As we enter the fourth and penultimate weekend of the Nat-West 6 Nations, there has been some interesting selections for two of the sides. Wales have made 10 changes for their game against Italy in Cardiff on Sunday, while England have made some intriguing choices for their match with France. Ireland could win the tournament with a week to spare if they beat Scotland and England don’t match that outcome.
In the ‘game of the weekend’ in Dublin, the only changes have either been because of injury or players returning having missed the middle weekend fixtures. Scotland have made an enforced change with Edinburgh’s Blair Kinghorn making his debut start, replacing Tommy Seymour at wing for their only change. Ireland bring back Tadhg Furlong at prop, and Garry Ringrose at centre, with both returning having missed the bonus point victory over Wales. Who will come out on top? Ireland are deservedly favourites, with an outstanding home record, along with a game plan that is based on possession and wearing the opposition down. They retain possession well, building up pressure and seizing on any weakness that appears. Defensive weakness, is the main concern for Scotland. They shipped tries in Cardiff and were also fallible in the autumn against Samoa conceding five tries in their 44-38 victory. While Ireland have taken their chances when they have presented themselves against Wales and Italy, they didn’t breakdown the French resistance in the first weekend. So, if Scotland want to win in Dublin for the first time since 2010 and a last kick penalty from Dan Parks, they need to show very strong defensive resilience. If they can, and Finn Russell plays as he can (he has the X factor), they have the potential to unlock the Irish rearguard. With Stuart Hogg due a big game, and the inclusion of Kinghorn (who has the same attributes as Hogg, but a little rough round the edges), you never know, as Scotland showed against New Zealand and Australia and to a lesser extent England, they have the weaponry to hurt the best teams in the world. I don’t think Ireland will lose this, and I think the first half will be key. If Ireland can get a lead of more than one score, it could be a long day for Scotland. If not and it is a tight game, it could favour Scotland as the front row replacements could have an impact! However, Ireland are very good at closing out games and playing percentage territory rugby, which is Johnny Sexton’s forte, and because of that Ireland to win.
Over in Paris, Eddie Jones has made a couple of intriguing calls. He has brought in Ben Te’o, which is an obvious tactical decision to play opposite Mathieu Bastareaud. England will hopefully fight fire with fire and nullify the threat. By doing this, England have shuffled the back three, with Mike Brown dropping out. He was my ‘man of the match’ against Wales, and while he wasn’t at his best at Murrayfield, he has been playing well, so his dropping was a surprise, especially as they moved Anthony Watson from wing to full back and bringing Elliot Daly to take his place on the wing. This does however, make it a more attacking back three. This suggests that England want to take the game to France, and with a exciting back three they have the potential to do this. The enforced change at hooker, might also help England, as Dylan Hartley, while playing OK has not been the dynamic player that we are used to. With Jamie George replacing Hartley, he will add more oomph to the front row, something you need to win in Paris. An interesting side note to this change, is the choice of captain, with Owen Farrell taking over from Hartley. Jones I feel is trying to rein in Farrell’s petulance, which he demonstrated in the tunnel prior to the Calcutta Cup. It is debatable what happened and who started it, but by Jones making him captain, he will be hoping to harness his skill to ficus on the team. This is very similar to what Jones did when he use Hartley as captain. As for the game, I feel it will be tight, but England will win. While France beat Italy, they were not that convincing, and with England still in with a chance of the championship, and smarting from their defeat at Murrayfield, I can only see the result being an English victory.
The last game of the weekend is in Cardiff, where Wales entertain Italy. Italy arrive on the back of three defeats and a history of only ever won outside of Italy at Murrayfield, though they drew in Cardiff in 2006. This should make Wales clear favourites, but the selection by Warren Gatland will have closed the odds of a potential upset. Wales are making ten changes to the team that lost to Ireland. On the face of it, it looks like a gamble, but on closer examination, it is not the wholesale changes it first appears. Three British and Irish Lions have been brought in and it is a front row change that counts for the majority of changes. Most teams play two front rows every game, these alterations are bringing in International level players. Of the other changes, there is only new cap, so while it may be a weaker team, it is not considerably weaker. The only thing may give Italy more hope is that when Gatland made 14 changes last autumn for the game against Georgia. While they were victorious, they only won by 7 points and scored one try. Georgia are of only a slightly lower level than Italy, and Wales only had one week to run through the phases. With the twoweek break, and less major changes, I feel that Wales will win, but may struggle to get a bonus point, as Italy pushed France for 60 minutes in Marseille before losing out.
Whatever happens this weekend, there will be three massive games, with potentially three different styles of games.