectoral injury he suffered against South Africa during the Autumn Tests. But Davies has a very talented deputy in Scott Williams, and otherwise the Welsh are at full strength in the backs. In the pack, captain Sam Warburton has been judged only fit enough to make the bench, so Justin Tipuric, a more traditional 7, slots into the back row alongside Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones takes over the captaincy. Lydiate will be under some scrutiny, as he has been in poor form for his club, Racing Metro, where he has been required to do more ball-carrying than he is used to. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins is just returning to fitness after a recurrence of his persistent calf problem, so Paul James starts in his place.

For Italy to keep this one close, they will need to keep the game as tight as possible through the forwards, and go hard at the breakdown to slow down Welsh ball. Everyone in the rugby world knows how good Italian number 8 Sergio Parisse is, but his back row colleague Alessandro Zanni is also a fine player, and they are joined by another wily veteran in Mauro Bergamasco. These three will have to dig deep into the bag of tricks they’ve assembled over a combined 276 Test matches for Italy. The trouble is that the Welsh back row is also very good, and very balanced. Essentially, Lydiate is the tackling machine, Tipuric is the turnover specialist, and Faletau is the primary ball carrier – when they are all in form, they compliment each other so well, and it is a beautiful thing to watch.

Unfortunately for the Italians, with the roof closed, there are likely to be fewer handling errors, and thus fewer scrums. Welsh tighthead Adam Jones, the rock of the Welsh scrum for so many years, has admittedly struggled with the new scrum laws, and the Italians will be confident at scrum time. But how many opportunities will they get? Neutrals will be hoping Italy put in a big performance to make this match competitive, but I just can’t see it happening. Wales by 25

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Rome:

Sunday February 2, 10 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (Aviva Stadium), Dublin

The entire rugby world remembers what happened the last time Ireland played a Test in Dublin – that match, an epic 22-24 defeat to New Zealand in which the Irish played some scintillating rugby.  The question is whether coach Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell can get this Irish team to reproduce the intensity of that famous performance. Ireland finished their last Six Nations campaign with a fairly meek defeat to Italy, and will be looking to erase those painful memories. There was talk at the time that the match might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last for Ireland, but he has decided that, at 35, he has one final Six Nations left in him. Sending the legendary BOD out on top will certainly provide motivation for the Irish – the great man deserves nothing less.

Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson has already named his team – he will be grateful to welcome back British and Irish Lion Stuart Hogg, who missed the Autumn Tests through injury, at fullback. Hogg, still just 21 years old, is the only player in the Scottish team with true game-changing ability. Fellow Lion Sean Maitland moves to the wing to accommodate Hogg, while Sean Lamont occupies the other wing. The center pairing is a very inexperienced one – Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar have only 9 caps between them. Midfield has often been an area of weakness for Scotland, so it will be interesting to see what these young guys can do. Competition for places in the pack is strong enough that another Lion, lock Richie Gray, only makes the bench, with Tim Swinson starting.

The Scottish players are in a slightly strange position – they know that Vern Cotter, (who is currently in charge of French club Clermont), is set to take over as Scotland coach in the summer. Their pride in the shirt and their belief in captain Kelly Brown is not in question, but just how motivated will they be to perform for Johnson, with the knowledge that they will have to prove themselves all over again when Cotter begins his reign? Johnson is a charismatic and refreshingly honest figure, but the fact that his role is only temporary can only be a negative in the short term.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt will not name his team until Friday. He has a strong group of players from which to select, although the loss of flanker Sean O’Brien for the entire tournament is hugely significant. The man known as the “Tullow Tank” is irreplaceable in terms of ball-carrying ability and aggression, although Ireland is blessed with a strong leadership group and serious depth in the back row.

It appears Conor Murray will start at scrumhalf as Eoin Reddan has been ruled out with a calf injury. Murray shone for the Lions last summer, but competition for the Irish 9 shirt is fierce – Reddan’s Leinster teammate Isaac Boss has been called up to the squad, and Connacht’s Kieran Marmion is waiting in the wings.

I expect Scotland to come out and fight hard – they may even go into halftime narrowly ahead. But I think Ireland’s class will show when the game opens up a bit after 50-55 minutes. Ireland by 10

Below, highlights from when these two teams met last year, in Edinburgh:

The Six Nations – the jewel of the Northern Hemisphere rugby crown – begins on Saturday. It is a competition with a tremendously rich history, originally contested by the four “Home Nations” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland – beginning in 1883. France joined the tournament in 1910, and the Five Nations was passionately contested for the rest of the 20th century. 2000 saw the addition of Italy to make up the current field of six teams.

