We move into Round 4 with the 6N tournament the most open in years. Four teams can still win the tournament but after this weekend there could realistically be only two still with championship aspirations. Our Director of Rugby and resident 6N blogger has so far correctly predicted 7 of the 9 games played and is looking to better his record of 12 from 15 last year. Thus to set a new best he will have to be 100% accurate for the last two rounds. So the pressure is on as he provides this week’s predictions.
Ireland vs Italy
I’ll start with what should be a home banker. Ireland remain in the driving seat for the Championship courtesy of their strong points difference despite their defeat at Twickenham. For them it is all about putting themselves in the best position for their trip to Paris in the final round. They will therefore want to increase their point’s difference from +41 by around a further 20 or so to make their sole focus winning in Paris to take the title. If you recall last season’s tournament, England faced Italy in Round 4 but didn’t put sufficient distance between themselves and Wales to secure the title. With the other two games likely to be close, Ireland do not want to put in a sluggish performance and grind out a narrow win. Italy will have lost confidence from losing to Scotland and this looks like a tough afternoon. I expect Ireland to come out with renewed intensity and will win by 18-25 points.
Scotland vs France
Winning breeds confidence and Scotland will be buoyant after Weir’s last minute heroics in Rome. Their selection again looks more assured with Gray, Beattie, Brown and Denton starting in the pack although I think they could have also brought Cusiter into the starting XV after his introduction last week brought impetus to their play. France are in disarray. They have lost three of their best players in Fofana, Nyanga and Picamoles to injury and suspension and the selection of a lock at blindside suggests their “blunt object” approach will continue. Overall no one is really sure what France are actually trying to do on the pitch so answers on a post card if you think you’ve worked it out. Perversely, France know that two more wins could actually give them the championship. Whilst that would be typical France, I’m not sure they really if they know this. Scotland will come out with more of a swagger but sport can be a cruel mistress and I think that somehow France will find a way to win. Scotland may improve further in defeat but France have added some Clermont Auvergne know how in the back row and with Macheneud at half back adding more pace I think they will scrape a win. France by 6.
England vs. Wales
I usually get slaughtered for my comments on this fixture whichever way I go (from England and Wales fans alike and my Mam!) so where to begin? What we do know is that the losers at Twickenham can kiss goodbye to their title aspirations for this year. Both teams have final day fixtures in which they will feel they can win with something to spare and apply pressure to Ireland who play last in Round 5, so this is the definitive game. The teams are of opposites in many ways. Inexperienced England against a multi cap Welsh XV. England have been on a sharp upward curve in their three games whilst Wales have been inconsistent in the championship to date. Then there is the evolving style of England against the tried and trusted “Warrenball” approach of Wales.
There is of course the recent history to take into account. Wales have won three on the trot including a big win last time out. England have not scored a try against Wales in their last three encounters whilst Wales have not always found Twickenham to be a happy hunting ground. The individual match ups across the board look mostly even but their do appear to be some crucial battle areas that will go a long way to deciding the result. Gethin Jenkins versus David Wilson at scrum time looks a key area. With Roman Poite refereeing (the man who did the 3rd Lions test in the summer) a scrum with the positive edge is likely to be rewarded. It’s fair to say Ireland were on top at scrum time two weeks ago and Wales will want to reinforce the supremacy they at the scrum 12 months ago. Billy Twelvetrees versus Jamie Roberts also looks key. Roberts ball carrying is a massive part of Wales approach and they will target Twelvetrees to find out if his defence has improved. However I think the key match up is at No. 10. Both Farrell and Priestland can blow hot and cold and lose their heads in the heat of battle. I’m amazed that Wales have not picked the cool headed Dan Biggar to start. Farrell has injected pace into the English back line this season by playing flatter but again as he showed in an undisciplined shoulder charge against Ireland, he can let emotion get the better of him.
At this stage in each teams’ respective development I believe that man for man Wales are the better team. They have the big game players who have proved in the 6N and on the Lions tour that they can do the business when required. But do they have the emotional and energy reserves to play their energy sapping game to the required intensity to win this Sunday? Ireland showed that if you get your line speed on the front foot and beat Wales to the reset (and hence win the gain line battle) then it is possible to quickly takes the legs out of Wales. After a gruelling non stop 18 months for much of the Welsh team I wonder what they have in reserve.
For England it is about coming out to play their game. Similar to Wales they use a big carrier in midfield to get them going forward. They then want to keep players on their feet and have quick phase play by committing the minimum number of players to the breakdown. If they can do this then they retain numbers and width to stretch Wales and keep options on both flanks. They must start well to ensure that they have truly moved on from their humbling of last season. If they do then confidence will grow. I also think they will have more in the tank so if the game does come down to the last quarter, then I think they will be the stronger finishers of the two teams.
So it’s going to be a case of head over heart. England are fresher and playing the more consistent rugby and I feel the Twickenham factor and the motivation of revenge will give them an edge over Wales who I fear are playing on empty. England to win by a more comfortable than it sounds 7. (Sorry Mam!).