So I arrive at this week’s fixtures with a 2 out of 3 record having failed to anticipate a win for the Italians over pre-tournament favourites France. This week’s games are all difficult calls for a variety of reasons. It would be no surprise if either team won any of the three games whilst would a draw from one of the games be a total surprise?
This is what the Six Nations should be! This is a return to a competition where all teams have a realistic chance of winning their fixture on each weekend. Of course that doesn’t make it any easier to predict but here goes..!
Scotland v Italy
I’ll start with the weekend’s first game at Murrayfield where last Sunday’s result in Rome made this weekend’s game a whole lot tougher for the Scots. If momentum is a crucial factor in having a successful championship then Italy must fancy their chances of securing their first ever back to back wins in the Six Nations. The big question is: “Having delivered a stand out performance in week one to beat France, can they repeat the level of performance six days later away from home?” Was it a one off or are the Azzuri now capable of producing the required intensity on a regular basis. Last Sunday’s game will have taken a lot out of the players both physically and emotionally and this may be the deciding factor. Scotland worked hard at Twickenham and scored two nice tries but in reality they were never in the hunt to win the game. However, they were not expected to win at HQ and this may mean they are fresher mentally than their opponents come game time. I expect Scotland to have more in reserve come the final quarter and I think this will see them home. They are two well matched teams but I feel the home factor allied to last weekend’s heroics may take its toll on the visitors. My key man for the Scots is fly Jackson. He took some poor decisions under pressure last week and will need to show greater composure to ensure he puts Scotland in the right areas of the field to pressurise the Italians. For Italy to win they will again need their ageing pack to gain the upper hand. A barometer of this will be the performance of the props Le Cicero and Castro who are both at the veteran stage. If they can set the tone by repeating their intensity of last week then Italy will be in business.
It will be tight but I think we will see the Scots win by 5-7 points.
France vs Wales
For the match in Paris, literally anything could happen. Will we see a backlash from the under pressure French? Will we see a continuation of last week’s second half performance from the under pressure Welsh? Or will the pressure mean that we see a turgid, conservative display as both teams revert back to basics with an emphasis on mistake free rugby? Or will both teams just decide to give it a go and we end up with yet another Parisian classic between the two? Whilst the opening 20 minutes are always important in any test match, they will be crucial at the Stade de France. Wales have started poorly throughout their 8 match losing run. If they hand the initiative straight to Les Bleus tomorrow evening then it will be a long 80 minutes for the Welsh. However if Wales can buck the trend and get ahead in the opening 20 then the notoriously impatient French fans could quickly get on their own players backs. I’ve changed my mind a couple of times on this one but in the end the head has to rule the heart and I will go for a French win. Key man for France will be Michalak who must give his team the shape, direction and urgency that was so lacking in Rome. Wales will target him and want to cut down his options. For Wales, the changes would seem about right and one of the new additions Hibbard will be key. Tipping the scales at 18 stone he has to bring his physicality as part of a pack effort particularly in the opening quarter. He also has to ensure the creaky Welsh set piece stands up to the occasion.
I think there will tries and mistakes a plenty but France to win by 10-12 points.
Ireland vs England
And finally to the last game of the weekend in Dublin. The result of this game will go a long way to deciding who eventually wins the title. The bookies can’t split them but I think England will win and win with something to spare. In Cardiff last weekend the Irish played clinical rugby for 45 minutes before allowing Wales to throw the kitchen sink at them. The 176 tackles, two sin binning and various bumps and bruises will have taken a lot out of the men in green and with a short turnaround it could be crucial factor in this weeks result. England were comfortable in their win over Scotland. Yes there would have been some bumps and bruises but having played most of the game on the front foot I think they will have used somewhat less energy overall. I think the English pack will have too much for their hosts and if they can secure quick ball than they should be able to impose themselves territorially. The only issue I can see is whether this English team (like others in the past) will fold under under both the pressure of expectation and the cauldron like atmosphere of the Aviva Stadium. I think the England management are too shrewd for this and will have learnt the lessons of previous English trips to Dublin. I think England with key man Tom Wood leading from the front will get a role on up front and put enormous pressure on what is a new look Irish pack. For Ireland, Sexton must be able to use his possession wisely and not be panicked if they don’t see plentiful ball. His decision making will be key as if Ireland play too much in their own half they will give England the opportunity to take three points and build their game.
I will take England to win by a more comfortable than it sounds 9 points.