Writing for the Independent, former England captain hails the emergence of some special young talents during this year's Six Nations.
"The most exciting aspect of the 2012 Six Nations was the emergence of so much new talent. So much for all those voices of doom warning us that with all the overseas players flooding our Leagues the next generation would find it impossible to materialise.
Wales, of course, have ridden the wave of youth all the way to Grand Slam glory. And to a certain extent England are in their slipstream. The likes of Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Morgan and the two props, Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole, helped carry Stuart Lancaster's hastily assembled team to a "won four, lost one" record which few believed very likely."
The Guardian's Paul Rees picks through the unresolved questions thrown up by this year's Six Nations.
"The Six Nations may be over, but various loose ends remain to be tied up. England's search for a head coach goes on, the Lions will get round to interviewing for the head coach's position in Australia next year already knowing that they want Wales's Warren Gatland, and Andy Robinson will ask himself what more he can do for Scotland.
There is also the conundrum of Ireland and Declan Kidney. Wales are an example of how the performances and results of a country's teams in the Heineken Cup can be in sharp relief to how its national side gets on in the Six Nations, but the four regions there are in a state of undress."
Writing in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornely delivers a despondent verdict on this year's Six Nations whilst reserve some praise for Grand Slam winning Wales.
"A non-vintage Super Saturday to round off a non-vintage campaign. The final round of games may have spared us a Sunday afternoon kick-off, but rather typical of the tournament, it was full of crash-test-dummy rugby with fairly little in the way of ingenuity and thrills.
Fair play to Wales, like all Grand Slam-winning sides, they made their own luck, witness the end-game winning drive against Ireland which had it not yielded an erroneous penalty, would probably have earned a try, drop goal or an alternative penalty.
On that day and throughout they were hardly ever at full-strength but adapted to injuries with a sequence of young match winners – George North, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams and Cuthbert again – coming up with match-winning plays."
The Observer's Eddie Butler reflects on a glorious day for Welsh rugby.
"In the old days of the 1970s, when grand slams were won in batches of three and when Mervyn Davies towered over the European game, final victories were won the hard way, always against France. Brutally hard. It was no easier in the new age, with France again making Wales dig deep into their reserves of energy and composure. The giant Merv the Swerve, who died on Thursday, would have approved.
"Cardiff was ablaze with colour and optimism from early morning, the mood only tempered by the downpours that arrived perfectly on the cue of the forecasters and made the playing surface alive with slipperiness. France had demanded that the roof remain open, and here was the reward for the visitors, a greasy surface, perfect for messing up a party.
"There was nothing pretty on display here. This was a day of sleeves rolled up and giant arms wrapping themselves around limbs. Passing was an option but it was so much more rewarding to blast the ball into the air and set up a defensive rush. Even the one and only try was born of a defensive operation, the tackle by Dan Lydiate allowing Alun Wyn Jones to steal the ball on the floor and for Alex Cuthbert to have a rare run against forwards."
The Sunday Times' Stephen Jones hails the influence of Wales coach Warren Gatland following his side's latest Grand Slam success. (Via paywall)
"There has been a polish about his career with Wales. He made the grievous error of winning a Grand Slam in 2008, his first year in charge, and that freakish success became a millstone. Gatland and the Welsh brains trust knew they had neither the depth nor the world-class players to sustain that level of success. He has had to work for four more years to get to that stage.
"The 48-year-old is the archetypal modern coach. No doubt there is an awful lot more happening out of sight in his mind and in his activities with the team. But his easy approach, his ability to allow the coaches under him to flower and his consummate grasp of the game take him way out in front.
"Those who raised their glasses until their arms fell asleep last night might reflect on another aspect of the Gatland years and his partnership with defence coach Shaun Edwards. Gatland is a New Zealander, Edwards an Englishman. Both were available to their native countries, both are easily capable of taking major roles with those countries.
"It is indicative of a gross failure of duty by the Rugby Football Union that Edwards was allowed to slip through England’s grasp at least twice in the past five seasons. There were also times when a union that was determined to fulfil its boast to be the best should have pulled out all the stops to bring Gatland to Twickenham."
Ireland's tour of New Zealand looks all the more daunting for their Six Nations loss to England at Twickenham, according to the Sunday Independent's Brendan Fanning.
"It's evident Ireland have suffered bad calls in this campaign but it doesn't follow that they have got a shorter straw than other teams. Statistically they were the worst in the tournament and conceding 12 [penalties] yesterday was about twice the target of winning teams. Wales, for example, conceded nine against France in Cardiff and wouldn't have been happy with that.
"So the coach has a problem on his hands here. Other things on his to-do list involve engaging with the bench sooner than he does, and getting some new blood into the team. The absence of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell were obvious factors in Ireland's worst Championship showing since Eddie O'Sullivan's last stand in 2008, and resulted in him starting only 18 players despite the tough schedule of four in a row after the postponement in Paris."
The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison picks through the pieces of Scotland's wooden spoon-clinching defeat to Italy in Rome.
"This side have now lost their last seven Tests, stretching back to that World Cup heart-breaker against the Pumas, but even this sad statistic wilts in the face of the way that the Scots have played in the last two matches. If Dublin was disappointing, especially the second half, the players never looked fully engaged in Rome and the body language screamed defeat from the time the Italian players belted out their national anthem with their usual gusto.
"...We know that this Scottish side lacks a little class but where was the anger, the passion, the blood, sweat and tears, the fight and the fury, all the traditional Scottish traits that have defined our game? It was not an issue, according to team captain Ross Ford.
"..The lineout was faultless in the opening three matches but it has imploded since then, with two lost in Dublin and six turned over in Rome. It wasn’t the only cause of defeat but it played its part."
Writing for Walesonline, Andy Howell offers his analysis of Wales' Grand Slam triumph over France in Cardiff.
"[Mervyn] Davies had skippered Wales to the second of those Grand Slams four decades ago, ironically clinched when a titanic effort was needed to keep France at bay in a Cardiff decider. And it was like 1976 all over again yesterday as Wales dug deep into their reserves to counter a fierce second-half fightback from Les Bleus.
"But ultimate glory was no more than Warren Gatland’s men deserved because they have been the stand-out Six Nations team. What made it even more rewarding was that the French reserved their best performance of the tournament for yesterday and it took enormous resolve to capture an 11th Welsh Grand Slam.
"France coach Philippe Saint-Andre had refused, as was his right, to keep the stadium roof open but his ploy backfired on two counts.
"Saint-Andre felt the GPS satellite tracking devices worn by his players would only work with the roof open. But the system simply doesn’t work at the Millennium Stadium because of the tightly-knit confines of a venue which, on emotional afternoons like this, simply has no equal. Also the heavy shower which landed on Cardiff just before kick-off resulted in slippery conditions, with Wales playing them much more wisely to dominate the first half."
"The set-piece domination was reminiscent of indignities suffered at England's hands by woeful Australian sides of recent memory but very rarely by opponents closer to home. When Ireland have lost at Twickenham in the Six Nations it has never been done by halves: 50 points shipped in 2000, 45 in 2002, 33 in 2008. But green has been the dominant colour; this was England's second win in the last nine championship meetings, home and away. Lacking their injured talisman, Brian O'Driscoll, and Paul O'Connell, and playing a fourth match in four weekends due to their rescheduled trip to Paris, the Irish, but for a run by Keith Earls here or there , were not a force.
"Stuart Lancaster, England's interim coach, will give the media a debrief here on Tuesday, with any possible final interview for him and another candidate or candidates to follow before the announcement of a permanent head coach. It may be noted that the vilified coaching team under Martin Johnson won this championship last year with four wins from five, but a concluding defeat in Ireland that exposed endemic problems carried over into a dire World Cup. In this Six Nations there have been nine new caps and no one fielded who will not make the 2015 World Cup. There has been a coherent plan, and Lancaster has taken responsibility for it."
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Paul Ackford is convinced the inteirm boss Stuart Lancaster is the right man for the full-time job.
"So why should Lancaster get the job on a permanent basis? Two reasons. Because he’s a good selector, far and away the most important attribute for an international coach. And because he has proved he can squeeze performances from what is still a fairly ordinary squad. There are other considerations. The fact that he inspires considerable loyalty from colleagues and players is a plus, as is his work ethic, the strain of which was etched across his face at times in Paris. Time is an issue too. Bedding in a new man with new ideas and new relationships to form would eat up at least the summer tour to South Africa and the autumn internationals against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, leaving a dangerously short period to get England steaming into the World Cup.
"It took All Black boss Graham Henry 103 fixtures and over seven years to win a World Cup with the sport’s most talented group of athletes. Binning Lancaster would allow his replacement three Six Nations campaigns and some odds and sods of games, especially since the 2013 Lions tour would deprive him of his leading individuals, to get his act together."
Brendan Venter, writing for the Daily Telegraph, lauds England fly-half Owen Farrell and claims that the Saracens half-back should be at the centre of the national side for years to come.
"As Owen Farrell prepares to run out for England in their final Six Nations match he has emphatically proven that Test rugby is where he belongs and put to bed any doubts I had about Stuart Lancaster’s decision to throw him in at the deep end.
I have been watching Owen closely at my club Saracens for over two years now and his displays against Wales and France for England are the best I have seen him produce. He passed the ball well, he made some good individual breaks and he kicked his goals. They were two very complete performances for a 20 year-old.
At Saracens we have always known about the exceptional competitive spirit that Owen possesses. It was evident from day one that he is a born winner and his excellent communication skills mean this natural belief rubs off on the players around him. He also has a calmness about him, which we really like. He does not get easily flustered under pressure."
Hugh Farrelly, of the Irish Independent, writes about his struggle to dislike the latest England side.
"English arrogance is a phrase we are constantly bombarded with but, while it is not the most popular thing for an Irish person to admit, England has plenty to be arrogant about.
They essentially ran the world for centuries and became the dominant trans-global influence in terms of language, culture and overall legacy.
At a lower level, they gave us pork scratchings -- a deliciously salty combination of crunch and mush, which may look like the Devil's toe-jam but taste divine and in the pecking order of national pub snacks, put Tayto back in its box.
They gave us the pristine, feminine perfection that is Kristin Scott-Thomas -- a true sex goddess at a time in the early 1990s when Ireland was lusting after Bibi Baskin as its primary pin-up (not that Bibi wasn't appealing in her own earthy, 'mother me' fashion).
And -- all hail the tanned-up slag -- they gave us 'Geordie Shore', that MTV-sponsored slice of reality TV gold that has more cussin and banging than a Wild West gold rush and leaves Ireland's 'Tallafornia' looking like Sandy Shaw having a sing-off with Shirley Bassey.
And, lest we forget, they also gave us most of our major sports -- football, golf, tennis, cricket and, of course, rugby."
Scotland prop Geoff Cross tells David Ferguson of his international hopes prior to Saturday's Six Nations finale against Italy in The Scotsman.
"It is not what the players would like, but Scots sportsmen and women have perhaps become used to drawing inspiration from adversity.
"So, for tighthead prop Geoff Cross there is something to be taken from the fact that, while Scotland may not have won games lately, he has managed to put to bed the notion that Euan Murray is so far ahead of him and other props that he is the No 1 name on the teamsheet.
"Cross’ performance against France earned him the right to keep the No 3 jersey when Murray returned from his self-imposed exile. He refuses to play on Sundays on religious grounds."
"Maurice Field made his Ireland debut in 1994 at Twickenham against an England side packed with Lions, including his opposite number, Will Carling. However, even in these intimidating circumstances, nerves were never an issue.
"I was 29, a few days away from my 30th birthday, so my age helped but also my work with the fire service gave me perspective," recalled Field.
"All week, people were saying to me 'you must be pretty nervous about making your debut in Twickenham,' but, to be honest, on the Tuesday I had put a boy into a body bag after a car bomb and that gives you reality. Yes, it was a big occasion, but it was just a game, what had happened a few days earlier was real life."
In the Guardian, sports writing great Frank Keating delves into the deep and rich rivalry between Wales and France ahead of the potentially historic clash this weekend.
"Three days to go and do all Wales's red-hot presumptions already look too expectantly over-inflamed? A weathered and cranky France XV might have lost in Paris on Sunday, but the remnants seem perfectly capable to me of a formidable last hurrah in Saturday's grand slam finale and they could easily muster enough buckets of cold water to douse a young dragon's far too brazen certainties. We shall see.
"All down history, these operatic last-act numbers have quite a few times come down to this same fixture. If the reds ravishingly slap on the whitewash on Saturday it will be their third slam in eight seasons, their 11th in the 104 years since they first played the fledgling French XV at Cardiff Arms Park on 2 March 1908 when the visiting newcomers spent the morning of the match (a Monday) being shown round Cardiff's Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square and being toasted with wine by the Welsh coal owners in their top hats before being transported to the ground in "two-pair horsed charabancs" for the hosts to run in nine tries to win in front of 20,000. So was the great rivalry launched."
The Guardian's Eddie Butler looks at six things we have learnt from the previous weekend of Six Nations action.
"1 Not so mad about rugby in Wales
The sight of empty seats at the Millennium Stadium one game away from a grand slam was ugly confirmation that all is not well with the game in Wales. It is generally accepted that the regional experiment with professional rugby is heading for the rocks, but the lack of support below the international game was offset by a perceived surge in support for the Wales team. The national XV had become the local team to support, with enough autumn internationals and fixtures in the Six Nations to keep a home-based body of support happy, with overseas tours, Lions odysseys and World Cups for the traditionally large Welsh group of savers and travellers. But Saturday's empty seats were moth-holes in the national fabric, and even nastier gaps in the bank balance."
Brian Moore, writing for the Daily Telegraph, provides his take on England's memorable win in Paris.
"For the first time, England have won all three away matches in the Six Nations Championship.
The wins in Scotland and Ireland were scruffy but England's triumph on Sunday at the Stade de France, where they clung on to beat France 24-22, showed their attacking ability, two from good counterattacks and one brilliant individual effort from flanker Tom Croft.
It was the shape of England in the first 25 minutes that laid the foundations of success and that their two tries were from counter-attacks demonstrates confidence in themselves and the way they are being asked to play.
The decisive defensive decision by winger Chris Ashton, who chose to step inside and hit the French midfield when faced with a possible two-man overlap, was as important as any deficiencies in attack. It led, via good hands from Lee Dickson, to Manu Tuilagi showing his finishing skills from his own half."
The Guardian's Richard Williams calls on Stuart Lancaster to be promoted after England's triumph in Paris.
"After what England achieved in Paris on Sunday, the Rugby Football Union can save itself a lot of time, trouble and money. It can pay off the headhunters before phoning that nice Mr Mallett in Cape Town with an apology for having led him to understand, in all good faith, that there might be a well-paid job waiting for him at Twickenham. The job is already being done and, whatever Ireland manage to conjure up at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, in the final match of the tournament, Stuart Lancaster has made an unanswerable case for promotion from caretaker to permanent head coach.
As it happens, England are still in with a remote arithmetical possibility of winning the championship, were events to swing wildly to their advantage at home and in Cardiff on Saturday. At the end of a competition in which they have won all their three away matches for the first time since the tournament expanded to become the Six Nations 13 years ago, who would say they had not deserved it?"
Ex-France defence coach Dave Ellis highlights five areas of concern after England dispatched France in Paris - in his column for the Daily Telegraph.
"1. France’s defence gifted England three tries. France's defence was absolutely abominable. There was a complete lack of intensity. In the first half, England ran the ball at France well but it looked like the defence had absolutely no interest in getting in their faces. The basic missed tackles and absence of a kick-chase for the first two tries was poor, but the defence, or lack of it, from Aurelien Rougerie and Imanol Harinordoquy for Tom Croft’s match-winning score was particularly poor. Croft and support player Ben Foden were outnumbered, but the defenders were running sideways and backwards, effectively opening the door for the England flanker to glide through. Overall, France made it far too easy and, from a technical viewpoint, it was painful to watch."
Former Scotland international Thom Evans provides his take on Andy Robinson's side's recent showings in the Daily Telegraph.
"Frustration, frustration and yet more frustration. It had been the theme of Scotland’s Six Nations season before they got to Dublin, and they piled it on once more in this match.
Yet again, Scotland played brave, skilful exciting rugby. And yet again they finished on the wrong side of the result.
The scoreline was pretty emphatic at the end, and while it may have flattered Ireland a little you had to admire the way they approached the game. With a six-day turnaround after a fierce Test match in Paris, and minus three core players, many people thought they would be vulnerable, but they coped well with Scotland’s opening onslaught and looked more and more comfortable as the game went on."
The Daily Mail's Martin Samuel calls on the RFU to give Stuart Lancaster the job.
"Sometimes the logic is really quite simple. Imagine this game was the World Cup quarter final, England versus France, that took place in Auckland on October 8 last year.
And imagine it had finished with the same winning margin, England on top by two points. What would have happened next? Well, Martin Johnson would still be England coach, for starters. His stewardship would not have come under the same intense scrutiny and he would not have felt the need to resign.
The World Cup would have been regarded as a relative success, boding well for the future, some unsavoury disciplinary issues aside. Speaking of which, Manu Tuilagi would not have taken a header off a local ferry the following morning, which was the final straw for some and conclusive proof that this squad, young and old, was beyond the control of Johnson and his staff."
"In Rumsfeld speak, there are known knowns and there known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.
"After yesterday's match we know a little bit more. There is one indisputable article of certainty that we know: Scotland are a truly crap side. We know Ireland are a decent side. We also know that they could have been playing for the championship next week.
"What is unknown is where Andy Robinson can take his Scottish side. They were clueless and toothless and they were bereft of any notion of how to observe fundamentals when you are trying to score tries."
Hugh Godwin looks at the introduction of Charlie Sharples to the England back-three and considers their recent try drought in The Independent on Sunday.
"Chris Ashton will revert to his favourite right wing to face France today, as England's back three accommodates the late call-up of Gloucester's Charlie Sharples. If the change brings a return to the Wiganer's scoring form of his first season and a half in the national side it could be party time in Paris.
"In this Six Nations, England's lack of tries has loaded the guns of criticism to be fired by friend and foe. Two tries in three matches – from charge-downs by the fly-half Charlie Hodgson in the narrow wins in Scotland and Italy, followed by a blank sheet in the defeat by Wales – is the poorest return among the six teams. Last year, Ashton finished the autumn's World Cup as joint top try-scorer alongside France's Vincent Clerc, having been out on his own in the spring in the Six Nations that England won."
Paul Ackford ruminates on the recent changes to the atmosphere of 'Le Crunch' prior to England's visit to Paris on Sunday in The Sunday Telegraph.
"England against France was the only gig that counted. The Celts were just light relief. Ah well. Once a plonker always a plonker. As England travel to Paris to take on France this afternoon, the attention is elsewhere, on a resurgent Wales who now stand one step away from their third Grand Slam in eight years.
"Historically, France and England have dominated the Five/Six Nations over the last two decades. In the Nineties and Noughties both countries racked up 14 of the 20 titles on offer, sharing the spoils seven apiece. But that was then. In recent years, partly down to England’s post 2003 World Cup slump, the significance of the Anglo-French encounter has faded."
Dean Ryan previews England's trip to Paris, where the ball could become very familiar with the boot, in The Observer.
"For England an ugly win will be beautiful if they can prise a victory out of Sunday's tantalising encounter in Paris. Stuart Lancaster's young side lost with honour against Wales a fortnight ago but they will want to win at any cost and will ignore the talk of boring rugby that has swirled around during the week.
"Firstly, the game is away and, secondly, it is against France. Both teams' chances of a grand slam may have slipped through their fingers in the past fortnight, France's agonisingly when Lionel Beauxis failed to nail one of two late drop-goal attempts in the draw against Ireland last Sunday and England when Scott Williams scampered away to score the winning try for Wales a week earlier. But there is a special frisson around this fixture and it should be compelling."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Will Greenwood says that England will target France fly-half Lionel Beauxis in their Six Nations clash.
"If I was French fly-half Lionel Beauxis, I would be worried.
There is a pattern emerging and he should heed the words of one of the most feared James Bond villains if he wants to have a profitable afternoon against England. Auric Goldfinger knew events when he saw them, famously saying that: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
Well, this England team have managed to mangle the afternoons of the three No 10s they have come up against in the Six Nations so far, and are hungry for a fourth. Dan Parks, of Scotland, retired immediately following the Calcutta Cup game after suffering an attack of the kicking yips."
Former England second-row Ben Kay, writing in the Daily Mail, says England must hit France from the kick-off on Sunday.
"The restart has become the third set-piece and it is an area England should target. Every restart is an opportunity to regain possession or win penalties.
If we were gathered under our own posts for a penalty or conversion, we’d be ready to sprint back to halfway. Sir Clive Woodward used to say that it was the chance to immediately turn the pressure around. Some teams would jog back and relax, but our wings would be in charge of making sure we got in position quickly and were ready and focused.
Teams often score a penalty then concede three points immediately from the kick-off - and it is exactly what happened to France last week. Ireland kicked off, Morgan Parra box-kicked straight into touch, Ireland got the line-out, won a penalty and claimed three points back, which is a double psychological blow."
The Irish Times' Gavin Cummiskey identifies the breakdown as a key area as Scotland search for their first win of this season's Six Nations.
"Scottish folk can’t but notice the blood in the Irish Sea. No O’Connell, O’Driscoll, O’Brien or Murray and little chance of Ireland replicating last Sunday’s form in Paris (simply because they rarely produce such blazingly intense performances in succession).
A desperately-required Six Nations scalp looks gift wrapped for them.
And they arrive over with a youthful looking side. We’ll get around to the kid at fullback. Dan Parks was discarded as coach Andy Robinson eventually settled for the inter-changing Edinburgh halfbacks Mike Blair and Greig Laidlaw, while employing two opensides on the flanks in John Barclay and Ross Rennie.
It’s all about tempo for Scotland. And yet, for all their improved performances, they have lost five Test matches on the bounce. They have also lost four of their last six meetings with Italy, where they go next weekend, but the result they crave must come this evening before the Rome issue can be addressed."
Scotland scrum-half Mike Bliar talks to the Scotsman ahead of his country's Six Nations clash with Ireland.
“I don’t think the pressure increases from game to game. When you play for Scotland the pressure is there all the time, on your family, friends and everything; there’s always going to be pressure in just about every game.
“Others might say differently but I think there’s pressure whatever the circumstances and you don’t not feel pressure, but you’ve got to use that as a positive."
Wales skipper Sam Warburton, in his column printed in the Daily Telegraph, claims that the injury sustained against England would have kept him out of this weekend's match - even if it was the Grand Slam decider.
"I took a ball off Rhys Priestland in the middle of the field and drove at the English defence. I was tackled from the side by England lock Geoff Parling and felt a tweak in my left knee as it was pushed inwards.
I’d suffered a similar injury in Paris last year, and was replaced after just 15 minutes. This time it didn’t feel quite as serious, so I was desperate to stay on.
But I knew that I’d damaged my medial collateral ligament. I got it strapped under the posts while England kicked a penalty, and I got it strapped even more tightly again at half-time.
During the second half I felt some shooting pains in the knee, and was hobbling a little bit at times, but I think people thought that it was a recurrence of the dead leg that forced me off in the first match of the campaign against Ireland and meant that I missed the second match against Scotland."
Brendan Gallagher pays tribute to Lewis Moody following the England flanker's retirement in The Daily Telegraph.
"Almost too brave for his own good, Moody brought an energy, bloody-mindedness and a deep-down honesty to proceedings that was instantly appealing.
"His popularity throughout the game was testament to that and I can remember few games that weren’t all the more enjoyable and satisfying for his presence.
"There was a schoolboy enthusiasm and wholeheartedness to Moody’s game that he never entirely lost even if, like a few others, he had an old pro’s appreciation of the offside line and exactly how long you could lie on top of an opponent or the ball before being pinged."
Kevin Mitchell meets England's new captain, Chris Robshaw, soon after the retirement of Lewis Moody, his predecessor, in The Guardian.
"Farewell "Mad Dog", hello "Mr Nice Guy": nobody can accuse the wise men of Twickenham of being prescriptive about the tone of the captaincy of the national team. And, if they choose to confirm Chris Robshaw as Lewis Moody's long-term successor after this Six Nations tournament alongside his equally new coach, Stuart Lancaster, who is vying to be the full-time heir to Martin Johnson, they really will have put the fading turbulent past behind them.
"In the week England's last appointed – and, ultimately, lost – leader announced his departure from rugby after 16 mostly glorious years, Robshaw, a blond of an altogether different demeanour, declared himself content in the job but way short of being complacent after only three full internationals.
"At 25, the Harlequins captain is eight years younger than Moody, and looks it. There is no gnarl about him yet, but it will come, most likely in further increments against France in Paris on Sunday."
The Guardian's Rob Kitson picks out some reasons for English optimism ahead of their trip to Paris on Sunday .
"There were a couple of significant lessons to be learned on a rather grey afternoon in Saint Denis. The first was that Six Nations rugby in Paris is a diminished occasion when it is staged on a Sunday. France's game against Ireland was meant to be among the tournament highlights, a fête of emotion and colour, a raucous riot of jolly green giants and swirling noise. For a number of reasons, not least a reduced number of fans from the South-west heartlands following the initial Saturday night postponement, the atmosphere was mostly akin to an accountancy seminar in La Défense.
And the second snippet of early reconnaissance as England prepare to head across the Channel to embrace their old friends? That France are eminently beatable and are not the strutting champions-elect some of us thought they might be a month ago. Maybe Sunday service is getting to them as well, neutering their joie de vivre. Maybe one or two senior players are already weary of mind following their remarkable World Cup exertions and have been ground down by their heavy club commitments.
Or maybe – and this is where it gets interesting from Stuart Lancaster's perspective – they are missing their English sergeant major, Dave Ellis. The lack of snap to France's defensive line-speed, in comparison with Ireland's, was conspicuous. Aurélien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu are big, strong runners but their work-rate off the ball at the weekend was not what it should have been. In attack they had little answer to Ireland's umbrella-shaped defence which constricted them for lengthy periods, a serious worry for Philippe Saint-André and his backs coach Patrice Lagisquet. Had it not been for Wesley Fofana's sense of timing and pace, a perspiring Ireland would have won rather than departed with a frustrating draw."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports from the Stade de France where Ireland blew an 11-point lead on their way to a 17-all draw with France.
"The feeling that this was one that got away was palpable for both coach and the captain Paul O’Connell. Even allowing for a Sunday fixture, the extent to which the crowd (surprisingly near the 80,000 capacity, though with a tiny, much reduced Irish presence) were kept quiet was a measure of Ireland’s first-half display, even if the increased noise levels were also a barometer of France’s comeback.
"Ireland employed a much more aggressive rush defence, which knocked the French out of their stride, with tour de force performances from Stephen Ferris, O’Connell and Seán O’Brien, not to mention a truly phenomenal display of catching, kicking (with one costly exception) and running from Rob Kearney.
"They also attacked the blindside more and, allowing for that one exception, kick-chased to good effect, all of which yielded fourth and fifth tries of the championship for Tommy Bowe before half-time.
"But the rain arrived and, as one suspected, the French went route one to good effect to draw level before the hour. Each team had spells of high octane pressure, Ireland eschewing a drop goal whereas Lionel Beauxis failed with two as Ireland defended heroically.
"Thus, no less than the French and perhaps even slightly more so, Ireland were left rueing a first draw with Les Bleus since the championship winning year of 1985 and first in Paris since 1950, and their first of any kind since the 20-20 draw with Australia in Croke Park in November 2009."
Writing in The Guardian, Eddie Butler reflects on Ireland's Six Nations draw with France in Paris.
"France's errors told of a team nowhere near where they should be in March, while Ireland's spoke of a heroic effort that dragged a team to the extremes of exhaustion. French errors flattened the drama; Ireland's made it. Nobody tackled with greater commitment than Jonathan Sexton, who charged up with an appetite that would be the envy of many players twice his size and weight. The choke-and-hold tackle, the speciality of Paul O'Connell, also went well, although the captain was not his dominant self at the lineout.
"What Ireland gave away in the second half, they regained with a collective refusal to capitulate. Not many teams face France in the mood in Paris and survive with scores level. The Irish players did not exactly raise their arms at the sound of a final whistle, but this was a positive result. For France it was a burst balloon."
Stuart Lancaster has made an encouraging start as England’s interim head coach, but is it enough to land him the job on a permanent basis? Paul Ackford discusses in the Sunday Telegraph.
"Stu. Out of ten. How do you think you’re doing so far? He didn’t answer of course. Interim coach Stuart Lancaster may only have been in the job a little under three months, but he is already far too wily for a “judge me on the World Cup” remark, as Sir Clive Woodward famously invited; the wrong World Cup as it happened.
"But with new Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie suggesting last week that the desire is to appoint a permanent successor to Martin Johnson sooner rather than later, it is clear that a judgment needs to be made on Lancaster. And pretty damn quick.
"Talk to Lancaster and he comes up with a list of qualities and competencies which he insists are central to the job. Leadership is a favourite.
"So are phrases like relationship management, emotional intelligence, forward thinking, planning, technical proficiency and connectivity, which all, no doubt, will make intriguing chapter headings if he ever gets to write his 'How I won the 2015 World Cup' book.
"But does any of it make him an appropriate candidate for a full-time position, and, if not, what does?
In his column in the Daily Telegraph, Wales captain Sam Warburton reflects on his side's Triple Crown-clinching Six Nations victory over England last weekend.
"It was quite simply the best moment of my career so far. To lift the Triple Crown above my head at Twickenham surpassed anything else I have achieved.
"Of course, it would have been better to have done it at home in the Millennium Stadium, but I haven’t got a good record against England – I never beat them at schoolboy level and lost my first two senior Wales internationals before beating them in the second summer World Cup warm-up last year, so this was just an awesome achievement.
"But, oh, that wait at the end, while the television match official decided whether David Strettle had scored. Looking at the big screen in the stadium, it looked like a try.
"Those screens obviously don’t produce the sharpest picture, and you could see that Strettle had gone over the line and I just thought he might have managed to move his wrist to ensure that the ball made some contact with the ground. Because it only has to make contact for that split second.
"However, I watched the replays when I went home and ‘inconclusive’ is definitely the right word. You just can’t tell."
Writing in the Irish Times, Liam Toland analyses Ireland's back-row trio ahead their clash with France on Sunday.
"Our judgment of [Sean] O’Brien at seven must be adjusted as he is not a seven, which doesn’t prevent him from being outstanding on Sunday, but don’t expect a Sam Warburton performance. A traditional seven has a million things to do which are constantly being adjusted. If France go off the top his defensive line is crucial, if they go into midfield quickly to get centres Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana flat in attack he is crucial. If the Irish midfield slow or stop them he is crucial at the breakdown. Beyond that there are a million permutations, and that’s just in defence.
"In attack they build again, providing the link between the swift-off-the-deck ball ahead of the scrum-half, trailing of the ball carrier and much, much more. It is a position of judgment and instinct, constantly reading the ever evolving situation of others. Hence seven is the most restrictive position on the pitch. O’Brien simply can’t do all that and do what you want him to do as well. Accept it!
"And in accepting this we must also accept [Jamie] Heaslip is not the same player with O’Brien at seven. His natural game is diluted to cater for deficiencies in O’Brien’s openside game. Accept that also.
"Hence [Stephen] Ferris is the only player picked in his natural position so he continues to shine while the other two appear to struggle."
Writing in The Guardian, Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards believes Ireland can spring a surprise against France in Paris on Sunday.
"In many ways Ireland and France match up, and I see Sunday's game being settled in a couple of areas where both teams don't necessarily have favoured partnerships available or where both are trying something new.
"Up front both sides have great back rows – and Declan Kidney has been wise not to give in to those who say the chemistry is wrong; quite simply Jamie Heaslip Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris are head and shoulders better than anything else he has available – and good lineouts. The big argument will be whether Ireland can stand up to the ferocity of the French scrum, which now has the considerable presence of Yoann Maestri in the boiler room.
"Toulouse see Maestri as the heir to Fabien Pelous, which is putting the bar pretty high. But, if Saint-André already prefers his new boy to another French captain, Lionel Nallet, the coach clearly does not see it as that much of a gamble. Either that or he is more concerned with building for the future, as he is in the front row where Dimitri Szarzewski again starts as hooker in place of the amazing William Servat. The other key area is the midfield defence of both teams. On one hand you have to ask whether Ireland can stand up to the power of Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, and Julien Malzieu coming off his wing and on the other there are the new systems employed by [Patrice] Lagisquet."
Former England skipper Lewis Moody, writing for the Independent, asks whether the RFU would be better sticking with Stuart Lancaster rather than looking elsewhere.
"If last Saturday showed anything it is that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team are on the right lines. So why are some people still calling for a big name to take over England? To me it would be change for change's sake and would seem so pointless.
Of course, I can see the attraction in someone like Nick Mallett. He's a great coach and has the CV. But now Stuart has brought this team this far he should be allowed to continue. Otherwise all the good work will be forsaken and England will have to start from scratch again.
I like the feel of this England set-up. The sceptics may look at Stuart's credentials and say: "Oh, he was head coach at Leeds and they were relegated and then he only took charge of the England Academy and the Saxons, so what has he achieved?" Even if they ignore the fact that Leeds had the smallest resources in the league, they clearly can't have been watching the Wales game."
The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary claims that England are likely to stick rather than twist when it comes to their midfield combinations.
"England head coach Stuart Lancaster gave a firm indication on Wednesday that it would be difficult to break up the midfield combination spearheaded by fly-half Owen Farrell for the match against France in Paris on March 11..
The man Farrell stepped up for against Wales, Saracens team-mate Charlie Hodgson, was one of 18 players released back to their clubs last night for Aviva Premiership action this weekend. Leicester half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood also return. Lancaster is not obliged to release England-based club players, but has taken a calculated risk in getting some players much-needed game time.
Lancaster has other concerns, too, notably a shin injury that has flared up with Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, who missed training on Wednesday. Farrell and wing Chris Ashton also missed the session, both with stomach bugs."
David Kelly looks at the form of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray and points the finger of blame at his forward pack in The Irish Independent.
"In order for Ireland to come close to achieving a historic success in Paris, they must start better than they have against Wales and Italy. That doesn't necessarily mean starting quickly. Just better.
"Hitting the ground running on Sunday with many of the same players that finished like an express train against Italy is the alluring prospect which many think might suffice against the French.
"Yet inviting such a simplistic premise into any reasonable analysis repudiates every shred of logic involved in the preparation of international teams for a Six Nations championship."
The Western Mail's Andy Howell believes another memorable Six Nations Grand Slam is within Wales' grasp.
"Wales have far too much firepower for bottom-of-the-table Italy, but the championship finale with the title-chasing French – both fixtures are at the Millennium Stadium – has all the ingredients to be a classic.
"Mind you, if it’s half as good as Saturday’s Test people won’t complain, because you can be assured the centre of Cardiff is going to be submerged under a sea of red on March 17.
"Such has been the success of Wales in the Six Nations with Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008, coupled with reaching the semi-finals of this season’s World Cup before finishing fourth, that some will regard the country’s 20th Six Nations Triple Crown as a run-of-the-mill achievement.
"But those of that leaning need to put the whole thing into perspective. Between 1978 and 2005, Wales beat England, Scotland and Ireland just once in the same season, when Jonathan Davies and company did it in 1988 on the back of coming third at the inaugural World Cup the previous year. So it’s not to be taken for granted."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley was not convinced by Ireland's Six Nations victory over Italy in Dublin.
"At times you get the impression that television and the Six Nations would be as happy to have a cardboard cut-out of the crowd once the kick-off fitted in with TV schedules. Well, for much of the first half here, that was pretty much the case.
"Ireland were far from brilliant in the first half, repeating the errors of the previous outing against Wales by too often running slow ball inside their own half and often too laterally, all of which was compounded by errors and a lack of precision. But they rode out a mini crisis to ultimately win handsomely. Perception is everything but had this been a 5.30pm kick-off under lights, one ventures the impression of this game would have been considerably different.
"Take Ireland’s first try in the 16th minute when opting for the corner and patiently going through eight phases for Keith Earls to score his 12th try and his sixth try in his last four Tests. Libraries had been noisier at times up until the score, and though the lunchtime, sun-kissed crowd were briefly stirred they soon fell back into a torpor. Until the last throes of the half, when Ireland again opted for a kick to the corner and patiently worked the phases for Tommy Bowe to score his first try, the 5,000 or so Italian fans comfortably out-sang their 45,000 hosts."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports from Scotland's latest Six Nations defeat at the hands of France.
"Another stirring display by Scotland, more progress with two well-taken tries and real encouragement from dousing the fire of World Cup finalists France for much of this RBS Six Nations Championship match. But still defeat. Still not enough and Scotland’s losing run extends to five on the trot for the first time since 2004, and ever-nearer a sixth straight tournament in which Scotland will battle Italy to avoid the wooden spoon.
"There can be no disguising the improvement shown by Scotland as they raced into a 10-0 lead with a much tighter, composed and accurate attack. Stuart Hogg exploded concerns that too much expectation was being heaped on the teenager’s shoulders in his first Test start, lighting up Scotland’s attack in the first half and scoring the opening try – the first witnessed at Murrayfield since Italy were beaten here in the World Cup warm-up, with scores by Alasdair Dickinson and Mike Blair.
"The key lay with Scottish possession and when the hosts held the ball through phases and got it to their back three, France were scrambling to survive and Scotland soaring in this game. But having slipped off the pace in the final 15 minutes of the first phase and then again let the French back in after regaining the lead in the 55th minute, the Scots could not find a way back against a strong France side fighting hard to keep their championship hopes on track."
The Guardian's Richard Williams is impressed by Wales' ability to roll with the punches.
"On Saturday they could say that they won because of, rather than despite, their bad habit of losing players to yellow cards. When Rhys Priestland, having perhaps his worst game in a Wales jersey, went to the sin bin for an illegal tackle on Alex Corbisiero in the 45th minute it enabled the remaining 14 to demonstrate their resilience, to themselves as much as to their opponents. And they had yardsticks by which to measure their progress.
Two years ago at Twickenham they lost Alun Wyn Jones with the score at 3-3, and by the time the lock returned they were 13-3 behind and on the way to a heavy defeat. Last year in Cardiff the prop Craig Mitchell was sent to the sin bin with the score at 9-13 and 10 minutes later it was 9-23, a margin from which they were unable to recover.
On Saturday Priestland departed with England leading 9-6, and Owen Farrell swiftly kicked the penalty to double the margin. But then Wales dug in. They made the most of the restart and, with the significant assistance of Mike Phillips, their forwards kept virtually unbroken possession until the fly-half's return."
The Guardian's Rob Kitson sees plenty of reason for hope in the wake of England's Six Nations defeat to Wales on Saturday.
"Not for more than a decade has an England-Wales game captured as many hearts and minds. The Welsh march on unbeaten, now two home wins from a third Six Nations grand slam in eight seasons, but this was a contest which encapsulated all the best qualities of a thrillingly perverse sport. As Scott Williams surged clear with five minutes left to score his decisive try, there were compelling echoes of the 32‑31 classic at Wembley in 1999 when another centre, by the name of Scott Gibbs, memorably ruined England's day.
