Three ferocious battles await us this Saturday, with a potential champion contesting every one of them, as four teams remain in contention for the coveted silverware as we break into the final stretch of this season’s sensational Six Nations contest. England, Wales and Ireland are the clear front-runners going in with the sides locked on six points apiece, but the feisty French could potentially sneak on through to the spoils if things go awfully awry in Rome and Edinburgh and they manage to cause enough of a fracas in London. And with the title most likely being decided on points difference we certainly won’t have to deal with any of that painfully boring conservative rugby that so often plagues the final set of clashes.
Italy vs Wales | Saturday 21 March | Stadio Olimpico | 14:30
With the Red Dragons currently sitting more than twenty points short in points difference when compared to England and Ireland, they’ll need to pull off a cricket-score victory over the amenable Azzurri to keep their name in the hat for the championship raffle.
To Win (80mins)
Italy (+30) 9/10
Wales (-30) 9/10
With the exception of their 19-22 victory over the hapless Scots last month, the Italians have been unceremoniously roughhoused in every encounter this season, losing by an average of 27 points per match. And as if things weren’t looking dire enough for the Azzurri, they will be without inspirational skipper Sergio Parisse thanks to a foot injury. The Welsh have a fair bit of ground to cover in terms of points difference, but their formidable backline that includes Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar are more than capable of keeping the scoreboard ticking at an acceptable rate to get them to where they need to be by the time the siren sounds. Wales have made just two injury-enforced alterations to the side that toppled Ireland last week, both upfront as Gethin Jenkins and Samson Lee are replaced by Rob Evans and Aaron Jarvis.
VERDICT: Wales (-30) 9/10
This is certainly one time that the adage “when in Rome...” should be completely ignored. If there is one thing the Welsh need to avoid at all costs this week it is doing “as the Romans do”. Should the Red Dragons hit the ground running this Saturday they should clear the hefty handicap.
Scotland vs Ireland | Saturday 21 March | Murrayfield | 16:30
The Irish have created a fair bit of work for themselves by slipping up against the Welsh in Cardiff last week and will now need to deliver a particularly powerful performance in this crucial Celtic clash to prevent a woebegone Scottish outfit from claiming a wooden spoon-evading victory in front of their home crowd.
To Win (80mins)
Scotland (+8.5) 9/10
Ireland (-8.5) 9/10
Scotland have come close to victory on a few occasions this season, but unfortunately you don’t get points for trying in this competition. Still, they will certainly be no push over this weekend and if they can keep the intensity going for a full eighty minutes this week there is no reason why they can’t take down the defending champs. They have several magicians in the backline such as Stuart Hogg, Matt Scott and Greig Laidlaw who have been known to create opportunities out of thin air and if they can improve on their finishing and tidy up their discipline we know they have the ability to give any side a decent run for their money. But the Irish take to the field this week with a far greater urgency to win and with Johnny Sexton, safety off and ready to fire, the powerful paddy forwards packed with the likes of Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony will be doing their best to wear the hosts down at the breakdowns to help induce those free-flowing Scottish penalties. If they can get that right this could be a forgettable day for the home side.
VERDICT: Ireland (-8.5) 9/10
The Irish learnt a hard lesson last week in their defeat against Wales, so I’m expecting to see them at their most clinical this week.
England vs France | Saturday 21 March | Twickenham | 19:00
England reluctantly host the contumelious chaps from across the Channel in this season’s swan song spectacular.
To Win (80mins)
England (-8) 9/10
France (+8) 9/10
England head into the final round as favourites to lift the cup thanks to their superior points difference and they’ll have the added advantage of knowing exactly how big a victory they need to clinch their first title under Lancaster before they even kick off at Twickenham. Just one change to the run on side for the hosts this week with Geoff Parling coming back into the second row to team up with Courtney Lawes in the engine room. The French are statistically still in the running at this point, but if you refer to chances as being “statistical” you aren’t fooling anyone, not even yourselves. But the French don’t need the prospect of lifting that glorious cup to ignite the urgency to win this week, their natural disdain towards the English will probably suffice in creating that hunger. Les Bleus have made just two changes to their side this week, both injury-enforced, with Jules Plisson starting at pivot and Vincent Debaty named at prop.
VERDICT: France (+8) 9/10
England have looked a far superior side throughout the season, but I think the French are going to do everything they can to prevent the Poms from claiming the glory this season, as is there churlish nature.