19 February 2014

6 Nations pivotal weekend

Every weekend in the 6 Nations throws up a completely different set of possibilities such is the beauty of the tournament. But Round 3 is always the pivotal week and 2014 is no different with the chips are stacked pretty high in Cardiff, Rome and London for all involved.

Wales V France:

This is a must win for Wales. Two poor performances against Italy and Ireland by the guts of the successful Lions Test side is well below par for a team of such talent and experience. But they have only lost one game to Ireland so a victory over France gets them back on track and still in with a chance of winning the Championship.

France, on the other hand have two wins, but were lucky against England and sloppy against Italy. Hardly the hallmark of a team destined for greatness? But they possess the “X Factor” of individual brilliance dotted throughout the team. It got them out of jail in both their first two matches.

But Cardiff could prove a road too far and the intensity of the Welsh game, which is destined to arrive at some point in the Championship, will likely prove too much for France. Also, France look like their fitness is off the mark and their defence is sloppy. They will struggle to live with the high tempo game that Wales play in Cardiff. Unless France can slow the game down to their comfort zone it is hard to see Wales losing, particularly when you factor in they are playing to stay alive in the 6 Nations.

Verdict: Wales

England V Ireland:

The Twickenham factor comes into play here, not that Ireland have never won there, but if this game were in Dublin it would be advantage Ireland. For England it is a must win game, as like Wales they have already lost one game. But the difference between both teams is England’s performances have been very solid so far in the Championship.

The only questions surrounding England is how they conspired to lose to France from a winning position in Paris and also how they didn’t score more points when beating Scotland. The loss of Dan Coles at tight head also removes a potential advantage they probably expected at scrum time.

England at home for the first time in this year’s tournament, have to deliver to keep their Championship ambitions alive and convince the rugby public that everything is on track for RWC 2015. Not small stakes by any measure.

Ireland on the other hand are in rude health after two home wins against Scotland and Wales. With all due respect to Italy, they know a win in Twickenham, will signal a Grand Slam game against France in Paris on St. Patrick’s weekend.

Ireland are right on track by their own ambitions, having won both opening games in Dublin. But it was the comprehensiveness of the victory over Wales that has ramped up the expectations levels around this Irish team.

The conundrum, how good were Ireland or how bad were Wales, will probably be unravelled this weekend.

But the Ireland game plan of territory and the driving maul, used so effectively against Wales, will hardly work against England. So expect to see a new game plan, specifically for England, rolled out by Joe Schmidt in his first away game as Irish Coach.

England won’t change things too much. Their belief that a solid set piece and a blend of physicality and relentless pressure will earn them the opportunities to get the job done. Question for them is will they take the opportunities. In Paris they didn’t and likewise in Edinburgh, well at least not all the opportunities.

Verdict: England

Italy V Scotland:

This is a game that will without doubt define both countries 6 Nations 2014. It will probably be both teams only chance of registering a victory in this year’s Championship and both teams are acutely aware of that fact. Odds are the “Wooden Spoon” beckons for the loser.

On form and at home, in fact their first home game of this tournament, it would seem advantage Italy. They have performed well against Wales and France and caused both teams problems at different times over eighty minutes.

Scotland, on the other hand, have caused nobody any problems. They were comprehensively beaten in Dublin and were fortunate not to be embarrassed by England at home in Round 2.

They are in a holding pattern waiting for their new coach, Vern Cotter, and there is much disquiet among the Scottish rugby public as to where this Scottish team is heading.

Selection has been chopping and changing their line-up, including the dropping of the captain, Kelly Brown. This does nothing to resolve their lack cohesiveness and more importantly penetration. They have only scored a mere six points to date in the Championship and are the only team not to score a try.

Not goo times for Scottish rugby and away from home, against an improving Italy, things are likely to get worse.

Verdict: Italy

Should the results go according to predictions here, the Championship will break wide open heading into Round 4. On the other hand if France and Ireland win it will become just a two horse race.