Scotland v France
Scotland are riddled with changes as a result of their annual injury crisis but they still have a reasonable chance of winning this game, France have lost in Edinburgh four times since 2016 and they won’t be looking forward to a lunchtime kick off in a gusty Murrayfield whoever is or isn’t available to Gregor Townsend. Despite the changes Scotland are still able to select their resident fun machine Darcy Graham who gets to line up opposite someone who played in the 12 shirt against Ireland in round two, the 21 year old Yoram Moefana. Fabien Galthie has named a regular winger on the bench in the form of Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel so France may not yet be sure Moefana is a Test winger who can cope with Graham just yet (they also have their defensive leader Gael Fickou in the 13 shirt so they could swap if it’s all going a bit wrong), of course it was the threat Darcy Graham competing for a cross kick that led to Luke Cowan-Dickie slapping the ball off the Murrayfield pitch to concede the game winning try in round two.
Other than the pairing on the opposite wing (Damian Penaud is a challenge for anyone to defend) there aren’t many interesting match-ups. Ben White against Maxime Lucu may well be important late on if the game is close, but that will all depend on their respective forward packs and an important part of that should be how the second-row pairings match-up, Grant Gilchrist and Sam Skinner have made 44 tackles between them in the tournament and missed none between them whereas Paul Willemse and Cameron Woki have made 29 between them and just 5. Obviously, you don’t have to make as many tackles if you’re team is retaining possession but Scotland may well have some joy attacking close to the ruck and it’d be great to see Darcy Graham have a run at either Willemse or Woki. When it comes to ball carriers Nick Haining is a personal favourite and if the Scotland forwards can set a platform, he could have some real impact off the bench late on.
England v Wales
Courtney Lawes returns as Captain and Wales have British and Irish Lion Taulupe Faletau back from a lengthy injury break too but the real interest here is in the backlines, Max Malins has provided opposing defences issues all season against Italy his ability to stretch a defensive line provided a lot of gaps for England to attack. Even though Malins is lining up on the wing and will cause problems out wide the space he creates will be in central areas as defenders are dragged away from the areas they’re responsible for and how Wales’ Centre pairing manage the defence in the middle of the pitch will be vital. Nick Tompkins often abandons “gap discipline” to coin an NFL phrase in favour of pursuing the ball carrier and Owen Watkin (who carried the ball particularly well against Scotland) hasn’t played at 13 an awful lot for his region the Ospreys (who have been particularly poor defensively this season) so it would be understandable if he were to get to distracted or find himself slightly out of position against England’s “hybrid backline” (which is a terrible name by the way, they’re all rugby players hybrid makes it sound like they need to be charged up at halftime). It’ll be interesting to see if Henry Slade appears as a first receiver as much as he did against Italy or if England decide to play a more structured game and kick more often (only Wales have kicked from hand on fewer occasions than England thus far). A lot has been made of Harry Randall starting for England but it’s the forward battle that has more talking points for me, Tomas Francis and Ellis Genge really don’t get on very well after Genge tried to head-butt his opposing prop at a collapsed scrum in Llanelli back in 2020, Gareth Thomas and Will Stewart’s battle off the bench should be one area where Wales look to have an advantage, Stewart had a torrid time in Rome and was substituted before half time while Thomas has been quietly excellent so for Wales. Alex Cuthbert will be looking forward to lining up opposite his former club teammate Jack Nowell too and both have suffered some serious injury woes over their careers so if they can both complete 80 minutes it’ll be a victory for both.
Ireland v Italy
Ireland have really mixed it up for the Italian’s visit but strangely there are more interesting players in the Italian team and changing so many players for Ireland looks like very much like the sort of selection that will lead to a disjointed performance from Andy Farrell’s charges. There are some good players in the Italian team who have put up some impressive statistics despite being on the receiving end of two comprehensive losses and strangely the players who are expected to be the leading lights are the ones who have performed the worst. Paolo Garbisi and Stephen Varney have looked like they have been given far too much responsibility for two players with just 26 caps between them. The Italian back-row, particularly 23 year old Michele Lamaro who’s 41 tackles leads the tournament and this week’s second row pairing of Federico Ruzza (who’s made 19 tackles without missing one in just 136 minutes so far) and Niccolo Cannone who has put in 27 tackles of his own and has missed just 2 have been particularly impressive. If the Italian halfbacks continue their profligacy with the ball then all the Italian forwards can do is tackle and Ireland have got more than enough firepower in their 23 to stumble through the entire 80 minutes and still win comfortably but given they need to win by more than 30 to keep in touch with the table toppers this team seems an odd choice. Italian hooker Epalahame Faiva (who was a “Dream Team nominee in the 2019 Pro 14 season) always brings plenty of energy with him off the bench but he can overstep the line and concede careless penalties which could be costly, however if he can channel his energy he could be a match for Rob Herring on Ireland’s bench.