Here we are, a day away from D-Day and a raft of possible scenarios that will have Irish and English fans – and possibly some extremely optimistic Frenchies – huddled around TVs in nervous anticipation.
And in typical thrilling 6 Nations style, it will all come down to the last game. Should Ireland beat France in the evening fixture, they’ll effectively wrap up the tournament. England will need to have racked up a cricket score against Italy in the early kick-off to overcome Ireland’s significant 49-point points difference at the top of the table, plus whatever the Irish notch up against France. The largest points deficit between England and Italy in the 6 Nations is 57 (a drubbing of the Azzurri at Twickenham in 2001) but the biggest margin of defeat in Rome – a paltry 47 in comparison, when England won 12-59 – came in their first ever 6 Nations clash in 2000 and the Italians have made considerable strides since then.
Should France win that crucial fixture, assuming an English victory – though assumption is, as they say ‘the mother of all screw-ups’ – it will again come down to points difference. Lying third in the table, France trail England’s points difference by 29 (32 to 3).
Ireland have only won once in France since 1974, and on Brian O’Driscoll’s debut in 2000 no less, so there’s a decent chance of French victory but that margin particularly in recent years has been slim – draws in the last two years and no more than seven points in the three years prior.
As for the other three teams, Italy will be looking to restore some pride by avoiding another embarrassing defeat, while Wales and Scotland will face off in an ultimately meaningless test that will provide merely a vague shred of vanity to the winner.
England v Italy
First and foremost, England need to win. Let’s face it, England are not going to beat Italy in Rome by 50 points. The last three visits to Rome have resulted in victory margins of just 4, 5 and 4 points respectively, so forget the scoreline, it’s the crucial two table points that count. It’s Ireland’s tournament to lose and that little bit of pressure could be the telling factor in deciding the eventual outcome in Paris.
Stuart Lancaster will therefore be drilling the message into his players to play the same game they have for the previous four rounds. With that in mind, the only change to the starting XV that ran out against Wales is enforced in Mako Vunipola promoted from the bench to replace an ‘expectant’ Joe Marler. On the bench Alex Goode is the victim of Manu Tuilagi’s return to fitness, despite having done very little wrong in the tournament so far, as he just doesn’t have the same impact off the bench that Tuilagi can deliver. Should England gain a decent-ish lead in the first 60 mins, seeing him emerge from the bench will no doubt have Italian heads dropping all over the field.
The style of play that England seem to have adopted over the course of this year’s campaign is hugely encouraging. Leading the attacking stats by some margin, England are the only side to have collectively carried the ball over 2km in the tournament, whilst also topping the defenders beaten and line breaks charts. This is due largely to Mike Brown and his back three cohorts Jack Nowell and Jonny May, both of whom despite still green in an England jersey (well, white actually, but you know what we mean) have taken to the International scene like ducks to water.
While England have been impressive in attack, Italy have put in an immense effort in defence. It’s skewed slightly by a 6 Nations record-breaking 208 tackles against Ireland, but the Azzurri have the hardest working defence combining to make 650 tackles in the first four rounds, as well as the top individual tackler with Quintin Geldenhuys on 60.
It’s impossible, however, to maintain that level of persistence in defence with only 25% of the ball – as they had against Ireland – and retain any hope of being competitive in the game. Italian players like Luke McLean and Michele Campagnaro have shown they’re capable of running the ball but [blindingly obvious statement alert] can only do so if they actually have it.
With ball in hand then, and buoyed by a relentlessly working pack that’s provided a new level of forward momentum and Owen Farrell becoming increasingly unflappable on the International scene, England have the makings of what could be a world-class outfit. With more time to gel, Mr Lancaster’s troops are certainly heading in the right direction. Expect the result to come, though potentially slowly if the resilience of the Italians is anything to go by. Prediction: England by 17.
Wales v Scotland
In what is a significant fixture for the Millennium Stadium – the 100th Test match at venue – the crushing irony for both sets of fans is that the actual game is of very little significance at all. The winner may end up above the loser in the final table but it means very little in the grand scheme of rugby things.
If history is anything to go by, Wales will win. Scotland have a poor record at the Millennium with a solitary win in the 6 Nations in 2002.
But ‘Warrenball’, Warren Gatland’s increasingly predictable brand of uninspiring rugby, is starting to play into the hands of their opponents as shown by defeats to Ireland and England in the Championship’s earlier rounds. Simply barrelling the ball up the pitch in the hope that Leigh Halfpenny gets a shot at goal wasn’t enough against England and Gats will have to drastically rethink his game plan in the full-back’s absence through a dislocated shoulder.
