We imagine that at the end of the weekend, Wales will still be on track for a Grand Slam after their Roman holiday courtesy of Italy, but could a beleaguered England have something to say about France’s lofty Championship aspirations? For Scotland and Ireland it’s a chance to get their campaigns back on track. Scotland with three games in hand could still very much be in the hunt for a strong finish. Should Ireland come unstuck once more in Murrayfield on Sunday, then for all intents and purposes, like England and Italy the Men in Green’s Championship will essentially be over. Everything to prove for all sides and some very high stakes matches on offer in what should be an outstanding weekend of Six Nations action!
The action all starts this Saturday with Wales travelling to Rome to face an Italian side full of ambition but low on confidence, as once again the Azurri find themselves winless heading into Round 4. Wales on the other hand seem unstoppable and Saturday’s encounter is likely to set up what should be the Championship finale next weekend in Paris as France and Wales face off. That’s assuming that France’s visit to Twickenham on Saturday goes according to plan for Les Bleus. England after losses to Scotland and Wales are clearly struggling and are a shadow of the side that made it to the Final of the last World Cup. On paper France should take advantage of an English side that seem to have clearly lost their way, but this fixture rarely if ever goes according to the form books!
Italy vs Wales – Saturday, March 13th – Rome
This match should for all intents and purposes be no more than a training run in the sun for Wales on their seemingly unstoppable journey to a potential Grand Slam. Wales have been the surprise package of the tournament, and put on display some genuinely world class youngsters while playing some very efficient and solid rugby. With each outing this year Wales have simply got better, and their demolition of England a fortnight ago, even if you take away the two controversial tries was impressive. Wales like France seem to be on the right path to building the kind of squad they want for the next World Cup. Like most sides making the trip to Italy, Wales will be looking for a maximum points haul, in case the issue of points differences come into play at the end of the Championship if neither Wales or France pull off a Grand Slam.
Italy will once again be seeking to make a statement that they can be competitive with the big teams, but pulling off the upset of the tournament is to be honest probably not on the cards Saturday. There is promise in this young Italian side make no mistake, but they are not quite at the races yet and instead will be looking to Saturday’s encounter to once more gauge where they’re at in terms of squad development for the future.
No more Mr. Nice Guy
Italian Captain and Hooker Luca Bigi seems like a genuinely nice guy who cares about his teammates. The problem is by being a nice guy how do you live up to the legendary status of your predecessor, the great Sergio Parisse? Parisse led from the front and took no prisoners, even if it meant dressing down his teammates when necessary. Italy’s discipline is woeful at the moment and it’s time for Bigi to start laying the law down and leading by example. He can start by improving his own performance in the scrum and impressing upon his teammates the need for a better understanding of the rules. 18 penalties and two yellow cards in the game against Ireland is simply inexcusable and on the pitch it’s the job of the man wearing the Captain’s armband to stamp it out quickly as well as lead by example. It won’t be easy consigning the shadow of Parisse to a proud history but it needs to happen sooner rather than later, with Bigi opening another memorable chapter.
Another of Wales’ unsung heroes
A bit like flanker Justin Tipuric, Welsh second rower Cory Hill is one of those players who somehow stays off the radar, yet when he is on the pitch gets through a mountain of work and is also rather effective at ratcheting up the scoreboard in favor of the Men in Red. In short, another of Wales’ highly underrated yet brutally effective players. Injury has sidelined him from taking much of a role in furthering the Welsh cause since the World Cup, but now he’s back expect fireworks aplenty from the powerful lock. He and and Alun Wyn Jones will be mixing it with a talented but ill disciplined Italian unit, and it’s hard to see Wales doing anything other than completely dictating play in the tight five exchanges as their powerhouse front row causes Italy to be reaching for some extra strength Tylenol.
The three Horseman of the Apocalypse
Josh Navidi, Talupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric – if that’s not a combination to have you running for the hills behind Rome then we don’t know what is. Arguably one of the most impressive units in this year’s Six Nations the Welsh back row will take some beating on Saturday in Rome. Italy have some capable contenders in Sebastian Negri and the increasingly noteworthy Johan Meyer, but at the end of the day its division two meeting division one. All three Welshmen seem to be operating at their very best with Tipuric and Faletau combining exceptionally well together while Navidi is an exciting loose canon who is equally sound defensively. Italy struggle to score in the opposition 22 and defend in their own, and against a Welsh unit veritably humming from 1-8 in defence and attack, their job has suddenly got a whole lot harder.
