Round 4 of the Six Nations sees England look to consolidate their position at the top of the table and edge closer to not only the title but also a Grand Slam. Wales, as they have been all tournament, look to be the side most likely to derail the English steamroller as the two meet this weekend at Fortress Twickenham. Meanwhile Ireland find themselves having to fend off an Italian challenge in Dublin, a failure to do so would mean that Ireland would plummet from the dizzying heights of being back to back champions to suddenly finding themselves staring at a potential wooden spoon. Italy have shown plenty of promise this year but as in years past look to possibly fizzle out in the dying stages of the tournament. Last but not least a revitalized Scotland take on France at Murrayfield on Sunday, and given that Scotland have provided us with some of the most entertaining displays of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere this year, this in many ways could end up being the best game of the weekend. France are trying to rebuild and have shown that the potential is there, but continued selection problems and a lack of direction at times have meant that France still has a long way to go before they become title contenders again.
Ireland vs Italy
Saturday, March 12th
To say that Ireland have to win this weekend is probably the rugby understatement of the year so far. Italy are under equal pressure but their track record in this competition since 2000, reflects their current position. For Ireland however, as back to back champions they find themselves in a very uncomfortable position. Ireland has plenty of talent and a bright future, but so far this Six Nations none of this seems to be coming to the fore. Their opening draw against Wales left most Irish supporters with plenty of scope for optimism, however the lack to close out that game repeated itself in their next two encounters in a messy game against France and a spirited but disjointed effort against England. Ireland is in transition and the big question is what risks should be being taken in terms of building for the future? Based on current selections it would seem very few. Meanwhile Italy have looked surprisingly good for the first sixty minutes of each of their three games to date in the competition. If they could catch Ireland off guard and keep them that way for eighty minutes, then in theory an upset is not beyond the realms of possibility especially with the incomparable Sergio Parisse leading the charge. However, one can’t help feeling that to pull off such a miracle in Dublin is likely to be too much to ask. Ireland are playing one of the best halfback pairings in Test Rugby in the shape of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray while Italy field an untried combination and it is likely to be this if nothing else which should tip the balance firmly in favor of Ireland.
Up front, Ireland should be able to get the edge over Italy. In the front rows Ireland clearly has the advantage in terms of experience and technique. The Irish front row of Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross packs significant big game temperament. Italy will sorely miss the presence of Leonardo Ghiraldini, and as a result are likely to get given short shrift by their Irish counterparts. In the second row however, the battle becomes slightly more balanced with Italy’s Marco Fuser a real workhorse. However, Ireland’s Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should still see that Ireland runs the line of play here especially at the lineouts. In the back row however, I regard it as an even contest. Italy’s Alessandro Zanni and Francesco Minto have been outstanding all tournament and the battle between them and Ireland’s CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier should be superb entertainment on Saturday. The two Irishmen have had outstanding debuts, but I would argue that the slightly longer time together for the Italian pair could well give Italy the edge here. CJ Stander had a superb debut for Ireland against Wales but was strangely quiet against England. Van der Flier is an enormous new talent for Ireland, but his lack of experience may at times be a liability. Lastly at number eight as reliable and committed to the cause as Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip is, he just doesn’t have the ferocity, intensity and sheer work rate of his opposite number Italy’s Sergio Parisse. Therefore, in the forwards I am giving the battle of the tight fives to Ireland but in the back row it could well be Italy’s day.
As mentioned above, it’s in the halfbacks where the cracks in Italy’s structure are likely to be most evident. To be honest I know very little about Italy’s halfback pairing, other than the fact that their club showings in Europe have been poor to say the least. Fly half Edoardo Padovani and scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani both ply their trade with Zebre who are languishing at the bottom of the PRO 12 table. Up against the world class experience of their Irish counterparts fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray it is for all intents and purposes a non-starter in terms of a contest. The Irish pair will simply dominate the run of play on Saturday, putting Ireland firmly in the driving seat. I doubt that the two inexperienced Italians will be able to offer much in terms of a reply.
