Planet Rugby

Six Nations: Five game-changers

21st February 2014 11:23

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Referee Craig Joubert shows a yellow card

Don't mess with this ref: Craig Joubert

We take a look at five key talking points in the Six Nations as the Championship enters a pivotal weekend in Round Three.

The Joubert Factor

Referee Craig Joubert is an unusual species; he's a man often criticised by observers rather harshly for being overly accurate.

In truth, his aim is simple. Create a clean and technical contest at the breakdown and scrummage, keep the ball in play as long as possible and woe betide those that transgress.

Unusually, he will reward technical defence as much as structured attack, something alien to both the Irish and English games, where more latitude is allowed at the breakdown in terms of tackle release and entry angles, and sides going forward are generally rewarded.

What does this mean in practice? If the teams comply with the South African's approach, you'll see a lot of handling and a high tempo match, with an average 'ball in play time' of over 50 minutes. If they don't, the placekickers will lick their lips with delight as he has often been known to award in excess of 20 kickable penalties in a test. Line-out skill will also come to the fore due to the propensity of touch kicking.

It's all down to the ambition of the teams to play rugby. Play Craig's way and it'll be a rugby feast; challenge him and it could be ugly rugby for long periods.

Often criticised, Joubert, in final scrutiny, is rarely wrong.

The Heartbeat v The Headache

Irish loosehead Cian Healy, cruelly shorn of Lions' Test honours last June, is the heartbeat of the Irish side. An immensely mobile prop, he bristles with aggression, robust defence and technically adept scrummaging.

When Healy was injured in Australia, Warren Gatland confided that he'd lost one of the first names on his test Teamsheet. Fit again, Healy looks back to his rumbustious best, powering through defences and thriving on the new scrummage laws.

Dan Cole, a world class tight head, would have done well to contain the Dubliner's exuberance. But with a bulging neck disc, the Tiger has been mothballed for the season and for his own well-being.

Enter Bath stalwart David Wilson. A man with 31 caps, but rarely a first choice start and player with a handful of games this season. He stated publicly that "he's not sure how far" he'll make it and that there's possibly "50 or 55 minutes of gas in the tank."

Herein lies England's soft underbelly. No team can succeed without an anchored scrum and the tighthead is the cornerstone of those ambitions. Can Ireland's heartbeat create a headache for England? We think so.

The Italian Job

Italy are a conundrum this season.

Roundly praised for their new found expansive game, they've yet to record a win. But things look promising for Jacques Brunel as he has discovered and nurtured talent both old and new.

Saturday is a watershed; Italy should rightly go in as favourites against one of the poorest Scottish sides for many years.

Going into a match as favourites is an unusual position, but the burning question is not can Italy win, but can they execute a victory with style, panache and a healthy scoreline?

This is a chance for the Azzurri to shine and Sergio Parisse and his charges must seize it with open arms.

For once, a win is expected. It's the style with which it's delivered that will be the true benchmark of Italy's progress thus far.

The Frying Scotsman

Andy Robinson must be scratching his thinning head. He built a Scottish side that came so close to being a decent outfit. He instilled good practice, sound methods, a great line out and back row, but ultimately fell on his sword as close defeat after close defeat conspired against him.

With the entry of larger than life Australian, Scott Johnson, the SRU appear to have leapt from frying pan into the fire.

A man who has had equal success (or lack of it) to Robinson, he should be secure in his job to at least put a strategy and a new team together. But somewhere there is a disconnect.

Whilst Robinson had many stays of execution due to the diligence of his approach and the promise of results, the maverick Johnson is throwing away almost every rugby value that has ever permeated through a Scottish side.

Inconsistent selections, crazy substitutions, no shape of strategy and no feel of leadership are all conspiring to threaten his tenure before the ink is dry on his contract.

He has no one to blame but himself. He simply has not grasped the necessity to build a reliable platform of set-piece, defence and tactical optioning in Northern Hemisphere Test rugby.

Don't be eccentric for the sake of it, try and restore some conservative order to a very proud sporting nation is the clear message, otherwise Johnson may be out of a job as early as Sunday morning.

Beauty and the Beasts

Wales line up against France on Friday with a three-quarter line with an average height of 6'4" and a mean weight of 107kgs per man.

This is bigger than the average height and weight of their back five pack members in the corresponding fixture just 20 years ago!

France have similar behemoths in Mathieu Bastareaud and Yoann Huget.

However, size is not everything. Somewhere in all this morass of meat is the (relatively) diminutive Wesley Fofana, a dwarf at 5' 11" and 90kgs, but a sublime centre in the mould of his French predecessors, Denis Charvet, Didier Cordonnier and Thomas Castaignède

Fofana's touchdown during the 30-10 stroll past Italy gave him an impressive nine test touchdowns from 23 appearances and he's been rewarded with the captaincy of both the back division and the defence.

The Clemont man is the linchpin of the French backline; the creative genius to profit from the power of the French pack.

Let's hope skill is the winner here, otherwise the gap between rugby league and rugby union will become smaller and smaller as the back divisions become bigger and bigger.

By James While

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