Six Nations Preview: Round 3

Erik Olsson: Patience is not a virtue I am known for among my friends. A week-long break smack in the middle of the Six Nations sounds to me as sensible as leaving a can of beer in the fridge of a boozer. Really, it is not. Although Super Rugby XV has only partially quenched my thirst for rugby in its initial phase of the Southern Hemisphere season, nothing beats international rugby at its very finest.

Impatiently, I have been looking forward to the upcoming third round ever since the fixtures were revealed. At this point, there is so much at stake for all of the teams involved. Scotland host Italy in the first match of the weekend. Both teams find themselves on zero points after round two and I cannot see how the loser of this one can avoid being the unfortunate recipient of the ‘Wooden Spoon’ at the end of March. Moreover, Wales are travelling to Paris to take on France. A loss here would be the end to any of the sides’ challenge for the title. Following this, comes the clash of the titans, as England are facing Ireland in Dublin for what looks to be the title decider, and even a Grand Slam decider in my opinion. We are up for a tremendous weekend of test rugby, ladies and gentlemen!

Scotland v Italy, Saturday 2:30pm

Illtud Dafydd: Neither Vern Cotter nor Jacques Brunel’s sides have registered a win in this year’s Six Nations Championship and the fixture on Saturday afternoon could well decide the winner of the Wooden Spoon. Italy have only once won in Myrrayfield, 8 years ago, and since joining the Championship in 2000 have claimed 11 wins in 15 years. In 2000, they won their opening fixture in Rome against Scotland and their prop that day, Massimo Cuttitta, is now Scotland’s scrummaging coach.6nations

Italy’s current first choice prop, Martin Castrogiovanni will miss the trip to Edinburgh as a friend’s dog bit his nose and the Argentinian-born ‘Castro’ has received 14 stitches to his nose.Sergio Parisse, the Azzuri’s captain is set claim his 111th international cap, which will see him join Marco Bortolami as Italy’s most capped player. The half-backs remain the same since the 30-point loss to England, despite Kelly Haimona wasting many a point off the boot. there are debuts for centre Enrico Bacchin and winger Gio Venditti, both based in Italy and under 23. Cotter’s biggest change from the defeat to Wales two weeks ago is Finn Russell, the Glasgow Warrior was banned following a dangerous tackle on Wales’ Jon Davies and his team-mate, Peter Horne is named at fly-half for the first time in the thistle jersey. Blonde-haired Richie Gray is injured so Tim Swinson comes in for himand Euan Murray is back for this Saturday as he missed the Wales match due to religious reasons. Ben Toolis and Hamish Watson will make their debuts for Scotland if they come off the bench. Watson, born in Australia and a former volleyball player in his teens, qualifies for Scotland through his mother.

Prediction: One of two ‘deciders’ this weekend. Haimona needs to kick his goals or Scotland will win well.

Erik Olsson: It is going to be physical, really physical. In the days leading up to the match, Vern Cotter has consistently urged Scotland to ‘roll up its sleeves’ if they are to overcome a team that is physically bigger, yet technically inferior. Cotter has undoubtedly added a few much-needed dimensions to the Scottish gameplan in his first few months in charge of the team. The Autumn Internationals indicated a resurgent side with energy, style, and enthusiasm. These are all elements we have seen so far in the Six Nations. Scotland has enjoyed substantial periods of possession, but the majority of it has been within their own half. The positive transformation from previous years has not translated into points so far in this year’s championship. If Scotland have any aspirations whatsoever of qualifying for the last eight in the World Cup, they need to start building momentum and that starts by beating Italy on Saturday. It will take a monumental defensive display to keep Luca Morisi, Sergio Parisse, and the hard-hitting Italian forwards at bay for the first half. If Scotland succeeds in doing so, I cannot see how Jacques Brunel’s side is to overcome a Scotland on the rise.

Prediction:Scotland to win here by twenty.

France v Wales, Saturday 5pm

Illtud Dafydd: Les Bleus haven’t beaten the men in the scarlet jerseys since that 2011 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final in Auckland and have not scored a try against Shaun Edwards defensive line since that year’s Six Nations either. Wales won last time out in Paris, mainly as George North crossed in the corner and his father joined him on the field to celebrate the touchdown. Wales need to win to keep their Championship hopes alive and Phillipe Saint-Andre needs to get France, both the population and press back on his side, the main reason behind the 5 changes he’s made to his starting fifteen (or quinze départ).