A bit more than an impact player
There is no denying the impact replacement fly half Calum Sheedy brought to the Welsh effort against England when he came on for Dan Biggar at the beginning of the second half. Consequently, you can perhaps understand our surprise at Sheedy not getting the starting berth in the 10 jersey for a game Wales should comfortably win. Giving up and coming young players a chance to start at Test level is key in our view and against a team that Wales should be able to get the measure of, surely this is an opportunity gone begging for Wales Coach Wayne Pivac. The only thing we can think of is that Italy’s up and coming fly half Paolo Garbisi is one of Italy’s few genuine attacking threats, and until Wales settle into a rythmn against the Azurri, perhaps Pivac prefers the more tried and trusted experience of Dan Biggar. We’ll know on the day but the battle between the Italian and Welsh youngsters once it does get underway on Saturday should prove fascinating.
Bench press these two if you can!
Ultimately as brave as the Azurri will be on Saturday, the benches will seal the fate of this match and in this respect Wales can essentially put their feet up before referee Wayne Barnes has even blown the first whistle. There are some very big names on the Welsh bench, and Jake Ball’s stature alone is enough to strike fear into most normal human beings. Add in a dash of centre Willis Haloholo and fly half Calum Sheedy who we’ve already mentioned and Italy are going to have trouble keeping up, plain and simple, especially in the final quarter of the game when by tradition they go off the boil anyway.
Wales seemingly inevitable march towards a Grand Slam decider in Paris, is unlikely to be halted on Saturday in Rome despite the best efforts of an Italian side still trying to figure out its talent base. In Wales they will get an outstanding opponent in which to test their mettle and really find out how far this Italian side have come in 2021, despite them marching in the opposite direction towards yet another Wooden Spoon. Their trip to Murrayfield as their final hoorah for this year’s Six Nations is an unenviable one, so expect perhaps their best performance of the tournament in their final home game, despite the superior pedigree of their Welsh opponents. An intriguing but most likely one sided contest awaits, as Wales set up that grand finale in Paris in a week’s time.
England vs France – Saturday, March 13th – Twickenham
This year’s edition of “Le Crunch” has some interesting subplots. Can England really continue to be as wretched as they have been so far this season? Will it be the final proof that England Coach Eddie Jones’ selections are simply not working? Will France’s month long hiatus courtesy of their waffle eating shenanigans and Coach Fabien Galthie’s indiscretion in cheering on his son, resulting in COVID exposure prove to be the undoing of France’s otherwise dream like start to 2021? Have France lost some critical momentum as a result? Is French scrum half Antoine Dupont really the world’s best rugby player? Make sure you tune in at 1145 AM Eastern on Saturday to find out.
We’d argue that France are unlikely to have lost too much momentum, as this is still just too good a team. Better coached and disciplined than their English opponents, France know what they are about and how they want to get results. England on the other hand would appear to be a lot more unsure of themselves and we can’t remember the last time we saw a team so clearly not enjoying what they’re doing. Saturday’s match carries enormous weight for both sides but for dramatically different reasons. For England, it is a last chance to silence their critics and prove that there really is life in what increasingly looks like a dinosaur. Meanwhile for France it’s time to banish the negative press surrounding their COVID 19 faux pas to the dustbin and get everyone focused back on their rather extraordinary brand of rugby.
The Statistics aren’t all that bad
England may wish that their stats were perhaps as cheery as these ones from last year, but if you actually look closely at the stats between the two sides for Saturday’s match they don’t make for that unhappy reading, with one glaring exception – DISCIPLINE! But before we get to that here are some interesting positives to note. France have only scored one more try than England, although they have averaged twice the number of tries scored per match and have played one less match than England. England have parity with France in success at lineouts and in the scrums. Their tackle success rate is almost identical to France. There are only two real glaring disparities. The first is in only two games France has averaged almost five times as many offloads as England has managed in three. Second and most important is England has conceded 41 penalties compared to France’s 18. Even if France had played three games to date, based on the law of averages they would still be trailing England by 14 penalties. In short what does this tell us? France are better at controlling themselves under pressure while at the same time being infinitely more imaginative and creative in attack. It will be fascinating to see if after two weeks of number crunching England will have found a way to make the statisticians paint a more rosy picture of them.
France’s Weakest Link or Mastery of the Dark Arts?
