Time for the real Six Nations favourite to emerge from the pack

5:00 PM GMT

Round two of the Six Nations: the weekend where we should get clarity on who the real title contenders are after a slightly confusing opening set of games where no one really leapt ahead of the chasing pack.

Questions remain with answers as yet elusive over who the real favourites are.

It’s like watching that brilliant Christopher Nolan film Memento for the first time: you’re enjoying the ride, you think you know what’s going on but forever doubting yourself with a lack of fixed reference points. Are Scotland title contenders after winning but nearly surrendering their lead against an Ireland team who will only improve? Are England at their 2016 best after narrowly beating a France side who lacked a cutting edge but could have won at Twickenham? How good are Wales after their second half revival and victory over an Italy side who showed plenty of courage but poor discipline?

In a week which has been dominated by talk of open or shut roofs – perhaps this is rugby’s version of the glass half full/empty philosophical conundrum – form is still ambiguous. Fast starts also proved to be mixed blessings: France began brilliantly against England but failed to keep that tempo while Scotland flew out of the blocks against Ireland, but then had a difficult 30-minute spell where they nearly surrendered a 16-point lead.

What remains true to this championship is the truly competitive nature of this 2017 edition. Every year the tournament is trumpeted as the ‘most competitive yet’, but in that opening weekend it was a credo proven by the six teams who played and that nip-and-tuck nature will extend into round two.

All rugby eyes will be on the Principality Stadium this weekend — under the open roof — as England travel to face Wales. (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

The weekend’s action starts in the Eternal City where Conor O’Shea’s Italy face Ireland. For O’Shea it will be a peculiar occasion as his Italy team face the side he won 35 caps for from to 1993 to 2000. But judging by his anthem-singing skills in round one, he is likely to boom out Il Canto degli Italiani and then hum Ireland’s Call come Saturday.

Italy’s round one showing was a case of same, same but different. A different coach, the introduction of brilliant back-row Maxime Mbanda but their shining light was again Sergio Parisse. Once more they lacked discipline and an ability to play the corners.

Ireland, who are again without Jonathan Sexton, will have noted this. Their opening round performance against Scotland was as far away from a Joe Schmidt showing as you can find. They looked sluggish and only really hit their straps when they were on the ropes. Bus delays aside, Schmidt will be looking for a better start this weekend against an Italy side still trying to deliver an 80-minute performance.

Attention then shifts to Cardiff, where the game will be played under the cool Welsh sky with Eddie Jones asking for the roof to be open. More column inches have been dedicated to the state of the Principality Stadium’s retractable ceiling than the game itself but it should be the match of the weekend.

(Photo credit should read PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Wales have residing injury doubts over George North and Dan Biggar but both should start. England have brought perhaps their most inexperienced back row since that fateful trip south to Australia in 1998 but have a confidence of their 15-match winning run.

Jones has been hammering home the need to expect the unpredictable and if there are no stray goats, or rogue fireworks on the pitch then there may be a dab of disappointment.

Cardiff will be the pivot of the Six Nations seesaw this weekend with Westgate Street awash with Welsh national pride but they have scores to settle having won just one of their last five matches against England.

And then on Sunday comes France-Scotland in Paris. Scotland’s last win there was in 1999 but there is a real confidence that the class of 2017 can break that 18-year hoodoo. Their first-half showing against Ireland was the highlight of the opening weekend, with their lineout move for Alex Dunbar’s try the eye-catching moment of the three matches.

They have the talent with the brilliant Stuart Hogg one of the two standout performers in round one. Louis Picamoles’ France – now surely named King Louis after his barnstorming performance against England – will be looking to transform potential into points. Had they had more of a calm head against England, and not brought on the hapless Jean-Marc Doussain, then they could and perhaps should have stopped the rumbling Jones machine. But winning becomes a habit and France need to transform their outlook from being nearly men to a collective talisman.

Plenty of questions remain, but after this weekend we should have a clear picture of who the front-runners are for the 2017 championship.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/18658111/real-six-nations-favourite-emerge-pack
Time for the real Six Nations favourite to emerge from the pack
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