Wayne Barnes replacing Steve Walsh on the whistle is probably the biggest news ahead of this game, let’s hope it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game (although I am minded of a recent game Wales played in Cardiff against Australia where Barnes avoided awarding a scrum for 45 minutes because, possibly as a result of his own lack of confidence when it comes to judging the set piece). Shaun Edwards claimed this week that Ireland deliberately avoided choke tackling English players in their previous match because they didn’t fancy their chances at scrum time, so both front rows and refereeing interpretation could have a bearing on the final result. Statistically Wales have had the better scrum so far in the tournament with a success rate of 87% on the their own feed while Ireland’s success rate has been slightly inferior at 80%, when it comes to line out time though the Irish have a formidable 90% success rate on their own throw compared to a rather worrying 78% success for the Welsh.
Presumably Wales will look to use the scrum as their most potent attacking weapon but as Ireland have the worst tackle completion rate in the tournament it would be prudent if Wales allow their back’s to use the first phase ball their scrum should secure rather than trying to milk penalties from a pushing contest. Robbie Henshaw missed a rather worrying 30% of the tackles he attempted last time out against England so Wales would do well to try to get some of their better ball carriers like Taulupe Faletau and Jonathan Davies into the 12 channel early on Saturday (although under Howley’s rather vanilla “attack” coaching Wales mainly rely Jamie Roberts).
The lineout has been Wales’ stumbling block on more than 1 occasion in recent memory against Ireland and with Paul O’Connell winning his 100th cap this weekend he’ll definitely be looking to tear it apart again. Unfortunately the only way I can see the line out not being a problem for Wales is if they can avoid having any particularly in their own half and the inclusion of Liam Williams in the back 3 may help them to field and return as many of Ireland’s kicks as possible but if they drop 2 players into the backfield every time Ireland have the ball then Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney will have acres of space to run into so there will certainly be a fine line for Wales to tread in defence.
“Modified training” was a pretty choice of words when the Irish camp described Jonny Sexton’s return from a hamstring problem this week and the return of Jamie Heaslip from “3 fractured vertebrae” seems bordering on the miraculous (maybe he’s walking from Dublin to Cardiff too) but in Ian Madigan and Jordi Murphy Ireland certainly have more flair on the bench than Wales do and Joe Schmidt has shown that he’s not afraid to use his substitutes, unlike Warren Gatland who one imagines would only let Rhys Priestland on the pitch if it were a matter of life and death (probably Gatland’s own).
Wales have scored more tries than Ireland in the Championship so far so there’s always that glimmer of hope to hang on to, that’s not the only chink of light for Welsh supporters either, remember when Jonny Sexton had the chance to put the final nail in the All Black’s coffin in the Aviva Stadium and he missed the posts? If it comes down to a nervy penalty kicking contest between Halfpenny (or Biggar) and Sexton (or Madigan) then you’d be tempted to favour the British Lion and last year’s Pro 12 player of the season. On the subject of penalties, a lot will depend on the refereeing interpretations of one Mr. Barnes and last week in Bath when they played Sale nobody (watching or playing) really understood what Wayne was doing in the middle so expect a certain measure of controversy. For what it’s worth Wales have given more penalties than Ireland (who have the best discipline in the tournament, although it could be argued they’ve got the plum draw of referee’s too) this year 34 to 26.
I’m not making any predictions but unless Sam Warburton actually proves that he’s deserving of the title “Wales most captain” then Ireland and Sean O’Brien along with Peter O’Mahony will be the benefactors of the sort of dour, trench warfare that saw them see off England comfortably last time out.
Even Brian Moore thinks England have no chance in Cardiff and with their many and frequent injuries there will certainly be chances for Wales to exploit a number of new English combinations, but if there’s one accusation that could be levelled at England and in particular the English coaching team in recent times it’s that they may have become a little stale so the enforced changes could freshen them up. With the furore surrounding the roof (of all things) there’s a few personnel aspects that seem to have gone slightly under the radar.
For a start one can’t help feeling that Warren Gatland has missed a trick by not selecting Gareth Anscombe for his Welsh debut on this game, albeit it would have been off the bench but England’s incumbent number 10 George Ford has 1 very bad memory of Anscombe from the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup final when Anscombe’s New Zealand U20’s side aka the Baby Blacks came from behind to beat Ford’s England team with Anscombe scoring 18 points. A more pressing concern for Welsh fans in Gatland’s omission is that he has instead chosen Rhys Priestland whose talent’s should by no means be discounted but when Anscombe & Priestland met head to head in the Pro 12 Anscombe scored 11 points as the Blues ran out 21-9 winners. Another worry for Priestland is that when he has played without a creative force in midfield, usually in the shape of Gareth Owen the Scarlets’ attacking play has looked severely blunted this season and the Welsh midfield is a lot of things but creative is not in their lexicon. If Wales need somebody to change the game in the last 20 minutes you could argue an ex Baby Black would bring the little bit of assurance and even swagger needed to wobble what is sure to be a determined and resolute English team. It would seem to prudent to mention in passing that Owen Williams has been very impressive at 10 for Leicester Tigers for almost 2 seasons now but his omission from the entire 6 Nations squad and not just the game day 23 must be entirely politically motivated.