The format could not be simpler – each team plays every other team once. (The venues rotate each year – so the three teams that have three home games this year will have only two next year, and vice-versa.) There are no bonus points for scoring four tries in a match or losing a match by fewer than seven points. Wales are the two-time defending champions, and are seeking to make history by becoming the first team ever to win three consecutive tournaments outright. England will be a strong contender, as will France – despite, amazingly, finishing bottom in last year’s edition. Ireland are being labeled dark horses by some, but the reality is they are just a damn good side who will be a handful for any other team in the tournament. As usual, Scotland and Italy are not considered serious contenders, but they are both improving and are capable of knocking off any of the favorites, especially at home. So it promises to be another thrilling six weeks of rugby.

France v England is the match everyone is looking forward to this weekend, so it seems appropriate to begin by profiling these two bitter rivals.

Saturday February 1, 12 PM Eastern – Stade de France, Paris

It has become a truism, but people are going to keep writing it until is no longer true – no one ever knows which French team is going to turn up. They are capable of brilliance and incompetence, often in the same half of rugby! The French will be without their talismanic captain Thierry Dusautoir for the entirety of the tournament, which is a huge blow. He is a world-class flanker and a strong leader, and his absence adds to the uncertainty surrounding the French team. The stand-in captain will be lock Pascal Pape, who leads a strong French pack renowned for its technical scrimmaging ability. In the back row, clubmates Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles have been in good form for Toulouse, so I would expect French coach Philippe Saint-Andre to pick either Bernard Le Roux or Damien Chouly in Dusautoir’s place, depending on what type of back row balance he is looking for.

In the backs, selection is a bit trickier. It looks like Jean-Marc Doussain will play scrumhalf, although he has recently played at flyhalf for Toulouse. Maxime Machenaud is the other option at 9. At flyhalf, Remi Tales is injured, so it is a question of whether Saint-Andre takes a gamble on the uncapped Jules Plisson, or goes with the experience of Francois Trinh-Duc, who has played 48 Test matches for France.  The other big question mark is at outside center – will Saint-Andre pick the skill of Gael Fickou or the size of Mathieu Bastareaud in the 13 jersey?

England are at a crossroads. Everything is in the context of the ultimate prize – winning next year’s World Cup on home soil. The English pack have shown they have the quality to do just that, but the backs have simply not posed the necessary threat. The key decision facing coach Stuart Lancaster is whether to persevere with the players he has come to trust, or whether to try some new faces in hopes of providing the spark that has been sorely lacking. Owen Farrell seems to have the 10 jersey locked up due to his defensive and kicking abilities, despite his worrying inability (thus far) to threaten the gainline or release his outside backs. Mike Brown has not put a foot wrong at fullback – the 15 jersey is his. And Billy Twelvetrees will likely start at inside center in lieu of a better option. But the other four backline spots – scrumhalf, outside center, and the two wings – are up for grabs. England legend and current BBC pundit Jeremy Guscott recently suggested in the Rugby Paper that Danny Care, Luther Burrell, Anthony Watson, and Jonny May were “likely” to fill these positions. I hope Guscott is right, because that is an incredibly positive backline that achieves what good coaches should strive to do: reward players based on form, and be willing to select the most talented players even if they lack international experience.

To the French, the English are “Les Rosbifs” – to the English, the French are “the Frogs.”  And on both sides of the English Channel, this match is “Le Crunch.” Bring it on!

If Dusautoir were playing, I would see the match dead even – that’s how important he is to France. Without him, England by 3

Below, highlights from the last time these two teams played in Paris, in 2012:

 

 

During last night’s BCS National Championship game, Gatorade aired a commercial called “Hard Work,” featuring a clip of rugby players hitting a scrum machine. As a former Hooker, Gatorade’s choice made me very happy on a personal level – scrummaging is certainly hard work! But more broadly, as someone who loves rugby and wants to see the game grow here in the United States, it was awesome to see such high-profile recognition from a major corporation. I tweeted about the commercial – curious to see how many other rugby fans had seen it – and was so encouraged to see Twitter light up with retweets and favorites.  In response to this reaction, Gatorade tweeted: “The rugby community has definitely shown their support & excitement with our new spot. Great to see.” I’m looking forward to seeing what Gatorade and USA Rugby have planned next.

Below, the commercial – blink and you’ll miss it!

