Round 3 marks the halfway point in this year’s Six Nations and for France and the Celtic Nations the stakes couldn’t be higher. You could say the same for Italy as they travel to Twickenham to take on an English side brimming with confidence and intent on a second consecutive Grand Slam. However, for Italy a win is sadly out of the question barring some sort of rugby miracle and the entire English squad being laid out by some crippling stomach bug, and as a result their objective is simply to avoid yet another humiliation. England will be looking to put up a big score against Italy to ensure them a healthy points cushion on the Six Nations table. France got their campaign back on track in Round 2 as did Ireland and the dust-up between these two in Dublin should prove to be a cracker, especially if the poor weather plaguing Europe as we write eases up. Wales and Scotland both suffered their first losses in Round 2 and will be keen to restore order and a sense of purpose to their title aspirations when they meet at Murrayfield on Saturday. So without any further ado let’s take our traditional look at the match ups on offer this weekend.
Scotland vs Wales
Saturday, February 25th
Let’s face it every encounter featuring Scotland this year has been a riveting spectacle to watch. With the physical attrition of the Round 2 encounter with France leaving Scotland to lick their wounds, they know that the same intensity of physicality awaits them this Saturday in the shape of Wales. Wales while feeling confident that they may well be able to dominate Scotland up front, will be keenly aware of the daunting challenge facing them in terms of containing Scotland’s fleet-footed backs, especially in front of a vocal Scottish crowd. Against Ireland, Scotland showed some real resolve and attacking prowess while still managing to match Ireland’s signficant forward threat. Buoyed by the confidence of that opening win Scotland are likely to fancy their chances against a Welsh side seeking to bounce back from a heartbreaking last gasp defeat to England at home. Wales were good against England and dominated their opponents for much of the match, but bizarre substitution decisions and poor execution in a game of the tightest margins ultimately cost them a match they could and should have won. Wales know that Scotland took a physical beating against France and will be keenly aware of any resulting weaknesses as well as exploiting the lack of leadership that injured Scottish Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw provides to his teammates. Still there is enough depth and talent in this Scottish squad to make sure that Wales are going to have dig deep to upset Scotland on what should be a very noisy afternoon at Murrayfield.
As mentioned above there should be no lack of intensity up front in this game, but we can’t help feeling that Wales just has the advantage here, especially after the knocks and bruises Scotland picked up a fortnight ago in their encounter with France. In the front row Scotland are clearly going for bulk with prop Gordon Reid up against Wales’ Tomas Francis in what should be a very even contest between the two. Reid’s scrum colleague Zander Ferguson has been outstanding for Scotland but then so was Wales’ Rob Evans against England. At hooker Wales Ken Owens and his remarkable ability to score tries should just give him and his front row partners the edge over Scotland’s Fraser Brown and the Scottish front row. However, in the second row we hand the honors back to Scotland in the shape of the Gray brothers who have been a remarkable unit this tournament with the younger Jonny clearly leading his older brother Richie by example. The Welsh offering needs no introduction when it boasts the likes of the mighty Alun-Wyn Jones, but we just don’t think that Jake Ball matches up to the pedigree of the Scottish duo so hence our favouritism towards the Scotsmen in this area of the field of play. Once again while Scotland boast an impressive back row in the shape of flankers John Barclay and John Hardie, we just feel that Wales’ Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton are the superior unit. Warburton and Tipuric both seem to be physically indestructible in the type of intense physical encounter that Wales clearly relishes. Tipuric furthermore never seems to tire and is constantly smashing his way through defences and flinging hapless opposition players to the ground with no lack of intensity right up until the final whistle. Hardie and Barclay may possess a slightly more intelligent game that relies slightly less on brute force, but Tipuric’s ability to pop up in danger zones all over the park causes us to give Wales the nod here. Lastly Scotland will be rueing the absence of number eight Josh Strauss after he became a casualty of the French match. His replacement Ryan Wilson is brave and enterprising but simply no match for the Welsh wrecking ball known as Ross Moriarty who was outstanding against England, causing his substitution in the 56th minute to leave rugby fans around the world scratching their heads in wonder. Coach Rob Howley is unlikely to make the same mistake if Moriarty repeats his exploits against England at Murrayfield, and as result apart from the Gray brothers for Scotland the forward battle should have a distinctly Welsh flavor.
The biggest loss to Scotland after the French game was the tournament ending injury to Captain and scrum half Greg Laidlaw who has been the quiet and reliable general behind Scotland’s successes in the last few years and a solid points scorer with the boot. However, some have said that he is far too conservative at times when Scotland really need to take risks. As a result it may be no bad thing for Scotland to really put his replacement Ali Price to the test. Combined with the X-factor that Scottish fly half Finn Russell brings to Scotland’s attack, these two could really provide some spark and fizz for Scotland if they click. It is because of the sheer unpredictability these two bring at speed and pace that we give Scotland the slight edge when it comes to the half back duels, despite the risk of it backfiring horribly when up against the more experienced and composed heads of Wales’ Dan Biggar at fly half and Rhys Webb at scrum half.