The addition of a rejuvenated Danny Cipriani to England’s match day squad is more than a slight headache for both of Wales’ Fly Halves who would both rather defend against a less dynamic number 10, preferably one who is just going to guide his forwards around the pitch with his tactical kicking a la George Ford. If Cipriani is to be England’s Superman then Wales’ defense coach and Cipriani’s former head coach (and before that backs coach) at Wasps Shaun Edwards may well be his kryptonite, Edwards will surely have a few tricks up his sleeve to negate Cipriani’s potency (if he was going down the predictable route he may well just throw Justin Tipuric on to add to some extra pace to the Welsh cover defence). An outside half who actually challenges the defensive line provides more difficulties than a midfield ball carrier would since Wales’s defensive Captain is inside centre Jamie Roberts and both Roberts and centre partner Jonathan Davies (who have 107 caps between them) are experts on knowing when to drift or blitz and in doing so preventing any incisive breaks in midfield. Wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert have come in for some, mainly unwarranted criticism for perceived defensive frailties but the back 3 players who have scored tries against Wales in the last 12 months are a pretty impressive group; Wille Le Roux, Cornell Hendricks, Israel Folau and Julian Savea have all had a pretty exceptional 12 months so to criticise defenders for not stopping such clinical finishers seems like carping for the sake of it. Fullback Lee Halfpenny is becoming known for his trademark try saving commitment, which as often as not ends up with him relying on his body more than his technique and occasionally results in him popping off the pitch for a quick “head injury assessment”.
With such a solid Welsh defence out wide the close quarters battle between each team’s respective packs will be key and Warren Gatland’s decision to leave out Bradley Davies who has been in a rock in the Wasps pack this season is strange unless it’s a purely politically driven decision (although Luke Charteris who has taken the 3rd lock spot is another who plays his club rugby outside Wales in Paris for Racing Metro). Davies has been an expert at splitting driving mauls when defending for Wasps and along with England’s blind side (although he’s clearly a more destructive force as a 7) James Haskell he’s been one of the main reasons that Wasps sit 4th in the Aviva Premiership. Davies has been key in Wasps scrums too this season in the “engine room” and when he hasn’t been on the field their scrum has looked a lot less stable. Incidentally Haskell will be one of the most influential players on the field and unless Wales can open up the English defence and score some tries the penalties that Haskell is bound to win at the breakdown may well give George Ford the chance to win the game with his boot.
Possibly Wales brightest star in the squad is tight head prop Samson Lee who is set to make his 6 Nations debut in this game, Lee is a fierce scrummager and if the pitch (which has been replaced at a cost of £1.7 million to the tax payer, allegedly) can hold up and French referee Pascal Gauzere can establish a grip at the set piece Lee may well be the cornerstone for a dominant Welsh pack. Lee has good memories of playing against England loose head Joe Marler as his Scarlet’s team met Marler’s Quins in the last Heineken Cup with Lee’s side providing the upset of the tournament as the Scarlets turned over Quins at the Stoop 26-33, although he did get a yellow card in that game so he’s no angel.
Although the roof is a massive red herring the atmosphere inside the Stadium will undoubtedly be electric and extremely noisy (Stuart Lancaster can’t seriously think, or even hope opening the roof will instantly turn it into a library) but this doesn’t always play into the home team’s hands. Wales have been known to feel the wrath of the local fans and particularly against their bitterest of enemies if they don’t get off to a fast start by playing some exciting rugby (which is not always Gatland and Howley’s forte) then 70,000 supporters (we’re letting a few away fans in, right?) will voice their displeasure. I for one hope the home team are lifted by the fervour and noise and not crushed under the weight of expectation, but don’t believe all you read it’s definitely a 2 horse race.
