The stakes are high this weekend. Wales welcome Les Blues to Cardiff, Italy host the Scots in Rome, and the men in green make the trip across the Irish sea to Twickenham, where they meet England. In the Six Nations there’s little room for error, but this could be the most important round of the campaign in terms of determining how the rest of their campaign will go.
We start with Wales against France. Coming into this fixture, neither team has really gotten into their stride. Although weather conditions didn’t help, the French looked very one dimensional in attack against the Irish, their solitary try coming from a phase one move off of the back of a five metre scrum. They had more flair against the Italians the week before, but are yet to combine both for a complete performance and in truth, are lucky to be at round three with two wins. Furthermore, after their destruction by the All Blacks in the world cup quarter final, France are still having to rebuild their confidence. However, with the knowledge that a Grand Slam is on the cards, I expect Guy Noves will be in their ears telling them to go hell for leather on this one. As for how they actually perform? It’s a cliché statement, but it’s anyone’s guess.
On the other hand, Wales have also been incomplete. In round one they fought back excellently from a 13-0 deficit to the Irish at the Aviva stadium, for it to end at a 16-16 draw. They then beat Scotland on five minutes of magic as Scotland (on cue) imploded at sixty-five minutes. However, Wales are notoriously slow starters in this championship and know that they need to win this game if they are to compete for this years title, so don’t expect them to come out dosing, either. This game could completely derail Les Blues chance at a grand-slam (not to mention their confidence) or ruin the chances of Wales claiming another title.
The next fixture of the weekend is what many label the Wooden Spoon decider. Italy welcome Scotland to Rome in a fixture that is a must win for both sides. After yet another World Cup without progression from their pool, Italy were looking clear favourites for the last place this championship. However, the Italians came into the tournament with a largely improved performance from the world Cup, but ultimately losing out to France at Stade de France, 23-21. Had Parisse’s last ditch drop goal gone over, Italy would’ve started with a historic win. Unfortunately, on the day, it was not to be. When they met England the following week in Rome, the Italians went into half time trailing 9-11, a fair reflection of the game. The end result 9-40 to England. As has often happened to Italy, they keep themselves in the game, but ultimately lose out in the closing stages. For Italy, this is a must win if they are to build the confidence required to have a serious chance against Ireland or Wales in their following games.
The Scots on the other hand, came into the Championship from a Quarter Final loss to Australia, by one point at Twickenham. They would certainly have been licking their lips at the opportunity to beat a deflated England side who failed to make it out of the pools and are under new management. In reality, their performance was nothing special and they slumped to a 9-15 defeat to the English. Fast forward a week, Wales in Cardiff and Scotland looked revitalised- in truth, very unlucky not to win. However, as usual it was the implosion at sixty-five minutes where they conceded two tries in quick succession that led to their 27-23 loss to a powerful Welsh side. In this sense, Scotland have similar problems to the Italians, but have managed to get a lot closer to results. In their last visit to Rome, the Scots prevailed thanks to a last minute Duncan Weir drop goal, at Murrayfield the following year the Scots lost out to a final minute Italian Score. In the summer warm up games Scotland won the fixture in Turin and then comfortably dismantled the Italians at Murrayfield.
However, Rome is no easy place to go and the men in blue will have to be on top form to win. It’s realistically achievable for Scotland to beat the French at Murrayfield and maybe Ireland away from home, but that all depends on them winning this game.
To the last game of the weekend, England against Ireland. England should be clear favourites for this one- Despite having won the previous two instalments of the Six Nations, Ireland have slumped to a 16-16 draw against Wales, followed by a narrow loss to the French. On the other hand, under new Coach Eddie Jones, England have managed to overcome, in the words of Clive Woodward the “second-division” sides of the Six Nations. Take those words as you wish, but if England only beat a “second-division” side by six points- they should be worried for the Irish. Bitterness aside, Jones has been very open that he’s selecting squads to win games- not necessarily playing how they want to yet. Their second half against the Italians gave a taste of what may be to come from England in the Jones era, but it’s still early days. England will be keen to make up for last years loss to the men in green and to keep their first Grand-Slam since 2003 within reach.
As mentioned, Schmidt’s Irish side have failed to register a win yet, virtually putting them out of the title race. So far, they’ve generally been defensively astute as usual, but hit hard by injuries. Many have criticised their lack of attacking ambition as they have struggled to play any really threatening Rugby. They still look to struggle without Sexton and his intelligent kicking game and management. With Madigan not impressing many either, there are calls for Paddy Jackson to be given the bench slot for fly-half. Depending on how Schmidt approaches the game, this could either be a chance to blood some new players at the start of a new World Cup cycle or, perhaps more likely, he will focus on getting the win away from home to bring some pride back to the Irish jersey.
My predictions therefore are not overly controversial. I expect the Welsh to earn their second win, with a loud Cardiff crowd behind them as usual. Italy against Scotland is a harder call, but I think Scotland will go to Rome and complete the job, but perhaps not a large winning margin. Finally, I believe England are growing into the Six Nations this year and with the prospect of Elliot Daly making his English debut, it’s hard to see them losing at Twickenham. That said- if Ireland mix it up by playing the likes of Craig Gilroy and Stuart McCloskey- then who knows.
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The Scribbler, February 24th, 2016