In the backs the balance swings firmly back in favor of Scotland especially in front of a home crowd despite Wales boasting some very significant talent. For us the key lies in the link between Scotland’s 13-15 axis, centre Huw Jones, winger Tommy Seymour and fullback Stuart Hogg. If Wales can contain these three for the full eighty minutes and prevent them putting big points on the board, then a very close scoreline should be the order of the day. However, any lapses in concentration in the Welsh defences and these three are going to cause Wales all kinds of heartache and cause the Men in Red to have to be chasing the game all afternoon. We think these three are so strong together and provide such a spark in attack that they provide more of a threat than the more predictable and physical approach preferred by their Welsh counterparts. Scottish winger Tim Visser and centre Alex Dunbar are also likely to cause all sort of problems for the Welsh defences. However, it is the ability of the Scottish backs to create something out of nothing from almost anywhere on the park that gives them the edge. Welsh wingers Liam Williams and George North need no introduction and are exceptionally dangerous in their own right, however the centre pairing of Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams seem to be struggling with execution and composure at key moments despite their abundant talents. Davies will be keen to atone for his misplaced kick to touch against England which sadly was instrumental in Wales losing the match at the death. However, having to do this under pressure and away from home may simply be too much. Lastly while Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny possesses a boot that will always get Wales out of jail he simply doesn’t possess the speed, pace and vision of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg. Both sides have shown weaknesses in defence at times but we still feel that Scotland is possessing a more dangerous set of combinations in the backs that is likely to score the big points when most needed.
Both sides are packing impressive benches and if the scores are within one or two points going into the last quarter Wales could well swing it here, especially when you are able to boast names like lock Luke Charteris, prop Samson Lee, number eight Taulupe Faletau and fly half Sam Davies. Scotland have some enterprising characters on their own bench especially in the shape of lock Tim Swinson, try scorer against France, and centre Mark Bennett, but it is the big name quality of the Welsh bench that should just give them the edge. However, as we say that is assuming the scores are within three points or less going into the last quarter. We just feel that it is Scotland’s attacking prowess and sheer unpredictability in this department that will ultimately see Scotland emerge the winners by two points having built themselves a healthy lead early on, even though Wales will push them to the limit physically especially in the final quarter. Either way yet another epic Test match of the calibre of the first two rounds should await so don’t expect to be sitting down too much!
Ireland vs France
Saturday, February 25th
Ireland have three exceptionally tough matches ahead of them starting with France and ending with England with a difficult trip to Wales sandwiched in between. Despite getting 63 points against Italy and ensuring that their campaign is back on the rails as they sit comfortably in second place, the hard work really begins in these final three rounds. Ireland were simply a shambles in the opening half of their first game against Scotland, causing them to ultimately lose despite an epic display of catch up rugby in the second half. They will be painfully aware that any such lapses in intensity, focus and concentration for the rest of the tournament will cause their title hopes for this year to be well and truly over. France are getting better with every outing and although they haven’t beaten Ireland at home since 2011, there is no question that they are well placed to bring the curtain down on Ireland’s Six Nations journey this weekend. As evidenced against Scotland, this is a bruising and very effective set of French forwards allied to a set of pacy and elusive backs. France is working as unit again, it is just their execution under pressure which is letting them down at times, but French flair and power is back once more in no uncertain terms.
The forward battle on Saturday in Dublin should be immense with Ireland’s pack likely to be better suited to withstand the physical toll and attrition that the French inflicted on the Scots a fortnight ago. France bring to Dublin their power front row of props Cyril Baille and the outstanding Rabah Slimani with Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado going up his opposite number Ireland’s Rory Best. As good as France’s props are, our money is still on the Irish pair of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong who have been a superb blend of youth and experience, to win the battle of the front row for Ireland. In the second rows we still think that Ireland should have a better afternoon especially if Rory Best can get his accuracy issues sorted out at lineout time. France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina has impressed, but for us the jury is still out on Yoann Maestri in terms of consistency. For Ireland, Devin Toner has been immense in the last twelve months and we think that Donnacha Ryan is one of Ireland’s most underrated players. In the back row there will be a spirited challenge from France especially from outstanding flanker Kevin Gourdon, but Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander are in a league of their own, especially Stander at the moment, so expect Ireland to get the dominance here. At number eight an exciting contest awaits between France’s Louis Picamoles who is on fire at the moment and Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip. There are few players who put their heart and soul into the game as much as Jamie Heaslip especially at home in Dublin, but Louis Picamoles is playing some of the best rugby of his career and is likely to end up as one of, if not the best number eight of the tournament. However, it is Heaslip’s lion-like qualities in front of his home crowd that should just complete Ireland’s forward dominance on Saturday.