If England have one shot at redemption on Saturday in the discipline stakes they could end up finding it in the front row. Have France deliberately put their red card specialist prop Mohamed Haouas in the mix to wind England up, particularly live wire prop Kyle Sinckler who is no stranger to the referee’s whistle himself? Even though Haouas and Sinckler will be on opposite sides of the scrum, the potential for sparks here is enormous and it will be fascinating to see who retains the cooler set of heads. Despite the pundits arguing that England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie is the better of the two Hookers, we can’t agree and feel that France’s Julien Marchand is just as lethal. However, if England can keep their composure here they could finally start to get the penalty count to work in their favor and gain some early dominance in the set pieces.
Easy target but not the problem
You may be puzzled to see us steadfastly defending the player who stood out amongst all others in terms of penalties conceded by England in their loss to Wales. Look deeper though and Itoje got into so much trouble because he was one of the few English players actually making an effort in Cardiff. Agreed he still has to get a handle on his discipline, but he is such a quality player that England simply cannot afford to leave him out of their starting XV. His work rate is off the charts and provided he can stay on the right side of the referee, then he is a talisman to the rest of his teammates. If he can keep a lid on his emotions, there is no denying the enormous value he brings to England’s set pieces and he is an absolute nightmare at the breakdowns. He is likely to make French scrum half Antoine Dupont’s life an absolute misery on Saturday, causing the French genius to think twice about box kicking. England need Itoje’s Herculean work rate and raw aggression, provided he can keep both within the boundaries of the laws. Despite his issues against Wales, we feel that this is one player that Coach Eddie Jones is right to continue placing his faith in.
An alternate reality
Take a player who has a reputation of some sterling performances a few years ago, who prefers running straight lines into direct contact with opposition defences and put him against a player who covers huge areas of the park and can make some rather handy offloads while dancing his way around defenders. Who do you think is going to come out on top? The former is England’s Billy Vunipola a great player in his day until opposition defences figured him out, and the latter is France’s Gregory Alldritt who everyone is just trying to get the measure of. There are a raft of young number eights in the English Premiership who display similar qualities to Alldritt but fail to register with Eddie Jones. We have a great deal of respect for Billy Vunipola who has put in some legendary performances in an English jersey. The problem is he is playing the type of rugby that would have worked 2 years ago, but Alldritt is playing they type of game that is required of a number eight in 2021 and beyond. Our heart goes out to Vunipola who may well find himself out in the cold for much of Saturday’s encounter, and as a result put out to pasture as England and Eddie Jones reluctantly start to think about the next World Cup.
Catch him if you can
The much hyped return of French centre Virimi Vakatawa from injury, presents what we feel is another mismatch in the making. Just like Billy Vunipola and Gregory Aldritt, Vakatawa and his English counterpart Owen Farrell could not be more different. Vakatawa’s explosive ball carrying, offloading and ability to weave his way through and around defences could not be more different to Farrell’s slower and more tactical approach. Vakatawa may not have Farrell’s overall sense of how matches unfold but his reaction times and ability to seize the slightest of opportunities and turn them into something, make him the far more dangerous player. You always know where Farrell is, but the same cannot be said of Vakatawa who seems to pop up everywhere. Although defensively he may not be as solid as Farrell, he is improving and not prone to the costly lapses in tackling technique that the Englishman is often guilty of. Lastly without the pressure of the Captain’s armband affecting his nerves expect the French Fijian to be having a much more enjoyable afternoon on Saturday than his English opposite number.
France on paper and if form is anything to go by look the side to beat on Saturday, even if it is on the hallowed ground of Twickenham. It remains to be seen how much the four weeks away from the competition has affected their momentum. Furthermore although they beat Ireland in Dublin in their last match prior to Saturday’s encounter, it required them to pull out every trick in their considerable arsenal. England will come into this game knowing that they simply have to throw everything at the French, as a third humiliating defeat in this year’s tournament will put a bruised and battered squad under even more intense and unwelcome scrutiny as well as making their trip to Dublin a week later an even greater challenge. France should win this one, but this is a game that very rarely goes according to script. Much like the match between Ireland and France almost a month ago, this one will be tight, but we can’t help feeling that France will set themselves up for a silverware showdown with Wales next Saturday in Paris at England’s continuing expense. In short, France have the confidence and sense of purpose that England would dearly love to have rub off on them.
We’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the final match of the weekend, that between Scotland and Ireland in Murrayfield once the team sheets are out.