I can’t wait for the weekend. Why? Let me give you three reasons. First, the schools’ rugby season is upon us! Another season that promises suspense and drama all the way through. We also have the commencement of the Super Rugby Championship.
I’m sure many will be keen to see their favourite southern hemisphere players limber up after a break. And last but not least, we also have one hell of a Six Nations enter its third week. So, it’s pretty much non-stop action all the way through for the Sri Lankan rugby fan base.
Before we look at what’s in store for the opening weekend of the schools’ league, lets discuss the Six Nations, which this year serves up one of the most intriguing tournaments in recent times.
After two extremely intense weeks of back-to-back Six Nations action, all teams involved would have been thankful for some rest to put their feet up. With all that big-hitting, bone jarring collisions that we’ve now come to associate with the modern game, adequate time to recuperate is all the more important. A ‘bye’ weekend also provides all involved with the opportunity to take stock of what’s transpired over the first two games, to reflect, and reorganize as the tournament heads to the business end of proceedings.
The most anticipated Six Nations tournament in years kicked off at the hallowed fields of Murrayfield on Saturday.
England have shown us that even on their worst day, they will still find a way to win. They were somewhat fortunate to close out the game against France on the opening weekend. That game could well have gone the other way. And against Wales, their reserves, or ‘finishers’ (as Eddie Jones calls them) proved to be the difference between the two sides. There has been a lot of talk about Dylan Hartley’s contributions on the pitch. He does look a bit short of match practice, which is largely down to his own ill-discipline. And for the second game running, Jamie George came on for him shortly after half-time him and outshone him. Nevertheless the England think tank have sprung to Hartley’s defense, with glowing tributes about his leadership skills. But for me, you have to be the best player in your position to be in the side. And Hartley is a long way off the pace.
Ben Te’o also had a massive impact coming off the bench, as did their enforcer James Haskell. When you have players coming off the bench in the last quarter and raising the standard so high, that’s just so difficult for the tiring opposition to cope with. That is one main reason why this England team is now on a fifteen game winning streak, and rapidly closing in on the All Blacks record. They will be happy to be back at their Twickenham fortress and will look to put Italy to the sword. It will be interesting to see the composition of the team Jones picks for this game. But even if he sends out one with an experimental feel to it, you can’t see any other outcome but a bonus point win against the Azzuri.
Wales did so much right in their last gasp loss to the English. They started so well, and seemed to match fire with fire with some big hits in defense. Number Eight Ross Moriarty was particularly impressive. Just ask Owen Farrell, who was at the receiving end of a monster hit. However, with ten minutes to go, they just lost their composure. Wave after wave of England attack seemed to have taken the wind out of their sails, which was reflected in that tired clearance by Jonathan Davies that didn’t find touch. Elliot Daly put the finishing touches to some swift moving of the ball across the field, and the game was gone. For me, serious question marks appear on how Wales used their substitutes. Whilst the ‘finishers’ invigorated England, Wales just couldn’t maintain the tempo when they made changes. Taking Moriarty off was just nonsensical. He was having the game of his life, and whilst Faletau is a good player, he was just returning from injury and was not going to hit his straps so early. Rob Howley got that one badly wrong. They now travel to Edinburgh to taken on a stung Scottish side. We all saw what they did to Ireland. Wales would have to be at their best.
2017 is upon us, and is a year of great rugby significance. It marks the midway point between the World Cup cycle…
If you cannot find any big men in France, then just look at the squad Guy Noves has assembled. They’re all there. Absolute monsters. Though losing to England in that first game, Les Bleus is still in with a real shout. They played a very good Scotland team, and did well to beat them. They have a huge forward pack, which makes their scrum virtually indestructible. I would go as far as to say their physicality was the telling difference. Scotland at one point were struggling to make up the numbers as so many were leaving the field with concussions or injury. They will travel to Dublin quietly confident. They know they have the power game to counter Ireland. They just have to make intelligent decisions when they get into critical areas of the park. Louis Picamoles has been absolutely outstanding with his carries, and they have genuine finishing quality on the wings with Scott Spedding carrying the ball more since Noves took over. Ireland will have to work extremely hard to get past this French team.
The Scots played well in Paris, though ending up on the receiving end. They were very much in the game, but just could not cope with the battering dished out by the French. With Finn Russell orchestrating play, and Stuart Hogg so dangerous out wide, they have some real attacking options at their disposal. But one area that they struggled in, now for two weeks in a row, is their scrummaging. If you can’t hold your own in scrums, you cannot win games of rugby union. That will never change. Wales probably carry the least threat in this area of the game, compared with the other opposition. If they can negate this threat, they will really fancy their chances of repeating their heroics against Ireland. If they do find a way to win, they will, quite surprisingly, be very much in the fray for top honours. The Gray brothers have been outstanding with their work rate, as has been Alex Dunbar in midfield. They will however, be without their inspirational Skipper Greig Laidlaw. But maybe a younger pair of hands and legs may add something to the fast paced game they will look to play. It promises to be an interesting contest.
After their surprising first round defeat, Ireland were quick to get back on the horse. From the word ‘go’ they took apart Italy piece by piece as they racked up sixty point. When your replacement winger scores a hat-trick that tells you that you’ve pretty much had things go your way. The thing about Ireland is that they have enormous depth in their squad. Players like Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander have just more or less arrived on the scene. But they are already held in the highest regard. Stander in particular. For me, he is an almost certainty to be part of the Lions Test squad. Johnny Sexton is also on course to return to the fold. With Henshaw and Ringrose in midfield, Simon Zebo and Trimble out on the wings, Ireland seem to have it all. Connor Murray has also really stepped up his game at the base, and is right up there with the best. Rory Best is touted as a possible Lions captain, but he will have his mind firmly fixed on Scotland. They simply cannot afford any more slip-ups if they are to go into that final game against England for a winner-takes-all showdown.
Success, in any sport or discipline is not a result derived overnight…
After a promising start, we were hoping to see Italy continue to show signs of improvement. However, they quickly began to resemble the hapless teams of recent times when faced with a quality opposition. They need to start getting some consistency into their game. In the Autumn, they hit a new high when they beat South Africa in Florence. But then they came quickly crashing down, falling prey to the less fancied Tonga. Sergio Parisse is a top quality International. But he needs to remain calm, especially when certain calls don’t go their way. I get the feeling that when he loses the plot, his team quickly follows suit. Connor O’Shea is very much aware of the magnitude of the task in front of him. And I’m certain he will lift this team to be a more consistent one. We just have to give him the benefit of time.
In terms of the local schools’ season, which kicks off on Friday, we have two block-busters first up. Trinity come down to Colombo to play the experienced Wesley. Last year, Trinity prevailed by a whisker to win 8-7 in Pallekelle. The double blues will be keen to gain some revenge for that, and start their campaign on a high.
In the other game, St. Peter’s welcome St. Anthony’s to Bambalapitiya. The Peterites are said to be the favourites, with some elusive runners. But if you make mistakes and give away penalties anywhere near midway point of the field – chances are Samuel Maduwantha will knock them over. So it’ll be interesting to see how that one unfolds. Another real humdinger of a prospect is the Royal-Joes clash. It is said that St. Joseph’s have assembled a really strong squad. They were unfortunate to lose last year’s encounter by a point. So, with Nilufer Ibrahim now in charge, they promise to be a real handful this time around.