Ireland may have the Championship, but the final weekend of this year’s Six Nations sees a Grand Slam in the offing for the Irish and a frantic race for second from England, Wales, France and Scotland!

Posted: March 16, 2018 in Six Nations 2018
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The final Saturday of the Six Nations, or “Super Saturday” as it is now commonly referred to, has in recent years provided a thrilling climax to a classic tournament. This year looks set to be no different. Scotland start us off in Rome, needing a 65 point winning margin at least, and a favorable turn of events in Cardiff to keep them in the hunt for second place. Their opponents Italy, even with a win would still once more maintain their traditional place of wooden spoon holders. Next up it is without question one of THE biggest Tests of the year. Ireland travel to Twickenham having already won the Championship last weekend, but as a result of being undefeated seek only their third Grand Slam in the tournament’s history. However, to get there they need to play well away from home against a wounded and angry English side seeking revenge for Ireland spoiling their own party on exactly the same terms in Dublin this time last year. To add insult to injury for the English, Ireland have also pipped the Men in White to the number 2 spot in the world rankings. England may have lost the Championship but barring the World Cup they have rarely had so much to play for. Lastly, France travel to Cardiff for a battle royale with Wales, with both sides hoping Ireland will do them a favor and see either of them home to a second place finish. Many had predicted that, despite injury problems, Wales would end up the dark horses of the tournament and finish second, but few ourselves included ever imagined France to be in such a position of strength.

Unfortunately, due to our kids all being out on March break from school here in Canada, we simply have not had nearly as much time as we would like this week to sit around over a few pints and discuss the finer points of what should be an epic weekend. So apologies, and not because we think the matches in Rome and Cardiff are of any less importance, but sadly we can only give a brief overview of those two matches and what we think might happen, and reserve our usual head to head breakdowns for the Grand Slam decider between England and Ireland. So in we go!

Italy vs Scotland
Saturday, March 17th
Rome

Like we say we don’t underestimate the importance of this match by any stretch of the imagination. Scotland are clearly in the hunt for a strong third place finish, as well as a continued climb up the world rankings – so in short plenty to play for. Italy, are resigned to their status as wooden spoon holders, for yet another year but it doesn’t mean their Six Nations leaves them with nothing to play for this Saturday. Italy have shown some enormous promise at times in attack this tournament, so there is plenty to be excited about and they will certainly give it their all to finish on a high against Scotland.

So having said that who’s most likely to pull it off? No matter which way you cut it, it’s hard to see anything other than a Scottish victory, and probably a fairly comfortable one at that. Scotland will be thinking points, points and more points and they easily have the strike force to rack them up. The execution that was lacking in the match against Ireland last weekend is unlikely to be repeated. Furthermore, although Italy will also be able to attack and punch holes in Scottish defences, the Italian defence has been consistently weak this tournament, and they are going to struggle to contain the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg, to name but a few of the Scottish speed merchants. Once the Scottish backs cut loose they are likely to make the Italian defence look like a massive piece of Swiss cheese. Scotland do have defensive liabilities of their own but nothing close to the problems that Italy has faced. Add to this Italy’s famous disciplinary problems once the panic mode sets in, and Scotland’s devastating pack of loose forwards and jackals are likely to have a field day.

Expect some massive performances from Italy courtesy of the usual suspects such as Sergio Parisse at number eight. Once more the talismanic Captain will inspire his charges and one of his loose forwards Sebastian Negri will provide enormous firepower to Italy’s cause and has rightly been their player of the tournament. We’ve also been massively impressed by Italy’s attacking prowess in the shape of fullback Matteo Minozzi and centre Tommaso Castello. Once again two exceptional players for the Azurri and a lot to be excited about for the future.

However, just look at that Scottish lineup! Fix the errors seen against Ireland and this team could literally run rings around the Italians. Although Scotland have rung a significant amount of changes to the side that came unstuck against Ireland, especially in the forwards, it is still a formidable unit. The sheer presence of Hamish Watson and John Barclay alone in the back row for Scotland should see them home, as these two exceptional jackals ply their trade to the max. They also boast for the most part an excellent disciplinary record at the breakdown. Once the hard work is done up front, then expect Scotland’s phenomenal set of backs from 9-15 to just let rip. The names sound like an honor roll of attacking rugby in this year’s Six Nations, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. Add the reliability and composure of scrum half Greg Laidlaw’s boot to keep the scoreboard ticking over for the inevitable Italian disciplinary lapses and the match should be signed, sealed and delivered for Scotland.