Even the attacking prowess of George North and Alex Cuthbert has been found wanting this year’s as sides have starved the monstrous wingers of the ball and pressurised them when they’ve had it. North has lost the ball eight times and has hardly put in a solid defensive shift either, with only a 60% tackles success rate.
After a shaky start in Scotland’s lineout from Ross Ford, the packs have now just about levelled off in terms of the amount of set piece ball they’re winning. Both packs boast some huge ball carriers (Alun-Wyn Jones, Toby Faletau; Richie Gray, David Denton) and some tireless workers around the park (Sam Warburton; Kelly Brown) but where things seem to be coming unstuck for each side are in the no.10 channel.
Scottish drop-goal heroics aside, neither fly-half has displayed the game management proficiency required at this level. Rhys Priestland has kicked the ball the most of the tournament’s fly-halves (47 kicks in play) and largely ineffectively, more often (particularly against England) for no apparent reason than just for shits and giggles. Duncan Weir has passed the ball the least, too often taking the ball into contact and therefore providing his centres with limited ball in hand. It’s a terrible waste, given the emergence of Matt Scott as a potential solution to Scotland’s problems at centre.
As a result Wales’ attack has been below par but they will take solace in Scotland’s even more dire attacking performance in this year’s Championship – the Scots have the lowest metres gained of any of the teams (a total of just 1,161m), the fewest defenders beaten (53) and the fewest line breaks (just 12).
In summary, watching the sides take to the pitch, only to shake hands after the national anthems and concede a draw could be more exciting than the game actually taking place. We could be in for a god-awful snoozefest, with both sides trying to batter the living daylights out of each other. Having Dan Biggar at 10 in place of Priestland may give the Welsh backs some more ball but don’t hold your breath. With home advantage though, Wales should galumph to a dreary win. Prediction: Wales by 11.
Ireland v France
With a solitary Irish win in Paris in the last 40 years, you could say the odds are ever so slightly stacked in favour of the French but this time round, the form and stats are screaming for an Irish victory.
Ireland boast the most successful set-piece of the tournament, while France have the worst (Ireland have cumulatively won 93% of their own set-piece ball, and France – especially after a woefully dismal display last week –only 72%).
As a result of this solid 1st phase platform, Johnny Sexton has had an extremely good tournament and with the experienced duo of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll (more on him shortly) outside him, the back three have enjoyed a huge amount of ball.
In an attempt to provide something vaguely resembling a similar solidity of a platform to his half-backs, Philippe Saint-Andre has brought Louis Picamoles back into the side. As always though, the French manager has something up his sleeve as Picamoles will line-up at blindside flanker, while Damien Chouly is rewarded for his efforts against Scotland by retaining the no.8 jersey. Chouly is a classy player but simply doesn’t have the presence of Picamoles so it will be interesting to see how they pack down on their attacking scrums.
In the backs, Gael Fickou is given his chance to start in the centres, after repeatedly impressing off the bench, lining up alongside Mathieu Bastareaud, who is becoming less and less steam train-esque with every game but now seems to get his hands on the no.13 jersey by default.
For Ireland Peter O’Mahony returns to haunt the breakdown as the only change to the starting XV and Leinster’s Ian Madigan takes the place of Ulster’s Paddy Jackson as the fly-half back-up for Sexton.
Ireland have scored almost twice as many tries, won almost twice as many turnovers, conceded fewer penalties, made fewer mistakes … And let’s not forget, Ireland have the BOD factor.
As he prepares to end his illustrious career, the Irish nation waits to see if Brian O’Driscoll can add yet another accolade to one of the most impressive CVs in rugby history. His 6 Nations record alone makes for some staggering reading: [deep breath] in 64 appearances, he’s scored 133 points (26 tries and one drop-goal), made 451 tackles, gained 2,512 metres, carried the ball 492 times [pause for another breath], made 66 line breaks, beaten 161 defenders, made 410 passes, offloaded the ball 82 times and won 53 turnovers.
And that compromises less than half of his soon-to-be-141 Tests.
Rest assured the Irish won’t gift the fixture to France like Scotland did and unless France can produce something resembling their best rugby, the trophy will be escorting the Irish back to Dublin.
Prediction: Ireland will do it (by 7). BOD will sign off a 6 Nations Champion. It will be emotional.