Last weekend’s Six Nations first round saw Wales triumph over Scotland, France pipped at the post by Ireland, and England rout Italy in Rome. What can we expect this weekend?
Saturday, 14:15 – Ireland vs Italy
Round 2’s first match-up sees an Irish side who squeaked past France away thanks to Johnny Sexton’s last-gasp drop goal heroics, best watched when set to Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’, host Italy.
Ireland make 4 changes from last weekend’s side, handing out starts to Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy and back-rower Jack Conan, who’ll be making his Six Nations debut. Meanwhile, the highly-rated Leinster wing Jordan Lamour takes his place on the bench. Italy make 3 changes to their starting line-up following their spirited, but heavy, defeat to England in Rome, including Braam Steyn’s inclusion in the back row.
The trip to Dublin is arguably Gli Azzurri’s toughest assignment, given both their long history of failing to perform away from home in the Six Nations – 2 wins from 45 attempts – and the respective recent form of the two nations. Similarly, Ireland’s side boasts a number of experienced players, including Captain Rory Best and half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray, while a number of Italian starters have fewer than 10 caps. Even more concerning for Gli Azzurri, the last two fixtures between the two sides saw Ireland win by huge margins – 63-10 and 58-15.
However, in their defeat to England on Sunday, Italy showed creative attacking rugby and produced perhaps a better performance than any of their outings in the tournament last year, suggesting they have turned a corner.
Prediction: Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to see past a comfortable Irish victory. Yet, with persistent rain forecast, and a seemingly improving Italian side, Ireland will have to be on their mettle to register 4 tries for a league bonus point on top of the 4 points for a win.
Saturday, 16:45 – England vs Wales
Head Coach Eddie Jones has opted to only tinker slightly with the England team from last week, opting for the speed and guile of Jonathan Joseph over the more physical Ben Te’o at outside centre. The other change is enforced, with Danny Care hoping to seize the opportunity presented to him following Ben Young’s unfortunate injury in Rome. Across the Severn, Warren Gatland named earlier in the week the same starting line-up as for the Scotland game, restricting the returning wing George North to the bench. However, full-back and supreme goalkicker Leigh Halfpenny (pictured below, scoring) is now doubtful, after suffering illness during the week.
No love is lost between the respective coaches of England and Wales with several spats over the years and Eddie Jones’s comments in the run-up that Welsh teammates will doubt the ‘bottle’ of their fly-half, Rhys Patchell. The Scarlets fly-half has been elevated to prominence in the wake of injuries to both Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland marring their availability for much of the tournament.
Wales’s win over Scotland last week was encouraging not just due to the result, but the manner of the performance, as Wales expand from their previous, somewhat derided, ‘Warrenball’ tactics of largely outmuscling the opposition, to show more attacking flair. England, meanwhile, remain serious contenders to be the first team to win the tournament three years in a row.
Prediction: Halfpenny’s availability is a key factor in determining the outcome as his goal kicking can punish English indiscipline with typically unerring accuracy from 40 metres out. Without him, Wales’s task will be harder against an England side who have lost once in their last 25 games.
Ultimately, regardless of Halfpenny’s availability, England have to be favoured to just prevail in this encounter like last year’s corresponding fixture, because of their extraordinarily strong home form, as they seek a 15th consecutive home Six Nations win. England by one score.
Sunday, 15:00 – Scotland vs France
Touted as potential title challengers before the tournament, Scotland produced a decidedly limp performance against Wales. France, on the other hand, showed plenty of defensive steel against the Irish but ultimately finished with just a solitary losing bonus for their efforts. To stand any chance of keeping in title contention, both sides need to be victorious on Sunday.
Scotland’s third all-time highest points scorer and former Captain, Greig Laidlaw, is one of 6 changes made to Scotland’s side, with centre Peter Horne, who scored Scotland’s consolation try last week, also starting. With 19 year-old fly-half prodigy Matthieu Jalibert injured, French coach Jacques Brunel this time has opted for experience, recalling 32-year old Anthony Belleau from a six year absence from the starting line-up for the national team to take the key No. 10 jersey. Meanwhile, lurking on the replacements bench as a potentially very effective impact substitute is No. 8 Louis Picamoles, one of France’s best players in recent times.
Prediction: France won this fixture last year narrowly in Paris and Scotland the year before, at Murrayfield. I would expect a strong Scottish backlash after their performance in Cardiff, but Scotland suffer very much at the moment from a serious crisis in fit front-row, particularly tighthead prop, forwards. Conversely, France traditionally boast a powerful scrummaging unit. Therefore, I’m expecting Les Blues to win by 6 points.