As the championship resumes after a fortnight’s break, the competition now heats up, with arguably the most decisive round of games in this year’s tournament to come this weekend. With each game providing an interesting sub-plot to this year’s competition, who will kick-on to take vital momentum ahead of the final two rounds?
The first game of the weekend provides a chance for both Italy and Scotland to get their first wins of this year’s campaign as the two nations go head-to-head at Murrayfield. While both sides have suffered defeats in the opening rounds, the nature of these defeats has been very contrasting. Scotland have shown definite signs of improvement so far under new coach Vern Cotter, suffering narrow defeats to France in Paris in Round One, before losing to Wales in Edinburgh last time out. The fact that Scotland have scored three tries in their opening two matches shows the impact Cotter has had in getting his side to play a more adventurous style of play that has seen Scotland come close to causing upsets in both their opening matches. Despite this, Scotland must sort out their discipline if they are to be successful. With Scotland losing a man to the sin bin against both France and Wales, Cotter must ensure his side hold their nerve and do not over-commit at the breakdown, to avoid conceding needless penalties which has cost them so far this year. For Italy, beaten comfortably in Rome by the reigning champions first up before being swept aside by England in Round Two, the omens do not look good. Although they managed to keep themselves in the game for long periods against the English with a much-improved attacking display, their defence remains a huge problem having shipped eight tries in their opening two matches. The absence of Martin Castrogiovanni through injury is a massive blow for Italy while Scotland also will have to do without key players, with Richie Gray (injury) and Finn Russell (suspension) missing out. Despite this Scotland still go into this game as heavy favourites given their form and home advantage and it will take a big performance from Italy to leave Scotland with a win in the bag.
To Paris, where France and Wales meet, both knowing defeat is not an option if they are to win this year’s competition. With both sides having won one and lost one respectively so far this year, both sides know that realistically a win is a must if they are to keep up with Ireland and England at the top. However, with both sides having not played to their full potential so far this year, this one is tough to call. Having lost to Wales in their last three meetings, Phillipe Saint-Andre will be desperate to gain his first victory over the Welsh at the fourth time of asking. Having given Ireland a good battle in the last round, France will be confident that with a home crowd behind them, they can get their campaign back on track. For Wales, a narrow but deserved win over Scotland in the last round, got their championship up and running, and Warren Gatland will be keen to build on a solid attacking performance that was helped by a superb defensive effort from a forward pack led superbly by the likes of Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones. Gatland will however be looking for a better set-piece having had problems with both the scrum and line-outs in their opening matches so far. The return of Samson Lee to the pack is crucial for Wales with Scott Baldwin, Luke Charteris and George North also coming into the side, and with France also making several changes, the match is anyone’s to call.
Finally to Dublin, where the only sides with 100% records in this year’s tournament meet in what is starting to look like a Championship decider. Ireland go into the game as slender favourites off the back of a nine-match unbeaten run spanning nearly a year, and with the advantage of playing in front of their own fans. Joe Schmidt’s side have yet to light up the tournament as they did as champions last year, but they have shown their credentials having won both opening games without playing their best rugby. A comfortable if not convincing victory over Italy was followed up by a narrow victory over the French in a brutal match at the Aviva, which leaves the reigning champions in a perfect position to defend their crown. As for England, Stuart Lancaster’s side have arguably looked the most impressive side this year, having overcome Wales in Cardiff despite having key players missing through injury, before eventually overcoming Italy at Twickenham – with a six-try victory showcasing their attacking ability. As well as this, England are the last side to have beaten Ireland having overcome them in a gripping test match in last year’s Six Nations. The match is likely to be decided by the two outstanding fly-halves, George Ford and Jonny Sexton. With Ford having been instrumental in the victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium and Sexton returning from a long injury lay-off to inspire Ireland to victory over the French, both players will be desperate to marshal their sides to a victory that may lead to the title.