The rollercoaster ride of the 2017 Six Nations continues apace this weekend, as Round 4 presents must win scenarios for all the teams but even more so for England, Ireland and Scotland. Ireland will want to keep the momentum going after their initial upset to Scotland in Round 1 by putting in a solid performance against Wales with preferably a bonus point win, and thus set up a grand finale showdown with England next weekend in Dublin. Wales’ chances of lifting the trophy this year are for all intents done and dusted, but they will still want to put in a big showing against Ireland in front of a home crowd expecting and demanding nothing less. Scotland travel to Twickenham finding themselves still very much in the hunt as title contenders this year, and if they were to pull off the unthinkable and beat England could find themselves topping the standings by the end of the weekend. England however still remain in the driving seat of this year’s Championship unbeaten and with a winning streak of 17 games putting them on track to challenge the All Blacks record-breaking run of 18 wins. A Grand Slam at stake and a world record to boot makes the pressure on England, even though they are at home this weekend, take on almost biblical proportions. Lastly France and Italy seek to use their remaining fixtures to salvage some pride and build a foundation for the future. France has less to worry about in terms of pride as despite only winning one of their matches so far, they have still acquitted themselves exceptionally well and given their opponents plenty to think about for next year’s tournament. France’s rebuilding process is starting to show some dramatic promise for next year and a good showing in their final two games will serve to solidify the considerable gains made this year. Italy showed against England that they are not without a few tricks up their sleeves, and despite their drubbing at the hands of the Irish, still have plenty of heart and passion coupled with some considerable talent when they get the right opportunities. Italy’s shot at the title is now well and truly over for 2017. Italy’s final two games at home to France and away to Scotland, will test their mettle to the fullest but hopefully leave them with something to build on for next year, while at the same time silence the increasingly vocal audience calling for their relegation from the tournament in favor of Georgia or Romania.
Wales vs Ireland
Friday, March 10th
As Wales play for pride, Ireland need a big win here and a bonus point would set them up nicely for their final showdown with England next Saturday in Dublin. Wales are no longer in the hunt for the title, but a home fixture in this tournament will always demand maximum effort as Wales seek to restore some of the pride in the jersey that to be honest has taken a bit of a beating in the last few months. Ireland arrive in Cardiff with a sense of confidence and purpose, while Wales need to find significant amounts of both qualities. Nevertheless it should still add up to an epic contest with both sides having everything to prove albeit for very different reasons.
One thing will be certain and that is that this match will have a physical intensity that will see both sides giving few quarters. Ireland in our opinion clearly has the superior front row in the shape of Captain and Hooker and Rory Best and props Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. The Irish props have been immense in this tournament and have given their opponents a torrid time in the scrums. The Welsh trio of props Rob Evans, Tom Francis and Hooker Ken Owens are an able unit and in some ways Owens’ lineout skills are slightly more consistent than Best’s. Add to that the fact that with ball in hand Owens is no stranger to the try line and Ireland will have their work cut out facing up to the Welsh challenge. However, the Irish props have been such a destructive force with some exceptional stability at scrum time that we feel they have the dominant edge in this contest. In the second rows the battle evens out a bit more, though once again Ireland should also just edge it in terms of a more solid unit. Welsh Captain Alun-Wyn Jones has been one of the tournament’s most consistent players and is a seemingly indestructible force of nature for Wales. However, we don’t feel that his second row partner Jake Ball is of the same calibre. It is here that Ireland’s offering of Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan should have the edge especially if Rory Best can ensure accuracy in his throws come lineout time.
In the back row, perhaps to the surprise of some, we hand the battle to Wales by the narrowest of margins. The wrecking ball unit of Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton for Wales have been one of the most consistently reliable aspects of the Welsh effort in this year’s Six Nations. Both players throw themselves into the contest with a complete and utter disregard to their own well-being and as a result their destructive abilities as well as securing valuable turnovers and go forward ball for Wales are exemplary. Add to this the fact that both seem able to last almost the full eighty minutes without any let-up in intensity and it is going to make it very difficult for Ireland’s duo of the exceptional Sean O’Brien and Irish superhero CJ Stander to contain them. With Sean O’Brien still not quite back to his explosive intensity since his return from injury, we consequently feel that Wales have the slight edge here. However, if O’Brien fires on all cylinders with Stander at his side then their ability as line breaking ball carriers is going to give the Welsh a long and painful day at the office. Lastly shoring up the back row is a contest between the wise and courageous head of Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip and the rampaging, tackle everything in sight youthful form of Wales’ Ross Moriarty. Although the Welshman has put in some epic performances of late, it is Heaslip’s experience and inspirational presence in the Irish side that should just see Ireland get the better of the contest between the two.