France haven’t won the 6 Nations since they did the Grand Slam in 2010 which, allied to the fact they’re 4th favourites with the bookies, makes my fancying them to do it this year even more irrational than most of my ideas. The return of Captain and former IRB Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir should galvanise Philippe Saint-Andre’s side and combined with the fact that Saint-Andre appears to have settled on the makeup of what had been an ever changing backline Dusautoir’s return should coincide with a turnaround in “les bleu’s” modest 6 Nations record. Dusautoir will command a lot more respect from his players than last year’s replacement Pascal Pape did last season and they should be a more disciplined outfit who don’t concede as many penalties and collect as many cards as they have done in the past. One of the key players in the French backline will be Clermont Auvergne’s fly half Camille Lopez, who ironically is a player of impish flair like Saint- Andre was, his ability to make space for the expert finishers out wide like Teddy Thomas, Yoann Huget, Lopez’s club teammates Wesley Fofana and the new boy (new to the 6 Nations at least) Noa Nakaitaci will be crucial, Lopez will also bring a consistency to the goal kicking that France have not always enjoyed.
Writing off England is never a good idea but as we’ve all heard, they will be missing 13 players for the first game in Cardiff and whilst expecting Wales to do anything is as daft as writing off England is 13 is quite a few! England will be looking to give players who wouldn’t usually be thrown into competitive Test match rugby experience in World Cup year and while James Haskell has been in the form of his life for Wasps and backs like Danny Cipriani and Jonathan Joseph can leave defenders grasping at thin air they could find it difficult to play their natural games behind a front 5 missing the World’s best loose head prop in Alex Corbisiero and 2 exceptional lock’s in Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury.
Ireland haven’t won back to back 6 Nations Championships, well technically ever, their last consecutive tournament victories were in 1948 and 1949 when it was the 5 Nations Championship. Joe Schmidt may well provide to be the catalyst to turn that run around this year but they face France in Dublin and they haven’t beaten the French in Ireland since they moved to the Aviva Stadium. Ireland also have to take on Italy where they lost in 2013 and traditionally become in a forward dominated struggle playing straight into Italian hands. Ireland also have to visit the Millennium Stadium where Wales and Warren Gatland will have more than 1 score to settle after the men in green trounced the valley boys by 20 points in the first half 2 years ago.
Scotland are on un upward curve under new coach Vern Cotter and have been boosted by the return of British Lion Ryan Grant to their ranks (after he was cleared of being involved in an assault). Having only managed to defeat Italy in last year’s last year’s tournament they surely have to improve on that performance but whether they can challenge France in Paris and England in Twickenham remains to be seen.
Wales, despite what Warren Gatland and the rest of his coaching team say are solely focused on improving their fitness for the upcoming RWC and if their Autumn International campaign is anything to go by then they will struggle in the early rounds, especially in Cardiff against a depleted English side who will certainly be fired up and may not hit their straps until they play Scotland in round 4, or at all.
Italy are always impossible to predict, more often than on find themselves on the end of contentious refereeing decisions and like Wales suffer from having a very unreliable surface at their home stadium. One thing you can say with any certainty is they have a pack that will cause most teams in the world trouble and as their November clash with the Springboks showed they are not far away from taking a big scalp.
Controversy has reigned over both team’s build up to this game and to fully discuss who did or did not lower the air pressure of the balls used in the AFC Championship or to try and even contemplate why Richard Sherman thinks all neutral football fans will support a Seahawks team who have a very sketchy record of failed PED test’s in their recent history AND were fined $300,000 for conducting extra contact sessions during preseason would take aeons.
Statistics wise the Seahawks can boast the best running back in the postseason in Marshawn Lynch who has 216 yards on the ground at an average of 108 yards per game, the Patriots leading rusher LeGarrette Blount has just 149 yards (74.5 yards per game) but he does have 3 touchdowns in the playoffs, 2 more than Lynch. The Patriots have averaged a rather astonishing 40 points per game in the postseason and have the best receiver playing in this game in Julian Edelman who has 17 receptions for 172 yards, Danny Amendola and Tight End Rob Gronkowski are 2 of 3 players in the game with 2 postseason touchdown receptions, the third being the Seahawks Jermaine Kearse who only has 4 receptions in the playoffs but 2 of them have resulted in touchdowns! The Seahawks have instead relied on their defence to win them games all season and into January so while they have averaged 29.5 points per game they have only allowed 19.5 per game.
Bizarrely 2 players in the “greatest show on earth” have a perfect passer rating during the playoffs but neither of them are Quarterbacks, Seahawks Punter Jon Ryan has thrown 1 pass for a touchdown and Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (who Tom Brady says can do everything) has also recorded a touchdown pass although Edelman’s was a whopping 51 yarder compared to Ryan’s rather modest 19 yarder (but Edelman’s was thrown to fellow wide receiver Amendola whilst Ryan’s was caught by an Offensive Tackle). Another strange statistic is that both teams have only made 1 successful Field Goal during the postseason, there’s more than a reasonable chance that will change tonight since the “greatest show on earth” very rarely encapsulates the greatest game and this game will have a long way to go to live up to the tension of the NFC Championship game or to the point scoring of the Patriots AFC Divisional round game against the Ravens.
