There’s plenty to talk about as the Six Nations reaches its climax and the Tri-Nations gets underway. Here are Jacob Whitehead’s thoughts
Record-breaker Alun Wyn Jones – and other Test talking points
Last week’s curtain-raiser has been and gone and things are just a little clearer before the culmination of the Six Nations. France are still the real deal, Ireland are in with a chance if their attack fires and Paolo Garbisi made one of the most exciting debuts from an Italian in recent memory.
Saturday sees a feast of rugby, beginning with the Bledisloe Cup at 8.45am on Saturday morning and finishing with a Six Nations triple header. So, as you sink into your sofa on Saturday morning, planning not to move for the next 12-plus hours, what do you need to know?
Record-breaker Alun Wyn Jones
149 international caps. Think of the quality of some of those players who haven’t even managed to win one. Look at the players Alun Wyn Jones now stands above as the most-capped men’s international player of all time – Richie McCaw, Sergio Parisse, Brian O’Driscoll, George Gregan… The man in the Welsh engine room is a giant of the modern game.
Named in the Wales starting XV to face Scotland on Saturday, he made his debut 14 years ago, in a 27-25 loss to Argentina in Puerto Madryn. Also making their first Test appearance on that day: Ian Evans, Richard Hibbard and James Hook. Some roll call of players, some dive back into history.
A three-time Lion, who has appeared in every Test match on each of those tours, the remarkable thing is that Jones can go on longer – startling for a player in such an attritional position who performs with such physicality every week.
Maybe he’s a large lump of granite, a substance which doesn’t break, barely even erodes, standing tall on a West Wales headland. “Enter my channel if you dare,” it might read. “I’ll be waiting.”
Who knows how many caps he’ll have to his name when he finally hangs up his boots.
Centres of attention in Llanelli
There is no shortage of blockbuster battles in the Wales v Scotland clash. How debutant back-rower Shane Lewis-Hughes deals with the twin threats of Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson, sure to be rampant in the predicted monsoon, will be a pivotal clash.
Finn Russell returns to the Scottish starting XV, the conductor back in front of the orchestra and faced with the challenge of pragmatist extraordinaire Dan Biggar.
But for me, the standout storyline is the clash of two surprise selections at inside-centre, where James Lang will meet Owen Watkin.
Both centres have been heavily disrupted by injury, both are often overlooked due to the presence of more outwardly seductive centre options, yet both will take to the Parc y Scarlets field on Saturday.
The names of Huw Jones and Sam Johnson, so pivotal in Scotland’s recent spell of attacking jouissance, readily roll off the tongue. After them, there’s the defensive talents of Duncan Taylor or the multifaceted game of Chris Harris.
Harlequins’ Lang, who faces a battle for club selection with Paul Lasike, Ben Tapuai and Andre Esterhuizen all lurking, is not one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking of Scotland centres, a matter not helped by a long injury lay-off after tearing his hamstring from the bone in December.
Opposite him will be Watkin, a centre whose skill-set couldn’t be slicker if it was bathed in WD40 but who is an equally surprise selection. After all, the prospect of a Nick Tompkins partnership with Jonathan Davies is salivating, enticing me to write about it in last week’s preview!
Yet Tompkins was felt to have struggled defensively in Paris, leading Pivac to Watkin, the Ospreys centre who has suffered a series of serious knee injuries.
Who will come out on top on Saturday? It will be an intriguing contest to watch.
Ireland playing against weight of history
I’ll leave it to the boffins to explain all the permutations for the Six Nations title, but what I do know is that Ireland will be champions if they beat France with a bonus point. A famous night in Paris could be in store.
There’s one issue – Ireland have never scored four tries and won in France. They did cross the line four times in 2006, but they lost that game 43-31 as France scored six.
They’ve scored three and won before – a famous triumph in 2014 to seal the title in Brian O’Driscoll’s final game in green and, of course, O’Driscoll’s breakout hat-trick in a 27-25 win in 2000 – but never four in a victory.
It all goes to show that a four-try, bonus-point victory for Ireland in Paris would be unprecedented. Added to that, Ireland are gunning for a fourth successive win over France, a feat they haven’t achieved since the 1920s.
It shouldn’t put Ireland off, for we all know that history is just that – history. But we can talk of moments being historic. A year ago, Ireland were dumped out of the World Cup in another quarter-final, unable to reach a historic first semi-final. This week is another chance to do something historic.
Jonny Hill makes his debut
Injuries meant Eddie Jones had a few decisions to make for the Italy game, and he’s stuck with experience in his England starting line-up, notably in the centre with Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph teaming up again.
The bench is exciting, with the two Ollies, Lawrence and Thorley, electric options. It’s almost a shame there will be no spectators to adapt an impromptu chant of olé, olé, olé.
In a way, the only surprise is that the call for Jones to pick some more Exeter players has finally been heeded. Not completely of course, with the Simmonds brothers both omitted from the squad, but hoarse throats from the South-West will have been somewhat soothed by the selection of Jonny Hill to start in the second row.
Jones had reasons to omit him. He could point to Hill’s incredibly intense – and possibly draining – finals on the last two weekends, he could point to the sizable shadows of Charlie Ewels and Joe Launchbury, the former a captain in last week’s intra-squad match, the latter a proven international leader.
But Jones, to his credit, has picked one of the form forwards in the Gallagher Premiership to make what will be an exciting international debut.
Now, without wanting to open another can of worms, what about Jack Willis?
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New Zealand set to give Australia the Blues
It’s not fair to call the second Bledisloe Cup Test between New Zealand and Australia a disappointment, because wasn’t it wonderful to watch Caleb Clarke burst onto the international scene like a floppy-haired bullet train.
However, Australia must bounce back from that 27-7 loss at home this weekend, and recapture some of the class that saw them secure a 16-16 draw the week before, if they’re to stop the All Blacks winning a first Bledisloe on Australian soil since 2009.
They have a new fly-half in the game, with Noah Lolesio entering the stage, fresh from leading the Brumbies to the domestic title last month.
Super Rugby AU may have flown under the radar of its trans-Tasman counterpart, but it has proved a breeding ground for an exciting generation of Australian talent and the swaggering Lolesio is amongst the best of them.
He’ll be in charge of manipulating the way past a New Zealand squad leaning heavily on the Blues this weekend, the breakout side of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Leading their charge alongside Clarke was No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, the bleach-blond back-rower with the hands of Apollo, who will start for the All Blacks for the first time on Saturday.
Related: How to watch Australia v New Zealand
There are three more Blues in the scrum – Patrick Tuipulotu, who is nailing down a run of games in the XV, and props Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe.
The Blues were the centrepiece of the frightening New Zealand sides of the 1990s and now, after a couple of quiet decades, might they be returning?
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