The Guinness Six Nations is back, serving up its usual feast of fiery fixtures across Northern Europe and bringing with it much relief to oval ball worshippers across the world, many of whom spent last weekend staring at a blank TV screen, wondering what the point of it all was anymore.
Scotland Hoping For Home Improvements
Much was made in this lecture (yes, I did say lecture) of Scotland’s scintillating home form before their limp defeat to Ireland in round 2, and Townsend will be desperately hoping his laddies rediscover that winning feeling on Saturday in front of a packed Murrayfield, as they look to salvage some pride from what has been another a disappointing campaign.
A badly patched up Scottish outfit was dismal in Paris a couple of weeks ago, and the task ahead of them this Saturday is a daunting one; they face a Wales team who, according to their head coach Warren Gatland, ‘have forgotten how to lose’ after notching up their 12th straight test win with a pulsating comeback against England last time out.
It was their second remarkable turnaround of the tournament: the men in red were 16-0 down at the break in Paris on the opening weekend before going on to pull off the biggest comeback in Six Nations history. This ‘never say die’ attitude is no fluke – it is testament to the belief, fitness and composure of this current crop of Welsh players who are peaking at the right time with the World Cup looming large.
The good news for Scotland is that they welcome back some big guns to the side; the mercurial Finn Russell™ is back to spray magic balls from the No. 10 shirt, whilst the return of forwards WP Nel and the Hamish Watson will inject some much-needed bite into a pack that was all gum and tongue in Paris.
I don’t know whether it’s their contrasting playing styles or the colourful kits of these sides and their ardent supporters, but for some reason Scotland v Wales has always been my favourite game of the tournament as a neutral onlooker.
And there is much at stake in this year’s edition: for a Welsh win in Edinburgh this weekend will see them take a giant stride towards capturing a third Grand Slam under Gatland, a remarkable achievement that few would begrudge the pugnacious Kiwi, whilst a Scottish victory would go some way to easing the pain of back-to-back defeats and provide a welcome morale boost in what is a big year for rugby.
Prediction: Wales by 7
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England Must Bury Cardiff Hurt
Take nothing away from Wales, but England let themselves down in the second half in Cardiff two weekends ago and will be hurting still.
It’s not the first time that Jones’s men have failed to meet expectations and deliver a champion performance in a high-pressure game. The Grand Slam loss in Ireland in 2017 and the capitulation of composure against New Zealand last autumn also spring to mind.
All this talk of learning and improving is all well and good, but the facts are that England have bottled too many big games under Jones, and the latest defeat against Wales is undeniably a huge setback in what is a pivotal year for English and world rugby (no, I’m not over it – as you can probably tell).
This Saturday sees the men in white play host to an Italy side that dumbfounded and flummoxed them two years ago at the home of rugby. Few can forget the ingenious ‘ruck gate’ tactics that O’Shea and Catt employed last time out. So effective was that tactical ambush that the Azzurri were in with a sniff of a famous victory until a couple of late tries skewed the scoreboard in England’s favour. The relief among the Twickenham faithful at the final whistle that day was nothing compared to Eddie Jones’s ire in his post-match press conference; he didn’t so much spit feathers as hock up whole chickens.
I don’t expect Italy to try the same sneaky shenanigans again this weekend, but they are no longer the rollovers of times gone by and they will be combative and competitive for the whole 80 minutes. With the Grand Slam gone, England will have to be on their game if they are to secure the 5 points required to keep them in the hunt for an unlikely Six Nations title.
Prediction: England by 20
Irish Firm Faves v France
Ireland will be hoping to make it 3 wins from 3 when they host a galvanized Gallic XV at the Aviva on Sunday to keep the pressure ramped on at the top of the table. The men in green produced another somewhat half-arsed display last time out against an Italian side who led Schmidt’s side at half time and pushed them all the way to the bitter end in the Eternal City. The experienced Sean Cronin pays the ultimate price for Ireland’s wobbly lineout woes as he makes way for Ulster’s Rob Herring, as Rory Best
Ireland’s visitors produced a barely recognizable display against a shoddy Scotland side a couple of weeks ago at the Stade de France to secure their first victory of the campaign, but the momentum-sapping fallow week has come at just the wrong time for our French friends.
On the other hand, Schmidt’s charges are themselves still searching for a performance befitting of their talents – playing a French side suffering from almost chronic travel sickness (they last won in Ireland 8 years ago) means there is no better opportunity to spark their 2019 into life with a big performance.
Prediction: Ireland by 12
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