After two rounds of the 6 Nations the hopes of a Grand Slam remain alive for the boys in green and les boys in bleu – Ireland top the table and France sit close behind. Both sides travel away in Round 3.
England and Wales hold the mid-table spots with a win apiece and Italy and Scotland are flailing in fifth and sixth. Their clash in Rome this weekend will be fascinating with both looking to avoid the Wooden Spoon and probable whitewash … more on that later.
Wales v France
The round begins in Cardiff with only the fourth 6 Nations Friday evening encounter, and the first Wales lost to England at the same venue beat Wales in 2011.
Coming off the back of their worst loss in the tournament since 2006, Wales have had the additional conundrum of having to rethink their mid-field, after Scott Williams learned what it feels like to run into Brian O’Driscoll. George North is the man called in to partner Jamie Roberts, who has been in imperious form in an otherwise lacklustre Welsh side, imposing himself in the first two rounds as the top ball-carrying back with 28 carries.
While the prospects of North and Mathieu Bastareaud running at each may be mouth-watering for seismologists, a scintillating display of running rugby this will not be. The Welsh back three have so far been starved of ball-in-hand and largely ineffective as it is and, though there’s no debating the talent of North, he’s made a total of only two passes in as many fixtures and played only two games at centre for Northampton. The Roberts /North combo will no doubt be used as a battering ram.
The Welsh pack was out muscled by Ireland in Dublin, Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry schooling the supposedly ‘experienced’ Lions Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton (who have twice as many caps between them) in the art of the breakdown. Yannick Nyanga has more than capably filled in the void left by Thierry Dusautoir, carrying well, beating defenders and making more than his fair share of tackles. In the No.8 head-to-head, while Taulupe Faletau is hardly a second rate player, his presence is somewhat dwarfed by that of Louis Picamoles. The Frenchman has been an immense presence for France and if Wales stutter like they did in Dublin, they could be in for a torrid time.
The dropping of Mike Phillips for Rhys Webb suggests that Gatland is going for a slight edge of subtlety in his game, with Webb offering a speedier delivery of ball to Phillips physicality but the problem still lies in giving the back three time with ball in hand.
Wales have won their last two fixtures with France but have not won three in a row against them since 1970-72. Les Bleus are winless in their last four away games in the 6 Nations but you feel Friday won’t be their fifth. Prediction: France by 6.
Italy v Scotland
Dropping your captain after Round 1 is one thing. Dropping your stand-out players after Round 2 is another.
Bringing in Chris Fusaro in place of Kelly Brown for the Calcutta Cup proved a shrewd move as the Glasgow Warriors openside busied himself with chopping down Englishmen all around the park. But in Tuesday’s Scotland squad announcement Scott Johnson may have gone a step too far, relegating both David Denton and Tim Swinson to the bench with Johnnie Beattie and Richie Gray called up respectively. TTT would love to understand the thought process of dropping two of your most prolific workers ahead of arguably the side’s most important fixture.
No.8 Denton has been Scotland’s main source of go-forward amongst otherwise mediocre performances and Tim Swinson has gone about his unnoticed second row duties like Sisyphus on heat (except without the massive rolling stone). Beattie’s inclusion, as more of an offloading option, at least provides an insight that Scotland might look to play more of a flowing game and his deft ball-handling provides more of a like-for-like comparison for Sergio Parisse. Tim Swinson will feel very hard done by, though, having bettered Jim Hamilton so far in tackles, metres gained, carries – basically every single stat available – and also having conceded zero penalties to Hamilton’s five.
The backs for both sides have shown flashes of ever-so-slightly-better-than-mediocrity, the likes of Stuart Hogg running and offloading well and Luke McLean joint top carrier with Jamie Roberts. Scotland’s problem remains in their lack of ability to score tries – or in the case of the England game, come even vaguely close to threatening the tryline. Scotland have now not scored a try for 323 minutes since Sean Lamont crossed against Japan at Murrayfield.
To add to the Scottish woes, Ireland have a good record at home. The Italians’ only defeat in their last four 6 Nations encounters played at the Stadio Olimpico was to Wales last season and they’ve won their last three home games against Scotland.
In summary, we strongly suspect Scott Johnson has lost his marbles … and Scotland will lose. Prediction: Italy by 9.
England v Ireland
Stuart Lancaster has made two changes to his England squad that will host Ireland in the final fixture of Round 3 – one through injury and one through form.
Dan Cole has apparently taken such a battering throughout his rugby career that he’s now adverse to pain, his “bulging disc in his neck” only becoming apparent because of a “weakness during a gym session” [he probably only managed to squat a couple of hundred kilos rather than the usual three] so he’s replaced by newly-fit David Wilson.
‘Newly-fit’ is used in the loosest sense as Wilson has played limited club rugby in recent weeks and Ireland will see him as a weakness but he’s a solid player who was pushing Cole for his starting place in the autumn. Up-and-coming Sale prop Henry Thomas, who came off the bench against Scotland, provides the support.
Elsewhere in the forwards the back row will be a monumental contest. You can’t not look back to that final game in Cardiff last year, when England were taken to the cleaners by Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, and not compare that to last week – when Wales were taken to the cleaners by Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry – and wonder how Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw will fare come Saturday. Wood has been unusually quiet in the early stages of the Championship and will have his work cut out keeping O’Mahony at bay.
The form inclusion in the England squad comes in the backs in young Bath fly-half George Ford. For England fans it’s been a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ but Mr Lancaster has been keeping us waiting with bated breath. It seems though, that after yet another classy display for Bath, that time is upon us and while Owen Farrell possesses an invaluable metronomic consistency to his game, an injection of Ford’s natural ability to read a game could have the Twickenham crowd on the edge of its seats.
The mid-field poses a potentially fascinating match-up with fledgling international Luther Burrell lining up opposite none other than Brian O’Driscoll. Much has been, and will be, said this week about BOD winning his George-Gregan-record-equalling-international-cap-tally of a staggering 139, and rightly so – there’s no denying the class of the guy [even though he was dropped by Warren Gatland during the Lions tour … oh my god are people still harping on about that … get over it for fuck’s sake … we won the Series didn’t we? … snore … ZZZzzzzz … ].
Sorry, TTT got side-tracked there. In short, Burrell’s shown he can make an impact at international level in the last couple of Tests, running some of the best line an England centre has run in a while and there’s no reason that a player of his calibre should get too badly daunted by the calibre of the player opposite him.
With the best defence in the tournament (the highest tackle success of 91% and yet to concede a try), breaking through Ireland may just come down to sheer dogged determination. Unfortunately for England fans, the doggedness advantage lies in Ireland’s court. Prediction: Ireland by 5.