Verdict

It still should be a good game and well worth our interest. There is plenty to play for for both sides. Honor for Italy and a considerable shot in the arm regarding world standings for Scotland are all on the line. Italy has played some beautiful attacking rugby at times, so expect more of the same. However, despite the progress that Italy has made this tournament, this match perhaps more than any other will test their weak defensive structures to the limit. Consequently, we expect Scotland to ultimately pull away with it, especially if they find their rhythm and cut out the errors. As a result Scotland to get the result they need to put them in place for a strong third place finish and get the win by 25+ points!

England vs Ireland
Saturday, March 17th
Twickenham

Sit down, strap in and assume the brace position! That’s the way we’re looking at this clash of Titans on St.Patrick’s day at English rugby HQ Twickenham. Test matches really don’t get much bigger than this – plain and simple. Can Ireland pull off a Grand Slam, or will England deny them the prize just as the Irish did to England a year ago in Dublin? England’s last two outings in the Championship have seen them enter a dizzying free fall from the heights of success that had been their trademark up to that point. However, it’s England at home, and we just can’t see the slide continuing. Whether or not in the space of a mere week they can fix the fundamental problems that have been exposed, to the point where they can derail the Irish, remains to be seen. However, we can’t see them playing as poorly as they did on the road against Scotland and France. England at Twickenham is a whole different kettle of fish. Add to that the fact that Ireland’s away record is always in question and suddenly, despite England’s recent woes, it is very much a case of game on!

So this is the one match where we’ve had a chance to pick apart the team sheets and see how they match up.

Front rows

England see some important changes here after the upset in Paris. Kyle Sinckler comes in at Tighthead Prop for Dan Cole who reverts to the bench, with Dylan Hartley returning from injury at Hooker and as Captain. Mako Vunipola remains at loosehead, in a front row trio which really needs to assert the kind of authority that was lacking in Paris. However, sadly for England we just don’t see it happening with the possible exception of a greater success rate in lineout throws. The Irish trio of Props Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong and Hooker Rory Best have been immense this Championship with the props in particular dominating proceedings in this part of the park. When you have the likes of Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter and Jack McGrath waiting on the bench to carry on the good fight, then Ireland find themselves in exceptionally robust health here. England are also packing a solid replacement unit with Dan Cole and Jamie George, but we still hold that Joe Marler is likely to prove the weak link in the chain, especially given the emotions likely to be at stake. It will be gritty and a tad uncomfortable here at times, but Ireland to be in the driver’s seat.

Second rows

What a contest is in store here between these two sides. We’d argue that at home England have the edge. Expect Maro Itoje to be completely fired up and his partner George Kruis is capable of some massive performances. It’s home advantage that will really tell here, and despite the fact that Ireland’s James Ryan has been one of the stars of the tournament this will be the youngster’s first real taste of the kind of off the charts pressure that such matches provide. His partner Ian Henderson will provide a bit more experience but we just think it’s the English pair who are more likely to be the dominant force. With Joe Launchbury waiting on the bench for England the deal should be sealed, despite the experience that Devin Toner brings to the contest for Ireland.

Back rows

England clearly are scrambling for answers in this part of the park, hence the wholesale changes made for this match. Two World Cup veterans for England line up together in the shape of Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, and the experiment of playing Courtney Lawes out of position has been shelved, with newcomer Don Armand in as a bench replacement. Sam Simmonds starts at eight for England, and despite some calls to the contrary we still hold that this dynamic player is the way forward for England even though there is clearly work for him to do to fully develop into the role. In short it looks like a more sensible English back row.

However, up against them is an Irish trio who have become masters of the breakdown and keeping possession for Ireland. Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander need no introduction, but newcomer Dan Leavy has really stood up in the absence of Sean O’Brien. Stander meanwhile has produced some phenomenal statistics this tournament, and somehow we just can’t see England on current form being able to better these three. Add to this the fact that Jordi Murphy, who we think is one of Ireland’s most underrated players awaits the call from the bench and England are going to have to be smarter, quicker and more effective than Ireland here for the full eighty minutes – something we just haven’t seen so far this tournament from them unlike the Irish who have been masters of their trade here. A titanic struggle on the books here but one that Ireland should just edge.