In the backs there is room for optimism from both sides. Italy’s centre pairing of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro are world class. By the same token Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have also proved themselves. However, when allied to Johnny Sexton’s vision I give this contest clearly to Ireland. Italy will be intensely competitive here, but without the brains trust Ireland has in the halfback department Italy will struggle to make the best use of their talented centers. On the wings I have been impressed by Italian debutant Mattia Bellini and Leonardo Sarto is always a threat out wide. However, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble are proven commodities for Ireland in both attack and defence and should just give Ireland a slight edge over the Azurri on Saturday. At fullback I have also been impressed by Italy’s new fullback David Odiete, although his lack of experience does lead to errors in execution in big matches like this especially as the pressure builds. I must confess to being surprised at Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt choosing Simon Zebo at fullback. Rob Kearney although injured has not impressed of late, and if anything Jared Payne would to me have been a much more logical choice having really stood out for Ulster this year at fullback. This would also have allowed Stuart McCloskey another chance to gain experience in building an Irish centre pairing for the future alongside Robbie Henshaw. Simon Zebo can be absolutely brilliant on attack and he stood up well to the defensive challenge against Wales, despite the fact that in the past there have been justified concerns about his defensive abilities. However, if Zebo plays anything like he did against Wales this should help cement Ireland’s overall superiority in the backs on Saturday.
I imagine Ireland to play a conservative game as they look for a safe win, despite a very strong challenge from Italy. If Ireland let the pressure of potentially being left with a wooden spoon get to them, then Italy could end up pulling off the upset of the tournament. It should as a result be an entertaining contest, but ultimately one which should see Ireland pull away comfortably as the victors in the last quarter by 12. It is after all being played in front of an expectant Dublin crowd. The Championship may be well and truly consigned to history but Irish pride has never been more at stake and home advantage should clearly give the Men in Green an edge that Italy will find it hard to overcome.
England vs Wales
Saturday, March 12th
Many are billing this as the big game of the weekend, and given what it is at stake this comes as no surprise. However, as a result I can’t help feeling that of all the matches it will provide us with the least in terms of spectacle and entertainment. It is likely to be a tight tense affair built around a solid defence that sees both sides reluctant to take chances. Of the two sides England is likely to be the slightly more adventurous and expansive of the two sides, but I very much doubt the match is going to be a high scoring free flowing contest. England look the more comprehensive side in terms of game plan, whereas Wales is clearly the more settled of the two sides. Wales have the experience and cohesion of a team that has been up against it on a regular basis. England on the other hand are bursting with talent and as their combinations continue to strengthen and develop they look to be the side that has the greater potential for the future. England seem to have a clear idea of who they want to be and the type of game they want to play even if at times their execution is somewhat lacking. Wales have a tried and trusted game plan that while lacking in imagination at times still seems able to produce results. Wales may not be exciting but they are effective even if in the long run this inability to evolve their game plan may ultimately become their Achilles Heel. It is going to be tight and perhaps not the most riveting of spectacles but I still can’t help feeling that much of the excitement to be generated on Saturday will come from England buoyed by them seeking revenge for being so unceremoniously knocked out of the World Cup by Wales. If Wales can contain and dampen this English excitement and intensity they will be in a good position to derail England’s Grand Slam aspirations. However, I can’t help feeling that England’s willingness to take more risks than Wales will ultimately give them the game by the finest of margins.
