Saturday sees the Nat-West 6 Nations Championship pass the ½ way stage, with two teams unbeaten and two teams still to register a victory. The two unbeaten sides have both played Italy, who look like being the bottom team again this year, while Scotland and Wales, have won both their home games, with contrasting fortunes away from home. Scotland got the proverbial beating in Cardiff, while Wales were unfortunate to lose at Twickenham, with a contentious TMO decision potentially being the decisive factor.
The championship is going exactly the way that many predicted, which will finish with a championship (and possible Grand Slam) decider in London on St. Patricks Day. The fly in the ointment might be Wales, who I expected to be going through a transition in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in Japan. They have changed their game-plan from the infamous ‘WarrenBall’ to a more pro-active outlook. It will be very interesting how the ‘game of the weekend’ pans out in Dublin on Saturday. This will show whether they are genuinely title challengers or mid-table contenders. The changes to the Welsh team, with the return of Dan Biggar is intriguing. With this decision, and the altering of a successful backline, and Rhys Patchell and Josh Adams dropping out of the match day 23 altogether, it looks like the Welsh will be looking for territory and penalties. This is given more credibility with Leigh Halfpenny returning to the full back berth. Both Patchell and Adams have the X-Factor, and not playing them looks more of a return to the pragmatic approach that Gatland has frequently used. This is the correct method for a trip to the Aviva, which could reap the rewards desired. Whether they will succeed, will be down to how well the Irish manage their game. They struggled to break down the French defence, much like Scotland did against Wales. If they can manage to create and take their chances, I can see a straightforward Irish win. If not, a tight game will ensue, which will be decided by no more than one score. It could go either way and I feel if it is tight, it will be Wales that will come out on top.
As for the Calcutta Cup match….. Scotland haven’t won it for 10 years! What is worrying for me is that Mike Brown is playing like he did a few years back and is becoming more influential in the games he’s played this year. He was my Man of Match in the England v Wales match. Combined with the indifferent form of Finn Russell, this may be an Achilles heel for Scotland. If Scotland sort their defence, another step forward is required from the match against France, they need Russell to bring his ‘A’ game. They can’t afford to kick the ball into play in the England half, unless they make the English counter turn and this is where Scotland will need an effective kick-rush. If they can do this and nullify Brown, it will become a midfield game, which England do have the edge. However, Scotland have potential to expose the English midfield if they over commit. They will use Stuart Hogg, coming into the line and along with Huw Jones, he has the ability to unlock the English defence. The improvement for Scotland (in their game against France) over the team that lost to Wales was the strength on the bench. This has been further improved with the return from injury of WP Nell. This will add impact off the bench as he is one of the best props in world rugby, and he would have been on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand if fully fit. If the game gets to the closing stages with the result still in the balance, this strength will not weaken Scotland, as along with Nel, Tim Swinson on the bench will give another option in the 2nd row.
Unfortunately, I don’t see it coming down to the wire, and I see England winning by at least 10 points, but without a try bonus point.
As for the starter on Friday night. France have been close to victory twice, while Italy have shown some potential, but not consistently enough over 80 minutes. With the game being played in the rugby hotbed of Marseille it should be a straightforward victory for France. They have brought in Mathieu Bastareaud, immediately after his suspension for homophobic abuse. What is an interesting aside, is that the player he aimed the abuse at, starts for Italy! With the inclusion of Bastareaud, it looks like France are going for power. This is similar to the approach England used, with power out wide, and this brought them the victory in Rome. With this I feel that it will be a comfortable victory for France, with a try bonus point.Six S