RBS 6 Nations Round 2
England have named an unchanged team for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Italy at Twickenham, after they defeated Wales 21-16 in Cardiff in the Championship opener: a result that saw England replace Ireland as new title favourites. England coach Lancaster, had hoped to pick Geoff Parling as specialist second row cover among the replacements at the expense of Nick Easter or Tom Croft, only for the Leicester lock to suffer a setback in his recovery from a knee injury. “It’s always good to be able to name an unchanged team and to build some consistency. We did the same last year after France heading into the Scotland game,” Lancaster said. England were able to report a clean bill of health despite a full-blooded encounter at the Millennium Stadium with Jonathan Joseph and lock George Kruis who will be making their first international start at Twickenham. Tighthead Dan Cole is given another chance to gain match fitness after a year interrupted by neck and foot problems, while on the other side of the scrum Joe Marler continues to be the first-choice loosehead. England have never lost to Italy in 20 matches dating back to 1991, but have won by only seven points or less in three of their last five matches. The rivals’ last meeting at Twickenham two years ago saw Lancaster’s men prevail just 18-11 through six penalties from Toby Flood, but according to the best rugby predictions it won’t be so close this year.
Ireland could have five Lions back for Saturday’s match with France in Dublin, with flanker Sean O’Brien close to contention after a hamstring injury in the warm-up in Rome last Saturday ruled him out of a first Test appearance in more than a year. Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, Cian Healy and O’Brien may all come into an Ireland side who were less than convincing in claiming an opening 26-3 win over Italy. O’Brien was a late withdrawal from the XV for Rome but an MRI scan on Sunday night confirmed the forward suffered only a minor hamstring strain, the Ireland team manager Mick Kearney confirmed on Monday. Best is returning to action following protocols for concussion, as is Sexton, who may displace Ian Keatley at fly-half. Heaslip could play following a shoulder injury while Eoin Reddan and Dave Kearney are also fit for selection. O’Brien has not played for Ireland since the agonising late defeat to world champions New Zealand in November 2013 after two shoulder reconstruction surgeries. Conor Murray, the scrum half, knows Ireland must improve against a France side who opened with a win over Scotland. He said: “Our Italy game will not be good enough to beat France this weekend. We’ve got to up it. They’ve got a lot of talent in their team who can change the game in a moment. They can be really dangerous if you let them attack and leave them in space.” Our top rugby tipster has suggested a slender win buy Ireland, but with the French one really never knows.
Warren Gatland did not wait for George North, who suffered two knocks to the head during Wales’s defeat to England last Friday, to be given the medical all-clear before deciding to leave the wing out of the side to face Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday. The Wales head coach decided the welfare of the player and the image of the game were more important than picking his strongest team. North, who missed a match in November because of concussion, was unhappy at the decision having spent the week going through return-to-play protocols, but such was the reaction on social media and in the game itself, that Gatland decided the risk to North was too great and he was aware of the outcry that would follow if the player suffered another head injury against Scotland. “There is a high chance that George will pass the concussion tests, but we came to the decision that it was better for him as an individual that we did not consider him this weekend,” said Gatland. “He took a couple of knocks at the weekend and given his history in the autumn, we looked at it from a welfare perspective. We also had to make sure we protected the image of the game. If he had not taken the knock in the autumn, we would have continued with the protocols, but it is all speculation. I can imagine that if we had not made this decision and George went out on Sunday and got another knock, how is that going to look for him and how would it look for rugby as a whole? It would give the game a bad image and we would have received abuse and criticism afterwards from all sorts of people. We pride ourselves on putting the welfare of our players first.”
Scotland head into the clash with Wales after a closely fought 15-8 defeat to France, with the desire to inflict another defeat on the Dragons. “We watched the Wales-England game on Friday,” said Scotland winger Dougie Fife. “It looked very physical and the breakdown was more competitive than it has been in the last few Six Nations, so that will be a big part of the match on Saturday when we play Wales. They will be disappointed and will be looking for a backlash, but so will we. We respect every side in this tournament but we don’t fear any team. We have the ability to beat anyone in this competition.” Rugby tips here would call for a draw, but is that really possible?