Before we go any further we’re going to take the not highly recommended path of raining on the parade before we’ve even started. Saturday afternoon’s final round of staggered fixtures is completely unfair on the teams playing earlier, most obviously Wales. As a rule of thumb, we use the simultaneously devious and incompetent Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, to discern levels of sporting administrative competence. Put simply, if Blatter allowed the final round of World Cup group fixtures begin at different times there would be outrage. Tomorrow afternoon’s rugby will be heaven for the neutral but for the players, the ones who matter most, this set up needs to be altered. There have been rumblings about the schedule, from the Welsh camp in particular, and rightly so. The powers that be have been warned. One year of this is acceptable, but a change should be brought about next year. Nonetheless, after rugby enjoys a heretofore unseen stranglehold over the British and Irish television markets between 12:30 and 7:00 p.m. tomorrow, greed not for the first time may win out over fairness.
Back to more immediate matters. The staggering of the climax of the tournament means each game will be significantly affected by the preceding result. Wales need to be as gung-ho as possible against an Italian side who may well be the accommodating hosts their visitors require. Ireland are up next probably needing to surpass Wales and ensure they set England a tricky target. England will then know exactly what they need to do. All of this prefaced by the fact that Wales, Ireland and England all win as expected. First to Edinburgh where the eyes’ of this nation and Irish men and women the world over will be fixed.
Scotland –v- Ireland – 21st March, 2:30 p.m. – Murrayfield
Last week’s hugely disappointing and thoroughly dissected defeat in Cardiff means Ireland’s hopes of going back-to-back have been severely dented. Ireland are the meat in ‘race to the title’ sandwich. Wales will play before them, meaning Ireland will know exactly what they need to do to catch their conquerors of last week but not England.
Anyone who’s been following us during the tournament will know that we feel Scotland have underperformed and are better than their record suggests. We could claim Scotland have been unlucky but what we really mean is that they have failed to execute after putting themselves in some promising positions. A sloppy pass against France when a draw was a reality and a failure to break the Welsh line when deep in the visitors’ territory, though we didn’t know then what we know now about the incredible Welsh goal line defence. This was followed by an eighty minute abomination against a let’s be frank, awful Italian team. Their game against England last Saturday was probably an accurate reflection of what their current capabilities are. They were always in this game, helped admittedly by some sloppy English play and some last gasp defensive heroics, but that is what they would have expected. They opened England up brilliantly for Mark Bennett’s try but are clearly still a work in progress.
The Scottish side previous generations grew up watching possessed some absolute masters of back row play. John Jeffrey, David Leslie and Finlay Calder made life absolute hell for their opposite numbers and some probably still mentally scarred out halves. Such was their incredible ability to dominate in the ruck that it appeared at times they were being afforded an immunity, ordinarily reserved for foreign diplomats, to do absolutely as they pleased on the ground. They will have been nodding their heads in approval at the masterclass provided by the Welsh back row in Cardiff last weekend. The trio tackled every target, moving or otherwise and made life incredibly difficult for Conor Murray and latterly Eoin Reddan. The less illustrious trio of David Denton, Blair Cowan and the recalled Adam Ashe will need to bring their game to as yet unseen levels as they will be facing an angry, pumped up Irish unit in Peter O’ Mahony, Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
Meanwhile, the Irish trio needs to be far more effective in Edinburgh, on both sides of the ball. Scotland will want to get their lively, young backline into play early so quick ball is naturally a must. O’ Mahony will be primed to make the flow of the ball available to Greg Laidlaw as interrupted and messy as is humanly possible. O’ Brien and Heaslip made an incredible thirty-seven combined carries last weekend, yet never once did they make sufficient inroads to cause panic in the Welsh defence. Scotland, considerably less experienced and without any great continuity of coaching, will be that little bit looser in defence, so it would be hugely frustrating if Ireland’s half backs can’t create genuine attacking opportunities for O’ Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe and the recalled Luke Fitzgerald. Further, Ireland could even add an element of surprise if a receiver running a hard line lays the ball off before reaching the gain-line. In any event, try something a bit intuitive. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray need to step it up massively from last week and keep the Scots constantly guessing and forced onto the back foot. So much more easily said than done though.
While it’s absolutely fantastic to see Fitzgerald back in a green jersey we feel that Simon Zebo, who Fitzgerald replaces, has copped far too much criticism from last weekend. We’re far from being Zebo apologists but given the plethora of mistakes all over the field last weekend it’s bizarre that a left winger who was never worked into any good positions was the target of such ire. We find it most odd that the Cork man is left out of the matchday twenty-three altogether. Tomorrow’s game takes place in slightly different circumstances where the to-date successful system, needs to be adapted a little. After sixty minutes, Ireland are going to have to loosen the shackles and go for an all-out offensive assault. Zebo, not Jones, would surely be the man to bring on in this situation.
Rory Best, who was well off the mark last week, has been retained because firstly a performance such as last weekend’s is a rarity for him and he’s an absolute monster in the dirty wars in tight. Sean Cronin is a fine player and brilliant impact substitute but let’s be fair, his darts aren’t exactly on a par with Phil Taylor either. Iain Henderson may too feel peeved but Devin Toner’s line out skills cannot be underestimated against a very strong Scottish unit led by Jonny Gray and the man you’d want, every single time, to have your back in a barroom brawl, Jim Hamilton.
