France V Scotland (Stade de France, Saturday, 2.15pm)
Scotland have been their typical selves in this tournament. At times, sublime, and showing the attacking greatness unmatched by anyone in tournament. But at crucial moments, they’ve made fundamental mistakes. Their play with ball in hand is so mesmerising that with their full team, I would comfortably predict a first win in Paris for 20 years. But injuries have been crueller to Scotland than anyone.
They lose a crucial cog in the scrum, WP Nel. They miss their sharpest breakdown operators in John Barclay and Hamish Watson. And they miss their main two commanders of creativity, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. Kinghorn and Grigg are promising replacements in the backs, but they have lost a crucial core to their team.
The cliché of not knowing which France will show up has never been truer than this game. Yet again Brunel rings the changes, but with some optimism considering the number of youngsters given an opportunity. Incredibly, a full back has been picked at full back with speedster Thomas Ramos given a chance. Demba Bamba continues his rise from French Pro D2 rugby to a starting international, whilst 22-year-old Antoine Dupont starts after impressing from the bench against England. Plenty of talent, but with no consistency and plenty of inexperienced prospects, Test Match challenges could provoke yet another psychological collapse.
Scotland’s small player pool will be tested to the limit with their abundance of injuries. France have been woeful in recent weeks but have plenty of talent in this team for history to repeat itself. A France victory seems on the cards.
Wales V England (Principality Stadium, Saturday, 4.45pm)
Is this the title decider? Probably. What a way to add even more passion to a game that is already one of the fiercest rivalries in rugby. On top of this, Wales are gunning for their twelfth consecutive win, which would be the longest run of Welsh victories in history. The stakes are massive.
If there’s a team to counter England’s precise kicking game, it’s Wales. Gatland would have noted the tactic and will be preparing accordingly. North, Adams, and Williams are a prime back 3 to deal with this threat. Eddie Jones has warned that teams adjusting to this tactic could leave space elsewhere. It will be fascinating to see how the tactics play out.
Wales haven’t been at their best in this tournament despite two wins, but they’ve also won their last 11 games, so will be confident at home. To break the Red Rose defence, Wales need to up the flair in their attack, making Gareth Anscombe an appropriate choice at fly half. Inconsistent so far international level, the performance of the Cardiff Blues fly half could be a major factor in the result. In Tipuric, Navidi, and Morriarty, Wales have a back row that can dominate breakdowns. England have been exploited there in the past, but have a more balanced back row this year.
England have looked at their very best so far. Their physicality unmatched, their kicking game perfectly precise, and players playing out of their skin. Mako Vunipola is a big loss, but Ben Moon offers slightly superior scrummaging, with baby rhino Ellis Genge poised to make a big impact off the bench. The Principality Stadium offers one of the most booming atmospheres in World Rugby, but with England’s performances in recent weeks, I’m going for an England win.
Italy V Ireland (Stadio Olimpico, Sunday, 3.00pm)
For Italy, the tournament doesn’t get any easier. After missed opportunities against Scotland and an almost second-string Wales team, they face an Ireland side still looking to defend their title.
Italy showed in their last 10 minutes against Scotland that they have the backs to score tries, but the big question is whether they’ll have a sufficient platform. Ireland may be resting some first-choice forwards, but a back row including O’Mahony and O’Brien is one to fear, and Cronin is arguably a better player than Best (but admittedly doesn’t have the same leadership skills). If Italy can provide the required go forward ball against a tough Ireland pack, the relatively unknown Jimmy Tuivaiti could be praised with a large part of the credit. The 17 stone flanker was clattering the Scottish defence off the bench in Round 1 and is a welcomed ball-carrying weapon in the absence of Sergio Parisse. Combining his beast mode hits with the striking runs of Campagnaro could give the silky backs the space they’ve been denied thus far.
Alas, this is hopeful thinking, and Ireland won’t be taking anything for granted. Their loss at home to England may have hurt pride at the time, but could be a vital wakeup call ahead of the World Cup. The men in Green will know what happens if they take their foot off the gas. If a handful of forwards have been rested, the same can’t be said for their elite backline. 6 points behind England, Ireland know they need a bonus point, and with the skill we know they possess, it’s hard to see Italy keeping the score-line below a 20 point defeat.
Written by Connor Dickins