The scintillating Six Nations swings back in action this week after a well deserved rest, with the fixture list neatly divided into a tantalising top-of-the-table tussle between England and Ireland, a mid-table melee between France and Wales and a wooden spoon war between the Italians and Scots.
Scotland vs Italy | Saturday 28 February | Murrayfield | 16:30
Vern Cotter’s Scotland head into their upcoming home clash with the Azzurri as clear favourites following two near losses in the opening rounds.
To Win (80mins)
Scotland (-11.5) 9/10
Italy (+11.5) 9/10
The Scots have failed to deliver on pre-season promises of a strong showing in this season’s competition, but while the silverware is safely out of their reach, the prospects of a somewhat respectable 2015 campaign still remain. Vern Cotter has made four changes to the side that was bested by the Welsh two weeks back, with Glaswegian playmaker Peter Horne earning a crack at the number ten jersey this week. Just one other change to the backline sees Tommy Seymour preferred to Tim Visser, while the forward pack welcomes Euan Murray and Tim Swinson into the tight five. The Italians have had a predictably tough time in the competition thus far, suffering a 23-point home defeat to Ireland followed up by a 30-point drubbing at the hands of the Red Roses at Twickenham in the last round. Coach Jacques Brunel has made sweeping changes to his suffering side ahead of their Edinburgh clash, six in all from the team that went down to England. The most notable change sees the Italians replacing Toulon powerhouse Martin Castrogiovanni after the burly lad was ruled out after being bitten by a friend’s dog, needing fourteen stitches, and is replaced in the front row by Dario Chistolini.
VERDICT: Scotland (-11.5) 9/10
The Scots keep falling just short of victory in the competition, so they’ll make no mistakes this week when the inconsistent Italians come into town.
France vs Wales | Saturday 28 February | Stade de France | 19:00
With both sides sitting on a win apiece from their first two outings, a victory in Saint-Denis this weekend is a must in order to keep title aspirations alive.
To Win (80mins)
France (-3.5) 9/10
Wales (+3.5) 9/10
Les Bleus let poor discipline determine the outcome of their clash with the Irish in Dublin two weeks back, with all of the host’s points in the 18-11 loss coming through penalties. Philippe Saint-Andre has made several changes to that side, moving battle tank Mathieu Bastareaud to the bench to make room for Remi Lamerat in the midfield. The loss of South African Rory Kockott to injury sees hopes pinned on Morgan Para to recreate some of the magic he was a part of in Les Bleus’ 2010 Grand Slam win. Having watched how the French allowed poor discipline to supply Johnny Sexton with more than enough ammo to sink them in round two, the pinpoint accuracy of Leigh Halfpenny coupled with his great from in France for Toulon in the Top 14 will be making Warren Gatland’s mouth water at the possibilities offered by Saturday’s clash. Gatland has made some interesting choices in selection this week, dropping Alex Cuthbert from his matchday squad completely, with George North returning to the wing opposite speedster Liam Williams. Up front the inexperienced Scott Baldwin edges out Richard Hibbard at hooker.
VERDICT: Wales 15/10
Neither side has managed to hit second gear yet, but Wales know how to grind out for penalties and the French know how to dish them out, and with Halfpenny on song at the moment I think the visitors have enough to pick up their fifth consecutive victory over the French.
Ireland vs England | Sunday 1 March | Lansdowne Road | 17:00
A brutal battle awaits us in Dublin this week as these two European heavyweights fight it out for a comfortable lead on the table.
To Win (80mins)
Ireland (-2.5) 11/10
England (+1.5) 8/10
Joe Schmidt’s side were infallible on defence against a fiery French attack two weeks back, but the Irish offensive lacked the intensity needed to go all the way in this competition. The midfield has been notably dull since the retirement of the talismanic centre Brian O'Driscoll, but if the hosts can get a bit of momentum going on attack while retaining the relentless commitment on defence they displayed against Les Bleus, then England are going to be in for a tough time this Sunday. Ireland will be without back row bruiser Jamie Heaslip this week after the Leinster number eight took a knee to the back in their last encounter, with Jordi Murphy expected to take over his spot in the loose trio. Stuart Lancaster will be reminding his men that it was England that issued the Irish their only defeat during their 2014 title winning campaign. Lancaster has had to deal with a few injury blows ahead of this tough clash, most notably fleet-footed flyhalf Mike Brown who misses out after being knocked out while colliding with Italy’s Andrea Masi in their last outing. Inexperienced Alex Goode takes over the number fifteen jersey, but that is not necessarily a bad thing considering how well the rest of the fresh-faced backline has performed under pressure so far this season.
VERDICT: Ireland (-2.5) 9/10
England have probably pulled off the more convincing victories this season, but Ireland have managed to win despite the fact that they haven’t hit top speed yet, which could indicate some real fireworks when they eventually find that accelerator pedal.