Wales VS Italy, Principality Stadium, Wales, 14:30 UK Time, BBC, 19th March
So England are the champions. With most people expecting a Welsh win this weekend, you could say this is a bit of a dead rubber. Italy can’t prise themselves from the bottom of the table and Wales can’t win the title- so why does anyone care?
From a Welsh perspective, as World Cup quarter finalists, they will want and rightly expect to be in the top half of the table and I imagine will come out all guns blazing; France and Scotland are hot on their heels, only a point down in the table. A win would ensure a top half finish.
On the other hand Italy may not have so much to play for, but there’s always an element of pride. Since their inclusion in 2000, Italy have picked up the wooden spoon ten times and finished six campaigns without a win. Victory in Wales would give them some hope as they see out the era of Jaques Brunel and welcome in their new coach, Mr Mystery. Italy have shown this year that they can compete- losing by only two points to France, putting Scotland under immense pressure and holding England close for 60 minutes. Unfortunately, they let slip against Ireland completely in their 58-15 loss and really suffer by not putting out eighty minute performances. That said, if they can stay in a game, it’s not entirely out of reach
KEY MATCH UP- This one is a case of two men, who show resolve and play well in bad circumstances. Again, for Wales, I choose Taulupe Faletau. Even when Wales weren’t playing well and were down on the scoreboard against England, Taulupe was there and scored. He’s key for the Welsh. As for the Azzurri… well do you really need me to tell you why it’s Sergio Parisse?
PREDICTION- Italy could hold out the game, but given results, it seems unlikely. Wales to win by 10+ points.
Ireland VS Scotland, Aviva Stadium, Ireland, 17:00 (UK Time) ITV, 19th March
This game is important for both sides. Scotland chase their first three-winning streak ever in the Six Nations, and Ireland try to prove that their new stars can shine and back up their emphatic victory over Italy last time around.
Thus far Ireland fans will be disappointed- a draw with Wales and a win over Italy are the best they’ve managed off the back off two Six Nations titles and a World Cup semi-final. Many questions were asked of their attack, as pre-Italy they had only scored two tries. After obliterating a sorry Italian side, they’ve now recorded eleven tries and will be looking to build on that by defeating a resurgent Scotland side.
Scotland will be flying high too- two consecutive wins and the opportunity to shake their under performers tag to make a statement about just how much they’ve improved under Cotter. They go into this game with the knowledge that the last time they beat two teams in a row in 2013, Ireland was one of them. They also go into it with an embarrassing 10-40 point loss to Ireland at Murrayfield in round five last year fresh in the memory. They nearly settled the score at the Aviva in the summer, fielding an inexperienced team at a World Cup warm up where they came up just short as Ireland won 28-22.
If both teams play like last week I expect a high pace and exciting game, with free-flowing, expansive rugby. That or Ireland will be wary and try to close the game down with a choking defence like they’ve done so often in the past.
KEY MATCH UP- For this game it has to be the two scrum halves; Ireland’s Connor Murray and Scotland’s most capped captain, Greig Laidlaw. Murray was a first choice for the Lions tour of Australia in 2013. He has been criticised for slow ball at times, but also has an excellent ability to snipe around the edges of rucks. Laidlaw has also been subject to similar criticism about his inefficiency in delivering the ball, but possesses brilliant game management and a great boot. At his best, he can be a brilliant little runner, too.
PREDICTION: As much as Ireland have been a little off the boil, it’s still early days for this Scotland side and I think Ireland will edge them out by 3-5 points- as much as I’d love to be proven wrong.
France VS England, Stade Francais, France, BCC, 20:00 (UK Time) 19th March
England’s last Grand Slam was back in 2003, the year they won the World Cup, leading some to question whether they deserve to win a Grand Slam the year following their embarrassing pool stage exit from their own World Cup. The answer in short, is yes.
They haven’t been clinical and at times it has been ugly and a bit dull. However, each game they’ve changed and adapted. They’ve shown plenty of promise, but have not always been able to turn opportunities into points. They’ve been reckless at times, but at the end of it, they’ve done what’s necessary to win. Against Italy they bashed away for a good hour, tiring out the Italians so that they could open space and let the backs fly. Against Scotland they used raw power to barge their way to victory.
Jones selection has been excellent as he is slowly starting to build a team of quality, giving opportunity to new players, but also letting players such as Billy Vunipola express themselves, which has been a revelation. Once they properly click, they could be a seriously dangerous side. In the end, they deserve credit for turning around so well from the World Cup and becoming at least Six Nations champions, if not Grand Slam winners.
France have been largely underwhelming. Two wins put them on a positive three point differential until Wales set them back nine points and Scotland a further eleven. France under Noves haven’t quite gelled yet and having lost against Scotland for the first time in a decade, confidence will be low. That said, they have shown signs of promise and they will want to restore pride in the jersey. What better opportunity than to prevent England winning a Grand Slam at the Stade Francais?
KEY MATCH UP: This time I’ve gone for a war of wingers. Anthony Watson for me is one of the most exciting wingers in northern hemisphere rugby at the moment, he can inject real pace to a game and has a criminal side step. His potential opposite number Virimi Vakatawa has shown glimpses of his capabilities and has been one of the more consistent players in Guy Noves’ France side, so could be a real danger to England, especially given his size and strength.
PREDICTION: France have a history of ‘flair’ and unpredictability, but I have to go with England. Hopefully in another high scoring game like last year. England to get the slam by a margin of 5-9 points.
All match ups are presumptive of selection. I won’t be able to write a match review for ‘Scotland Rugby News’ or for here this week unfortunately, but let’s hope for another classic Super Saturday to finish off, what has been in my opinion, a slow but tense championship.
My match report for Scotland VS France is available through a link, here.
The Scribbler, March 16th, 2016