In the half backs Ireland has the clear pedigree provided Irish fly half Johnny Sexton can put to rest concerns about his match fitness. Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray are one of the best half back pairings in Test rugby and are likely to be infinitely better at marshalling their troops and managing the game than the French pair of scrum half Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez. This is not to denigrate the French duo as Serin is a hugely exciting prospect for France leading up to the next World Cup and Lopez is a genuinely talented fly half. However, with Lopez he can be brilliant one day and a disaster the next, so a bit like French teams you just don’t know what kind of performance you’ll get until the day. Consequently it is the sheer reliability and all round ability of the Irish pair that should see Ireland dictating the run of play on Saturday, with Paddy Jackson waiting in the wings as a more than capable understudy to take over should Sexton be unable to go the distance.
In the backs the contest evens out a bit more with France perhaps having the slight edge. We really like the centre partnership of Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose and feel that this is the way forward as Ireland build towards the next World Cup. However, France’s Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou have been real quality so far this tournament and seem to be a slightly more settled unit. Nevertheless it should be an electric contest between these two with perhaps the greater experience of the French duo at Test Level possibly swinging the balance in France’s favor. Ireland provide a gritty winger in the shape of Keith Earls up against the big powerful French winger Noa Nakaitaci, while Simon Zebo will have to face up against France’s Yoann Huget who appears to making an impressive return to form after injury. The Irish pair have had more game time at Test Level together than their French counterparts and as a result feel they may just have the edge. However, at fullback France’s Scott Spedding has been a key part of the French renaissance and will provide a serious challenge to Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Kearney’s form dipped dramatically in the last few years but seems to be returning of late, however, we can’t help feeling that the French number 15 is the player more likely to turn heads on Saturday.
At home and with a star-studded bench boasting names like Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Cian Healy the contest starts to take on a distinctly Irish edge especially if Ireland have built a good lead going into the final quarter. France have quality in props Uini Atonio and the very capable Eddy Ben Arous along with number eight Charles Ollivon and scrum half Maxime Machenaud, but we can’t help feeling that it just doesn’t pack the same amount of depth and punch as the Irish contingent.
With the weather likely to be uncooperative and the wind providing the sternest of tests to the kickers, both teams will have their work cut out for them, but it is hoped it doesn’t detract from what should be an epic contest. Ireland will want to prove that they are still title contenders leading up to the final showdown with England, while France will want to prove that French rugby is back with a vengeance and not just a short-lived flash in the pan. However, in front of a home crowd desperate for a big result and with a more tried and trusted set of combinations Ireland should bag the win in a tight contest by 4 points finishing off a thrilling afternoon of Test Rugby! Roll on Saturday!
England vs Italy
Sunday, February 26th
As of writing this, the English team selection had yet to be finalised, and as a result our predictions contain a greater degree of crystal ball gazing than normal. Of one thing we are fairly certain however, England will successfully continue their quest for a second Grand Slam with Italy sadly being the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. While we are fairly confident of an emphatic English win, another epic humiliation of Italy along the lines of the two handed out to them so far in the tournament by Wales and Ireland will be painful to watch. The calls for the inclusion of Georgia in the Six Nations at Italy’s expense are already at full throttle before the referee’s opening whistle has even blown, and we hope that Italy can somehow produce a performance against vastly superior opposition on Sunday at Twickenham that can both surprise their critics and put such debates on hold until at least the end of the tournament.
Without any starting lineup announcements from England at the time of writing this, we’ll just keep it short and throw out a base prediction which to be honest isn’t exactly rocket science for this particular encounter. The only real positive we can see for Italy is the decision to finally start outstanding centre Michele Campagnaro who through his time at Exeter Chiefs will be no stranger to his English opponents. However, even if England choose to experiment with some of their more junior players for this match and test new combinations they should still find this a relatively straightforward outing. Italian Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse is always a force to be reckoned with, but at Twickenham he is likely to be an island who cannot perform miracles on his own. There are likely to be some solid individual performances from some of the Italian squad such as second rower Marco Fuser and flanker Simone Favaro with Maxime Mata Mbanda to add some firepower off the bench. However up against an English team boasting names like Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Johnny May, Jack Nowell and Ben Youngs among many others, including some very promising youngsters, it is an overwhelmingly tall order for Italy to do much more than offer England some gutsy scrummaging practice. Make no mistake Italy will play with pride, passion and hopefully plenty of heart but it is going to be a long and painful day at the office for them.
England are packing far too much firepower for it to be anything other than one way traffic for the Men in White. England to win by at least 45 points!