By Alan Dymock
READY THE ice baths. Warm the pies. Give a last-minute rousing team talk to the terrified beer vendors, steeling themselves for battle. The RBS 6 Nations is back from its short hiatus and the brutality begins again. Get excited. Get very excited!
Wales backrow unchallenged
What a difference a win makes. Rob Howley looks like a man regenerated with that magic anti-ageing cream money can’t buy; relief. The Wales squad looks hungry but happy. Now all they need is a few more winning episodes and Oil of Olay will undoubtedly come knocking.
The night raid against Les Bleus showed a determination and a self-belief that bent the game their way and the lethargic French had no choice but to succumb. Now the Welsh travel to Rome with the same starting line-up –named a week early in a propaganda power play –and a bench boasting Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, brimming with class.
In their backrow Ryan Jones steered Wales gallantly, scrapping for turnovers, carrying in the tight and even putting in a deft touch finder that would grace Swansea’s Wembley bow this weekend, Justin Tipuric has made sure his fan club in Wales now outnumbers that of his namesake, Mr Timberlake, and Toby Faletau carried reliably and forcefully. Against Italy they face a backrow without the talismanic Sergio Parisse, while still boasting abrasive workaholics like Alessandro Zanni and Simon Favaro.
Here is where the game could be decided. No 8 Manoa Vosawai is not Parisse, but he will readily run at Faletau, and vice versa. Faletau should edge that battle as the game wears on, especially as Vosawai has been in the cooler for a few weeks after a red card. This will likely be indicative of the game as a whole.
Despite all the talk of settling and building on the efficient vanquishing of Australia in the autumn, France have been as steady as your average Harlem Shake. Much of this has come down to selecting players out of position.
Now, though, Philippe Saint-Andre has opted to pick men in positions that suit them and has wisely slid Wesley Fofana into his natural home at inside centre, pairing him with the runaway pie-cart Mathieu Bastareaud for the first time.
England have made changes of their own, with the creative Billy Twelvetrees making way for Brad Barritt at inside-centre and Manu Tuilagi coming on his outside to give Bastareaud food for thought and importantly present enthralled viewers with their seismic collisions in glorious hi-def.
Sure Bastareaud versus Tuilagi may just offer more bang than a homemade Hadron Collider but on the fringes, however, both sides have artistes in Fofana, Vincent Clerc, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode who will scurry around, trying to ride the shockwaves.
Chess boxing at Murrayfield
The hybrid sport of chess boxing, unsurprisingly a French invention, involves alternate rounds of tactical gameplay and fighting. Two different disciplines are needed, with forward panning and guile mixed in with athletic clobbering.
This seems an apt metaphor for Scotland v Ireland. Ireland may be missing several key men, Jonny Sexton, Simon Zebo and Mike McCarthy, to name but a few, yet they will feel they can derail Scotland if they dominate the breakdown and the Scots will just want to tear it up after so much dizzying success against Italy.
However, The Scottish back three will be wanting loose kicks and far-flung passes coming their way and the Irish half backs will be wanting to utilise territorial nudging and landing the ball in unguarded green spaces.
The shape and probably result of this game will come down to how much clean ball there is, but also how much play Paddy Jackson and Conor Murray allow in front of them.