One of the biggest Saturdays of the rugby year is with us once more! In the last few years the final round of the Six Nations has provided excitement aplenty as rugby fans around the world brace themselves for 240 minutes of nerve-wracking competition. This year is no exception.
The opening match between Italy and France may have no impact on the title race, but the stakes for both sides are huge as Italy seeks to win their first Six Nations match since 2015, and thus avoid the resurgence of the debate as to whether or not they deserve their place in the tournament in the first place. Meanwhile, France need to prove that their ability to be a contender come the World Cup is still a reality. It hasn’t been a good tournament for them, but there have been some positives as they dismantled Scotland and gave Wales an almighty scare in the opening forty minutes of the competition. However, the implosions against England and Ireland put a dampener on any hopes of a new dawn in French rugby.
All eyes however will be on Cardiff on Saturday as the main event gets underway between Wales and Ireland. Wales have quietly and efficiently got themselves to the point where they can now taste their first Grand Slam in seven years. However, last year’s Grand Slam Champions Ireland might have something to say about that. Although Ireland only really started to show us what they are made of when they took apart France last weekend, they have a history of raining on other team’s Grand Slam parades, as England will tell you from their own experience in the 2017 Championship. Ireland are clearly up for this, but Wales have the advantage of it being home turf and a venue that has a record of not favoring the visitors in this Championship.
England will be watching the events in Cardiff with great interest before they run out onto the pitch at Twickenham in the tournament’s last game, as they face a Scottish side decimated by injury. Should Ireland upset the Welsh, then England are suddenly in the running to lift the silverware. There are still plenty of permutations around bonus points and points differences that add a layer of complexity to proceedings, but ultimately England are very much in the hunt should Ireland do them a favor on Saturday. Scotland meanwhile face an injury list from hell made worse by a trip to Twickenham. As a result the Scots travel south of Hadrian’s Wall with perhaps the biggest underdog tag they have ever worn in their proud history.
So without any further ado, and bearing in mind that this is a tournament where surprises are never out of the question, even if they may be based on nothing more than flights of fancy, let’s get into what got us talking over some heated pints this week.
Italy vs France – Saturday, March 16th – Rome
Italy may have yet to record a win so far this year, but we’d be lying if we said we haven’t enjoyed watching them at times this Championship. This is not a bad Italian team, even if results would contradict this assertion. We have been really impressed by some of the new talent Italy has unearthed this year, and were they to end their campaign with a win against a powerful but backfiring French team, the confidence this would impart to Coach Conor O’Shea’s charges would be immeasurable. It’s Italy’s last hurrah before the World Cup and they need to make it count.
France on the other hand should be so much better than their results indicate this tournament. Despite some misguided tinkering by Coach Jacques Brunel in the opening rounds of the tournament he has chosen to stick for the most part with a team that he feels he can trust, even if for this match he has once more chosen to mess with the starting order. France need to end their tournament on a high as the players clearly seem to be out of sync with management, and a much-needed win on Saturday will do much to mend fences.
We want to believe that France has a front row beyond Guilhem Guirado – but it’s hard
Once again France’s Captain extraordinaire was one of the few French players who didn’t let the side down last Sunday in Dublin. However, that front row just creaks. It’s a hard call as there is no denying the skill of rookie tighthead prop Demba Bamba, but time and again his lack of experience shows as he continues to make basic errors. He is clearly an enthusiastic and exciting player, but one who still exhibits a rawness that is costly. Italy’s offering by contrast looks slightly more settled and composed. A fascinating contest awaits but one which simply has to fire for France.
One of the best contests of the weekend – Ruzza vs Lambey
For us this is the most exciting contest between two Test rookies this weekend. We have been hugely impressed by Italy’s Federico Ruzza and once again despite the loss to Ireland, France’s Felix Lambey had a monster of a game. These two rookie second rowers are stars of the future for their respective sides and this should be one of the most exciting contests of Super Saturday.
Brunel decides to gamble yet again with one of France’s strongest assets
Although they got shown up last weekend in Dublin, France’s back row has been one of the few things French supporters have had to cheer about in the last six weeks. While to a certain extent Coach Jacques Brunel’s hand has been forced by injury, we still raised our eyes slightly at the teamsheet. Picamoles has for the most part been a monster especially against weaker opposition, and although he may not have had the best game last weekend, flanker Arthur Iturria still remains one of France’s biggest new talents. While Iturria at least makes the bench, and Wenceslas Lauret is out due to injury it is perhaps a big gamble to throw rookie Gregory Alldritt into the starting lineup despite some impressive performances off the bench, and Yacouba Camara has yet to impress. The French contingent will be up against a very dangerous looking Italian unit spearheaded by legendary number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse, who will play his last competitive game at the Stadio Olimpico. If Brunel has got it wrong this could make for a long afternoon for France, and if Italy start to get some real traction going here in front of a home crowd who will be intensely vocal this could well swing the game in the Azurri’s favor.