This is going to be an intensely physical encounter from the get go. The Welsh front row despite its youth has proved impressive and seems to get better with every outing. However, England’s experience in the front row in the shape of Captain Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Joe Marler is significant. Cole was immense against Ireland and Hartley kept his composure and worked hard at keeping his charges on track, especially when discipline was proving to be a problem. For me though the weak link in the English scrum is still Joe Marler and Wales’ Samson Lee is going to give him a stern examination on Saturday. Despite England’s experience I am giving the battle of the front rows to the more dynamic Welsh offering. In the second rows, my money is clearly on England. Alun-Wyn Jones is immense for Wales but the English pair of George Kruis and debutant Maro Itoje are rapidly developing into a real powerhouse second row. Kruis has enormous power while Itoje’s ability to get England turnover ball is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. In the back row I give the advantage back to Wales. Sam Warburton is an outstanding Captain and a real menace in the loose along with Dan Lydiate. Add to these two Welsh superhero Justin Tipuric waiting on the bench and Wales should dominate this area of play on Saturday. England’s Chris Robshaw and James Haskell have plenty of experience but they simply don’t have the wrecking ball qualities of their Welsh counterparts. The battle between England’s Billy Vunipola who was a one-man Panzer division against Ireland and Wales’ Talaupe Faletau should be one of the highlights of the match at number eight. Vunipola’s sheer power will be exceptionally difficult to contain. Faletau is equally powerful in broken play but what he lacks in terms of strength in comparison to Vunipola he more than makes up for in terms of agility. Overall, though in terms of the physical battle, given their scrum and their back row, I am just giving the edge to Wales.
In the halfback pairings though it is almost impossible to choose, though on form I would give Wales a slight advantage here. Fly half Dan Biggar and scrum half Gareth Davies for Wales have been outstanding and work exceptionally well together. England’s scrum half Ben Youngs and fly half George Ford are absolutely top drawer but the latter has struggled at times in terms of form in this year’s Six Nations. He was much better against Ireland and alongside Ben Youngs his regular English half back partner he seems to be much more confident. Of the two sides though I would argue that the Welsh pair has slightly more of a big game temperament and the experience of tripping England up last year at the World Cup should just give them the nod on Saturday.
For me though it’s in the backs that England can and should win this match. The English backs are much more adventurous as a unit than their Welsh counterparts and if provided with quality ball are much more likely to create opportunities than Wales. The centre pairing of Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph is proving to be the vision and pace in this department that England has lacked for so long. Wales’ Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are outstanding talents, but Roberts tends to be very predictable at times. Jonathan Davies is the more expansive of the two and more likely to use the space available to him with more imagination. However, as good as these two are, I can’t help feeling that England’s pair at Twickenham will just rise to the occasion that much more. On the wings, England’s Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have got better with each outing in this tournament, and Nowell in particular is proving to be a real handful in defence and attack. Wales’ George North and Alex Cuthbert although impressive are for me just not as good as their English counterparts. When he fires George North is one of the best in the world but I can’t help feeling that he has lost a lot of his intensity in the last year and his schoolboy fumbling try against France was an example. When in the right place at the right time he is unstoppable, it’s just he rarely seems to get there much these days. In the last line of defence at fullback and at Twickenham then it has to be Mike Brown’s day for England. Whether you like him or not, you can’t deny that his tenacious if somewhat obnoxious attitude gets results. In front of a home crowd Brown’s intensity is likely to get ramped up that extra notch. Wales’ Liam Williams has impressed, and some of his individual skills may actually be better than Brown’s but as the complete fullback then I would say that the Englishman is more the overall package in tight encounters like these.
A high stakes match that will have plenty of tension awaits. However, the tension itself may produce a conservative match that sees both teams unwilling to take risks. Consequently, expect a tough first hour with few points up on the scoreboard. If England are able to release their backline in the last quarter and really start to tire the resolute Welsh defence, then England should just pull away. Close and almost impossible to call, but sticking my neck out here and giving it to England by five.
Scotland vs France
Sunday, March 13th
For me this should be the most exciting game of the weekend. In years gone by it was always France who were given the label of the flair side, but in our opinion this title has now gone to Scotland. They may not always get it right in terms of execution but you can’t fault them on intent and willingness to play adventurous and exciting rugby. In the match against Italy they finally managed to connect all the dots and Scotland’s exciting and expansive playing style are really starting to pay dividends. For France they have shown plenty of intent and lots of potential, but still seem to be struggling with direction. Perhaps the difference this year is how much we have seen in France that could be used for the future. French Coach Guy Noves seems to be developing an idea of the team he wants after only three matches in charge, and when not handcuffed by the vagaries of the French club structure in terms of selection, he seems to be taking France in the right direction. However, it is early days still for a new France whereas Scotland are finally starting to reap the rewards of tearing up the old playbook and embracing a bold new future.
