Six Nations round five preview


March 16, 2023, 11:50 am

Six weeks of blood, sweat and dramas combined on one question. Can Ireland seal the Grand Slam? Given their all-powerful recent form and England’s destruction at the hands of the French, the signs are overwhelmingly in their favour. But rugby is a strange game and the Six Nations is rarely straightforward. It was a richly entertaining championship that deserved a thrilling final, but only France can derail the Irish party. I’m here to round up the weekend deals.

Scotland v Italy, Saturday, 12:30 p.m

Scotland need to finish the championship with a convincing win after recent disappointments against Ireland and France. They may not be ready to beat the world’s best, but Scotland have shown they are not far off and defeat on Saturday will cast a dark cloud over what has been a fine tournament. Scotland will be without Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, leaving Gregor Townsend with a bit of a dilemma. In Blair Kinghorn, she has the perfect man for both positions, but where does that put him? Munster fly-half Ben Healy could make his debut to fill Russell’s sizeable boots, while Charlie Savala has been called into the squad as cover. Russell’s absence will diminish any side and Scotland will suffer from the loss of his and Hogg’s considerable experience and leadership.

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Saturday is much more than a development program for Scotland, but Townsend will see the benefits of seeing how his side cope without talisman Russell. The depth of the squad will be crucial at the World Cup, and Saturday is an opportunity for Kinghorn and Healy to make their mark. Scotland go in as favourites, and if they can replicate their first half performance against Ireland, they should see off the Italians reasonably comfortably. Italy will look to match the Scots’ high-energy game plan and Townsend’s men will need to be careful not to let the game slip too far. Scotland will have to bear in mind the success of Wales’ line speed in the first half of last week, closing down the Italian’s space and forcing mistakes. There is more to Scotland than just Finn Russell, and Saturday is a chance to show that. If they can show the precision they showed against Wales and England, they should win.

Italy’s defeat to Wales undermined some of the optimism that had been built up by their impressive performances. Last Saturday was a missed opportunity and the Italians will be desperate to end the league with a win. Their defeat against Wales was largely down to their own inaccuracies and a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot, and if they continue in the same vein at Murrayfield, the Scots will be more than obliging. Italy’s ambitions and adventures are hugely entertaining and they have shown they can cut the world’s best defenses to ribbons at times, but they need to be more judicious.

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The absence of Finn Russell is a bonus for Italy, but they will need to defend much better than they did against Wales, where they were guilty of too many tackles. In attack, they were able to open up the Welsh defense on several occasions, but Scotland’s defense will provide a sterner test, especially given the link that Sione Tuipulotu and Hugh Jones have in midfield. Italy will also be wary of Scotland’s mauling power, an area that destroyed them at Twickenham. Regardless of the result, it’s been an encouraging championship for the Italians, and a win on Saturday will add to that feeling.

France – Wales, Saturday, 14:45

France know exactly what they need to do on Saturday, secure a bonus point win and hope England can do them a favor in Dublin. As for Wales, the first part of the job should be fairly easy based on their performance at Twickenham last week. France produced one of the greatest performances in Six Nations history last week, brutally putting England to the sword. It was a stunning display that combined brutal physicality, blistering attacking play and razor-sharp mind speed. If France repeat their Twickenham heroics, it could be a long afternoon for Wales. Such dizzying heights can be difficult to follow and France will have to beware of complacency against the Welsh, who have nothing to lose.

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Wales produced a gutsy performance in Rome last week to secure a deserved win in what was a tough tournament on and off the pitch. Welsh rugby is facing many problems off the field, creating a constant cloud over their players, but beating Italy brought back a sense of pride. It’s hard to judge Wales’ Six Nations given the turmoil the players have had to contend with, but last Saturday provided some encouragement for the World Cup. Realistically, Wales are miles from where Warren Gatland would like them to be in terms of performance and the trip to Paris against a rampaging French side presents a huge challenge. Equally, they have nothing to lose.

In Rome, Wales finally showed the clinical edge they have been lacking all tournament and they will need to be just as ruthless if they are to stand a chance on Saturday. Gatland knows all too well how strong the French defense is and Wales will need to be more creative if they are going to strike. Wales simplified their attack against Italy, gaining some success in the 9, but they will need to be precise in their tackling as France are hard to target at the breakdown. Rhys Webb’s excellent strike was crucial to their victory and he must set such a watch. England found out at their peril what happens when you underplay France. Wales must try and stay in the game as long as possible. France’s recent wins have come from blowing teams out of the water.

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Ireland has exhausted all advantages in this championship. their efficiency and performance are unmatched. Hard to bet against them sparking an almighty St Patrick’s weekend party by beating England and sealing the Slam. Ireland will go into Saturday’s game as favourites, regardless of England’s game against France. They are in a class of their own and there is no danger of complacency about this Irish side. Confident, never arrogant. They will be without a few big names after a torrid encounter at Murrayfield, but Ireland have shown that injuries are another hurdle to overcome. The task for Ireland is simple, perform anywhere close to their potential and they will lift the trophy.

Could England be the party poopers? Having bowed out at Twickenham last week, they should arrive in Dublin liberated. The only way is up, right? The nature of England’s defeat has led to the usual debates about the structure of English rugby, their inability to produce world-class players and the nature of the Premiership. Not that such debates are out of place, but England played badly and were destroyed by a side that played to their full potential. Steve Borthwick will spend the week working on the areas England can fix, and there are certainly many. England suffered a breakdown last week, an area where Ireland dominate and Borthwick’s men need to be nicer and more accurate.

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England need to inject more intensity in attack and defence. Forwards need to fly around the corner, look to open holes and crucially stay on their feet as long as possible to eliminate Ireland’s threat at the breakdown. Defensively, they need to recapture the tiger they showed in Cardiff, although they will face a much tougher attack. According to early reports, Owen Farrell will be recalled in midfield, while Manu Tuilagi will man the midfield in place of the injured Ollie Lawrence. Borthwick will be hoping Tuilagi can replicate the powerful performance he produced when England last won in Dublin.

England’s fly-half position has been a hot topic this week, with Farrell, Smith and George Ford all touted as likely starters. Dropping Smith would be cruel, essentially making him a scapegoat for the team’s poor performance, and suggests mixed thinking in the England camp. Whoever starts, England will need to strike with greater precision and purpose at the weekend and Ireland’s back three are in excellent form. I would have expected some shuffling in the pack, with George Martin’s arrival in the team as Ollie Chesum’s replacement, suggesting Borthwick wanted some weight on the blindside. England’s forwards will be looking to atone for last week and hopefully they can make a positive difference and maintain their discipline. England should see Saturday as an opportunity to restore pride and spoil the Grand Slam party they have so often fallen victim to.

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