Six Nations Round Three Preview

Italy v Ireland, Saturday, 14:15

Italy face the daunting prospect of welcoming a rampant Ireland side who emphatically cemented their status as the world’s number one side with a superb victory against France in round two. Italy come into the fixture off the back of successive defeats to France and England, respectively, though there is still an air of optimism circulating the Azzurri. The margin of defeat at Twickenham was wider, but Italy demonstrated some of their newfound attacking prowess in the second half. Sadly, the first half saw them comprehensively outmuscled and bullied by the English pack, which won’t have escaped Andy Farrell’s notice. Italy’s promise needs to be delivered across the whole eighty minutes if they are going to get anywhere close to troubling Ireland.

Italy’s greater ambition and adventure has been exciting to watch, but they must exercise caution against the green wall. They were guilty of overplaying in the first half at Twickenham, wasting energy going nowhere. Italy will need something special to beat Ireland, but they must pick their moments to attack and balance their attacking desires with territory and field position. The Azzurri’s set piece stuttered at Twickenham, something they will need to iron out ahead of Saturday; otherwise, Ireland could seriously hurt them. Discipline will be crucial for the Italians; gifting Ireland easy territory would be tantamount to rugby suicide, such is their efficiency in the red zone. But Italy mustn’t be afraid to play. They will need to be at their most creative to unlock the Irish defence, but they must pick their moments carefully.

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For Ireland, Saturday is all about their professionalism, and there will be no hint of complacency from this Irish side. Ireland will likely seek to replicate and enhance England’s first-half performance against Italy, using relentless physicality to batter them into submission. I expect Ireland to kick a lot and invite Italy to play from deep, seeking to pin them in their own half and force mistakes. Ireland will be missing Tadhg Beirne and probably Jonny Sexton, but Dan Sheehan and Cian Healy are available again. Ireland’s strength of depth is hugely impressive, but Farrell will pick his best side, seeking to continue his side’s momentum. The ruthless nature of this Irish side could make it a long afternoon for the Italians.

Wales v England, Saturday, 16:45

Wales versus England is normally one of the Six Nations’ most anticipated fixtures, steeped in rivalry and with a rich history. However, the game has taken a back seat this week as the future of Welsh rugby dangles on a thread, as months of mismanagement and mistreatment led to the players threatening to strike. The match was only confirmed as going ahead yesterday, with some headway made in the protracted negotiations. Quite understandably, the players’ minds have been elsewhere, but Warren Gatland has assured that his players will be ready for Saturday’s fixture. Despite their recent woes, if you offered Gatland any fixture, England at home would be top of the list. The visit of the English often unlocks an elevated level of performance in the Welsh players, as they feed off the feverous atmosphere of the crowd.

The off-field furore has detracted from Wales’s defeat against Scotland, where their discipline was once again poor, and their attack looked clunky. The lack of training time won’t have helped iron out issues with their attack, but Gatland will hope that the unity his players have displayed this week can be harnessed on the field. If Wales are to win, you feel it will come from an emotionally driven performance rather than through sheer quality. Gatland’s side are fresh and frustrated, a combination that could be fruitful come Saturday. The potential return of the electric Louis Rees-Zammit provides a timely boost, but Wales will need a performance that encompasses the full eighty minutes to have a chance of victory on Saturday.

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The drama enveloping Welsh rugby has allowed England to slip under the radar ahead of the weekend, and you won’t find Steve Borthwick complaining. England’s performance against Italy was an improvement, with the intensity of the defence excellent, and Jack Willis’s monstrous performance was a big plus. But you still feel there is more to come from an attacking sense, and hopefully, the week off has allowed Jack van Poortvliet and Owen Farrell an opportunity to hone their partnership. England will want a fast start on Saturday to try and quiet the crowd and stop the Welsh from building any momentum. Similarly, their discipline will be critical, this is a Welsh side low in confidence, and England should seek to deny them easy territory and points. England haven’t travelled to Cardiff as overwhelming favourites in a long time, but they need to be wary. The Welsh players will be chomping at the bit to restore some pride.

France v Scotland, Sunday, 15:00

France will be seeking to bounce back from their defeat against Ireland swiftly. It has been a long time since the French have tasted defeat, but this French side is made of stern stuff, and the Gallic capitulations of the past have been banished. France didn’t perform badly against Ireland, but they struggled to have significant spells of possession, especially in the second half. The loss will have stung the French, but a raucous home crowd might be the antidote they need. France have only shown glimpses of their potential thus far and will see Sunday as an opportunity to remind everyone of their considerable talent.

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For Scotland, confidence is riding high, their comprehensive win over Wales giving them consecutive victories in their opening two games, a feat they had yet to achieve. Arguably, Scotland has yet to show their full potential, and they will need an eighty-minute performance to win in Paris. Scotland’s potency in attack has been particularly impressive, with a new-found clinical edge and a backline bristling with confidence. Scotland’s forwards must front up physically on Sunday and give Finn Russell a platform to play with. The fly-half produced a virtuoso performance in the second half against Wales, but the French players will be well aware of his threats from watching him week in and week out in the Top 14.

Scotland will seek to play with width and tempo on Sunday, seeking the softer edges on the outside rather than taking the French on through the middle. But their forwards need to punch some holes to generate some momentum, especially against the patient French defence. Scotland will need to be wary of kicking loosely, as Damian Penaud’s blistering try in Dublin demonstrated France’s razor-sharp counter-attacking abilities. Equally vital will be the set piece battle, an area where Scotland have gone well so far, with Richie Gray providing a reassuring presence at the line out. Sunday’s fixture has the potential to be a cracker with the amount of attacking talent on display. Can Scotland pull off something special? Or will France reclaim their mojo?

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