The half back contest is fairly cut and dry in Ireland’s favor, despite the considerable talents of Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb who, like Tipuric and Moriarty, has impressed all tournament and fly half Dan Biggar. However, the brains trust that is Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is almost without equal in Test Rugby at the moment. While injury concerns continue around fly half Sexton and his ability to last a full eighty minutes, he seemed to cope well in this aspect against France a fortnight ago especially in the physical aspects of the game. Irish scrum half Conor Murray has been on fire for the Men in Green for the last year and is one of their most potent attacking threats and an able adjutant to Sexton in terms of game management. Webb is elusive for Wales and requires constant attention from opposition defences but the Webb/Biggar partnership simply doesn’t have the consistency and big picture abilities of the Irish pair.
In the backs, both sides have plenty of players who could split opposition defences wide open and for all intents and purposes this is a relatively equal contest with Ireland perhaps having the slight edge in terms of unit cohesion. In the centres we actually rate the Irish pair of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose slightly higher than Wales’ Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams. Although Ringrose is still relatively new to Test Rugby, he has adapted remarkably well to the challenge alongside Henshaw who is now a proven commodity. Wales’ Jonathan Davies is an exceptional player but as a part of a centre pairing with Scott Williams seems to be lacking in confidence and purpose at times, something the Irish pair seem to have by the bucket load. On the wings, there is no doubting the quality of Wales’ George North but sadly as a result of some unpleasant knocks to the head over the last year is nowhere near his best and we can’t help feeling he needs time to get over his injuries, a luxury Wales seem intent on denying him. Liam Williams however, is one Welsh player who seems able to turn on the magic no matter how the rest of his team plays and we expect more of the same on Friday night, which will require his opposite number Ireland’s Keith Earls to be at his defensive best. We all know the remarkable skills and X-factor that Ireland’s Simon Zebo can display on the wing even though we don’t always see it at times. However, his defensive skills have improved dramatically over the last year and he should be more than capable of containing an out of form George North, while at the same time creating some magic of his own in terms of points for Ireland. Lastly at fullback, much debate has centred around Ireland’s Rob Kearney and Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny. Halfpenny has been one of the world’s best for a long time but the aura seems to be wearing off to the point where the accolade average seems to be more his stock in trade recently. Kearney had fallen off the boil dramatically in the last two years, but in Ireland’s outings since November of last year he has put in some big performances reminiscent of the abilities that made him European player of the year in 2012. Based on form we’d give the Irishman a better shot at justifying his reputation on Friday night than the Welshman.
If Ireland can get a convincing lead by the 60 minute mark then we are quite confident that their bench will finish the job and secure Ireland a much-needed bonus point. Wales have a good bench with lock Luke Charteris, number eight Taulupe Faletau, scrum half Gareth Davies and the up and coming Sam Davies at fly half providing serious firepower. However, the pedigree of Ireland’s reserves is just that much more frightening. We thought Niall Scannell had an excellent game in his first start at Hooker against Italy in place of Rory Best. Prop Cian Healy needs absolutely no introduction along with second rower Ian Henderson and flanker Peter O’Mahony who will all provide tiger like qualities when Ireland need them most. Fly half Johnny Sexton’s understudy Paddy Jackson is more than capable and is even a fine starter when Sexton is not available. We’re unsure about winger Tommy Bowe as he has not really stood out much of late for Ireland or Ulster but is more than capable of some searing breaks down the wing if given the right opportunity as well as being a master of the intercept.
It’s still going to be a humdinger of a contest with Ireland wanting to make a big statement ahead of their potential tournament deciding clash with England next weekend. Wales will make every attempt to derail Ireland’s Championship aspirations and in front of a home crowd baying for results they will be more than up for it. Expect a contest of bruising intensity, but one which Ireland should ultimately take by five points especially in the last quarter if Wales’ confidence starts to crack and a superior Irish bench applies the stranglehold on the match we expect them to!
Italy vs France
Saturday, March 11th
While neither Italy or France are in the running for the silverware in this year’s tournament, this match still offers plenty to play for for both sides. Italy will want to build on their showing against tournament favourites England a fortnight ago, where they managed to avoid what were many were billing as a potential whitewash. France meanwhile will want to put in a devastating performance, while also giving some of their younger players a shot at Test match glory, that hopefully will highlight how far they have come as well as giving them confidence to end the tournament on a high in a final tough encounter with Wales, and thus lay down a real marker for next year’s tournament.
