After a two-week layoff that felt longer than a bank holiday break at the in-laws, the Guinness Six Nations is finally back this weekend for a pivotal third round of matches.
Wales Out To Settle Old Scores
There’s no doubt this is the pick of the weekend’s fixtures. Wales v England in Cardiff has delivered more drama over the years than the entire box set of Downton Abbey (sorry, Mr Bates).
Who can forget the haunted expression on Stuart Lancaster’s face back in 2013, as his side’s Grand Slam dream was smashed to smithereens in a 30-3 trouncing? Or the sight of Elliot Daly being mobbed by his delirious teammates after his daring dash to the line snatched an English victory at the death two years ago?
Throw in a stunning Welsh win at Twickenham during the 2015 World Cup group stages and it soon becomes clear that as far as sporting rivalries go, England and Wales’s rollercoaster rugby relationship is right up there.
Remind yourself of the moment Elliot Daly broke Welsh hearts back in 2017:
The stats heading into this year’s clash don’t look good for the Welsh faithful. The men from the valleys haven’t tasted Six Nations victory over their bitterest rivals since that heady day back in March 2013, and Gatland’s boys will have to play out of their skin to buck the trend this Saturday against an England side who are back on a roll and brimming with confidence.
Wales can take some confidence from their own back to back wins, plus the latest injury news coming out the England camp which confirmed the irreplaceable Mako Vunipola and slightly more expendable Chris Ashton have both been ruled out of the action this weekend. The loss of the loosehead is a bitter blow to England, but few will feel sorry for a nation that has such rich playing resources to call on.
These are the only two remaining unbeaten sides in the competition and both have pulled out the stops this week in the buildup to what could be a classic; Jones cheekily labelled this Wales side as the “greatest in history” and called on Chelsea legend John Terry to inspire his senior players with a talk on leadership this week. Perhaps an interesting call, given JT’s career-long track record of lamentable decision making in positions of power but hey ho, whatever gets the guys’ juices flowing.
Gatland returned fire by laughing off the favourites tag and inviting Gareth John Bale (the actor, not the Galactico) to perform a moving tribute play to the late, great Welsh centre Roy Gravell that had some of his players and staff in tears.
Clearly, emotion has always played a big part in international rugby, and nothing stirs the souls across the Severn Bridge as strongly as when England are in town. It will be a brutal, bruising encounter, played in an intimidating and claustrophobic atmosphere under a closed roof that will test the very mettle of Jones’s men.
On the pitch, this will be a battle of two ferocious defences, who’ve conceded just seven tries between them in over 5 hours and 20 minutes of rugby thus far. England, however, have looked much more clinical in attack that their hosts, boasting double Wales’ try tally. I’m expecting this impressive and improving England side to keep their composure in the Cardiff cauldron and grind out a victory by 4 points.
Hotchpotch Scots Patch Up For Paris
Heading to Paris, the Scots know they have a better chance than ever of overcoming a French side that is becoming predictably poor: Les Blues have registered just 3 wins in their last 19 Test matches, a stat which indicates there are some deep-rooted issues in the French game that cannot be fixed overnight by beating Scotland. France were absolutely abysmal last time out at Twickenham, and rumours of discontent among senior players towards the management are further signs that all is not well in a camp that looks increasingly bewildered and beaten.
The alleged mutiny may be the method behind Brunel’s madness in making more wholesale changes –Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Camille Lopez have both been axed at halfback – for a game that neither side can afford to lose, not least for pride’s sake.
Scotland on form and on paper are surely favourites going into this one, even with the great pile of broken players building up outside their physio’s office.
Quite. But with just 2 victories in 38 attempts away on the road in the Six Nations era, nothing is certain for fans of the Saltire outside Murrayfield’s home comforts. Fortunately for Gregor Townsend and his men, they are playing the worst French side in recent memory and I think they’ll just have enough to see this one over the line.
Irish Ready To Ruin Rome
After a winning an ungainly arm-wrestle in Edinburgh last time out, only a bonus point victory will do for Schmidt and his men against Italy in Rome this Sunday if they are to have any chance of catching England or Wales this year.
With a two-week break since the bruising victory at Murrayfield, any battered Irish bodies have had plenty of time to recover and recharge in time for this trip to the Italian capital.
The hosts were competitive in fits and spurts last time out against a revamped Welsh side but were ultimately beaten for a tournament record 19th time in a row. With a fresh and fired up Green Machine in town and captain Parisse out with a noggin knock, supporters of the Azzurri will understandably be fearing a cricket score here should Ireland dot down a couple of early scores.
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