LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN, 19 FEBRUARY

What a terrific rugby weekend we enjoyed last week – exhilarating, spectator-stuff, a true joy to watch, from the Six Nations internationals to the domestic matches in the UK.

It is difficult to take on Ireland, on their home soil, even without crowds in the stand. France went with a purpose and played well to a man to secure a narrow win from the committed Irish, and are now in the driving seat for the Grand Slam.

Planet Rugby called the French scrumhalf Antoine du Pont (photo), “the best player in the world”, following another awesome display, and I’d agree – he’s at least the best Number 9 in the world! The Irish, however hard they tried, will have to go back to the drawing board, with coach Andy Farrell likely to feel some pressure.

To me the top game, however, was the one between Wales and Scotland, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, as both sides came with the intent to play the game properly, and to win!

Scotland, weakened from the 53rd minute by a red card handed to Zander Fagerson (who had to walk when his shoulder connected with Wyn Jones’ head at the breakdown), battled resolutely against an even more tenacious Welsh outfit, Wales up by a single point when the final whistle blew.

My son, Jimbo, came on as a substitute for the Welsh with 18 minutes to play, he acquitted himself well in what was to be a winning team and, as always, I am very proud of him.

With the score in the frame, I have to note that this was a game of two halves. Scotland, arguably, had matters in their grip with the score at 17-8 when they broke for half-time. They should’ve put the score out of reach before then, but they allowed the dogged men in red jerseys too much breathing space and paid the price.

England made some improvement in their encounter against Italy, but weren’t overly convincing with Italy scoring the first try. England won 41-18, but that doesn’t mean too much considering the Azzuri hasn’t won a game since September 2018.

England are not the well-oiled machine they used to be, and can be. There is some grit in the machinery, something wrong in the Eddie Jones camp. I can’t put my finger on it, and I hope they get their act together sooner than later.

Meanwhile Jack Willis sustained extensive damage to his left leg on his Six Nations debut against Italy after a ‘crocodile roll’ by Sebastian Negri; Wasps head coach Lee Blackett says this wonderful flanker could miss the remainder of the season.

I have plenty of respect for Willis, he’s from the top drawer and I’d like to convey my best wishes to him in this tough time, hoping for a full and speedy recovery.

Rule makers need to look at Negri’s tackle on Willis – it is something that could’ve been prevented with a rule in place.

In my rugby-loving home we already can’t wait for the next round of Six Nations matches, a fortnight away. France is rock solid on top, with Wales the surprise package alongside them. The Welsh play England at home on Saturday week, and what a thriller that promises to be. France will be at home to the Scots and Italy will hope that their home advantage will make a difference against Ireland, whose claims to Six Nations Glory are dashed but their pride remains.

With no relegation threats over the Premiership due to Covid, we saw some interesting results last week. Bath, away from home, beat Sale by 27-22, and in another surprise, Gloucester came mighty close to giving the log-toppers, Bristol, a beating.

I can tell you that, in normal times when the relegation structures apply, there is immense pressure on the players at the top and the bottom of the table. I believe that, with the pressure now off their shoulders, players from all teams are able to deliver their natural talents more readily.

This goes some way to support the notion that an absence of pressure can act as a leveller, and that the divisions between these players aren’t as wide as they seem when the pressure is on and a range of binding tactics often come into play.

Let’s go on to this weekend’s Premiership encounters:

This evening, Bath faces Gloucester in the West County Derby, the former off a good win and the latter full of confidence after taking Bristol to a photo finish. Players to watch are Gloucester winger Louis Reez Zammit, a force for Wales against Scotland last week, coming up against his team mate Taulupe Feletaau, in the back row for Bath.

This should be exciting, I’ll be locked to my screen and I’m siding with Bath to have the edge.

Harlequins were well in control at Leicester last week, winning by 12 points. With momentum on their side, they’ll fancy themselves on Saturday to beat Sale, surprise losers to Bath last week and perhaps a little out of sorts. Harlequins to win.

Exeter play Northampton at home, and one would expect them to win, even though Northampton are playing well and are placed fifth on the Premiership Table. Exeter to win.

A resurgent Leicester faces Wasps, who have been treading water, and this one could go either way but I’ll go for a home victory for Leicester.

On Sunday, London Irish, having won two of their last three, come up against Bristol. LI are likely to give a decent account, but Bristol should be back to a higher level after last week’s scare and will start warm favourites. They should win.

On to the Pro-14, and we have two games today: Glasgow vs Ulster and the Newport Dragons vs Leinster.  On form, I predict Irish wins in both matches – Ulster over Glasgow, Leinster over Dragons.

Saturday sees the Scarlets take on Benetton in Llanelli. The home team will want to end their three-match losing streak. As noted recently, the Italians are showing some improvement under Paul Gustard and this could be a close contest, but I’ll side with Scarlets.

Wales scrumhalf Rhys Webb will captain the Ospreys against Zebre in the 17:15 match, but this game has upset potential. If there is to be a surprise, it could come here, in a close match.

Edinburgh and Munster both won their respective matches against Zebre and Benetton at the end of January, which makes their own encounter Saturday all the more interesting. This could go down to the wire, Munster the marginal fancy.

Finally, a potentially tough contest between Connacht at home in Galway to the Cardiff Blues. There are some internationals set to return and, again, it’s hard to make a confident call on this one, an interesting duel in which returning Welsh winger Owen Lane is the man to watch.

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