And then there was only one….
France failed to maintain their 100% record as they drew with the Irish in the re-arranged game played last Sunday. Both teams will have thought they could and perhaps should have won but in the end the draw will probably have pleased the Irish more than the French. So that leaves Wales as the only potential Grand Slam winners as we head into the fourth round of games.
First up is Wales against Italy and with respect to Italy this should be a comfortable home win. Italy fell apart in the second half in Dublin and with seven changes in selection and the captain saying this is a game they cannot win, then a confident home side should be looking at this game as a “fine tuning” exercise ahead of the French game in Cardiff the following week. Wales will want to see a couple of key players hit their straps though with both Priestland and Roberts feeling the heat from in form rivals. Italy will be looking to play their slow methodical forward game to try and subdue the Welsh but the Azzurri’s inability to keep an intensity of perfromance for 80 minutes will mean that Wales should be looking for a 25+ point winning margin.
In Dublin it’s a meeting of two sides who will feel that they have under achieved in the competition to date. Hence a win is everything to both sides but for different reasons. Ireland will think two wins from their final two games will be enough for a possible second placed finish whilst the Scots will be desperate to have something on the board before their final round game against Italy. Ireland are without O’Connell to go with the missing O’Driscoll whilst scrum half Murray is also now injured. Sean O’Brien is a late withdrawal and he is replaced by the emerging O’Mahoney. (That’s a lot of O’s perhaps the most since the last rendition of O Sir Jasper…).
Much interest will centre on whether the new Irish openside brings a better balance to the Irish attack and whether the returning Reddan at scrum half provides a quicker service to get the Irish backs away. Scotland will feel that they don’t have enough to show for some worthy efforts but they retain a settled look about their selection. Scotland looked much better in attack against France and a further enforced change this week sees De Luca (who impressed off the bench against France) return to the midfield with Lamont (S) moving to the wing. I think this game will be very tight and is particularly close to call. I’m going to suggest that home advantage and a stronger goal kicking presence will see Ireland home but I don’t think it will be by much.
In Paris, we have a team who are buoyed by their display in defeat against a team under pressure after a draw. England took plenty out of the game against Wales and now have an attacking game (of sorts) to build on. The ball carrying of Tuilagi and Morgan will again be important but it is now time for second wave of English attack to show itself. The likes of Croft, Barritt and Robshaw must ensure that the phase play matches what was delivered from the set piece against Wales. Selection is always an issue that brings much discussion and to my mind England are wrong to carry Messrs Stevens and Youngs on the bench despite having discarded Messrs Flood and Lawes. Neither is in form and both contributed to England losing momentum from the bench rather than gaining it last time out. Should this be an issue again then the calls for the likes of Sharples, Simpson-Daniel, Marlar, Waldrom to be there for impact will grow louder.
The French selection has a panicked air about it despite only two changes having been made. The selection of Dupuy and Beauxis suggests France will look to grind out a win based on field position and a game plan centred on the kicking skills of their new half back combination. The French will target the English scrum for signs of weakness and the game suddenly has an air of role reversal from what has been the norm in these encounters for the past two decades. England will want to attack and move the ball whilst France will use the power of their pack and a kicking fly half to grind the visitors into submission. How times change! This is a difficult one to call. The pressure is all on France and if England can get a lead then the Parisian crowd will heap further pressure on Les Bleus. Can England back up their physicality of their performance against Wales or being still a new side will there be a learning blimp that manifests itself in a reduced level of performance? I’ve changed my mind twice so far but now having to make a decision I will again suggest that home advantage is the key factor. But only just…!
But as always these are only my thoughts. What do you think will happen? Let me have your comments below.