Half Backs

This match sees Owen Farrell return to the number 10 jersey which in our opinion is a massive boost for England. Ireland may have arguably the best half back partnership in the world right now in the shape of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but Farrell is in a class of his own. While he has been exemplary for England at centre, he adds some intelligence and decision-making to the fly half position which has been absent for England so far this tournament. His half back partner at scrum half Richard Wigglesworth is no stranger to Test rugby but we just can’t put him in the same league as Ireland’s Conor Murray. It will definitely be a battle of minds at ten between Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and England’s Owen Farrell, and almost impossible to call. However, Sexton is probably having one of his best seasons ever in the green jersey and allied to Murray’s remarkable talents we just feel that Ireland will be the more clinical here. The battle of the benches in this part of the park has led many to favor England, with Danny Care and George Ford. However, we should point out that it was Ireland’s replacement at scrum half Keiran Marmion who was on duty in place of the injured Conor Murray when Ireland derailed the English Grand Slam juggernaut last year. Also we feel that despite his inexperience Ireland’s Joey Carberry has much more X-factor than a clearly out of sorts George Ford these days. Tight contest at times but one which Ireland should ultimately run comfortably.

Centres

Ireland’s Gary Ringrose burst back onto the Test stage last weekend after a lengthy layoff from injury, and left us speechless. Ireland have lost two world-class centres this tournament and seem none the worse for wear. Ringrose’s partner  Bundee Aki was accused of being slightly one-dimensional and overly physical at first, but even his game has evolved in the last few weeks to the point where Ireland are running perhaps the strongest centre platform in the tournament, even with the enforced changes. At the risk of upsetting English supporters we just don’t see the fascination with Ben Te’o, despite some isolated examples of brilliance. Jonathan Joseph appears to have been hot and cold this year, though with Farrell pulling the strings at fly half we expect to see him being more productive. England may surprise us here but based on form, it’s pretty easy to hand this to Ireland.

Back lines

It’s in this part of the park where once more we feel the contest evens up considerably and may well favor England. There is the small matter that Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale as the tournament’s leading try scorer is up against a very fast but occasionally defensively suspect Jonny May for England. However, Stockdale himself has had more than a few defensive mishaps this tournament, and away from home it could all get a bit much for him so that he and May cancel each other out in terms of their effectiveness for their respective sides. It’s Elliot Daly on the left wing for England that we feel should get English supporters more than a little excited. We’re huge fans of Daly and feel he adds a very versatile and reliable skill set to England in both attack and defence. Admittedly he’s up against Ireland’s Keith Earls who appears to be auditioning for a role in the next instalment of a Marvel Super Heroes action film, but Daly is a smooth operator and brings some real class and intelligence to this English side. Lastly at fullback, Ireland’s Rob Kearney has been outstanding but we think that England’s Anthony Watson packs more in the X-factor department as well as being a powerful strike runner. The bench battle will be fascinating with English bulldog Mike Brown being expected to save the day should things be going awry for England at that point up against Ireland’s Jordan Larmour. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has kept faith in giving Larmour another shot at the big stage and we think it’s merited. If things are going well for Ireland at that point he could make a real difference. It’s still a tall ask though and to be honest overall, perhaps to everyone’s suprise given their recent fortunes, we are giving the edge to England here, mainly on the basis of home advantage.

Verdict

An exceptionally difficult game to call and one we are almost reluctant to predict. Ireland don’t have a good track record away from home under this kind of pressure, but this would appear to be a rather special Irish team who seem to get better with each outing. However, they’re up against an English team with more than a few points to prove in front of a home crowd who will be expecting them to take no prisoners whatsoever, whatever the body count at the final whistle. As a result this is going to be one of the most physical and intense Tests of the year. While England may be lacking a certain degree of creativity at the moment, the team they have chosen to do battle on Saturday is one exceptionally well placed to snuff out any that Ireland may seek to provide. We see a tense and relatively low scoring affair unfolding at Twickenham, although if tries are to be scored we favor Ireland’s chances slightly more.

However, we feel that Ireland are the more structured and cohesive unit, whose collective rugby brain is likely to be sharper than England’s on the day. The pressure doesn’t come greater than this with the exception of possibly a World Cup final or semi-final, and it will be a real test of how far Ireland’s big game mentality has come in preparation for next year’s showdown in Japan. England have one absolutely MASSIVE game in them this tournament and we always thought it would be this match despite their recent mishaps. Whether or not it will be enough to overcome an Irish side that seems to have hit overdrive remains to be seen, even with home advantage. Consequently with a fair degree of trepidation we are throwing the history books out the window on this one and giving Ireland the win by two points!