In the front rows it is clearly an even battle. Scotland in the shape of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel have one of the best scrummaging units in European rugby. France boast the exceptional talent of Rabah Slimani and their Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado who was France’s standout player and source of inspiration in an otherwise dire effort against Wales. However, Jefferson Poirot seems to be the weak link in the chain for France, and as a result this contest should be Scotland’s. In the second rows the Gray brothers, Johnny and Richie are just that much more settled and effective as a unit than their French counterparts Yoann Maestri and Alexandre Flanquart and once again Scotland should have the edge here. In the back rows it also should be Scotland’s day. John Hardie and John Barclay were absolutely outstanding against Italy and expect the same on Sunday. France’s Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara show plenty of promise for the future but as a unit are just not there yet in comparison to their Scottish counterparts. At number eight it should be an even contest between Scotland’s Josh Strauss and France’s Damien Chouly, though the greater experience of the Frenchman should just see him have an advantage here. Overall though I can’t help feeling that Scotland should be the master of the forward battles on Sunday.
In the halfbacks once again I would hand the benefit of the doubt to Scotland. Fly half Finn Russell is electric and scrum half and Captain Greg Laidlaw is the steady hand on the tiller. France’s Francois Trinh-Duc may have more experience and a slightly cooler head than his Scottish counterpart at fly half, but the Scotsman is more likely to take his chances when they present themselves. Maxime Machenaud may have a greater burst of pace and intensity at the breakdown as scrum half than Scotland’s Greg Laidlaw, but his lack of composure at times coupled with occasional indecision means that France’s loses momentum at key moments. Therefore, once again as long as Russell keeps his wits about him Scotland should be more effective at running a game plan than France.
In the backs there is plenty of excitement on offer from both sides. France boasts a wealth of talent that could potentially be a nightmare for any defence. However, once more though Scotland seems more effective at using their backs and creating opportunities with them than France. France has some devastating ball carriers in the shape of Virimi Vakatawa and Wesley Fofana but often these players are expected to perform miracles on their own. In the centres France have two talented players in Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou but without direction these two are likely to flounder in linking their attacks to a concerted team effort as we saw against Wales. Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor may be the slightly less experienced pair but more likely to create opportunities that the rest of their team can build on. On the wings, Scotland packs a tight unit in the shape of Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour with the latter rapidly becoming one of the masters of the high ball. Visser’s speed and agility coupled with Seymour’s ability to read the aerial battles make these two a handful for any defence. France’s Wesley Fofana and Virimi Vakatawa can rip defences to shreds in the blink of an eye but without adequate support which is something France is struggling to provide; their attacks rapidly lose the hard earned momentum that these two talented individuals create. Once again two very talented sets of wings but given the fact that Scotland’s pair are likely to be better supported it should be Scotland’s day here once more. Lastly at fullback Scotland boast one of the best players of the tournament in Stuart Hogg. He has simply been inspirational this tournament and every time he gets the ball something happens. One of the tournament’s most exciting players to watch by a country mile, Hogg should be at the forefront of getting Scotland deep into the French half. France’s Scott Spedding has one of the biggest boots in Test Rugby and is a hard man to bring down but all too often is far too predictable. He may be reliable but is unlikely to really spark a passage of play that is likely to surprise Scotland. France has some exciting backs, but Scotland do as well and their ability to both create opportunities coupled with the support play needed from the rest of their teammates should clearly give the Scots the edge on Sunday.
Expect plenty of free flowing rugby especially from Scotland. The Scots greater sense of vision of what they are trying to achieve should get them through a fascinating encounter on Sunday. France will pose a serious threat, but Scotland who are now really starting to click as a unit and in front of an ecstatic home crowd should be the better team. Consequently, we feel Scotland should ultimately walk away the victors by eight points! Despite the high stakes taking place at Twickenham the day before, as a celebration of our glorious sport we have a feeling that this is the game you’ll really want to watch this weekend.