The team selection has been made in the build-up to the Saturday matches in the Guinness Six Nations. The two matches are the big ones of the weekend. France hosting Scotland, followed by England travelling to Cardiff with both teams still on course for the Grand Slam. Scotland, like the others teams, have been hit by injuries. The issue with Scotland is that they do not have the depth that the other countries have. While they have strength to have competition in most positions, when they go to the third string, they are bereft of options. This may be because they only have two professional teams, but that discussion is for another day.
Due to this, Scotland are fielding a team, which on paper will struggle to get a victory in Paris, even though the French are on a poor sequence of results. The two key players missing will be Stuart Hogg (Full Back) and Finn Russell (Stand Off). These are the players which are pivotal to the game-plan that Gregor Townsend wants to play. Russell, has developed since his move to France, and will only develop further with Dan Carter joining him as back up at Racing 92. These two playmakers being absent will affect the game-plan, and while Blair Kinghorn is a ready-made replacement for Hogg, it is the number 10 shirt, where the problem may arise. I agree with Townsend’s decision not to give Adam Hastings his first 6 Nations start, but I would have probably gone for Duncan Weir rather than Peter Horne. Horne has not started at Stand Off, since November, when deputising for Adam Hastings who was in the Scotland squad for the Autumn Internationals. Weir has been playing regularly for Worcester Warriors, and while he is in a struggling side (albeit in the Gallagher Premiership), he is their first choice 10. Last season at Edinburgh, he was playing some of his best rugby. With the centres being decimated, I feel that Scotland will need to keep hold of the ball and recycle a lot to have any chance of a positive outcome. The back-row will have to up their game, and with the inclusion of Magnus Bradbury will help.
France have gone for a more youthful team, and have dropped two of the players that were critical of coach Jacques Brunel. So, they have a relatively inexperienced half back pairing. This will be either benefit Scotland or be a hinderance. With Scotland opting for the more experienced (nut less flamboyant) Horne, it will be in this key area that the game will be won or lost. France with a backline made up mostly from Stade Toulouse and Scotland with the same from Glasgow will play a major part. I hope that Townsend plays with a more pragmatic edge, moving the French about and keeping Scotland in the game for as long as possible. If they do this and not conceding cheap tries, which has been the main disappointment of the first two weeks, Scotland have a chance. My heart says Scotland, but I fancy France in Paris may be a step too far. France by ten.
As for the game of the weekend in Cardiff! Both teams with Grand Slam aspirations, having both won big games away from home, this should be a classic. Now that the two old warriors have been having their phoney war in the press, Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland know that they need to do the talking on the pitch. I was not surprised by England’s victory and Dublin, but was by the margin and style of it.
The England team has minimal changes, with the two changes being enforced on Jones. This continuity will bode well for England, as Jones builds England for their shot at World Cup glory later in the year. Jones, is doing what Australia always seem to do, build for a tilt at the RWC. They may take hits in the four-year cycle, but they learn from them, and come back stronger. I think they will be a strong contender come Japan. They have evolved as a team, and by playing a different style, which has reaped their rewards this season. Wales, are the ‘greatest Wales team ever’ according to Jones, based on their unbeaten run of 11 games, equalling their record. They have made two changes from the team that opened the Six nations against France. So, both teams are arguably as strong as they have been throughout the competition. The selection of Gareth Anscombe, rather than Dan Biggar, gives the impression that Wales will be going for a more dynamic approach. With both players vying for the shirt in the lead up to RWC, playing Anscombe in the two key games so far suggests he will have the shirt come September. If he can get the backs moving they have the strike runners if Jonathan Davies and George North to do damage. However, I think that the English defence has developed majorly since the appointment of John Mitchell. That is going to be key. I can’t see Wales getting enough front foot recycled ball to put enough points on England to win. England have developed their game and now look like they are scoring every time they get into opposition territory. For that reason, I can only see an England win, and a comfortable one at that, setting up a Grand Slam with victories against Italy and Scotland to follow.