We gave you what the rugby legends think, now it’s time for what we think!
As we approach the business end of the 6 Nations, four teams lie in the running for the coveted title. And while Brian O’Driscoll prepares to become the most capped international rugby player of all time, Ireland’s points difference at the top of the table gives them a strong advantage to give him the send-off he deserves at the end of an already prestigious career.
Ireland v Italy
First up in Round 4, table toppers Ireland play host to sixth-placed Italy.
Italy’s record on the road is generally poor and, while they’re the side most likely to spring a surprise, as Ireland learned last year, you suspect the result could be as inevitable as Jonathan Davies’ commentary is asinine. That’s pretty inevitable by the way.
Where Ireland came a cropper against England was in their number of errors and where they made them on the pitch. 47% of their errors were made whilst inside their own half, giving England territory at key times.
This included carrying the ball at times more than ten phases from within their own half, which on four occasions resulted in either making an error or conceding a penalty. Conversely, the majority of England’s errors were made in Ireland’s 22, which, while bad for England in terms of their clinical finishing, gave Ireland little opportunity from which to counter.
Ireland will want to bounce back following their Round 3 defeat to England and have the advantage of a strong defensive record at the Aviva Stadium in the Championship. They also boast the most accurate set piece with 45 lineouts wins (and only three losses) and 90% of scrums won on their own ball.
Ireland used this dominance, particularly a lethal catch and drive, against Scotland and Wales but England were a physical match for this and Sexton had a slightly wayward kicking game as a result. The Italian pack, though, will be severely lacking in firepower with captain fantastic Sergio Parisse and unsung hero Alessandro Zanni out injured. MOTM against Scotland, 2nd row Josh Furno moves to blindside flanker and Treviso back rower Robert Barbieri fills in the no.8 slot.
Straight-shooting Kiwi Joe Schmidt will expect Paul O’Connell and co to play a direct and hugely physical game, providing Johnny Sexton with the kind of platform on which he thrives. Should Sexton nail his accuracy off the boot or even look to distribute more, the likes of Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney will trouble the Italian defence all day.
Throw in the boys wanting to set BOD up for the send-off he deserves in his last ever Ireland game at home and we could be in for a cricket score. It won’t come quickly but it will come. Prediction: Ireland by 20.
Scotland v France
Scott Johnson has either run out of whatever it was he was taking or simply come to his senses by announcing the strongest back row that he can muster. Kelly Brown has been called back in to skipper the side, Denton has been called back in to provide the forward momentum and Beattie’s retained because he … well because he’s a cracking player, also a brute but with a better pair of hands to provide an offloading option to counter Denton’s ‘less subtle’ approach.
For France, it’s a different story. A dropped Louis Picamoles and an injured Yannick Nyanga means Les Bleus will field a severely weakened back row. Amid otherwise poor displays by the French pack, the pair have been two of the best players of the tournament, providing a huge amount of France’s go-forward.
Another monumental loss for the French is Wesley Fofana, who’s out with a fractured rib. While he has a tendency to only get involved in a game for about ten minutes, you can bet your arse those ten minutes will be the most exciting of the game.
If the woeful French display against Wales showed one thing, it was a lack of cohesion, simply demonstrated by the number of errors they made … and by captain Pascal Pape visibly bollocking winger Yoann Huget for not catching a forward pass that the 2nd row had actually thrown directly in touch. The half-back combination of Jean-Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson has not worked (largely down to Doussain being the worst performing scrum-half of the tournament) and Maxime Machenaud is given his chance at nine to get the French backs firing.
France gave possession away 23 times in that game, including dropping the ball five times and losing the ball in a ruck or maul seven. In fact, France have conceded the most turnovers of the tournament (54) and Scotland, despite their low position in the table, have conceded the fewest.
But Scotland are also gifting their opponents but in their penalty-count and at the set piece. Scotland are the most ill-disciplined side of the tournament – with 38 penalties conceded in the first 3 rounds – and have the lowest success rate at the lineout at only 73%. The introduction of Scott Lawson and Richie Gray back into the fold last week went some way to stabilising this though and Jim Hamilton also did his fair share of work, stealing a couple of the Italian throws.
The pitch at Murrayfield will be a huge leveller for the home side as it plays right into the hands of the Scots – it will prevent the French playing the exciting type of rugby they’re capable of. Putting garlic on the pitch last week to kill off a disease in the grass may have been a great idea at the time but the monumental backfire of it simply killing off the grass will most likely have the players running, nay wallowing, knee-deep in mud. The impact that Geoff Cross had off the bench last week in stabilising the Scottish scrum was significant but there’s little either side can do when each scrum is likely to be the equivalent of digging trenches deep enough to survive nuclear warfare.
In summary? It’ll be a fucking mess. France will be out to prove a point after their woeful display against Wales but Scotland will be on a high after battling to their win over Italy. Having only beaten France once in the history of the 6 Nations – 20-16 at Murrayfield in 2006 – this could well be Scotland’s best chance for a while to double that tally. Prediction: Scotland by 4.
England v Wales
Anyone who hasn’t been living in a hole the size of those that will be dug out of the Murrayfield pitch on Saturday will realise the connotations of what’s in store on Sunday … but we’ll spell it out anyway.
The 125th edition of the fixture. The sides matched with 56 wins apiece (and 12 draws). England out for revenge after last year’s pasting. Wales out to prove that was merely a sign of things to come. An added incentive as the Triple Crown is up for grabs. A benchmark for when the teams meet in the Rugby World Cup group stages in 18 months time. This one’s going to be Michelin-starred tasty.
Wales have brought out the big guns. They line up with 12 Lions Test players in their starting XV, Alun-Wyn Jones returning to the fold from a foot infection, and newly fit centre Jonathan Davies coming straight back into the frame after three months on the sidelines, shunting George North back out to the wing. Davies provides what Wales have been lacking in the early stages of the tournament – the ability to bring the back three into the game.
But England will not daunted by this prospect. What was a fledgling side a year ago is now arguably the most consistent side in the Championship and the defeat of Ireland proved the side’s composure.
Wales won this fixture 12 months ago in the back row; they were rampant. Coming back to the Lions, Wales go into the game with three Lions in their back row, England with none. But the comparison between the tireless trios in 2014 shows how much more attacking the English back row has been. Billy Vunipola’s injury is a blow but Ben Morgan has put in some huge performances in an England shirt.
England have been much more effective in attack generally this year than last, already exceeding the amount of defenders beaten in three rounds than they did in the whole of last year’s Championship and rapidly closing in on a number of other key stats. Importantly the forwards are carrying the ball well but it’s the backs who are being used to make the most significant yardage – Mike Brown leads the Championship metres-gained table, Jonny May the defenders-beaten table and Jack Nowell is also putting in a huge shift each week.
Game management is key. England never carried the ball for more than three phases in their own half against Ireland (for the entire match) showing an effective ‘exit strategy’. Wales will take their opportunities when they can, through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny – as they did against Wales – so a game plan for England to play rugby in the opponent’s half will be no bad thing. Keep the Warrenball style of play at bay and England could attend the traditional post-match dinner in slightly better spirits than last year. Prediction: England by 5.
Stats provided by Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations, bringing you deeper insight into the Championship. Follow @AccentureRugby for all the latest stats and analysis.