Round three of the 6 Nations takes place this weekend with the Championship delicately poised. This is a key match day for all the teams – a victory and the championship is still within reach (apart from Les Blues, mon dieu), but lose, and suddenly the dreaded wooden spoon looms ever closer. Can England continue their winning run at home to a wounded French side? Will Wales now kick on after stopping their horrendous run of form against a lacklustre France? Perhaps the most intriguing tie is Scotland vs Ireland; two evenly matched teams with some exciting runners, a debutant a fly half, one the most exciting full-backs in the northern hemisphere. It promises to be a good weekend (weather permitting).
Italy vs Wales
The Italians pulled off the surprise of the tournament against Les Tricolores on the opening weekend but I just can’t see them doing it again without the suspended ‘captain marvel’ Sergio Parisse. Italy are far from a one-man team, but his influence is so omnipresent that the Azzuri will be severely weakened by his absence (think Steven Gerrard with Liverpool). Against Scotland the Italians had a lot of possession and territory, but didn’t quite have that final pass to unlock the Scottish defence. I suspect Orquera’s performance against France was an anomaly, and true to form (or lack of), he was back to his lacklustre best 2 weeks ago. If he doesn’t turn up (metaphorically) Italy will find it hard. I think they have the forward power to compete, but Wales showed against France that they can grind out a victory with determined defence and the Welsh have a (marginally) more talented back line. They start with the same XV that beat France – why they don’t start with James Hook bemuses me because their backs are crying out for some creativity. A midfield of Roberts and Davies has about as much subtlety and craft as Brian Moore’s commentary. Ultimately, Wales have the more talented players so I expect an attritional match with plenty of kicking and the defence to dominate (I can’t wait). Wales by 5-8 points.
England vs France
France. What is going on? Les Bleus used to embody flair, throwing the ball around with gay abandon and outwitting opponents with their superlative skill, elusive running, and magnetic handling. Against Wales, it was like watching 15 drunken vaches wandering aimlessly around a field, occasionally charging at the wall of red matadors in front of them. The French were dreadful. They had absolutely no game plan. Not even the merest hint of subtlety. No cheeky inside passes. No outrageous dummies. Nope, just shove it up your jumper and try and blast your way through the defence. I despair. You’re FRANCE! You don’t lose matches because you’re worse. You lose because you were eyeing up the jolie fille in the stand and forgot to defend. You lose because you were discussing Descartes with the full-back over a café-crème and missed the team bus. You lose because you decided to run the ball from your own dead-ball line and the ballsed it up. Merde. But at least they tried to play rugby. Not anymore. France used to be entertaining – even more when they lost. But now I feel sorry for them. Sorry? For the French? Sacre bleu. How times have changed.
The French opted to play a power game against the Welsh – any old muppet could have told you that’s Wales’ strength. If you’re going to play Basteraud, maybe just once use him as a decoy? At least they’ve got Vincent Clerc back from injury, who makes playing rugby look like a stroll down the Seine on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Parra and Trinh-Duc are back together. Fofana is back in his favoured centre position. Sunday’s team look a bit more like the France of old, which could spell bad news for England. Their back row especially will have to be on form to stop Dusatoir and co. dominating the breakdown.
But England have home advantage and also a settled team. Tuilagi in for Twelvetrees is a good call to negate Basteraud. Lawes for Haskell is interesting – he can cause havoc in the loose and is another lineout option. And England have two world-class scrum-halves to call upon. Overall, England to win quite comfortably, but something deep inside me, and I’m very ashamed to say, wants a France victory. The 6 nations needs a strong French side. Maybe Saint-Andre can inspire his team to play like once he did in scoring that famous try at Twickenham 22 years ago.
Scotland vs Ireland
This is a tough one to call: two exciting sides with some relatively inexperienced players in key positions. Paddy Jackson’s call-up instead for his debut instead of Ronan O’Gara seems like sheer madness but he has played in big matches before (2012 Heineken Cup Final) and offers a lot more of a running threat than O’Gara does. Declan Kidney could have pulled off a masterstroke. But test rugby is that bit more intense that club rugby; he will have less time to kick, pass, and make those split-second crucial decisions. It’s certainly a baptism of fire.
Scotland seem rejuvenated since Andy Robinson’s departure. It could simply be the fresh approach Scott Johnson is adopting, but they are playing a much more expansive attacking game. To my eyes, Johnson has simplified their play and given the players licence to express themselves. With Robinson, you always felt that he was one dropped pass away from exploding, and that seemed to translate to his team. They were almost trying too hard, because they knew that he’d bollock them if they cocked up. An attitude of fear is not conducive to a successful rugby team. Trust is key; under Johnson, once they get over that white line, Scotland are now backing themselves and trusting each other. They also happen to have, for me, the player of the tournament so far in Stuart Hogg who is playing himself very much into contention for this summer’s Lions squad. He offers a threat all over the field, especially on the counter-attack and indeed from that point of view he reminds me of a young Iain Balshaw. Hogg is certainly a match winner and Ireland will have to be wary of his attacks from deep.
This match will be decided on the half-backs. At his favoured scrum-half position, Greg Laidlaw has played a major part in the Scots’ resurgence; his elusive running and accurate place-kicking have been particular highlights. His partnership with Ruaridh Jackson could well tip the balance in the home side’s favour. They have a good on-field understanding which Conor Murray and Paddy Jackson have yet to try, and with a passionate Murrayfield willing them on, I think the Scots will just edge this one.
David de Winter