"If the 21-year-old Williams enjoys a career half as effective as Gibbs's he will be doing pretty well. Even if he falls short, it seems possible we are witnessing the first stirrings of a high-class Anglo-Welsh rivalry destined to continue for a while. Two of Wales's most effective warriors were Sam Warburton and George North, aged 23 and 19 respectively. For England the 20-year-old Owen Farrell played with more than enough poise and assurance to confirm the suspicion that Jonny Wilkinson's heir apparent is already among us. It does not take a genius to foresee these two developing teams vying for supremacy on a regular basis in the coming years."
Writing in his Daily Telegraph column, former England hooker Brian Moore reflects on his former side's defeat to Wales on Saturday.
"A Twickenham on Saturday, a team four weeks in the making, drawn from a new squad and under a new management team, came close to beating one that has been fashioned over four years by an experienced and settled management group.
"That England did not at least draw with Wales was not a fair reflection of the game, but life, especially sport, is not fair and Stuart Lancaster and his charges will have to learn that at this level a moment’s inattention can undo the efforts of a whole game’.
"The assessment by Sam Warburton, the Wales captain and the man of the match, that they had not played well, was only partially accurate. What he did not say, but which is nevertheless the truth, is that England’s defensive effort did not allow them to flourish for long periods of the game."
The Sunday Times' David Walsh heaps praise on Wales' Scott Williams after his match-winning cameo against England. (via paywall)
"Sometimes you have to just smile at the wonder of it. So much expectation, so many heavyweights and so many heavy hitters but the game was won by a young man few outside of south Wales had ever heard of. Obscurity ended in the 75th minute of a magnificent Test match and now Scott Williams is a player, a name, a hero; the man who beat the English.
"Nine days ago he was in Dublin, playing for his regional team, Scarlets, against Leinster, and losing to a last-minute penalty goal. “Gutted” was the word he used to describe his mood that evening. That was then, this is now. He was asked about his heroic and match-winning try that decided this game and didn’t quite know how to explain it. “It is quite unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.”
"What could he say? That he had seen all this coming; that he dreamt of it while growing up in Swansea; that he imagined while playing for the Welsh under-age teams and accepted a professional contract with the Scarlets he would learn to be a star against England? No, this was a dream beyond the imagination, a moment so close to fairytale you couldn’t have made it up."
"It's not easy to get excited about a fixture that has become so lopsided that Italy think of the trip to Dublin with even less enthusiasm than Ireland board a plane for Paris. And when the kick-off is at lunchtime then you have stadium announcers trying too hard to create something that isn't there.
"As ever in this new stadium, where Ireland still have lost more than they have won, pleasing the crowd is not easy either. With five minutes to the break it looked like they would be spending half-time complaining about the fact that the home team couldn't string together enough decent rugby to be in front. As it turned out, they went in ahead. And at the end the punters had five tries to chew on -- a bonus of sorts in a competition that doesn't do bonus points.
"The attraction of it all for Declan Kidney was that his team go to Paris with a win immediately behind them. You wonder what would it have been like yesterday had they faced Italy with back-to-back defeats in their rear-view mirror, for in truth the coach was delighted to get out of France two weeks ago without that baggage."
The Irish Times reports on Ireland's Six Nations victory over Italy in Dublin.
"While the scoreboard points to an easy afternoon, Ireland made heavy work of it and at times were guilty of over-elaborating. But coach Declan Kidney will otherwise be pleased with a comfortable victory that has provided some positive news in an otherwise ill-fated campaign.
"Since losing to Wales thanks to a penalty that a disciplinary hearing later admitted should not have been awarded, they have since seen their clash with France postponed at the last minute and lost their forwards coach Gert Smal for the rest of the championship due to an eye condition.
"Dispatching Italy — a result that concludes their sequence of three successive home defeats — at last provides them with a platform as they prepare for their return to Paris next Sunday."
Writing in his column for the Wales on Sunday, Barry John heaps praise on the Grand Slam-chasing Wales.
"It’s rarely a pretty game when the two nations meet at Twickenham, but it’s always a case of dog eat dog.
"Well, the Welsh bite was greater this time thanks to a moment of brilliance from half-time replacement Scott Williams.
"But what really struck me was how mentally strong Warren Gatland’s side is. No-one ever gives in. I love their character and way they go about things, they never throw the towel in.
"There were two periods of the game which stood out for me on this score.
"First when Wales were reduced to 14 men, though I still don’t understand how referee Steve Walsh gave Rhys Priestland 10 minutes in the sin bin. It was so innocuous with the English forward Alex Corbisiero losing the ball.
"...The second key part of the game was when Wales turned it up from the 60-minute mark. Ryan Jones played a big part here after replacing Alun Wyn Jones and his impact was just what Wales needed at 12-9 down."
"Do not underestimate what this added confidence could do for the red resurgence. As Gatland says, they have fresh looks but weathered boots. Wales had not won the Triple Crown in England before and if they had to pick anywhere, one would be forgiven for suspecting the Welsh would have chosen this venue – a place, which, for some reason, they have never felt comfortable in calling "HQ".
"So now a third Grand Slam in eight seasons beckons: Italy first, then France. England and Ireland might disagree but it is set up for the decider and, dare we whisper it, for revenge after that World Cup semi-final heartbreaker.
"Wales have built on the form from the World Cup, just as Gatland would have demanded . The Kiwi coach must believe that his adopted country's name is back on the Six Nations trophy after this enthralling contest."
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mike Catt refuses to be downbeat about England's Six Nations defeat to Wales.
"I refuse to be glum after that because yesterday evening I believe we saw the start of something special and I sense the England supporters feel much the same way.
"Poised to play a huge role in that future is undoubtedly Owen Farrell. I raised more than a few eyebrows last week when I suggested in this column that England might use this match of all games to throw the young man in at fly-half with Manu Tuilagi playing in his place at centre alongside Brad Barritt.
"The general consensus seemed that it was way too high-risk and that Tuilagi and Barritt were too similar ever to combine effectively at Test level, but they were duly selected and come the day all three enjoyed exceptional games.
"Hopefully that odd-looking injury to Farrell when he did something to his leg kicking for touch isn’t too serious, because I want to see that midfield trio go straight back in against France next up. They can only get better."
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Paul Hayward reflects on England gutsy display in defeat to Wales.
"The true measure of this defeat, though, was the ruin, rancour and self-regard of England’s World Cup campaign – and how far they have come since then under a bright new coaching team who have restored dignity to the national set-up.
"A downside of never mentioning that tour of doom to New Zealand is that it obscures the scale of the task faced by Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree – or “Stuart, Faz and Wig”, as the Twickenham debutante Lee Dickson called them with perhaps a touch too much familiarity.
"It was only five months ago, remember, that England were complaining about having to go out without ex-SAS minders to keep them out of bother.
"Complaining about pretty much everything apart from their own inadequacies. For Lancaster to hose away that mess so quickly and find a new group of warriors who are committed to the shirt ranks as a managerial miracle."
David Kelly looks at the emergence of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray, and points to the work of Munster boss Tony McGahan as a key factor, in The Irish Independent.
"In all the rush to praise the Irish management for being at the cutting edge of player evolution, Conor Murray reminded us this week that, in fact, his rapid progression owes more to his outgoing Munster coach.
"After all, Tony McGahan was far quicker than his erstwhile boss, Declan Kidney, in ascertaining that Tomas O'Leary's sudden decline in form was irreversible last year; hence Murray's rapid promotion from the Munster academy to World Cup starter with Ireland.
"This time last year, Kidney was still keeping the faith, despite the sadly visible struggles of O'Leary to recreate his Grand Slam form; his selection of the Corkman in Rome was one of the reasons Ireland very nearly succumbed to the battling Italians."
England wing David Strettle discusses the challenges of playing out of position and tackling Wales' George North in The Independent.
"A little over three weeks ago, just as they were about to head north to Edinburgh for the Six Nations game with Scotland, the England wings David Strettle and Chris Ashton found themselves discussing what, on the face of it, was a rather serious issue: namely, what precise roles they would end up playing.
"Chris is a right wing by preference, as am I," says Strettle. "We both knew one of us would have to shift to the left and I thought it might be me on the grounds that I'd just come back into the side. I was pretty relieved when Chris said: 'Actually, I quite fancy it for a change.' The trouble was, no one bothered to tell the kit man."
Paul Hayward previews England's clash with Wales, beginning with No.8 Ben Morgan's humble beginnings, in The Daily Telegraph.
"This morning, in the Gloucestershire market town of Dursley, a minibus will set off rammed with relatives and friends of a No 8 making his first start for England against Wales at Twickenham. Ben Morgan’s dad will drive.
"This throwback to more Corinthian days is in tune with the romantic rawness and inexperience of Stuart Lancaster’s third England starting XV. Morgan’s stepping stones to Twickenham have been Dursley, Cinderford, Merthyr (‘The Ironmen’) and the Scarlets of Llanelli. In his official biography we are told: “Before his elevation to the England Senior Squad, Ben’s top memory was beating Yorkshire in the U-20 final at Twickenham in May 2008.”
"The good news is that Morgan has scored a try on English rugby’s sacred turf. Less encouraging is that seven of England’s starters have never played at Twickenham. The No 8, scrum-half and fly-half are international virgins on home soil. You mooch around the England camp expecting to smell terror creeping across the ranks. You find none."
Robert Kitson - writing in The Guardian - looks at the links between Wigan and the Six Nations clash between England and Wales.
"The question is this: how did one northern town of around 81,000 people hijack one of international rugby union's biggest days? Clearly a degree of Anglo-Welsh rivalry will still swirl around Twickenham on Saturday but the whiff of Wigan is unmissable.
"Two rival coaches – Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards – were part of the same all-conquering Wigan side. So was Wales's head of rugby, Joe Lydon. England's two main scoring threats, Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton, were born there, as was England's fitness coach, Paul Stridgeon. Most of them even attended the same school, St John Fisher Catholic high school in Baytree Road. It cannot all be a coincidence. "I see Wiganers everywhere," Farrell Sr says. "You only have to do a bit of digging."
Scotland's Stuart Hogg tells The Scotsman's David Ferguson that he is a distant relative of legendary footballer George Best.
"The 19-year-old was already spinning from making his debut for Scotland against Wales in Cardiff less than a fortnight ago and finding out at the start of the week that he was to make his first start in a Scotland jersey, against France this Sunday. And then Irish relatives informed his father of the link with Manchester United hero Best.
"It’s pretty amazing,” he said, sporting a wide grin. “A cousin of my dad’s in Hawick was in touch with Irish relatives and told them about me playing for Scotland, and there was a report in a paper across there.
"Then my dad got in touch with them and they told him that his great granny was a Best, and that we were related to George’s family. My dad was in tears hearing of the Irish links. It’s pretty distant, but it has been amazing to find that out.”
The Irish Independent's David Kelly reflects on Italy coach Jacques Brunel's efforts to take his side to the next level.
"Born in Courrensan in south-west France, Brunel's playing career was relatively undistinguished, featuring for Grenoble and Carcassonne before joining Auch, where he spent 19 years, finishing the last 12 years of his playing days there before assuming the head coach role.
"Much of his philosophy was honed here, before leaving to join Colomiers in 1995, the neat symmetry of that year's Paris Accord partitioning his amateur and professional rugby careers.
"Before replacing Nick Mallett as Italian head coach last year, Brunel had enjoyed notable success with the proud Perpignan club, leading them to a cherished Top 14 success in 2008 and a Heineken Cup semi-final last season, where they lost to Northampton Saints.
"Italy's status as perennial whipping boys wasn't going to be altered overnight, though, and two opening defeats in this year's championship indicates the magnitude of the task facing him.
"Minus both his starting front-row lynchpins -- Andrea lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni -- not to mention the Bergamasco brothers, with swirling talk that he has fallen out with one or both of them, few are backing Italy to reverse the tide of this century and defeat Ireland tomorrow."
The Guardian's Rob Kitson reflects on England's bold selection for thei Six Nations showdown with Wales.
"The "Chiropractor" used to be the nickname given to Samoa's crash-tackling Brian Lima because of his unerring ability to rattle opponents' bones. Stuart Lancaster is a gentler character but he has given the spine of his England team an almighty wrench. It is hard to remember any England coach who has simultaneously handed first Six Nations starts to his main lineout caller, both half-backs and a 20-year-old centre. Stick or twist? Lancaster has plumped for the kill-or-cure option.
"In the case of the injured Charlie Hodgson there was, in the end, no option. The management did wait until early morning to make absolutely sure but once Hodgson's breakfast-time fitness test ended in disappointment Lancaster did not flinch. While Owen Farrell may be only 20, he has spent longer on the training field lately than the more seasoned Toby Flood. Any temptation to reunite Flood with Lee Dickson, once a team-mate at Newcastle, was trumped by a desire to stay true to the "no fear" philosophy Lancaster has consistently preached since taking the caretaker reins.
"No fear. It sounds simple enough. Don't worry about making a prat of yourself in front of 80,000 people, just go out and play. The truth is that Geoff Parling, England's new king of the lineout jungle, and the equally unheralded No8 Ben Morgan are about to leap off a board high enough to make even Tom Daley think twice."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former France defence coach Dave Ellis believes the key to success against Wales is pressure on scrum-half Mike Phillips.
"Prop Adam Jones will attempt to wheel the scrum to keep the England back row tied in and far away from Phillips and fly-half Rhys Priestland.
"England must attempt to put them under pressure here leaving Phillips with less time and space, and fewer options in attack.
"Similarly, at the line-out Wales will be desperate for clean ball off the top at the back.
"Wales’s line-out is not their strong suit and England must contest every throw and either try to steal the ball or disrupt any tap-downs to Phillips so he is left trying to tidy up messy ball instead of launching a speedy attack.
"Even if England do manage to slow down and disrupt Wales’s possession they will still need to put in an almighty defensive shift.
"Whenever you play Wales the tackle count tends to break records and Saturday will be no different."
Craig Chalmers, talking to the Scotsman, lauds youngster Stuart Hogg ahead of Sunday's match with France.
"As Stuart Hogg prepares to become the latest young talent handed a Scotland starting jersey, there is a sense that the team is on the cusp of something. It all hinges on the selection nous and timing of Andy Robinson and his coaching team.
In the pack, the improvement of Ross Ford, Jim Hamilton and Kelly Brown (albeit not available in this championship) into recognised Test-quality performers, alongside the emergence of Richie Gray and David Denton, roundly talented youngsters still with much time to develop and learn, and the return of Ross Rennie to fitness and the kind of form he promised before injury struck, provide the core of a strong pack for a few years to come.
The only change in today’s announcement of the team to face France is expected to come at blindside flanker, where Alasdair Strokosch has been ruled out by a broken hand. It is expected that Robinson will start John Barclay, a regular openside, there, which will help Scotland’s efforts to run the French pack about the field."
Luke Benedict, of the Daily Mail, previews Wales and England's back-row ahead of Saturday's clash.
6 - Dan Lydiate
Height: 6ft 4in
Weight: 17st 10lb
Happy to go about his work in the shadow of his captain but a first-class flanker in his own right. Very rarely does his tackle count stay in single figures and he makes himself a complete nuisance at the breakdown.
England love to keep it tight and attack the blindside, but they might want to think again with Lydiate lurking. "
England's interim coach has shown his bravery with his player selection, but the Wales game may be too soon for a spot of adventure according to The Observer's Eddie Butler.
"So, can England expand against Wales? The interception of Ben Foden's pass by Tommaso Benvenuti probably gave the answer. It's a bit too soon in the process to be passing the ball. So, can Charlie [Hodgson] be dropped then? It's a bit too soon to be dropping the talisman.
"England will need a bit of luck to beat Wales. A chargedown here and there, by Hodgson naturally, would be a start and England could then defend their lead. That is more comfortable territory, holding out, even against the towering Welsh backs.
"[Stuart] Lancaster was brave in his selection of players, but to select a new style now and order a game of adventure against Wales would be to take courage to the brink of … what? If it came off the job would have to be his full-time. If not, statistical certainty would see him airbrushed from the picture."
Writing in the Wales on Sunday, Delme Parfitt issues a warning to Wales ahead of their Six Nations showdown with England.
"I checked England’s record at their south west London home last night, and discovered that in 46 Five and Six Nations outings there in the last 20 years, the home side have failed to win just seven times.
"That’s a better record than France have in Paris over the same period, with Les Bleus being defeated 10 times in 47 outings on their own soil – three of those being at the hands of Wales in 1999, 2001 and 2005.
"As for Wales, any takers on how many times they’ve lost at the now demolished Arms Park national ground, the Millennium Stadium and, lest we forget, the three encounters they had at Wembley in 1998 and ‘99 in that time?
"Well, out of 46 clashes, they’ve been on the wrong end of the scoreline a staggering 22 times in their own backyard, and 14 of those have been at the Millennium since their first outing there against France in 2000 ended in a 36-3 thrashing."
Wales need to prove they can live with favourites tag by beating England comfortably - according to Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore.
"The Welsh team have entertained their own fans and a wider rugby public, so much so that there has been a virtual beatification of the Warren Gatland regime which is starting to obscure the reality of what has been achieved.
"Wales have indisputably played some of the best rugby of any northern hemisphere side in the past few years, but outside that it is still not much more than the promise of jam tomorrow.
"For all their undoubted talent and panache, if Wales do not win at Twickenham on Saturday it will be an unpalatable fact that in their last nine games they have not beaten a single team with a higher International Rugby Board ranking. The ineluctable conclusion would have to be they are not as good as they and many others think, or that they have a psychological block when it comes to the big occasion; neither of which justifies the plaudits garnered thus far."
Brendan Fanning runs the rule over Wales' aggressive blitz defence against Ireland and Scotland in The Sunday Independent.
"For the last three minutes in the first half of the Wales versus Scotland game last weekend, the away team laid siege to the home line like drowning men reaching for a life raft.
"A score at that point would have swept them into the lead, and into a mental state the Scots don't often enjoy in the Six Nations. For a team who rarely enjoy the thrill of touching down -- Greig Laidlaw's try that day would be their first in five Tests -- this was a critical period in their season.
"At the start of the sequence, the phenomenon that is George North had hobbled off the field, leaving his team down to 14 men and his wing position exposed. In a series of plays that must have terrified their defence coach Shaun Edwards, the station was left short-staffed until the break."
"With fingers of blame pointing back and forth between Ireland and France after last weekend's last-minute postponement at a frozen Stade de France, figures obtained by Ruck and Maul show an estimated €14 million changed hands over the Six Nations match that never was.
"The French Rugby Federation (FFR) rent the Stade de France for €1.3m per match, in a contract that ends after next year's Six Nations (which concludes in March 2013 with the Championship's only 9pm kick-off, when France meet Scotland).
"Advertising space in the 80,000-seater stadium is worth €1.5m, a proportion of which the FFR buy on behalf of their commercial partners. In terms of revenue, the FFR make around €4m a match from ticket sales, and they sell around €510,000 worth of hospitality outside the ground (the Stade de France Consortium sell the hospitality inside)."
Shaun Edwards, in his column for the Guardian, analyses the role of the turnover in the Six Nations thus far.
"A quick question: do you need to have the ball to win rugby Test matches? The answer seems to be no and that in certain conditions it can be a positive disadvantage.
Charlie Hodgson's charged-down tries against Scotland and Italy are perfect examples, but not the only ones. The Welsh analysts have provided figures that show 50% of France's tries have come from turnovers, as have Italy's. It's just that charge-downs – or interceptions – are the most obvious example of the turnover in its purest form. And it's not a fluke.
Hodgson and his club, Saracens, see the charge-down as a skill and train for it, so, when Dan Parks kicked a little too late and a little too low at Murrayfield, Hodgson got his reward, as he did when he was up quickly on Andrea Masi in Rome. Masi, one of the heroes when Italy beat France last season, was left trying to scramble to save face, but he's only the most recent victim."
Former England winger Mark Cueto provides his take on the red rose side's prospects in the Six Nations so far - in the Guardian.
"Played two, won two. England's start to the Six Nations is the same as it was a year ago, although they sat at the top of the table after the opening rounds rather than in second place behind their next opponents, Wales.
Has all the upheaval been worth it? The victories over Wales in Cardiff a year ago and against Italy at Twickenham were achieved with more flourish and panache than was evident at Murrayfield and Rome's Olympic Stadium this month, but England are starting over in 2012 having been well established in last year's Six Nations.
When Martin Johnson took over as team manager in 2008, his first campaign was the autumn Test series; Australia, South Africa and New Zealand lying in wait after the Pacific Islanders. England tried to move the ball against the Wallabies, but failed to create space and they went back to basics in the Six Nations."
Chris Foy, of the Daily Mail, looks at the remarkable rise of Lee Dickson from potential Marine to England international.
"Eight years ago, Lee Dickson enrolled for a Royal Marines training course and was ready to follow in his Army father's footsteps. Then Newcastle intervened. They gave him a route into professional rugby.
And now, having served his apprenticeship at Kingston Park before moving to Northampton to hone his craft, the 26-year-old scrum-half has had his biggest break this month.
After being included in Stuart Lancaster's England squad for the RBS Six Nations, Dickson edged ahead of Joe Simpson to claim a replacement place."
Gavin Mairs, of the Daily Telegraph, talks to Marco Wentzel, Clarke Dermody, Nick Evans and Schalk Brits about their thoughts on the Six Nations so far.
"Four southern hemisphere international players in the Premiership - Nick Evans, Clarke Dermody, Marco Wentzel and Schalk Brits - discuss with Gavin Mairs the state of the game and England’s chances under Stuart Lancaster."
Former England skipper Lewis Moody, in his column for the Independent, believes England can develop in the same manner as Wales.
"It might have made ominous viewing for any England fan watching Wales cut through Scotland on Sunday – but I looked at it differently. Where Wales happen to be now, I think England will be in a few years' time. So let's just call their magnificent form a snapshot of our own future.
Not that I subscribe to the view that winning the Triple Crown at Twickenham next week will be a formality for Warren Gatland's men. Anything but. I think it will be a tight, close game, which may come down to a single score. But it will be a massive challenge for England, because this is plainly a very good and very dangerous Wales team. To my mind, they are reaping the benefits of integrating the youngsters over the last few seasons.
Indeed, let's turn it around and say England are now where Wales were two or three years ago. Everyone is saying we need to see some attacking flair from Stuart Lancaster's team and, of course, we all want that. But I don't think the critics appreciate how long it can take to gel a side together. We are in the very early stages of the process."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson claims that Gregor Townsend will have his contract extended by the SRU, contrary to reports suggesting that the backs coach's days are numbered.
"Gregor Townsend is expected to remain part of the Scotland coaching set-up, at least for the foreseeable future, despite reports claiming yesterday that he is to be released from his duties.
The assistant coach, who has responsibility for attack, has been held responsible in some quarters for Scotland’s recent failure to score tries. Greig Laidlaw’s touchdown in the 27-13 defeat against Wales on Saturday was the national team’s first try in five games.
Robinson confirmed on Sunday that his defence coach Graham Steadman will leave the coaching team when his contract expires in May, and some commentators drew from his after-match ‘no comment’ on the future of Townsend that the attack coach was also in line to be released. That was, however, wide of the mark."
Jonathan Davies, talking to the Daily Mail's Chris Foy, lights the blue touch paper ahead of Wales' trip to Twickenham.
"Jonathan Davies has ignited cross-border tensions with England ahead of Wales's visit to Twickenham on Saturday week by boldly declaring that the visitors can defy a long tradition and 'smash' their rivals up front.
The former Wales fly-half and BBC commentator - rather than his namesake, the current centre - has dismissed England's new-look pack as overwhelmingly inferior to the more experienced unit which Warren Gatland will unleash."
The Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher looks at the growing farce surrounding the postponed Six Nations clash.
"The French Rugby Federation met on Monday night and will reconvene on Tuesday morning to decide if they are willing and able to compensate Ireland supporters who cannot attend the still-to-be-rearranged Six Nations fixture.
A rematch between France and Ireland this weekend has been ruled out and Saturday March 3 remains the most likely date, with an early evening kick-off the preferred option.
The Six Nations Council was forced to delay a final decision on Monday, however, while the French Federation not only pleaded for more time to finalise its ticketing policy but negotiated with angry clubs about player release on that date.
The French T14 clubs are already up in arms after being deprived of their international players for 10 Test weekends this season. Although their suggestion of an end-of-season rematch with Ireland is impractical – both teams have summer tours - the clubs are determined to negotiate some reward for themselves for what they see as their sacrifice."
The Guardian's Kevin Mitchell singles out six talking points from the second weekend of action in the Six Nations.
"1. Shock snow in northern winter leaves officials flummoxed
Daft as it is to consider that snow in the northern hemisphere should come as a surprise to anyone, it caught fans, officials airlines (and at least one journalist) on the hop. Those Irish supporters who left Paris cold and angry after the match against France was called off so late on Saturday night – by an official who overruled the referee less than an hour before the scheduled 9pm kick-off – will have been reminded since why this modern stadium has no under-soil heating.
The place was built on a rubbish dump and electrical wires could be exposed to methane gas – and we couldn't be having that, a stinker in every way. Dithering by the suits did not quieten the mood of the angry punters, who will be reluctant to travel to Paris on a cold day again (of which there are quite a few in winter, as it happens)."
Former France defence coach Dave Ellis, writing for the Daily Telegraph, looks at areas where England need to improve
"1. England’s defence is vulnerable down the short side
England got caught out on the short side on numerous occasions and allowed Italy to make easy metres. This was a reversal of how they defended against Scotland when they were torn apart in midfield.
It’s almost as if they were so eager to not get exposed there for the second week in a row that they overcompensated by stacking the midfield with defenders. Instead of getting their full defensive line organised England were preoccupied with trying to shut down Italian attacks in the middle of the field.
But all it did was leave England vulnerable out wide and there were far too many situations where Italy had a two or three-man overlap."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly argues that Ireland may benefit from the postponement in Paris.
"Yes, it was a farce, a shambles and a travesty. Yes, it is ridiculous that one of the finest stadiums in Europe cannot cater for a bit of ice and that the French Rugby Federation could not have seen this coming despite warnings all week.
Yes, it is unbelievably frustrating for supporters, Irish and French, who had expended significant amounts of time and money to get to Saint Denis and were suited and seated and ready for action, only to get the 'no mas' message with minutes to go.
However, accepting all of the above, there is one unassailable fact regarding Saturday night's 'no-show' at the Stade de France that deserves to be acknowledged -- this cancellation could actually suit Ireland very well."
The Irish Independent reports that Ireland will have to wait for their clash with France.
"Ireland's postponed Six Nations clash with France will be played on either March 3 or 4 rather than next weekend as the French would prefer.
An announcement on the re-fixture was made late last night following Saturday's last-minute cancellation at the Stade de France with the French Rugby Federation confirming that the match will be played in three weeks' time.
It is felt that, following Saturday night's frozen pitch debacle, a Friday night kick-off will not be risked, ruling out March 2. The French were hoping for the game to be staged in Stade de France next weekend, despite the scheduled Top 14 match between Stade Francais and Toulon next Saturday afternoon."
The Daily Mail's Chris Foy gives his verdict on England's performance in the Six Nations so far.
"When the RFU start sifting through the applications for the England head coach job on Wednesday they will find Stuart Lancaster’s c.v. minus one detail - Test coaching record: played two, won two.
The man in temporary charge of the national team formally submitted his application before this RBS Six Nations began. ‘Hopefully they are watching,’ said Lancaster in the aftermath of his side’s second straight victory, on Saturday in the snow-swept Stadio Olimpico.
Of course they will be watching closely, but it might be better if they just checked the final score or flicked through the highlights. For the devil truly does lie in the detail."
The Daily Telegraph's Mike Catt lauds the performances of both Ben Morgan and Lee Dickson.
"Another win on the road – two in a week now – and this time my top accolades undoubtedly go to second half-replacements Lee Dickson and Ben Morgan, who proved to be real game changers.
England's two emerging props Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero were also outstanding against tough opponents and grew as international performers.
Dickson and Morgan picked up the pace and tempo exactly when England needed – that was brave and intelligent use of the bench by Stuart Lancaster to introduce two international novices at such a key juncture in key positions.
Stuart was justly rewarded for the faith he showed in them and both will now be favourites to start against Wales in two weeks’ time, that’s how well they performed.
To start with though it wasn’t so great from England and I was getting concerned."
The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin talks to Wales' No.8 Toby Faletau about why he lets his talking happen on the field rather than in the changing room.
"You will hear it said often that Toby Faletau is a man of few words. Some disagree; they say he is much less garrulous than that. So what? The tale of the Tongan lad turned Wales No 8 is one of towering rugby talent and splendid displacement. He is not being paid to wow the poetry punters at the national Eisteddfod.
"I hardly say anything," Faletau admitted, when asked about his contribution to any team talk before today's meeting with Scotland. And why is that? "I can't think of anything to say," he replied. Those well-considered and self-effacing syllables that do escape the Faletau lips come with a thoroughly Welsh accent. And the 21 years he has spent reaching his first Six Nations' Championship – his tournament debut was in last Sunday's two-point victory in Ireland – began with a grumble by the King of Tonga."
Dean Ryan, writing for the Observer, provides his take on Saturday's clash between Italy and England.
"1 Under Lancaster, England are still cold starters
England's players could not have anticipated that Rome would look like Greenland and the first Six Nations game at the Stadio Olimpico was an ordeal for both sides. And again England were sterile for 40 minutes. England need to be precise, with a flat midfield and pace on the outside. But they did not have that in the first half. One problem was at the lineout. In the first half England only won two of nine balls off the top of the lineouts and they lost two lineouts in attacking positions. I feel for Tom Palmer, who calls the lineouts and for the second successive week was replaced by Geoff Parling after the break.
You are under pressure for the first 40 minutes when you are calling lineout rather like an opening batsman. After the break England won faster ball from there but before the interval the midfield was not precise enough and the front five forwards were not effectively coming around the corner from lineouts. England won a difficult match but they are still lacking that combination of pace and power."
The Scotsman reports that the SRU may seek to shuffle the coaching pack at the national side come the end of the season.
"Scotland, a team with a chronic inability to score tries who have not crossed the whitewash in their past four games, are to part company with their defence coach. Scotland on Sunday understands that Graham Steadman’s contract with Scotland will expire at the end of this season and will not be renewed.
Steadman, who has been a part of the Murrayfield set-up for almost four years, will leave the Scotland coaching team as Australian Scott Johnson, who is currently the director of coaching of the Welsh side Ospreys, joins Andy Robinson’s management team ahead of the summer tour to Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Coming on the morning when Scotland play Wales at the Millennium Stadium after a deeply disappointing loss to England in their opening RBS Six Nations match last Saturday, the decision is sure to be a controversial one, especially given that Robinson has been under increasing pressure to discard attack coach Gregor Townsend."
The French Federation and the Six Nations Committee must shoulder blame for late postponemenrt fiasco in Paris, writes the Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning.
"This is not being wise after the event, for many of us felt that what might start would surely not finish. Consider that the women's game between Ireland and Wales was abandoned halfway through in Ashbourne last weekend where the temperatures were a good deal higher that the -7C we had in Paris last night.
"It got worse. With the crowd left in the lurch, we gathered in the press conference room to see what had unfolded in the final minutes. We were told referee Dave Pearson would attend to run us through his decision-making process. Then we were told he wouldn't be coming.
"Next were the ground rules: there would be no questions, only statements read by a representative of the Six Nations, followed by one from the president of FFR. The first was translated into unusable English. The second was a rant from Pierre Camou laying the blame squarely at the door of Dave Pearson.
"Pearson may not be the most popular ref with Ireland fans after his handling of the Clermont versus Ulster Heineken Cup tie, and then his advice to Wayne Barnes on the Bradley Davies/Donnacha Ryan incident last weekend against Wales, but it wasn't his decision to schedule the game at 9.0pm, just about the last time you would want if you are trying to beat the weather."
Writing in The Observer Kevin Mitchell is impressed by what he has seen of the new-look England.
"Through a veil of gentle snow and a blizzard of cutting advice, Stuart Lancaster's England team grabbed another little foothold on the treacherous slopes of their rehabilitation. The man few had heard of until a couple of months ago can already lay claim to ownership of this version of the England team, however long he remains in the job, because, on the evidence of their 19-15 win over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico, the players are clearly responding to him.
"They couldn't buy a friend not so long ago, this apparently loutish rabble, riven internally and sniping at each other like so many privileged brats. Yet one of the first propositions put to Lancaster on Saturday in what passes for media endorsement was that, surely, one more win and the job was his on a permanent basis. He was not having that. He has seen the Twickenham machinery at work from close quarters. Like the rest of us, he witnessed the slow but inevitable fall – from a considerable height – of Martin Johnson, and he is not fool enough to be dragged into premature declarations of intent or indulge in speculation that might return to haunt him."
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, England's Ben Foden reflects on one of the low points of his career having gifted Italy two tries in their Six Nations clash in Rome.
"I haven’t thrown many intercepts in my career and to do it at international level at a key point in the game is pretty hard to live with.
"It was pretty daunting to be under the sticks, having gone from six points up to 12-6 down in the space of three minutes.
"At half time, everybody just said ‘forget about it, these things happen in rugby’ and I was determined to make amends.
"It was a gutting moment but you have to shake those things off and get on with your own game and get yourself back into the match and, thankfully, we did that in the second half.
"To come back from 15-6 down we showed a lot of character. Chris Robshaw called us under the posts when they kicked their penalty and said, ‘we don’t change anything, we just stick to what we are doing and we will break them down’."
Scotland's Dan Parks will forever be associated with blame after giving critics what they want, according to The Daily Telegraph's Jim White.
"Parks is a sensitive soul, prickly to criticism, defensive about his eligibility. Yet in the past he had reacted well to adversity. Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, reckoned he was as good as anyone he encountered at taking the flak.
"As indeed he demonstrated in 2010, when, after initially being dropped by Robinson, he returned to the side to have a stellar Six Nations and propel Scotland to their first ever series win in Argentina.
"That, though, was clearly not enough to satisfy the trolls. They seized on his Saturday mistake and once more engaged the vitriol.
"Even so, it came as a surprise that Parks terminated an international career spanning some eight years and including a Scottish record 17 dropped goals, with such dispatch. After just one game in the Six Nations, he announced his retirement from duty with immediate effect."
Western Mail columnist Gwyn Jones reflects on Wales' opening Six Nations victory over Ireland.
"Every time I meet the players in the flesh I am reminded just how big they are. The small screen does not do them justice.
"They are impressive specimens who have a huge physical presence and who carry themselves with quiet confidence.
"I don’t know if the few days of fitness work done in Poland provided the extra bit of stamina that sealed the win, but I think the players believed it was and ultimately it’s the identical thing.
"Ireland have some excellent regional players but this was a step up again, this was Test match rugby and it seems that the Welsh players are better able to not only make that leap, but to jump to a higher level again than their opponents.
"Whether it’s the honour of pulling on the red shirt or the inspiration of Gatland and co, Wales raised the quality, the intensity and the skill levels and were by some way the better side."
Brendan Gallagher, writing for the Irish Independent, argues that referees should be in the spotlight alongside the players cited for the tip-tackling over the weekend.
"The International Rugby Board's disciplinary procedure and two of England's top referees could be under nearly as much scrutiny as Bradley Davies and Stephen Ferris in London this afternoon when a Six Nations committee deals with the controversial issue of tip-tackling.
While everybody anticipated that Davies would be cited, few expected Ferris to be joining him, although both received yellow cards in Sunday's encounter between Ireland and Wales.
According to the IRB's directives -- and indeed the verbal report from assistant referee Dave Pearson -- Davies' lifting and dumping head-first of Donnacha Ryan was even more culpable than a so-called tip-tackle and had to be an automatic red card."
The Independent's Chris Hewett provides his take on Dan Parks' shock retirement from international rugby.
"Just as England's latest contender for a long and productive run in the red-rose back row was revelling in his first taste of international rugby – "Something I'll remember and treasure for the rest of my life," said a star-struck Ben Morgan yesterday, reminiscing about the dozen minutes or so he spent on the pitch at Murrayfield last weekend – one of the Scots who started that game was putting his Test career firmly behind him. Dan Parks, never the most popular outside-half north of the border but occasionally the most effective, will not wear the blue shirt again.
The 31-year-old exiled Australian said in a prepared statement that he had considered retiring from the international game following last autumn's World Cup, but decided to declare himself available for Six Nations duty because England were the opening-round opponents and he felt there was an element of "unfinished business" following Scotland's bitterly frustrating defeat by the ancient enemy during the global gathering in New Zealand. However, his performance in Edinburgh four days ago was well below par and it seemed yesterday that he had been given an opportunity to bow out while the choice was still his to make."
The Independent's Chris Hewett provides his take on Dan Parks' shock retirement from international rugby.
"Just as England's latest contender for a long and productive run in the red-rose back row was revelling in his first taste of international rugby – "Something I'll remember and treasure for the rest of my life," said a star-struck Ben Morgan yesterday, reminiscing about the dozen minutes or so he spent on the pitch at Murrayfield last weekend – one of the Scots who started that game was putting his Test career firmly behind him. Dan Parks, never the most popular outside-half north of the border but occasionally the most effective, will not wear the blue shirt again.
The 31-year-old exiled Australian said in a prepared statement that he had considered retiring from the international game following last autumn's World Cup, but decided to declare himself available for Six Nations duty because England were the opening-round opponents and he felt there was an element of "unfinished business" following Scotland's bitterly frustrating defeat by the ancient enemy during the global gathering in New Zealand. However, his performance in Edinburgh four days ago was well below par and it seemed yesterday that he had been given an opportunity to bow out while the choice was still his to make."
Chris Hewett, of the Independent, looks at where Toby Flood will fit in at England.
"Should David Beckham stumble accidentally into what was once his very own football academy either side of lunchtime today, he might find himself in danger of wrecking his fragile metatarsal for good and causing terminal damage to his hairstyle. England's rugby players, in high good humour following their unexpected Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland at Murrayfield, will be training at the London Soccerdome next to the O2 Arena because of the wintry conditions at their base in Surrey. They will not be messing around, either. According to the coaching staff, they will be knocking seven bells out of each other.
"I place as much importance on how players conduct themselves in training during the week as on what they do at the weekend," said Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, in confirming that the 32-man squad for Saturday's meeting with Italy in Rome, bolstered by the return of the World Cup midfielder Toby Flood, would be encouraged to engage in a full and frank exchange of views. "When we do a 15 v 15 session, I try to ensure that the people on the fringes of the team get a genuine opportunity, rather than just give them a bib and tell them to defend. Everyone has to train well. It's the way you develop a high-performance culture."
The Daily Mail's Chris Foy previews the winner takes all clash between England and....England.
"When England escape the snow on Tuesday with a training trip to a former David Beckham football academy next to the O2 Arena, Ben Morgan will go head to head with Phil Dowson in a 15-a-side contest, with the No 8 shirt up for grabs.
Stuart Lancaster is taking his squad to the indoor facility at Greenwich, now known as the London Soccerdome, as the freezing conditions have played havoc with England’s preparations at their HQ in Surrey.
This will be the only full day of training prior to departure for Rome and the next instalment of the RBS Six Nations campaign, against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, and for Morgan in particular, the stakes have just been raised."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly picks through the pieces of Ireland's latest reverse at the hands of Wales.
"When you throw in last year's illegal winning score by Mike Phillips in Cardiff (not to mention Wales' voodoo-like depowering of Ireland in the Wellington quarter-final) you could justifiably claim that Wales' hex over the Irish has assumed Biddy Early proportions. But the bottom line is that Wales were allowed to score three tries that were all eminently preventable.
