The Six Nations rolls on, and we’re now right in the middle of the most exciting and competitive tournaments in years. No one is rolling over and no one is making it easy for anyone else. France host Scotland and on Sunday, Ireland travel to Italy. But all eyes will be on Cardiff as the two remaining unbeaten teams, England and Wales meet on Saturday night to decide who is going to win this thing. Let’s take a look to see how the teams are holding up at the mid-point of this bruising schedule.
When the dust settles at the end of this tournament in March, Italy will likely have the same scorecard as usual – played 5, won 0. But this won’t tell the real story – namely of a tenacious, scrappy, stubborn Italy who are making their opponents pay dearly for every point. Much as they struggled against France in the opener, Wales were far from dominant with Italy clinging onto their ankles like rabid terriers for 80 minutes. In the end, it was only Dan Biggar’s boot that changed things for the visitors, with Italy matching Wales try-for-try.
This weekend, they will be hosting Ireland, who should not have too much trouble. Italy do have an ace in their hand in the form of their coach, former Irish international Connor O’Shea. He will know many of Ireland’s tricks and will be doing his best to teach his team to anticipate them. But in the end, Ireland are just too strong and should win easily.
Italy beat Ireland – 13/1
Back to winning ways after a trip to Murrayfield, Ireland are struggling to pick up momentum this year. That’s not too surprising after the shock they received during the first game of the season. They started that game as heavy favourites to win the tournament and were expected to go on to great things in the World Cup. 80 minutes later, a dazed and battered Irish team were scratching their heads and wondering what the hell just happened. Their trip to Scotland was no relaxing jaunt either. While they took the victory and managed to break Scotland’s three-year record of not losing at home, Ireland had to go without a bonus point.
There is relief for Ireland as Johnny Sexton is expected to be fully fit for Sunday’s meeting in Rome, but Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock has injured his hamstring and won’t be playing. Chris Farrell and Tadgh Beirne have also been brought into the squad from Munster to add a little versatility to the team. Ireland can still salvage something from this year’s tournament, but they will need to start earning bonus points in every game to get there. Rome will be a good place to start doing this.
Ireland to beat Italy – 1/200
Consistency is the key for Scotland. For the first half against Ireland, they were the better team, and while their tails dropped a bit during the second half, they kept fighting to the end. The injury to Stuart Hogg in the 16th minute (after an off-the-ball tackle from Peter O’Mahony) will keep him out of the team this week, but coach Gregor Townsend is hopeful that he will play a part in one of the later games.
Scotland travel to France hoping that they can put the handling errors that helped cost them the game against Ireland behind them. They will also need to make the most of the chances they get, kicking penalties instead of playing for tries that they lack the strength to force through. If they can get a grip on these two aspects of the game, they should go through a disorganised and inconsistent France and potentially get their first win on French soil since 1999.
Scotland to beat France – 19/10
Poor France. The 44-8 pasting at Twickenham two weeks ago must surely be the low point of a decade in which French rugby has been in freefall. Jonny May scored his first after 65 seconds; he scored his third just before the half-hour mark. The mauling was so severe (France’s worst loss to England since 1911) that England barely played on past the 55-minute mark. They did not need to – the damage was already done.
Coach Jacques Brunel has of course been forced to make some drastic changes before the game against Scotland. Out with the old – Morgan Parra (30) and Camille Lopez (29) – and in with the new -Antoine Dupont (22) and Romain Ntamack (19). The youngsters, who play their club rugby for Toulouse, will have the hopes and expectations of a nation on their shoulders on Saturday. They are seen as the future for an international team in deep trouble, so hopefully they can inspire some sort of fightback. The alternative sees them potentially coming last place in the entire tournament and handing a victory to Italy in week 5 if they don’t buck their ideas up.
France to beat Scotland – 5/12
You wouldn’t really know it to look at them, but Wales are on a huge winning streak at the moment. Their string of 11 consecutive victories is their best run since 1911. However, they have made a meal of their last two games; Dan Biggar’s boot saved them in the last game, while it took a trio of increasingly terrible French errors to secure the opening game. They host England on Saturday night and while Cardiff has traditionally been something of a stronghold, Wales will surely be nervous.
10 of the players who played in France were rested for the game against Italy, but there are still some injury concerns for Wales. Leigh Halfpenny has rejoined the squad for training, but no word has come down on whether he will be including in the team. There are bigger (Biggar? Sorry) questions about who will be playing at number 10. Warren Gatland appears to have a revolving door policy on the fly-half spot: Biggar’s worn the jersey four times, Rhys Patchell four times and Gareth Anscombe six times. Will this lack of coherency harm Wales this weekend or is there a method to all this that we haven’t seen yet?
Wales to beat England – 31/20
Eddie Jones’s pre-match comments about how important the individual referee is when it comes to dictating the action could not have been more clearly illustrated during week 2. In Edinburgh, Peter O’Mahony’s off-the-ball hit on Scotland’s Stuart Hogg took the latter out of the game but French referee Romain Poite did nothing. France’s Gael Fickou did the same to Chris Ashton, and the normally unflappable Nigel Owens awarded a preposterous penalty try. It’s all a bit random. Who knows what effect South Africa’s Jaco Peyper, the chosen ref for Saturday’s game, will have on proceedings, but at least Jones is savvy enough to be aware of such issues.
Chris Ashton and Mako Vunipola are both injured and will sit out the crucial game against Wales, but apart from that, England continue to look very strong. It will be a huge test for Wales who have been a bit skittish in their performances thus far. If they cannot pull themselves together, England will once again rampage over them and put the Six Nations to bed with a win. This is the biggest game of the entire tournament, and fans on both sides are hoping it will be a high-scoring instant classic.
England to beat Wales – 10/19