The mixed bag of results produced during the penultimate round of the North’s finest rugby competition has kept aspirations of glory alive and well for three of the six nations as we head into the final round. The Welsh side’s uninspiring performance against a vibrant, youthful England put paid their desires of claiming a record-setting treble, ensuring their meeting with the Scots in Cardiff this weekend is a dead rubber. Of the three sides still in contention for the silverware, England holds the added benefit of running out against considerably weaker opposition. But a mere victory over Italy may not be enough for Lancaster’s experimental side. If the passionate lads from the Emerald Isle prevail over the unpredictable French, their impressive points differential means anything less than a gargantuan 50-point smashing by the Red Roses sees Brian O’Driscoll finishing off his phenomenal international career with a second Six Nations title under his belt. France have the toughest route to glory, needing either a win over Ireland coupled with an upset at Olimpico, or they need to abliterate the Irish by a margin of thirty points greater than the English secure over the Azzurri.
Italy vs England | Saturday 15 March | Olimpico Stadium | 14:30
Having secured a powerful Triple Crown-clinching victory over a star-studded Wales last week, England now set off for Italy aiming to crush their opponents in spectacular fashion and increase their chances of returning home with a little something for the trophy cabinet.
To Win (80mins)
Italy (+20.5) 9/10
England (-20.5) 9/10
While the Italians run out for their closing game of the tournament without the added incentive of taking home the silverware inspiring them for the win, we know they’ll be turning up with an unquantifiable amount of passion, determined to cause one of their occasional and unnecessary upsets, achieved by cashing in on a series of lucky bounces, fifty-fifty passes and a few questionable refereeing decisions going their way. And that is exactly what makes the Azzurri so dangerous. But they’ll be needing a fair amount of the above for them to prevent this young English side from coming away with the spoils in Rome this weekend.
Stuart Lancaster has retained the run on side that thwarted the Welsh team’s chances of retaining the coveted Six Nations crown last week at Twickenham. The Red Roses are disadvantaged to an extent by the fact that they face Italy in the first match of the day, leaving them to make a blind judgment call on whether to go all out to attempt to clear the mammoth gap in point differentials between them and the Irish, a move which could backfire if a few half chances ending up as points to the opposition, or to head out with a more conservative approach in order to guarantee a victory in Italy, but then leaving their Six Nations prospects in the hands of Les Bleus. Utility back Manu Tuilagi has been named on the bench, making his first appearance for the national side in almost a year, a move that provides Lancaster with a few extra options when subbing.
VERDICT: England (-20.5) 9/10
England will be aiming for a cricket score in this one; they should clear the handicap without much hassle from their hosts. England by 30.
Wales vs Scotland | Saturday 15 March | Millennium Stadium | 16:45
The beleaguered Scots will probably be pleased that this forgettable season is coming to a close, having spent the last few months taking some severe beatings on the field and even more severe off the field in the local press. But with the Welsh still hurting from having their slightly delusional dream of a third consecutive title brutally shattered, Scotland should brace for one last telling defeat.
To Win (80mins)
Wales (-13.5) 9/10
Scotland (+13.5) 9/10
Head coach Warren Gatland has decided to replace the half-back pairing of Rhys Priestland and Rhys Webb with Dan Biggar and Mike Phillips for Saturday’s clash. Wales suffered a big loss in the backline with Leigh Halfpenny out with a dislocated shoulder. He is replaced at fullback by Liam Williams, while upfront Ken Owens and Rhodri Jones come into the front row and Luke Charteris returns to the starting XV. Wales hold an impressive record against the Scots in the competition, having won nine out of their last ten Six Nations clashes, if that counts for anything in this futile endeavour.
The Scots head for the Welsh capital with the misguided notion of possibly picking up a second victory in this year’s competition. This will be the last game at the helm for their Interim coach and now Scottish Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, as Vern Cotter will take over and begin rebuilding what little is left of Scotland’s national side. Incumbent number fifteen, Stuart Hogg, has somehow come to the conclusion that having played under Gatland Down Under last year during the surprisingly successful British and Irish Lions Tour of Australia, he has a fair idea of what to expect from their opponents, although it probably just entails not being humiliated two weeks in a row. Edinburgh winger Dougie Fife claims his debut, following injuries to Sean Lamont and Tommy Seymore.
VERDICT: Wales (-13.5) 9/10
The fact that Scotland believe a fullback that played briefly under Gatland a year ago has the ability to steer them clear of yet another humiliating indictment of Scottish Rugby leads me to believe they are in for one last resounding defeat under Scott Johnson’s poor guidance. Wales by 20.
France vs Ireland | Saturday 15 March | Stade de France | 19:00
The organisers couldn’t have planned it this well if they’d tried, the public left guessing until the final minute of the final game of this year’s fiercely contested Six Nations to find out who will be crowned king of the North.
To Win (80mins)
France, while technically still in contention for that precious Six Nations crown, have all the odds stacked against them heading into the closing clash of the competition. They will need to pull off a resounding victory at Stade de France, over a determined Irish team set on sailing back home with a title they last held back in 2009. Les Bleus have the firepower in the backline to rack up some points, such as the midfield combo of Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, and speedster Yoann Huget out wide. But a few firecrackers in the back alone won’t be enough to see the French home; Phillip Saint-Andre’s entire side will need to find that certain jena se qua that has evaded them for some time.
Ireland have it all to lose going into their final clash of this year’s Six Nations, simply securing the victory in France should see them claiming the bragging rights for the next twelve months. Their track record against Les Bleus is shoddy, to put it mildly, having last managed to sneak an away win over France some fourteen years back. But with their beloved number thirteen Brian O’Driscoll heading out in the Green and White for the last time, you can be assured that the entire team will be putting it all on the line to ensure one of the country’s most cherished sports icons goes out on a high. The Irish front row took a slight knock, having lost the services of loosehead prop Cian Healy, who picked up an ankle injury against the Italians last week. Joe Schmidt has also decided to release winger Tommy Bowe to Ulster for their upcoming Heineken Cup quarter-final.
VERDICT: Ireland 9/10
It is going to be a close game, but with Ireland looking in brilliant form, and Brian O’Driscoll hanging up the boots after Saturday’s showdown, I’m hoping Ireland can find a way to end their terrible draught at Stade de France, and give one of Rugby Union’s most revered stars the send off he deserves.
Think we’ve got it wrong? Well leave your comments below and tell us how you think this is going to play out.