6 Nations Round 5: Preview


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Four teams can still, mathematically, win the Six Nations Championship. Realistically, three teams have that chance. If England, Ireland and Wales all win, it will come down to points difference.

Super Saturday just became the superlative of Saturdays.

Italy v Wales, Saturday 12:30

Warren Gatland and his red army of tackling brutes and high ball experts travel to Rome with dreams of a Championship still intact, after a physical and heart-beating win over their Celtic cousins last weekend. The Azzuri, after that last-gap vistory in Edinburgh, lost at home to the unimaginative French, Jacques Brunel’s men even failing to notch a single point on the Stadio Olimpico’s scoreboard.

This Saturday is the Stadio Olimpico in Rome’s final international fixture, before the Azzurri return to their traditional home at the Stadio Flaminio,  the site of Italy’s most recent triumph over Wales in 2007. Since then, Wales’ winning margin has been over 10 points in every game, apart from in 2009. To win the championship, Wales need to beat Italy by at least 26 points to better England and Ireland’s current points difference. Meanwhile, Italy are looking for a positive way to end this year’s Championship, which has seen Kelly Haimona being trusted with the outside-half jersey and Sergio Parisse win his 100th cap.

Parisse will not feature on Sunday due to a foot injury; he is replaced by Fijian-born Samuela Vunisa, who has made an impact off the bench in earlier fixtures. Leonardo Ghiraldini takes up the captain’s armband, his Leicester team-mate Michele Rizzo coming in alongside him. Experienced Andrea Masi partners 5-time capped Luca Morisi, who already has two tries to his name this championship.

Warren Gatland’s only two changes are forced. Rob Evans and Aaron Jarvis come in for Gethin Jenkins and Samson Lee; Lee could well miss the World Cup in the Autumn, too. Despite scoring the all-important winning try last Saturday, Scott Williams will be on the substitutes bench. Jamie Roberts, seemingly key to Wales’ game plan, will also be dropped. Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb have undoubtedly been chosen as Wales’ best half-back pairing, with Mike Phillips dropping out of the matchday squad altogether. Scarlet Gareth Davies could well come off the bench to win his second cap, his inclusion proof that Gatland is aware of the need to score points. Prediction: Wales to win by 30 points

Scotland v Ireland, Saturday 14:30

Last weekend saw the Irish dream of a Grand Slam diminish into Cardiff’s blue sky, mainly due to an ill-disciplined first quarter of an hour that saw Leigh Halfpenny score four penalty goals. The Irish press and rugby population were left devastated, but the dream of retaining a Championship for the first time since 1949 remained, a big feat nonetheless for Joe Schmidt’s side. Scotland, on the basis of results, have disappointed, the hope from their opening fixture in Paris and the encouraging Autumn Series seeming to have disappeared. Last weekend’s result at Twickenham would have been even more embarrassing, if Stuart Hogg hadn’t been as defensively sound, and James Haskell had learned to pass a rugby ball correctly.

Lion Ryan Grant starts for Vern Cotter’s side, and 21-year old Adam Ashe comes in at blindside. Wellington born Blair Cowan is one of the rare Scotsmen to feature in all five Six Nations fixtures. Greg Laidlaw captains the team from scrum-half. Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy come in for Ireland, as Simon Zebo is dropped from the 23 altogether after a quiet display in Cardiff. Fitzgerald, a Lion himself back in 2009, played in his last 2 years ago, when Ireland lost in the final minutes to New Zealand. He has a point to prove, having seemingly been in the abyss of test match rugby for over 18 months. Ireland need to score, and score well, but they have not won convincingly in Edinburgh since the 2005 40-13 win. Prediction: Ireland to win by 12 points.

England v France, Saturday 17:00

Le Crunch to the Championship.

Saint-Andre head to England, after scoring 29 unanswered points in Rome last weekend, without Camille Lopez. Not having won in the English capital since a 2007 World Cup warm-up fixture, England are in pole position. They sit top of the table, with superior points difference and are the only team who are still in contention to claim the trophy who play at home. The original trophy will be at Twickenham, not Edinburgh or Rome, on Saturday.

Exeter-bound Geoff Parling is the only change to Stuart Lancaster’s starting lineup, Bath second row Dave Attwood is out of the 23 altogether. Jonathan Joseph, the tournaments top try scorer with 4 tries, continues to partner Luther Burrell. Their partnership will surely come to an end once Manu Tuilagi returns to fitness, when the Northampton man Burrell is likely to be dropped. James Haskell has not been able to translate club form onto the international stage, considering the Aviva is such a competitive league, but Billy Vunipola fully deserves his number eight shirt. George Ford continues to impress, and goes head-to-head against Jules Plisson, both of whom were their nation’s under-20s fly-half in the 2011 World Championship. Ford went on to win Player of the Tournement. Plisson finally outmuscles Morne Steyn for the starting jumper at Stade Francais.Vincent Debaty, the 34-year old Clermont prop, is in for the agile but injured Eddy Ben Arous. Loann Goujon keeps the number eight jersey as Damien Chouly is on the bench, the other option being Louis Picamoles, the Toulouse number eight drafted into the training squad just in case during the week. Noa Nakaitaci gets the nod on the left wing for his second cap, and Mathieu Bastareaud is still kept on the bench, as Gael Ficko and Maxime Mermoz’s chances were limited last week.

This French side seem to be in tatters. Comparisons have been made to the team which reached the 2011 World Cup Final, the team who rebelled and ripped-up Marc Lievremont’s playbook. Rumours are PSA could suffer the same fate. The hardest fixture of the weekend to call; if France put up a fight, it will be a huge one, but they might keel over. Prediction: England to win by 5.

Winners Prediction: Ireland to win the Championship, just.