Six Nations: Round Four Preview

After a week off, the Six Nations returns this weekend, and with plenty to play for, it promises to be an exciting round of rugby. I’m here to run the rule over the weekend’s fixtures as we head into potentially one of the most exciting rounds in Six Nations history.

Italy v Wales, Saturday, 14:15

Wales travel to Rome seeking to avoid the wooden spoon, a fate they haven’t suffered since 2007. Italy’s dramatic improvement has enriched the tournament, but their entertaining approach has yet to be rewarded with victory. Italy pushed Ireland close, their intricate attacking plays causing the Irish defence numerous problems. The Azzurri’s attacking ambition has won them plenty of admirers, but Saturday sees them shedding the underdog tag, and it will be interesting to see how they cope with a greater level of expectation. Ange Capuozzo’s injury is a significant blow; the jet-heeled fullback’s ability to captivate numerous defenders at once is a crucial aspect of Italy’s attacking play. Capuozzo is a world superstar, and his absence would lessen any side.

But Italy’s threats run deeper than Capuozzo, as demonstrated by the cohesive nature of their attack against Ireland. Their back row has been particularly impressive; Lorenzo Cannone punctured the Ireland defence with several rampaging runs, while Sebastien Negri has been equally eye-catching. Italy will play with their customary pace and ambition on Saturday, and you feel a fast start will be crucial against a Wales side low in confidence. Italy’s victory in Cardiff last year sparked something of a revolution, and winning on Saturday would represent the next step.

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It’s been a wretched tournament thus far for Wales, mired in a myriad of off-field problems. Pay disputes briefly threw their game against England into doubt, and understandably, considering the chaos; you could forgive the Welsh players if their focuses lay elsewhere. You can’t doubt the motivation or commitment of the Welsh players, but the issues consistently surrounding their game must be draining. However, Wales’s on-field performances have been poor, lacking clarity and direction, much like their Union. Gatland has chopped and changed his side to no avail, and it will be interesting to see how he chooses to counter the high-tempo Italians.

While Italy’s attack has flourished, Wales’s looks bereft of confidence and cohesion, clunky and lateral, lacking any incision. Wales must do more to get their most potent attacking weapon, Louis Rees-Zammit, on the ball. Italy’s defence showed some frailty in the first half against Ireland, and Wales’s forwards need to step up as ball carriers and give their backline some momentum to work with. On a positive note, Wales’s discipline was significantly better against England, but they will need to kick better on Saturday, as Italy will be happy to attack from deep. Saturday represents a huge moment in Welsh rugby. Defeat would deepen the misery, while victory would provide a much-needed lift.

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England v France, Saturday, 16:45

England welcome France looking to keep their slim title ambitions alive, both sides seeking victory to keep the pressure on Ireland. England suffocated Wales with the accuracy of their kicking game and the intensity of their defence, but they will need greater imagination to defeat France. Seemingly, Steve Borthwick agrees, with reports surfacing that Marcus Smith will line up at fly-half, replacing captain Owen Farrell. England’s attack was reasonable against Wales, but they will need to be sharper to unlock Shaun Edward’s defence. It would be a bold move from Borthwick, but it may be a decision partly driven by Farrell’s struggles off the tee in Cardiff.

Selecting Smith suggests Borthwick wants England to play at a higher tempo, with less emphasis on kicking. Smith ignited Harlequins’ backline in their win against Exeter after being released to get some minutes under his belt. Smith is the main man at Quins, and if England are going to pick him, they must give him license to play. France’s defence is patient, and England can expect a greater battle at the breakdown than they did in Cardiff. Borthwick would have noted France’s struggles against Scotland’s line-out drive, an area where England found some success against Italy and Wales. England will also need to replicate the defensive excellence they displayed in Cardiff, but they can expect a sterner test against a goliath French pack.

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France haven’t been at their thrilling best, but they still pose a significant threat. They demonstrated their clinical edge against Scotland in the first half, ruthlessly taking their opportunities. In their victories against Italy and Scotland, France flew out the blocks but fell away dramatically in the second half. England may quietly fancy their chances if it can withstand the inevitable early pressure. Mahamed Haouas’s ban, alongside Uini Atonio’s, leaves France looking bare at tighthead, an area Ellis Genge will be keen to exploit. France have a woeful record at Twickenham, their last win at HQ coming in 2005, but this French side is different. They may not have fired on all cylinders yet, but they have shown the character and resilience of champions, while their ability to conjure scores out of nothing makes them a constantly dangerous proposition.

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Scotland v Ireland, Sunday, 15:00

In a weekend of tantalising encounters, Scotland’s clash against Ireland tops the bill. Scotland will be looking to derail Ireland’s slam ambitions and boost their own title hopes. Despite their defeat in France, confidence is running high, and victory on Sunday would represent a golden moment in Scottish rugby’s history. Gregor Townsend would have been heartened by the problems Italy’s high-tempo attack caused Ireland, an approach Scotland will look to replicate. However, they must be more accurate than they were against France, where they left several points on the field.

Scotland must defend better than they did in the first half in Paris, shipping three tries in the opening twenty minutes, forcing them to chase the game. Ireland are notorious for their fast starts, and if Scotland are to stand a chance of winning, they’ll need to come flying out the blocks on Sunday. Finn Russell’s game management will be equally as crucial. He pulled the strings beautifully against France in the second half, penning the French back with his kicking game, but was guilty of some over-ambition in the first half. Ireland will be wary of the threats in Scotland’s back line, with Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe in red-hot form. Scotland’s pack needs to provide front-foot ball and allow Russell to play at pace.

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However, in Ireland, they face the masters of the breakdown, and the likes of Josh van Flier will relish slowing up the Scottish ball. Ireland’s intensity at the breakdown is unparalleled, and they know if they can stop Finn Russell from getting a platform to play from, their chances of winning are greatly enhanced. Ireland showed some small signs of fallibility against Italy, but ultimately they showed the grit of champions to secure victory. They have been ruthlessly efficient in attack all tournament, and their clinical edge proved the difference against the Italians.

Ireland are also bolstered by the return of several key players. Tadhg Furlong’s return is especially timely after Finlay Bealham went off injured in Rome, the prop’s dexterous handling skills as proficient as his scrummaging prowess. Jonny Sexton is also in line for a return, as are Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw. It will be interesting to see if Farrell throws Henshaw straight back into the side. Despite his lack of game time, Henshaw and Ringrose’s partnership has been crucial to Ireland’s rise to the top. Henshaw’s defensive capabilities could be key against the double threat of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones. Ireland are the best side in the world for a reason, but they face a huge challenge on Sunday in what promises to be a thrilling match.

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