The RBS Six Nations resumes this weekend, the short break allowing us an opportunity to digest the chaotic opening encounters that saw both Ireland and France defying the odds and dashing ahead of the pack early on. If both sides continue with their ferocious form in Round 3, and secure respective wins over mid-table residents England and Wales, then we could very well be in for a two-horse race this season. In probably the only thing predictable about this competition, last spot on the log is being fiercely contested between the Scots and Italians, with the two struggling sides going head-to-head in Rome this Saturday in what could most aptly be described as an anti-final.
Wales vs France | Friday 21 February | Millennium Stadium | 22:00
The Welsh return home after a disappointing trip to Dublin in the second round that saw the reigning champions on the wrong end of a 23-point drubbing. A home win this Friday will go a long way in keeping their title aspirations alive, but Les Bleus are not going to be all that eager to throw away the commanding position they’ve secured so far this season.
To Win (80mins)
Wales (-2.5) 9/10
France (+2.5) 9/10
Warren Gatland’s charges will have no option but to up their game considerably if they want to avoid another car crash of a match like the second round’s Dublin showdown. Ireland outplayed and outthought the visitors in every facet of the game, from controlling the breakdowns to tactical kicking. Discipline is costing the defending champions too, with loose forward Dan Lydiate alone having conceded six penalties in the last two games. George North, Janie Roberts and Rhys Webb come into the starting XV to help liven things up at the back. Wales will be fresher after the break, except for Gethin Jenkins and Sam Warburton who clocked up a bit of game time last week when they ran out for the Blues.
The French squad was not so lucky, with 24 of their 30 players having played in the French Top 14 last week. Flank Wenceslas Lauret returns to the run on side from injury, and Vincent Debaty will provide tight-head cover on the bench. Wesley Fofana starts at a centre, and considering he has scored in seven of the nine Six Nations games he has started, there is a good chance he will be adding to the scoreboard at some point during Friday’s match. Les Bleus have not fared particularly well in away fixtures in the Six Nations, having won only one of their last seven games on the road.
VERDICT: France (+2.5) 9/10
Wales have failed to impress this season, while their opponents have shown that they are not afraid to spread the ball wide and take their chances. If France can tighten up their defence and keep applying pressure on the home side with rolling mauls and well placed tactical kicking, I’m convinced they’ll come away with the spoils. France by five.
Italy vs Scotland | Saturday 22 February | Olimpico Stadium | 15:30
Both sides suffered booming 20-point defeats in Round 2, giving one little reason to believe we are in for any fireworks when these two meet in Rome on Saturday. It should, however, present one of the most evenly matched games of the season.
To Win (80mins)
Italy (-3.5) 9/10
Scotland (+3.5) 9/10
Following Round 2’s harrowing defeat to the English, Scott Johnson has decided to bench captain Dave Denton, an odd move considering he carried 57 of Scotland’s 200-odd meters in that game. Ross Ford also finds himself on the bench, with the Scots having lost an alarming ten lineouts in the last two games. Scott Lawson takes over at hooker. Scrum-half Greig Laidlaw will captain the underperforming Scots in Italy, with Duncan Weir starting at flyhalf and Stuart Hogg will run on at fullback. Having only emerged victorious on three of their past seven trips to Italy, the odds are heavily stacked against the visitors, and I don’t think this inexperienced side has what it takes to cause an upset.
The Azzurri have not released a final team list yet, but despite having recently suffered a convincing defeat to mainland rivals Les Bleus, the Italians will fancy their chances against the underperforming Scots. And why shouldn’t they.
VERDICT: Italy (-3.5) 9/10
Scotland has really given us no option but to back the home side here after their horrific display against England at home. At least the Italians have passion if nothing else. Italy by five.
England vs Ireland | Saturday 22 February | Twickenham | 18:00
Table-topping Ireland will be fancying their chances of picking up a third consecutive win when they run out against Stuart Lancaster’s experimental side in London this week for a clash set to determine the fates of both sides in this year’s competition.
To Win (80mins)
England (-4.5) 9/10
Ireland (+4.5) 9/10
Stuart Lancaster has decided to replace Brad Barritt on the bench with 20-year-old Bath number ten George Ford as cover for incumbent playmaker Owen Farrell. David Wilson returns from his calf injury to start tight-head in the absence of the injured Dan Cole. Having only played 47 minutes of rugby following his two month injury lay-off, it seems a risky move throwing him straight back in the mix, but Lancaster feels he is a stronger scrummager than 22-year-old Henry Thomas, who will remain on the bench this week.
Irish rugby superstar Brian O’Driscoll will equal George Gregan’s world-record 139 test caps this weekend when he runs out in an unchanged side for Ireland. Two changes occur to the bench, with Jordi Murphy hoping to crack his international debut as he replaces Tommy O’Donnell, and Iain Henderson takes over from Dan Tuohy who suffered a broken arm against Wales in Round 2.
VERDICT: Ireland (+4.5) 9/10
The current Irish setup seems to be getting more and more lethal by the week, and while the English showed a marked improvement in Round 2, they were up against a beleaguered Scottish outfit, so it is difficult to attach too much praise to their 20-point victory. Ireland, on the other hand, looked the full package in their systematic destruction of defending champions Wales. The Irish by seven.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.