Stuart Hogg and his Michael Jackson feet can cause Ireland untold trouble but the reality is that if we go for it, opportunities will be that little bit more plentiful for Scotland. The likelihood is Ireland will need to win by ten or twelve points to either catch Wales or put England under pressure later on, yet a win in Murrayfield would be an achievement in itself, so the task at hand becomes ever more difficult.
We still maintain that Ireland must go for it late on and even if they don’t retain their Six Nations crown, Joe Schmidt will know whether his men can play expansive, borderline cavalier ball when the situation demands it.
Ireland by 8 (Ireland -8 generally) i.e Stay away!
Italy -v- Wales – 21st March, 12:30 p.m. – Stadio Olimpico
This one has massacre written all over it. Italy are, with all due respect, a very poor team and without totemic leader Sergio Parisse today, they are in our view, sitting ducks. The more we look at it, the more the victory against Scotland looks like an outlier. Their visitors, who no one would have put in the Championship hunt after their round one humbling by England, will be buoyed by last week’s defiant victory over Ireland when they were able to repel wave after wave of enemies at the gate.
The Italians are ferociously proud and stubborn, particularly at home but Ireland in 2007 (51) and England last year (52) were able to put up serious scores, when required. The Welsh are more than capable of matching this. Confidence is surging through the team once more and if Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau had to put in backbreaking defensive work last week, their biggest problem tomorrow will be keeping up in support, after their surging backs break the Azzurri line, time after time.
Wales’ biggest fear is conceding scores from turnovers or breakaways, a fate that befell Ireland and England before, but they have to take risks. They no doubt feel slighted by the fact that replica Six Nations trophies are on the way to Murrayfiled and Twickenham but not Rome. After a woman, hell hath no fury like a Celtic nation scorned. The public, meanwhile, are giving due notice to Wales as the handicap has moved from 22 to 25 points in less than 24 hours.
Wales should demolish their hosts tomorrow and most likely put themselves in the driving seat for the Championship. Expect George North and co. to run amok and the lively Scott Williams and debutant Gareth Davies to feast on the scraps from the bench. How sweet for Warren Gatland and his team if they can overcome what seemed insurmountable odds only a week ago.
Wales by 35+ (Wales generally -25)
England –v- France – 21st March, 5:00 p.m. – Twickenham
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect states that one small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. Translate. Each kick, pass or drop of a ball in Rome and Edinburgh could have a far reaching effect on what England will need to do come tomorrow evening.
It’s frankly impossible to determine at this point what England will need to do against France. Hell, even Stuart Lancaster has delayed his team talk until he knows the outcome of the two earlier games, However we’re going to operate off the following premise, less Stephen Hawking, more Nostradamus: Wales win by thirty five points, while Ireland win by eight. This leaves Wales on +47 and Ireland on +41, meaning England, currently +37 need to win by eleven points to surpass Wales and win the championship. Further, the bookmakers generally have England as ten point favourites so that seems to be the ballpark figure for the required winning margin. Still with us? Excellent!
The always confident Twickenham crowd will no doubt expect a disinterested French side to roll over and let their heroes romp to a first title since 2011, just in time for the World Cup. We, however, do not see it that way. England for all their dominance last week, struggled to pull away and only secured victory with five minutes to go. This is not the team of old, chocked full of the reassuring composure and bloody-mindedness of Martin Johnson and Johnny Wilkinson. The current side while developing nicely are still relatively callow and have yet to be in a position, their fate in their own hands, to seal victory in Europe’s premier tournament.
As we alluded to already, France rather perversely, rarely give up big scores due to the completely uninspiring brand of rugby they play these days. Indeed, along with Ireland, they have conceded the least points (46) in the tournament this year. Coach, Phillipe Saint- Andre, for all his flaws, has crafted an aggressive, watertight line that rarely concede line breaks. Most of England’s tries have arrived from outside breaks from Luther Burrell, Jamie Joseph and Anthony Watson. Tomorrow, the situation demands that England come out well on top in an expected arm wrestle, something they could not achieve in Dublin.
France have Jules Plisson in for the injured Camile Lopez at out half while Mathieu Bastareaud sits on a large chunk of the bench, a place from where we anticipate he may well cause some late damage to the home side’s aspirations of Six Nations success.
This weekend’s games form part of a sort of gauntlet series, where Wales will go out and lay down a marker which their rivals will then set about matching and surpassing. Nonetheless, inside or outside this bubble, we believe that France, while no world beaters are being shown too much disrespect. One imagines they would enjoy nothing more than kicking over the cake and stealing all the drinks from the anticipated party at Twickenham tomorrow night. Saint-Andre noted, “We are going there with a positive pressure on us.” He’s right, they are. England, however, are facing an unknown pressure and a task, while certainly not insurmountable, far tougher than people are anticipating.
Don’t be surprised if when darkness falls tomorrow the perceived puppet masters have lost control of their own destiny.
England by 6 (England -10 generally)
Final Prediction: Wales to win the Six Nations Championship on point difference.