According to the numbers the Patriots should be able to score enough to prevent the Seahawks from becoming the first team to win back to back Super Bowls in a decade but anybody who saw just how terribly the Seahawks played in the NFC Championship game against the Packers knows that they have the strength of character to find a win in the most unlikely of places. Tom Brady will be desperate to win his 4th ring in his 15th year as a professional but there’s more than a chance that all the talk of “deflate-gate” has put unwanted pressure on a Patriots outfit who have been reminded of previous indiscretions. I’m going for a Seahawks victory but with Richard Sherman’s partner extremely close to going into labour, Kam Chancellor suffering an injury in Friday’s practice session and Earl Thomas suffering a separated shoulder in the NFC Championship game the “Legion of Boom” could be more like the “Legion of Gloom”.
As somebody who likes a challenge I thought I’d have a go at predicting what starting XV Warren Gatland would pick for the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff in just under 2 weeks time:
1. Gethin Jenkins
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Samson Lee (although he’s currently injured so Aaron Jarvis could be in)
4. Jake Ball
5. Alun Wyn-Jones
6. Dan Lydiate
7. Sam Warburton
8. Talupe Faletau
9. Rhys Webb
10. Dan Biggar
11. Alex Cuthbert (despite the talk of Liam Williams Gatland’s a stickler for loyalty)
12. Jamie Roberts
13. Jonathan Davies
14. George North
15. Lee Halfpenny
I can’t imagine he’ll stray too far from the starting 15 he’s invested a lot of time and effort in since the last RWC, the interesting thing will be who chooses on the bench. He’s a firm believer that George North can provide cover at Centre and with Halfpenny beginning his International career on the wing I don’t think he’d have any problem shuffling the back 3 if an injury were to occur during the game. England’s approach is difficult to gauge with the number of injuries they suffered during the final round of European games but the inclusion of Nick Easter in the training party suggests Lancaster’s going for a “win now” plan rather than a “plan for the future” mindset (seriously though, how can you not squeeze Maro Itoje in the squad as a wildcard ahead of a 36 year old who hasn’t featured since 2011?). If Lancaster’s going for a bit of instant gratification to satisfy the ever malcontent English rugby press then there’s a solid chance he’ll want to play 10 man rugby and just pick backs who can tackle.
Gatland’s been around the block a few times and if he’s expecting an 80 minute battle in the trenches then I wouldn’t be surprised if he only picked 2 backs on the bench. He’s called Gareth Anscombe into the squad and as he’s said Anscombe can play at 10 of 15 particularly well then I’m expecting him to be on the bench in Cardiff. Scrum half cover is interesting as he selected Gareth Davies who’s hardly played since coming back from injury and Mike Phillips who has struggled to hold down a regular starting sport in Paris for Racing Metro, I’d expect Phillips would be the man for what could be a feisty scrap against a nation who Phillips has defeated 6 times in his career.
The forward replacement’s will be key and with Bradley Davies in the form of his life for Wasps he has to be on the bench, Paul James is also plying his trade in England with a dominant pack in Bath so he’ll definitely keep 22 year old Rob Evans out of the squad. Scott Baldwin will probably be the replacement hooker by virtue of being in 1 piece and involved in the Autumn Internationals, the tight head prop may well be Scott Andrews (who struggles to get a game for his region Cardiff since Adam Jones arrived there, go figure) but if Samson Lee is 100% fit then it’ll probably be Aaron Jarvis who gets more regular regional rugby. There’s not really a recognised number 8 to put on the bench so presumably Gatland would want to Warburton to switch there in the event of an injury to Faletau so there could conceivably 2 flankers on the bench and with James King’s physical presence Gatland may well believe he could provide injury cover at lock as well as providing an option at 8 while Justin Tipuric would be the obvious choice for a specialist open-side. All of this leaves Gatland with a fascinating dilemma, does he pick an outside back (probably Liam Williams if he recovers from injury) or does he bolster the bench with another forward? The temptation to leave the back 3 to rearrange themselves and use Anscombe as an emergency 15 will be pretty strong and with Luke Charteris, who is part of a Racing Metro pack who finished as 1st in Europe, left in the squad I’d be tempted to load up on forwards.