Antoine Dupont – France’s ultimate danger man!
If we had to name our match day Six Nations 23, the young Frenchman would be a unanimous selection. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in sheer talent. Simply put – what a player! Even in France’s dark times over the last few weeks the scrum half has consistently stood out. Italy’s exceptional Tito Tebaldi is going to have his hands full keeping up.
Despite a solid work rate, are Italy’s backs good enough to take the fight to an experienced and capable French unit
France sees centre Wesley Fofana play his last Six Nations match alongside veteran battering ram Mathieu Basteraud. With a wealth of caps between them, the centre channels should be France’s to own on Saturday. Meanwhile, their back three pack plenty of experience and pace. However, Penaud’s pace on the wing is offset by some defensive frailties exposed by both England and Ireland, as the Frenchman still appears happier in the centre channels. Italy can be competitive here make no mistake but there is a lack of consistency here that is worrying. However, despite their experience the same could be said of France so it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.
Can Italy pull it off, given what is at stake for them? We have a hunch they just might. France’s away record at the moment is dismal, and Italy have put together their strongest side all Championship. It won’t be easy but as Sergio Parisse’s swan song Italy surely must have one great game in them this Championship, and our hunch is that Saturday’s contest has all the hallmarks of an Italian performance for the ages. So let’s put away all the clichés about which French side will turn up and simply wear our heart on our sleeve and hope that Italy’s run of bad luck has to end sometime, and this weekend’s contest in Rome has all the trappings of a reversal of the Azurri’s fortunes of late. Consequently a hard-fought and edgy contest, full of mistakes from both sides in the heat of the moment, but Italy to make home advantage pay and take it by two!
Wales vs Ireland – Saturday, March 16th – Cardiff
What a prospect is in store for us on Saturday! This was always seen as the Championship decider before proceedings even got underway on February 1st. Although the script has not quite been followed and Ireland find themselves fighting for at best a second place finish, Saturday’s Cardiff dustup will still decide the Championship in terms of whether or not it is England or Wales who will be lifting the silverware. Ireland still is in it with a chance, but it is sadly almost too remote to think of. It would mean that they not only have to knock Wales off their pedestal, but an injury ravaged Scotland would have to do the same to England. If that weren’t enough there is the small matter of bonus points and points differentials.
That said though, Ireland rediscovered the form that many thought would take them to yet another Grand Slam, when they rolled over a dazed France last weekend in Dublin. However, that needs to be taken in context. As much as Ireland dominated, France were poor and there is no denying that Ireland have simply not come away with the points haul they’ve needed against weaker teams like France and Italy in this year’s tournament to make them genuine title contenders. However, as Grand Slam ambition wrecking balls, there are few better teams than the Men in Green. Consequently despite having to travel to the Cardiff Cauldron, Ireland are more than up to the task.
Wales on the other hand simply look the finished product. They may not be the most flash side in the Championship, but they have simply got the job done week in week out and never really looked panicked. Consequently, their sense of belief must now be off the charts coupled to an efficiency and mastery of the basics that is the envy of many of their competitors. This is a brutally efficient and workmanlike Welsh side that knows what they are doing and how to best manage the ebb and flow of Test rugby. They may not have blown us off the park with their skills or flair, but when the chips are down and they are up against it, their sense of composure in closing out difficult games has been second to none. For that reason they deservedly find themselves looking at being Grand Slam Champions this year. All that remains to be seen is what Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his men have to say about it.
Wales have been good, but we think that their front five finally meets its match on Saturday
Although Ireland misfired here in the first three rounds of the Championship, their first five are still rightly regarded as one of the best in the business. After the disastrous Sean Cronin experiment in Rome, Rory Best returned to steady the ship against France. As he ran out for his last Six Nations appearance in front of the Aviva faithful, he proceeded to put in a performance to remember. In his last Six Nations match in an Irish jersey and with so much at stake, expect more of the same. Tadgh Furlong was back to his barnstorming best and Cian Healy made a complete nuisance of himself. Meanwhile James Ryan simply hasn’t put in a bad performance in an Irish jersey – ever! Saturday sees an Irishman who is no stranger to Welsh antics, second rower Tadgh Beirne make a welcome return. Even with the mighty Alun-Wyn Jones leading the Welsh troops, we think that provided the Irish tight five continue the form they showed against France, Wales are in for the biggest Test of the last twelve months in this part of the park.
