05 March 2014

Still all to play for

We have reached the penultimate weekend of the Championship and Ireland, England, Wales and France all believe they are right in there with a chance of winning the tournament. Each team will plot their own path to victory and as always in the 6 Nations each pathway is distinctly different. The one factor that remains the same for all four teams in a defeat will end their interest in the tournament.

Ireland V Italy

This is a game that Ireland simply will not lose and the points spread is the only thing up for discussion. Ireland already have a healthy points difference of +42 but will need to extend that before the trip to Paris a week later.

England play Italy in Rome the final weekend and should they beat Wales, Ireland need to set them a high points target while they play France in Paris.

Italy, under Jacques Brunel, have changed their style of rugby and are making progress. But they have an ageing pack and a very young back line. Their pack will struggle with the pace of the game in the final quarter and their lack of experience in the three-quarters will be exposed by a much more experienced Irish back line.

But Ireland must remain patient and not try to chase a superior points difference early in the game. That can lead to errors caused by forcing the issue and Italy will thrive on any mistakes Ireland are careless enough to make. Discipline is part of that patience and keeping Italy out of the game by not conceding unnecessary penalties will pay dividends at the end of the day.

Ireland to improve their points difference considerably.

Verdict: Ireland

Scotland V France:

Under normal circumstances and despite the fact the game is being played in Edinburgh, France would be hot favourites to win. Ironically, France need that normality to prevail or they are out of the Championship.

But despite France winning their first two games against England and Italy their form has been abysmal. Their lack of cohesiveness and evidence of a coherent game plan throughout the tournament was, as expected, eventually exposed in Cardiff two weeks ago.

Scotland’s form hasn’t been any better than France and they scraped home against Italy in Rome at the death. Scotland needs to back up the Roman performance or they will look forward to the trip to Cardiff with the enthusiasm of a dental appointment.

But France, along with playing their worst rugby in years, are missing some hugely influential players for one reason or another. Game changers like Wesley Fofana, Louis Picamoles and Morgan Parra are all unavailable for the trip to Edinburgh.

Scott Johnson has continued with his revolving door selection policy and made three changes to the team that beat Italy. It is surprising he hasn’t opted for stability, having secured Scotland’s first win of this season’s Championship in Rome. But he has reinstated Kelly Brown in the back row and captaincy, along with David Denton and Geoff Cross in the front row.

But the French public are very unhappy so France need to win, not just to stay in the hunt for the Championship, but to ease tensions back at home. To date Scotland haven’t shown enough form to upset even a poor French team visiting Edinburgh.

Verdict: France

England V Wales:

This is the most anticipated game of the weekend. The loser is out of the Championship, unless it’s a draw then it is likely both teams are cooked. England are speaking of revenge after Wales did a number on them in Cardiff last season to spectacularly snatch the title from their grasp.

After two poor performances Wales ignited their Championship by comfortably beating France. But the calibre of the French performance has to be taken into account to fully evaluate where Wales actually are.

There is no doubt England won’t make the same mistakes they did in Cardiff last year. In front of the Twickenham faithful they dare not lose this one. Should Wales prevail England’s season is over and a host of doubts as to their ability to win RWC 2015 are up for discussion.

But Wales know what to expect from England, as did Ireland, Scotland and France. It will be “Route 1” rugby with huge physicality top of the agenda. If Wales fail to contain that physicality their chances of success are minimal. But we know Wales are a confidence team and will be feeling pretty good about themselves after their victory over France.

Should Wales get to play their “Run & Gun” game they can move England around and really cause them problems. It will be a clash of styles and an intriguing tactical battle.

So far England have shown better consistency and form than Wales and playing at home is a huge advantage to England.

Verdict: England