"There is no case for the defence. True, Wales had a leviathan backline on show that would have done justice to most packs, but missing front-up tackles at this level is unacceptable and, following on from the soft scores conceded in Wellington, it can be categorically concluded that Ireland's defensive game has regressed hugely from the miserly operation which underpinned their Grand Slam in 2009.
"When you are faced with a backline carrying as much power and menace as Wales', it is essential that you close down their time on the ball, but Ireland's line-speed was non-existent and there were no shooters to get in Welsh faces."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports from Ireland's dramatic Six Nations loss to Wales in Dublin.
"The game ended in controversy, and there’s little doubt the officials wrongly adjudged two so-called tip tackles – the game’s two tipping points you could say. But despite the harsh call on Stephen Ferris for his tackle on Ian Evans, which resulted in Leigh Halfpenny’s 80th minute penalty steering Wales to a 23-21 win, there’s little doubt the better team won.
"It looked a hasty call by Wayne Barnes, and Ferris’s yellow card appeared like a justification for the decision. For at no point did Evans’ left foot leave the ground and he landed sideways-on before getting to his feet and smiling as he patted Ferris on the head.
"It wasn’t in the same universe as the Bradley Davies’ tip tackle on Donnacha Ryan, which had also been off the ball, in the 65th minute, for which touch judge Dave Pearson adjudicated a yellow card. Only Pearson, referee for the France-Ireland game next Saturday, will know how he came up with that one."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson rues Scotland's failure to find a finishing touch against England at Murrayfield.
"There is no escaping the tide of déjà vu that engulfed Scottish rugby at the weekend, but it is of no use to the sport, the players nor coaches to submit to it.
"There has to be improvement and, more precisely, tries when Scotland take on Wales in Cardiff if the game is to retain the optimism generated by the new SRU leadership, and Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup and Glasgow’s league drives are to signal a corner turned. Otherwise, with France to come to Murrayfield and then Ireland away Andy Robinson’s side could be heading to Italy for another wooden spoon decider and the peg holding his coat wobbling.
"So, after four tryless games in a row, where do Scottish five-pointers come from? Tactics and coaching help to hide weaknesses and improve strengths, but it cannot produce something that is not there. Players, ultimately, fashion tries, through rugby intelligence and skills."
The Observer's Eddie Butler considers some of the talking points from the opening round of Six Nations action.
"Zero tolerance of the tip tackle is no obstacle to full-on entertainment. Bradley Davies had to look aggrieved – innocence is the default look of the penalised player – when he saw yellow for his off-the-ball tackle on Donnacha Ryan but he must have felt a tinge of relief it was not red. Wales conceded the try that might have cost them the game but then Stephen Ferris picked up Ian Evans by one leg, thumped him down and the tables were turned. Rugby remains a sport of physical contact where you have to tackle with care, not an easy combination to master. Still, it brought a cracking game to a rousing finale.
"Shane Williams was not the biggest wing in the world but he survived by avoiding tacklers and ducking under limbs. Now he has gone, Wales have Alex Cuthbert and George North, two players who duck out of nothing. The way North went through Fergus McFadden in the buildup to Jonathan Davies's second try was to underline the effect of power, although his backhanded pass to the centre was a nostalgic flash of subtler skills. North was immense but he dominates the rugby field in a different way, a monstrous 19-year-old who combines the size Williams never had with arts he did."
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore believes Scotland coach Andy Robinson will walk if his side continue to waste scoring opportunities.
"We are not talking about them beating the world; we are talking about being able to demonstrate essential skills on more than a casual basis.
"If these failures continue there is a good chance that Robinson will go of his own accord, frustrated at his inability to rectify Scotland’s chronic malaise.
"You have to sympathise with him because he is in the classically invidious position of the coach. He may be doing all he can and doing it well, but when 15 other people go out and stuff it up he is the one that is in line to get sacked. Short of running on to the field and making the passes and kicks for his team it is hard to see what more he can do."
Dean Ryan, writing for the Observer, picks over some areas of concern following England's win over Scotland.
"1 - England have a short-term result but it was difficult to see what is the long‑term strategy
All week the talk was of long-term strategies. England's interim coach, Stuart Lancaster, would have slept soundly on Saturday night because this was a dogged victory in what was always going to be a difficult match. But he and England's supporters won't be under any illusions because there wasn't a lot to worry their Six Nations rivals. France were not at their best in Paris but they picked up the pace of the tournament.
It was cold at Murrayfield and England and Scotland both spluttered like an old banger on a winter morning for the first 40 minutes. When England did get opportunities we did see them attempt to play a wider game but in the cold light of day it has to be said that the two wings, Chris Ashton and David Strettle, hardly received a pass and Ben Foden only really counterattacked because Dan Parks kicked the ball down his throat.
We never truly saw Lancaster's vision of a second receiver bringing into play the back three. The only glimpses we did get were undermined by a lack of precision. It was a good result for England but I think if they had played like that under Martin Johnson then Johnson would have been castigated and we would still be at a loss to work out what they were trying to do."
England's Ben Foden, in his column for the Daily Telegraph , admits that although the performance was scrappy - it's the win that counts.
"Given the disappointment of the World Cup, it is great to get our Six Nations campaign off to a winning start to eradicate some of the memories of New Zealand.
We previously hadn’t won at Murrayfield since 2004, and while there is of course a lot for us to work on, I think we showed a lot of determination and grit from a group of guys who have only been together for a couple of weeks.
The mood in the dressing room afterwards was very upbeat. A lot of people had written us off but we had a massive belief that we could get the right result.
With the amount of new caps in the side, it was always going to be a tough assignment but as the coaching team have already said, we are here to win games."
The Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning believes that an Ireland win will do little to dispel the memories of the 2011 World Cup.
"The day after the Wales win over Ireland in the World Cup we were back at the Cake Tin, as the Wellingtonians call their stadium, for the South Africa versus Australia match.
For some of us, it felt like a long trek across town, lengthened by the events of the day before. Up until kick-off we had been chasing flights and remortgaging to cover accommodation in Auckland for the semifinal.
Long before the final whistle we were in home mode. As we entered the media centre, there was a gaggle of Welsh hacks gathered around a table, deep in conversation about the previous afternoon and how they would cover what happened next. There were lots of angles to measure, and fields of quotes to be harvested. They looked well pleased."
Former England international Mike Catt, writing for the Daily Telegraph, provides his take on England's first game in the 2012 Six Nations.
"I will settle for that. No win over Scotland at Murrayfield is easy, let alone when you have a new coaching team, new captain and a raft of new players.
Perhaps it wasn’t pretty but I am delighted for all the new guys that coach Stuart Lancaster showed trust in.
Good defence and discipline at important stages of the game was the key, that and poor Scottish handling and decision making under pressure.
Scotland coach Andy Robinson must despair. They play with good intent, have one or two line-breakers but are completely unable to finish the job at this level. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been scoring tries for fun this season but those same players just can’t repeat it at international level."
The Observer's Eddie Butler believes Wales will struggle without flanker Dan Lydidate.
"Ireland in the Six Nations will have to cope without their most visible player of the last decade, Brian O'Driscoll. Wales have to manage without their often unseen flanker, Danny Lydiate. Ireland are trying to replace a player everyone can see; Wales have to wrap somebody else up in Lydiate's cloak of invisibility.
Lydiate is not hard to see in the flesh. Not so long ago the tales of what Stephen Ferris was throwing around in the weights room seemed to confirm that once again Wales were going to yield on the strength front. The arrival of Sean O'Brien and his bursting runs through tackles underlined Ireland's advantage in raw power. But then Lydiate arrived.
Or rather he reappeared, without fanfare but with question marks over whether he should be playing at all after a serious neck injury playing for the Dragons in Perpignan in November 2007. It soon appeared he was more than back merely on his feet. To stand next to the son of sheep-farming stock from Llandrindod Wells in Mid Wales was to be reassured that here were arms the size of Powys."
The Guardian's Richard Williams focuses on Owen Farrell's performance following his debut for England.
"An outbreak of booing during a rugby match is always an ugly sound, the more so when it is directed at a young man, only a few months out of his teens and in the early stages of his international debut, doing nothing more discreditable than attempting a kick at goal.
Perhaps this sort of thing is only to be expected nowadays in the heat of Six Nations competition. It happens at the Stade de France, it happens in Cardiff, and it is occasionally the subject of stern warnings to the Twickenham crowd. Somehow, though, it is not what one expects from Murrayfield, even at a time when a desire to escape English rule is at the forefront of national debate.
So the Scottish crowd brought no honour on itself when Owen Farrell stepped up to take the first penalty kick of the match in the 12th minute. Ben Foden had run Dan Parks's poor kick back across the halfway line, prompting Richie Gray to enter a ruck by the side door. Farrell's attempt from 47 metres had the length, but drifted just wide of the right-hand post."
Scottish flanker John Barclay, in his column for the Scotsman, reflects on a brief period of time in Saturday's Calcutta Cup clash which proved to be decisive.
"There were plenty of good things in our performance but ultimately we have lost the first game of the championship.
It is the same situation we have faced since I started playing in the Six Nations and clearly we will have to pick ourselves up before we face Wales next weekend.
We spoke afterwards about how it’s important that we don’t wait until our backs are really against the wall before we react – it certainly can’t be left to the last game and playing for the Wooden Spoon, the reaction has to come now. It was the first time in more than 30 caps that I’ve started on the bench, and maybe because I was a sub I had time to savour the atmosphere, which was brilliant – the fans were tremendous, and that’s what makes the result so frustrating."
Former England head coach Brian Ashton previews this year's Six Nations tournament in the Independent.
"The wheels on the international bandwagon rarely stop rolling for long: the post-World Cup 2011 era has barely started, yet we are already thinking of the 15 matches that will make up the 2012 Six Nations Championship.
"There is always a nagging feeling that because of the imbalance of fixtures – some countries play three games at home, others only two – the outcome will not be a definitive reflection of the strengths of the teams involved.
"There will be no doubting the level of passion, however. Apart from the unexpected, the one thing we can safely expect is complete, no-holds-barred commitment."
Former France defence coach Dave Ellis gives his tactical take on each Six Nations team in the Guardian.
"England’s attacking game will be based around centre Brad Barritt. He will be charged with using his size to get them over the gain line.
"Then, if the ball is recycled at sufficient pace, Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell (who will also be comfortable filling in at first receiver) can attempt to unleash their pacy back three at defences on the back foot. For this to work England will need to show more mongrel at the breakdown than they have recently, and more discipline in the tackle area.
"For so long England’s pack was their strongest suit but the back three looks the most dangerous unit now. If any of England’s opponents kick loosely towards them, then Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and David Strettle will run it back with interest."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Saracens' technical director Brendan Venter backs his players to make an impact for England this weekend.
"Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt were first forced together as a midfield trio when Sarries were struggling with Rugby World Cup call-ups and injuries at the beginning of the season. But the strength of their characters, and the form they showed together, demanded they continue to be selected as a unit, even when players returned.
"Lancaster’s two-month interview for the England job relies purely on results. And the quickest way for him to get results is to back players he trusts, and combinations that he knows already operate to a high standard.
"Saracens are second in the league and in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup so Lancaster knows that Hodgson, Farrell and Barritt are part of a winning environment. Every time they start together the team is bolstered by a wonderful blend of athleticism, rugby know-how and competitiveness."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly offers a timely reminder of a painful day in the Ireland-Wales rivalry.
"The upshot was that when the game kicked off, Wales, with a team that the Irish players beat for kicks on a regular basis at club level, had the mental advantage. They played above themselves, their best performance of the tournament, while Ireland could not hit earlier heights.
"Even when the Irish brought the score back to 10-10 just after half-time, there was never any sure sense that they would kick on and their insecurities manifested themselves in uncharacteristically poor defending for the Mike Phillips and Jon Davies tries. Four months on, the pain of that experience, a massive opportunity squandered, has not diminished.
"One nagging question that will not go away, and one that was painted as a likely scenario in pre-tournament predictions, is whether Ireland would have been better served by losing to Australia and going into a quarter-final against the Springboks as complete underdogs -- the ideal scenario for Kidney to work his magic."
Scotland captain Ross Ford has revealed a debt of gratitude to the All Blacks rugby establishment as he prepares to lead his team for the first time in Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash with England at Murrayfield. The Scotsman's Bill Lothian reports.
"Back in 2009 hooker Ford, then 24, was given the opportunity to be mentored under the Winning Scotland Foundation programme by Sean Fitzpatrick whose 92 caps for New Zealand included 51 as captain while one-time Kiwi assistant coach Tony Gilbert is another who has aided his development.
"Recalls Ford: “I spoke to Sean Fitzpatrick a couple of times and learned a few good things from him. At that point it was mostly about my game rather than leadership but he did put a few things across to the effect that it was about leading by example.
“Sean told me he felt as captain he had to do more than anybody else in games. I met him and person and we talked on the telephone. I found him a very engaging man who, when he speaks, doesn’t shout or roar. He came across as very level-headed in his judgments. I like that approach."
Former England international Austin Healey does not fancy Wales' chances in this year's Six Nations - the Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.
"I think Wales will struggle in this championship because how the fixtures fall is bad for them,” was Healey’s assessment.
"That will raise eyebrows because many believe Wales will prosper on the back of the World Cup and because they have Scotland, Italy and France at the Millennium Stadium.
"But Healey argued: “Going to Dublin to face the Irish in their first game is really tough. I can’t see Wales winning that one.
"The Irish are flying; they’ve got three teams through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and have a strong squad. I’m expecting Ireland to beat Wales by at least 14 points. Put me on the spot and I’d say 27-9 because the Irish players have been doing so well in Europe."
Former England captain Nigel Melville, who led his country on his Test bow, urges England's current one-cap skipper Chris Robshaw to 'enjoy' the Six Nations showdown with Scotland on Saturday. The Guardian's Claire Tolley reports.
"It can be a bonus not having a lot of experience; I would have been much more influenced by the fact I was captain on my debut knowing what I know now, than what I did then. A young man does not get as fazed as an older man. I took it in my stride and simply focused on getting my preparation right. Everyone around me kept worrying about what I was going to say at the post-match dinner.
"I hope Chris Robshaw enjoys his day and plays his best. When the subject of the captaincy comes up you worry that, if he doesn't play well, people will start talking about whether he has been picked too early to be given that responsibility. I just hope the fans can be patient. New-look England are not going to be perfect on the day. We need to back them and give them the time to realise their potential."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on the decision to hand Keith Earls the Ireland No.13 jersey.
"Keith Earls has been anointed to fill Brian O’Driscoll’s semi-mystical number 13 jersey for Ireland’s campaign-defining opener against Wales on Sunday. The shirt has been worn for the last dozen Six Nations by the tournament’s record-breaking, leading try scorer and Grand Slam-winning captain. No pressure there then.
"As if he hasn’t enough on his mind, Earls became a father last week when his partner, Edel, gave birth to their first child, Ella May, due to which he was unable to take part in training this week. However, his excellent performance in Munster’s 50-pointer away to Northampton and his training in Limerick last week prompted Declan Kidney’s decision.
"This being a Sunday game helps as, all going well, Earls could rejoin the squad for their final session tomorrow and Saturday’s captain’s run. Otherwise, Fergus McFadden will start at number 13, with the uncapped Dave Kearney promoted to the bench alongside the match-day squad’s other potential debutant, Peter O’Mahony.
"Paul O’Connell, who is facing into his first Six Nations campaign as captain a decade after making a try-scoring debut at home to Wales (a game he can scarcely remember given he departed with concussion after barely half an hour), has spoken to Earls and agreed that fatherhood may even be a helpful distraction."
The Western Mail's chats to Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips abouthis new life in France.
"Of all the Welsh rugby stars you might expect to embrace the distinctive culture of French life, Mike Phillips is perhaps not one that immediately springs to mind.
"The image of Phillips taking in the views of the Adour river while nibbling on a freshly-baked croissant and quietly perusing the morning edition of L’Equipe simply doesn’t feel quite right.
"Throw in the abysmal form of the 29-year-old’s new club Bayonne, who currently lie rooted to the base of the Top 14, and the former Osprey’s glamour move across the channel has the makings of an unhappy marriage.
"The reality, however, could not be more different.
"Freed from the goldfish bowl of Welsh rugby that has scrutinised every performance and misdemeanour of the past, Phillips is experiencing the time of his life.
"For all the on-field troubles of Bayonne – and following a 50 – 10 pummelling against Toulon last weekend, those troubles clearly run deep – Wales’ No. 1 scrum-half has the type of contented, mischievous glint in his eye that led Warren Gatland to affectionately describe him as rugby’s “most confident and cocky” character last week."
The Scotsman talks to Scotland wing Max Evans ahead of his side's Six Nations opener against England.
"If there is truth in the adage that “good things come in small packages” Scotland could be on to a winner in their new selection of two of the RBS Six Nations Championship’s smallest wingers for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match.
"Certainly, the desire that burns inside Max Evans, who will line up with Selkirk debutant Lee Jones on the other flank, points to a determination that seems intent on forcing its way out of his 5ft 10in 13st frame and knocking back the 6ft and 15 stones of Chris Ashton.
"Evans started against England in the crucial final pool match in the New Zealand World Cup in October, but was forced off the field injured at half-time and watched victory slip through Scotland’s fingers as Ashton scored a late try to send the Scots home early.
“My memory of that is just an immense feeling of a missed opportunity,” Evans said, his face dropping at the recollection. “I came off at half-time after getting a bad knock just before the whistle, so I was immensely upset that I didn’t get to play in the rest of the game. In terms of my performance I felt really strong and excited about the possibility of delivering a good result, and so felt the same as the rest of the players at the end over that missed opportunity. It was the same in the last Six Nations, where we had a good performance but not the result. It’s all very well having a good performance, but you remember the wins and that’s the focus."
The Daily Mail's Rob Wildman traces the rugby roots of England skipper Chris Robshaw.
"Standing a short head above his team-mates and gazing steadfastly into the camera, he looks every inch a captain in the making.
"But not even the most ardent supporter of Warlingham under-eights would have dared to dream, that day in 1996, that young Chris Robshaw would one day lead out England at Murrayfield in the Six Nations.
"The Warlingham lads had just won a festival at East Grinstead. Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that they fielded not one but two future Test players."
Writing in The Guardian, Brendan Fanning believes Ireland can weather the loss of talisman Brian O'Driscoll as they prepare to launch their latest assault on the Six Nations crown.
"Ireland are about to start their first Six Nations campaign without Brian O'Driscoll. After 12 successive seasons of having him around for most of the time since his championship debut against England in 2000, they are now looking at five games with no input whatsoever from their greatest player. And they will be relieved that it has happened now, and not three seasons ago.
"When you consider the amount of punishment O'Driscoll has taken since his international start in Brisbane in 1999, it is remarkable that at least one season has not been written off since then. Even after his shoulder repair, having dislocated it with the Lions in New Zealand in 2005, he was back on duty the following February. Twelve seasons, and only five Championship games missed."
Former New Zealand coach Graham Henry has shone a harsh light on the English game's failings and the worst is failure to win quick ball - The Guardian's Rob Kitson reports.
"When Martin Johnson's tenure as England manager ended, some of us suggested the Rugby Football Union should do its utmost to hire Graham Henry on a consultancy basis to help clear the post-World Cup air. For various reasons it never happened but the master coach's scathing eve-of-Six Nations verdict on the English game at least gives us a glimmer of what might have been.
"His diagnosis is as frank as it is clear. Sometimes it requires an outsider to deliver home truths effectively and Sir Graham, to give him his new title, has not held back. His description of England as "the world champions of wasting talent" who play "a game based on fear" can hardly be filed under the heading of gentle words of advice. Now Henry has stepped aside as New Zealand coach, having hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup last year, he is free to say what he really thinks.
"And who can accuse him of being seriously wrong on any count? He bemoans the wasted legacy of England's 2003 World Cup triumph when they proved able to play a variety of different styles depending on what the occasion demanded. He pinpoints the slow death England continue to suffer through their inability to secure much, if any, quick ball thanks to their recurring failure to inject enough dynamism at the tackle area."
The Irish Independent ponders the battle to be named the coach of the British & Irish Lions.
"[Warren] Gatland and [Declan] Kidney have both won Grand Slams with their sides, but the fact that Wales trumped Ireland at the World Cup gives him the upper hand as the Six Nations looms.
"[Andy] Robinson's failure to emerge from the pool stages, his side's perennial struggles in the Six Nations and his renowned combustibility means he deserves his ranking as outsider of the three, despite the fact he held coaching roles on the last two tours.
"Kidney has no Lions experience, but, after a glittering provincial career and a World Cup success at underage level, his ability to delegate since assuming the international reins would be viewed as a positive, despite his gauche media appearance."
Writing in the Irish Times, former Ulster boss Matt Williams charts the province's rise through the Europea ranks.
"In January 2008 when I arrived in Belfast to take over as director of rugby in Ulster, they were last in the Magners League. I told the officials that to get back to the top line of European Rugby they had a three to four-year project on their hands. Some did not like to hear that. They wanted the fruit without any labour. They wanted growth without planting seeds. They wanted to drink the wine, but they did not want the process of the vineyard.
"Life is not like that. Rugby is not like that. Success is the reward for good processes. The law of the vineyard will prevail. At the end of 2008 Ulster cut hard. Players were cut for the good of the team. There was pain. Tommy Bowe left and that hurt everyone.
"After the pain of the cut there was growth. Young players grabbed their chance. Ian Humphries, Ian Whitten, Darren Cave, Paul Marshall, and in recent years Paddy McAllister, Dan Touhy and Nevin Spence. Seeds were planted. A very good academy structure under Gary Longwell was put in place. New gym faculties were built. A long- term world class training facility was planned.
"The environment was enriched. Neil Doak, Johnny Bell and David Humphries were brought on as staff and top line players were imported. It still took time for the seeds to grow. Defensive and attacking systems were introduced, evaluated and redesigned."
The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary reports from what he saw as a refreshing England Saxons victory over the Ireland Wolfhounds.
"At last, here was some substance to accompany the froth. So far, fine words have done no more than given a much-needed varnish to England’s soiled PR image. Lancaster doesn’t delude himself that the uplift in England’s reputation is anything but a scratching-out of foundations. Results will not only define his regime but determine how long it lasts.
"This, then, was an encouraging kick-start, a thoroughly well-deserved 23-17 victory over an Ireland second-string that contained nine capped players. Even though Ireland outscored England three tries to two, the Saxons’ winning margin ought to have been more than it was.
"Of course, Lancaster is no longer the hands-on coach for the Saxons. But he was in the stands, along with his lieutenants, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell. Previous England head coaches have not always attended in person. Lancaster had also had input prior to the squad gathering."
The Daily Telegraph's Gavin Mairs breaks down the potential financial package available to England in this year's Six Nations.
"Each England player in the 22-man squad will receive a match fee of £9,224 per Six Nations match. The win bonus per match for each player in the 22-man squad will be £3,075.
"The RFU will also pay a team bonus of £500,000 if England win the Grand Slam. Thus, each player who features in the 22-man squad of all the games in a Grand Slam victory would receive a total of £84,222. The RFU will pay a bonus for £250,000 for the simple defence of the title, worth £72,858 for each player
"The England players at the World Cup in New Zealand were paid a tournament fee of £1.25 million — just under £42,000 per player. That figure would have risen by £100,000 if England had won the World Cup."
All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams could teach Andy Robinson's runners a thing or two about the timing of passes to maintain momentum - so writes The Observer's Eddie Butler.
"Now there is much about Sonny Bill Williams, the New Zealand All Blacks' impact player off the bench, that is most un-Scottish. The flamboyance is more Pacific than Firth of Forth but there is no need to be frightened by geography. What SBW does is simple: he makes a half-break and looks to make a pass immediately. He is often accused of being all tricks but he is a selfless showman. His trademark flip out of the back of his hand is a gift to others. He is thinking of making the pass even before he goes into contact.
"Morrison and Lamont are looking to go clean through contact, which means that when they emerge on the other side, and even if the tackler has been left on the floor, the momentum of the ball-carrier is fading. Scotland's attacks lose energy as they progress, while the All Blacks, through the early pass, pick up speed. This rapid escalation in attacking potential is exaggerated by the difference in velocity between the passer in contact and the recipient in space. Defenders like to move in a line at a uniform speed; stopping and starting bothers them.
"The second bit is the whereabouts of the support runners. The All Blacks behind SBW know not only what he is trying to achieve but also where to go for it to happen. They are running in anticipation of the pass – the second event – to a point beyond the first, the run into contact. Supporting All Blacks frequently overrun the ball but it is because they are thinking of the pass that often cannot be made. Better to go past empty-handed than to be absent when it comes."
In Bradley Barritt and Owen Farrell, England at last have a centre pair who can bring the best out of each other according to the Sunday Times' Stephen Jones. (Via paywall)
"One television critic described Hale and Pace as the only comedy double act with two straight men. If the classic centre partnership is to have a hard-running, hard-tackling inside-centre alongside a smaller, faster and more talented man, you could say England’s most recent centre partnership, that of Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall, also contained two straight men.
"The pairing was startlingly, even crudely, ineffective at the World Cup and was never remotely complementary. England have now been waiting almost eight years to find a regular and effective combination in the midfield.
"In Scotland on Saturday the latest pairing to be given a crack is almost certainly Owen Farrell, the willowy 20-year-old from Saracens via Wigan, and Bradley Barritt, a chunky South Africa-born bruiser without a willowy bone in his body, apparently, and whose biceps seem as big as most people’s thighs.
"At least in appearance and body attitudes, here we have two different beasts entirely, with differing styles. We have what is, at least potentially, a complementary partnership. Hold your breath."
Writing in the Sunday Times, Sir Clive Woodward believes England boss Stuart Lancaster has been handed the chance of a lifetime in this year's Six Nations. (Via paywall)
"As Stuart makes his final preparations, the similarities of how we both started struck me. He is a lucky man, in the same way I was lucky to become coach in 1997. Lucky, as in what an amazing opportunity. I was asked last week if Lancaster has a poisoned chalice. What? This is the chance of a lifetime.
"Like Lancaster, I simply did not have the global pedigree in my CV to take England into their new world: coaching London Irish, coaching England Under-21s and then acting as assistant coach to Andy Robinson at Bath was not a world-shattering career and just like Lancaster, I felt I was seen as a stop-gap at an unsettled time for English rugby. Like Stuart I had a lot to prove, in an incredibly short time. I needed to prove myself capable as a head coach as quickly as possible, to be given any chance of survival Lancaster is an internal appointment from deep within the RFU, one of their own. He has announced that he wants to be considered for the full-time position as head coach and that is exactly how he must approach the tournament and this brilliant opportunity. History is full of examples of people who grasped the unexpected with both hands.
"Selection? Go for broke, Stuart. When he announces his team this week, he must make us all wide-eyed. No conservative selections. In my first team in 1997 , we unveiled five new caps — Will Greenwood, Matt Perry, David Rees, Andy Long and Will Green and we had a new captain in someone called Lawrence Dallaglio. We drew at home with Australia, and were up and running."
"And what of France, always there or thereabouts? In recent times France have been the most consistent of performers, which is rather bizarre given their reputation for inconsistency; more so as new coach Philippe Saint-André has identified their flippy-floppy nature as the one pressing issue he seeks to fix.
"The stats say otherwise, however. France have won five of the last 10 championships, including three Grand Slams, a fine record compared to Wales (twice), England (twice), Ireland (once) and Italy and Scotland (nowhere near) over the same period.
"Recent aberrations against Italy in last season’s Six Nations and Tonga at the World Cup are an indication of the expectations shouldered by what is invariably an accomplished and successful rugby side. Only New Zealand (and England without the justification) carry a similar burden into contests.
"The ingredients are there for France to prosper again. Their scrummage is never less than competitive, Julien Bonnaire brings a line-out expertise as sophisticated as any in Europe; Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili, Francois Trinh-Duc and Lionel Beauxis are, by some distance, the most accomplished quartet of half-backs in the tournament and the rest of the backs know how to finish."
In his column in the Sunday Telegraph, England's Ben Foden reveals that humility and hunger are the watchwords for the team's bright new dawn.
"It has been eye-opening under Stuart Lancaster’s new regime. Obviously the World Cup didn’t go to plan and with such a change in management and players, we are all a bit on edge about what to expect when we first met up.
"But Stuart has been very clever in the way he has put his ambitions across in the media and then when he met with us he has been very honest in his breakdown of where we fell short at the World Cup and the areas he wants us to target and build on.
"He has made a massive emphasis on culture and wants people to be hungry to play for England, including those who are not going to be involved in the game and are sent back to their clubs.
"He wants them to be just as driven, wanting to improve back at their clubs and come back into camp the following week pushing to get into the side.
"There is nothing worse than players who come into training feeling like they are just there to hold bags and haven’t got a chance to get into the team.
"But we have noticed from the training straight away that if you asked any player to name the starting XV for Scotland, no-one would have a clue."
Shaun Edwards, in his column for the Guardian, reports back from Wales' pre-Six Nations training camp in Poland.
"Welcome to Gdansk, the port on Poland's Baltic coast and home of Solidarity, Lech Walesa and life with the windows wide open, even at -11C. I wouldn't mind coming back in the summer, when the mercury sometimes nudges the 30C mark in July and August.
Yesterday it snowed, which meant we couldn't get out and play, but that might be a good thing. Some of these guys have had a lot of rugby already this season and the injury list is beginning to suggest that the game's gods may not be smiling our way.
As the Irish might say, we need the rub of the green. But I'll come to that.
For the moment, Wales will be going to Dublin for the opening of the Six Nations without Gethin Jenkins, a world-class player, and Rhys Priestland, whose arrival in Welsh ranks created the midfield space which helped us to play the way we did at the World Cup. Both have knee problems and when you add the doubts about Dan Lydiate – somebody stood on his already damaged ankle – it becomes easy to get hung up on the perceived injustice of it all."
The Independent's Chris Hewett looks at the father/son aspect to the new-look England squad.
"Favouritism is not a word widely associated with England's new-look squad ahead of the Six Nations Championship – they are likely to start four of their five games as underdogs, beginning with the tough Calcutta Cup match in Scotland tomorrow week – so it seems only right and proper that Owen Farrell, a hot tip for a debut in midfield at Murrayfield, should have to fight for his place in the side rather than be ushered into it by his father. "We'll discuss what's right for the team, what fits with our philosophy, and pick accordingly," said Andy Farrell, the red-rose assistant coach, yesterday.
In truth, Farrell Jnr needs no help from anyone in making a solid case for inclusion, having performed so impressively for Saracens over the last year. When Farrell Snr sits down with the caretaker head coach Stuart Lancaster and the forwards specialist Graham Rowntree to finalise selection, they will not spend a great deal of time talking through the midfield options, problematic though that area has been for the national team just recently. More thought will be given to the engine room, where the naturalised South African lock Mouritz Botha is challenging hard for a place, and the back-row combination, where there is a growing chance that the uncapped Northampton flanker Calum Clark will be involved alongside Tom Croft of Leicester and the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw."
Wales Online's Andy Howell talks to a bullish Sam Warburton about Wales' injury concerns ahead of the Six Nations.
"Sam Warburton has urged his Wales team to cast off injury concerns and make it a hat-trick of consecutive victories over Ireland in their Six Nations opener.
First-choice locks Luke Charteris (wrist) and Alun Wyn Jones (toe) have been joined on the sidelines by loosehead prop star Gethin Jenkins (knee).
Outside-half Rhys Priestland (knee) and blindside flanker Dan Lydiate (ankle) are also almost certainly out too, while centre Jamie Roberts (knee) is “touch and go” for the Dublin showdown on February 5.
But Warburton is adamant Wales can overcome these setbacks and repeat their Six Nations and World Cup wins over Ireland in 2011."
"Unfairly, and a bit like [his province] Ulster, it has rarely seemed like Trimble fully belonged. All this despite making his Ireland debut against Australia a mere eight games into his senior career; despite his 41 caps and his 27 years; despite tries in France, New Zealand and against South Africa and despite a role in the centre.
"When Ireland's established fliers have been fit, from Horgan and Hickie through to Earls and Fitzgerald, Trimble has remained in the wings, not on them. He has made a World Cup when Tommy Bowe didn't, deputised for Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll several times when others couldn't.
"But when Ireland's Grand Slam moment arrived, Trimble watched frustratedly from the sidelines. Once more, it seems, he will start for Ireland, against Wales in the Six Nations opener, but only because of another's absence, as O'Driscoll's injury forces one of the back three (presumably Earls) inside.
"I want to start, that will never change," he says. "I'm aware of how competitive it is. I can't control how other guys are playing or how the team is selected. All I can do is play well. It's a fairly simple approach for me. I'm confident in how I'm playing, I'm really pleased, but I don't want to second-guess anyone and get my hopes up."
England caretaker Lancaster refuses to be drawn into a 'war of words' ahead of the opening Six Nations encounter after Scotland coach criticises red rose behaviour at World Cup. The Independent's Chris Hewett listens in.
"If Scotland dominated their Calcutta Cup games the way they dominated the pre-Six Nations mind games at the official tournament launch in London yesterday, the nationalist leader Alex Salmond would find his independence referendum a whole lot easier to win. With the annual championship a mere 10 days distant, age-old assumptions of English rugby supremacy seemed a thing of the past. If the Scots have ever been more confident ahead of a meeting with their nearest and dearest, no one could remember the year.
"Andy Robinson, a man of Somerset who brings to Scotland the same inexhaustible desire that drove him during his time as England's head coach, was as hard on himself as he was on those who will oppose him at Murrayfield in the opening round of this season's competition.
"It's time we stopped talking about our potential and started delivering some results," said the former Bath flanker, wearing one of his narrow-eyed, super-serious expressions. "Over the last couple of years we've talked ourselves up before tournaments, only to find ourselves scrapping to avoid the wooden spoon. That's unacceptable. We're here to win, and I'm accountable in that regard. I don't want us to be unlucky losers. I want to be part of a successful team, and if it turns out that I can't make a success of this team ..."
"He did not need to expand on that final thought, for the implication was clear."
Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara believes a Six Nations Grand Slam is within his side's graps - the veteran talks to the Irish Times Gerry Thornley.
"Now nearer the end of his glittering, multi-decorated and hugely-prolific career than the beginning, Ronan O’Gara is not of a mind to set his or Ireland’s targets too low. He looks around his own squad, looks at their counterparts, and deduces that even with treks to London and Paris, a Grand Slam is achievable.
“I think it is. There’s a fair bit of uncertainty in teams and you don’t know what teams will show up and how they’ll show up. Deccie (Kidney) has been stressing to us that ‘the only that will hold you back will be your attitude and your ambition going into this competition’. So I think that’s a good way of putting it. I think if you come really tuned in and everyone wanting to win it then you have a good chance. But if you kind of just show up and you’re happy to play for Ireland, then you could be in trouble.”
England head coach Stuart Lancaster made it clear that he had left his 36-man squad in no doubt when he addressed them on their first night at their training base in Leeds that he would drop them if they ever stepped out of line. The Daily Telegraph reports.
"Lancaster hammered home to the players the lessons to be learnt from the World Cup, stressing the need for respect and proper conduct. This was the moment that Lancaster revealed the iron fist in the velvet glove. You can well imagine that Mike Tindall would have been sent home from New Zealand on Lancaster’s watch.
"...On Monday Lancaster had individual meetings with the players, a marathon session that lasted nine hours. Some of those conversations were described as “frank”. Lancaster also made the squad read the Codes of Conduct booklet issued every year to members of the Elite Player Squad. There are no specific rules on curfew or alcohol limits but explicit guidance as to what is expected.
“It was a long message and there wasn’t much in the way of debate about it all,” said Lancaster, who has confirmed that he will apply for the permanent position of head coach. “They were told that this is the way it’s going to be. It needed to be done, nothing was to be brushed under the carpet and that’s now it with the World Cup, over.”
Writing in the Wales on Sunday, Barry John reflects on Wales' squad for the Six Nations.
"Whatever Warren Gatland and his coaches see in the new dawn on Gavin’s career only they will know. I’m amongst the many who simply cannot see it.
"A group, I note, which includes the Blues hierarchy, henson having been dropped from the 23 for today’s huge Heineken Cup clash with Racing Metro.
"Frankly, like them I’m baffled Henson, deemed not good enough for his region, is in the mix for his country in the Six Nations.
"To put this in perspective, I should point out I’m on record as stating Gavin henson is probably the most talented rugby player Wales have produced for many a year.
"There was a time when he did everything... kicked the goals, created the tries, scored them, made the tackles, had this uncanny knack of knowing just where to pop up on the pitch at a key moment to win games.
"Those attributes made Henson such a huge asset to the Welsh game, but we are talking about the Gavin of four or five years ago."
Scotland coach Andy Robinson has launched a sizeable verbal grenade ahead of his side's Six Nations opender against England by labelling their rivals as "arrogant". The Mail on Sunday's Ian Stafford reports.
"Robinson may bill himself as a ‘proud Englishman’, but nothing would please Scotland’s coach more than to make Stuart Lancaster’s task of rebuilding English morale that bit trickier by claiming revenge at Murrayfield on February 4 for the narrow victory in Auckland that ended Scottish World Cup dreams.
"While Calcutta Cup battles are never for the faint-hearted, Robinson, who helped guide England to become world champions in 2003 before losing his job as head coach three years later, stoked the passions with his analysis of where it all went wrong for Johnson’s side.
‘It’s important for any team to show humility, especially when you are winning,’ he said.
‘I thought a number of the England players undermined this in the arrogance they showed. They know who they are and it was not across the board, but, unfortunately, the whole squad got tarnished."
There is little love lost between the two teams who provide the most alluring fixture in the 2012 Six Nations' first weekend according to The Observer's Eddie Butler.
"Perhaps the most alluring fixture of the opening weekend is Ireland v Wales in Dublin on the Sunday. The two countries are often bracketed together in some Celtic cousinhood, allies against the interests of countries blessed with more money and greater playing numbers.
"This may well be the case in the corridors of rugby politics, although it has been said that the only people who trust a Welsh-Irish alliance less than the rest of the rugby-playing world are the Welsh and the Irish themselves. On the field there is little love lost between them. By tradition it is a healthy rivalry; of late it has been cranky.
"...For evidence of sourness, how about the head to head between Gavin Henson and Brian O'Driscoll in the grand slam showdown of 2005, a duel that went the Welsh player's way on the day? Or the reception for Henson the following season when he came off the bench, a battle of wills comprehensively won by the Dublin crowd?
Injured England flanker Tom Wood speaks of his disappointment at missing out on their Six Nations openers in The Daily Telegraph.
"The 25-year-old could not disguise his dejection: one moment he had been touted as a shoo-in for the England captaincy, the next he learned he would be spending four weeks in an orthopaedic boot. “Mentally, I’m still trying to catch up with the reality of it,” he said.
"Speaking at Twickenham, surveying the stage where he hopes to return for England’s first home match of the Six Nations, against Wales on Feb 25, Wood was struggling to absorb the shock of missing both the opener against Scotland at Murrayfield on Feb 4 and the trip to Rome a week later.
“I’m really disappointed,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “I had set my heart on being fit for Scotland, being available for selection. I had kind of assumed that would be the case. But it turns out that’s going to put me at risk.”
Hugh Farrelly rakes through Ireland's Six Nations squad selection and finds cause for concern in The Irish Independent.