The two best back rows in Test rugby go head to head
Well in the Northern Hemisphere at least, but we imagine quite a few New Zealanders hold these two units in considerable regard. Having said that we still regard Ireland as having a few more question marks hanging over them in this department than Wales. At the forefront is Sean O’Brien’s fitness. There is no denying his pedigree but we can’t help feeling that this remarkable player just hasn’t hit the high notes that he once did. We’re all big fans here at the Lineout of the “Tullow Tank” and really hope that he will once more put in one of those performances for the ages on Saturday. However, Irish supporters will take comfort in the fact that should he falter, Jack Conan made an outstanding contribution off the bench against France, so there should be no drop in intensity. Against Ireland, Wales pack an equally impressive unit, and last week as always Justin Tipuric was a deadly Welsh enforcer when the going got tough. Like their Irish counterparts, the Welsh trio excel in the physical contests but also pack some real pace around the park. However, we just feel that provided they click into high gear and stay there for the full eighty minutes Ireland have the edge here by the slimmest of margins, especially when it comes to the ability to dominate possession.
Ireland finally find their feet when it comes to game management
Let’s face it Ireland just weren’t there for their opening game against England and faltered badly here at times all the way to Rome. It was only last weekend against France that Ireland’s half back duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton could be said to be back to their best. However, when they are at their peak there are few that can match them, and as a result the test being put to Welsh half back Gareth Anscombe is the biggest of his career to date. Like his Irish compatriots he has got steadily better as the tournament progressed but has still had to be rescued at times by the experienced Dan Biggar. Expect to see the same on Saturday should he trip up. Furthermore, if it’s a shootout between Biggar and Irish replacement Jack Carty, should Sexton pick up the kind of injuries that he has somehow miraculously avoided so far this tournament, then our money is on Biggar. With proven match winners on and off the bench this is a very tight contest and will be one of the most fascinating battles on Saturday, but we tip the Irish to have the upper hand here, as they have a track record of winning big matches like this against the odds.
Gary Ringrose may have had a chat with Brian O’Driscoll ahead of this one
While the comparisons with the legendary Irish centre are inevitable, we feel Ringrose is a player with his own unique skill set. While his remarkable line breaks bring to mind his predecessor, Ringrose is likely to stamp his own authority on Saturday’s match. A word of advice from the great man himself over the phone in the buildup to this match certainly would have done Ringrose no harm. However if he carves out his own piece of history on Saturday, then the references to his illustrious counterpart may start to play less of a role in discussion of his own talents.
Welsh defences get tested out wide but they passed the test against England
There has been a lot of talk in the press this week about Welsh vulnerabilities out wide. Many people feel there are still question marks around the defensive abilities of Welsh wingers Josh Adams and George North in particular. They did pass the test against England, but then Wales controlled the game such that the English threat out wide was nullified, given the Welsh backs limited work to do defensively. Saturday is likely to be an entirely different prospect, especially if the Sexton/Murray partnership turns the tables on Welsh game management. Irish winger Keith Earls is literally playing out of his skin at the moment, and has been one of Ireland’s most consistently reliable performers in the tournament. Add to this threat the one posed by Jacob Stockdale, and if the Welsh defences allow space to open up for these two, then North and Adams will really find out what they are made of.
What happens on Saturday has so many repercussions for how the final table will look, that without a doubt it is THE game of the weekend. Ireland will be up for this make no mistake, and will want to use this as their first real step on the road to the World Cup. Expect an intensity and physicality to this match that is likely to surpass some already memorable contests so far in the tournament. Complacency does not seem to be an issue affecting Wales, and their focus and composure has been exemplary coupled to a seemingly watertight defence in their own 22. If Ireland are to break the Welsh defences and score tries they will need to rely on their backs to do it outside the 22, rather than get into a slugging match with Wales at close quarters. A game to remember, whatever the outcome, is on the cards. Still we are going to go out on a limb here and see a fired up Irish side once again proving that they are the masters of derailing opponents’ Grand Slam ambitions, as they sneak a win by three points.
England vs Scotland – Saturday, March 16th – Twickenham
Your heart simply has to go out to Scotland for this one. This is a promising and spirited side that can play some genuinely exciting and attractive rugby. However, it seems to be subjected to a constant stream of injuries that make it almost impossible to achieve any kind of consistency. To have to travel to Fortress Twickenham, missing some of your key game changers is a fate we would not wish on any one. However, all that being said there are some Scottish players we are genuinely excited at watching in action and a big performance from some of them Saturday will only bode well for Scotland’s plans for the World Cup. If Scotland can cut down on their errors in execution that have plagued them this tournament, then they are in with a chance – a slim one but a chance nonetheless!
