Six Nations: England happy being underdogs against Ireland
Coach Joe Schmidt expects an edge-of-the-seat match at home in Dublin
The Six Nations begins in Paris this evening with France hosting Wales, before grand slam champions Ireland welcome England to Dublin tomorrow after Scotland and Italy clash in Edinburgh.
Tonight’s fixture between France and Wales starts at 8pm (GMT) and is live on BBC and S4C.
Scotland vs. Italy is at 2.15pm (live on BBC)on Saturday, while Ireland vs. England is at 4.45pm (live on ITV).
Ireland vs. England
- When: Saturday 2 February
- Where: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
- Start time: 4.45pm
- TV channel: live on ITV
England put their trust in Tuilagi
The big call from England head coach Eddie Jones for his team’s game against Ireland is the inclusion at centre of Manu Tuilagi.
Injuries have bedevilled the powerful Leicester Tiger in recent seasons, and he last made an appearance in the Six Nations in 2013. Alongside him in the centre is Henry Slade, while Jones has resisted the temptation to recall Mike Brown at full-back and keeps faith with Elliot Daly.
Meanwhile, brothers Mako (prop) and Billy Vunipola (No. 8) will play for England for the first time this season. Billy Vunipola will need to keep an eye on his flankers, Tom Curry and Mark Wilson, both of whom are making their Six Nations debuts.
Asked about his team selection, Jones said: “I think it is quite clear to beat Ireland you have to beat them in the contest area. They are very good at the breakdown and in the air, both those areas are a priority for us.”
Ireland are the firm favourites, but Jones says the underdog tag suits him and his players just fine. “Everyone is writing them up and they have got to carry that expectation round,” he said. “It is well documented no one thinks we can win, but I can tell you everyone inside our camp believes we can win.”
Ireland will field 13 of the 15 that beat New Zealand in Dublin in November, with the changes coming at full-back and scrum-half.
Rob Kearney hands the No. 15 shirt to Robbie Henshaw, while Conor Murray has recovered from a neck injury and takes his place at scrum-half, where he will reform his formidable partnership with Jonathan Sexton.
The half-back battle will be crucial in determining the outcome, with Sexton dominating Owen Farrell at Twickenham last season.
Another fascinating confrontation will be in the front-row, where Irish props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong will be confident of subduing English duo Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt predicted: “I think it’s going to be edge of the seat because I don’t think there’s a huge amount between the teams.”
- Ireland starting XV: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rory Best, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Devin Toner, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 7 Josh van der Flier, 8 CJ Stander. Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Sean O'Brien, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour
- England starting XV: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Tom Curry, 8 Billy Vunipola. Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Chris Ashton
France vs. Wales
- When: Friday 1 February
- Where: Stade de France, Paris
- Start time: 8pm (all times UK)
- TV channel: live on BBC and S4C
Matches between Les Bleus and Wales usually involve plenty of drama. The last time they met in the French capital, the home side didn’t seal victory until a controversial try in the 20th minute of stoppage time, following a farcical series of re-set scrums.
Despite ceding home advantage to the French, Wales will go into the game as marginal favourites after winning their last nine Test matches.
France, on the other hand, won just three of their 11 Tests in 2018, and ended the year with a historic and humiliating defeat at home to Fiji.
France give debuts to 19-year-old centre Romain Ntamack and South Africa-born second-row Paul Willemse, while coach Jacques Brunel pairs Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez at half-back.
It’s the sixth half-back combination in 12 Tests for France, and their failure to find a settled combination at scrum-half and fly-half in recent years helps explain why it’s nine years since they last won the title.
That is the longest barren spell for the French since before the Second World War.
Wales go for the X-factor
Warren Gatland has given the scrum-half shirt to Tomos Williams ahead of Gareth Davies.
Wales head coach Gatland described Williams as possessing “some X factor”, and how the player combines with fly-half Gareth Anscombe will be crucial to the visitors’ chances in Paris.
Of similar importance is the set-piece battle, with the French pack massive but not terribly mobile. If Wales can at the very least gain parity in the scrum, that should allow their quicker and more skilful back-row to dominate the breakdown.
- France starting XV: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Wesley Fofana, 12 Romain Ntamack, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Jefferson Poirot. Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Felix Lambey, 20 Greg Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Gael Fickou, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou
- Wales starting XV: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tomos Williams, 1 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens, 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Adam Beard, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 6 Josh Navidi, 7. Justin Tipuric, 8 Ross Moriarty. Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin
Scotland vs. Italy
- When: Saturday 2 February
- Where: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
- Start time: 2.15pm
- TV channel: live on BBC
Relegation on the mind
The last time that a nation other than Scotland or Italy didn’t finish bottom of the championship was back in 2013.
Italy, who have lost their last 17 consecutive Six Nations matches, have collected the wooden spoon in four of the last five seasons.
The news this week that relegation from the Six Nations could be introduced as part of a global shake-up of international rugby will sharpen minds ahead of tomorrow’s clash at Murrayfield.
Under coach Gregor Townsend, Scotland have shown that they have talent if not consistency, and should be far too strong for their visitors, whom they’ve beaten in their last six encounters.
- Scotland starting XV: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Blair Kinghorn, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain); 1 Allan Dell, 2 Stuart McInally, 3 Willem Nel, 4 Ben Toolis, 5 Grant Gilchrist, 6 Sam Skinner, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 8 Ryan Wilson. Replacements: 16 Jake Kerr, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Gary Graham, 20 Josh Strauss, 21 Ali Price, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Chris Harris
- Italy starting XV: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Michele Campagnaro, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi; 8 Sergio Parisse (captain); 7 Braam Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 David Sisi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti. Replacements: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Edoardo Padovani