Brice Dulin and Sofiane Guitoune fill in for Scott Spedding and Teddy Thomas in the back-line to add some pace and spark, and Remi Lamerat comes in for Mathieu Bastareaud who almost claimed the man of the match award in the loss against Ireland two weeks ago. Lamerat, said during the week that he does not enjoy watching the Welsh backline. He plays for Castres and is far less of a selfish player than the former Massy and Satde Francais centre, so Wesley Fofana more posession, but that problem should be resolved by the final change in the backline, Morgan Parra for Rory Kockott. Kockott does not even get a place on the bench, with Sebastien Tillous-Borde back. The only change in the pack is forced, Pascale Pape serving a 10-week suspension is replaced by Romain Toafifenua who moves up from the bench. George North is back and Alex Cuthbert loses out after Liam Williams’ lively performance in Edinburgh for Warren Gatland. Five of the 23 man matchday squad ply their trade in the Top 14, and Jonathan Davies will come up against his Clermont team-mate, Wesley Fofana on Saturday night. Samson Lee is back, and Racing-Metro’s Luke Charteris replaces Jake Ball with Scott Baldwin in for Richard Hibbard, possibly a ploy to correct the recent lineout mish-haps.

Prediction: France were as physical as they ever have been under PSA last time out, les XV du poireau (The Leek 15, it’s a thing, I know…) will have to match up, Jamie Roberts could have a big part to play in his adopted capital city. Too close to call, a winner by 2 points. C’est l’heure pour PSA de montrer sa capaciét comme entraineur, avec la physicalité francaise, Jamie Roberts pourrait avoir un enorme role dans sa nouvelle ville. Un match serré, victoire par 2 points.

Erik Olsson: Predictably, unpredictable. There is no better way to characterise the French rugby so far in the Six Nations. In terms of Philippe Saint-André’s team selection it is consistently inconsistent. He has suddenly opted to replace one of the best French players of the tournament, Mathieu Bastareaud, with the Castres centre Remi Lamerat. I do have a feeling that Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies were both surprised and slightly relieved when Saint-André announced his team a couple of days ago. At the same time, it was with great relief I learned that Morgan Parra is finally back in the XV for the clash against Wales. His brief display against Ireland showed a playmaker full of confidence and with the required skill and composure to take France to the next level. There are not many fly halves nor scrum halves that can dictate the tempo of the game in the same manner as Parra when he is in form. If France are to triumph against Wales on Saturday they will need Parra at his very best.

As the French coach announced his team for the upcoming fixture, he faced a number of questions about doping revelations dating, as far back as three decades, published in L’Express. No matter what seems to happen with the French team on or off the pitch, Saint-André tends to be at the very heart of it. As an admirer of the traditional French rugby with backs and forwards willing to attack from anywhere at any point, I do hope this game will be remembered for its brilliance and intensity and not for the lack of discipline as we saw with Pascal Pape two weeks ago. Wales did not impress against Scotland and will struggle in Paris.

Prediction: France to win by nine

Ireland v England, Sunday 3pm

Illtud Dafydd: In what has been dubbed the ‘Dublin Decider’ in Irish press, England travel to the AVIVA looking for fourth consecutive win over Ireland, in which the winner will most likely take the Championship title come March the 21st. In what will be the tie of the round, and probably the most watched sporting fixture of the weekend, Ireland come off a physical win over a tough, rough and battering France as Stuart Lancaster’s chariot thumped Italy, thanks to a big surge around the hour-mark.

Jordi Murphy for Jamie Heaslip is the only change in Joe Schmidt’s team, Heaslip suffering from back injury caued by a Pascal Pape knee. Paul O’Connell wis set to claim his 99th international cap, and will surely hit the century against Wales in two weeks’ time. Robbie Henshaw and Jarred Payne pair up once again in the centre, they will need to be wary of Jonathan Joseph defensively and will need to offer some offensive threat so to take the pressure of their wingers. For England, Mike Brown misses out through concussion and Saracens full-back Alex Good deputises, Jack Nowell comes in on the left wing too. Chris Robshaw will continue to captain and top’s the Six Nations tackling charts with 13 tackles.

Prediction: Youngster George Ford comes up against one of world’s best out-halves in Jonny Sexton, Jack Nowell could be put under pressure by the Leinster ten too. The scrum could also lead to a team getting an upper-hand, Ireland by three nonetheless.

Erik Olsson: Grand Slam or not. This is set to be the biggest game of the weekend as England travel to Dublin to take on the reigning champions who are looking to win their first championship in the post-O’Driscoll era. Much of the focus in the national media leading up to this game has been on the tactical brilliance of Joe Schmidt. In little more than a year, Ireland has won the Six Nations and defeated South Africa and Australia to move up to third in the World Rugby Rankings, and been twenty-seconds away from beating the All Blacks. He has been hailed as the best coach in Europe and the ‘grandmaster of playing rugby like chess’ (The Guardian). The Irish pack and work-ethic passed their exam against France in the previous round. Whether Schmidt’s analytical skills and tactical genius is enough to overcome an England team on the rise and win back-to-back championships has yet to be seen though. There is much more than bragging rights at stake in the upcoming fixture. Two teams with the same ambitions regarding this year’s Six Nations and the World Cup are going head-to-head in what promises to be an intense and entertaining match in Dublin. A classic Sexton kick to Tommy Bowe who crosses for a late try will seal the game in Ireland’s favour.

Prediction: Ireland to win by six