England on the other hand have no such problems. Fighting fit and boasting a full complement of world-class players, the Men in White must surely feel more than just a little confident about proceedings on Saturday. Should the Irish have done them a favor a few hours earlier in Cardiff, then expect them to regard the Scots as lambs to the slaughter as England go for the maximum points haul that would secure them the title. The squad picked by Coach Eddie Jones simply oozes quality and is one that is likely to feature in England’s big games in Japan six months from now. With absolutely no disrespect to Scotland, they face an absolutely massive mountain to climb on Saturday, something which England are probably not completely oblivious to.
England’s back row should be dominant but this is one area where Scotland could prove awkward
Don’t believe us, then watch the absolutely massive and almost game changing impact Scotland’s Hamish Watson had coming off the bench last weekend against Grand Slam favorites Wales. He really got under their skin and threw their defences completely off kilter at times. So for that matter did impressive newcomer Magnus Bradbury and what’s more he did so for the full eighty minutes. England are putting out a balanced, powerful and exceptionally capable back row – something they didn’t have last year. It should get the measure of Scotland but expect the Scots to use Watson in particular to seek out the chinks in its armor with devastating effect. England will have to keep Watson in check if they are to keep their structures intact in this part of the field.
Scotland’s half back pairing simply HAS to cut down the basic errors
Once again we are happy for Scotland to see Ali Price start over Greig Laidlaw at scrum half. The energy and pace Price brought to the position against Wales had been clearly lacking in Scotland’s efforts in the tournament up to that point. Furthermore, he combines well with the rapid fire thinking and unpredictability of fly half Finn Russell. These two together could make their English rivals look downright pedestrian by comparison. However, therein lies the problem, in their desire to try to play the game at ninety miles an hour right from the get go, their execution invariably starts to go by the wayside. Scotland will need them to bring some composure under pressure to proceedings on Saturday. Risks will need to be taken if Scotland stand any chance of pulling off the upset of the tournament, but they will need to be measured.
England’s World Cup centre pairing?
Now that Manu Tuilagi seems to have put his injury problems to rest, there is no question he has looked the threat he has been built up to be. Meanwhile Henry Slade has finally come of age, and the two of them on Saturday are likely to be well beyond the reach of Scotland’s Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg. We expect to see these two be the architects of a lot of the big points on the board that England will be chasing on Saturday, with Scotland sadly being completely outclassed here. Furthermore, a good showing by the two Englishmen should see them get the nod for the starting positions in England’s big games six months from now in Japan. We wish Scotland well in this part of the park but fear it is going to be a bit of bruising.
Whatever happens on Saturday – a big performance from Darcy Graham will hopefully be something to celebrate
The Scottish winger’s performance against Wales was a real eye opener for us. Scotland seem to be able to produce electrifying backs with ease and Graham is a prime example. While he still may have a lot to learn, there is no denying that this is a star in the making and a very exciting prospect for the World Cup. If he puts in a big performance on Saturday, then Scotland will definitely have something to cheer about heading to Japan, as yet another youngster proves he can rise to the occasion.
Elliot Daly – England’s unsung hero
We confess that we tend to stand by certain players through thick and thin, and England’s Elliot Daly is a case in point. We regard him as one of England’s most underrated players, but hope that his performances this tournament will change that, as well as his efforts last November. While he may not always get it right, we regard him as a safe and reliable pair of hands that can consistently get England out of trouble. Continued exposure in high pressure games is simply making him a better player. We think he offers a broader range of skills to England than many of his predecessors in the position, and let’s face it he has an exceptionally handy boot to add to the package. Expect him to shine on Saturday and finally remove some of the doubts that occasionally detract from him being considered as England’s first choice for the 15 jersey.
England go into this match, with the demons of Cardiff well and truly exorcised. However, although unlikely Scotland could still prove a banana skin in waiting, should England let their guard down once they think the job is done. At the end of the day, there is no overlooking the fact that Scotland have not won at Twickenham for 36 years. With a team ravaged by injury, it is almost impossible to consign a record like that to just a piece of history – such is the task faced by Scotland on Saturday. Extraordinary upsets of that magnitude simply don’t happen very often in our glorious game. So as much as we would like to dream and see Scotland give us something to talk about for the next 36 years, we just can’t see them getting past a very slick and well oiled English machine running at full capacity. Consequently England to take the spoils by 16 points after wrestling with some serious Scottish spirit!