Thursday 23 March 2017

Brendan Fanning runs the rule over the rest

France

All the tinkering by Marc Lievremont looks to have given him enough ammunition now to fire in several directions. Their remaining programme looks to have one high hurdle -- in Cardiff -- before Italy and England fill the last two rounds in Stade de France.



And the coach has cover in every position, nowhere with so much room for manoeuvre as the front row where despite the foreign influx in the Top 14 Lievremont has real quality, some of which will be given a run in the penultimate round. Ireland and Scotland will testify to that strength in depth, and neither have had to face Fabien Barcella (injured) or Guilhelm Guirado.

For now though, Lievremont will continue with the same bunch that got them this far. Their lineout against Wales will be better, and Wales's, without the athleticism of the injured Alun Wyn Jones, will be worse. The bookies handicap should be interesting.

England

This is as good an example as you can get of stats sometimes leading you up the garden path: England 2/0, which matches their start of 2007 (after which they went on to lose two of the remaining three). And they're playing like a team who should be 0/2.

When Italy got a run on them in the last quarter in Rome last Sunday you could see the outline of what would have been the biggest upset in Six Nations history. Jonny Wilkinson (pictured) may not be scaring anyone on the gain line but his capacity for dropping goals at the right time hasn't gone away.

So what next? Martin Johnson will get more flak about Wilkinson's general form and Steve Borthwick's captaincy but he will be transfixed by the match points won so far and plough ahead. If his pack could generate a bit of momentum, as they did occasionally against Wales in the first round, then Danny Care becomes a lethal weapon. If not they just plod along.

Scotland

Chris Cusiter (pictured) maintained last week that his team would be focusing on the positives after Cardiff, and defended their decision to go for broke when they were already, eh, broken. Their morale must be subterranean after blowing what would have been their first win in Wales since 2002, on top of suffering serious injuries to Thom Evans and Chris Paterson.

So you factor those two players out of the equation and it takes much of the good from the first half when they played really effective rugby. Johnnie Beattie looks set to leave a mark on this Championship. The 24-year-old is really coming into his own but it would have helped had he been playing for a team on the up.

Italy next at home would have been ok. Away though, and with Nick Mallett having taken a lot of positives from the defeat by England, Andy Robinson won't be getting much sleep over the next week.

Wales

Warren Gatland's pre-match rant about the Scots not playing ball by wanting the Millennium roof open suggested a man with a lot to worry about. And then, after the first half, you could see why. His team's comeback was thrilling but the circumstances were unique. The loss of Andy Powell against France robs Wales of an enormously physical, if not cerebral, presence in a back row that had been balanced. And the message Gatland (pictured) saw reinforced in the Ireland game in Paris was the need to match France's power up front, never mind behind.

For injury-plagued Wales to win it will take a significant shift upwards from them and the same in the other direction from France. That seems a lot to ask, especially as Marc Lievremont's fitness issues seem to be receding. We now have the prospect of four back-row sized players from 11 across to 14: Malzieu, Jauzion, Bastareaud and Rougerie. Nice.

Italy

The visit of Scotland on Saturday is Italy's last home tie -- they finish in Paris and Cardiff in the last two rounds -- and they are in decent nick to throw everything at the Scots who will be denied the comfort of having Chris Paterson to punish their indiscretions.

In the other corner, Mirco Bergamasco is hanging in there with four from six over the first two rounds. He makes every step look like it is a monumental exercise in concentration but if he can maintain those stats and Italy can keep 15 players on the field, then it will be enough to make them very competitive against the Scots.

The arrival of Craig Gower last June was the latest in Italy's attempts to fill the 10 slot and so far so good. With Luke McLean and Allessandro Zanni in good form, it gives Italy a spine. And to complete it, hooker and captain Leonardo Ghiraldini, after his horror show in Croke Park, saw only two throws lost from 16.

Sunday Independent

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