Both sides possess some bruising forward power, but the French pack has justifiably gained a daunting reputation so far in this tournament and Italy will have their work cut out containing them. Italy’s front row have shown that they are no pushovers in the shape of props Andrea Lovotti and Lorenzo Cittadini and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini. However, they will be hard pushed to match French props Cyril Baille and Rabah Slimani and hooker and inspirational Captain Guilhem Guirado. The French trio have impressed throughout the tournament and youngster Cyril Baille is a real talent for the future for France. Consequently, France should dominate the battle of the front rows. In the second rows, we hand the contest over to Italy as we simply feel that locks Marco Fuser and Dries Van Schalkwyk in particular pack some real punch for Italy and despite France’s Yoann Maestri able to rise to the occasion when needed, we just think the Italian pair have slightly more spark and grunt power as a unit. In the back row France once more experiment with youth and experience in the shape of flanker Kevin Gourdon, number 8 Louis Picamoles and youngster Fabien Sanconnie. Gourdon has been exceptional for France this tournament as has the veteran Louis Picamoles. Both these players provide France with some impressive physicality and ability to create opportunities for the rest of the pack to exploit as well as providing some solid defence. Italy have their own weapons here as well in the shape of their talismanic Captain Sergio Parisse at number 8 and flankers Braam Steyn and Simone Favaro. We have been consistent fans of Favaro and cannot say enough about Parisse’s extraordinary leadership qualities, but still can’t help feeling that the strength and speed of France’s Picamoles and Gourdon still provides an advantage that Italy will struggle to contain.
In the half backs, France’s offering of Baptiste Serin at scrum half and fly half Camille Lopez is clearly the established platform for the future while Italy’s unit is still a work in progress, albeit a promising one. Serin continues to be a revelation and although he didn’t have his best game against Ireland, he is still a talent that provides plenty of X-factor for France and some sublime distribution of the ball. Lopez possesses an accurate boot that will keep France ticking over on the scoreboard. Italian scrum half Edoardo Gori is an exciting player and can be guaranteed to put in a big shift but he just doesn’t quite possess some of the magical abilities of his French counterpart. Carlo Canna is a solid fly half for Italy who continues to improve but will be hard pressed to match Camille Lopez’s experience at this level, especially under pressure. Therefore expect to see France dictating the run of play in Rome.
The backs see a return for France of bruising speedster Virimi Vakatawa on the left wing along with his fellow Fijian Noa Nakaitaci on the right. These two provide so much pace and power that if they can keep ball in hand, which has sometimes been a problem, then Italy could be in for a torrid afternoon out wide. Add to that Vakatawa’s increasingly impressive defensive abilities and Italy’s Giovanbattista Venditti and Angelo Esposito are going to have to put in some very big performances but are unlikely to get the better of the two Frenchmen. In the centres it once again should be France’s day with Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat attending to business. Both have had an excellent Six Nations especially Lamerat and will surely relish the opportunity of getting the scoreboard ticking over regularly on Saturday in Rome. Italy do possess the exceptional Michele Campagnaro at centre and expect him to create plenty of fireworks of his own, but we don’t feel his partner Luke McLean offers enough of a threat to give Italy any kind of advantage over the French duo. Lastly at fullback it’s hard to call as we don’t really rate Frenchman Brice Dulin, and Italy’s Edoardo Padovani has promise but lacks experience. However, of the two we actually feel that Padovani is the slightly more reliable, although not as flash offering and as result actually favor Italy’s chances here.
In short this should be a solid contest with both sides capable of producing some drama. Italy at home can often be a challenge and they will want to make a real statement in their last home game of the tournament. France however, despite the loss to Ireland a fortnight ago, just look further down the road in terms of their rebuilding process. France are going to be hard to beat on Saturday and given the talent lying in wait to finish off Italy on their bench, it should ultimately be France’s day by a comfortable margin of 14 points!
England vs Scotland
Saturday, March 11th
At the beginning of this tournament although a Calcutta match encounter between these two old rivals was always something to look forward to, with Scotland’s victories over Ireland and Wales it has suddenly taken on a whole new dimension. England are on track for a Grand Slam, but Scotland suddenly find themselves in genuine contention for the Championship should they topple England at Fortress Twickenham on Saturday. It will be no mean feat and a huge challenge for Scotland, but there is the slightest hint that history could be made on Saturday should they pull it off. While England still remain favourites to lift the trophy and despite stuttering badly at times during this Championship they still remain unbeaten, not only in this tournament but in their last 17 outings since their ill-fated World Cup. It is hard to imagine Scotland doing the unthinkable on Saturday if we look at it rationally, but if it is based solely on heart and spirit then you just never know what might happen. Either way it has suddenly become the most eagerly anticipated match to date of a Six Nations that increasingly refuses to follow the script.
