Six Nations Preview Round Three: Allez Les Bleus

Conor Horgan reviews this weekends Six Nations games and predicts more shocks are on the cards.

After a fortnight’s rest since the last round of matches, who will come out of the blocks fastest this weekend? England are sitting top of pile with France, somehow, bringing up the rear. I review this weekend’s matches and pick my ESPN Fantasy Rugby team.

England vs. France

England are flying, France are faltering. France have made their worst start to the championship in 31 years and have only won once in Twickenham in the Six Nations. It all points to an England win does it not? For any other team, perhaps, but France are the most unpredictable team in world rugby. Their coach has rung the changes that finally sees Europe’s best centre, Fofana, playing in his proper position. I expect to see him on the score sheet even though all the talk is about Bastareaud versus Tualagi. In addition, Morgan Parra, Trinh-Duc and Vincent Clerc’s return completes a formidable back line. Parra will kick everything and given front foot ball, these backs will score tries.

England look as sturdy as they did back in 2003. Their win in Dublin showed that they can grind out wins as well as looking exciting and flair against Scotland. They stopped Ireland from playing and you would not bet against them doing likewise against France. Farrell is imperious with the boot at the moment and the return of Lawes and Hartley strengthens their set piece even more. I do not see England missing tackles, dropping catches or giving away too many penalties. The championship is theirs to lose, but the boys from Toulouse have the flair to beat them regardless of how few chances England offer France. It’s the Six Nations, expect the unexpected!

Prediction: England 18 – 24 France  

England hooker, Dylan Hartley, is recalled to the line-up this weekend. He will shore up England’s set piece. Expect them to dominate this aspect of the game.

Italy vs. Wales  Italy will sorely miss their talismanic captain, Sergio Parisse. He plays at a different level to the rest of the Italian team. They have made changes after their pumelling by Scotland in the previous round, including dropping the hero of the hour against France, Orquera. They play as if they owe every fan in the stadium every ounce of energy, but I fear that they could be on the receiving end of a Welsh backlash this weekend.

Wales are a bit of an enigma. They might play forty minutes of total droll such as they did against Ireland, but then out of nowhere, one player makes a break, the crowd get behind them, and suddenly they believe that they are world-beaters. They are a streaky team that relies on confidence and that well known buzzword, momentum. I believe the win in the last round has resulted in some puffed out chests this week and I expect several tries. A good result here puts them right back into the equation for the Six Nations title.

Prediction: Italy 9 – 29 Wales

Welsh open-side flanker, Justin Tipuric: terrible nose, terrific player. A decent bet for man of the match.

Scotland vs. Ireland

Scotland and their fans have a bit of the feel-good factor about them. The fans are happy to see their team scoring tries again, even in a losing cause against England. As I predicted in my last preview, the injection of youth, flair and pace into the back-three has worked wonders and all of a sudden there are suggestions that they could be on the plane to Australia with the Lions this Summer. I like the balance of their pack and Greig Laidlaw is providing Scotland with a similar role at 9 as to what Ellisade, Michalak and Parra have provided France with over the years. I still think they are a work in progress but I expect them to score tries and to be in the game with ten minutes to play.

Ireland were a big disappointment against England. They looked dire. England made them play badly but they themselves had no imagination or confidence to score tries. Shorn of Sexton, Darcy, McCarthy, Healy and Zebo this week, they will be rusty. I expect limited set piece moves or imagination due to the new combinations. I am very surprised at Jackson and Marshall at 10 and 12. Ronan O’Gara has been scratchy since the autumn, but he has been one of the best fly halves in professional rugby. Jackson’s kicking is a worry and will be a big test as he does not have a Ruan Pienaar to slot them over if things are not going well. Marshall is an exciting pick and he will make a good impression. I think the teams are very even going into this game. Games between these two at Murrayfield are usually decided by 1-3 points. Expect more of the same.

Prediction: Scotland 20 – 19 Ireland

Ireland’s Paddy Jackson (left) and Luke Marshall (right) will be winning their first full caps on Sunday. They look about 14 years old.

Players to watch this weekend:

  1. Wesley Fofana
  2. Dylan Hartley
  3. Justin Tipuric
  4. Sean Lamont
  5. Luke Marshall
  6. Alessandro Zanni

My ESPN Fantasy Rugby Team this weekend,  15 Shades of Gray:

Outside Backs: Wesley FofanaStuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny (kicker)
Centres: Brian O’Driscoll and Manu Tualagi
Fly Half: Owen Farrell
Scrum Half: Mike Phillips
Back Row: Louis PicamolesSean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric
Second Row: Richie Gray and Joe Launchbury
Front Row: Martin Castrogiovanni, Rory Best and Gethin Jenkins.