Wales vs France
Saturday, March 17th
Cardiff

The tournament ends with a fitting flourish as Wales and France, depending on the outcome of the previous dustup between England and Ireland, duke it out for second place. Despite the resurgence in French rugby that would appear to be taking place, albeit tentatively, we can’t help feeling that upsetting an exceptionally strong and stable looking Welsh team in Cardiff is a bridge too far. There will be sparks aplenty but we are of the opinion that this Welsh side has made such remarkable progress despite the injuries they faced at the beginning of the tournament, they will simply be too hard to turn over on their own turf. Wales have learnt a great deal about the depth they now have and how to use it, something which France, as evidenced by their selections for this match, have yet to really determine.

For reasons we can’t really fathom the French front row has undergone a complete overhaul with Jefferson Poirot the only survivor. Rabah Slimani is due to make his weight felt from the bench, but the rest of the French replacements in the front row are simply too much of an unknown quantity for us to see anything other than clear and utter dominance from Wales here, both in the starting selections and from the bench. While Poirot put in some very hard graft against England, he benefitted from the leadership of Captain and Hooker Guilhem Guirado and prop Rabah Slimani packing down beside him. Without these two figures, and under the kind of intense pressure we expect from Wales we fear his discipline may well go out the window. Wales pack an outstanding front row that has really come into its own in this tournament and their bench looks solid enough to back up any gains made here.

It’s in the second and back rows where the contest evens out and we expect to see a large part of the action on Saturday. France pack a very capable second row and their back row has been quite the revelation this tournament. The back row trio of Marco Tauleigne, Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara have been outstanding and expect them to be exceptionally competitive in Cardiff. Wales however are equally strong and when you can boast names like Alun-Wyn Jones in the second row then there is no question that there will be some tireless physicality on hand from Wales. However, it’s Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau who should strike fear into the hearts of a very capable and competitive French back row. Throw in Aaron Shingler off the bench and we can’t help feeling that Wales are almost unstoppable in this part of the park despite a stiff French challenge.

In the backs and at half back Wales also look rather frightening to say the least. A solid half back partnership exists between Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies, with Davies surely the number one Welsh choice at scrum half building towards the World Cup. From 11-15 Wales just look more lethal than France for this encounter and their performances in this tournament would back up that assertion. France have some real power in winger Remy Grosso who had an absolutely massive game against England, but overall from 9-15 for this match there is not the same tried and trusted platform in blue jerseys that Wales have managed to develop over the last seven weeks. Mathieu Basteraud at centre for France has had perhaps the two best games of his career in his last two outings against Italy and England, but we still feel that with some imagination and creativity Wales will find a way to work around him. If Grosso and Basteraud end up being the game changers they were against England for France, then Wales could have a very difficult afternoon, but we just can’t help feeling that away from home and with the composition of the rest of France’s efforts in the backs slightly disjointed, Wales will have a field day with them here.

Then there’s the small matter of a Welsh bench which has impact and X-factor written all over it, and it is hard to see France being competitive in the final quarter of the match if it has got away from them by that point on the basis of their own bench.

Verdict

Much has been said about home advantage in this tournament and rightly so. This is one match where we feel that it will come to the fore. This is a good French team, albeit perhaps not as balanced as last week’s squad, but taking on a Welsh team that is on the cusp of a very strong finish at home is a very significant undertaking. Wales dismantled Scotland and Italy in their other two home matches, and we see the trend being set to continue this Saturday. France will be exceptionally competitive especially in the loose, but we expect to see Wales start to pull away once the bench starts to come into play. Consequently a tense and very closely fought encounter for the first hour, but Wales to pull away by 9 and a bonus point in the last quarter!

Endnote

Yes the boys are back! Steven and Gareth from the 1014 return with a vengeance for 2018 with even greater depth and content for the Six Nations. Check out some fascinating interviews they’ve done on their YouTube channel in relation to the Six Nations. As we have done all tournament, we’ll sign off with their excellent preview of each round of this year’s Six Nations. In our humble opinion there is no better analysis and opinion on Test Rugby out there, so make sure you get over to their YouTube channel and website and give them the support to keep this fabulous content coming!

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