Biggest questions facing each team ahead of Round 2

Josh Van der Flier Ireland
The spotlight is already turning to Round 2 of the Guinness Six Nations after a memorable opening weekend which saw two teams make history.

The spotlight is already turning to Round 2 of the Guinness Six Nations after a memorable opening weekend which saw two teams make history.

France stretched their winning run to a record 14 games while Scotland secured a hat-trick of wins over England but both results will count for little if they fail to back them up this weekend.

Steve Borthwick’s reign as England head coach got off to a difficult start and next up for them is Italy whose aggressive running game could pose a few challenging questions of a defence that struggled against Scotland.

And after casting Wales aside, can Ireland cope with heightened expectations and consolidate their position as the world’s No.1 ranked side?

So without further ado, here are the biggest questions facing each team ahead of Round 2.

Can Scotland make it third time lucky?

It has been a case of from ecstasy to despair at the start to each of Scotland’s previous two campaigns.

Rousing wins over England have been followed by marginal defeats to Wales, with more expected of Gregor Townsend’s team on both occasions.

After a third consecutive win over their oldest enemy – arguably the most impressive yet – and with Wales wounded after their deflating loss to Ireland, they must feel confident of breaking their duck and winning their first two matches for the first time since 1996.

Of all the coaches they would have liked to have welcomed to BT Murrayfield on the back of an opening day success, Warren Gatland would probably be at the very bottom of that list.

The Kiwi never lost to Scotland during his previous 12-year spell as Wales boss but with a raucous Edinburgh crowd and with Finn Russell back to his mercurial best, Scotland fans will surely be asking themselves, if not now, when?

Can youth thrive where experience suffered for Wales?

When a team suffers a tough loss, particularly near the beginning of a campaign, the tendency is to revert to older, more experienced heads to steady the ship.

Warren Gatland arguably opted for that approach ahead of Round 1, fielding eight players aged 30 or over as he made his return to Principality Stadium.

Those senior pros were outgunned by a younger, more dynamic Irish pack who helped their side to a 27-3 first-half lead which proved insurmountable.

The highlight on an otherwise tricky day for Wales was the maturity shown by three of their youngest players – Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer and Jac Morgan, who held just 10 caps between them prior to kick-off.

With forwards Tommy Reffell, Rhys Davies, Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza all aged 24 and under there are certainly youthful options to turn to up front, and Gatland has certainly done that, changing six of his pack, with starts for three of them and a possible debut off the bench for the other, Davies.

Ireland managing expectations

A ticket to watch the world’s top two go head-to-head in Dublin on Saturday is surely the hottest in town right now.

For Andy Farrell, perhaps the biggest challenge this week will be managing the expectations of his players and supporters ahead of that mouth-watering contest.

He did that so well during their series victory in New Zealand last summer, but then of course they were fierce underdogs and playing away from home.

Now they will have an expectant 50-odd thousand fans ready to cheer them on, hoping that they can steamroll France in the first 40 minutes as they did against Wales.

But is never that easy, and without Tadhg Furlong and Jamison Gibson-Park, two of their key men from their historic successes in the southern hemisphere, this just may be their toughest challenge yet.

Can France lift their levels?

If France hope to make it 15 not out against Ireland they will surely have to raise their game following their trip to Rome where they did just enough to see off Italy.

Or do they?

This France team have made winning a habit and often find a way to get over the line even when short of their best.

Antoine Dupont was far from pleased after their nervy victory against the Azzurri and has called upon the team to raise their game for a second road game in the space of a week.

Discipline was a particular issue for Fabien Galthié’s side, with 18 penalties conceded in all.

Forfeit as much ball to Ireland and they will surely be punished.

Improvements in attack but what about England’s defence?

Steve Borthwick said that one of his biggest work-ons ahead of his first outing as England head coach was improving their speed of ball, which at one stage was the slowest among all tier one teams.

With Jack van Poortvliet at scrum-half England were always going to look to play with tempo, but whether that translated to accuracy is another question – England’s tally of points per 22 entry was just 2.1, a score nearly doubled by Scotland’s 4.1.

But what was perhaps most concerning for Borthwick, a workhorse in his playing days and for defence coach Kevin Sinfield, were England’s shortcomings on the other side of the ball, best evidenced by Duhan van der Merwe’s stunning solo score.

The Scottish flyer bounced through five tackles on his way to the whitewash and again had too much for England in the closing stages when bundling over for the winning try.

There may have been more excitement for those in attendance at Twickenham and England certainly posed a greater attacking threat but the challenge now is to strike a balance.

Italy edging closer

Had Italy beaten France at Stadio Olimpico nobody could have said it was not deserved.

Kieran Crowley’s charges were impressive after a slow start, refusing to let France stride away from them in the second half, as has been the issue in previous years when a gulf in fitness levels has cost them dear.

But that was not the case on Sunday, with the hosts looking sharper than ever, particularly in the pack.

Perhaps their game management is the final piece of the puzzle.

With seven minutes to go and trailing by five points, Italy opted for an ambitious shot at goal rather than kicking to the corner when they seemed to have wrestled back momentum.

It was quite conceivable that, at the very least, they would secure another penalty much closer to the posts with a guarantee of three points which would have significantly improved their chances of nicking a late and memorable victory.

Fine margins indeed but this Italy look to be on the cusp of some truly magnificent results.