"In 1986, Declan Kidney was coaching the PBC Cork Junior team and caused a major surprise when he picked a prop ('Eggy' O'Leary) on the wing - 'Pres' went onto win the Cup.
"In 1996, Kidney was coaching Dolphin in the AIL and got rid of the core of senior forwards, switched the regular, kicking out-half to full-back and transformed a mauling, 10-man rugby outfit into a quick-rucking team that won promotion to Division 1 for the first time.
"In 2008, Kidney selected Tomas O'Leary and Denis Hurley ahead of experienced regulars Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne for Munster's quarter-final against Gloucester in Kingsholm -- Munster went onto to claim their second title in Cardiff, with O'Leary and Hurley starting all the knockout games."
Wales coach Shaun Edwards argues that winning a Six Nations Grand Slam is more difficult than reaching the Rugby World Cup Final in The Guardian.
"Champions of Europe or champions of the world; which is harder? No difficulty with that one, but when you ask whether it's more difficult to get to a World Cup final or to win a grand slam in the Six Nations, then I'd argue it's less obvious. In fact, if the World Cup seedings help you into one of the less demanding groups at the global gathering – and this I have to admit is on the evidence of being at just the one World Cup – I'm pretty certain the slam takes the prize.
"Why? Well, 2011 in New Zealand suggested that it is possible to get to the World Cup final after just two or three difficult games whereas, depending on how the fixtures fall, the slam can be a shocker because no game is a walkover and three of the five could be away from home, rather than on (supposedly) neutral territory."
The Daily Mail's Rob Wildman talks to Toby Booth who pleas for common sense to prevail in the eligibility row surrounding the centre.
"London Irish head coach Toby Booth hopes ‘common sense’ will be used in the row over the international eligibility of centre Steven Shingler, who was only a substitute in Irish’s 22-15 defeat by Cardiff Blues. Shingler has been picked in Scotland’s Six Nations squad but Wales blocked his path after he played for their Under 20s team. Swansea-born Shingler, whose mother came from Dumfries, must hope an appeal overturns the decision that he is ‘tied’ to Wales. Booth said: ‘Steve wants to play at the best level he can. One country has shown an interest, the other hasn’t.’"
Stuart Lancaster has emphasised youth, but picking tyros who are not regular starters for their clubs will only add to England’s woes, according to the Sunday Times' Stephen Jones (via paywall).
"Without the foundation stones, a rugby team are nothing. Last week England selected four props for the RBS Six Nations and beyond from clubs who play in the Heineken Cup, entrusting Matt Stevens, Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero and Joe Marler with the task of laying the foundations for the recovery of the national side.
"Is the castle built on sand? When their respective clubs announced the starting teams for their crucial pool matches this weekend, none of the four was chosen. They were all on the bench. Anybody not chilled by that statistic ruddy well should be.
"Saracens preferred Carlos Nieto, an experienced Italian, to Stevens. Meanwhile, Leicester chose the charismatic Martin Castrogiovanni at tight-head instead of Cole; London Irish went to Clarke Dermody at loosehead instead of Corbisiero, and Marler, perhaps most pointedly of all, was supplanted when Harlequins moved their reserve tighthead, the Irishman Mark Lambert, to Marler’s loosehead side. In all four cases, the clubs have gone for players of vastly more experience than the young Englishmen.
"What does this tell us? For the top 32 players of England, the first hurdle has been negotiated. They are safely in Stuart Lancaster’s first squad. Congratulations abounded. So did excited media tributes to bold selections and brave new worlds. All the 32 need now is parental permission and to promise to be home by their bedtime, then off they go. To Murrayfield, Mothercare and beyond."
The Daily Telegraph's Steve James talks to Scarlets No.8 Ben Morgan about his career choices.
"Ben Morgan has made the right decision. He has chosen the land of his birth and upbringing rather the land where, at the Scarlets of Llanelli, he has made his rugby name. And now England have chosen him in their Elite Player Squad.
"This is not your stereotypical story of the rise and rise of a young rugby player, spotted early and carefully reared in the sanitised environment of an academy. Morgan has done it his way – a very different way.
"Born in Bristol, he grew up in Kingswood, Gloucestershire. From the age of five he was playing at his local club, Dursley, where Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples, who won an England cap against Wales last summer, joined him in the under-14 and under-15 sides. Just imagine if both were to be selected against Scotland on Feb 4.
"I played in every age group, except one year when I had Osgood-Schlatter disease, right through to the under-17s, then the colts, and then I had one season of men's rugby," says the personable Morgan, "I played centre, wing and full-back when I was younger. When I was about 10 or 11, I turned to No 8."
The Observer's Eddie Butler reflects on the announcement of England's squad for the Six Nations.
"Given the exhaustion of the English patient after all the prodding and vile emanations of the past three months, it could be argued that Stuart Lancaster could hardly go wrong. If the interim coach had suggested swapping Pennyhill Park for Lourdes and reduced his call to arms to a request that his country say a little prayer for him he would have been commended for his unshakable belief in the power of the sporting miracle cure.
"It turns out, however, that Lancaster is a coach of reason, guided not south, but to the expanses of West Park Rugby Club outside Leeds. Yorkshire before blind faith. England will train at a staging post on the way to Murrayfield, the location chiming perfectly with a post-World Cup reconnection with the earth.
"It is a sign of positive restlessness: to be prepared to uproot and start afresh. But even a disciple of reason must worry about the restrictions of time, his existence merely as England's temporary coach. Presumably at some stage, the dart of ambition has pricked Lancaster and he has heard a little voice in his head, saying that the caretaker may yet be handed the keys as the landlord."
Former England hooker Brian Moore looks at the pros and cons of pay-per-view TV in The Daily Telegraph.
"Rugby demonstrates this point fully. When Sky won exclusive rights to show England's Five, now Six Nations Championship matches, the viewing figures were a fraction of the BBC numbers. The Home Unions Committee – France and Italy have separate deals – were alarmed by the decrease in exposure.
"They were also aware of numerous complaints about rugby not being free-to-air and the contract returned to the BBC. The viewers on Sky for the last round of games in the Heineken Cup, a top quality European club tournament, varied between 100,000 and 185,000. This year's England v France game had a peak audience of over 9 million on the BBC."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly reflects on the latest battle for the Six Nations crown and suggests it is time for change.
"This was a pretty average championship and will not have the New Zealanders, Australians or South Africans dreading the inter-hemisphere contests at the World Cup. So, what can be done to quieten the southern catcalls and unfavourable comparisons with the Super 15 and Tri Nations?
"The most obvious change is the introduction of the bonus-point system that exists successfully in virtually every other rugby tournament. Too many Six Nations matches peter out tamely when, if teams were chasing a losing or four-try bonus point, the onus would be on more attacking rugby rather than merely seeing the game out.
"With the Six Nations still pulling in massive viewing figures, there exists an 'if it ain't broke' attitude on this issue, which cloaks the bigger picture.
"Another welcome change would be using the same make of ball in every match. Without having the time, or energy, to go into the commercial aspects to this problem, surely it makes sense to negate the adjustment problems that occurred in this championship, evoking memories of the infamous "pig" problems on Ireland's tour to New Zealand in 2002.
"A third change, and one not limited to the Six Nations, would be the introduction of a review system to cope with questionable decisions."
Peter Bills laments the state of play in the Six Nations as thoughts turn to the Rugby World Cup in The Independent.
"If ever the 6 Nations rugby championship was a mixed bag it was in 2011. But the overriding message to emerge from five weekends of hectic international action is that the leading countries of the southern hemisphere have little to fear at this year’s World Cup.
"The overall standard of rugby played was at best ordinary, but more often poor. In a technical sense, it was often lamentable. Scotland v Italy in Edinburgh last Saturday looked as though it was being played at half pace.
"Much had been made of England’s so-called renaissance. Alas, it lasted only until Dublin when the Irish, as delightfully perverse as ever, produced the performance of the entire championship to sweep away any prospect of an England Grand Slam."
Chris Hewett reviews the various fortunes of the combatants following the Six Nations in The Independent, with some of the southern hemisphere's finest all set to light up Twickenham.
"The list of people England's dejected players would rather not see just at the moment is very long indeed, with the stellar All Black backs Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams occupying positions close to the top. And who are the men heading for London as we speak?
"That would be Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, both of whom are expected to break new ground at Twickenham this coming weekend by playing for the Christchurch-based Crusaders against the Durban-based Sharks in the first Super 15 match ever to be staged in Europe. What better place for the princes of the game to show the red rose paupers how to do it properly.
"And before the Celts start chuckling – not to mention the French and the Italians – will not the likes of Carter and Williams, backed up by an Israel Dagg here, a Kieran Read there and a Brad Thorn somewhere else, show them a thing or two?"
With the Six Nations over and domestic issues back on the table for the time being, Robert Kitson argues that player welfare is being lost in the mix in The Guardian.
"Imagine your name is Ben Youngs. You have just completed your first full Six Nations season as a regular starter for England. Mostly it has been fun and hugely rewarding but the past fortnight has been tougher. A heavy defeat in Ireland, a high-profile yellow card, increasing scrutiny on your personal performance etc etc. After seven months of top-level rugby already this season, you could probably do with a rest.
"And then you look at the calendar. Leicester want you back pronto to assess your state of readiness to face Bath in a big Aviva Premiership game this Saturday. You don't want to let them down or risk being called a big shot. You also want to get back on the horse and make amends for the Irish debacle. Not far down the track, though, is an even bigger fixture, a return trip to Dublin to play Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals."
Mick Cleary conceded that the Six Nations is lagging behind its southern hemisphere counterpart in terms of quality, but remains convinced that it comes out on top in terms of drama in The Daily Telegraph.
"Truly, these are not Grand Slam men as was proven, nor do they approach the class of ’03 in status as another Rugby World Cup looms.
"England are a middling side in what was a middling championship, streaked with drama but not defined by quality. The southern superpowers rest easy in their beds.
"And yet. If there was one feature of the tournament that will have been noted by the rest of the world it is this: that teams from this part of the planet rugby are cussed, hard-nosed and elemental buggers, ones that can by sheer force of will alone confound the form book."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on Ireland's spectacular return to form at the expense of England in Dublin.
"Not so much the Grand Slam, more the Grand Slap. Slams don’t come easily of course, and nothing underlined that more than Ireland’s sequence of hard-earned wins in 2009. But, frankly, Saturday’s 24-8 overturning of the Chariot merely underlined what a travesty it would have been if England had emulated the class of ’03.
"What it perhaps also demonstrated is that if any team should have emulated previous Slam winners, it was Ireland. Retaining many of the core elements of their class of ’09, and adding to it, this performance finally showed what this team is capable of.
"It was probably the performance of the 2011 Six Nations, and if Ireland had sustained this kind of intensity, focus and heads-up rugby in their previous four performances, they’d have walked it."
The Western Mail's Paul Abbandonato reveals the reason behind Shaun Edwards' absence from Wales' Six Nations defeat to France in Paris.
"Edwards was suspended from Wales’ Six Nations clash with France after a heated bust-up over the singing of an Irish folk song on the team bus, the Western Mail can reveal today.
"Warren Gatland’s No 2 missed the 28-9 defeat in Paris after he and another member of the Wales back-room staff, sports scientist Fergus Connolly, were each disciplined through the team’s code of conduct procedure.
"We have learned the two men exchanged words over the song as the Welsh team were travelling back to their Vale of Glamorgan HQ after the thrilling 19-13 triumph over Brian O’Driscoll’s Ireland at the Millennium Stadium the previous Saturday.
"The incident spilt over once the team bus arrived at the Vale and Gatland decided he was compelled to take disciplinary action."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore reflects on England's crushing defeat to Ireland.
"Had you asked Martin Johnson and his England team before the start of the Six Nations if winning it without a Grand Slam would represent adequate progress from the autumn, they would undoubtedly have said yes.
"...The pressure of the occasion and from their opponents caused uncharacteristic English ill-discipline. They gave up nine points early on from stupid penalties and added the brainless sin-binning of Ben Youngs for good measure. This defeat will be a painful, possibly necessary lesson in the unforgiving nature of Test rugby for those lacking experience in the England camp, players and management.
"Though James Haskell was one of England’s best forwards in the tournament, a specialist openside is needed against quality back rows. England’s midfield is defensively sound but no more and Shontayne Hape has made no discernable impression in five games.
"Whilst you cannot fault the physical commitment of England’s pack, the Irish game apart, there are technical aspects of their play that need to be addressed. Concentration at every set-piece is essential, particularly at scrums from which they intend to launch set moves."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports as Scotland bring the curtain down on their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy.
"Looking at the final table, this one was worse than the last, his first at the Scotland helm, because there was no Calcutta Cup draw to add so only points difference kept his side from claiming another Wooden Spoon for last place.
"Yet, despite five championships on the trot now, and six in the last seven, where Scotland have under-performed and failed to take advantage of a field in which no nation was streets ahead of the others, Robinson allowed himself a wry smile.
"This was not what he envisaged when he spoke confidently about his team at January's Six Nations launch in London, and there has to be a degree of shame about the manner in which they went through the tournament, playing at varying levels below standard. But, after an uplifting finish, Robinson does not believe they are any worse than they were at the start of the Six Nations. Indeed, now looking ahead to the World Cup, he believes their lessons have been more valuable than those received by others in the championship.
"What is more, he believes Scotland can still win their pool in the Rugby World Cup in September, a group featuring Romania, Georgia, Argentina and England, and progress to the quarter-finals to meet the runners-up from a pool including New Zealand and France."
The Independent's Robin Scott-Elliot offers a view from the sofa of the Six Nations finale.
The Six Nations has done its bit to entertain, although Saturday's elongated finale meant sitting through more crouch, touch, engage than is natural, unless you are Abbey Clancy. The strength of the tournament is that the rules can remain a mystery – it is comforting that the players don't really seem to know either – yet the rousing atmosphere that accompanies any England trip to be roundly abused by Celts or Gauls make it an event. To BBC Sport it is a Big Event so on Saturday they did what they always do to mark these occasions; poetry and cliché. Because it was a Really Big Event they combined the two.
"With Des Lynan having never returned the BBC library copy of Kipling, they came up with The Victor by CW Longenecker, who may not actually exist according to extensive research, or 10 minutes on Google. It consists of lines like "If you think you are beaten, you are", and was portentously delivered by a succession of Beeb pundits with serious faces and current players. Then it was into the build-up proper. "Now is the hour," said someone. "Big day for big men," suggested someone else. "Treat it like any other game," warned another."
Losing both the tactical and physical battles in Dublin showed where Martin Johnson must find improvement in his squad, according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.
"1. Don't pass just for the sake of it - Keith Earls was the fourth fullback used by Ireland this season, a player more used to playing on the wing than full-back. He did not have to make a tackle all evening, nor wait underneath a high ball as the hooves of white-shirted figures pounded closer to him. England played the passing game they have adopted in the last year, even though they were getting held up in the tackle and either turned over or slowed down. It became movement for movement's sake, attacking defenders rather than space, while Ireland in contrast recognised when to kick or break, colour against monochrome.
"...4. Invention is a key virtue - The statistics of the respective half-backs on Saturday were revealing. Ireland's ran and kicked more than their counterparts, while England's invariably passed and their midfield lacked the quick thinking of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy."
In the Sunday Telegraph Brendan Gallagher claims that Ireland, not England, will go to the World Cup in best shape after they shattered England's Grand Slam ambitions in Dublin.
"In truth, England didn't come anywhere near winning a Grand Slam, they were almost embarrassingly off the pace in Dublin and should have lost by 30 points or more.
That is the chief memory they will take out of the 2011 Championship.
No, the team that came nearest to winning the Grand Slam was actually third-placed Ireland, and that's an Ireland that were only able to engage top gear in short bursts as they experiment with new players and systems ahead of the World Cup.
With Ireland you know for a fact that there is much more to come, with England you wonder."
Patrick Collins, writing in the Mail on Sunday, claims England have little hope of lifting the World Cup in New Zealand and suggests their defeat in Dublin was born out of complacency.
"It was the seventh Irish success in the past eight meetings between the countries, and it was possibly the most overwhelming.
From first to last, Ireland dictated; their strategy smarter, their finishing more precise, their speed at the breakdown quite breathtaking. And while the Irish excelled, England never offered the ghost of a challenge, never seemed remotely capable of competing.
The notion that this team might have a World Cup win in their locker was not being loudly canvassed in the Irish capital last night after such a beating.
So now will begin a search for explanations, and some of them will involve the bruising of egos. There have been hints these past few weeks that this English side were becoming a little too pleased with themselves."
In the Independent on Sunday, though, Bath prop David Flatman insists England's "exotic" characters are the reason for their resurgence and the primary sources for English optimism.
"There is, without question, a sense that the hard times have now been overcome, and now maybe, just maybe, we can chalk those days down to experience. Let's call them character-building.
In the current squad you have guys like Chris Ashton who, as we have said before on these pages, just seems to love life – and this is infectious. I defy anyone not to smile around this guy; just watching him for five minutes is good enough. He's one of those types who makes you feel guilty for being grumpy and so is invaluable to his manager.
So let's continue to work hard. After all, little was achieved without elbow grease. But let us not forget the value of different personalities in this game. Yes, there is a place for robots, but there is room for the more exotic fruits, too."
Former Wales playmakers Barry John delivers verdict on the Welsh campaign and bemoans the lack of flair in Warren Gatland’s current crop in Wales on Sunday.
"It is a step forward after the disappointment of the results in the autumn Test series but there is still something lacking in the Welsh performances. Test match rugby is all about winning, I know that, but there is a serious lack of creativity about Wales at the moment.
Wales are all huff and puff and seem to play rugby by numbers. They can handle the rough stuff and sometimes seem to actively look for it, rather than the spaces on a rugby pitch.
Players like James Hook, Lee Byrne, Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Mike Phillips are all exciting and creative players. But Wales’ attack is frustratingly lukewarm and there seems to be no real penetration or ability to read what is in front of them."
Writing for The Scotsman, former captain Andy Nicol says that rookie lock Richie Gray was once again Scotland’s star player during their defeat of Italy at Murrayfield.
"As well as these players played, Richie Gray was the stand-out player for me. He stole three or four balls at the lineout, he tackled like a back-rower and carried the ball with real purpose to set up good opportunities for Scotland.
He has been Scotland's best player in the RBS Six Nations by some distance and it has been great to see. There is no doubt in my mind that, if the Lions were touring this summer, then this young man from Glasgow would be on the plane. He has been outstanding in every game he has played and for a man so young to have made such an impact in a tournament such as this is incredible."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews the Six Nations showdown between Ireland and England in Dublin.
"This is it, the big one. It always is. Alas, only one of the protagonists has reached this climactic point with the grand prize at stake, but even if it were played with a beachball in front of two men and a dog, Ireland v England will always have a resonance.
"The sight of the English chariot chugging into town could be just what the doctor ordered for this spluttering Irish team. Maybe we are deluded, but they still look the better team, and are both older (average 28 as against England’s 26) and wiser (622 caps to 314).
"Of course, England’s lack of experience can also mean a lack of mental baggage. And there’s probably no better man to have in their corner than Martin Johnson, the Slam and World Cup-winning captain of ’03 and one of the truly outstanding figures in the global game over the last 15 years.
"Perhaps Johnson was playing mind games yesterday when he suggested Ireland were the ones under pressure, with England merely excited by their sense of opportunity."
Writing in The Scotsman, Scotland captain Al Kellock sounds a rallying call ahead of the wooden spoon decider against Italy.
"This is where we are. You can win or lose international games due to small things, and we have not played well enough to win so far. We are playing for Scotland today, I am captaining Scotland today and we will go out and give everything for the 80 minutes.
"We have talked about confidence, but I feel a different confidence now. It's more a knowledge. We know that we have been good enough to win games, but we know more about why it hasn't clicked.
"We have taken a lot of confidence from the Calcutta Cup match, where we closed the gap on an England team playing its best for some time and odds-on for the Grand Slam later today. Still we came home without the victory that we all play for, and that supporters need to keep believing we can deliver.
"I could talk about how the training has been great again, even though it's been less physical in the shorter time we've had to prepare this week, and how the talk has been very positive right through the squad and coaches, but I'm not a big fan of talking. It is about what we do on the park in the 80 minutes and nothing else."
England boss Martin Johnson is backing his team to succeed on the stage where he led them to their last title. The Independent's Chris Hewett reports.
"He [Johnson] has had his share of luck, both politically – the top brass of the Rugby Football Union, whose behaviour in establishing the Johnson regime in 2008 was nothing short of despicable, have cut him an awful lot of slack over the past three years – and in terms of personnel. When the former captain succeeded Brian Ashton as head cook and bottlewasher, players as good as Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Tom Wood, all of whom start today (not to mention Courtney Lawes, who does not) were not even twinkles in the selectors' eyes. But in abandoning his initial heavy-handed approach to team management and lightening his touch, Johnson has shown himself to be more adaptable than anyone dared imagine during the first, gruesome 18 months of his stewardship.
"...Yet there is no one better placed than Johnson to talk meaningfully in the hours before kick-off here, for he knows what it is to secure a Grand Slam on this age-old rectangle of grass. Eight years ago, a few months before the World Cup triumph, he summoned from his playing colleagues one of the finest England performances in living memory: an overwhelmingly impressive, five-try, 42-6 victory over a distinctly useful Irish side who also happened to be chasing the Slam that day."
England team manager Martin Johnson caused a fuss and sealed a slam in Dublin eight years ago. Now he's back for more of the same, so writes The Guardian's Rob Kitson.
"Eight years is virtually a lifetime in rugby. When England won their last grand slam, on 30 March 2003, no one had heard of The X Factor, David Cameron, Lady Gaga or Chris Ashton. Martin Johnson was still lacing up his boots each week and Clive Woodward was not yet a knight of the realm. The curiosity is not that England are chasing another grand slam in Dublin, but that it has taken so long for them to get back to where they once belonged.
"Does Six Nations nirvana await at the Aviva Stadium, the new venue on the site of evocative old Lansdowne Road? It is no sure thing. Ireland have been unlucky in this championship, victims of one glaring missed tackle and a refereeing howler. This could easily be 2001 all over again, when another unbeaten England team led by a stand-in captain, Matt Dawson, were turned over. The memory of Andy Robinson, then England's forwards coach, walking out into the carpark, pressing two fingers against his temple and pulling an imaginary trigger remains fresh."
Ireland coach Declan Kidney's selection policy shows lack of clear plan and progress, according to the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.
"In contrast, one suspects that Declan Kidney's team is one defeat away from disarray and a descent into the free fall that precipitated the disaster in the last World Cup.
"The selection of Jonny Sexton is not an issue of kicking the ball, but rather suggests that the coach does not know who his number one out-half is and, by definition, the team's strategic objective. I cannot remember a case where the coach fiddled with such a crucial selection so much.
"More worrying still is that the squad -- after a campaign that has been marked by mediocrity, indecision and lack of skill -- shows no real change. If Kidney were a penitent in Confession, he would not receive forgiveness as he shows no firm purpose of amendment. He is wrong about Ronan O'Gara, stubborn about Paddy Wallace and irresponsible about Keith Earls.
"There is neither rhyme nor reason to the selection of Wallace on the bench. Not because he butchered a match-winning situation, but because he only covers centre, which is already adequately covered by Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Earls. An injury to a wing or full-back this afternoon will mean that the backline instantly becomes a makeshift unit -- the scenario that no doubt influenced Kidney's thinking when Luke Fitzgerald was injured or having a nightmare game, or both, against Wales."
England plan to keep the ball in play in their grand slam quest but Ireland will go the other way and hoof it into touch, according to Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards in his latest column for The Guardian.
"England's target will be to take the power from the legs of Ireland's big ball carriers such as Cian Healy, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien. Early on they'll drive a few lineouts, but the gameplan will be to keep the ball in play. Ireland will go the other way and hoof the ball into touch – and probably row Z at that after last Saturday – to stop England's back three running back at them, something Mark Cueto, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden have done since the opening night of the championship when they came down to Cardiff.
"The stats tell the tale better than I can: against England, Wales had four lineouts, last Saturday against the Irish we had 19. Point made?
"I know Declan Kidney is starting with Jonathan Sexton this week, rather than Ronan O'Gara, but I can't see Ireland running the tactical risk of playing into England's hands. Obviously Kidney is looking towards the World Cup when he selects Sexton, but there may also be memories of what the Leinster fly-half did to England this time last year in his selection.
"Either way, Ireland will be praying that Eoin Reddan's head clears enough for him to start. With Tomás O'Leary suffering yet another unfortunate injury, Ireland are getting a bit short of scrum-halves and it matters that Sexton has the comfort of a man he works with regularly inside him. He had a patchy game against Wales, kicking poorly immediately after replacing O'Gara, but you can put a lot of that down to the Webb Ellis ball, which Wales and only Wales use."
Andrew Trimble's return to the Ireland team could not have come under more challenging circumstances, according to the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.
"After missing the first four Six Nations assignments, Trimble's reintroduction to the left wing is not exactly a baptism of fire but going up against a Grand Slam-chasing England side, directly opposite their try-scoring phenomenon Chris Ashton, is a severe test of his readiness for international combat having not featured since the dogged win over Argentina last November.
"Is he fazed by the call-up? Not a bit of it. Enthusiasm is the overriding emotion in the Ulster man ahead of tomorrow's showdown -- boosted by the fact that, after strong performances by Ireland wingers Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe in the frustrating defeat to Wales, Trimble didn't see it coming.
"This is the first week I've been in camp that I didn't really have any hopes of being involved, and then it's the week that I get picked," said Trimble, smiling."
Wales captain Matthew Rees has dismissed the furore surrounding his role in Mike Phillips’ try against Ireland and says he is ready to repeat the feat if an opportunity arises in Paris tomorrow night. The Western Mail's David Williams reports.
"Jonathan Kaplan, the referee at the centre of the Millennium Stadium storm, is a touch judge this time and is bound to be on his guard to avoid any more blunders.
But Rees, whose quick throw with the wrong ball set Phillips up for his try, defended his lineout actions by saying: “It was in the heat of the moment and something which I haven’t done in the past.
“But the chance arose and I took it. If it’s there on a plate, sometimes you’ve got to take it. I did on Saturday and it came off. It’s about time we had a bit of luck on our side. So many times in the past we haven’t had the rub of the green so to speak and we were just fortunate to have that on Saturday.
“The ball has given me the ball, I’m ready to take the lineout and Mike has come into the corner of my eye. I gave him the ball and he’s done the rest. Those opportunities don’t happen that regularly in Test match rugby, but when they do you’ve got to take them.
“I think France will probably be looking out for it when we play them. It’s a way to speed up the game and keep the ball in play and if the opportunity is there against France we’ll have to see what happens.”
The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary reports from Dublin ahead of the Six Nations showdown between England and Ireland.
"England arrived in Dublin on Thursday night in search of the same air of defiance that almost caused a diplomatic incident eight years ago when Martin Johnson refused to move along the ceremonial red carpet prior to kick-off just to satisfy Irish sensibilities.
"Captain then, manager now, Johnson still sets great store on character when it comes to coping with adversity.
"The Grand Slam and World Cup-winning side of 2003 had it in spades: Johnson believes that this generation is well on the way to acquiring it as they tilt for their own Six Nations Grand Slam on Saturday, again against Ireland.
"In a perverse way, the loss to injury of captain Mike Tindall might provide an added spur as others rally round to make up for any deficiencies."
The Scotsman's David Barnes picks through the pieces of what has so far been a disappointing Six Nations campaign for Scotland.
"With one eye on the World Cup later this year, Robinson will be deeply concerned that he is no closer to knowing what his best option is in certain key positions (particularly at tight-head prop) but, in other areas, he will be encouraged that he now has greater strength in depth than any other Scottish coach has enjoyed in the professional era.
"This was always going to be a big tournament for Richie Gray, and he hasn't disappointed - registering some magnificent performances which should surely have resulted in his name being one of the 12 which appeared on a shortlist for player of the championship earlier this week.
"Meanwhile, with Johnnie Beattie still not back to his devastating best after shoulder surgery during the summer and John Barclay struggling to produce his best form, Kelly Brown - previously the least heralded of the Killer Bs triumvirate - has become a totem for his team-mates in the Scottish back-row.
"Behind the scrum, Chris Paterson once again confounded those who have written him off as too lightweight and too slow to be truly effective at the highest level with a mighty contribution to Scotland's vastly improved performance against England last weekend.
"And the Sean Lamont experiment at inside centre may not have added much in terms of attacking guile but it has been a qualified success in that we now know that Graeme Morrison is not the only target man available for selection in midfield.
"But perhaps the most significant positive outcome of this tournament so far has been that Scotland's calamitous performance against Wales afforded Robinson the opportunity to give Ruaridh Jackson a run in the starting team earlier than he otherwise would."
Writingi n the Western Mail, Gwyn Jones believes Welsh wing wizard Shane WIlliams will be almost impossible to replace.
"What I will never query, though, is the magical rugby you have served up for us down the years.
"The highlights for me include the tries scored during the 2008 Grand Slam winning season when Shane was rightly named player of the tournament.
"The loss of Shane means Gatland will have to reassess his thinking for Paris, because Williams can run at the props with the ball to gain territory and has the ability to come off his wing and spot those chances.
"This season, because of the nature of the four games, he didn’t have the opportunity to counter from open, fluid situations.
"This may have been partly down to Wales’ no-risk conservative style and partly due to the tight-nature of every game. The margins have been close and the backs have had to resort quite often to tactical kicking.
"Nevertheless, Shane remains almost irreplaceable as he can change games in ways that nobody else can."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, ex-England hooker Brian Moore believes his old side have the beating of any side in the world in a one-off game.
"Throughout his tenure as England manager he has ignored the siren voices that insisted he jettison the old and install a raft of young players en bloc. Instead, his has been a steady programme of introduction and, at last, he has done something that was desperately needed, was blindingly obvious, but was not achieved by his two immediate predecessors — he has brought stability to selection.
"As his team prepare for a Grand Slam finale in Dublin, the opinions on the quality have again polarised. This tendency to extremity is a relatively modern phenomenon, encouraged by the plethora of media sources that jostle for attention and try to attract it by hyperbole.
"There may be a few supporters who acclaim this England team as world-beaters, but not many and none with any rugby nous. There are many who are keen to run down Johnson’s men, describing them as merely average or alternatively attempting to diminish their results by claiming that this Six Nations Championship has been of poor quality."
The Independent's Chris Hewett pinpoints Jonathan Sexton as Ireland's dangerman ahead of their clash with England on Saturday.
"It was Sexton who unravelled England in last year's match at Twickenham, and if he has fallen off his 2010 standard just recently, he remains a dangerous customer. Kidney must have thought long and hard before relegating O'Gara to replacement status a few days after starting him against the Welsh in Cardiff, but if the Irish centres – an out-of-sorts yet threatening Gordon D'Arcy, accompanied by Brian O'Driscoll, the nearest thing to a genuinely great player active in European rugby – are to expose England's obvious limitations in midfield, Sexton is the better man to arm them.
"Besides, it is perfectly possible that O'Gara will have a late say in matters anyway. Ireland's version of Jonny Wilkinson, he is the perfect man to close out a tight game off the bench. Had he not performed his party piece against Italy in the opening round – there is nothing of the wisdom of hindsight in suggesting that his match-saving drop goal had an overpowering whiff of inevitability about it – the Azzurri would now have two wins under their belts, rather than one."
Frank Keating recounts memories of past clashes beetween Wales and France in The Guardian.
"Time and again down the years, I've relished the biennial barney across the water between the red and the blue. This greybeard rewardingly spools back no end of grand matches, grand moments, and grand men.
"Mind you, for the first part of the last century Wales's away match against Scotland was traditionally the fabled weekend for the working classes down there – with no end of night-special excursion trains steaming up north through the witching hours to deposit all down Princes Street at dawn, a bleary throng seething contentedly with high expectations as well as, it must be said, boozy, beery odours.
"It has me recalling a lovely little film made half a century ago this year by that fine Welsh journalist John Morgan in which he tells of the midnight rush beginning at Swansea railway station: "Most of them in scarlet berets and scarves or leeks and daffodils – and some even with saucepans – and a final run from the pub across the station yard swinging their flagons or carrying their crates like soldiers rushing ammunition to the guns."
Hugh Farrelly calls for a change in perception around the Irish outside-half debate in The Irish Independent.
"Someone once noted that perception is strong and sight is weak and that is certainly the case with the Irish rugby team during this confusing Six Nations championship campaign.
"Judging by some of the reaction to last Saturday's defeat in Wales, the perception for many is of a squad in disarray and yet proper viewing reveals encouraging progress in foundation areas such as scrum, line-out, kick-offs, defence and discipline that were previously causes of concern.
"The problem is that, while these aspects of Ireland's play have undeniably come on as the championship has progressed, this is still a team somewhat at odds with itself and time is running out for the "pieces of the jigsaw" to come together."
Peter Bills gives his two cents on the recent refereeing farce that unfolded at the Millennium Stadium in The Independent.
"Two men made serious blunders at Cardiff last Saturday that directly influenced the outcome of the Wales v Ireland match. But neither of them was the referee.
"One was Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton, an undistinguished second half substitute, and the other was Scottish assistant referee Peter Allen. Between them, they brought chaos to an international match.
"Sexton erred by kicking the ball out on the full after 49 minutes. Then Allen made the crass error of losing concentration, failing to follow the flight of the ball so that he would have seen the same ball was clearly not used for the quick throw-in for Mike Phillips’ try that proved the crucial difference in the match."
Gerry Thornley, writing in The Irish Times, believes that beating England this weekend has become imperative for Ireland in the wake of their loss to Wales.
"This is all becoming a little tediously repetitive. An Ireland team so close yet so far from tearing up trees, and darned match officials, whose influence on games in this Six Nations has been far, far too pronounced. Ireland have had the rawest deal, and perhaps they are paying for incurring the wrath of the IRB and refereeing fraternity to a degree with their reaction to last season’s law amendments.
"In any event, if you’re an Arsenal fan as well as an Ireland one, two disgraceful decisions by match officials at critical points leave a particularly sour taste. Match officials are human beings. They make mistakes, all the more so when they only have a split second. The key is probably to give themselves a time-out as much as they possibly can."
Mick Cleary focuses his attention on the lost man of French rugby, Marc Lievremont, in The Daily Telegraph.
"L’Equipe gave over its first four pages on Monday to an in-depth post-mortem following the team’s first-ever defeat (22-21) to Italy. Its message was clear: Lièvremont pose vraiment probleme.
"Former head coach Bernard Laporte issued a stinging rebuke in the paper’s columns and finished off his critique with a familiar refrain for a Frenchman: we need a revolution.
"Jonny Wilkinson’s boss at Toulon, Philippe Saint-Andre, despaired of a shop window that is filled with the soiled goods of the international team. In brief, it’s not been the best 48 hours in the life of Lièvremont."
"The infamous 'stand-off' of 2003 might just get some airplay this week. Just a little.
"Martin Johnson's first return to Lansdowne Road; the fact that he has graduated from captain to manager and is poised to land England's first Grand Slam since lifting the trophy that afternoon; Brian O'Driscoll once again standing in his path as Ireland captain; St Patrick's week and a World Cup looming.
"Mash it all together and you have all the elements you could possibly require for another jingoistic, tub-thumping showdown -- the main difference this time around being that pride not silverware is Ireland's primary motivation."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, England's Nick Easter reflects on his side's victory over Scotland and ahead to their showdown with Ireland in Dublin.
"Very few in our group have a particularly good record against them over the years. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. Since England won that Grand Slam at Lansdowne Road in 2003 we have lost six of the last seven Six Nations games against them which tells you everything you need to know about how Ireland get themselves up for an England game.
"...Rugby is all about winning, Test match rugby especially. We are delighted with Sunday’s result but it was a very flat, frustrated dressing room. In fact, it had been flat for two weeks since the France game.
"We played some good rugby in our first two matches, but against the French we left three tries out there. And the same against Scotland, we created some good opportunities but just forced it a bit. Sometimes we need to hold onto the ball a bit longer and make it count. They were out on their feet on occasions even in the first half, going down and taking a minute, but we weren’t quite ruthless enough. We have got to learn from that and quickly."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley picks through the pieces of Ireland's Six Nations defeat to Wales and ahead to the visit of England.
"The outhalf issue won’t go away either, and has become more muddled, with both players now seemingly suffering from the musical chairs at 10. For the second time Kidney again changed his chief tactician at outhalf, only earlier. Coming before the 50th minute, it looked hasty to withdraw Ronan O’Gara and introduce Jonathan Sexton.
"The ripple effect has been a seemingly confused approach. Sexton was omitted after the defeat to France, when Ireland were credited with just 15 kicks in 80 minutes (there had been 21 in Rome). Against the Scots that figure rose to 24 but on Saturday it was 42 – much of it undistinguished as the Ireland players struggled with the greasy Webb Ellis pill used by the Welsh.
"The most damning statistic is that Ireland won the ball 35 times in the Welsh 22 and came away with only 13 points in total, failing to score in the second half."
Scotland salvaged a huge amount of respect with their battling display against England at Twickenham, according to The Scotsman's David Ferguson.
"The Scots defence was far better than in recent games, tighter, quicker and harder-hitting, and, having conceded a try in the opening ten minutes in seven of their last nine Tests, they did not yield to the championship's top attacking side until 13 minutes from the end, and then when controversially reduced to 14 men. They also produced a first Scottish try in the Calcutta Cup in four years, with a flash of brilliance from centre Max Evans that pulled the deficit back to three points with just six minutes of the game remaining.
"Scotland have rarely been as roundly written off as they were before this 128th meeting of the old rivals. But they nearly pulled it off. There was a sign before kick-off that the Twickenham residents might not have everything their own way when a fox raced around the inside of the ground, up and down the pitch and through the stands, with no-one able to coax him off until the shattered animal spotted an exit route as the Scottish anthem struck up and made his escape. By the finish both Scotland and England were similarly out on their feet, having covered every blade of grass."
Writing in The Independent, Chris Hewett believes Scotland exposed holes in Martin Johnson's England side at Twickenham.
"One of European rugby's rare beasts – an English Grand Slam – might be spotted in Dublin next weekend: the Six Nations title is virtually in the bag, thanks to the points advantage accruing from the eight-try victory over Italy in round two, and a stern, authoritative performance by the red-rose pack may well bring them all those additional spoils that seemed beyond their grasp at the start of the tournament. But the Irish will have to be as blind as bats not to spot the frailties and fragilities at the heart of Martin Johnson's team, all of which were on public view at Twickenham yesterday. The thing is not done yet.
"Another kind of beast – a common or garden fox – threatened to delay the start of this compelling Calcutta Cup encounter. Half the British Army seemed to be surrounding the pitch as the Scots emerged from the tunnel, yet not a man-jack of them knew how to coax the creature away from the field of play, where it had taken up residence some 40 minutes beforehand. Zara Phillips might have had an idea or two, being a horsey type, but she was in the expensive seats and had no immediate access to the pitch. The fox disappeared just before kick-off. The Scots? There was no disappearing act from them. They put themselves in England's faces from the get-go and stayed there for the duration."
The Guardian's Rob Kitson reports from England's Six Nations victory over Scotland at Twickenham.
"Bad sides do not win Six Nations titles so we can only assume England suffered an unfortunate attack of stage fright. They will still travel to Dublin this week chasing a first grand slam for eight years but this was a stuttering display of King's Speech proportions. Rather than friendly ball‑boys and celebratory swallow dives it was an afternoon which emphasised the tournament's recurring ability to confound.
