Six Nations Round Five Preview

Six weeks of blood, sweat, and drama has boiled down to one question. Can Ireland seal the Grand Slam? Considering their recent omnipotent form and England’s decimation at the hands of the French, the signs are overwhelmingly in their favour. But rugby’s a strange game, and the Six Nations is rarely straightforward. It has been a richly entertaining championship, deserving of a thrilling finale, but only France can derail an Irish party. I’m here to run the rule over the weekend’s offerings.

Scotland v Italy, Saturday, 12:30

Scotland need to close out the championship with a convincing win after their recent disappointments against Ireland and France. They may not be ready to beat the best in the world, but Scotland have shown they’re not too far off, and defeat on Saturday would throw a black cloud over what’s been a good tournament. Scotland will be without Finn Rusell and Stuart Hogg, leaving Gregor Townsend with a slight dilemma; in Blair Kinghorn, he has the perfect man for both positions, but where does he put him? Munster fly-half Ben Healy could make his debut filling Russell’s sizeable shoes, with Charlie Savala called into the squad as cover. Russell’s absence would lessen any side, and Scotland will suffer from losing his and Hogg’s considerable experience and leadership.

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Saturday is far more than a development fixture for Scotland, but Townsend will see the benefits in seeing how his side copes without the talismanic Russell. Squad depth will be crucial at the World Cup, and Saturday represents an opportunity for Kinghorn and Healy to lay down markers. Scotland head into the match as favourites, and if they can replicate their first-half performance against Ireland, they should see off the Italians reasonably comfortably. Italy will seek to match the Scots’ high-energy game plan, and Townsend’s players need to be wary of letting the game get too loose. Scotland should take note of the success Wales’s line speed had in the first half last week, shutting down the Italian’s space and forcing errors. Scotland are more than just Finn Russell, and Saturday provides an opportunity to display that. If they can show the accuracy they did against Wales and England, they should win.

For Italy, defeat against Wales dented some of the optimism their recent impressive performances had built. Last Saturday represented an opportunity missed, and the Italians will be desperate to end the championship with a victory. Their defeat against Wales largely stemmed from their own inaccuracies and tendency to shoot themselves in the foot, and if they continue in a similar vein at Murrayfield, the Scots will be more than obliging. Italy’s ambition and adventure is hugely entertaining, and they’ve shown they can cut the best defences in the world to ribbons at times, but they need to be savvier.

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Finn Russell’s absence is a bonus to Italy, but they will have to defend much better than against Wales, where they were guilty of falling off too many tackles. Attacking-wise, they were able to carve open the Welsh defence on several occasions, but Scotland’s defence will provide a sterner test, especially considering the seemingly telepathic link Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones have in midfield. Italy will also be wary of the strength of the Scottish maul, an area that was their undoing at Twickenham. Regardless of the result, it has been an encouraging championship for the Italians, and a win on Saturday would enrich that feeling.

France v Wales, Saturday, 14:45

France know exactly what they need to do on Saturday, secure a bonus point win and hope England can do them a favour in Dublin. With respect to Wales, the first part of the job should be fairly easy based on their performance at Twickenham last week. France delivered one of the greatest-ever Six Nations performances last week, brutally putting England to the sword. It was an astonishing display, combining brutal physicality, scintillating attacking play, and razor-sharp speed of thought. If France replicates their Twickenham heroics, it could be a long afternoon for Wales. Following such dizzying heights can be difficult, and France must be wary of complacency against a Welsh side with nothing to lose.

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Wales produced a gutsy performance in Rome last week, securing a well-deserved victory in what has been a challenging tournament on and off the pitch. Welsh rugby is facing a myriad of problems off the field, creating a constant cloud over their players, but beating Italy restored a sense of pride. It’s difficult to judge Wales’s Six Nations considering the disarray the players have had to deal with, but last Saturday provided some glimpses of encouragement towards the World Cup. Realistically, Wales are miles off where Warren Gatland would like them performance-wise, and a trip to Paris against a rampant French side presents a mammoth challenge. Equally, they have nothing to lose.

In Rome, Wales finally showed the clinical edge they had been lacking all tournament, and they’ll need to be equally as ruthless if they are to stand a chance on Saturday. Gatland will know all too well how strong the French defence is, and Wales will need to show greater creativity if they are going to pull some punches. Wales simplified their attack against Italy, gaining some success running hard off nine, but they will need to be accurate with their clearouts as France will target the breakdown hard. Rhys Webb’s excellent kicking was crucial to their victory, and he will need to bring similar control; England found out to their peril what happens when you kick loosely to France. Wales need to try and stay in the game as long as possible. France’s recent victories have stemmed from blowing teams out of the water early doors.

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Ireland have exhausted all superlatives in this championship; their efficiency and execution unmatched. It’s difficult to bet against them sparking an almighty St. Patrick’s weekend party by beating England and sealing the slam. Ireland would have headed into Saturday’s game as favourites regardless of England’s performance against France. They are in a class of their own, and there’s no danger of complacency with this Irish side. Confident, never arrogant. They will be missing some big names after a brutal encounter at Murrayfield, but Ireland have shown injuries are just another hurdle to overcome. For Ireland, the task is simple, perform anywhere near their potential, and they will be lifting the trophy.

Can England be the party poopers? Humbled at Twickenham last week, they should arrive in Dublin liberated. The only way is up, right? The nature of England’s defeat has led to the usual over-the-top debates regarding the structure of English rugby, their inability to produce world-class players, and the nature of the Premiership. Not that such debates aren’t without merit, but England played poorly and were destroyed by a side that played to its full potential. Steve Borthwick would have spent the week working on areas that England can fix, and admittedly there are many. England were battered at the breakdown last week, an area where Ireland reigns supreme, and Borthwick’s men need to be cuter and more accurate.

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England will need to bring a greater intensity in attack and defence. The forwards must be flying around the corner, looking to punch holes, and crucially stay on their feet as long as possible to eliminate Ireland’s threat at the breakdown. Defensively, they need to recapture the tiger they showed in Cardiff, albeit they will face a far more sophisticated attack. Early reports suggest that Owen Farrell will be recalled at fly-half, with Manu Tuilagi patrolling the midfield in place of the injured Ollie Lawrence. Borthwick will hope Tuilagi can replicate the powerful performance he produced when England last won in Dublin.

England’s fly-half position has become the hot topic this week, with Farrell, Smith, and George Ford all being touted as likely starters. Dropping Smith would be harsh, essentially making him a scapegoat for a bad team performance, and suggests muddled thinking in the England camp. Whoever starts, England will need to kick with greater accuracy and purpose at the weekend, with Ireland’s back three in sizzling form. I would expect some shuffling in the pack, with the arrival of George Martin in the squad as a replacement for Ollie Chessum suggesting Borthwick wants some heft on the blindside. England’s forwards will be chomping at the bit to atone for last week, and hopefully, they can channel this positively and keep their discipline. England should view Saturday as an opportunity to restore some pride and spoil a Grand Slam party- something they have often been the victim of.

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