It could have been all so different.
Had England held out for those last few minutes against France in Round One of this year’s Six Nations, Stuart Lancaster’s men would have been looking forward to back-to-back home games against old adversaries Ireland and Wales before finishing with a flourish in Rome. The words ‘Grand Slam’ would have echoed around the Twickenham sandwich hampers this weekend. As it is, England lost that game in Paris and, like Wales, find themselves in the precarious mid-table positions as we enter the pivotal third round of this year’s championship. Should English and Welsh victories materialise over the course of this weekend’s play then the table will revert to a four-way fight: it’ll be everything to play for with two games to go. A loss for either side though and their title challenge will be over.
England should be confident going into their match with Ireland. For me (and this is a Welshman saying this) they have played the best rugby so far. Their style of attack has been consistently good, characterised by the hard running of newbie Luther Burrell and the delicious offloads of big man Billy Vunipola. Add the smart running of Jonny May and Mike Brown and the English have proven to be an attacking threat thus far. Their defensive game too (at least against the woeful Scots) has been solid. That said, their opponents on Saturday have been efficient, effective and ruthless in their opening games. Their systematic dispatch of Wales in Round Two was based on an unflinching 10-man game. Ireland may try to vary their game a little this time around but Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team will be aware that the breakdown, maul and line-out will be where the game is won and lost. He will also know that the Irish will be playing for silverware. Not just the Millennium Trophy (yes there is a trophy associated with this particular fixture – look it up) but Paul O’Connell’s side will be looking to complete the third leg of the Triple Crown – a trophy that Ireland have become accustomed to winning in the Six Nations years. So the Irish will be hard to stop. But they’re not unbeatable. If England are to win they must succeed where Wales failed: cross the gain-line. With their big runners and carriers, they’re more than capable of doing it. It’ll be close though.
Confidence will not be abundant in the Welsh camp however following their Dublin spanking of a couple of weeks back. It was a terrible day in the office for a side that are used to tight scorelines (sometimes heart-breakingly so). Many would have been surprised that Warren Gatland has only made two unforced changes to the side that will take the field on Friday night. Why they still insist on Friday night fixtures at all is beyond me. It’s not in the spirit of the old championship and its glorious away trips. Sort it out Six Nations committee. Rant over. The call to drop Mike Phillips to the bench is the right one given his recent run of form. His replacement Rhys Webb is known for his quicker delivery of the ball from the ruck. But will he have the service he needs from his forwards who were universally awful against Ireland? One thing’s for sure, Gatland will not be waiting around this time to see if his charges come good. If the likes of Jenkins, Adam Jones, Lydiate and Warburton fire respective blanks in the opening 30 minutes they’ll be off and replaced with players in-form. If Wales can achieve at least parity up front and secure some quality possession, I expect them to beat the French who have been typically inconsistent in their opening games. It’s with all this in mind that we move on to the oft-derided, never reliable Red Rugby predictions for Round Three:
Friday 21 Feb – Wales v France (8.00pm) – Wales to win by 6 points
Saturday 22 Feb – Italy v Scotland (1.30pm) – Italy to win by 10 points
Saturday 22 Feb – England v Ireland (4.00pm) – England to win by 5 points
I can only apologise to Wales, Italy and England as, from previous experience, a tip to win almost certainly results in a catastrophic loss. That said, Red Rugby has at least been less bullish about the margins of victory this time around with the games in Cardiff and London predicted to be close affairs. The annual wooden spoon decider in Rome should be taken by the Italians who have shown far more this year than Scott Johnson’s lot. The soul-searching north of the border will continue for some time yet.
If miracles do happen and the predictions above become reality, which of the four nations competing for the title will be in the best shape? For me it will unquestionably be England who have the luxury of playing the Welsh at home before facing the Italians. Should it come down to the final weekend and points difference, there are not many more matches you would want than Italy away. By then the picture of what is required to win the title will be much clearer and, given that, expect Chris Robshaw’s team to do the job.
It may not be a Grand Slam but it may still be a title-winning year for the men in white.