"Martin Johnson will far prefer to study the championship table than the match tape. After four wins out of four, with a points difference of +42 compared with their nearest challengers Wales, his team need only a draw at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday to guarantee their first title since 2003. To stop them the Welsh must win big in France and hope Ireland do them a spectacular favour. It is, in short, England's championship to lose, even if they do stumble at the final hurdle.
"At least Johnson will no longer have to do battle with complacency. In the home dressing-room afterwards there was not a hint of "Here we go, here we go" triumphalism. "The guys are pretty flat which is not a bad place to be after you've won four," said Johnson. "I'm happier in a way to be going to Dublin having played like that rather than scoring a load of points." It is a fair point; as he knows better than most, titles are not won by the prettiest teams but by sides who get the job done even when they are playing modestly."
The Observer's Mike Aylwin reports from Italy's stunning Six Nations upset win against France in Rome.
"There was a time when Italian heads would have dropped in such circumstances and, when Bergamasco missed a couple of kickable penalties, it looked as though things might go that way. But Andrea Masi brought euphoria to the crowd by getting on the end of a bit of clever work by Tommaso Benvenuti and Fabio Semenzato.
"Bergamasco's conversion and a penalty made it a two-point game and the last 20 minutes were set to be a blinder. Parra and Bergamasco swapped penalties to keep the nerves jangling before the wing landed his final kick from 35 yards out, wide on the left.
"All that remained was the torture of three reset French scrums in the shadow of the Italian posts before the Azzurri could celebrate. After letting Ireland off the hook on the first weekend of the championship, and then pushing Wales all the way, Italy now go to Murrayfield looking to repeat their only away win in the Six Nations, the 37-17 victory over Scotland, in 2007, when they were three tries up in the first six minutes."
Ireland have regressed to the point where overhaul is a must according to Neil Francis in the Irish Independent.
"Ireland should have something to compete for next Saturday other than the prize of spoiling England's season, but that is not what this group is about and in much the same way they will rue an incredibly expensive loss to a French side that we now know after yesterday's miracle in Rome is one of the worst French sides in living memory.
"Ireland will look back at their performance against a very negative and one-dimensional Welsh side that simply played a little more cleverly than you would have given them credit for. Ireland did not play well enough to win this game, although it was well within their compass to dispose of Wales and now it is the Taffs who go to Paris next week with something to play for and gallingly hope for a favour from the Paddies.
"It was yet another awful game to watch. Last year I had a colonoscopy and they let me watch it on the TV monitor; it was more entertaining than the match in Cardiff yesterday. It would seem that most northern hemisphere players have lost their sense of perspective when it comes to applying the fundamentals of the game, the ability to give and take a pass, the notion of spatial awareness knowing when it is more prudent to kick than pass, knowing what to do in certain sectors of the park and Ireland were just as poor as Wales as they reverted to rugby of the lowest common denominator."
Writing in his column for the Wales on Sunday, Barry John is confident Wales are on the right track.
"Wales claimed the big scalp they wanted... and it really is onwards and upwards for Warren Gatland’s team after this.
"Despite two wins on the road, the fantastic Welsh fans still weren’t totally convinced their side was back on track.
"They needed evidence of that from a win against a better rugby nation than Scotland or Italy, although our own triumph in Rome last time out was put into a little more perspective by France’s failure out in the Italian capital.
"But yesterday we finally got the victory, and the performance, we needed to see, achieved against a formidable Ireland side who have proved themselves to be a force at world level in recent times."
There were errors. It was messy. But for sheer unadulterated tension Wales's victory over Ireland took the biscuit according to the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford.
"Ireland can have no excuses. True, they were on the wrong end of a bad decision but this was a side hanging on in there. They did marvellously well to get back into the match but the old guard are fading and they lack the all-round edge and energy of the better sides.
"Remarkably, Ireland were 13-9 in front at half time. Remarkable because one of the more intriguing aspects of the first period was the lack of yardage gained by Paul O'Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan.
"For years O’Connell has been the go-to man up front for Ireland, with Brian O’Driscoll providing the rallying point behind. O’Driscoll still has the magic. The way he finished off Ireland’s try after Tommy Bowe had forced his way between Jamie Roberts and Alun Wyn Jones was exemplary: unfussy, accurate, clinical.
"But O’Connell now seems to be raging against the dying of the light. He still has presence, able to nick the odd line-out, but it was the bullocking runs of Bradley Davies, Roberts and Sam Warburton which were most damaging in the context of the match."
The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin reports as Ireland are caught short by touch judge's incorrect call on quick line-out.
"Wales's first win in seven home matches stretching back almost a year, and the end to Ireland's Triple Crown hopes, was achieved in farcical circumstances with a conspicuously illegal try awarded by the world's most experienced Test referee and his Scottish assistant.
"Not that the Millennium Stadium multitude cared much, as the Welsh moved up to second in the Six Nations table. A couple of hundred miles away from the row over Mike Phillips's second-half score, England were quietly patting each other on the back, knowing that the Championship title will be as good as won on points difference, with one round still to play, if they beat Scotland today.
"Not for the first time with the damnably complicated officiating that goes with this great sport, we were left thumbing the lawbook when we should have been glorying in Brian O'Driscoll's record-equalling 24th Championship try, or praising Wales's cool goal-kicking or debating the timing of Ireland's substitutions."
"And what of France? There’s no debate now. Italy’s victory has exposed French coach Marc Lievremont as a charlatan. If France stay with him for the World Cup, then God help them.
"Lievremont has had too long to get his side sorted for this defeat to be a blip. Blessed with the best bunch of players by some distance – and that includes a resurgent England – Lievremont has chopped and changed and seen his team lose confidence and fall into decline.
"There were those who thought that their performance in the opening game of this Six Nations against Scotland was proof that they had exorcised the demons which possessed them against Australia when a second half of catastrophic awfulness saw then concede a shed load of points.
"I was at the Stade de France when Scotland were the visitors and thought that they had regrouped. It was born out of a love French rugby generally and a belief that all that talent has to be channelled into something special.
"What a romantic fool I was. The truth, the brutal truth, is that Lievremont is betraying a great tradition."
Northampton flanker Tom Wood has taken a different route into the professional rugby but he is all the better for it according to The Guardian's Rob Kitson.
"As a teenager there were days when Tom Wood felt invisible. Even now he is a full England international he remembers the prickling anger he felt after playing a blinder in a trial for the England Under-18 squad and still not getting selected. It was clearly a formative moment. "I watched the videos back and thought: 'There's no way they can't pick me, I've got to be in.' Then they didn't pick me. I guess it's the way you deal with those things that really sets you apart."
"A strong desire to plough his own furrow has been a recurring theme in Wood's rise. To call his emergence a fairytale would be fanciful but, in its own way, the story of the 24-year-old's unorthodox journey to the England back-row is as uplifting as any in modern sport. Some have compared him to the determinedly unflashy Richard Hill, others to Neil Back on the basis both grew up in Coventry and attended the same Woodlands school. Wrong.
"The more he talks, the more he reminds you of a young Martin Johnson: bright, self-motivated, fit and occasionally stroppy. No wonder Johnson likes his attitude; watching Wood pile into his team-mates at training must feel like peering into a mirror and seeing himself circa 1993."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews the eagerly-anticipated Six Nations clash between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff.
"Wales, we know, will be ultra-physical as they seek to tear into Ireland from the start, as they’ve been in all three games to date. And, as with any side coached by Warren Gatland, Ronan O’Gara may as well take to the pitch with a bull’s eye on his forehead.
"They played much better in their opener at home to England than they were given credit for. The key there was England’s ability to soak up the pressure and come downfield to draw first blood.
"But were Wales to be rewarded for any early pressure, it would get the crowd into the game and, just as significantly, confidence would rise in home ranks. James Hook – a key barometer of the game – and his mates would start to strut their stuff.
"However, we know Ireland have an ability to roll with the punches, and having reduced a worryingly high error count against the Scots, all that really remains is for them to improve their discipline. This subject has been worn to death within and outside the squad (and in Wales, too), but one imagines there’ll be an improvement.
"That said, Ireland don’t seem to be flavour of the month with the refereeing fraternity, and Jonathan Kaplan will be a central figure in every sense. Both sides will have to adapt to him quickly, and while he’ll allow a contest at the breakdown, and is also aware to call when a double tackle becomes a maul, Kaplan will favour the attacking side and establish a high tempo to the game."
If history is anything to go by, there could hardly be worse opponents today for a Welsh team looking to end a year-long winless run at home- so writes the Western Mail's Simon Thomas.
"There’s no particular rhyme nor reason to the home hoodoo, just as there was no great logic to our successes in Dublin during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. It just appears to be one of the quirks of the fixture.
"What’s encouraging is that history hasn’t appeared to be playing too heavily on the minds of the Welsh players this week.
"It helps that 10 of the match-day squad have tasted Six Nations success against the Irish, either in 2005 or at Croke Park in the most recent Grand Slam campaign of 2008.
"It also helps they are coming into this game on the back of road-trip wins in Scotland and Italy following an eight-match barren run.
"That confidence has been apparent in the Welsh camp this week, with a new spring in the step of the players."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Will Greenwood reveals where he thinks the game between England and Scotland will be won and lost.
"1. THE BREAKDOWN - The modern day desperation for quick ball, and with it the chance of glory. Slow your opponents down and everyone is vulnerable. Generate quick stuff and anyone can win. England want pace to feed their new found confidence and rhythm. Scotland need quick ball to give Rhuaridh Jackson the platform to showcase his skills. Slow ball will highlight his inexperience, and quick ball will make England the team they were.
"2. LINE OUT - Every game has one area of set piece that can help swing a game. Both sides are stacked with options on offense and potential pilferers on defense. It is still one of the defining truths in rugby that an outstanding line out can win you a match. Kellock must lead his men from the front, backed up by horizontal line out men like Hines. The first elbow goes across not up. Old school, but can make the difference.
"3. THE MIND GAME - No matter what sport you play, whatever levels of contact are involved, the top two inches define your afternoon’s progress. Dave Brailsford, boss of Great Britain cycling crew at the last Olympics, talked of controlling your inner monkey. Scotland must tell the grey cells to stop thinking about the Six Nations Wooden Spoon. England must not think ahead to Dublin, and must not worry about leaving anything in the tank should they win. Heads must stay in the moment, in the phase.
The Scotsman's David Ferguson previews Scotland's Six Nations showdown with England at Twickenham.
"The current Scotland team have deserved most of the criticism hurled their way after performances of varying levels of ineptitude and promise-bursting errors, which all added up to the same thing - defeat.
"They will stride into England's 82,000-capacity home also aware that there is a great belief rising across the Home Counties. England have not only beaten Wales, Italy and France, but they have shown an ability to take their game to a new level, one in which the players are comfortable on the ball in tight and across the park, driving up through the forwards, winning the arm-wrestle and attacking with speed and incision. Though not all the time.
"They have matched their number of wins of the past three years and many in this squad are only too well aware that that was their frustrating limit. With Scotland at home and a far from dominant Ireland in Dublin to finish, they are confident of using the momentum generated so far to surpass that this time, and that confidence will need a lot of denting before it turns in on itself."
Dylan Hartley has received a lot of stick in the Six Nations but, instead of snapping back, England's hooker tells The Independent's Chris Hewett how he's been motivated to hit new heights.
"There is a theory about hookers, and it goes like this: a man cannot hope to make a serious reputation for himself in the middle of the front row unless his talent for talking a good game is at least as highly developed as his ability to play one.
"Brian Moore never pretended to be the world's greatest linguist, but he could spout four-lettered insults in every tongue known to man, from French to Ancient Hittite. Sean Fitzpatrick? The man never shut up. Phil Kearns? Likewise. And then there was Mark Regan, of whom the World Cup-winning Springbok captain John Smit famously said: "He spoke to me more in two matches than my wife has in 10 years."
"So where does this leave the New Zealand-born Dylan Hartley, current fulcrum of the England pack and a man seemingly determined to buck the trend. "I'm not witty enough to get involved in all that," he insists. "I'm always being hammered in the banter department, usually by Chris Ashton." Does this mean the Regan approach to competitive camaraderie is entirely foreign to him? Hartley grimaces. "The first time I went up against him, he just looked at me and said: 'Who the fuck are you?' I couldn't think of anything to say."
David Ferguson catches up with David Leslie as Scotland plot another siege of Twickenham in The Scotsman.
"He still calls himself Niccolo, after the Italian philosopher Machiavelli. He laughs as he says it, but it is clear that while David Leslie may still be treading a new path of recovery from the severe injuries he suffered over two years ago, when he fell 20 feet off a roof and on to concrete, head first, he is the same character that struck fear into international defences, and some of his team-mates, 30 years ago.
"Relaxing at his home in Dundee, now 52, Leslie recalls vividly aspects of the last Scotland win at Twickenham in 1983, when he and a fine Scotland team recovered from defeats to Ireland, France and Wales to march on the English capital "with nothing to lose" and emerged triumphant, 22-12, to end a 12-year wait for success at the old 'cabbage patch'."
Keith Wood offers some personal advice to Ireland about how to deal with criticism in The Daily Telegraph.
"In the days of the pomp of the All Ireland League my team, Garryowen, were blazing a trail through all-comers and I was suddenly thrust into the rugby limelight.
"I loved every minute of it and lapped it up. Munster had played and beaten Australia the previous week and although I sat on the bench for that game I leapfrogged the Munster incumbent, Terry Kingston, to gain my place on the national bench.
"Everything was all right in my world as new friends emerged and praise cameg from all angles – I was on the crest of a wave. And worst of all and maybe naturally as a naive youngster, I believed every bit of it, well, the good stuff at least."
Shaun Edwards offers his two cents on the Toby Flood/Jonny Wilkinson debate in The Guardian.
"Three down and two to go. England head the pack, but where do they go from here? Today, when Martin Johnson names his team to play Scotland on Sunday, we might find out.
"With three wins in the bag, the England manager has every right to stand pat, keep the side that beat France and plough on towards the grand slam he hates to talk about. On the other hand, he might take the chance to look even further into the future and this autumn's World Cup in New Zealand.
"Between now and then, England have limited scope to experiment in the heat of a full-on Test match. Certainly Johnson will not be taking any chances when his team round off their Six Nations in Dublin, so it's now or never and Scotland have not been pulling up too many trees lately. The areas that interest are the centres and the back-row combination and while I wouldn't presume to tell Johnson his job, one or two thoughts have been prompted by morning's pictures of Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson sitting side by side and speculating about the chances of starting a game together now that England have developed both their game and their confidence."
The Western Mail's Andy Howell reflects on Warren Gatland's bold selection for Wales' Six Nations showdown with Ireland.
"Just like Scotland – or any other country for that matter – Triple Crown-chasing Ireland will be on full alert now they have seen Hook named as Wales’ orchestrator and Halfpenny roaming from the right wing. If there’s a gap in the Irish defence, either of the pair have the vision and pace to exploit it.
"It means Brian O’Driscoll and company have much more on their plate than they have encountered so far, France included, during this year’s Six Nations.
"No disrespect to the reliable Stephen Jones, but Irish eyes would have been elsewhere had he been retained at No. 10 for the Millennium Stadium clash.
"They would have rushed up at the Welsh centres and offered the veteran the inside, knowing their formidable back row of Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace and Sean O’Brien would have been ready to sweep him up.
"O'Driscoll and his centre partner Gordon D’Arcy would have had the luxury of being able to concentrate on Jamie Roberts and Hook – if he had stayed at No. 13.
"But it’s a different story with Hook the focus of their attention. They will ignore him at their peril because he has the acceleration, footwork and fend-off to escape the clutches of the men in green’s loose forwards and capitalise on the suspect defending of opposite number Ronan O’Gara."
Gerry Thornley previews Ireland's Cardiff clash with Wales, a game he sees as being 'set reasonably fair', in The Irish Times.
"No changes for Ireland, but two significant ones for Wales; the net effect being that both sides seem intent on putting their best attacking feet forward. Throw in a southern hemisphere referee with two positively inclined teams, and Saturday’s latest meeting between these feisty Celtic rivals looks set reasonably fair.
"The only possible blight on this landscape may be the weather, although Saturday’s forecast for Cardiff is for a fairly nippy evening with little in the way of wind and some light drizzle. Either way, it requires both camps to agree for the Millennium roof to be closed, and Declan Kidney strongly indicated yesterday that Ireland will not be so inclined.
"Asked about the roof, the Irish coach quipped: “It’s open apparently. I wouldn’t mind that, a lot of noise goes out through the roof.” But asked specifically whether he would agree to the roof being closed, he smiled again. “A bit of fresh air never did anyone any harm.”
Robert Kitson debates whether England can afford to make changes against Scotland in The Guardian.
"Martin Johnson loves a good trivia question so here's one to mull over in Calcutta Cup week. Apart from their nationality, what is the common denominator linking the following players: Robbie Morris, Mike Worsley, Graham Rowntree, James Simpson-Daniel, Alex Sanderson, Phil Christophers, Ollie Smith and Charlie Hodgson? Got it yet? Don't worry, we'll let you know the answer in a moment or two.
"While you're thinking about it, consider a couple of interesting stats. The last time England won a title, let alone a grand slam, was in 2003, the year they also went on to lift the World Cup. And do you know how many players Clive Woodward used in that successful 2003 Six Nations campaign, widely seen as the moment England gelled into one of the most settled, successful sides in their country's history? No fewer than 35. To date Johnson has used just 24 in three games, currently the second-lowest figure in England's Six Nations history. If England emulate the boys of 2003, they will have done so with far fewer hands on the tiller."
Mick Cleary of The Telegraph argues that England still have much to prove in this year's Six Nations.
"There is no such thing as an easy Grand Slam. True, there are scruffy ones, unexpected ones and even fortunate ones. But at some point in that championship, the slammers will have played with conviction and merit. They will have deserved their mythical crown, if only for the fact that they have got to the tape first and seen off all-comers.
"Scotland did just that in 1990, popping English pretensions and pomposity on a dramatic, poll-tax fuelled, emotional day in Edinburgh. Up to that point, Scotland had been fretful and sketchy in beating Ireland and Wales , more assured in dispatching France. England, meanwhile, had been magisterial and all-consuming in seeing off Ireland (23-0), France in Paris (26-7) and Wales at Twickenham (34-6).
"England were rightly lauded, Scotland, equally rightly, written off. David Sole’s long, slow walk into the Murrayfield middle put paid to such facile assumptions.
"All of which is to put England’s task in their next two games into perspective. A Grand Slam has to be earned. So far, England have put in the graft and reaped the glory. But they have a long way to go before they can be described as a great team."
Scotland coach Andy Robinson is a hard-nosed operator but he doesn’t do bad-mouthing, according to the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary.
"The former England flanker is not about to dump on his countrymen, nor, more importantly, send out any signals that might be interpreted as weakness. The moment he heard Lièvremont invoke centuries-old, cliché-ridden dislike of England, Robinson felt that Martin Johnson’s side would win – and they did 17-9.
"Robinson returns to Twickenham a week tomorrow for the first time as Scotland coach since he was dismissed by England in late 2006 with a chance to settle personal scores.
“No, no, no that’s not me,” said Robinson at Murrayfield on Thursday after morning training. “And it’s not about me, anyway, it’s about the players. There’s nothing personal in it. If we win, it will be a victory, and great for that reason, nothing else.
“I know what I’m about as a coach. The management back then made their decision. The emotions I have will all be channelled in that match itself, to meeting the challenge. I’ll love being at Twickenham, with the anthems before, which is all part of the emotional performance of the day. It’s what makes the Six Nations so special.”
England scrum-half Ben Youngs seems in the dark about his dad's England exploits as he follows his own path on the international stage. The Observer's Kevin Mitchell reports.
"Youngs is the archetypal modern young professional athlete, wary of being misinterpreted and probably more interested in getting back to the weights room to pump iron or knock out a few miles on the treadmill than reveal, for instance, what his father thinks of his rugby.
"Nick Youngs, a robust scrum-half with a good kicking game, played six times for England in the early 80s, including in a historic 15-9 win over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1983, one of only six by England over New Zealand in 34 attempts.
"Ben has 10 England caps and there should be many more to come. As Nick observed when Ben was on the rise last winter: "He's doing a pretty good job and I can tell you he's a much better scrum-half already than I ever was."
"Odd, nonetheless, that, on the admission of both of them, they rarely talk rugby. Nick never told Ben about that famous All Blacks win, for instance."
The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison believes the collapse of Scotland's defence is undermining the progress made by Andy Robinson's side.
"The hallmark of a Robinson side is that it is damned difficult to beat. Without a sticky, determined, stonewall defence anything and everything else is so much hot air and more so for this Scotland team than any other. If you can't score tries - and this team haven't managed one at Murrayfield for eight matches or, put another way, the time it takes to watch Ben Hur back-to-back three times and still have time to buy ice cream and popcorn in between every reel - you had better not concede many.
"Instead of acting like Scrooge with a toothache, this team are handing out tries like treats at Halloween; they can't give them away fast enough.
"Whenever the opposition get into the 22 they score and they do so without breaking sweat. Irish scrum-half Eoin Reddan is still pinching himself to make sure he isn't dreaming.
"Yet, under Robinson's supervision Edinburgh and Scotland (last year's version anyway) made a virtue of soaking up pressure in defence."
Law changes in the tackle zone have left Declan Kidney's men playing catch-up, according to the Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning.
"You will recall that last season the IRB changed the way poachers approached the tackle, that they would first have to release the victim before relieving him of his personal belongings. The IRB line is that the change was communicated clearly to all coaches before last season's Six Nations. Ireland's position is that the tournament was up and running -- that they were two games in and preparing to play England -- when they were told that the goalposts were shifting.
"So for the sake of argument let's accept that the Irish position is closer to the truth. That left three games in last year's Championship, plus three in New Zealand and Australia in June, followed by four in November and three so far in this Championship campaign. And that's before you count up all the Magners and Heineken games, remembering that the post-Eddie O'Sullivan era is one of Glasnost where doors are open and information flows freely from Team Ireland down and back up again. In other words, we have had plenty of time to come up with an alternative tactic, and road-test it. Yet we're still in the garage."
A year ago, as England travelled to Murrayfield to take on Scotland in the Six Nations, the status of the national side was close to laughable, recalls the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford.
"That Scotland game did not improve the picture one bit. If anything, the dullest of dull draws hardened the impression of a side in terminal decline. Yet, as England prepare to host Scotland this year, they are two wins away from the first Grand Slam since the feted side of 2003, Johnson is wreathed in smiles and the only nations above England in the global rankings are the southern hemisphere’s big three. How come?
"Selection - Crippled by loyalty and risk averse, it took Johnson a long time to find his team. There were some notable howlers in his initial selections. Jordan Crane and Ayoola Erinle were clearly not cut out for Test rugby, and there was a lack of clarity over who to pick at half back as Johnson ran with Danny Cipriani, Andy Goode, Toby Flood and Wilkinson at outside half; and Danny Care, Harry Ellis and Paul Hodgson at scrum-half. The 15-15 draw against Scotland forced Johnson’s hand. Ben Foden was brought in for Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton replaced Ugo Monye and Flood took over from Wilkinson. On the tour to Australia Ben Youngs, Tom Palmer, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes were introduced or reintroduced into the mix. The makings of a side were in place.
"Consistency - A relatively good run injury-wise in the last 12 months has allowed Johnson and his coaches to build confidence and understanding. Disruption caused by damage to Andy Sheridan, Croft and Lawes has been minimised because their replacements have been around the squad for a while and know the ropes. Youngs may appear an overnight sensation but, like Lawes and Tom Wood, he spent the early part of Test training weeks with the match squad before returning to play for his club at the weekend."
Writing in his column for the Independent on Sunday, Bath's David Flatman offers his take on the on-going club v country issue.
"This raises a crazy question: is it worth signing current internationals? Well, yes it is. Naturally, the likes of Lewis Moody just won't be available for as many games as other players at the club but he is an England international for a reason. Evidently when he plays, his drive and commitment are unrivalled, whatever the opposition, and the same goes in training. But this isn't the only benefit.
"He, along with the other internationals, add to the mix a heightened level of experience and composure; they infuse those around them with a feeling of security and a sense that, whatever situation we might be in, they've been there and handled it before. And this – in a game where it's not only the measurables that count (see the NFL) – is priceless.
"So, were I a director of rugby, I would still recruit England players. I would concede that, as is right and proper, national selection takes precedence at all times and I wouldn't complain. I might, however, push for a few tweaks to the system. The notion of the Aviva Premiership halting completely while the Six Nations takes place seems reasonable enough at first glance, but do you think Exeter's representative would be keen? I doubt it. This "blocking out" would also mean a longer season as all league matches were pushed back and, well, the players would surely revolt at this."
The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin talks to England scrum-half Ben Youngs ahead of their Six Nations clash with Scotland.
"Amid the ancient splendour of Oxford, across the road from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Ben Youngs was pondering a question of the ages. "Who else can come on as a sub and nail a 45-metre kick?" England's scrum-half said when asked to compare the merits of Jonny Wilkinson, his part-time half-back partner, and Toby Flood, with whom Youngs has struck up an umbilical understanding for club and country. "You can count them on your fingers," Youngs replied to his own question – and he didn't mean two hands.
"England handled Flood with care during a three-day break in Oxford. It was meant as a refresher course in a seven-week Six Nations' Championship campaign that England have begun in A-plus fashion with wins over Wales, Italy and France, but the Leicester fly-half went up to the Dreaming Spires with a limp in his right leg from a sore Achilles tendon. Flood rested instead of training and though the official prognosis is that he will be fit to face Scotland next Sunday, and therefore Ireland in Dublin the week after, it raised the thought that sooner or later Youngs and Wilkinson may have to start together."
Martin Johnson's team are on a roll but need to find an attacking rhythm before they will spread fear in the southern hemisphere. The Obersver's Eddie Butler reports.
"There have been glimpses of Toby Flood taking the point of decision‑making into the very faces of his opponents, of the England pack mixing old set-piece virtues with a new off-loading daring, of Chris Ashton confirming England's surge of confidence with swallow-diving exuberance. But the rhythm of the games has been stuttering and the level of intensity has not sent any dials into a spin. Even England-France, which at one point in the first half was on course to become a classic, petered out in the second.
"This is not the first time the old championship has been accused of being a little too tribal to serve any master plan of mutual progress. The Six Nations is what it is and analysing it for quality can be a waste of time.
"There has been an increase in ball‑in‑play time. But this counts only if you regard running across the pitch as a positive use of time with the ball. The aerial ping-pong of last year has given way to trenches being worn at ground level by herds running from touchline to touchline."
Shaun Edwards ponders the current mechanisms of the sin-bin and suggests an alternative in The Guardian.
"Yellow cards and sin-bins. Now these are subjects I really understand. When it comes to scrums and lineouts I take advice from those who know and who, hopefully, prevent me from putting my size eights where they don't belong. But first as a player and then as a coach I've come to understand what 10 minutes in the bin really means.
"As a player it always hurt – I was in the bin at Wigan so often that it was suggested a blue plaque be put on my seat – but as a coach I often have mixed feelings as I watch players trooping off. There can be pluses as well as minuses, and this is what needs addressing.
"First I have to say this has nothing to do with the referee Greg Garner and the yellow cards he showed to three Wasps players, Marty Veale, Tim Payne and John Hart, when we went down to Saracens at Adams Park last Sunday. These are thoughts that have been forming for a while but have come to the forefront of my mind during the past couple of Test series – the autumn and the Six Nations. Basically, I wonder whether we're being cute enough in how we operate the sin-bin and, increasingly, whether the punishment continues to fit the crime."
Hugh Farrelly takes aim at the Twitter hordes following Ireland's narrow win over Scotland in The Irish Independent.
"Twitter - don't use it, don't like it, don't trust it. But it's impossible to ignore as it continues to worm its way into every fissure of existence.
"The election, Ireland beating England at their own game, Usher lowering a few in city centre Dublin, it seems every event from the momentous to the inconsequential now prompts the question: "What's the reaction on Twitter?"
"The journalism business is parasitic by definition: you earn a living charting the achievements of others. That is not about to change any time soon, but it does not mean you have to go over the top."
The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports that the Ireland team and management are set to review the latest rash of breakdown offences which contributed to the 13-4 penalty count against them at Murrayfield.
"The Irish starting XV which kicked off last Sunday’s win over Scotland will convene for a day-and-a-half camp in the Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare, today, with one of its primary purposes being to review the latest rash of breakdown offences which contributed to the 13-4 penalty count against them at Murrayfield.
"Whereas the seven replacements – Connacht’s Seán Cronin, Ulster’s Tom Court and Paddy Wallace, Leinster’s Leo Cullen and Jonathan Sexton, along with Munster’s Denis Leamy and Peter Stringer – have been released to return to their provinces this week, with a view to playing in the Magners League this weekend, the 15 starters will address the vexed issue of discipline which have blighted their Six Nations campaign to date.
"What is especially infuriating for management and players alike is that this rash of penalty infringements is undoing hours of video analysis and homework, such as bringing in Alain Rolland to referee a half-hour full contact session at the RDS last Wednesday in the build-up to the Scottish game. Neither Rolland nor another referee will be brought in over the next two days, but the dozen direct penalties are likely to be examined in fairly fine detail."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly reports as Ireland's Keith Earls goes on the offensive in the face of criticism from fans.
"Earls, who had one of his finest games in a green jersey on Sunday, rallied to his team-mates' defence yesterday, labelling their online abusers "ridiculous".
"I have no interest in Facebook or Twitter or anything like that," said the 23-year-old. "I heard what happened because we were in the team room after the game and Cian Healy and 'Drico' were getting comments.
"A fellah was telling Drico to 'pack it in'. Absolutely ridiculous, they shouldn't be following them if they are going to be abusing them. The lads are good enough to let them know what's going on in their lives and they just come back talking bulls**t."
"Earls was the subject of heavy internet criticism himself in 2009 after a difficult start to the Lions tour and says that experience taught him not to read internet opinions after matches."
The Independent's Hugh Godwin reports from the England camp in Oxford as prop Andrew Sheridan is ruled out of the rest of the Six Nations.
""Sheridan missing the Italy game was a blessing in disguise," said Johnson. "It meant that when Corbs came off the bench last week it wasn't all brand new to him." There is another man doing the Premiership front-row rounds with considerable experience, and who is capable of propping both sides, but Johnson hinted that Matt Stevens' likelier chance of an international recall – following his recent comeback from a drugs ban – would be the summer matches with the Barbarians and in the Churchill Cup. "Our camp for the World Cup meets in June, and it [the contest for prop positions] could be very competitive," said Johnson.
"The manager had retained 20 players for three days of gentle training at St Edward's School, not far from that famous sporting venue at Iffley Road. But it was not just Sheridan who was unable to take part in a four-minute mile or any other kind of physical activity. Toby Flood, whose 51st-minute exit against France ushered on Jonny Wilkinson to kick a match-settling penalty, was resting a sore Achilles tendon in his right leg."
David Kelly analyses Jamie Heaslip's recent criticism of the Ireland selection policy in The Irish Independent.
"Sometimes perception is everything. As Ireland imploded during the 2007 World Cup, marooned in a soulless warehouse far from the civilised world, not one player from this privileged group sought to question what most on the outside perceived to be a rapidly disintegrating escapade.
"Not one player -- or coach for the matter -- questioned the suitability of the squad's conditioning or the fact that the first-choice XV had been effectively swathed in cotton wool since the conclusion of that year's Six Nations.
"The ultimate result? Ireland performed dismally at the World Cup and yet, astonishingly, few players or coaches sought to intelligently assess a freefall into decline that was only arrested when Eddie O'Sullivan left the head position following the 2008 championship."
Robert Kitson looks at the difficulties facing replacement fly-halves in The Guardian.
"Years ago – we are talking the end of last century – I remember asking England's Paul Grayson about life as a reserve fly-half. One of the biggest challenges, he reckoned, was coming on as a replacement and being instantly expected to influence a major Test match. At the time he and Jonny Wilkinson were jockeying for the England No10 role, with Grayson ultimately winning the nod for England's pivotal match of the 1999 World Cup, the quarter-final against South Africa in Paris.
"The Springboks, as you will recall, won that game with a fusillade of drop goals from Jannie de Beer. In my mind's eye I can still see Wilkinson lining up an awkward long kick at Parc des Princes, having come on only seconds earlier following Grayson's substitution. He missed and England duly lost. Expecting him to perform miracles from a standing start, we all agreed, was totally unfair.
"Fast forward to Twickenham last Saturday. England have a long-range penalty wide on the right but Toby Flood has a sore achilles and the management do not want him to aggravate it. On comes Jonny, arranges his hands in the old clasped-prayer position and lands one of the best kicks of his career. If ever a single kick reflected endless hours of mind-numbing practice, this was it. Clever old Jonny, still in a class of his own."
Peter Bills tips England for the Grand Slam after they learned further lessons against France in The Independent.
"They say you always learn most, not from your victories but your mistakes. If that is true, England’s burgeoning rugby team took a quantum leap forward last Saturday at Twickenham.
"In bright moments, golden instances that warm the soul and excite the eye, it might appear that England have completely mastered the nuances of this new game they have adopted this season, already incidentally with far greater success than any other international side in this part of the world.
"How accustomed have we become to the sight of Chris Ashton flying in at the posts, ball tucked under an arm as he swallow dives for the ground? Or Ben Foden, that dashing young English full-back, dashing upfield with an elusive step and stunning pace carrying him into the heart of the opposition defence?"
Veteran Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara was cool, collected and apparently 'far from finished' having orchestrated his side's Six Nations victory over Scotland. The Irish Independent's David Kelly reports.
"As if his sublimely compiled selection of adroit deeds were not grandly sufficient unto the day thereof, Ronan O'Gara chooses to offer us with the sharpest of words the most cutting contribution to the ongoing vexed debate about Ireland's out-half dilemma.
"He has arrived into the mixed zone to pore over the details of what had often been a riotous display of chaos from his team, fortunately spliced with the type of relaxing antidotes to confusion that only O'Gara, with his seasoned control, can provide.
"And, with a clipped delivery that presents a resounding response to those -- including his team-mate Jamie Heaslip -- who would have questioned the decision to even start him yesterday, the 34-year-old stated clearly that his hunger can never abate.
"He has been asked to assess where he stands in relation to the competition for the cherished number ten jersey he has now worn some 106 times for Ireland. The answer is a swift riposte, eradicating all doubt that the master deems himself subsidiary to the apprentice."
Watching the current Ireland side is not good for your health according to the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley who was at Murrayfield to see his side almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
"As with the 19-18 win here four years ago and the 22-15 win here two years ago, the Scots were kept try-less – indeed they haven’t scored a try in eight games at Murrayfield dating back to 2009. Yet having outscored France by three tries to one, Ireland actually outscored the Scots by three tries to nil but all that again nearly counted for nothing – or at any rate very little – thanks in the main to Nigel Owens’ 13-4 penalty count to the home side. Another close finish for Nigel then.
"Ireland thus knew how France felt two seasons ago at Croke Park, when Owens awarded Les Bleus just two penalties in 80 minutes. In truth, Ireland were often their own worst enemies, especially at the breakdown where they are becoming serial offenders, especially for not releasing after the tackle. It’s an attitude thing as much as anything else, which must be undoing vast homework on referees. Maybe it’s time for a serious fine offence, or even demotion for the worst offender.
"That said, two or three looked harsh, and nearly all the debatable calls regarding forward passes seemed to go Scotland’s way, not least when Eoin Reddan’s flat offload inside to Sean O’Brien, whose barnstorming support runs were perhaps the stand-out feature of the game, was wrongly called forward inside the Scottish 22. Three times Ireland were also penalised inside the Scottish 22, for not releasing the player or the ball. At least they weren’t three-pointers."
In his column for the Western Mail, Wales wing Shane Williams looks back on his side's Six Nations victory over Italy in Rome.
"I know there will be a few moans and groans about the way we played, particularly in the second half, but Italy threw the kitchen sink at us.
"We expected it to a degree, but they were clearly hurting after what happened to them at Twickenham and wanted to prove a point in front of their home fans. They came at us like a pack of wild dogs. So I think we deserve a bit of credit for grinding out the win in a situation that might have proved our undoing in the past.
"...At 21-11 up, we wanted to press it home after the interval and take ourselves well out of sight, but that Italian pride I was talking about came to the fore. I think we equalled it, though, in terms of our defensive effort and, while it was disappointing to concede two tries, I think the work-rate in that department was outstanding again."
Former international hooker and Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore reflects on England's Six Nations victory over France.
"England’s prospects as serious World Cup challengers underwent a thorough physical examination. Make no mistake, this mattered to the French. They flew into England in the early exchanges, where James Haskell, Tom Woods and Nick Easter proved they can probably scrap with any back row and make hard yards.
"What remains uncertain is whether they can add dexterity and subtlety to their physical prowess. To become the complete back row they have to be link play without seeking contact and thereby keep themselves available in support of the ball.
"Martin Johnson has discovered a hitherto unfamiliar robustness in Tom Palmer, the man of the match. In addition to another good line-out performance, Palmer toughed it out in the tackles and breakdowns. This game may be a turning point in his career, where he goes from journeyman to automatic choice.
"When a front row has as little relative experience as England’s, there is a danger of implosion once severe pressure is applied. A few bad scrums lead to capitulation, penalties and penalty tries.The England front row so far in this tournament has impressed with the way it has solved the difficulties posed without having to resort to diving to ground and praying the referee mistakenly comes to their aid."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson reflects on another disappointing loss for the Scots against Ireland at Murrayfield.
"The plan to release Sean Lamont from his new inside centre channel ensured a hard day's work for the Irish back row and midfield, too, as he regularly took the Scots over the gain-line. The lineout again caused Ireland problems with Al Kellock and Richie Gray secure on their ball and picking off three Irish balls, while Gray resembled a wild horse on the loose with his blond mane and high charging legs prominent as green-shirted tacklers flocked, often in vain, to bring him down.
"But, what showed little difference to the opening defeats was the numbing ability to cough up possession through mistakes. It all added up to a failure to penetrate in the crucial last third of the field. It was like a surgeon opening up a body only to drop his instruments when he had to perform the clinical strokes."
Writing in The Independent, James Lawton believes Grand Slam-chasing England are going to have to find more if they are to win the World Cup crown.
"Johnson must deal with the least uplifting aspect of the hard-fought win over a French team that looked almost tinkered to death by their coach Marc Lièvremont.
"It was the lack of smartness and ultimate confidence displayed when Ashton made his errant choice – and whenever the midfield composed of Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape was required to perform anything more than dreadnought defence. They are fine at that but if you are entertaining serious hopes of returning to the peaks of the game you need something considerably more.
"England were paragons of defensive force when they won the World Cup in 2003, a fact which was augmented by the presence of the young and extremely physical Tindall. However, his fellow centre that rainy night in Sydney was not a hulking mirror image like Hape but a player of great imagination and attacking bite, Will Greenwood. He happened to be a reassuring companion in an erratically performing lift before the game – and soon enough you would also have liked to see him, or someone with a similar range of assets, performing his good works out on the field."
The England forwards delivered a lesson in rugby realpolitik against France, according to The Guardian's Richard Williams.
