With one round down, we look at how each game is shaping up this weekend after early wins for Ireland, Wales and England. We'll add the teams as and when they are named.
Wales v England
Having won five in a row, Wales will have their tails up, but an almost full-strength England will be an entirely different proposition to any of their recent opponents.
What was impressive about Wales against Italy is how they stuck to their task, stayed patient despite going behind early, and pulled away in the second half, where they kept the Italians scoreless.
That gritty resolve will be needed against England this weekend, but they have reason to be confident, not least the performance of a well organised pack with Carys Philips, Rachel Taylor and Shona Powell-Hughes providing plenty of high points last weekend.
They will have noticed that England looked shaky at times in the scrum and remain susceptible to leaking tries from driving lineouts – something Wales did well against Italy – and it would not be a surprise to see them attempt to rattle England there early on. What they will need to be is disciplined. A high penalty count last weekend would have been much more costly against a less wasteful side and with Emily Scarratt’s kicking form, it certainly will be if that’s repeated.
For England’s part, they’ll be much happier that in a game of two halves, it was the second 40 minutes that saw them spring to life, leaving them with some justified positive momentum going into the week’s training. Rusty in defence in the opening half and wobbly at the set-piece, England came good later in the game, down not just to their superior fitness but also down to much smarter play with Katy Mclean getting key players like Danielle Waterman and Scarrat much more involved against a tiring French defence, which in the end just couldn’t put enough bodies on the line when it mattered.
They key to beating England is staying with them for 80 minutes and it’s a challenge that I cannot see many sides achieving in this tournament. They are well conditioned, with their long-term focus on fitness and their professionalism paying dividends, and they have a better bench than any side can muster. If Wales are within touching distance after an hour, they will have to frankly bust a gut for the remaining 20, when England will be at their strongest.
France v Scotland
The French looked visibly shell-shocked at the end of the game against Twickenham, having conceded 26 unanswered points in the second half.
In a game which at one point they looked on a path to victory, it was quite some collapse, yet you always felt that the French were vulnerable, despite their 13 point head start. Their positives will not just be how they scrummed and drove lineouts – their traditional strength – but in how they are starting to widen their attacking game. Christelle Le Duff did a good job in the first half of bringing players like Shannon Izar and Caroline Ladagnous into the game, with smart inside passes and offloading making France look once again like an all-round threat.
But there are a lot of problem issues to focus on. Once England got going, the French defence was opened up far too easily and while their commitment to playing a wider game is admirable, it took them away from where they are traditionally strong – clearly this new style will take some time to develop. Fitness over the 80 minutes will be a concern – France visibly tired, and though most sides will struggle in this area against England, it’s an area they’ll have to continue working on.
Scotland in that regard are probably ideal next opponents. France rarely lose at home and these days even more rarely lose to Scotland. Having failed to get even a losing bonus point last weekend, they’ll be targeting a full haul this weekend.
Scotland too looked devastated walking off the pitch at the weekend – their best chance at a win in years blown. Missed kicks at goal and a failure to convert enough pressure into points more generally will hang heavy in their match analysis this week but even with a loss, there will surely be an air of optimism that genuine progress is being made.
Everyone wants a competitive Scottish team and you felt that most supporters of the tournament who weren’t Irish, were willing them on Friday night. They have certainly improved their basics under Shade Munro, who is regarded by most as an outstanding coach, and with the ball carrying of their backrow including the hard running Jade Konkel and Louise McMillan, they are offering a much greater threat around the fringes. But they will have to be less wasteful with scoring opportunities, especially if they don’t have a kicker of the calibre of say an Emily Scarratt and clinical finishing will be key if they are to have a chance against France away from home.
It is more likely that the real chances for Scotland to get a win come later in the tournament, even if they match the French physicality as they did last year, France are almost always better at home. Certainly Scotland will not fear teams like Italy and Wales like they might have done in recent years. A good performance and a point would be enough to build on their momentum this weekend, although they may not admit that in the lead-up.
Italy v Ireland
This one has the potential of a banana skin for Ireland, who were by their own admission poor against Scotland and who were lucky to grab all five points, when the draw looked a much fairer return.
Ireland are currently missing their captain and kicker Niamh Briggs and her return along with the return of lock Sophie Spence, likely later in the tournament, will make them a different outfit. But this weekend they must focus on Italy – a side who failed to fire against Wales but who can and have caused Ireland difficulty. Simply put, Ireland will need to be 40-50% better this weekend. If they can display more accuracy, more discipline and tighten up on their ruck-side defence, then they have more than enough firepower to beat Italy.
Ailsa Hughes has added a nice passing dimension to Ireland, which should allow Nora Stapleton a chance to play a litter wider and bring the lines of Jen Murphy and Mairead Coyne (or Briggs on her return) off her shoulder, while up front Ireland simply need to be a little more direct.
With the time they are taking to settling into 2017, Ireland must be quietly relieved their opening two games are against Scotland and Italy – they would not have been so lucky against a better team last weekend.
Italy drew a decent crowd for their first home match and have the benefit of being at home again in round 2. That should stand to them – Ireland will have now travelled twice in the opening week of the tournament – but they didn’t show quite enough against Wales to suggest they are the most likely victors this weekend. As usual Sara Barratin and Manuela Furlan were excellent in the backs, but their defence up front was negative at times, allowing Wales way too much time and space to run at them. When they had chances late in the game, they were wasteful and accuracy is so vital in this competition that they can’t afford a repeat this weekend.
With Scotland on the rise, Italy will be mindful that a loss this weekend increases their chances of finishing bottom – hardly an ideal start to their World Cup return year. They will not lack in motivation.