With just two rounds of fixtures left to go in this season’s Six Nations championship, the stakes are raised once again this weekend with some championship-defining fixtures. First up on Saturday, reigning champions Ireland will look to restore some pride to the emerald jersey by securing their first victory of this year’s tournament against Italy in Dublin. The action then rolls on to Twickenham for a potential title-deciding match between the only remaining unbeaten teams of England and Wales, before Round Four comes to a conclusion in Edinburgh where Scotland will look to build upon their recent victory in Rome as they face a French side still vying for this year’s championship. Although the tournament has so far failed to capture the imagination of rugby fans, with some scrappy games and little quality seen, this weekend’s matches could be the perfect setting for the tournament to finally explode into action.
England v Wales
Without a shadow of a doubt, the game of the weekend. Sitting pretty at the top of the table after three wins, Eddie Jones’ men go into this fixture knowing that victory over their neighbours from across the Severn, will not only secure a second Triple Crown in three years but will also take them one step closer to an elusive Grand Slam. However having fallen at the final hurdle in their Grand Slam pursuits in recent times (2011 & 2013), you can guarantee that the coach and players will leave talk of a potential Grand Slam to the fans especially with their most difficult fixtures to come over the next fortnight. Having come in following the dismal World Cup showing, Jones has slowly but steadily restored England’s fortunes, going back to the basics of a good strong defence. With just one try conceded in three matches, England have the best defence in this year’s tournament due in no small part to stellar performances from the likes of Dan Cole, George Kruis and the emerging star that is Maro Itoje. Following a gutsy win at Murrayfield in Round One, England cut loose in Rome a week later where signs were beginning to show that the Ford-Farrell midfield axis may flourish, before they once again showed their defensive resilience to withstand Irish pressure and break through their defence to score two tries in the space of ten minutes to seal a hard-fought victory. Opponents Wales have had a mixed tournament despite the fact that they remain unbeaten with two wins and a draw from their three games. Warren Gatland’s side have failed to click so far in this tournament with below-par victories over Scotland and France in Cardiff to go with a disappointing 16-16 draw against an injury-ravaged Ireland in Dublin. For a side that pride themselves on their defensive game, Wales will be disappointed with conceding tries in each of their three games, and defensive coach Shaun Edwards will be expecting much better at Twickenham. Despite this, Wales are in a solid position to go and win the championship and winning when you are not playing at your best is usually a good omen. Although collectively as a unit Wales have failed to ignite, Gatland will be encouraged by the performances of individuals such as Jamie Roberts, George North and Taulupe Faletau, as well as the excellent scrummaging seen by young Prop forwards Rob Evans and Samson Lee. If Wales are to return from Twickenham triumphant they will need a repeat of their excellent defensive effort against France, where led by captain and man-of-the-match Sam Warburton they withstood severe pressure in the second-half. Looking ahead to the match, England will start as slender favourites given their recent form and home advantage, although Twickenham will hold no fears for this Welsh side having secured a famous victory there in last year’s World Cup. That defeat is likely to fire up an English side, who whilst improving with every game played under Jones remain vulnerable. With the exception of the last 30 minutes in Italy, England have struggled to get their attacking game moving despite possessing dangerous runners such as Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson in their back-line. The same could be said for Wales who themselves have struggled to break through as a team, instead relying on the individual brilliance of the likes of North to get their tries. Always a tight match usually decided by the side with the best defence, this contest is likely to be decided by the players up-front with some key individual match-ups such as Evans v Cole, Jones v Kruis and two of the players of the tournament in respective No. 8’s Vunipola and Faletau.
Ireland v Italy
After securing two titles in his first few seasons in charge, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland come into this stage of the championship in unfamiliar territory, looking to secure their first victory of the tournament in their fourth game. Depleted by injuries to key players such as Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson – along with the retirement of Paul O’ Connell – Ireland have struggled to get their usual game firing, having suffered defeats to France and England along with a draw in their opening match against Wales. After a somewhat encouraging performance (given their injuries) against Wales, Schmidt will have been disappointed to see their title hopes evaporate in Paris and then London, with both games seeing Ireland miss crucial opportunities that would have seen them leave with the points in the bag. Those fine margins have cost Ireland this year as instead of fighting for the title they look to restore pride against the bottom side Italy. The Azzurri have once again struggled having lost all three games so far this year, and with trips to Dublin and Cardiff to come are staring down the barrel of the Wooden Spoon. Having played so well and come within a successful drop-goal of securing their first championship victory on French soil in their opening match, the Italians have failed to kick on with convincing home defeats to both England and Scotland leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table. Once again they remain over-reliant on skipper Sergio Parisse – never more evident than against France when he took on the responsibility of trying to win the match with a optimistic drop-goal effort. They continue to do this despite possessing talented players such as Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto, and whilst they remain so reliant on Parisse they are unlikely to move forward as a team. Given the two sides’ respective form this may prove to be the game with the least quality, but with Jonny Sexton starting to look like his old self again expect Ireland’s power at home to lead to a convincing victory.
Scotland v France
Another game with possible championship-winning ramifications, as Guy Noves’ France will look to keep their title hopes alive with victory at Murrayfield, against a Scotland side renewed with confidence following their first win in ten Six Nations matches. Having secured that elusive triumph against Italy in the last round, Vern Cotter’s side return to Edinburgh desperate to make it two consecutive wins. After narrow defeats to England and Wales, Scotland showed their attacking intent in Rome racking up three tries in a convincing 36-20 victory. With the attacking instincts of Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and the excellent Stuart Hogg starting to flourish, Scotland suddenly look like a much more dangerous outfit. Allied to that the contributions from forwards like WP Nel, the Gray brothers and John Hardie, and it is not inconceivable to see Scotland – with good time – becoming more of a force in the Six Nations. For their opponents France, despite having a new coach it is same old problems. Incredibly they come into the final two rounds still in contention for the title, following slender and perhaps undeserved home victories over Italy and Ireland in the opening rounds. The same old struggles on the road saw Wales comfortably dispatch Les Bleus in Cardiff, with captain Guilhem Guirado one of the only players to come out of the match with any credit to his name. Arguably France’s biggest flaw in this year’s tournament has been the selection of their fly-half. Jules Plisson remains a talented prospect but the young outside-half has once again been found wanting at this level where his mistakes have gifted the opposition chances. The final straw may have come with his pitiful display under the lights in Cardiff, with the more experienced Francois Trinh-Duc ready to come in to provide a greater balance and maturity to this French side. Given the state of this current French side, Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw will be confident his side now have the attacking swagger to punish France, along with the defensive resilience to stop the French danger-men in attack.