"This was not a day for the swallow-divers, who found themselves shunted aside. Instead it was one for the grinders and tunnellers, the labourers at the workface. By giving Twickenham a lesson in rugby realpolitik as they took revenge for a narrow defeat in Paris last year, England delighted those who disdain the fripperies.
"The bigger the game, the more it's about the win," Martin Johnson said. "The biggest game of all, no one cares how you win it."
"On the eve of the match, and with all attention focused on Chris Ashton, the four-try hero of that delirious win over Italy a fortnight earlier, Nick Easter had expressed his envy of the French rugby public's willingness to recognise the value of forwards by turning them into heroes. None of England's supporters in the 81,000 crowd on Saturday would have left the precincts in any doubt about who had inflicted this important defeat on France.
"Ben Foden gave England the only try of the afternoon with a powerful surge, and Jonny Wilkinson came on to complete the winning margin by landing a majestic 45‑metre penalty with his first touch, but the stars of the day were the men in the boilerhouse. Not just the gnarled veterans, but faces as new and fresh as those to be found behind the scrum and in the back three."
Ben Foden's try helped Martin Johnson's bright young things pass their biggest test yet and put down a World Cup marker, according to The Observer's Paul Hayward.
"Nobody likes them, but they don't care. Neither the stereotypical antipathy of France's coach, Marc Lièvremont, nor a fierce first-half Gallic assault could halt England's revival here as Martin Johnson's team closed in on a first Six Nations title since 2003.
"A law of top-level sport is that you find out how good you really are when the opposition drive a dump truck through your nice long-term development plan. Then the praise stops, errors multiply and the world goes dark. Can't cope with physical pressure? Go home, find another job.
"England endured and prospered as a Ben Foden try and Jonny Wilkinson penalty after the interval drove them to a 17-9 victory. All teams can trace a moment when promise turned to reality and in a World Cup year England may remember this clash as the day they became contenders in New Zealand."
The Observer's Michael Aylwin reports from Wales' Six Nations victory over Italy in Rome.
"Wales are still not right. This was a second win in a row, and when you have been on a recent run of eight without any at all, you'll take what you can get. An eight-point win is becoming an increasingly acceptable one against Italy in Rome, but defeats are still difficult to swallow, and this could easily have been one.
"Missed kicks and mistakes continue to plague the Italians – when it comes to genuine class they are still short, boasting only Sergio Parisse, who was excellent again. But if they are in the right mood they will kick up a storm and force any visitors to be ruthless and clinical if they want to put distance between them and their hosts. Wales were grateful here for a late James Hook drop goal to move them out of harm's way far later than they would have liked. Italy will argue that for a couple of bad penalty misses and a borderline call against them from the video referee, who disallowed Alessandro Zanni's claim for a try, Wales would have needed more than a drop goal."
Former Wales wing Ieuan Evans reflects on his country's narrow Six Nations victory over Italy in Rome - read his thoughts in the Sunday Telegraph.
"DISCIPLINE - It was an area that might have cost us in Scotland. We had two yellow cards and spent the best part of 20 minutes with a numerical disadvantage. On this occasion, we conceded 15 penalties and would have lost the game had Italy selected a kicker of any note.
"If we concede so many against either Ireland or France we will pay. We cannot afford to overstep the mark as often as we do. So, let’s show greater control and stop turning over ball. That’s the key.
"TEMPO - I listened to Nick Mallett before the game and he said that his side’s Achilles’ heel was playing against sides with pace. We did that in the first half and scored two excellent tries.
Sam Warburton’s in particular was quite outstanding. However, after that we allowed them to slow it down. In the end, it almost cost us. We have to find a way of dictating the pace of matches, for 80 and not just 40 minutes."
The Sunday Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher believes France coach Marc Lievremont's selection gamble failed to pay off against England.
"France wanted intensity, big hits, go-forward and muscle. Except that with the French, and with Chabal in particular, physicality is not something that can usually be measured in kilograms and biceps. It’s all to do with how badly they really want it.
"On Saturday the 'caveman’ spent most of the first half wandering around in a daze like a man blinking in the sunlight for the first time in years.
"Lièvremont fretted and frowned on the sidelines, aware that to bring him off too early would be humiliating and underline his own mistake, but eventually he lost patience and threw on Bonnaire, who thus reuntied with Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy, the trio that served France so well in the opening two games.
"Lièvremont can’t say he wasn’t warned. That doughty old French warrior Serge Betsen has been warning all week that he didn’t fancy Chabal at No 8 for one second."
"Hope and expectation rests on the shoulders of the stand-offs this afternoon, the Scots hope Ruaridh Jackson delivers while the expectation rides with Ronan O'Gara. The pair belong to different generations and may as well come from separate planets so little do they have in common. The audacity of youth against excellence fired by experience. There is over a decade between them, with O'Gara turning 34 in eight days time, while Jackson was 23 on the day of the Welsh match (his birthday present was not being thrown into the fray).
"The Irishman is known for his brilliant game management, his ability to slide the ball into the unmanned corners of the field and let the opposition try to escape the stranglehold. Jackson is known for his willingness to take the ball to the line and to carve out half a yard of space for those around him. It's a ironic that, as Robinson ditches his percentage player, Kidney recalls his."
Wilkinson's transition is part of English evolution
The Independent on Sunday's David Hands hails Jonny Wilkinson's temperament following his key contribution in England's Six Nations victory over France.
"But such games are also tests of temperament, of what Sir Clive Woodward, the World Cup-winning coach of 2003, called T-CUP – "thinking clearly under pressure". There were more mistakes than the England coaches would have liked but the players were able to regroup and re-establish the necessary foundations. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the display of Toby Flood. Before he went off, limping, he had run through the entire repertoire of his game, running, kicking, passing and tackling. Flood knows the regard England's coaches have for Jonny Wilkinson but he should take heart from an all-round game of such quality.
"So what does Wilkinson do? Emerge to kick a long-range penalty and re-affirm his status as a French nemesis. This is what Martin Johnson wants – the transition from one player to another, from one style to another, which will receive a far sterner examination in New Zealand in September.
"Wilkinson recovered the world points-scoring record from the All Black Dan Carter – not that that would have been on his mind. More to the point was the way England attacked their opponents in the second half. Their technique improved, they did not rush the pass, they were positive."
The Irish Times' GerryThornley talks to Jamie Heaslip about his decision to stay with Leinster and about where the province and Ireland are headed.
"If any of Ireland’s front-liners were to have flown the coop post-World Cup, Jamie Heaslip was probably the likeliest. Aside from being a stellar international in the front line of the global market place, he also has a decidedly independent streak, formed from a young age, which made him more likely to seek pastures new.
"As the son of a military man, Heaslip has lived a somewhat nomadic existence anyway. He was born in Tiberias, Israel, while his father, now retired Brig Gen Richard Heaslip, was there on duty with the UN.
"His dad and brothers also played the game, so he’s been steeped in a sport he first took up with Naas Under-8s. He’s a truly world-class player. But rugby doesn’t consume him.
Reflecting on the negotiations which culminated in him signing a new three-year deal with Leinster and Ireland, he says: “That dragged on for a long time, but there were a whole load of reasons. I obviously looked down different avenues, looked at them in a lot of detail and weighed up all my options and it worked out pretty well. I’m happy enough.
“A stint in Australia, or in France, wouldn’t have been too bad,” he admitted during the week, when in typically ebullient mood. “I’ve lived abroad several times because of dad’s work and the thought of it really – I wasn’t against it. It would have excited me, I suppose, a little.”
Writing in the Irish Independent, George Hook reflects on Ireland's decision to hand Ronan O'Gara the No.10 shirt once again.
"He had been the youngest man ever capped by his country in his sport. Now, recalled in his declining years to face the world champions, he walked to the wicket to face the fastest bowlers on the planet armed with leg pads, a pair of gloves, a bat and a piece of pink sticking-plaster on his elbow. Brian Close was 45 years old.
"Ronan O'Gara might smile wryly at being compared to an English cricketer, but he knows that ageism is rife in sport. Coaches, like ageing Lotharios in search of a new girlfriend, often promote emerging young talent at the expense of older performers with the priceless gift of experience.
"The Munster fly-half is back after twice saving his country's bacon in this year's Six Nations Championship. Yet the hero of 2011 spent a difficult summer 2010 wondering if his contract would be renewed.
"At some point a 'retirement package' with a French club must have crossed his mind. Happily in all quarters, common sense has prevailed, and the pre-eminent fly-half in Irish rugby is back in his rightful place.
The World Cup is just seven months away, yet Warren Gatland seems even further away than ever from deciding who is going to be his pivotal No.10 when Wales begin their challenge against holders South Africa. The Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.
"Gatland, of course, had the perfect opportunity to give James Hook another confidence-boosting outing at fly-half during today’s Six Nations Italian job in Rome.
"But, lo and behold, the Wales coach decides to shuffle the 25-year-old to outside centre and bring back Stephen Jones for a clash Gatland’s men must win to maintain their hopes of being crowned European champions.
"Gatland claims Jon Davies’ hamstring injury was the reason for picking Hook in his third different position in as many games in this year’s tournament.
"But his decision is a retrograde step and a waste of a match in the countdown to New Zealand this autumn. Gatland knows full well what Jones can do at 10. Or what he can’t. Which is just as significant, judging by the way Hook fired Wales at Murrayfield.
"However, instead of giving Hook a run in the position he covets and having a close look at a promising youngster like Ashley Beck, Dafydd Hewitt, Gareth Maule or Ashley Smith, the rug has been pulled from under King James."
Martin Johnson's men must stick to their principles to beat French at Twickenham, according to the Daily Telegraph's Will Greenwood.
"On Saturday, it is all about England and their ability to inspire, to play from their own goal line, to have beautiful angles and support play. But while the natural order may be wobbling, it will be interesting to see how long it all lasts. The pressure of this fixture can easily see players revert to type. That will be the challenge for both France and England this afternoon: sticking to their game plan.
"You can trace the current topsy turvy state of Anglo-Franco relations back a year to England’s 12-10 loss in Paris. Ignore the score, look at the game. It was perhaps the day the beast was unleashed in this England team.
"They finally grew some teeth. France had to resort to strong-arm tactics to squeeze England.
The scrum won France five penalties and with it the scoreboard. Chris Ashton butchered a chance, kicked far too early with one man to beat. Johnson let his own demons out, waiting for the referee at half-time, to “discuss” the first half.
"But in defeat there was a tipping point for England. Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley substituted after 40; proactive moves to change the game. Johnson showed he was not afraid to do what needed to be done. Suddenly a team that had looked like flat-lining stepped up."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson believes the bold changes made to the Scotland team this week have the potential to instil it with a new sense of hope.
"Every team selection is about making the most of resources and Scotland's re-shaping this week stems from the same age-old premise, and is designed to help the side bounce back from opening defeats to France and Wales and claim a first championship win at home to Ireland since 2001.
"Injuries have forced Scotland to unleash a new pivotal core, the 8-9-10-12 axis of Johnnie Beattie, Mike Blair, Ruaridh Jackson and Sean Lamont. They have never played together at this level, with Jackson making his first Test start and Lamont his first appearance at inside centre. All but the Glasgow stand-off are fairly experienced but it will still inject a nervous excitement into the terrific Six Nations atmosphere of a near-capacity Murrayfield."
If France coach Marc Lièvremont hates the English, The Independent's James Lawton suggests is its because he fears humiliation for France in World Cup year.
"A number of hard questions will be asked at Twickenham this evening, not least at the front of the scrum, but let's start at the beginning.
"Who are these English upon whom French coach Marc Lièvremont heaps the old and bilious charge that they have created a common front of hatred, stretching from Waterford to Waitangi? They are, of course, a mongrel nation – one with the habit down the centuries of turning quite ferocious when sufficiently roused. This might well have been the underlying concern exercising Lièvremont this week.
"Pressure builds sharply in the rugby parish in a World Cup year and you don't have to be the deepest student of the game to know that recent history has come to rest firmly on the side of the English and their ability to rise up, even in the most parlous circumstances, and have a truly serious go at winning the tournament."
As England's wonder wing prepares to face France, The Guardian's Richard Williams is the latest to draw a comparison with dual-code great Jason Robinson.
"At 6ft and 14st 6lb, the 23-year-old Ashton is almost exactly the same height and weight as Sir Chris Hoy. Both men are formidable bundles of muscle but where the track cyclist concentrates those muscles in his powerful thighs, Ashton's most obviously pumped-up features are his shoulders and biceps. This is not how David Duckham or Rory Underwood presented themselves to the world. Although Ashton can turn on the afterburners, as an ecstatic Twickenham saw with his length-of-the-pitch try against Australia in November, there are many more dimensions to his game. Like Robinson, he has opened the eyes of his team-mates to new ways of damaging the opposition.
"The exception among his tries against Italy, and the one of which Ashton was proudest, came from a pick-and-go requiring quick wits and the sort of strength more readily associated with a flank forward. Once again, Ashton was demonstrating his marked disinclination to loiter on the periphery, waiting for the ball to arrive."
The Daily Mail's Martin Samuel talks to England winger Chris Ashton.
"Ashton has divided opinion in rugby, a sport still wrestling with the new frontiers of professionalism. Old sweats preferred try scorers to offer a manly handshake and return to the restart with nothing showier than a thin-lipped smile. To see Ashton salute the crowd before the ball has been grounded and then pitch forward in a balletic arc before meeting the turf is anathema to many.
They haven't seen the half of it. When England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, the hero of the hour was Jonny Wilkinson, the consummate buttoned-down professional. This is World Cup year too, and with England coming to the boil under Martin Johnson, winger Ashton, by contrast, is Gazza. Not in that painful, lonely, ruinous way, but in his capacity to capture the imagination of the people, drawing in those who had previously avoided his sport.
Ashton has the potential to bring rugby to the masses. This may be a horrid thought for some, who fear the sport will change for ever. But it is true. 'Paul Gascoigne? You think I'll go off the rails?' he asks.
'It's a big question whether rugby is ready for it, whether I am ready for it. All I would say is that whatever it takes to make England successful, if that is the effect I have, if it makes rugby a bigger game and gets more kids involved, so be it. But it is not my intention to make myself famous on that scale. It wasn't Jonny's intention, either.
'The dive just happened. I haven't thought about it too much, but I am beginning to understand that some of what I do challenges the old-fashioned principles of rugby union. Maybe coming in from rugby league I don't have the understanding of what putting the ball down like that against Wales in Cardiff means. I'm just in my own little bubble, my own little world."
Ireland winger Keith Earls is desperate for chance to shine against Scotland, the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly reports.
"When Earls was first brought through at Munster a few years ago, he was kept under wraps, Ryan Giggs-style, to protect him from the inevitable hype surrounding a player who had earned rave reviews on his way up the underage ranks. He is far more comfortable with exposure these days, while retaining the enthusiasm of a youngster still relatively dazzled by the spotlight.
"And, although that starting slot has never been nailed down à la Bowe, there is still that surge of excitement when Earls receives the ball, the anticipation that something special could be about to happen. One recalls the wondrous try he scored against the Dragons in Musgrave Park in 2008 (one of three) when still a teenager.
"That was down the left also, as Earls kicked ahead and chipped the ball into his hands at full tilt, a skill so subtle that at first it was mistaken for a fortunate bounce. The following summer, he recovered from a torrid start on the Lions tour to convince a dubious British media exactly why he had brought to South Africa.
"And, last year, on the left wing in Fitzgerald's absence, he shone again with a try in Twickenham and two against Wales in Ireland's best performances of a hit-and-miss Six Nations championship. Against France, two weeks ago, it was Earls' surge down the left and weighted kick ahead that came agonisingly close to setting up the win Ireland's efforts deserved."
England will not be reining back on their attacking intent against France on Saturday according to the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary.
"To judge by the tone and body language of Johnson at the team base, there is a real sense of resolve in the squad, a deep yearning to express themselves in much the manner that they have done in the tournament so far. Stop us if you can, mes amis.
"There are times when you do a double-take, check to make sure that it is England in swashbuckling mood and the French reining back, stockpiling their ranks with strong-arm operators. It has been quite a role reversal. Forget French flair. English élan is now in vogue.
"If England were to get ahead of themselves, then Johnson only had to remind them of the pain felt in defeat to the Six Nations Grand Slam champions last season. England lost that final match 12-10 despite making so much of the running. Johnson admitted that it was the most disappointing defeat of his 2½ years in charge."
Scotland captain Al Kellock insists the pain of his side's Six Nations loss to Wales will spur on his side when they tackle Ireland at Murrayfield. The Scotsman's Stuart Bathgate reports.
"Although the squad's attention has moved on to Sunday's Six Nations game against Ireland, the skipper implied that the hurt of the 24-6 defeat by the Welsh a fortnight ago could play a vital part in propelling the team to their first victory of this year's championship.
"It's still there, and it should be," Kellock said when asked if the players had got that result out of their systems. "The concentration has changed and the focus has changed - it's all about what we're going to do this weekend.
"You can't brush a performance like the Wales game (away], but it is very important that we focus on getting it right. We've trained extremely hard over the past week on some things that didn't go so well against Wales, and I'm pleased with where we are."
"The two-week gap between internationals, and the fact that Kellock and others did not play for their clubs last weekend, ensured there was no escaping an extended post-mortem on the Wales match, which followed the 34-21 loss in Paris a week earlier. "Generally when you play you've got the opportunity to fix it almost straight away - and I don't even mean the next game," the second-row forward explained."
England manager Martin Johnson has ruled out talk of a Six Nations Grand Slam and has urged his side to focus on the challenge of France. The Independent's Chris Hewett reports.
"Increasingly, Johnson is taking the old Clive Woodward approach to selection; that is to say, doing as little selecting as possible. He would not have made a change to the starting line-up that did duty on opening night in Wales but for the back injury that forced the loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan out of the side ahead of the meeting with Italy, and now Sheridan is fit again, it is a case of "status quo ante" as far as this weekend's proceedings are concerned. Alex Corbisiero, the young London Irish front-rower who made his Test debut against the Azzurri, will be on the replacements' bench. That aside, it is as you were.
"The manager was right to adopt a cautious note. While France won in Dublin last time out – "The result of the tournament so far, in my view," Johnson said – England do not travel to Ireland until the last round of matches on 19 March. As they have not prevailed in that fair city since Johnson himself led the charge towards a famous Grand Slam in 2003, the notion that all this England vintage have to do to emulate that achievement is beat Les Blues tomorrow is fanciful in the extreme."
England are now feared in a way they have not been since 2003 - they are deemed worth winding up again, according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.
"Marc Lièvremont prefers French mustard on his roast beef. He said this week he did not like the insular, flag-wrapping English, forcing the mercury out of the thermometer ahead of Saturday's potential Six Nations decider at Twickenham.
"Lièvremont, the France coach, was more measured in his comments than his back rower, Imanol Harinordoquy, had been some years before when he said: "The only memories I have of England and the English are unpleasant ones. They are so chauvinistic and arrogant."
"The England team manager, Martin Johnson, dismissed Lièvremont's remarks as he would brush crumbs off his jacket. He would have been far more satisfied than angry. When Harinordoquy performed his soliloquy, it was 2003 and England were about to conquer the world. It may be premature to say that manager Johnson's team is on a par with the one he captained eight years ago, but England are now feared in a way they have not been since 2003. They are deemed worth winding up again."
Declan Kidney’s team selection for Scotland, especially the return of Ronan O’Gara at out-half, has raised critical issues regarding Ireland’s progress towards the World Cup, according to the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.
"He's back in the saddle. After expressing their desire to improve communication and confidence levels in the squad, Ireland have turned, once again, to Ronan O'Gara as solution provider.
"With 105 caps, 987 international points (fifth in the all-time list) and a career decorated with match-winning performances for province and country, the Munster man could be the missing ingredient Ireland coach Declan Kidney is seeking.
"It is a remarkable and deserved comeback for the man who turns 34 next month. O'Gara had, in many quarters, been too readily consigned to the role of useful understudy since Jonathan Sexton came on the international scene with such confidence in the wins over Fiji and South Africa in November 2009.
"Sexton's progression with Leinster and Ireland has been a good news story for Irish rugby and he has taken to the international stage with considerable aplomb. However, those who viewed his elevation to the starting out-half role as a natural evolutionary process, which would see O'Gara gradually winding down his Ireland career, did not factor in the Corkman's pride and determination."
After some initial displeasure, former England hooker Brian Moore will hail Steve Thompson for equalling his appearances record against France at Twickenham. Read his thoughts in the Daily Telegraph.
"My equalling game, number 42, was against France at Twickenham in 1993; we won 16-15. Although I remember thinking about the statistic on the morning of the game, when I look back, it is another memory that dominates – it was Martin Johnson’s first cap.
"A quiet, gigantic edifice walked into the forwards’ morning meeting, held in my hotel room. Johnson was early and although calm, it was obvious that he was going through the mixed emotions that all first-cap players experience – a mixture of pride, doubt and expectation. Rather than play the old stager, I simply talked about what I felt when I first appeared in the white shirt. The point was to reassure him, indirectly, that it was acceptable to have elements of uncertainty about whether he would be able to play at this level and that he was not alone.
"I wonder what Steve Thompson will be thinking on Saturday morning? Foremost, he must be thinking about whether manager Johnson will maintain his tactic of sending him on as a replacement towards the middle of the second half. I can reassure him; he will and with that, Thompson will hold, with me, a significant and satisfying honour."
Scotland coach Andy Robinson has chosen this weekend's resumption of the RBS Six Nations Championship to shift from Dan Parks' kicking game to the running style favoured by young stand-off Ruaridh Jackson. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.
"In announcing a team with seven changes and a further positional switch, Robinson spoke of the need to restore pride at Murrayfield on Sunday but refused to criticise the dropped players - Parks, Rory Lawson, Nathan Hines and Richie Vernon.
"Instead, he highlighted the strengths of those promoted, with Moray Low replacing Euan Murray at tighthead prop, the return of Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie to the pack and Chris Paterson in for the injured Hugo Southwell at full back. Murray's unavailability for Sunday games due to his religious faith saved him from a potential dropping.
"Rory Lawson's struggles at scrum-half have persuaded Robinson to give Mike Blair a second start in his charge, in a new half-back pairing with Jackson and, while Sean Lamont was always destined to return after good displays off the bench against France and Wales, few expected it to be at inside centre.
"Robinson is looking for a powerful gain-line breaker in the mould of the injured Graeme Morrison, so Nick De Luca shifts to outside centre to face Brian O'Driscoll, and Max Evans and Nikki Walker continue on the wings.
"It is a new core to the team and much will hinge on how the 8-9-10-12 axis comes together, supports each other and provides a launchpad for the rest of the team."
The Independent's Simon Turnbull profiles Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll as he closes in on a 78-year-old record.
"O'Driscoll's try haul in the competition he holds dear to his 32-year-old heart stands at 23 now, following his vital score in Ireland's 13-11 get-out-of-jail win in Rome three weeks ago. Just one more and the Leinsterman will have a place in the record books alongside the flamboyant figure who got his break on the wing for Scotland because Eric "Chariots of Fire" Liddell gave up the oval-ball game to concentrate on his preparations for the 1924 Olympic Games.
"In between 1924 and 1933, Ian Smith bagged 24 tries for Scotland in what was then known as the International Championship. In doing so, he eclipsed the 18 that Cyril Lowe scored for England from 1913 to 1923. Lowe – a 5ft 6in, 9st slip of a wing – would doubtless have plundered more had it not been for the rude interruption of the Great War. He was a crack fighter pilot, decorated with the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross – said to be the inspiration for the fictional character that WE Johns called Biggles.
"Smith was quite a character in his own right. Born in Melbourne and raised in New Zealand, he was a footballer until he attended Brasenose College, Oxford, and turned to rugby – in the spirit of William Webb Ellis, a former student there. He qualified for Scotland because his family hailed from the Borders and the 24 tries he scored for his adopted country stood as an international record until David Campese surpassed it in 1987."
Gerry Thornley looks at the recent treatment of Ireland scrum-half Peter Stringer in The Irish Times.
"Undoubtedly, it helps that he and Ronan O’Gara have an intuitive understanding. O’Gara always looks a better player outside Stringer and it was great to watch the two in tandem on Friday night, whipping the ball out to midfield in the minimum time. Sexton, for the time being, can only imagine what it’s like, having heretofore played the grand total of one match on the end of Stringer’s service, against Argentina last autumn.
"One can’t help but feel Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and the Irish backline would benefit accordingly. Perhaps not entirely unrelated, Lifeimi Mafi looked back to his self-confident best again on Friday. For his outside break in the 13 channel off quick ball from the tail of the lineout in the build-up to Munster’s third and Doug Howlett’s second try, the ball arrived in Mafi’s hands on the gain line in rapid quick time."
Peter Bills questions Sean Fitzpatrick's assertion that the quality of rugby in the Six Nations is not up to scratch in The Independent.
"So Sean Fitzpatrick doesn’t believe the skill levels in the 6 Nations Championship have been good enough, thus far. He may be right. But we are entitled to ask for clarification here. Good enough for what and for whom?
"Presumably, the former All Blacks captain had in mind rugby in the southern hemisphere and the standards that will pertain at the Rugby World Cup later this year. And when you look at a lot of teams in the 6 Nations, certainly Wales, Ireland, Scotland and of course Italy, it is undeniable that a quantum leap is required to envisage those nations going as far as the semi-finals.
"Good enough, for sure, to get out of their pools as runners-up, but likely quarter final fodder for the big boys? Maybe."
Hugh Farrelly talks to injured Ireland fullback Rob Kearney as the debate about the No.15 jersey rages on in The Irish Independent.
"The Irish have long been known as a nation of begrudgers, but also a people that, as recent history testifies, do not appreciate what they have until it is gone. Sport is particularly vulnerable to both traits.
"Former Waterford hurler Paul Flynn, a regular target of terrace abuse in spite of his consistent match-winning displays, is one example.
"Rob Kearney, the full-back currently rehabilitating from a knee injury that has ruled him out of action since November, is another."
Chris Hewett evaluates Martin Johnson's diplomacy following a few choice words from France coach Marc Lievremont in The Independent.
"During his decade-long shift in the dungeon-dark depths of the England scrum, Martin Johnson was never far from abandoning the "stiff upper lip" approach to international rugby, as defined by many an old-school-tie lock of yesteryear, and giving someone a fat lip instead. More Wade Dooley than Bill Beaumont, basically. Now, three years into his stewardship of the national team, he has discovered diplomacy, and if people find it a bore... well, that's their problem.
"There were those among the manager's small audience yesterday who would have killed for an anti-French barb or two in response to the weekend comments of Marc Lièvremont, head coach of Les Bleus, who, for reasons best known to himself, played the hoary old "everyone hates the English" card by way of accelerating the build-up towards the important Six Nations contest between the two sides at Twickenham on Saturday. Johnson was having none of it. In fact, he was comprehensively trumped on the badinage front by Toby Flood. "I quite like going to Paris, so it's a little frustrating knowing they don't like me over there," remarked the outside-half."
Writing in his column for the Western Mail, winger Shane Williams talks up a resurgent Wales.
"The Six Nations is, as usual, turning out to be a fascinating tournament and I suppose our game will be seen as the lowest profile one of the lot outside Wales this weekend. People are labelling the England-France clash as the championship decider and you can’t really blame them on what we have seen so far.
"But there will be a few more twists and turns yet. We need to go about our own business in the next two games and try and go to Paris with three wins chalked off. Who knows, if we can do that we could be playing for the title ourselves out there. It’s one step at a time, but that’s the incentive for us now."
Former England hooker and Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore previews England's Six Nations showdown with France.
"Although the French scrum is powerful, it did not repeat its demolition of the Scottish pack when faced with an only average Irish scrum. The English tight five can ensure parity in this phase of the game, provided they concentrate.
"If France select Sébastien Chabal to add yet more muscle, the French line-out options are thereby lessened and in this crucial area England have been close to fault-free. This could see Martin Johnson’s team gain a significant edge and would go long way to deciding the match.
Although James Haskell cannot be faulted for his performances in the absence of Lewis Moody, the captain’s reintroduction would be wise because a match-up of brute force is not in England’s interests, given the way they are playing.
"Support for strike runners and getting to the resultant breakdowns first is more important than straight bashing contest."
A drop in skill levels has left European rugby miles adrift of the Tri Nations, writes the Irish Independent's Neil Francis.
"In the movie Meet the Fockers Robert De Niro's character Jack Byrnes is astonished to see that Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) has certificates for finishing 12th in the school gymkhana adorning the family sideboard. "I've never seen people celebrate mediocrity like you do."
"We are two matches into a Six Nations championship that begs a question: have we turned into the Fockers?
"We see seven tries in a video montage of the French match in Paris two weeks ago and suddenly the French are swashbucklers again. Five-minute highlight packages seriously distort reality.
"RTE on their Aertel page described last Sunday's match in the Aviva as a 'classic'. Madre Deo, a classic? No question my pulse quickened when the great escape beckoned in the 78th minute, but I've seen much intermittent quality over the years which has been better in terms of skill levels and entertainment quotient and you'd be embarrassed to bring them up in the same sentence as last Sunday's game."
Former Irish internationals Ralph Keyes, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ollie Campbell tell the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley what Ireland did wrong and how they can progress after going so close against France.
"Imagine, for a moment, that Seán Cronin holds on to that fateful 78th-minute pass from Brian O’Driscoll against the French last Sunday. Ireland recycle the ball off Cronin and, as they had done in four multi-phase attacks inside the visitors 22 (including the over-ruled Luke Fitzgerald try early on), eventually cross the whitewash again. We’d have been heralding a famous four-tries-to-one Irish win and there would already be muted talk of a Grand Slam.
"It would be full steam ahead with the running game, but of course, on such wafer thin lines are many Test matches decided, and this is a results business. But in the fall-out from the infuriating defeat to France, there has been exasperation and sympathy rather than condemnation for the Irish team.
“Definitely one that got away, for sure,” says Ollie Campbell. “To score three tries to one and lose by three points, oh that will hurt. That will hurt for a little while.”
"As Campbell acknowledges, the championship is probably out of reach already given how England boosted their points difference against an Italian team who suffered a hangover from their near-miss against Ireland and optimistically went for a more attacking but strictly non-tackling outhalf in Luciano Orquera."
Approaching halfway in the Championship, the Six Nations is already making its mark according to the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford.
"The roller coaster of reputation - On the slide after two games are two British Lions, Euan Murray for three halves of abysmal scrummaging and Gordon D’Arcy for one mess of a tackle plus a host of dropped passes and other fumbles. Going the other way: Sean O’Brien and Richie Gray, both Lions of the future.
"Unlikely to last the distance - The glass door in the coaches’ box at Murrayfield which took a pasting from Andy Robinson as he watched his side go down 24-6 to Wales, Italian outside half Luciano Orquera patently out of his depth against England and Martin Johnson’s frown lines if England continue to win.
"The stats that matter - Twenty-seven tries have been scored so far in the Championship, 14 of them by wingers. Italy have made the most tackles (253), France have missed the most (28), Scotland have completed more passes (402) than any other side, England have created twice as many line breaks (17) as the other nations, Wales have kicked possession away the most (on 57 occasions) and Ireland top the table at forcing turnovers (8).
Dan Parks' game doesn't fit in with Andy Robinson's style of rugby but can the coach afford change at such a crucial position, according to the Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison.
"The headline in one Dublin paper last week read: "Kidney Refuses to Press Panic Button". Well, I say each to their own. A little panic might just be what Scotland needs - a good old fashioned, hair-on-fire, shrieking stampede - because something pretty drastic is required to galvanise the men in blue after their shocker in the 24-6 loss against Wales.
"...He has been excellent for so long that we almost forgot just how bloody awful Dan Parks can be. But he gave everyone a painful reminder against Wales. Scotland have tied their fortunes to the Aussie playmaker so, when he has a stinker, the team are invariably doomed.
"The fly-half was charged down (by a prop forward) early in the game and that seemed to set the tone. Parks kicked aimlessly, missed tackles and, on the odd occasion he attacked the gain line with the ball in hand, he looked about as comfortable as an elephant on ice. Most of the time he hung back in his comfort zone, 15 yards behind the line. Scotland's biggest problem is attempting to play an expansive, running ball-in-hand game with a resolutely kicking fly-half. "
Dylan Hartley got a six-month ban for gouging an England team-mate but made Wales coach eat humble pie. Now the happy hooker has France in his sights. The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin writes.
"So what goes through the mind of an England hooker when the whistle goes for the first scrum against France, and the baleful eyes of Thomas Domingo, William Servat and Nicolas Mas are trained on you, and the dreams and fears of 80,000 Twickenham spectators and millions beyond are vested in your next move? "It's a feeler, the first one," says Dylan Hartley. "You don't know if they will go early, or drive you up, or take you down. You have to go in with a checklist that you're going to do every time. The French have a good front row, we've seen that. But if you sit there worrying about what they're going to do, you forget about yourselves and what you're good at."
"The scrum was talked about a great deal before England played Italy last weekend – and it was a non-event. In 80 minutes there were four put-ins, a total that will surely be exceeded next Saturday, with greater pressure on the pass and the man in possession, and red-zone penalties encouraging one side or the other to try their luck. How does Hartley see it going? "'Dylan Hartley crumbling', you mean? 'Dylan Hartley bottling it'? It doesn't happen." No, that wasn't the headline I had in mind. Just that it could be a match full of scrums? "You prepare for the best French team possible getting off that bus," he says. "We'll be prepared for that."
The Oberver's Eddie Butler believes France must beware for England know how to bypass their own inelegant midfield through the skill of Toby Flood and his wings.
"Toby Flood is the revelation of the year, his speed of reaction and precision of pass pulling England willingly forward. Chris Ashton is the most obvious example of England's response to the prompting from 10. Once upon a time David Duckham, a genuine genius, stood on the wing at Twickenham and could count chilblains in bigger numbers than passes. Now there is only a danger of overloading Ashton, of setting him up for a gang-tackle that speaks of opponents well briefed in his runs and irked by his gestures.
"But even here, at strategic level, England may yet be a step ahead of the game. They have already found a way to bypass their slightly inelegant midfield, where Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape are more of the tank-stopping school of centres. Why try to make them into ballerinas when Flood and Mark Cueto, coming off his wing, can sweep the ball from one touchline to the other in two passes?
"There is nothing any opponent can do about the power of the England pack. Dan Cole and Tom Palmer have clearly accepted the invitation – the demand – to make an impact, Dylan Hartley to prove a provoker wrong.
"There may be the odd quibble about the balance of the back row in a game of duress but the return of Lewis Moody could solve that, a scavenging 7, allowing James Haskell to launch himself, fresh-legged off the bench, as a runner in the final quarter."
Former England coach Brian Ashton compares England's win over Italy with the turgid spectacle at the Stadio Flaminio 12 months ago in The Independent.
"Admittedly, the Christian name belongs to some other Ashton, of whom I shall say more later, but as those in the midst of the celebrity whirl never cease to point out, all publicity is good publicity, irrespective of the fine detail. England's victory over Italy also had its thrilling aspects: there has been a transformative air about the side for the last 10 months or so, and while Martin Johnson is absolutely right in saying that this is not the finished article and that nothing has yet been won, there can be no denying that some of the rugby played just recently has been very watchable.
"There was the sharpest of contrasts between events at Twickenham a week ago and those in Rome this time last year: a game I remember chiefly for the fact that my wife and I found ourselves surrounded by passionate Azzurri supporters while the blustery wind played havoc with the temporary seating high up in Stadio Flaminio. The 2010 match was a desperate affair, dominated by turgid set-piece play, mind-numbing "through the phases" stuff and a call-based "playbook" approach to the attacking game that prized territorial position above all else. Now the emphasis seems to have switched to speed of ball at the tackle area and keeping defences on the move."
Scott Murray recounts his favourite Five Nations memories in The Guardian'sThe Joy of Six.
"If you were a fan of rugby union in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you were really a fan of rugby union. Just take a look at these scorelines: Wales 0-3 England (1957), Scotland 3-3 England (1958), France 3-3 England (1960), Scotland 3-0 Wales (1961), Scotland 3-3 England, Wales 3-0 France, Ireland 3-3 Wales (1962). When Scotland lost 6-0 to Wales at Murrayfield in 1963, there were 111 lineouts."
The Independent's Chris Hewett reports that Anglo-French relations may be about to get frosty once again.
"A year ago, the flamboyant owner of the big Parisian club Stade Français, Max Guazzini, could be heard accusing the Rugby Football Union of holding the England flanker James Haskell "prisoner" during an almighty row over Six Nations player availability – an incident that led directly to a hardening of Twickenham's line on the issue, which now amounts to a "go on, make my day" attitude towards international personnel tempted by the lavish financial rewards on offer across the water. And where does Jonny Wilkinson, the highest-profile exile of them all, figure in the great scheme of things? Why, he is free to do as he likes.
"The World Cup-winning outside-half has been granted permission to play for Toulon in their Top 14 championship game at Agen this weekend. Indeed, he was released from England camp at the start of the week and has been training on the shores of the Mediterranean for the last couple of days. As for Haskell, who paid a heavy price for his French connections in 2010... well, that's still a different story. Stade Français, who have equally pressing domestic business in Brive tomorrow night, have not been given access to their player – or, indeed, to Tom Palmer, the Test lock currently in the form of his life."
Writing in his blog for the Irish Times, Ireland's Jamie Heaslip insists his side must kick on from their narrow defeat at the hands of France.
"The positives from the game are plentiful. Our patterns and pace really caused the French trouble; we scored three tries and nearly a fourth against them. We constantly moved them around in defence, creating space to attack. Our own defence, for the most part, didn’t allow them the room to play. Wave after wave it held firm, our shape was good, and it felt like they never really threatened. Despite this, we will have to improve further in order to kick on and enhance our game.
"On a personal note it was finally great to get out and play. I’m not a great spectator of the game and to be thrown back in at the deep end in that match was a serious sink or swim situation, but one I relish. To be part of that group of players is something I love and a hard one to explain.
"The novelty of waking up today and having stud marks, scrapes and feeling some pain is actually comforting. I know it might sound weird, but I strangely quite like it. Too long sitting on the sidelines. All the bumps and bruises tell me I’m alive in a strange way."
Former Scotland coach Jim Telfer believes only three players who took part against Wales deserve pass marks, and thinks some of the others may not be mentally tough enough for Test rugby. The Scotsman's Stuart Bathgate reports.
"Although some players said afterwards that the poor start had virtually ensured a home defeat, Telfer argues that two chances around the hour mark - for Nikki Walker and John Barclay - could have brought them back into the contest. "If one of these chances had been taken, Scotland would have been within three points of Wales with 15 minutes to go and we could have kicked on and won.
"We didn't deserve to win, however, and serious questions must be asked about the mental toughness of some of our players. If they thought that they just had to turn up and assume that the result they achieved against the Springboks (Scotland's last Murrayfield match, in which they beat the world champions) would automatically follow last Saturday when they returned to Murrayfield, then they were given a very rude awakening by a Welsh side hurting from criticism at home but still containing some world-class players.
"And it was those players - Shane Williams, Jamie Roberts, Ryan Jones and James Hook in particular - who led by example. Only Sean Lamont, Kelly Brown and, to lesser extent, John Barclay compared favourably with their opposite numbers."
Scotland legend David Sole reaches for the thesaurus in order to properly describe Scotland's performance against Wales in The Daily Telegraph.
