The Six Nations reaches its penultimate weekend with one team still unbeaten and only one with no chance of winning the title. Every team has something to play for as the contest enters the final stages.
Scotland v Wales
The weekend opens with two sides who had very good results the last time out. Scotland made the most of their opportunities to beat an Irish side who were bedevilled by poor decision making and a lack of leadership, whilst Wales had a surprisingly easy victory over an Italian team who were well below par.
The Scots are unlikely to make too many changes after that victory, in which their resolute defence was more responsible for their success than anything they created in attack. Tight head prop Euan Murray returns after missing the game for religious reasons and Alastair Strokosh is back after the facial injury sustained on the opening weekend, whilst Dave Denton – who has been disappointing in the tournament anyway – is out through injury. Other than that the match day 23 should be largely the same.
Wales, too, will stick to the same side that strolled to success in Rome, which will mean no starting place for former captain Sam Warburton. A third successive away win will keep them in contention for the title and set up a showdown with England in Cardiff next weekend.
When it comes to placing your sports picks, this is a close game to call, with a tremendous battle between the best two sets of loose forwards in the competition. I expect Scotland to just edge it, but not by many, at betting odds of around 9/5.
Ireland v France
Ireland have reacted to their horrible performance against Scotland by dropping veteran fly half Ronan O’Gara and prop Tom Court from their squad of 32. O’Gara’s omission is not exactly a shock, as his club form has been poor, but with first choice Jonathan Sexton still doubtful with the leg injury that caused him to miss the Scottish game Ireland could be forced into this vital fixture with two inexperienced players in the pivotal role on the pitch.
On the bright side for them, prop Cian Healy returns from suspension to shore up a pack which creaked against the Scots, but with so many injuries and so many experienced players short of form – captain Jamie Heaslip is particularly fortunate to still be in the squad – they will once again look to the evergreen Brian O’Driscoll for leadership and inspiration.
The less said about France’s performance against England last time out, the better. The starting XV certainly looked like a much more controlled side, but even before the slew of replacements that drew so much criticism they still looked tactically sterile, their one attacking ploy seeming to be to use huge centre Mathieu Basteraud to pound the middle of the pitch and then try to flip the ball to his partner Wesley Fofana for a quick break. It worked once in the first half and led to their only try, but that was due more to poor English tackling than French skill.
This match genuinely could go either way. Before the tournament began both sides were being talked of as possible champions, but now either could walk away with the wooden spoon instead. On their day France are the better side, but Ireland have a fine home record and will not make the same mistakes that they made against Scotland. My money is on a home win for the Irish, who are currently even money at Bet365.
England v Italy
England will delay announcing their side for Sunday’s game for as long as possible, in the hope that outside half Owen Farrell can recover from the leg problem which caused him to leave the game against France early. Centre Manusamoa Tuilagi will play despite needing 19 stitches in an ear wound after that game and will probably once again be partnered by Brad Barritt, who impressed in defence against the French.
England coach Stuart Lancaster may be tempted to tinker with the side against an Italian team whose form seems to be in decline. However, England know that they still have to win this game to remain as title favourites and whilst few expect them to lose, there's a risk in making too many changes, as the Italians themselves found out against Wales.
For that game Italy over-reacted to two events, their heavy defeat by Scotland the previous time out and the suspension of captain Sergio Parisse for abusing a referee. Their wholesale changes left the front three and back four unaltered, but destroyed the spine of the team in-between. As a result the scrum was underpowered, they repeatedly turned the ball over and their half-backs were unable to get any momentum or control. Don't expect that to change too much this weekend.
It seems as if all of the early season confidence has drained away from the Italians and a hefty England win looks to be on the cards. Back them to win by 11-15 points at odds of 10/1 with Bet365.