Three games down, two to go. Here's your weekly dose of premium bar chit chat.
Scots Must Back Up Famous Win
After blowing England away two weeks ago in what was a truly memorable Murrayfield victory, Scotland coach Gregor Townsend’s gaze shifted pretty quickly to what is currently the biggest conundrum surrounding Scottish rugby - how to win away from home in the Six Nations.
Whilst the Scots have recorded recent victories against Wales, Ireland, France and now England in their own backyard, staggeringly you have to go back to 2010 to find evidence of success away from Edinburgh against any Six Nations team other than Italy.
That triumph, against the same opposition they face this week (Ireland in Dublin) will provide hope going into the game on Saturday. Townsend’s men will also surely draw on whatever good memories remain from the mightily impressive victory against Australia Down Under last summer.
Whilst previously any result proved hard to come by, stringing their big wins together into anything meaningful is now the key issue. The aforementioned win over the Wallabies was followed by a humbling at the hands of Fiji, last year’s Six Nations success over Ireland was undermined by subsequent defeat to France and vice versa in the 2016 edition of the tournament.
The Cardiff debacle at the start of this year’s competition left a bad taste in the mouth but the convincing victories against France and then England that followed have sent confidence levels into the stratosphere, and it will be a buoyant Scottish team crossing the Irish sea this weekend.
There is no love lost between these two sides and there were regular off the ball bust-ups two years ago in Dublin. With Ireland the only remaining undefeated team in the tournament and firing on all cylinders, I’m expecting an absolutely belting encounter with plenty of tries and free-flowing rugby which Ireland will ultimately edge.
Wales Ring The Changes
Wales have made 10 changes to the team that lost an eight-try thriller in Dublin last time out, as they prepare to face perennial wooden spoon enthusiasts Italy in Cardiff.
Only Liam Williams, Steff Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, Gareth Davies and Cory Hill survive from the 37-27 defeat against Ireland, and Gatland has handed Scarlets flanker James Davies his first cap in a back row that sees Taulupe Faletau return at number eight to captain his adopted country. George North is also recalled to the right wing to make his first start of this year’s championship in what is an almost totally revamped starting XV.
Skip For The Day (Joe Giddens/PA)
The Irish clash showed once again that Wales have the chops to hurt even the most disciplined defences, but, unusually for them, they gave away too many penalties and made costly mistakes at crucial times. After a bright start which saw Warren Gatland’s men trail by only two points at the turnaround, the Welsh lost the match in the opening minutes of the second half, conceding two quick tries.
Forced to spend the final 25 minutes aggressively chasing the game, their cavalier approach eventually proved terminal. Stockdale’s interception in a frantic finale put an end both to the match and to any hopes Wales might have harboured of challenging for the championship.
The game against Italy on Sunday in Cardiff will be a completely different and much tamer animal for the men in red. Gatland has picked a strong if experimental side with plenty of attacking flair and test match nous, they should be far too strong for the Azzurri.
The home crowd will accept nothing less than a bonus point victory, however, as Wales look to restore some pride and positivity in their camp after disheartening back-to-back defeats on the road. They now have two home games against Italy and France to finish the tournament on a high.
Jones Facing Heat
The reaction to England’s defeat against Scotland in the mainstream UK press has been nothing short of ridiculous, bordering on the hysterical. Calls for Dylan Hartley, Mike Brown, Chrsi Robshaw and even Eddie Jones to step aside verge on the insane and are wildly misplaced.
After all, this is an England team that has won 24 out of the previous 26 matches it has played, including five consecutive victories against Australia. One bad day doesn’t make a bad team and I’m sure England will be chomping at the bit to bounce back in Paris.
Jones has been forced to shuffle his pack for the must-win match against France. Skipper Hartley misses out through injury, as does back row fledgling Sam Underhill, whilst there are recalls for Ben Teo’o and Elliot Daly to a new-look backline which sees Anthony Watson shift round to 15, a position many pundits see as his best.
The selection of Teo’o at 13 is a deliberate ploy to counter the power and menace of the Gallic midfield bastion that is Mathieu Bastareaud, man of the match against the Italians last time out.
With Paris set to be wetter than a 13-year old’s diary on Saturday and so much at stake for both teams, this is unlikely to be a high-scoring try fest. Conditions may dictate that it turns into a lengthy game of aerial chess where the set-piece and both sides’ discipline will come under scrutiny in deciding the outcome.
England have the upper hand in the kicking department and will be further boosted by the return of Daly and his siege-gun left boot to their back three. It will be tight and nervy, but I’m predicting a squeaky English victory in Paris.
Reading The Refs
The last round of matches highlighted the importance of teams adapting quickly and effectively to each referees’ unique interpretations of the breakdown. The sides that did this dominated what is becoming an increasingly important area of the modern game, and consequently went on to record convincing victories.
Take the Ireland v Wales game where Glen Jackson - who saw out his playing days with Saracens - gave the defending team very little leeway in competing for the ball. There was barely a contest at the tackle area in Dublin, as is often the case in matches in England’s Premiership.
The Welsh were lacklustre in responding to Jackson’s modus operandi compared to their inspired Irish counterparts, and as a result were pinged regularly for infringing at the breakdown.
England in turn took far too long to adapt to Nigel Owens’s reading of the ruck area at Murrayfield. The senior statesmen collectively failed to come up with an effective response to the Welsh whistler’s encouragement of a genuine contest on the floor and allowed the Scots to swarm all over white shirted bodies.
The high number of turnovers that Barclay, Watson and co snaffled was crucial in preventing England from building momentum in dangerous areas, and was a major factor in Scotland’s epic victory.
It’s been a fascinating tournament to date with more moments of high drama than your average week on Ramsey Street, this week promises to be no different.