Italy vs Ireland
Hopefully, Ireland will have learned a valuable lesson about complacency and buying into your own hype after their trip to Edinburgh. The press seemed to have jumped on that final match against England in Dublin as being a grand slam showdown between the two top ranked European teams, without pausing to think about how much rugby needed to be played before that point. This is not to take any credit away from Scotland’s performance at the weekend, which was probably the most complete of all the teams, but Ireland seemed to forget the basics that have turned them into such a strong team. Having dusted themselves off, they will surely be eager to redeem themselves when they travel to Rome.
Their opponents this weekend are Italy, who performed admirably for the opening 60 minutes against Wales before being undone in the final twenty. Their goal will surely be to maintain that intensity for the duration of the match, and that will mean keeping all fifteen players on the pitch throughout. In the second half, Italy’s possession dropped to under 30% and it is difficult to defend for so long especially when down to fourteen players, as they found out to their disadvantage.
Ireland have made two changes, bringing in lock Donnacha Ryan to replace Iain Henderson, and promoting Cian Healey to a starting position. Reports that Jonny Sexton would be rushed back for this game were a little premature, Joe Schmidt has wisely opted out of risking Ireland’s key man, meaning Paddy Jackson again gets the nod at 10. For Italy, experienced hooker Ghiraldini is back in the scrum, which should hopefully bring more discipline from the two props. Simone Favaro returns at number 7. The history of this tie is predictably one-sided. Ireland have only lost to Italy only once since they joined the competition in 2000 (although prior to that Italy had been on a three match winning streak against the Irish).
Tactically, both teams are strong in the scrum, although Ireland may have the upper hand in that arena. Ireland would do well to incorporate their fearsome back row into the game more so than they did in Edinburgh. Allowing the likes of Heaslip, Stander and O’Brien to really test the Italian line will inevitably create gaps in the Azurri’s defense. Should Ireland seem more dominant at the scrum then they should not be afraid to use it as a penalty option. During the Scotland game, Ireland were awarded penalties within the Scottish 22, yet chose to kick to touch, which on two occasions returned possession immediately to the Scottish team. On the one occasion where Rory Best opted for the scrum, his side scored. For Italy, their motivation will come from the World Rankings, where they are dangerously close to slipping below Tonga in 13th. With Georgia now ranked above Italy and knocking on the door of the championship, Italy should be desperate to prove their worth in the competition.
England vs Wales
England’s winning run creaked up to fifteen following their narrow victory against France at Twickenham, although there were alarming problems within the side that Eddie Jones will be sure to stamp out before their travelling to Cardiff on Saturday. England just seemed to lack that cutting edge that has made them so ruthless over the past year. They didn’t get into a rhythm, and the quick movement of the ball from the ruck that England were so effective at last year was simply not there last weekend. There task for this week is twofold. They first need to overcome their own issues and then the psychological barrier of playing in Cardiff. England’s recent record at the principality stadium has been patchy at best, with wins in 2015 and 2011 being the highlights. At the other end of the scale, a harrowing, title-snatching 30-3 win in 2013 will still be on the mind of several of this England camp.
Their opponents on Saturday are having issues of their own. Wales were on the ropes for the first hour against Italy, and were only really able to pull away once Andrea Lovotti was sin binned in the second half. Rob Howley needs to find a way of making his team play the way they did in the second half throughout the match. Unfortunately, doing so requires picking a team based on form and not past achievements, which is something Howley doesn’t seem to want to do.
For Wales the big debate is at flyhalf, with Dan Biggar coming under huge pressure from Sam Davies, who’s quick footwork released George North for his try in the second half. Howley has opted for the experience of Biggar, but may have his hand forced should Wales lack a spark in the backs. In the front row, Rob Evans and Thomas Francis get the nod for the starting prop spaces. Taulupe Faletau is on the bench and may come on as an impact sub later on.
For England, Jack Nowell replaces Jonny May on the wing and Jack Clifford comes in for Tom Wood at 7. England’s back row is an inexperience affair, with Maro Itoje, Clifford and Nathan Hughes only recently breaking into the international setup.
England will hopefully be looking to return to the kind of form that saw them go through 2016 unbeaten. This means urging this young back row to set up the platform to get the ball out quickly from the ruck. England were sorely missing Billy Vunipola at the weekend, and it is his ability to provide such a strong platform for Youngs that is the key ingredient, Hughes, Itoje and Clifford will need to step up in this regard. For Wales, they need to spark some life into their backs. I mentioned above that Sam Davies was able to coax a much stronger performance out of the Welsh backs against Italy, and it is that same creativity that Wales will need throughout the game against England if they want to put a stamp of authority on their title credentials. If they can play with the same intensity as they did against Italy in those last twenty minutes then Wales could be in with a chance of spoiling England’s party. However, Eddie Jones will have grilled his players over last week’s performance and they will be hungry for the opportunity to improve and stretch that winning run even further.
France vs Scotland
Based entirely on last week’s matches, the only genuinely top class team in the tournament was Scotland. They showed fantastic flair to take the lead against Ireland and showed true determination to get over the finish line after Ireland clawed their way back into the game in the second half. That win takes them to three in a row and firmly establishes Scotland in the top 8 of the world rankings. Their opponents this weekend are France, who despite their loss against England looked much sharper than at any point in the last six years. They will also look to their record against Scotland as a source of hope. Despite losing last year’s fixture at Murrayfield, France have beaten Scotland on the ten previous occasions. The match being played in Paris may be a crucial factor in France’s favour.
Tactically both teams will be looking to move the ball quickly across the field. Scotland will try and avoid the scrum, the one area that they were completely outclassed in on Saturday, and should instead focus on bringing all of the backs into the game. The Scottish intensity was what took them into a commanding lead against Ireland, and it is that intensity that needs to be rekindled in Paris. The target for Scotland will be to maintain that intensity for the entirety of the match, as they have an unfortunate habit of switching off for around ten minutes in every game, which allows the opposition the opportunity to bring themselves back into contention.
For France, they should persist with Baptiste Serin at scrumhalf. He added a certain creativity that France have been lacking for some time, and Les Bleus would be wise to capitalize on this. France’s strength has to be in their wings. Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci are in good form and if France want to inflict damage they will need to move the ball quickly to the wings before Scotland can organize themselves. Against England, France were able, on occasion, to have a certain unpredictable free-flowing style that would be good to see throughout the match. France must also be wary of their precarious position in the world rankings. With the World cup draw just around the corner, no team wants to be in that dreaded ninth position and a convincing win for Scotland on Sunday would see France drop below Argentina, opening up the possibility of a ‘group of death’ scenario for Les Bleus.
If this Scotland side want to reinforce the statement that they are the best Scottish team since the title winning 1999 side, then they are going to have to do exactly what that team did – win an away match in Paris. France however, look to be turning a corner, and if they can tap into some of that creativity that was on display last weekend then this could be a fantastic display of expansive attacking rugby.
Photograph: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay via Flickr