6 Nations round 5

Attempting to predict the 3 winners today would be absolute guesswork so I’m going to try and highlight a few players and matchups to watch out for instead. (Although after Jonathan Joseph found his dancing shoes last weekend and Ireland failed to score a try against Wales an English Grand Slam appears a foregone conclusion)

Joseph and Ringrose is one of the big battles this week and whilst the forwards will have a big say in how well both backline’s perform England will be looking to exploit Ireland’s new Centre pairing. When Scotland beat Ireland in week 1 Alex Dunbar and Stuart Hogg made hay in the wide channels and while Wales favoured the less subtle approach of ploughing into defenders until George North (& inexplicably Jamie Roberts) got the ball and just dragged tacklers across the try-line the Irish backline defence has conceded 6 tries already in the tournament. 

Jonathan Sexton nearly made 2 game changing interceptions early on against Wales last week so how England combat his ability to read flat passes whilst they try to attack the wide channels will be interesting (but the English forwards could negate his effectiveness if they can dominate the gainline battle).

How Jared Payne goes will be interesting as his versatility could make him attractive to Lions selectors but he hasn’t played for a long time. Iain Henderson has got a bit of a thankless task being parachuted in to take on a high flying England pack too.

Italy look completely devoid of confidence and lacking in skill this year so gauging how Scotland players are playing against them will be tricky, but Huw Jones could make himself feel a lot better against Tommaso Benvenuti after the tough time he had last week against England (although the players alongside him largely left him on an island to defend a rampant English backline)

Wales should be able to make France run around enough to win a scrappy affair in Paris but the battle of the 9’s should be a classic. The immaculately coiffed Rhys Webb against the man who looks like he just woke up and ran on the pitch Baptiste Serin. Both can make defenders look silly, both talk far too much and both are quality 9’s.  There’s a few Welsh forwards who need stand out performances to guarantee a ticket to New Zealand and Alun-Wyn Jones needs to stamp his authority on the game if he’s going to be a serious contender to skipper the Lions in the summer 

Calcutta Cup and Garibaldi Trophy 

England v Scotland seems to be a foregone conclusion, I seem to be the only person who’s been seriously underwhelmed by England. Italy proved that if you can knock them off their stride they can be beaten. Scotland could knock them off their stride by starting like a house on fire because England have been far stronger in the last 30 minutes of games than the first 30 minutes. They left incredibly late to beat Wales, they didn’t put France away until the 70th minute and it was the 47th when they took the decisive lead against Italy. Scotland on the other hand have scored tries in 2 of their first 3 games and against Wales they took the lead on the 44th minute and didn’t conceded another point in the game. 

England should have an advantage at scrum time but with Mathieu Raynal refereeing that may not count for anything, I saw him referee Argentina v Australia at Twickenham and he was at best inconsistent and when it came to scrum time he was almost always wrong! Joe Marler wins his 50th cap today and he could find himself on the receiving end of the Frenchman’s whistle. The battle between the hookers could be fascinating, Dylan Hartley hasn’t really hit his straps after his prolonged pre-tournament ban and Fraser Brown has continued the good form he’s displayed for Glasgow Warriors but he is considerably smaller than the Kiwi opposite him. That’s a microcosm of the entire game, Scotland have the form but England generally have the size and power, however in the Second Row where Scotland’s Gray brothers (who sound like they’d make a great bespoke tailors) outweigh their opposite numbers by about 4 stone! The Scottish Centre pairing outweigh their English counterparts too (not on the bench, Ben Te’o is built like a house and weighs 2 stone and 9 pounds more than Mark Bennett) and after a pretty “intense” i.e devoid of skill 80 minutes of smash ’em, bash ’em rugby in Cardiff last night there’s a chance for all 6 Centres to put their hands up for Lions selection today. 
You can get odds of 4-1 on Scotland turning the Sassernach’s over on their own patch today and there is a chance that all 3 of the underdogs could win this weekend so it could be worth a fiver. If Vern Cotter is feeling particularly mischievous then he’ll tell Scotland to stay well away from the first potential ruck situation, but he’ll have absolutely pilling in at the second one. John Barclay always seems an incredibly measured and level headed guy in interviews so whether or not he can whip his team up into the sort of frenzy they’ll need to shock England early doors will be fascinating. 
Italy and France are 2 teams who are so incredibly inconsistent in terms of both confidence and accuracy that it’s impossible to know how this one will play out. The smart money is on France and you have to think they’ll win by virtue of just having a truly enormous pack of forwards, but England showed that they will fatigue and if Italy can move the ball (and Carli Canna definitely has the vision to see holes in defences) then Italy could sneak the win late on.  The weather in Rome looks glorious so France won’t have to worry about the forward dominated, slow, turgid whistle-fest they endured in Dublin two weeks ago and they might be able to play the Barbarian style, free-flowing, offloading rugby that Guy Noves seems to be craving (they probably won’t, because their accuracy hasn’t been the greatest in recent times) but with individuals like Serin, Fickou, Vakatawa, Nakitaitaci and the newly restored Brice Dulin there should be some tries. From an Italian point of view Campagnaro and Venditti both have the power and pace to make defenders look incredibly silly so it’s really only Kiwi referee Ben O’Keefe standing between us spectators and an bucket of  meat-pies!