Saturday, 10th March, Ireland vs. Scotland, 08:15 am
France vs. England, 10:45 am
Sunday, 11th Wales vs. Italy, 10:00 am
The first game of round 4 this weekend could be the most pivotal. An Ireland win will see them travel to London on St. Patrick’s Day with the Grand Slam, the Triple Crown and the Championship at stake. Scotland, after that tremendous victory over England two weeks ago, will be sure to test the Irish to the very limit. With three wins from three and 13 tries scored, Ireland have enjoyed the perfect start to their NatWest 6 Nations challenge. It began with a dramatic late win in Paris, a somewhat more comfortable victory over Italy in Round Two, before pulling away to record a very satisfying win of the Welsh in Dublin. Joe Schmidt’s men go into Saturday’s match against Scotland leading the way with a five point cushion over second-placed England, knowing that a win could put one hand on the trophy. There is going to be huge pressure on the players going into the game; they have only won Grand Slams in their history and now have the opportunity to add another one – nine years after the last.
Schmidt continues to have injury problems that have plauged him all the Championship. Powerful centre Chris Farrell will miss the remainder of the Six Nations after being injured in training last week. An Irish Rugby statement said that Farrell, man of the match against Wales in round 3 two weeks ago, sustained ligament damage after twisting his knee in the turf. Garry Ringrose now looks the obvious choice to come into the Ireland midfield. Robbie Henshaw will also miss the remainder of this season after sustaining a shoulder injury in Ireland’s win over Italy in round two while previous regular Jared Payne has been unable to play since last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour because of recurring headaches.
With injuries to Lions forwards Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson Schmidt also had problems in his forward pack. He was fortunate that his young replacements stepped into the breach. Tight-head prop Andrew Porter was tasked with anchoring the Irish scrum in his first Test start while James Ryan, who impressed in the opening round win in Paris, replaced Henderson in the second row. Losing Chris Farrell is a blow for the Irish and he was beginning to cement a good partnership with Bundee Aki, who also only has a handful of caps. Another surprise is the form of Jacob Stockdale. Ryan, Porter and Stockdale where members that lost to England in the final of the World Rugby Under-20 Championship almost two years ago. Ryan and Stockdale, both 21, and Porter, 22, are the first members of that generation to break into the senior team. At the time of writing Schmidt has yet to finalize his team.
Back-to-back wins over France and England at BT Murrayfield have earned all but one of the Scottish starting XV the opportunity to take their home form on the road, with Glasgow Warriors winger Tommy Seymour an injury-enforced change to the back divisions. Seymour has failed to recover sufficiently from the back injury he suffered during the memorable 25-13 Calcutta Cup win over England last time out. Edinburgh’s Blair Kinghorn comes in for first start for Scotland on the right wing, with Lee Jones from Glasgow added to the bench.
The Scottish coach, Gregor Townsend, has made one further change to the replacements, with Glasgow hooker Fraser Brown, who featured in all but two of Scotland’s Tests last year, returning from injury to replace Scott Lawson.
Head coach Townsend said: “We were delighted with the result against England and backing up our win against France with an improved performance. The intent we showed in attack and defense in the first half was very encouraging and we continued to work hard in the second half. “The effort that went into denying England a second try in the closing minutes was great to see. Our players had prepared very well for the challenge of taking on England and there has been a similar focus and commitment this week at training. There are a few areas of our game that we are working to improve and we are aware that we will have to be better if we are to beat a very good Ireland side in Dublin.”
Scotland’s win over England was built on a smothering defense, England’s indiscipline and a high turnover rate. The Scots may not find Ireland so accommodating in allowing the ball to be turned over. Ireland know that a victory will set them up for an historic occasion in London next week. The Scots are also well aware that a victory keeps them in the hunt for the Championship.
England make to trip to Paris for the second game this Saturday chastened after that loss in Edinburgh and will be in no mood to make the same mistakes. England may need to beat France convincingly to remain in contention to win a third title in succession. They also know that a bonus point is vital against France. If Ireland scores four tries-no mean feat- to beat Scotland with a bonus point on Saturday, England must do the same or Joe Schmidt’s side will be champions. We can be sure that the French will not be in a benevolent mood to England and will offer the red rose team a serious challenge, especially up front.
England captain Dylan Hartley is a doubt for Saturday’s Six Nations game against France in Paris, while wing Jack Nowell has been ruled out for the rest of the championship. Hooker Hartley, 31, has tightness in his calf and will be monitored before the final team announcement. Exeter’s Nowell rolled an ankle injury in training and will play no further part in the tournament. Powerful Bath flanker Sam Underhill has also been ruled out of the France game. The 21-year-old sustained a toe injury in training but could return for England’s final game against Ireland. Nowell, 24, and Underhill have both featured off the bench in all three of England’s matches so far in the championship, but have now returned to their clubs. If Hartley is unable to recover then Jamie George, in this writers opinion the better hooker, is in line to start in Paris, with Owen Farrell taking over the captaincy.
In a reference to Russia, Winston Churchill coined a famous phrase, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key”. Little did we know that the great man was also describing French Rugby at the present moment? To put it politely; it’s in an almighty mess. No one has problems like France. No one comes close. However, most of the problems have been off the field. Allegations of both financial misappropriation and sexual misconduct have clouded the French performance on the pitch. In truth the French have not played that badly in the three previous rounds. A narrow last minute defeat in Paris against Ireland in round one and a similar one in Edinburgh before a thumping victory over Italy means we have not seen the best of a young French team. If they can keep England close then the team could begin to redeem themselves in front of the French supporters.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has made 10 changes for Sunday’s Six Nations match with Italy in Cardiff. Liam Williams, Steff Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, Gareth Davies and Cory Hill survive from the 37-27 loss in Ireland. Scarlets flanker James Davies will win his first cap in a back row that sees Taulupe Faletau return at number eight to captain the side. Gareth Anscombe is named at fly-half with Northampton Saints’ George North selected on the right wing.
An all-new front row sees hooker Elliot Dee make his first start alongside Nicky Smith and Tomas Francis, with Bradley Davies joining Hill in the second row. Justin Tipuric is selected at blindside flanker to complete a mobile-looking back row with debutant Davies and Lions forward Faletau. Behind the scrum Williams moves from wing to full-back to make way for North, while Ospreys centre Owen Watkin will make his first Six Nations start. Gatland believes he is still fielding a high-calibre team despite the sweeping changes. “We are bringing in a lot of quality and a lot of experience with the likes of Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, George North and Taulupe,” he said.
“Add into that James Davies who gets his first cap, Elliot Dee who gets his first start – this is a great opportunity for them to play tournament rugby. “It is challenging making changes, but we have picked a really exciting team and Sunday is their chance. “It is a great opportunity for Taulupe – he is a world-class player, hugely experienced and this will be great for his development and we are looking forward to seeing those leadership qualities come through.”
Italy have scored 7 tries during the competition thus far, tying with Wales and one more than France and Scotland and that shows a new found enthusiasm for moving the ball wider than of late. However, they have conceded 18; it could be argued that those numbers speak for themselves. Stout Italian hearts will not be enough to overturn the Welsh. Italian hopes could rest on the numerous Welsh changes. Wholesale changes in international rugby can take time to “gel” in a game and Wales may suffer from a wee bit of cohesion early in the game. However, it promises to be a long afternoon for Italy