Like the Seahawks and the Packers these 2 teams have already met this season and the Patriots have very happy memories of a 42-20 points victory, that was under the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis back in mid-November though so this week might not be quite the same sort of points-fest. Again like the Packers and the Seahawks it’s difficult to see how the road team can make any case for an upset in this game either, the only game the Patriots lost in Massachusetts this season was in week 17 when they rested as many starters as they could and the Colts didn’t beat a playoff team away all season in 3 attempts.
The weather could play an important role in the way this game is played as both teams do favour a passing offence, but as was already alluded to that’s a lot easy inside the Colts home stadium and with rain and temperatures below freezing forecast in Foxboro this evening passing and catching will not be easy. If the game comes down who can run the ball best then the Patriots should have an advantage purely and simply because they have 5 Running Back’s who have rushed for touchdowns this season while the Colts have used just 3. Of those 3 1 is now on IR and another, the ever disappointing Trent Richardson missed a practice session this week and has been left back in Indiana by the Colts hierarchy. This is the first full season that the Colts 1 remaining back Dan “Boom” Herron has been involved in since he was drafted and he’s averaged an impressive 4.5 rushing yards per carry (& 8.2 yards per catch) in the regular season but he also lost 2 fumbles and has also fumbled twice in the playoffs.
Defensively both teams have generated particularly good pass rush this season with 41 and 40 sacks respectively but with their 16 interceptions helping them to a takeaway differential of +12 they are some way ahead of the Colts who have particular problems with fumbles and ended the regular season with a turnover differential of -5 which left them in the bottom 10 in the NFL.
Andrew Luck has been fantastic in his first 3 seasons (he’s won 3 playoff games) as a professional football player but for the second consecutive season Foxboro and the Patriots look to be 1 hurdle too far for a young Quarterback with an equally young Running Back (they’re both just 25) to assist him. Last season the Patriots beat the Colts 43-22 in the playoffs and Luck threw 4 interceptions along with his 2 touchdown passes, the Patriots ran for 234 yards and scored 6 touchdowns on the ground along the way. This game should not be the same 1 sided affair and with a fully fit Rob Gronkowski (the comeback player of the year you know, well according to the NFL Writers) for Tom Brady to throw to there’s very little chance they will only be scoring rushing touchdowns this year. Gronkowski’s importance to the offence is difficult to understate, not only is he a huge physical presence who is hard to stop but his mere appearance affords Wide Receiver’s Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and occasionally Brandon LaFell acres of space to run into and makes Tom Brady’s life a whole lot easier.
2 time zones and the small matter of a 1,933 mile drive separate the frozen tundra of Wisconsin from the temperate (and more often than not soggy) Pacific Northwest geographically but football-wise it’s each team’s ability to run the football and stop the run that is separates them this season. The Seahawks lead the league in rush yards and their defence was the hardest to run against in the NFL this season too. The Packers on the other hand finished the regular season with the 11th best rushing average on offence and rather worryingly the 23rd tightest run defence in the league, although it should be pointed out that the Packers inability to stop the run is largely a by-product of Nose Tackle B.J Raji missing the entire season with a torn bicep.
The Seahawks have not lost a game since Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner returned from injury on week 12 and since his return they’ve only conceded 56points at an average of 8 per game. Russell Wilson hasn’t lost to Aaron Rodgers in their 2 previous meetings and the Packers haven’t won in Seattle since 2009, so there’s not much reason for optimism for the boys from back East. In fact things look so bleak for the Packers injuries are one of the few things that could assist them, the Seahawks have 15 players on Injured Reserve and a further 8 players missing from practice this week while the Packers only have 10 on Injured reserve and 4 who have missed practice but 2 of them will definitely play because if Eddie Lacey and Aaron Rodgers can stand up they’ll be on the field. The Seahawks have got a particular injury problem on defence where they have 6 defensive linemen on IR and 3 linebackers also missing. The only other issue the Seahawks have experienced this season is ill discipline, they were the most penalised team in the NFL during the regular season and if Rodgers and the Packers are able to keep the score tight and build a bit of tension then they could benefit from some of the ticky-tacky refereeing calls these playoffs are in danger of being remembered for.
The Packers haven’t really got much going for them in this match-up and unless Aaron Rodgers is 100% fit (which he probably isn’t) there’s nothing to suggest the Packers season won’t finish where it started on the 4th of September last year with a 20 point loss in front of the “12th man” at CenturyLink Field. The thing about Rodgers and the Packers is they’re scrappers and with the officiating we’ve seen this postseason it’s far from certain. For what it’s worth the Packers pass rush should be able to cause the Seahawks offensive line and Russell Wilson some problems but it won’t help them stop Marshawn Lynch if he turns on his “Beastmode”.