Scotland v Wales (Murrayfield, Saturday, 2.15pm)
Thank the rugby Gods for the returns of WP Nel, Hamish Watson, and most of all Finn Russell for this fixture. The disheartening defeat to France showed they were in desperate need of a relief to this injury crisis, and these returns will be welcomed. With Nel’s return, they reunite the Edinburgh front 3 that shunted packs around at scrum-time during the Heineken Cup. Watson will provide a genuine impact off the bench, especially at the breakdown where he proved such a menace last year. As for the magician that is Finn Russell, his unpredictable flair is fundamental if they are to beat a Welsh side with a formidable defence.
Scotland seem to have been written off after a flat performance against France, but Gregor Townsend’s team are a different side at home. The Russel-Horne axis offers great distribution skills, crucial to exploiting Wales’ narrow (but admittedly intense) defensive line. Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg remain big blows, but not catastrophic given the form of Edinburgh backs Blair Kinghorn and Darcy Graham.
The major factor will be if Scotland can provide the platform for their silky backs. Scotland will be riled up by the passionate home crowd, but Wales’ 12-match winning streak shows Gatland’s ability to mentally prepare his team. Their physical prowess has suffocated teams, and their composure is evident through their low penalty count. Scotland, on the other hand, have conceded 29 penalties thus far in just three games. Scotland could have a sniff at Wales’ misfiring lineout, but will still need to be at their best to create opportunities.
Scotland will be much improved, but a tight win for Wales still seems the most likely outcome given the accuracy and consistency of Gatland’s team.
England v Italy (Twickenham, Saturday, 4.45pm)
This fixture has more significance this year than it has in the last few. Italy have shown steady improvement, losing no game by a margin greater than 10 points, and will want to keep fans positive with another strong performance. Meanwhile, England know that the championship could come down to try bonus points, making 4 tries against the Italians a necessity.
England’s kicking game was nullified against Wales, and much has been spoken about them needing a Plan B to vary their offensive game. Conor O’Shea is a shrewd tactician, and in Jayden Hayward they have a tactically astute fullback, so England may need more options than a precise kicking game.
Italy have shown a far more resolute defence, and skilful backs capable of creating scoring opportunities. The return of Sergio Parisse and Jake Poledri will be a boost in the forwards. The set piece is still a massive concern, but with improvement here, Italy could have their first competitive outing at Twickenham for years.
Jones’ has selected a behemoth backline containing Ben Te’o, Manu Tuilagi, and Joe Cokanasiga. Following the November Internationals, this is what England fans wanted according to a BBC poll, but will it score points? The lack of balance is a concern; it’s very well having big backs to make metres, but will England get the best out of them without more technical and creative players to provide them opportunities? It hurts to say as an England fan, but it looks a little one-dimensional to me. England should win with a try bonus point, but the bookies prediction of a 33-point winning margin seems excessive.
Ireland V France (Aviva Stadium, Sunday, 3.00pm)
For once, France have some consistency with an unchanged match-day squad named for their test away to Ireland. It’s easy for Les Bleus fans to get carried away after their recent victory, as in the last 15 minutes, France almost let a dominated Scotland team claw back into the game. The psychological frailties as a team still persist. Yet there is room for optimism, as Jacques Brunel is putting faith in some exceptionally talented youngsters including Demba Bamba, Antoine Dupont, and Thomas Ramos. They’ll go to Ireland with nothing to lose, and likely to play a more exciting brand of rugby than in recent years.
It’s well known that Ireland haven’t reached fourth gear in this championship, and without improvement, there’s a genuine opportunity of a French upset. But at least a portion of Ireland’s misfiring can be attributed to the lack of game time from players such as Murray, Sexton, and O’Brien. The error count against Italy was largely down to how well Conor O’Shea’s men played, but lack of match fitness may also have taken its toll.
Their heroics against the All Blacks show how exceptional Ireland can be on their day. At home, with slim hopes of a title defence still present, a win for Ireland seems the safest prediction. But the 14 point buffer the bookies give is insulting to Les Bleus, and you write them off at your own peril.
Written by Connor Dickins