"One of the great things about modern word processing software is the thesaurus facility and its ability to suggest a plethora of alternative words to substitute for the one that you first considered.
"For example, looking for an alternative to inept, one is spoilt for choice – incompetent, ham-fisted, hopeless or bungling all pop up. There aren’t quite as many synonyms for toothless, but ineffectual is probably not a bad choice.
"You see, it is hard to find exactly the right adjective to describe Scotland’s performance against Wales on Saturday because it is probably best described by a number of different words, most of them already in the above paragraph – as Captain Kellock admitted after the match, the team simply didn’t turn up."
"November 15, 2009. It is minutes before Ireland play Australia in Croke Park. The stadium is buzzing. The crowd are cheering. The tannoy is screeching. The Irish dressing-room is bustling.
"Cian Healy hears none of it. His head is throbbing with a rhythmic, pulsating hip-hop beat. The music must imprison him in order for him to liberated from outside distractions, thoughts and needs.
"Jerry Flannery can't believe what he's seeing. This debutant bouncing around, drumming his fingers on his tree-trunk thighs. "Normally fellas would be white with the fear," Flannery reports afterwards."
England wing Chris Ashton has to take note of the Italian reaction after his first try according to The Independent's James Corrigan.
"Any over-exuberance on his part is completely understandable. What he should never care about is offending any of the blazers' sensitivities. They like to see their try-scorers touch down with the minimum of fuss, accept the pat on the back from the goal kicker after handing over the ball and then run immediately back to their own half. In their dusty old book, ecstasy should definitely not be the main part of it. But it is, as even the giggles of Martin Johnson signify. Anyone who can bring a smirk to that grisly countenance, let alone anything so euphoric as a laugh, clearly has the ability to spread the joy far and wide.
"Yet what Ashton may want to guard himself against are the charges of being a sneerer, of belittling the opposition, of going airborne in the guise of saying "this is so bloody easy I'm even prepared to risk dropping the thing". There is a clear and present danger of that, which may be lost to him in that wave of jingo sweeping through his own country. Goodness knows why, but there are those who regard the English as arrogant and English rugby as yet more arrogant. To these misguided souls, the "Ash Splash" will be another gross manifestation of that particular nation's superiority complex."
The sense of an opportunity lost lingered long into the stadium air at Lansdowne Road last night according to the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.
"Despite the Sunday kick-off, the Six Nations made a raucous and entertaining, if flawed, return to the refurbished old ground, but for all the talk of French flair it was Irish mistakes which snatched a threes-tries-to-one defeat from the jaws of victory.
"For sure, some of the depth and width which the French backs applied looked both ominous and pretty, but much of their recycling was slow and ultimately Ireland limited them to one try, and that off a missed tackle.
"But combined with the concession of 18 points from penalties – remarkably, seven of France’s nine penalties which an unconvincing Dave Pearson awarded were within kicking range – France did not have to work anything like as hard for their points.
"The surfeit of three-pointers also reflects how Ireland enjoyed a 50-50 split of possession, yet until the final quarter France had much more of the territory."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly reflects on Ireland's agonising Six Nations defeat to France in Dublin.
"Any player will tell you that it is preferable to be on the end of hammering than come within inches of a famous victory and be denied just as it is in your grasp.
"And that is specifically what happened as Ireland launched a wonderful last-ditch drive for which took them from their own 22 to the French line. Keith Earls took off down the left and stroked through a clever kick that Maxime Medard failed to deal with and when he was gobbled up by the feral Irish chasers a try looked inevitable only for substitute Sean Cronin, just on for Rory Best, to knock on the ball.
"It was one of a host of similar unforced errors as Ireland carried on from Rome in terms of shooting themselves in the foot with their mistakes. However, when Ireland were good they were very, very good -- as their three tries testify -- and in terms of intensity and commitment to the cause, this performance was at the level Ireland need to hit at the World Cup."
In his column for the Western Mail, Wales winger Shane Williams highlights the positive influence of team-mate James Hook.
"James [Hook] and Stephen Jones each bring different things to the table, different qualities. But as we’re each Ospreys I am inevitably more used to what James does and I just adore playing next to him.
"Hooky brings the unexpected, but I’m able to read him like a book. I just know what he’s going to do, as if there’s some sort of telepathy going on.
"For that first try I read his mind. I knew he was going to go for that gap, which was why I was able to get on his shoulder and take the pass for the score. Hooky unsettles defences because they are wary of him trying the unexpected, but I also thought that he kicked beautifully at goal, considering he hasn’t had much time at No.10."
The Daily Telegraph's Brian Moore believes that midfield duo Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape are at centre of England's development in 2011 Six Nations.
"It is de rigueur to slate the alleged lack of dimension in England’s centre partnership, but [Chris] Ashton’s dazzle obscured much of the straight running and decoy angles cut by Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall.
"Last week England found a couple more players to add to the list of those who can handle Test rugby. This match enabled them to add Alex Corbisiero, which is particularly satisfying as he is a prop. There is still much work to do, but England are fashioning the tools with which to handle the task and with every such discovery do their prospects grow."
Scotland fans who witnessed their Six Nations defeat to Wales will have had their faith tested by a performance that offered heaps of disappointment and precious little encouragement. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.
"How did this bunch of players turn in their worst team performance in navy jerseys and finish the match as mental wrecks, apologising to all and sundry and searching in vain to understand how the flickers of promise from defeat in France on the opening weekend could turn to ashes so easily?
"The first 30 minutes of this game wrap up the story. These were two teams heading for the kick-off at Murrayfield with something to prove, the Welsh players even acknowledging it with dark humour by playing the song 'Under Pressure' on the team bus in response to coming into this match without a win in eight games.
"Scotland did not seem to be under the same pressure, having won five of their last seven Tests and, in Paris, finally uncovering a way to scoring tries. But when this game started in the same jaw-dropping fashion to that against France, Scotland losing their first scrum and subsequently the game's opening try, pressure seemed to grip Alastair Kellock's men. Nerves had been visible before then. Kelly Brown had knocked on, Hugo Southwell had sclaffed a kick to touch and Dan Parks had a clearance kick charged down by loosehead prop Paul James in the opening minutes, the start of Scotland's obsession with handing over possession."
The Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher looks ahead to France's Six Nations showdown with Ireland in Dublin.
"Sunday, however will, be the acid test. Even poorish France teams are occasionally capable of turning on the style in a one-off match – it is in their DNA – but top-notch France sides do it week after week and against the very best. Confronting a fired-up Ireland in Dublin should give us a pretty fair indication as to just how good France circa 2011 are. And how good they could become.
"Lièvremont has, with good reason, earned the reputation as the crazy professor of world rugby, experimenting wildly and using just about every able-bodied French-qualified played in the T14, or so it seems. But now in World Cup year has come the moment to nudge that final component into place, solder the last rivet, stand back and push the green button.
"So far so good but there is no turning back now, he really does need to go with the finished product throughout this Six Nations and see the various combinations grow and mature. France looked genuinely impressive against Scotland and have to trust their instincts again."
Wales coach Warren Gatland's mind games in the build-up to his side's Six Nations clash with England are nothing new according to All Blacks legend Colin Meads. The Western Mail's Simon Roberts reports.
"Ask Sir Colin Meads about Warren Gatland’s love for mind games and a wry smile crosses his face.
"For Meads, arguably the greatest and most feared All Black of them all, stretches his mind back four decades.
“You had a Welshman who was a master of that stuff,” said Meads, whose nickname “Pinetree” is etched in rugby folklore. “Carwyn James.” It is a statement delivered by the former All Black captain – who was voted New Zealand’s player of the century in 1999 – with a twinkle in the eye.
"For Meads clearly identifies Gatland’s fondness for getting under the skin of opponents – note his recent pre-match attack on England hooker Dylan Hartley – to the greatest coach Wales never had. Meads made 55 appearances for New Zealand in a 14-year period (1957-71) when caps weren’t handed out like confetti.
"A revered figure throughout the world of rugby, Meads will forever be linked with Wales because of James – the celebrated son of Cefneithin in the Gwendraeth Valley. James guided the British and Irish Lions to their only Test series victory over the All Blacks in 1971 when Meads was New Zealand captain."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson previews Scotland's latest Six Nations clash wtih Wales at Murrayfield.
"Consistency of performance is one thing, but Scotland head into their second game of the Six Nations Champonship knowing that even if they retain the good elements of their play from Paris last weekend and improve the poorer aspects there is no guarantee that this game will follow the same pattern as any they have played in before.
"One often wonders what the machine-like All Blacks would make of a tournament that travels around six European capitals and where the unexpected is the only constant for players, coaches and supporters. Scotland and Wales losing their opening matches in the 2011 Championship was not the biggest surprise, as reigning champions France and tournament favourites England represent the most formidable foe. Yet, both sides flicked through the embers of their opening battles knowing it could have been so different. Had both controlled the ball better at crucial times there was enough in the Celts' performances to have won both games."
The Independent's Chris Hewett previews what is likely to be a testing day for England debutant Alex Corbisiero against Italy at Twickenham.
"England thought they knew precisely where they stood in relation to this year's Six Nations Championship following their precious opening-round victory in Wales eight days ago.
"Suddenly, they find themselves thinking again. The withdrawal of their Lions prop Andrew Sheridan from this afternoon's meeting with the strong-scrummaging Italians at Twickenham means Alex Corbisiero of London Irish will make his debut at loose head against no less a figure than the fearsome Martin Castrogiovanni. It should be quite a meeting of minds.
"Born in New York, the newcomer has Italian ancestry: his grandfather Riccardo left the tough southern city of Naples for the Big Apple in the 1950s. The Argentine-born Castrogiovanni, widely acknowledged as a godfather of the set-piece, also has links to a part of Italy where the words "respect" and "honour", long part of the front-rower's vocabulary, take on a slightly darker hue. His folks hail from Sicily. "Real mafia country," as he once said."
The front-row battle is as important as ever, particularly at Twickenham where England's Alex Corbisiero faces Italy's Martin Castrogiovanni, according to Shaun Edwards in The Guardian.
"What is it about scrummaging that catches the imagination of so many rugby people? To the untutored it's just eight men pushing against another eight or, in the words of one rugby correspondent who should have known better, merely a way of restarting play. We know better.
"However, it's still a surprise that a week into the Six Nations, I guess scrummaging is a major – if not the major – topic of conversation, with suggestions of shenanigans in the front row in Rome and a man-of the-match performance by a loosehead prop in Paris.
"I don't really want to get involved in what went on behind the scenes in Rome, but it was interesting to see that Ireland still aren't comfortable, particularly at loosehead prop, but then again not many are against a guy like Martin Castrogiovanni and there are plenty of reasons to believe he will help keep scrummaging centre stage well into next week."
The Independent's Chris Hewett reflects on England's decision to opt for the same again when they tackle Italy at Twickenham on Saturday.
"England's decision not to fast-track the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie into their starting line-up for tomorrow's Six Nations contest with Italy spawned an intriguing conspiracy theory, based on the notion that a brilliant performance from the South African-born forward at Twickenham might complicate the selection process when Lewis Moody, the injured captain, returns to action – possibly in time for the eagerly awaited meeting with France in a little over a fortnight. The pack would undoubtedly be better balanced with a specialist breakaway in the open-side position, but Fourie must make do with a seat on the bench.
"Elsewhere, there was no decision to be made – least of all in the front row, even though the Italians will concentrate their efforts in this area. England's scrummagers did a job on their Welsh opponents in Cardiff seven days ago, and if they can hang together against the formidable Azzurri trio of Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni, a second successive championship victory will be very much on the cards. "I expect it to be a big part of the game and it will have its challenges," said Dylan Hartley, the England hooker, yesterday. "Eighteen inches of hair and a beard in my face? Lovely."
Will Scotland cope with a measure of expectation after the three tries in France? The Guardian's Paul Rees investigates.
"It would have been tempting for the Scotland coach, Andy Robinson, to seek solace in defeat in Paris on Saturday evening. His side had scored three tries, as many as they managed in the whole of last season's Six Nations, and they rattled the defending champions despite a retreating scrum.
"Instead, he saw the 80 minutes as an opportunity lost, pointing out that France's four tries came after Scotland had been turned over. Look after the ball, was the message, and the result will look after itself. Robinson does not do excuses: never mind that Scotland had lost on the opening weekend for 10 of the previous 11 campaigns or that their recent record in Paris was no better, he was not going to provide a cloak for his players to hide behind.
"Robinson was a brave choice by the Scottish Rugby Union because of his nationality and the belittling way he was treated by England. He had resuscitated his career at Edinburgh after being sacked by England at the end of 2006, but if there was a perceived danger the Scots would quickly turn on a red-rose reject if results and performances did not improve, it did not materialise."
The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly previews Ireland's Six Nations showdown with France in Dublin.
"If Kidney's men can match them in the scrum. This is not simply Mike Ross coping with Thomas Domingo, as he did for Leinster v Clermont in December, or Cian Healy managing Nicolas Mas, it requires a unified effort from all eight and the back-row, as ex-Ireland loose-head Reggie Corrigan put it, "working their asses off".
"If Ireland can engineer quality possession from the back of the line-out. Jamie Heaslip's return will help in this regard, but he is still not as lofty as the French back-row jumpers Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire.
"It requires careful planning to get the best attacking ball off the top and forwards coach Gert Smal will have earned his corn this week if Ireland manage it.
"So many ifs and so little certainty does not breed the confidence that Ireland have lacked for some time now, but Sunday would be a good day to produce.
"Even with the injury problems, the talent is there and the experience of last weekend's escape to victory in Rome will stand to these players -- the reason Kidney has stuck by them."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson speaks to Scotland's Richie Gray in the wake of his strong showing against France that silenced his critics - amongst them the ex-England international and now pundit Jeremy Guscott.
"Typically, looking for a contrary view, Guscott wrote in a newspaper column before the start of the RBS Six Nations Championship that he could not understand why people were labeling the Glasgow lock as a player to watch in the tournament. Gray's improvement this season from a promising young kid into an adept and powerful professional had all and sundry picking him out pre-tournament as Scotland's "one to watch".
"Guscott dismissed that, insisting that Gray was "slow and cumbersome", like "Bambi on ice" and predicted that he wouldn't have any impact on the 2011 tournament. Even as Gray was striding through French tacklers during Saturday's game, setting up the field position for the first try, winning lineout ball against Imanol Harinordoquy and getting back to make try-saving tackles, and those comments were thrown back at him by a fellow ex-England international, Guscott shouted "but he'll still finish on the losing side".
"...Relaxed and smiling, Gray revealed that he had gone out to find the offending article and still had it at his Glasgow flat. "My girlfriend texted me on the morning and said he had been quite harsh on me, so I went out and bought the paper and had a good read through it, and it gave me an extra drive for the game.
"I just wanted to read what he said and some might say his comments could have been justified, looking at certain games he's looked at. Everyone's got their opinion and I'm not saying it's the wrong opinion. I suppose everyone's got their opinion and I'll just try to change it as much as I can."
Wales' decision to opt for James Hook at fly-half means a move away from Warren Gatland’s structured game plan according to Gwyn Jones in the Western Mail.
"It is with reluctance rather than enthusiasm that Warren Gatland hands James Hook the prestigious No.10 jersey.
"For the past two years the Welsh coaching staff have steadfastly refused to consider Hook as a fly-half, but as the pressure grows following the recent dismal run of results, Gatland has yielded to the public’s clamour.
"Wales under Gatland have pursued a very structured pattern. They have built their game around these ideas and picked players who are most able to execute their plan.
"...As we know Wales rely on a strict pattern of play which includes a specific kicking strategy, running the identical way in possession, and high recycle rate and Gatland turned to the reliable Stephen Jones to implement that policy.
"However, this once successful pattern is not working and hasn’t done for some time. Selecting the more instinctive Hook at outside-half is a move away from Galtand’s rigid ideology."
The Irish Times' John Sullivan meets the Ireland winger who admits he would appreciate getting his hands on rather more quality ball against France on Sunday than was served out to him on his Test debut.
"McFadden is as eloquent off the pitch as he is on the other side of the whitewash. It's just as well because at the official post-match dinner in Rome he thought he'd escaped back to his seat on the presentation of a cap to mark his first appearance for Ireland only to be beckoned to return to the top table by Brian O'Driscoll and invited to address the assembled audience.
"It was on the pretext that every debutant underwent the same protocol. The Ireland captain was being slightly economical with the truth. McFadden smiled: "Drico did summon me back up. It was grand. I tried to get back into my seat as quickly as possible as I didn't have a speech prepared. It was nice; he was trying to make a big deal out of it for me and it was a big day for me. I didn't mind.
"Last week was unbelievable for me, to be honest with you, really; it gave me an incredible buzz. Thankfully we got the win because otherwise it would have been a day to forget if we'd lost. We held in there and got the drop goal in the end.
"It was an unbelievable experience (but) I would have liked to have got my hands on the ball a little more, to be honest: fingers crossed this week will be different."
Max Evans is looking forward to running out at Murrayfield against Wales on Saturday and insists the injury suffered by his brother in the same fixture last year won't pose a problem for him. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.
"Max Evans is comfortable that he will cope with the emotions of facing up to Wales in the rematch of the game which ultimately ended his brother Thom's rugby career, but he revealed that his younger sibling will not be there as it would be too emotional.
"It was in the first half of Scotland's second match in last year's RBS Six Nations Championship match in Cardiff that Thom suffered a spinal injury after crashing into Lee Byrne, the Wales full-back. It was a match that Scotland performed superbly in, but, in a dramatic conclusion, allowed a 24-14 lead to slip away and Wales to win.
"Max Evans admitted that, only with match analysis some time later, did he appreciate what had happened in the game as he had finished it with concern only for his brother, who was by then lying in the nearby Cardiff hospital. Unlike many who suffer spinal injuries, Thom recovered the full use of his limbs, but he retired from professional rugby and is currently in Los Angeles studying acting."
The Independent's Simon Turnbull reflects on Andy Robinson's decision to sign a contract extension with Scottish Rugby.
"In truth, Robinson has looked as much at home in his regulation Scotland coaching kit as he used to in the blue, black and white of his beloved Bath. He still splits his time between Edinburgh and his family home in the former Roman spa town where he was a fixture for 13 seasons on the open-side flank for the rugby battalion stationed at the Recreation Ground.
"There had been much speculation of late that the man who guided Bath to the Heineken Cup in 1998 would return as head coach after serving out his original contract with Scotland, which was due to run until the end of the 2012 Six Nations. The club's multimillionaire patron, Bruce Craig, was a contemporary of Robinson at Loughborough University.
"Asked whether he had been approached by "any other organisation," Robinson stopped short of a denial. "It's not for me to comment on," he said. Asked whether he felt it was important that his future had been resolved ahead of this autumn's World Cup, Robinson added: "I think what it does is stop people, when they don't have anything to write about, wanting to make up stories about me going elsewhere. It also means that there is a consistency of understanding that there will be stability over the next couple of years, which I think is important."
Leicester fly-half Toby Flood deserves much of the credit for England's rediscovery of open rugby according to < Ahref="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/feb/09/six-nations-2011-toby-flood-england" target="new">The Guardian's Rob Kitson.
"With every passing day England sound a happier, more purposeful team. No one is suggesting they are suddenly invincible but, compared with 12 months ago, the difference is almost tangible. The catalyst? Examine their fortunes before and after Toby Flood was trusted to start ahead of Jonny Wilkinson last March and it is hard not to make a direct link.
"Flood's man-of-the-match performance against Wales last Friday simply underlined the new order. Credit has tended to go elsewhere but England, at this precise moment, would not swap him for any other fly-half in the championship.
"Quietly and intelligently, he has unlocked areas of England's game which had rusted up, to the point where opponents are unsure what is coming next. At Test level, that is the most precious of gifts. The 25-year-old Flood has also shown what a little artfully channelled ambition can do. Beginning in Paris and continuing through Sydney, Twickenham and Cardiff there has been a much greater desire to cast off the imaginative shackles."
In terms of selection, tactics and substitutions, Ireland's rugby coach is drawing comparisons with his soccer counterpart but that could be about to change spectacularly, writes the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.
"On the surface, there would not appear to be a whole lot of similarities between a 71-year-old fashion-conscious Italian football manager and a 51-year-old rugby man from Cork, happiest with a tracksuit and a whistle.
"However, following Ireland's disappointing, and nerve-wracking, victory over Italy last weekend, Declan Kidney has been likened to Giovanni Trapattoni in terms of his approach to the Ireland team.
"While there are areas of commonality to be found between the two national coaches -- starting with their 2008 appointments -- it is overly simplistic to say both men operate under the umbrella of inherent conservatism."
Ireland No.8 Jamie Heaslip reports from his side's Six Nations base in his latest blog for the Irish Times.
"I have decided to write this update in the same frame of mind as the man at the heart of Irish camp goes about his business. He has me writing this while sitting in one of his loungers and listening to the soundtrack of The Godfather. He says that this will keep my mind moving while the body rests. His personnel mantra is, “You might think I’m doing very little because I’m not moving but in fact I’m doing a lot with my mind constantly working”.
"This mantra is constantly under scrutiny from some of the players in camp, but he does get the job done. Although a phrase in camp is, “If you want to know what the mood of the Irish squad is go to Rala’s (baggage master extraordinaire) room”.
"In here the atmosphere is relaxed yet slightly tentative. The result from the weekend is welcome but so too are the mistakes. As a first outing in a 6 Nations goes, it wasn’t ideal from a performance point but the result was what we wanted."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports as Scotland skipper Al Kellock underlines the team ethos running through the squad in the wake of prop Euan Murray's battering against France.
"There have been plaudits from Scotland supporters for the Paris performance despite the 34-21 defeat, which stemmed from the ambition the team showed to attack the French with ball in hand as well as the penetration and finishing of three try chances. However, such has been the improvement in the Scottish pack in the past two years that the sight of a scrum being driven backwards was unexpected.
"It clearly surprised the players too, and Kellock insisted that the misfiring early scrum, which cost Scotland a penalty try, was an area now receiving major attention.
"France are a very strong scrummaging team," he acknowledged, "but over the last couple of seasons so have we been and that's what is most disappointing.
"Euan can only play as well as the rest of the pack. They're going to put pressure through the tighthead - every team will try to. We've got to make sure we're helping him out. It wasn't on Euan - it was on all of us. We were all very upset with the way the scrum went."
The Western Mail's Simon Thomas reflects on Warren Gatland's decision to hand James Hook the No.10 jersey for their Six Nations clash with Scotland.
"So Warren, why have you finally handed James Hook the No 10 jersey? “It’s all the pressure from the Western Mail, isn’t it.”
That was Gatland’s tongue-in-cheek response to the opening question about the change of fly-half at yesterday’s press conference. One would hope there’s a bit more to it than that, but the coach’s quip does point to the public and press clamour for Hook to be handed the reins in place of Stephen Jones.
"...He’s worn 12, 13 and 15, but not 10, with Jones having pretty much monopolised that berth. The general coaching conclusion seemed to be that Hook didn’t have the game management to occupy the key play-making role, an opinion reinforced by the Ospreys choosing to select him in the centre and play Dan Biggar at fly-half.
"But now – after a defeat to England that has extended Wales’ winless run to eight matches – Gatland has decided to turn back the clock three years and hand Hook the keys to No.10 for Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield."
There will be more than national pride at stake when the two Leicester tight-head props Dan Cole and Martin Castrogiovanni face off at Twickenham on Saturday. The Independent's Chris Hewett writes.
"Back in the long-lost, halcyon days of West Country rugby, when the state comprehensive schools in one small city were producing players of the calibre of Jeremy Guscott and John Hall and all roads led directly to the ornamental iron gates of the Recreation Ground, the revered coach Jack Rowell was frequently heard to tell one of his charges: "That may be good enough for England, but it's not good enough for Bath." Dan Cole, very much a man of the present, must hear a Midlands version of that message every time he takes the training field at Leicester. The best tight-head prop in the country is merely the second-best tight-head prop at his club. Strange, but true.
"There's a pecking order at the club and the way I see it, I'm not the number one," he said yesterday, his eyes narrowing in the time-honoured fashion of a front-rower with a point to prove. "Castro is the number one." By Castro, he meant Martin Castrogiovanni, the folk-hero prop from Argentina who declared for Italy back in 2002 and has become one of the more effective, as well as one of the most recognisable, individuals in the international game. And as luck would have it, the two men will meet, in full warpaint, at Twickenham this weekend in the second round of Six Nations fixtures."
Wales coach Warren Gatland did not give his new No.10 a resounding vote of confidence before the trip to Edinburgh according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.
"No position excites more debate in Wales than fly-half but the chatter will rarely have been more animated than it has been this week. It is a measure of the desperation in which Wales are mired, 10 months after their last victory, that they have turned to a player for the match against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday who has not started at No10 for 19 months: James Hook.
"The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, admitted that the selection of the 25-year-old was a punt and wondered aloud whether he should have gone instead not for the veteran Stephen Jones, who is dropped to the bench, but the uncapped Scarlet Rhys Priestland. Gatland wants his side to show more creativity and nous behind the scrum.
"Hook was Gatland's first fly-half, inspiring Wales to victory against England at Twickenham in 2008, but within a year he was being played in the centre, outside Jones, and it is nearly two years since he started at No10 for his country. His region, the Ospreys, have not used him in the position, other than at the end of matches in which they are playing catch-up, since September 2009."
Allan Massie reviews an open encounter between France and Scotland and reserves praise for the excellent Richie Gray in The Scotsman.
"Our sports editor must be prescient. The back page of Saturday's sports section had the headline: "Scotland's three stirring tries are not enough"; and lo and behold, they weren't.
"The headline of course belonged to Norman Mair's report of the France-Scotland game at the Parc des Princes in 1979, reprinted for general interest.
"The score that day was 21-17 to France. So history didn't repeat itself exactly. Still it came close to doing so, and indeed in many respects this splendid open match, played at pace, with high levels of skill and, it seemed, consistent good humour with no tiresome niggles, recalled a good many Parisian encounters between France and Scotland from, say, the early Seventies to the late Eighties - the days of Andy Irvine, Jim Renwick, John Rutherford, the Hastings brothers, and superb back rows on either side. Moreover no Scottish lock since the great Alastair McHarg can ever have got himself about the field as the marvellous young Richie Gray did on Saturday."
Robert Kitson looks at the peculiarities of the recent refereeing in the Six Nations in The Guardian.
"Anyone who thinks referees are bit‑part characters does not watch enough modern Test rugby. One weekend into the Six Nations Championship and Ireland are already weighing up whether to make an official complaint regarding the French official Romain Poite. A penalty count of 13-5 against the Irish almost sunk them in Rome, made worse by Nick Mallett's revelation that Poite had previously written to the Italian Rugby Federation apologising for his handling of the same fixture 12 months ago.
"Cue conspiracy theories and much Irish muttering. The possibility that their front row might have been skewered by a superior force was, clearly, inconceivable. Yet, as observed last week, the 35-year-old Poite is renowned for his stern refereeing of the scrummage and, with the International Rugby Board on the warpath over collapsed scrums, there was always a good chance of acrimony. Ireland knew trouble was brewing the moment Poite's appointment was announced."
Hugh Farrelly picks the brains of former Ireland prop Reggie Corrigan as Declan Kidney's men prepare to take on strong scrummaging France on Sunday in The Irish Independent.
"The scrum. It was an issue for Ireland in the November Series, it was an issue in their narrow win over Italy at the Stadio Flaminio last Saturday and it will be an issue heading forward into the remainder of the Six Nations and on to the World Cup.
"The French are coming to town with a scrum that humiliated Scotland, and their renowned tight-head Euan Murray, in the Stade de France. Their superiority at scrum-time allowed France to establish a platform that launched their eventual 34-21 victory, and if they establish the same dominance on Sunday, Ireland are in real trouble.
"Former Ireland loose-head Reggie Corrigan knows all about the power of the French scrum. Now working as a scrum coach with Leinster at Academy and domestic underage levels (as well as coaching Greystones' promotion drive from AIL Division 3), Corrigan faced France five times between 1998 and 2006 during an international career that yielded 47 caps."
Mick Cleary marvels at the mercurial French following their opening Six Nations win over France in The Daily Telegraph.
"The call has already gone out to New Zealand passport officials to check the paperwork carefully when the French squad arrive in Auckland for the Rugby World Cup in early September. Just which lot will land?
"The supine, angst-ridden mob who had a collective nervous breakdown against Australia in November, or the gung-ho, on-message, fast and fancy-stepping outfit that shredded Scotland at the Stade de France on Saturday evening? Not even the French know the answer to that one.
"If the Six Nations championship does its best to reinforce national stereotypes, then we can only thank the Lord, sir, for the mercurial, flighty French. Just as you think you’ve got then nailed down, they switch masks and give you another face. Keep ’em guessing, that’s the trick."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore reviews the opening Six Nations action.
"With statistics and damn lies you can construct any scenario, but the conclusions wrought by the following are irrefutable. Time in possession – Wales 27min 11sec, England 27-26; ball won in opponent’s 22 – Wales 1, England 30.
"Gatland’s team are close to the edge and their established stars are misfiring badly. A lack of precision from hand and boot and lateral meandering obliterated much of Wales’ positivity. Their talented centre pairing was anonymous.
"Wales could study France, who threatened to eviscerate Scotland in Paris on Saturday. Having witnessed at first-hand a French team flowing atop their crowd’s baying, I know that at times the Scots felt bewildered by the pace and dexterity of what appears to be a team with five extra men.
"The three rules when playing France: Don’t give them loose turnover ball, don’t kick loosely and don’t be loose. The Scots broke all of these and only heroic defence prevented France from making them pay for every transgression."
The Western Mail's Simon Thomas sifts through the debris of defeat to England on Friday night and examines where Wales go from here.
"Although there were one or two issues at the scrum on Friday, including one strike against the head, it wasn’t the major weakness many had feared it would be. So Craig Mitchell is odds on to get another start at tighthead prop, providing him with an opportunity to make amends for his costly sin-binning.
"While the pack largely picks itself, it’s much harder to predict what Gatland will do with the backs. There was no penetration or fluidity behind at the weekend, with far too much lateral play and crabbing across the field.
"Gatland’s trademark strategy of taking play to one touchline and then coming back the other way is fine if it exposes tight forwards in midfield and creates mismatches. But, at the moment, all it’s resulting in is the ball going back and fore from one side of the field to the other without anyone actually going forward."
Scotland coach Andy Robinson was left underwhelmed by his side's opening Six Nations defeat to France, according to The Scotsman's David Ferguson.
"Gone is the impassioned thrusting of positives typical of predecessors, the focus on what was going right and hope that what was going wrong could be kept behind closed doors. Instead, refreshingly, Robinson made it clear that while the positive aspects of Saturday's 34-21 loss would provide something to build on in training this week, as they prepare to welcome a Wales team to Murrayfield, hurting from their opening night loss to England, there should be no pleasure derived by his players from their defeat.
"Where he struggled was when asked if this weekend's start to his second Six Nations represented a step forward from the one a year ago, where they lost to France and then in Wales. Can the side this time bounce back from the opening day defeat and defeat Wales back at Murrayfield? He is confident they can, but admitted that he felt a horrible sense of deja vu when comparing his first away match this year with the first away game of last against Wales."
In his latest piece for the Daily Mail, England's Ben Foden reacts to the fallout from his headline-grabbing column ahead of his side's Six Nations victory over Wales.
"On Friday I felt like the most hated man in Wales after my last column about England aiming to beat our smaller neighbour. I could have looked pretty stupid if we'd lost, but I was confident that we would walk the walk after I talked the talk.
"...didn't think my comments were that bad. England is a bigger country than Wales - that's just a fact. I wasn't trying to be derogatory. The article was more thoughtful than that.
As an England player who was going to be playing in Cardiff, I didn't expect the Welsh to love me anyway, but I suppose I singled myself out for extra attention by saying what I did.
I honestly think it's good for the game, though; passion is what it's all about. It was good for Dyls (Dylan Hartley), too, because after all the stick he'd been getting from Warren Gatland and others, I took some of the focus off him.
"But I didn't upset England fans, my team or the coaches. I knew I had caused some hostility so it was in the back of my mind before the game, but I'm not really affected by outside factors. I was more nervous about playing away from home in front of 75,000 people and making sure I didn't let anyone down."
The Independent's Robin Scott-Elliot reports having taken in the opening Six Nations action from the comfort of his sofa.
"Putting rugby on the nation's premier channel across Friday night prime time is bold scheduling and, as a fluffy little preview feature about one of England's players going out with a pop star showed, there was an awareness among the BBC's editorial team that they were not preaching to the converted here.
"Rugby – of either code – is an alien concept to the masses as well as one of those sports where the rules are a mystery even to those who play and watch the game. But the BBC had the ideal pairing to guide us through all the head-scratching, plot twists, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and male voice choirs in Brian Moore and Eddie Butler, the Mulder and Scully of the commentary box."
The Guardian writers assess the teams and their prospects following the opening round of the Six Nations.
"England's young guns are tough nuts - You had to be inside a seething Millennium Stadium to appreciate fully the sort of pressure which Tom Palmer, Tom Wood, Louis Deacon and Toby Flood were under. The way they handled it suggested England are hardening into a side which can consistently perform in any environment, a recurring problem in the early stages of Martin Johnson's tenure. Such mental hardness is not acquired easily but it is a rugby coach's dream: if his players can block out 70,000 Welshmen singing Land of My Fathers they can block anything. In World Cup years, with the sudden-death element adding to the intensity, it is not necessarily the most naturally gifted teams who prosper. England might not be the best squad of individuals in the championship – France at their best can be irresistible – but they are developing into the toughest side to beat. There is a crucial difference."
The Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford was amongst those impressed by France's eye-catching victory over Scotland in Paris.
"They had pockets of flair and if they lost concentration at various stages in what was an enthralling encounter, it was probably because they were saving themselves for the bigger games to come.
"Twickenham towards the end of the month springs to mind. It should be lip-smackingly exciting.
It was not so much the scoreline at the end of the game which advertised France’s welcome return to form, more the fact that it came against a resurgent Scotland who actually played pretty well themselves.
"That was the beauty of this encounter. It had everything. Seven tries, four from France, three by Scotland.
"The physical beauty of big men running into each other with intent on their faces and murder in their souls. It had some elusive running — strangely, given their reputation — by Scotland’s midfield and back three. And it had a scrummaging performance of stunning eloquence by the portly-looking Thomas Domingo."
The Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning reports from Ireland's narrow Six Nations victory over Italy in Rome.
"Ireland came within two minutes of losing their unbeaten Six Nations record against Italy yesterday only for Ronan O'Gara to save them with a last-gasp drop goal at Rome's Stadio Flaminio.
"Italy's Luke McLean had put the home side ahead with a try out wide which, crucially, Mirco Bergamasco failed to convert. That left the door open for Ireland to pull back a penalty or drop goal, and having regained the ball at the restart, Declan Kidney's side held it long enough for O'Gara to drop over the winning kick from 22 metres. It was reminiscent of the Grand Slam win in Cardiff two seasons ago when O'Gara, who replaced Jonathan Sexton in the final quarter yesterday, put Ireland ahead in similar circumstances.
"For Ireland to have been out of the running for that prize again, and probably the Championship as well, after the first game would have been a hammer blow to a team looking to build ahead of the World Cup. Never have Ireland struggled so badly with their finishing against the Italians since they lost to them three times running in the 1990s."
Legendary Wales No.10 Barry John launches a withering attack on the state of the national team in the Wales on Sunday.
"It’s sad, but it’s as bleak as I’ve ever known it and the rugby itself is clueless and bland.
"I’m still amazed that in this day and age, where money is a priority in every household, that the Millennium Stadium is full and the supporters are so forgiving.
"It says a lot about the Welsh persona when it comes to following the national rugby team but surely even the most diehard fans from the north to the south will soon realise that as a product it’s pretty empty. The game against England is always top of the list in priority for both players and supporters, there is no doubt about that.
"But now the team seems to be devoid of adrenaline, personality and nous. It seems as though we play the game by numbers and no-one has a clear way of how to break patterns.
"Our structure is lacking movement, both in management and muscle and in the short term I can’t see where we are going.
"It’s easy to say we should drop so and so but who have we got to take their place?"
England's Nick Easter reflects on his side's Six Nations victory over Wales in his column for the Sunday Telegraph.
"Simon Shaw, who’s done a few bus trips through Cardiff in his time, reckons there were fewer V-signs than normal as we drove through the crowd to the ground. If anything, there were a good few England supporters in town with plenty of thumbs-up to send us on our way. That was true inside the stadium as well.
"There were times when I thought Floody had missed a kick because there were cheers ringing round the ground. In fact, it wasn’t the Welsh celebrating a miss, it was our lot giving it what for. It gives you a lift, I can tell you.
"Mind you, the Millennium lived up to its reputation all right during the warm-up. You couldn’t hear yourself speak it was so loud. It didn’t help when the brass band moved in on our turf. I did think we’d have to run right through them if we were going to complete our routines. We just moved.
Nothing should knock you out of your stride. That was our motto during the week. Nothing, but nothing, was going to get in the way."
The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison was one of those blown away by an exhilirating clash at the Stade de France.
"It is one of rugby's oldest unwritten rules that a team that needs to win will usually beat a team that wants to win and that was undoubtedly the case in Paris yesterday evening.
"The French side that had been humiliated by the Wallabies last time out exorcised a few ghosts and played some breathtaking rugby. "French flair" is no longer quite the oxymoron it became under Bernard Laporte because a couple of late tries from Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille might not be bettered in the remainder of the tournament.
"There was something for everyone last night because the Scots played their full part in an open and exciting match without ever doing quite enough to suggest that they could actually win it. Andy Robinson's side will bemoan the loss but, after seeing France score the opening try as early as the third minute, the Scots scored three of their own and had to operate throughout this match with a set scrum that was creaking at the best of times and conceded a penalty try when the going got really tough."
France's francois Trinh-Duc led an ominous display as Scotland's big plans and bigger pack were plastered in Paris, according to the Independent on Sunday's Simon Turnbull.
"The Dalhousie Pipe Band were granted the freedom of Montmartre yesterday morning, the gendarmerie escorting the kilted troupe from the shadow of the Sacre Coeur and down Rue Lepic, past the bemused patrons sipping espresso outside the Café des Deux Moulins, in which Audrey Tatou did her waitressing in Amélie. It was different for the band of Scots on the pitch in the French national stadium on the north side of town last night.
"Andy Robinson's men might have arrived with five wins out of six, including a November success against South Africa, but when it came to the Six Nations they were unable to make more than token headway. True, the Scots did cross the opposition whitewash on three occasions, but they were chasing the game from the fourth minute and were no match for the champions in substance or in style.
"The French may have crumbled to a 59-16 defeat against Australia here three months ago but last night Marc Lièvremont's side were never in any serious danger. They had Scotland's heavy pack rolling backwards for most of the evening, forcing a penalty try, and they scored four tries, one of them conjured up with a magical party-piece from the Montpellier fly-half François Trinh-Duc."
The Observer's Michael Aylwin reports from France's impressive opening Six Nations victory over Scotland.
"Wide open they say this Six Nations is, and they are right, but France have put down the heftiest ante. They left us for a while there, what with the traumas of their summer and autumn, but this was a return to the form that won them the grand slam last year – not so great on defence, maybe, but with a nose for opposition weakness as heightened as ever.
