Ireland v France, Saturday, 14:15
Dublin is the stage for Saturday’s blockbuster as the top two sides in the world meet in what promises to be a seismic clash. It’s a shame it’s being played so early in the tournament, as the result will likely have huge implications on the championship. Last year France flew out the blocks in Paris, and though Ireland fought back hard, they ultimately paid the price for their sloppy discipline. French fly-half Romain Ntamack believes Ireland are ‘comfortably favourites’; perhaps a hint of mind games? Home advantage helps, but this French side has shaken off the Gallic stereotype of being poor travellers.
Ntamack’s comments may be driven by the clinical way Ireland dispatched Wales last weekend. It was an impressive display from the Irish, but head coach Andy Farrell will know his side will need to produce a full eighty-minute performance to beat the French. Ireland’s attack looked in good shape, with the green light on Jonny Sexton’s fitness being a huge plus in that area; the veteran conducted proceedings with his usual aplomb in Cardiff. Ireland will suffer from the absence of Tadhg Furlong, with Finlay Bealham arguably facing the biggest game of his career on Saturday. Ireland’s defence was similarly excellent last week, able to quell any Welsh momentum with several timely interventions. Ireland’s defensive system is supplemented by excellent individual decision-making, as demonstrated in James Lowe’s intercept try. However, the French attack will pose a significant challenge, with greater variety and imagination to their play.Embed from Getty Images
France somewhat stuttered past Italy in the end, hampered throughout by their ill-discipline, something they will have to rectify if they are to stand a chance in Dublin. In Shaun Edwards, they have arguably the finest defensive guru in the game, and I can imagine there have been some uncomfortable review sessions this week! France showed flashes of their attacking flair against the Azzurri, with Ntamack creating two of the tries with a pair of sublime crossfield kicks, but their handling wasn’t at its usually slick standard, and they will need a greater level of accuracy to break down the Irish defence. The French may quietly fancy themselves at the scrum, where they may look to target Finlay Bealham. The set-piece battle will be pivotal, and the French will need to gain parity at the very least.
The sides differing approaches should make for a fascinating contest. Ireland’s attack is built on patience, wearing down the opposing defence with a blend of power and precision, often looking to overload the blindside. France’s defence is similarly patient, happy to concede possession and force a mistake. The French are lethal in transition, something we didn’t see last week. Their counter-attacking potential makes the kicking battle especially crucial, an area of traditional Irish strength, with full-back Hugo Keenan a masterful presence in the air. I would expect a lot of kicking on Saturday, especially early on, where it may resemble more of a chess match. I also expect France to be more proactive at the breakdown, as Ireland showed how devastating they can be with quick ball. Speed of ball is vital to how both sides want to play, and Ireland will fancy themselves to disrupt France’s flow through the likes of Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony. Clear-out efficiency will be crucial, and in James Ryan, Ireland have a maestro in that area. The game will likely hinge on who has the lower penalty count, and for that reason, I’m backing Ireland to win.Embed from Getty Images
Scotland v Wales, Saturday, 16:45
Saturday represents a must-win game for Scotland if they are to turn their promise into something more substantial. The Scots have never won their opening two Six Nations games before, and Saturday represents a golden opportunity against a Welsh side lacking in confidence. There’s an excitement bubbling around Scottish rugby after their excellent display at Twickenham, but can they handle the expectation? Wales will need to improve on their display against Ireland, but they will be buoyed by their good record against the Scots, whom Warren Gatland has never lost to. The Welsh will relish their tag as the underdogs on Saturday, and if they can build upon the good aspects of their performance against Ireland, we could have a closer game than initially anticipated.
Scotland’s win against England was built upon being clinical, identifying opportunities and displaying a refreshing ruthless streak. There was an ambition to Scotland’s play, typified by Van der Merwe’s sublime try, but they were clever in choosing when to play, picking their moments effectively. Scotland played at their usual fast tempo and will look to replicate this on Saturday, especially considering the Welsh pack has some ageing legs. Wales, conversely, need to be less hesitant; they carved out opportunities in Cardiff but lacked any cutting edge. They also struggled with their discipline, something they will need to iron out if they are to stand a chance on Saturday. Defensively they need to replicate the intensity they showed in the second half when their line speed was much better, and they were able to slow down the Irish ball as a result.Embed from Getty Images
The set piece will be a close battle, with Scotland potentially bolstered by the return of Zander Fergurson. Scotland’s scrum went reasonably well against England, while the Welsh’s looked a little creaky. I’d expect Wales to target the breakdown more after being relatively passive against Ireland; they will want to disrupt the Scottish tempo and not give Finn Russell too much quick ball to play with. Attacking-wise, Wales should look to get Rio Dyer involved as much as possible, the wing looked lively last week, and it was good to see him coming off his wing, hungry for work. Wales need their forwards to step up as ball carriers on Saturday, as they have some potent weapons in their back line if given the right platform. I expect Scotland to play with a similar width to last week and stretch the Welsh defensive system. Wales will need to kick carefully, as Scotland’s back three carries a significant counter-attacking threat. Likewise, the Scots should be wary of kicking too much to Liam Williams, who looked in excellent form against Ireland. I’m backing Scotland to win, but I think it will be tight. Write off Wales at your peril.
England v Italy, Sunday, 15:00
Despite the optimism surrounding their defeat against Scotland, England will feel slightly under pressure ahead of facing Italy on Sunday. With difficult assignments to come, Steve Borthwick will be keen to get a win under his belt and build some confidence in his side. Italy represent an even slipperier banana skin than before after their impressive display against France, and they will travel to Twickenham in good spirits. The Azzurri played some exciting and ambitious rugby last week, and England must be wary of any complacency. Arguably, this is the most confident Italian side to ever travel to London. England should remain positive, though; you feel a fast start will be crucial in helping them quell any Italian optimism. The longer Italy stay in the game, the more uneasy England will get.Embed from Getty Images
England showed some heartening ambition in their play last week, with a clear desire to play at pace. There was a much-welcome intensity in the carrying of their forwards, with their props, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler, back to their best in that respect. However, the Smith/Farrell axis continued to pose more questions than answers. Jack van Poortvliet often seemed confused as to which one to pass to, and you wonder if it’s the case of both men used to bossing the show at their respective clubs. Both are fantastic rugby players but, understandably, are used to pulling the strings. There were some signs of cohesion, but England were shorn of power in the midfield due to playing the pair of them. England’s defence also needs improvement, shipping four tries and falling off too many tackles, an area Kevin Sinfield will be determined to rectify.
Italy need to marry their greater ambition to a higher level of accuracy. They showcased some sophisticated and intricate attacking structures against France, which, if executed at higher precision, could cause problems to an English side still bedding in its new defensive systems. Italy looked stronger in the second half against France when they reigned in some of their elaborate phase play and allowed their forwards to carry some hard yards. If Italy can get their decision-making right on Sunday, they have the propensity to cause England problems. One area Italy has to improve upon is dealing with restarts; they were woeful at exiting their own 22 last week and shouldn’t allow England to garner some easy points and grow in confidence. Despite the Italian’s resurgence, I still expect England to win by around ten points.