England v Wales

The 6 Nations is one of the highlights of the sporting calendar for me. I just love it! In case you hadn’t guessed, I’ll be supporting Wales!

After the great news that Lee Byrne’s ban had been overturned came the shocker that Gethin Jenkins will miss the opener against England with a calf injury. It’s always a rollercoaster in Wales!

Ok, my view on the match this Saturday. If Gethin had been fit, we should have held, if not dominated, the scrum. As it is, with two of our first choice front row players out, we’re probably not going to be as effective. So the front-row battle isn’t going to be such an issue for England anymore.

At the back of the scrum, Martyn Williams and Ryan Jones are hugely important as they both have such influence on the game. Andy Powell is a worry, I don’t think he’s quick enough to play blindside flanker, and his handling of the ball in contact needs massive improvement. That, and he’s not such a surprise anymore, other teams have learnt how to deal with his rampaging runs. The English back row is, as always, very strong. They do seem to have an endless supply of quality flankers (Steffon Armitage notwithstanding – I don’t rate him), Haskell seems to have improved immensely since moving to France, Easter is a skillful player, and ‘Mad Dog’ Moody will not give Stephen Jones an inch of space all afternoon.

The backs. Wales will really miss Peel and Phillips at scrum-half. I don’t know why Gatland keeps picking Cooper. His speed of passs and decision-making skills are not good enough at this level. He is very quick with the ball in hand, but nowhere close to the first & second-choices. A lot depends on Johnny Wilkinson. If he plays to the best of his ability, Wales are going to struggle all afternoon. Stephen Jones will marshall the game sensibly, even if he does lack a little of the dynamism of Hook or Biggar. Both back lines are exciting, with pace and flair in abundance. It will be interesting to see how Hook plays at outside centre (the position Gatland sees him in long-term), if that partnership with Roberts clicks, we could be in for some entertaining stuff. For England, Flutey seems to be getting back to his best (even if he doesn’t like to pass the ball!) and he will be a huge threat in midfield. Both sets of wingers have points to prove, Monye, Williams & Cueto need good games to maintain their places in the teams, whereas Tom James is looking to stake a claim for first-choice wing berth. I won’t say much about Byrne, his playing speaks for itself. I would put him as one of the best full-backs in the world on his day, if not the best. Armitage is going to be pelted with Garryowens and he’s got to be at his best to out-catch Byrne.

My verdict: I’m not sure the game will live up to the expectation people have of the exciting backs. It could come down to the effectiveness of the back-rows in maintaining good ball for the backs to be set free. I’m going with a narrow Welsh win, maybe by 4 points. Whether that’s my head or my heart speaking I’ll keep to myself!

In the other matches of the weekend I expect Ireland to be far to strong for Italy and emerge as comfortable winners. The Scotland v France match will probably be a scrappy affair with Scotland trying to stifle the French. As it’s at Murrayfield, I’ll go for a 2 point Scotland win, with all their points coming from Paterson’s boot.

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