Scotland know that the challenge facing them is immediate right from the get go and up front especially in the physical battles. However this is an area which they have managed to contest remarkably well despite their injury list. However, in the front rows at Twickenham Scotland will be hard matched to outmuscle England on Saturday. England’s prop division of Joe Marler and Dan Cole provide some serious strength and experience along with Hooker and Captain Dylan Hartley. Scotland’s offering of props Gordon Reid, Zander Ferguson and hooker Fraser Brown will challenge to their best of their ability but the experience of the English trio should easily give them the advantage, particularly if England’s Marler and Cole can keep their discipline under pressure. The battle of the second rows should be of epic proportions. England’s Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes have been outstanding for England, but then the Gray brothers have been equally impressive for Scotland. There will be fireworks aplenty here in an equal contest but one in which the power and experience of the English unit should just have the edge. However, in the back rows we actually hand the advantage over to Scotland which may come as a surprise to many, especially given the presence of England flanker and force of nature Maro Itoje. However, despite Itoje and his partner James Haskell’s remarkable skills we feel that the sheer terrier like qualities, endurance and unpredictability of Scotland’s John Barclay, Hamish Watson and number eight Ryan Wilson will just edge the day for the Scots here. If these three can hold their own against England for as long as possible then England are going to be under more pressure than they would perhaps like till number eight Billy Vunipola makes his first Test appearance off the bench after injury. We have yet to see anything from Nathan Hughes who will start at number eight for England that should give Scotland any cause for concern.
In the half backs we also feel that Scotland may have a bit of an edge. Scrum half Ali Price and fly half Finn Russell had a truly exceptional game for Scotland against Ireland a fortnight ago, whereas England’s Ben Youngs at scrum half and George Ford at fly half have stuttered too much on occasion. Ford in particular seems to be experiencing an erratic run of form and if Owen Farrell has the kind of wobbles he experienced against Italy then Ford’s confidence will take a further hit. We don’t deny that the English pair are world-class on their day, and should they fire on Saturday then it could well be all over for Scotland by half time, however we haven’t seen it yet this tournament whereas we really like what Scotland are able to produce in this department and as a result give them the narrowest of nods here.
In the backs it is an exceptionally tough contest to call. England clearly has the more experienced centre pairing in Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, however, at the time of writing injury concerns were a potential issue for Farrell even though we think it highly unlikely he will have such a dip in form as we saw against Italy. He seems to have developed into a much cooler customer than in days gone by in big pressure matches like this one. Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and exceptional newcomer Huw Jones, who set the world abuzz in Scotland’s November Tests, possess some serious skill and Jones when allied to the Hogg/Seymour strike axis can be lethal. Nevertheless, we can’t help feeling that the English pairing are the more effective especially under pressure. On the wings the contest between England’s Elliot Daly and Scotland’s Tommy Seymour should be outstanding. However, it is some of the Scotsman’s footwork and passing skills which lead us to believe that he is likely to emerge the better of the two. Meanwhile, we feel that England’s Jack Nowell possesses a speed and elusiveness that Scotland’s Tim Visser will simply not be able to contain. Lastly at fullback it is hard not to give Scotland the clear advantage in the shape of one of the players of the tournament, Stuart Hogg. Every time Hogg gets the ball Scotland manage to produce a passage of play that leaves defenders scrambling and warning bells sounding from Dublin to Rome. England’s Mike Brown is a feisty bulldog with an exceptional work rate but he simply doesn’t create the kind “what do we do now” moments that cause confusion amongst opposition defences that his Scottish counterpart is capable of. Ultimately this contest of the backs will come down to Scotland’s X-factor up against England’s experience and big game management skills.
However, for us whichever way you cut it this match will be won or lost from the benches and it is here that England is just packing far too much firepower. The Vunipolas are a force of nature in their own right and Scotland simply has no response to these two bruising giants on their own bench. English replacement scrum half Danny Care has proven time and again how quickly he can turn the pace of a match as have the power and pace of centre Ben Te’o and winger Anthony Watson. Te’o in particular has been instrumental in sealing matches for England in this Championship in the last quarter. Scotland has some capable firepower on their bench and in particular second rower Tim Swinson has really stood out for us, but they simply don’t have the calibre of England’s weapons in waiting so as a result we expect England to have the last laugh here.
Make no mistake this match should keep all of us on the edge of our seats and spilling our beer in living rooms and pubs across the globe on Saturday, especially for the first hour. However, as the inevitable attrition takes place as Scotland throw every last ounce of willpower they possess in containing an increasingly rampant England at home in front of a fervent Twickenham, we fear it will ultimately be a bridge too far for this highly talented and inspirational Scottish side. Once England bring their big guns off the bench, England should ultimately pull away by 6 points or more in what should still hopefully prove to be a thrilling encounter! That’s if things go according to script, something that so far in this tournament has not quite happened with the kind of regularity one would expect – either way strap yourselves in and if you’re of the betting persuasion you might want to hold off on this one.