Brent Pope: Ireland are playing to their strengths
APART from Italy, a team that at least tries to play some positive, creative rugby, this season's Six Nations Championship is proving to be one of the tightest in recent memory.
Even though the Ireland v English clash, the weekend after this, is perhaps already seen as the defining game, it seems that all teams, possibly the Italians apart, are capable of beating each other.
Right from the outset of this championship I thought that Ireland had the ability to retain the Six Nations trophy, I also felt that there wouldn't be an outright Grand-slam winner, that in fact all the main contenders would cough up at least one game.
If you look at all the remaining games none of the results are clearly written in stone.
Ireland are in a pretty good place after two wins from two starts, and when captain Paul O'Connell threw his arms up after last week's win you realised just what it meant to take down France in successive years.
O'Connell is one of the older Irish players, players that rarely had the chance to savour a win over Les Blues yet some of his younger team-mates must have be thinking "What is all the fuss about Paulie we have never lost to them".
Joe Schmidt has this Irish team playing to their strengths, he also it seems has a game-plan tailored for every opposition.
For instance against Italy Ireland kicked a lot of first phase possession for territory, but against France Ireland changed tack and started the game by running the ball from deep and moving the big French pack from side to side with ball in hand.
Schmidt is known for his attention to detail, sitting up into the small hours of the morning constructing a plan that exposes opposition teams' weaknesses.
In other years we sometimes struggled to see any discernible way that Irish teams actually played, but under the adopted Kiwi Ireland seem to have a blueprint for almost every team, just look at the results under Schmidt's tutelage.With Johnny Sexton, Seán O'Brien and Cian Healy all another game to the good, coupled with the emergence and improvement of players like Dominic Ryan, Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw Ireland has every right to feel that if they can just get over England's physicality and ability to scrum (Ireland's Achilles heel) then the possibility of something truly special is on.
The Welsh match in Cardiff a week later has always worried me from the onset, not because I believe that Wales are a superior side, they are not.
I just fear that if Ireland do beat England they may just be lulled into thinking that Wales will be easier, but it will be tough in Cardiff.
Wales and their ex-Irish coach Warren Gatland will be waiting in the long grass to avenge last year's humiliating loss in the Aviva.
Wales have an almost all Lions backline that featured in Australia a couple of years ago but the game has moved on.
Outstanding in aerial combat, Wales still do not have much subtlety in the way they play the game, and that has often been Gatland's style, building teams, albeit successfully, around a few key players, extreme fitness and a simple bludgeoning game-plan.
When you have a backline containing the likes of Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North and Alex Cuthbert it is not rocket science as to what to expect, and teams are now reading them.
To be effective those big men need quality front foot ball, and with the likes of Gethin Jenkins now well past his sell buy date and with the Jones boys out to pasture Wales are struggling in the set-piece game not helped by visible infighting on the field.
Under Vern Cotter there is no bickering and the Scottish Bravehearts are currently boxing well above their weight and actually have perhaps the best back-three combination in the championship with full-back Stuart Hogg the standout player from all the games to date.
The problem for Scotland is an inability to close out close games and getting enough ball to their back-three.
The Hogg try in the first half against Wales was more the result of a Welsh turnover than Scotland actually creating anything, and Scotland will struggle as the championship goes on, especially now that they have lost some key men.
Their impact bench also looks fairly weak and inexperienced when compared to the other teams. Scotland counter-ruck exceptionally well under Cotter but that statistic says something too, mainly that the Scots are defending for too long.
Last week against Wales, Scotland had just 15 per cent of the possession in the second half, that shows that (a) defending all day long will soon become tiring and (b) that despite all the ball Wales cannot create much themselves.
France showed a slight improvement last week against Ireland, despite having a coach who can't motivate them or select his best team. With Morgan Parra surely restored to scrumhalf and a strong scrum, France could still upset the likes of Wales and England, but they are too predictable, one dimensional and badly need some team spirit, something that seems to have been lacking for a number of years.
Next week I will examine where Ireland will try and beat England.