We have reached the middle weekend of the Six Nations championship, and at this stage there are two teams with 100% records, another two who’ve won and lost a match each, and two who are yet to get off the mark win-wise. It’s a weekend with potentially huge implications for the destination of the trophy, and where we’ll find out a little more about each of the top four teams. Are France as good as their demolition of England suggests? Are Ireland over their miserable World Cup? Are Wales the finely-tuned machine that thrashed Italy, or the mess that shipped four tries in Dublin? And are England at the end of their Eddie Jones road?
There are two other teams involved, and they are in direct competition both for the Wooden Spoon and in the weekend’s opening match. Scotland’s trip to Rome will kick the weekend off, and the team that loses this encounter will find itself bottom of the table with three games played – and worse than that, their easiest game very firmly behind them. So we’ll get our preview off to a start by focusing on these two, and the potential fallout from their lunchtime outing.
If at first you don’t succeed, try scoring a try?
160 minutes into this season’s Six Nations, and Scotland are still awaiting their first try of the competition. They haven’t played badly as such, but in scoring just twelve points in Dublin, then six at Murrayfield against England, the Scots have lost the ability to cross the opposition line. The weekend’s match against Italy should be the ideal time to put that record right, but bad habits are hard to break. It’s also not going to have gone unnoticed that in the final game of last season’s tournament, Gregor Townsend’s men ran in five tries, four in the second half.
What’s different this year? For one thing, the absence of Finn Russell. The maverick fly-half has a knack for seeing scoring passes and running angles that defy physics. While it’s unfair to current Scottish 10 Adam Hastings to suggest he’s the weak link, another game without attacking penetration will lead to huge questions being asked about the dispute between player and management which has seen Russell sit the tournament out.
Italy, for their part, rebounded from an opening 42-0 thrashing by Wales to put in a far better performance in Paris, eventually losing 35-22. They come into this game as underdogs, but have three more tries than their opponents in the competition, and also benefit from home advantage. Scotland probably merit being favourites, but a worthwhile bet would be Italy (+4.5) at 13/10 with Unibet – these sides have met 10 times in Rome in this competition, each has won five, and they’re always close.
Are Wales the new France?
It’s been a cliche in rugby for so long that its cliche-edness has become a cliche: you never know which France will turn up. So far in this tournament under new head coach and former captain Fabien Galthie, however, les Bleus have been generally excellent – crushing England underfoot for a good hour before Jonny May single-handedly put a sheen in the scoreline, then repeating the dose against Italy a fortnight ago.
Tomorrow’s opponents Wales, on the other hand, burst out of the blocks against Italy and stayed gone, but fell right back to Earth a week later as Ireland delivered a barely better than average performance to win 24-14. Wayne Pivac has a hard act to follow given Warren Gatland’s long and successful helming of the Welsh ship; it would be little surprise if the first Six Nations under a new coach turned into a foot-finding mission, but Pivac has gone for the most experienced line-up in the nation’s history for this weekend’s game, so they’ll be expected to perform to a high level.
Wales start the match as favourites, but there’s every reason to expect that France can keep their run going. This is a French side that’s very impressive with ball in hand, and which has mastery of the dark arts in the pack. Flanker Charles Ollivon has been one of the standouts of the competition so far, and is 7/4 with Betway to captain his nation to a third win in a row.
Farrell vs Farrell: Family ties to be tested at Twickenham
Andy Farrell was never much of a player in the 15-man code, whatever anyone might tell you. He was superb in rugby league, but his greatest contribution to the playing side of union was in fathering Owen Farrell; a far more complete exponent of this form of the game. One thing that can’t be denied about Farrell Sr.’s late-career conversion is that it has given first England, and now Ireland, a coach with plenty of ideas and an increasingly impressive CV. Tomorrow, he will lead the Boys in Green for the first time against the country that raised him, and the son that he raised.
Ireland have been largely pedestrian in winning their opening two fixtures at home against Celtic brother nations Scotland and Wales – but win them they have, and they arrive in London with four points more than their hosts. They do, however, show up without lock Iain Henderson, who missed a pair of crucial training sessions as his wife gave birth to a son. Leinster’s Devin Toner subs in for the Ulsterman, but it’s a big loss for the visitors to wear.
England have been far from phenomenal so far, and Eddie Jones – never the most avuncular coach in the game – has come across increasingly as though he could gladly walk away from the job at any time. However, with a back row of some ferocity and an opponent that’s yet to be seriously tested, they’re probably the most likely winners tomorrow. Even with Ben Youngs back in the scrum-half berth, we’d narrowly favour them to win. There aren’t any great odds available on the identity of the winning side, but if you pick Jonny May to score the first try, he’s 6/1 with 32Red and by far the outstanding candidate.