United States international Samu Manoa had another strong game on Saturday, scoring a try as Northampton continued their winning ways, defeating Bath 43-25. You can see Manoa’s try below – the number 8 pops up on the wing and finishes strongly from close range.

Another week, another last-minute win for Munster.

It was back to league competition this weekend, as the Heineken Cup is on hiatus until the second weekend of January. In the Pro 12, Scarlets traveled to Cork to face Munster, and came very close to a rare win at Thomond Park, a notoriously difficult stadium for away teams. Both sides were understrength, as Munster coach Rob Penney and his Scarlets counterpart Simon Easterby opted for squad rotation after consecutive weeks of intense European competition.

Bad conditions prevented the two sides from playing much running rugby, and they went into halftime tied 3-3. Scarlets took the lead a few minutes into the second half thanks to a converted John Barclay try, and Munster responded with two penalties to cut the Scarlets’ lead to 10-9. Scarlets went down to 14 men in the 73rd minute, and then had to play the last four minutes of the match with just 13 men after Michael Poole joined his teammate Rob Evans in the sin bin. As with last week, Munster found themselves in possession after the siren, knowing any mistake would mean defeat.  And once again, it was JJ Hanrahan, (this week playing flyhalf), in the center of the action.  Some good work from the Munster pack got them within a few meters of the Scarlets’ tryline, and then Hanrahan spotted Ronan O’Mahony – in acres of space thanks to Munster’s numerical advantage – and duly found him with a crossfield kick. It appeared that Munster and Ireland prop Dave Kilcoyne had knocked on in the build-up, but after consultation with the Television Match Official (TMO), referee Nigel Owens decided to award the try.

Meanwhile, in the English Premiership, Saracens made a huge statement with a dominant 49-10 victory over perennial contenders Leicester. Much-maligned England wing Chris Ashton scored two tries, while rising star Billy Vunipola also touched down for Saracens.

Finally, in the French Top 14, Toulon were rampant, defeating Montpellier 43-10. The result raised a few eyebrows. Toulon were just two points ahead of Montpellier in the league standings going into the match, but you wouldn’t have guessed it – such was the gulf in class between the two sides. Several of Toulon’s bevy of international stars got themselves on the scoresheet, with South African Juan Smith, Australian Drew Mitchell, and Englishman Steffon Armitage all scoring tries.

Below, O’Mahony’s winning try for Munster.

The Heineken Cup brought rugby fans two fantastic games on Saturday, underlining once again what a shame it would be if we were to lose the premier European club competition. The political situation is complex, and there are many financial interests at stake, but the bottom line is that the Heineken Cup is a wonderful showcase for the game we love, and benefits all of the clubs involved. As fans we can only hope that the bigwigs sort out their differences and keep the competition alive in one form or another.

Perpignan v Munster provided sheer heart-pounding drama – it was a brutally physical, tight contest that Munster were leading 13-12 when Italy center Tommaso Benvenuti scored a try for Perpignan in the 77th minute. That put the French side ahead 17-13 with just a few minutes to play. Munster managed to regain possession, but they were going nowhere, with their backs throwing some uncharacteristically sloppy passes. The siren sounded, indicating 80 minutes were up, and Munster knew they could not afford any errors, or the game would be lost. They showed incredible resilience to get back on the front foot, and then 21-year old JJ Hanrahan, who had only just been substituted on, produced a moment of magic – a sidestep that will live long in the memory of Munster fans. Hanrahan went over in the corner, and amazingly Munster had won the game 18-17.

Meanwhile, Leinster v Northampton Saints was the more fascinating in psychological terms. Leinster had humiliated Saints a week ago in Northampton, and everyone was wondering whether the English side would be able to recover in time for their trip to Dublin. Their response was a credit to everyone involved with the club. Northampton dominated the collisions and consistently got over the gainline, as the back row of Calum Clark, Tom Wood, and Samu Manoa (who was named Man of the Match) were outstanding. Leinster clearly missed the influence of Sean O’Brien at the breakdown and in the loose. Yet the Leinster defense held strong, and the Irish side only trailed 7-3 at halftime. The seesaw battle continued in the second half as the two teams traded penalties, and then a drop goal from replacement scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i put Northampton 13-9 ahead with time nearly up. Leinster fought their way back down the field as the siren sounded, going through more than 20 phases, camped out on the Northampton line for many of them. The Saints defense was resolute though, and finally Leinster and Ireland number 8 Jamie Heaslip knocked on. To add insult to injury, Saints wing Jamie Elliott pounced on the loose ball and ran it back for a try, robbing Leinster of the losing bonus point.