"Because Scotland were no one's idea of mugs. Many were the plaudits coming their way in the build-up, and they repaid them with a performance of verve and persistence that would have done for a few other teams in this championship. Indeed, it would have done for France on a different day. Three tries in Paris – it is not often Scotland manage that anywhere. Unfortunately, France scored four – and they were worth at least that many.
"There was a bite to everything they did, as vicious in the way they caressed the ball into Scotland's exposed parts as the way they bludgeoned them into submission at scrum time. Scotland moved the ball nicely, it is true, looking confident as they swung the ball hither and thither, but much of the time it seemed in the hope of something opening up for them. With France, there was a devastating focus to the bouts of running and handling. They looked, they saw, they went – straight to those places that might hurt Scotland most."
Wales boss Warren Gatland must switch James Hook to the No.10 shirt if they are to rescue their Six Nations campaign according to the Western Mail's Delme Parfitt.
"Grim. As grim as it gets for anyone with the three feathers imprinted on their heart. There have been worse Wales performances. God knows there have.
"But the sheer magnitude of this clash, of all clashes, with the old enemy, ensures that the morning cup of tea will have a bitter taste this morning in homes the length and breadth of the Principality.
"Confidence was the key in the end. England’s players had it, and it came from an encouraging autumn series and stellar European campaigns by Northampton and Leicester, who provided the rump of their side last night.
"Wales didn’t. At least not in sufficient quantity. And no wonder when all four regions have flopped in the Heineken Cup and the national side is on a run of one win in 11, the manner of which makes you wonder when on earth they will win a Test match of real significance again."
England's victory over Wales in Cardiff was a defining moment for Martin Johnson's side according to the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary.
"Land of Hope and Glory? Yes, why not? Delighted England fans certainly thought so as they streamed out of the Millennium Stadium on Friday night, victory over Wales already putting their side in the driving seat for Six Nations honours and suffusing dreams with thoughts of World Cup honours. This was a defining moment.
"England have proved poor travellers in the Six Nations and this was a performance that silences any doubts about their ability to deliver under duress and on the road. They will carry it with them to New Zealand in September.
"England knew that they had to strip the match back to its basics: be direct, be accurate and silence that crowd. They did just that with a trademark try from wing, Chris Ashton, in the 14th minute. It was a deflating experience for Wales and their support.
"It was some task to try to reduce the Millennium Stadium to a mere ‘rectangle of grass,‘ as Martin Johnson had urged in midweek. The place has an aura, and the locals have centuries of perceived grievances to fuel their larynx. England were playing a nation more than a team."
The Independent's James Lawton reports from England's opening Six Nations victory over Wales in Cardiff.
"They were without their captain, Lewis Moody, but there was no shortfall of men willing to take up the fight and this effort of will appeared to be beautifully crowned when Chris Ashton, the most potent attacking figure in the new team, ran in the second of his two tries.
"At 23-9, Johnson, so embattled so recently, could afford to stand up from his seat with the aura of a man who may just have come through the worst of his times as the tyro coach who couldn't begin to match the weight of his performances as a player.
"Well, he is looking much more the man in charge of both his team and himself now.
"In the end he knew some of the angst that came to him when his team looked so raw and ill-shaped, when fashioning a few coherent moves let alone a striking victory seemed several bridges away. So much so that when the Welsh flailed away in the second-half rally – and came within one score of drawing level – it was the old guard, the ultimate one, who preserved the victory.
"Jonny Wilkinson kicked a reassuring penalty and made one of his classic tackles to preserve England's triumph but then that might just give the wrong impression."
A fiercely contested Six Nations opener left England with many reasons to be optimistic for the rest of the tournament. The Guardian's Richard Williams reports.
"Even before England opened the scoring in the 14th minute the white shirts had started to play with an infernal rhythm, moving precisely through their phases and waiting for Welsh indiscretions. Or, as it turned out, a piece of lamentable defending that allowed Toby Flood to glide through a corridor as wide as the M4 before feeding Chris Ashton for a 10-yard dash to the line.
"The wing raised his arm as he neared the line, just as he had done with his length-of-the-pitch effort against the Wallabies at Twickenham in November. It might be wise of him to save the gesture for his more spectacular efforts, of which there will no doubt be more. His second try, midway through the second half, requiring him to do no more than catch a simple pass, make two unopposed steps and fall over the line, offered no opportunity for a repeat.
"If neither of these sides is quite, on recent evidence, close to the standard of the very best of their predecessors, last night they provided a satisfying battle of age-old archetypes."
England's silencing of Warren Gatland and his Wales side at the Millennium Stadium sets them up for a strong assault on this year's Six Nations according the Daily Mail's Chris Foy.
"This may not sit alongside beating Australia in Sydney last June but it comes close, given how much was at stake and the hostility England faced.
"The result sends them into a series of home matches against Italy, France and Scotland with a realistic chance of mounting a strong challenge for the RBS Six Nations title.
"The door to glory stands ajar, ready to be forced open. Days after being honoured with a 2010 try-of-the-year award for his length-of-the-pitch classic against the Wallabies in November, Ashton took his scoring tally to five in seven Tests.
"But if his was the most eyecatching contribution, England were also well served by their physical, abrasive forwards, with debutant Tom Wood, fellow flanker James Haskell and lock Tom Palmer leading the charge.
"Dylan Hartley was wonderfully composed and delivered a masterful exhibition of line-out throwing as the perfect riposte to Wales coach Warren Gatland's pre-match barbs about his supposedly suspect temperament."
England headed across the Severn Bridge in an upbeat frame of mind with Martin Johnson declaring that they have the resources to take on all-comers. The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary reports.
"They are not even fussed as to whether the Millennium Stadium roof is shut. Wales prefer it closed as the decibel count within is ratcheted up in favour of the home support. England have the perfect opportunity to spoil that initiative. But no.
"We're very relaxed either way,'' said Johnson. ''If there's wind and rain about, we'll probably agree to close."
"Johnson's body language has always been indicative of a mood. It used to be the glower that caused mothers to lock up their daughters and opponents to duck. On Thursday it was the measured assurance of his persona that suggests the squad is in a good place. Of course, whether the Millennium proves to be another sort of place entirely is the issue. Johnson was asked if England were on the cusp of something special?
"We all know that we'll be on the cusp of something else if we don't win," said Johnson, the realist. ''It's now about playing the game."
"True. Perspectives change quickly in sport, the scoreboard an unforgiving ready reckoner. Stout of heart, though, and refreshed in body after a two-week build-up, England are full of hope that they can bring to an end their lamentable away record in the Six Nations. The RBS Six Nations championship has never had such a high-profile Friday night opener. Forget the tournament for the moment: this is a cup final."
Scotland coach Andy Robinson has urged his side to stand up and not be bullied by France in what he expects to be a giant battle in Paris on Saturday. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.
"Robinson has stuck with the majority of the side which took Scotland to a record high of sixth in the IRB World Rankings last year, claiming five wins in their last six games and taking the scalps of Ireland, Argentina (twice), South Africa and Samoa. However, that run of success came after an opening four matches in the Six Nations in which his team flattered to deceive, losing to France, Wales and Italy before hanging on for a draw with England at Murrayfield.
"Robinson and his assistants Gregor Townsend and Graham Steadman were then six months into the task, and now, a year on, they believe they are forming a team with a hard edge on the international stage. This would be a good championship in which to uncover a real attacking threat as Scotland head to New Zealand in September for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
"Robinson dismissed talk of that tournament as his squad flew out of the capital yesterday before howling gales and rain grounded planes, instead striving to focus on how his side might take control of the reigning Grand Slam champions in their intimidating back yard."
Tonight sees the Six Nations stakes raised to new level for Wales coach Warren Gatland - the Western Mail's Simon Thomas reports.
"There's no such thing as an unimportant Wales-England match, but seldom can the stakes have been as high as they are for tonight’s Millennium Stadium showdown.
"For Warren Gatland and his team, in particular, this is match of truly seismic significance.
"Gatland’s men are desperate for a victory against the old enemy for all kinds of different reasons. After a barren run of seven games without a win, they badly need to rediscover the winning habit from the point of view of confidence and self-belief.
"Defeat would leave them facing a tortuous and potentially disastrous Six Nations campaign, with three fixtures to come on the road. It would also be the worst possible start to a World Cup year and see the pressure on Gatland reach new heights.
"Conversely, a win would kick-start their championship crusade in the same way that opening day victories over England did in the Grand Slam years of 2005 and 2008. So you couldn’t really have a bigger game."
England scrum-half Ben Youngs has a maverick streak and a creative impulse that can see him join Wales' Gareth Edwards as one of the sport's greats - according to The Independent's James Lawton.
"Benjamin Ryder Youngs is not a trifling name but then nor are the possibilities for its 21-year-old owner. Astonishingly, in that he is making his first start in Six Nations rugby tonight against Wales, England's scrum-half is charged not only with making a strikingly decisive impression but maybe even setting the tournament's agenda.
"It is a tribute to something which might be described as instant gravitas, a potential to stride quickly beyond the line that separates the merely good players from the potentially great.
"Youngs may be in no more than the foothills of such ambition but there is no question he has created an extraordinary degree of expectation."
England's Ben Foden believes England's attacking potential will allow him full expression on the Millennium Stadium stage. The Guardian's Rob Kitson reports.
"Certain assumptions are made whenever Wales play England. Not because they are true but because cultural stereotypes are hard to shift. Thus it is that a large section of the home support will expect England to play snore-inducing rugby tomorrow night. Boring, boring England. They cannot attack the way the Welsh boys do. "Try and stay awake," sniggered the trailer for the England tactical segment on Scrum V when the BBC programme did its otherwise spot-on preview show.
"Boring? Even listening to Ben Foden for a few seconds is to understand English rugby is changing fast. Growing up just outside Chester, he knows a bit about Anglo-Welsh rivalry. "For years England were branded as a team who played very tight and used to grind out victories. People used to moan about it but now, with the players we've got, we can afford to play a wide game. I've always been an attacking player, I've always wanted to run with the ball. They haven't tried to rein me in."
"It is precisely this modernist attitude that has enabled England to stir from the creative coma into which they slipped post-2003. Foden studied drama at A-level and, in the nicest possible way, it shows. On the darkest of Welsh nights he still wants to sparkle."
England's Jonny Wilkinson is the latest subject of The Guardian's Small Talk.
"Anyway what about your favourite TV show? I don't actually watch that many. I tend to find other things to do while my other half watches a few of the soaps. When I'm at home and just doing something else I quite like having The Simpsons on in the background. I was watching The Inbetweeners a little bit when that was on. But to be honest one of the things I do find most incredible … on a Saturday, after a game, it's sometimes nice to be at home and the sheer escapism of watching You've Been Framed. Joy. Often involves a bit of rewinding and pausing.
"What would you tuck into for your final meal? I'm a big fan of chicken fajitas. And the odd curry as well. And I've always been a fan of mashed potatoes, chicken, things that are very, very simple. And we've just got a breadmaker, so we sometimes make some bread and stick some raisins in it. I'm a big fan of that as well.
"What's going in Room 101? Oof. Good question. I think I would put in … I tell you what. I bought Baywatch series one for my other half last Christmas. That's getting an airing at the moment, but it's actually quite impressive so that's not going in. It's going well."
"This chronic ability to surprise is one reason that the Northern Hemisphere’s premier international competition remains popular, even though it only sporadically produces of true quality. Self-appointed aficionados of top class rugby scorn this enduring regard, often by comparing the standard of rugby displayed with that of the Tri-Nations.
"Such criticism fails to appreciate properly the position of the Six Nations in both sport and rugby in this part of the world.
"Since the demise of football’s Home Internationals, there is no other regular opportunity for expression of national identity and good-natured enmity in the three most popular team sports, football, rugby and cricket, in Great Britain, Ireland and France. This, and the natural edge present in all versions of the local derby, adds millions of occasional fans and viewers yearly, without hugely expensive promotional campaigns and in this rugby is extremely fortunate.
"For the Home Internationals broadcasting committee, the body charged with selling the rights, protective listing removes the need to address the divisive and difficult problem of balancing the need for widespread coverage to drive participation and the basic need for cash to fund participation.
"Terrestrial TV provides much more of the former; satellite TV much more of the latter."
Declan Kidney showed his hand for Ireland’s opening Six Nations assignment in Rome this Saturday along largely anticipated lines although, of course, to a degree his options were limited, according to The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.
"With a dozen Test players sidelined, the team could perhaps be said to be operating at two-thirds of optimum level. Hence, three players will be making their first Six Nations starts, Mike Ross, Seán O’Brien and Fergus McFadden, yet only one of these Leinster tyros will be making their full Test debut, namely McFadden.
"Most of the damage in the casualty ward is in the backrow and the back three, and it’s an impressive statement of the customary loose forward strength in depth that in the absence of Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris, Ireland can still field Denis Leamy, David Wallace and O’Brien, with the in-form Shane Jennings on the bench.
"The permutation at the back was always going to be more untried, and the most eye-catching selection, in between McFadden and Keith Earls on the wings, is Luke Fitzgerald at fullback. After missing virtually all of last season after knee reconstruction, Fitzgerald hit the ground running this season.
"He had a couple of outings at fullback, his preferred position, for Leinster and also for Ireland against Samoa (out of 13 Test starts, his only one at fullback to date) but another knee injury against the All Blacks a week later interrupted his momentum. In truth, his three comeback matches for Leinster haven’t offered a compelling case on his behalf, though his last outing, against Racing, was the best of the three.
"But form is temporary, class is permanent. Fitzgerald seems simply to be trying a little too hard, and no doubt his coaches have said encouraging words in his ear, as has Brian O’Driscoll, something the Ireland skipper effectively admitted yesterday."
The Independent's Chris Hewett reflects on Martin Johnson's decision to hand Mike Tindall the England captaincy.
"It might reasonably be said that the injury problems affecting the full-time captain Lewis Moody have resulted in England being placed in the charge of a man operating in one of the team's problem areas, but precious few midfielders are putting up their hands for selection just at the moment. The obvious contenders are considered to be too lightweight, too flaky or too injury-prone.
"Olly Barkley, Dominic Waldouck and Dan Hipkiss fit into one or other of these categories, while the eternally unfortunate Mathew Tait is thought by the hierarchy to fit into all three. England are unlikely to turn away from Tindall until the brilliant Leicester teenager Manu Tuilagi reaches full flower.
"If the back division pretty much picked itself, Johnson and his back-room colleagues performed all sorts of contortions in rebuilding a line-out shorn of Moody, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes – three of their four "go-to men".
"The decision to play Louis Deacon, the Leicester tractor, ahead of the more gifted Simon Shaw had everything to do with the seizure of primary possession, as did the move to introduce the uncapped Tom Wood into the back row. Wood will wear the No 6 of the blindside flanker, with James Haskell clad in the openside's No 7 shirt. However, their roles will be largely interchangeable as they attempt to snuff out the threat of the ball-hungry Cardiff Blues turnover specialist Sam Warburton."
Andy Powell asked to marshall youthful Wales back-row and has set his sights on England debutant Tom Wood, writes The Guardian's Paul Rees.
"Andy Powell will on Friday make his first appearance in the Six Nations since the day, nearly a year ago, when he commandeered a golf buggy from outside Wales's base in the Vale of Glamorgan and set off down the M4 in search of breakfast. The Lions No8 was subsequently thrown out of the squad, charged with drink-driving and released by Cardiff Blues.
"A career that had taken in enough clubs to fill a golf bag appeared to be over. Although he was chosen in the squad for Wales's summer tour to New Zealand, he pulled out amid speculation that he was going to change codes and join the Crusaders. He remained in rugby union and enrolled in the school for lost souls at Wasps where he has rediscovered his zest for the game.
"As the 29-year-old sat today in the Wales hotel not far from where a number of buggies were awaiting a driver, it was clear that his country need him now as much as it ever has. Wales need a victory over England on Friday, and there was a palpable tension with even the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, failing to come up with a quip as he announced his starting line-up."
Peter Bills believes that injuries have robbed the Six Nations of its status as a world class competition in The Independent.
"Accept that and you’ll love the fun and frivolity in Cardiff this Friday night. You’ll have a ball marching down the Champs Elysees as a Scot on the morning of the France v Scotland game this Saturday afternoon. And if you’re one of the thousands of Irish fans in Rome, half of them wearing leprechaun suits and funny ginger beards, you’ll be up half the night in the Irish pubs of the Italian capital.
"But please, please – don’t pretend this is a top notch international level competition. It isn’t and it cannot be when so many of the best players won’t even make the trip to Cardiff, Paris or Rome.
"England will play Wales in Cardiff without two thirds of their best back row – their captain, Lewis Moody plus Tom Croft - and their most dynamic lock forward, Courtney Laws. They may yet also be without a replacement flank forward, Hendrie Fourie, which would mean a third choice guy would get the nod."
Hugh Farrelly takes a critical eye to a new-look Ireland selection for their Six Nations opener in The Irish Independent.
"One new cap, three players making their first Six Nations starts and a backline set on attack mode -- Ireland's team to take on Italy in Rome on Saturday represents something of a new departure.
"Of course, injuries have been a significant factor in this selection, but it has allowed Ireland coach Declan Kidney to set a fresh template, kicking on from the Grand Slam format of two years ago and pointing the way forward after a relatively disappointing 2010.
"Not least in the front-row where Kidney has, belatedly, turned to the scrummaging power of Mike Ross."
Robert Kitson takes a look at the importance of winning your away games in the Six Nations in The Guardian.
"The away trip. Try as they might, teams find life very different once they leave the security of home. How often have players uttered the time-honoured line: "It's just another field with the same-shaped posts." Who are they kidding? If away games are nothing to be worried about, how come visitors struggle so consistently? The green, green grass of home is a hugely powerful stimulant.
"Which leads us directly to the guts of this year's RBS Six Nations championship. Would you believe that, statistically, the best travellers in Six Nations history are the French? As the statistics below reveal, they have won 18 games out of a possible 27 on foreign soil in the past 11 seasons. Contrast that with, say, Scotland who have won away just four times over the same period. England? Guess how many victories they have managed away from Twickenham in their last 16 Six Nations forays? Answer: Four. Three of those were in Rome and one in Paris. You have to rewind seven years to locate the last English away win against a rival home union."
Gavin Mairs talks to one of Ireland's brightest hopes - Leinster flanker Sean O'Brien - in The Daily Telegraph.
"Sean O’Brien. Remember the name. If the Leinster back-row forward does not yet enjoy a high profile beyond the shores of Ireland, there is a good chance he will be a household name across the home unions by the end of the RBS Six Nations Championship.
"The Carlow-born 23 year-old has, quite simply, been the outstanding player of the Heineken Cup pool stages, one of the main reasons the Irish province finished as the second-best ranked side in the quarter-finals from a pool that contained heavyweight opposition in Saracens, Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro.
"O’Brien, playing his first full Heineken Cup campaign, scored four tries as Leinster won five out of their six pool matches, with his ball-carrying and phenomenal work rate earning him his first start for Ireland against Samoa last November. The Amlin Opta match statistics for Leinster’s victory over Saracens at the RDS Arena in Dublin in January reveal just what a potent attacker he has become in a side which includes such forces of nature as Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa."
Donald McRae talks to Wales coach Warren Gatland about building a culture of honesty among his squad in The Guardian.
"As Warren Gatland relaxes in his chair, running a meaty hand through his spiky grey hair, the softly spoken New Zealander seems to be the opposite of a finger-pointing controversialist. The 47-year-old coach of Wales, who play England in Cardiff on Friday evening in a humdinger of a Six Nations opener, appears as amusing as he is thoughtful. And yet few other men in international rugby cause the stir a cheerful Gatland creates with his cutting words.
"It makes for an intriguing mix whether Gatland is questioning the temperament of England's hooker, Dylan Hartley, a New Zealand-raised firebrand, or looking candidly at the flaws in his own team. Last year he blamed Alun Wyn Jones for Wales's defeat at Twickenham, when the lock was sent to the sin-bin at a vital stage in the match against England. More recently, in November, Gatland announced that he had stripped Ryan Jones of the captaincy after the final whistle against Fiji, when a disappointing draw had resulted from the flanker conceding a late penalty.
"We're trying to create an honest environment," Gatland says, acknowledging that Wales are in the midst of a terrible slump. "We don't want to be running away from things or trying to hide. We should be hunting out the challenges. And that's something that not all the players, or the Welsh people, are comfortable with: being self-critical or critical of others. But if we're going to improve that's something we've got to continually address."
Gavin Mairs talks to Andy Powell as the Wales No.8 prepares to go up against some familiar faces in England shirts in The Daily Telegraph.
"Yet for 80 minutes on Friday night the 29 year-old intends to suspend all the positive experiences he has enjoyed as a Welshman who, in the aftermath of the ‘Buggygate’ controversy, went to England to rediscover both himself and his love for rugby.
"Instead he will revert to the boy from Brecon who first dreamt of playing for Wales when he picked up a rugby ball at his local high school at the age of 11.
"There will be no mixed emotions. He loves his new life in London, where he lives in an apartment at Vauxhall Bridge, and can be as anonymous as the next man on the tube."
Hugh Farrelly runs the rule over the options available to Ireland coach Declan Kidney against Italy in The Irish Independent.
"When Ireland's senior and Wolfhounds squads were announced last week, it was immediately apparent there would be some movement between the two before the team was named to take on Italy.
"The three leading candidates for elevation from the second string were scrum-half Tomas O'Leary, tight-head Tony Buckley and full-back Gavin Duffy and, while Buckley's hamstring problem in the disappointing defeat to Scotland 'A' mitigated against his chances, the other two were duly included in the 26-man senior panel for Rome that will be whittled down to 22 this afternoon.
"As was Kevin McLaughlin, the Leinster blindside who made his debut against Italy at Croke Park last season but has been chronically short on game time this season due to injury. The trio of call-ups spelt bad news for Peter Stringer and Mike McCarthy, who were cut from the senior squad as a result."
Wales are facing a critical period of Warren Gatland’s tenure as coach, according to Barry John in the Wales on Sunday.
"Any sportsman will tell you the more a winless run goes on, the harder it becomes to stop the rot.
"There is no more demoralising thing than trudging back into the dressing room having lost yet another hard, competitive game. And it’s no wins in the last seven for Wales at the moment, including that horrible draw with Fiji which was tantamount to a defeat anyway.
"What I would like to see, as we get ready in hope for another Championship, is an end to some of these cliches we keep hearing from the Welsh camp.
“We’ve got to give an 80 minute performance.”
“We’re close to beating one of these teams.”
“We’ve got to take the positives from the defeat.”
"Let’s walk the walk and actually win a game, rather than talk about it. Because, when you look across a changing room at one another after yet another defeat, believe me you know the words uttered are pretty meaningless."
Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton talks to the Irish Independent's David Kelly about finding peace in his Kerry sanctuary, the long wait for his big break with Leinster and becoming a Lion in 2013.
"He's currently involved in a tug of war between the IRFU and, if one adheres to the bush telegraph, Stade Francais, current home to his former coach Cheika. It would be an interesting reunion. There is a perception that Cheika, Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning coach, never really trusted youth in general and Sexton in particular; were it not for Contepomi's jarring injury in that 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park, would Sexton ever have got his opportunity to break through? The player himself is unambiguous.
"I made my decisions at the time. Looking back they were good decisions, obviously there was a little bit of luck.Young guys now have to make these decisions. You have to just make the decision you think is best and whatever happens. If someone told me what was going to happen, I wouldn't have taken them seriously.
"Maybe I deserved the break. I wouldn't have wished anything on Felipe but I was playing well in March and April, Michael was saying he was going to start me, then he didn't so... you get what you deserve. Some guys don't get what they deserve. But listen. If I was the coach back then, with a 22-year-old who hadn't a load of big games, and you have Felipe who's had hundreds and was a World Cup veteran, I'd have made the same decision. Naturally, I wasn't thinking like that at the time. You can't blame Michael for that."
Cheika is currently getting blamed for upsetting Sexton yet again; this time in his supposedly dogged pursuit of the Irish out-half, whose contract negotiations with the IRFU trundle on lethargically.Whoever is codding whoever else, Sexton seems genuinely annoyed at the sense of lingering ennui; his loyalty to Leinster is being openly questioned by some supporters. It's clear he wants to stay in Dublin; it is others who are haggling over the price tag."
Time to make the southern hemisphere sit up and take notice
The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary believes this year's Six Nations offers the perfect opportunity to cause a stir in the southern hemisphere.
"We want drama and edge and intensity, the thrill of tight matches, the uplift, too, of sublime individual skill. But if there is one added element we require of this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship it is that it makes the southern superpowers sleep that bit less easily in their beds.
"Of course, a Six Nations tournament has its own dynamic, with the settling of age-old sporting enmities played out to a splendid tribal backdrop. That offstage colour has its place, and the matches are ends in themselves. The here and now does matter. But in a World Cup year there is more to it than all that. There is a wider significance.
"If the northern hemisphere is to trouble those from south of the equator in nine months’ time then the countries have to start showing some sort of hand right now."
The Independent's James Corrigan refuses to shed a tear at the prospect of the last Six Nations match staged on a Friday night with a proposed rail strike set to cause carnage.
"It will be mayhem on Westgate Street, down St Mary's Street, all the way on to the Taff embankment and up to the castle. Because of the RMT's selfless action, an estimated 30,000 rugby fans from the valleys will be stranded in the capital. All seshed up, nowhere to go.
"As the night becomes older, the beer becomes warmer and the homing instinct kicks in; the scene will be like a cross between Max Boyce, Live at Treorchy and Dawn of the Dead. Arms outstretched, men and women in red scarves will wander around in confused oblivion, communicating to each other in primeval tones. To the uninitiated ear, their guttural screams will sound something like "Oggy, Oggy, Oggy". And the "Oi, Oi, Ois" will proceed to bounce around the city skyscrapers, peering down on one almighty mess.
"It will take days, if not weeks to clear it all up. Then the inquiry shall begin. It won't be enough for the Welsh Rugby Union – those fearless representatives of the blazer brigade – to blame the RMT. Because the revelation will emerge that the English didn't show up in anything like their normal numbers.
"Hey, the white-shirted masses needed no rail strike to put them off travelling. When it gets dark, the trains stop running from Cardiff to Paddington as a matter of course."
orget the Gatland-Hartley spat, the real action in the Six Nations could boil down to an Ireland v England title scrap. Eddie Butler writes in The Observer.
"At the risk of appearing unamused by the exchanges between the camps of England and Wales, based on the observations of one North Island hooker on another, I should like to start with an assessment of the other two games on the opening weekend of the 2011 Six Nations, Italy v Ireland and France v Scotland. Well, almost.
"What Warren Gatland and Dylan Hartley think of each other adds deliciously to the soup of class-, race-, wealth-war that has raged since time immemorial in the build-up to the days – and now the night – when Wales play England at rugby. And if you do not think there is a genuine antagonism surrounding the fixture, a history that stretches back more than 100 years, and from the cow country of New Zealand to the middle of Friday's front rows, then you must take your place behind the barricades that divide the sides in a war of artificial manufacture. For the next few days, whatever you think, you are going to have a row.
"Before getting lost in the banter, though, may I tentatively make the suggestion that Ireland are going to find it extremely tough in Rome, but that they will pull through and build thereafter to make their showdown with England on the tournament's final day, Saturday 19 March, the championship decider. Ireland start without Jamie Heaslip, but Sean O'Brien has the look of a back-row forward who does not care whether he is given the No6, 7 or 8 shirt, so furious is his desire to make an impact."
Everywhere you look there are arguments for each of the Six Nations to do well in this year's Championship but the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford insists there are still some issues to resolve.
"This is not another diatribe against the punishing nature of professional rugby. It’s more selfish than that. Injuries deprive coaches and fans from seeing the elite in action.
"For this first weekend alone Ireland are struggling for wings, Wales for a front row and England for a back row. I don’t want to watch second rate stand-ins. I want to watch the best against the best and that’s just not possible any more.
"Yet it’s more insidious than that. Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy are disproportionately affected by injuries. With fewer professional teams and players, they find it harder to accommodate the loss of their marquee men.
"The last round of the championship pits Ireland against England and France against Wales. How lamentable if those matches are tilted simply by the fact that England and France have a bigger pool of talent to plunder."
The Irish Times' talks to Ireland coach Declan Kidney about how he and his staff are trying to hone the team’s skills set in order to implement their newer game plan.
"There was the hiccup of his inaugural autumnal Test series, but this was quickly followed by a Grand Slam. Follow that! Ireland haven’t, and in the course of using 58 players – 23 of them debutants – the 90 per cent winning ratio of his first season has now dipped to 69 per cent. It’s still healthy, but Declan Kidney is, once again, in part becoming a victim of his own success.
"It is a results business, and for all the need to broaden both Ireland’s game and player base, he and his coaching staff will be scrutinised more closely and critically this season. But whatever pressure he feels under, he has always masked it well – publicly at any rate. This week in the Stand Hotel in Limerick, he strides through the dining area off the main lobby as unobtrusively as ever, smiling and relaxed.
"His readiness with statistics could make him a decent pundit, or at any rate a research assistant, if he was ever of a mind to, which in turn helps him deflect the pressure or, if needs be, reduce expectations. The last match and the next match are all that matters, and the gap in between the last one against Argentina and the next one, in Rome next Saturday, has been nine weeks and counting."
Injuries are biting, but Ireland look well placed for the long season that lies ahead, according to the Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning.
"Never mind Stephen Ferris, it was when Tommy Bowe's name was added to the list of casualties last week that people began to struggle with the notion of every cloud having a nice little trim of silver. It had been an extraordinarily protracted process, seeing if the wing's knee would be up to it or not.
"Lumping him in with Andrew Trimble -- he has a lot of bad luck with his hands, that lad -- Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney, made it a uniquely stressed area of the team coming into a Six Nations Championship.
"Ireland fans are consoling themselves that it's only Italy first up, albeit in Rome. And that while a year ago the prospect of going to work without Jamie Heaslip was unthinkable, the emergence of Sean O'Brien has meant that we can get on with the job."
The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison reports from Scotland A's victory over the Irish Wolfhounds on Friday night.
"The great and the good of Scottish rugby joined a very healthy crowd at Netherdale on Friday evening to witness the Scotland A team win a match they looked destined, even determined, to lose in the first half.
"It wasn't just the Scottish management team of Andy Robinson, Graham Lowe and Gregor Townsend, Ireland were represented by national coach Declan Kidney and forward boss Gert Smal. They were there to cast an eye over the likes of Tomas O'Leary, Tony Buckley, the giant lock Devlin Toner and, especially, Gavin Duffy who did his chances of starting in Rome no harm at all with an assured performance at fullback. Afterwards Robinson shook hands with his opposite number and exchanged small talk, both men knowing the real test is yet to come.
"This was a bizarre match with all the action in the one half of the pitch. Ireland dominated the first half and Scotland the second. With Edinburgh struggling this season you might wonder how an A team with ten of their players in the starting line up, including six of the seven backs, managed to beat a strong Ireland side. The answer is that it was the forwards that won this match."
WalesOnline's Simon Thomas has been trawling through the archives and picking the brains of rugby enthusiasts around the country to come up with the definitive list of the greatest Six Nations players ever.
"1. Gareth Edwards (Wales) - Who else could it be? Regularly voted the greatest rugby player of all time, Edwards lit up the championship for more than a decade. He played for his country 53 consecutive times, 45 of those appearances coming in the Five Nations, where he scored 18 tries. The pick of those was his effort against Scotland in 1972, a hand-off launched long-range chip and chase burst up the touchline that the great Spike Milligan said should have been marked by the construction of a cathedral at the spot where Edwards dived over in the shale-covered corner."
England last won the Six Nations in 2003 but England manager Martin Johnson believes the integration of new talent is about to bear fruit. The Observer's Paul Hayward writes.
"Like the M25 widening, the British Library project or the high-speed Channel rail link, the reconstruction of the England rugby team seems to have taken forever, especially in the Six Nations Championship, where no English finger has touched the trophy since 30 March 2003 in Dublin, eight embarrassingly long years ago.
"The digits belonged to Martin Johnson, captain of the grand slam and soon-to-be World Cup winning side, whose job it is to assure us the train of English power will be back any time now. At last week's Six Nations launch Johnson answered the same questions in the same setting with an identical sense taking hold that England need to stop talking about progress and get their mitts on some silver.
"Since Johnson's heavies overwhelmed a fine Irish XV at the old Lansdowne Road England have finished third, second, fourth, third, second, second and third. World leaders in 2003, they have not been the best team in northern Europe since fielding a team who still trip off the tongue: Lewsey; Robinson, Greenwood, Tindall, Cohen; Wilkinson, Dawson; Rowntree, Thompson, Leonard, Johnson, Kay, Hill, Back, Dallaglio."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mick Cleary reveals that centre Mike Tindall is set to be handed the England captaincy in the absence of the injured Lewis Moody.
"The Gloucester centre will have to pass a fitness test, though, when the squad reassemble at their Pennyhill Park base in Surrey on Sunday.
"Tindall was forced to leave England’s camp in the Algarve on Wednesday to return home for an MRI scan on a bruised thigh that took a heavy blow during a training session. The scan revealed no deep-rooted damage and Tindall hopes to be able to play a full part in the build-up to what is already shaping up to be a seminal fixture in the tournament.
"It had been expected that Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter would assume the reins in the short-term absence of Lewis Moody. Easter acquitted himself well in the captain’s role against Samoa but Tindall, as well as Moody, were rested for that match.
"Martin Johnson, the England manager, was quick to point out at the Six Nations launch in London on Wednesday that Moody remained the man to take his country through to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September.
"The Bath flanker, who has been in Portugal with England and taken part in team meetings, is sidelined with a knee injury but is very confident that he will have recovered in time for the third match of the championship against France on Feb 26."
The Scotsman's David Ferguson talks to Scotland's Nathan Hines on the eve of this year's Six Nations.
"He has acquired the nickname "The Guv'nor" and is in charge of dishing out punishment to players who transgress within the Scotland camp. But, for all that he is the most experienced, or more accurately oldest, member of Andy Robinon's squad, Nathan Hines was still reluctant this week to book a flight from his home in Dublin back to Edinburgh tomorrow to rejoin his Scotland teammates in preparation for the opening RBS Six Nations Championship.
It was nothing to do with any unwillingness to play, no return to the dark period in his career when he quit Test rugby after becoming disillusioned by the direction in which Matt Williams was taking Scotland but simply a somewhat reassuring blend of the excitement he still feels at representing his country and refusal to take his place in the squad for granted.
"The boy from Wagga Wagga in Australia turned 34 in November, which makes him nearly five years older than new captain and second row rival, Al Kellock. In fact, he headed a group of just six players in last week's 34-man squad born in the 1970s with Chris Paterson, Dan Parks, Allan Jacobsen, Simon Danielli and Scott MacLeod the others."
Warren Gatland has warned his under-achieving Wales stars he is ready to get tough for the most important matches of his reign. The Western Mail's Gareth Griffiths reports.
"Gatland said he would be his way or the highway from here on in as he looks to turn a winless run of seven matches into victory against England on Friday at the start of World Cup year.
"With just six days to go before the massive Six Nations opener at the Millennium Stadium, which Wales must win to set a positive tone for the year, Gatland has already put down the law by axing veteran forward Martyn Williams.
"And the tough-talking Kiwi says compromising with the players, as he says he has done in recent times, is over. The Welsh coach warned he will return to the hard-nosed approach which brought 2008 Grand Slam success .... and told his stars they can quit if they object."
Defending champions France have had a woeful year but could prevail again in this year's Six Nations according to The Independent's Chris Hewett.
"There is experimentation, there is inconsistency of selection, and there is France under the stewardship of Marc Lièvremont.
If the head coach has a free hand when it comes to picking a team, some in the land of Les Bleus accuse him of abusing the privilege. He likes Julien Dupuy, the goal-kicking scrum-half from Stade Français; he doesn't like Julien Dupuy. He chooses Mathieu Bastareaud at centre because he's massive, then dumps him when the speak-your-weight machine says "one at a time, please". Julien Malzieu, the Clermont Auvergne wing, gets a chance after performing like a world-beater, then performs like a world-beater and is dropped. Asked to calculate the number of players capped by Lièvremont since 2008, Stephen Hawking is alleged to have replied: "What do you take me for? A genius?"
A week before the big kick-off, The Guardian's Rob Kitson considers the Six Nations teams and predicts how the tournament will finish.
"Don't let the bookmakers lull you into a sense of false security. Yes, England are narrow favourites to win their first title since 2003 but they are also entering a defining period. Should Martin Johnson not guide his team into the top two, as per the target given him by his chief executive John Steele, the chance of him picking the team for England's first game of the 2012 tournament, against Scotland, will look remote and all signs of autumn progress will be exposed as a frustrating illusion. The World Cup? Don't hold your breath.
"The good news is that last-chance saloons tend to bring out the best in English packs. Dan Cole, Andrew Sheridan and Simon Shaw should ensure a solid platform while the scrum-half Ben Youngs has transformed the speed and reliability of the team's option-taking. Ben Foden is in electric form at full-back and Chris Ashton's support running is world-class. Even Jonny Wilkinson is back to kick some match-winning goals. England will expect to beat France and Italy at home but, from a dynamism point of view, the absence of Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes is a potential handicap and much will depend on the teams' ability to start well and to stay cool in tight situations towards the end of matches; the field is too bunched to allow many runaway winners. Win decisively in Wales and memories of past failures will start to fade."
Wales boss Warren Gatland has revealed that he was contacted by the Rugby Football Union about coaching England and the director of elite rugby post. The Guardian's Paul Rees reports.
"Warren Gatland has antagonised England ahead of next week's Six Nations opener in Cardiff by revealing he was approached three times by the Rugby Football Union before taking charge of Wales.
"Gatland, who was the Wasps director of rugby for four seasons up to 2002, claims he was contacted by headhunters about taking up the role of elite rugby director before Rob Andrew was appointed in 2006. He says he was then twice contacted about the England coach's job during the following year's World Cup after the team had suffered a heavy defeat by South Africa in their pool.
"Gatland was seen as a strong choice because of his success in England, together with the ties he had made with the Premiership clubs who, at that stage, were reluctant to agree a new deal with the RFU over the management of elite players, as well as the three years he spent coaching Ireland from 1998."
England manager Martin Johnson is wary of the challenge posed by Scotland in this year's Six Nations. The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.
"With Scotland and England also poised to meet in the World Cup in September, Johnson, the England manager, insisted he viewed Scotland as a dangerous side in this year's Six Nations, on account of their improvement and results under [Andy] Robinson in 2009/10.
"He said: "Scotland have beaten South Africa and Australia over the past year and won away in Ireland and gone to Argentina and won, so they could win every game they play in this tournament, which gives them a chance of winning the tournament.
"I think the whole field has actually come together. I think Ireland are coming under the radar because nobody is talking about them too much that I've seen, and they'll probably enjoy that. But everyone will be thinking 'if we get it right, we can win this'. People might say we're favourites but there are three teams that have won a Grand Slam in the last three years and we're not one of them so things can change very quickly."
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore asks whether France's dominance of the Heineken Cup will be reflected in the Six Nations.
"The presence of four French quarter-finalists, Perpignan Toulouse, Toulon and Biarritz, is no accident and you cannot say any of them have been fortunate to progress this far. This year’s Heineken is a reflection of the strength of the French domestic league and its powerful purse.