BY Will Chilcott
After another agonising two week lay-off, most of us can rejoice at the return of the Six Nations.
Unfortunately, the sharp rise of Corona cases in Italy has put an end to any hopes of seeing Ireland take on the Azzurri but the other two tasty-looking ties are going ahead as planned. England host their best mates from across the Severn Bridge on Saturday while Scotland will be aiming to shatter France’s Grand Slam dreams at Murrayfield a day later.
England Out For Cardiff Revenge
England have named their most experienced starting side ever for the Welsh clash, welcoming back World Cup big guns Anthony Watson and Mark Wilson into a team that boasts a chunky 786 caps.
Eleven of the England XV that lost the Grand Slam showdown in Cardiff last year will take to the field on Saturday, with revenge surely written large in their minds.
England were outmuscled and outthought that day, and Jones’s faith in his Ford-Farrell fulcrum a sure sign of the Aussie’s determination that history does not repeat itself this weekend.
From 10, Ford will ensure England play in the right areas of the pitch – something they were guilty of not doing in Wales twelve months ago – whilst the experience of their pack should give them the edge in the crucial battle up front.
The return of Marler at loosehead has given England some much-needed ballast at scrum-time this term, and with no disrespect to Ben Moon who admirably deputized last time out in Cardiff, the Harlequin man is a different prospect at international level.
With big Joe back in, England’s heavies have been in rambunctious form so far this tournament, registering a dominant tackle at every 7th attempt and stealing lineout ball on 14 occasions thus far – twice as often as any other side. Tangible evidence of forwards coach Matt Proudfoot’s print on this year’s pack.
The cold facts for Eddie’s men are that they could go top of the table with a win on Saturday and turn up the temperature on current tree-toppers France ahead oftheirtrip to a sodden Edinburgh on Sunday. Throw in the chance to snatch back the Triple Crown from their noisy neighbours and Jones’s charges should need no extra motivation here.
Can Patched Up Wales Enjoy A Free Hit?
The physicality and intensity of England’s defense against Ireland last week was simply staggering. Wave after wave of green shirts were pitilessly smashed back whence it came, with a purring John Mitchell and grimacing Andy Farrell watching on from the stands. Whilst Wales’s attacking arsenal has developed under coach Watne Pivac – the men in red average 9.7 visits to the opposition 22 per match in 2020, the highest in the competition – they come to London on the back of two defeats and have work to do if they are to avoid a third consecutive championship loss for the first time since 2016.
With injuries and absentees rife, Wales face a massive uphill task on Saturday, but have fond memories of playing against England to draw upon. If they are to succeed it wouldn’t be the first time a depleted Welsh side has silenced the SW London faithful.
Despite the magnitude of the rivalry, the pressure’s pretty much off Pivac’s lads going into this one, and if they can get their power runners into the game early and throw the ball around with pace and precision, then the Welsh dragon could yet again rise out of the Twickenham ashes, leaving charred, white-shirted corpses heaped on the hallowed turf. Despite that fantastically florid hypothesis, I frankly don’t see happening.
La France Pragmatique
For all the talk of flairy France’s renaissance this term, the most impressive aspect of their unbeaten start to the year has been their ability to mix up their playing style to suit the occasion.
Against England they were brutal at the breakdown in the Paris mire; versus Italy they threw the ball around with delightful derring-do before showing us in Cardiff that they can play the canniest of kicking games.
Indeed, the French have put boot to ballon more times than any other side so far this championship, electing to lace the egg on 102 occasions or 18% of the time they’ve had it.
England, usually the team to beat in this bracket, have lamped it 100 times in total, and that’s despite playing in a Scottish hurricane where the only other sensible thing to do except give the ball the hoof was to use it as a makeshift umbrella.
Another revealing stat about this new frugal French outfit is that they have passed the ball fewer times than other team, preferring instead to stick it under a jumper and trundle forward. Expect more of this winning formula against a Scottish side that thrives when the game breaks up and chaos reigns supreme.
The Scots will be looking for a third consecutive 6N win over their Gallic guests on Sunday, though that may be clutching at straws for the Murryafield faithful given their side’s deeply average showings so far this year. Conditions were perfect for a Rome rout last time out against Italy, but Townsend’s men failed to impress, showing little of the attacking edge fans were crying out for.
With Finn Russell still present but squirting water out of his long trunk rather than playing rugby, it’s hard to see anything but a French win here, particularly given how impressively resilient Galthier’s men looked in Cardiff two weeks ago.
If Scotland can stay in the game until the final quarter, then they might see an opening, as France have conceded more points (29) in the last 20 minutes of their matches than any other team bar Italy.
The French, however, may already be out of sight by then, for Les Bleus have come fast out of the blocks and have racked up a lot of points (38) in the opening quarters of games – that’s just 7 fewer than the other teams combined.
In previous years, this has been a tough one to call and Scotland have triumphed on the past two meetings between these two sides; but the 2020 French vintage looks a much more sophisticated drop, more akin to a Grand Cru than the watery Cotes du Rhones of previous years, and I fancy them to sweep Scotland aside on their triumphant march to what could be a first Grand Slam since 2010.
Round 4 Pint Predictions
England v Wales - England by 10
Scotland v France - France by 8
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