It’s all systems go in the penultimate round of games in this year’s 6 Nations tournament. Realistically, 4 teams – Wales, Ireland, France & England – are all still in the running for this year’s title, although Wales seem to be the front runners, due to their unbeaten record & favourable points difference. However they have 2 tough fixtures still to play, and therefore the results of this weekend should go someway in determining who the likely victors will be….
The first game of the weekend is Ireland vs Wales, at Croke Park stadium. This is Wales’ first visit to the huge Gaelic football stadium (capacity 82,500) - surely intimidating for visitors. Wales need to win this game to keep their 6 Nations dreams alive, as they have the daunting prospect of facing France in their last game. Ireland on the other hand need a win to save face, this after an abysmal World Cup and an indifferent start to the 6 Nations. The lead-up to the game has been marred with bickering between Welsh coach, Warren Gatland, & the Irish coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, as well as a spate of injuries to the Irish backline.
Stalwart Irish fullbacks, Girvan Dempsey & Geordan Murphy drop out of the squad through injury. Young Leinster winger Rob Kearney moves to fullback, and Anthony Horgan is recalled to the right wing. For the Welsh, Gatland has resisted the urge to start with the more exciting James Hook & Dwayne Peel, instead preferring the solid but unspectacular Stephen Jones & quasi-forward Mike Phillips as his half-back combination.
2007: Ireland won 19-9, Cardiff
2006: Ireland won 31-5, Dublin
2005: Wales won 32-20, Cardiff
2004: Ireland won 36-15, Dublin
2003: Ireland won 35-12, Dublin
Prediction: Wales to lose their unbeaten record, with Ireland scraping to a narrow win – by less than 10 points.
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Shane Horgan, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (captain), 12 Andrew Trimble, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Denis Leamy, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Rory Best, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Bernard Jackman, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Mick O’Driscoll, 19 Simon Easterby, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Paddy Wallace, 22 Luke Fitzgerald.
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Ryan Jones (captain), 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Jonathan Thomas, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Ian Evans, 19 Gareth Delve, 20 Dwayne Peel, 21 James Hook, 22 Sonny Parker.
Date: Saturday, 8 March
Venue: Croke Park, Dublin
Kick-off: 13.15 GMT
The next match of the weekend is the clash between Scotland vs England at Murrayfield, for the Calcutta Cup – the oldest international match for the oldest international trophy. Now that means nothing unless you’re Scottish or English, but even so the main focus of the game will be to see whether England can beat Scotland by a large margin – as they need to gain a favourable points difference in case the 6 Nations title comes down to the wire. Currently log leaders Wales hold a favourable points difference of 51, whereas England’s is only 8….
England’s away win against France has seemingly relieved the noose around Brian Ashton’s neck for the meantime – however expect calls for his head should England disappoint this weekend. At the sametime, Frank Hadden, the Scottish coach is under huge pressure as his Scottish team is in the Wooden Spoon position. After reaching the World Cup quarter-finals, far better is expected from this team…
This game was to be young Danny Cipriani’s first start – at fullback. However, due to his nightclub escapade, he has been dropped from the squad – with “No Hands” Balshaw surprisingly getting another chance at fullback, & Charlie Hodgson coming onto the bench.
For the hosts, inspirational forwards Simon Taylor and Jason White return from injury, with Taylor starting, and White on the bench. At flyhalf, Chris Paterson is still preferred to Dan Parks, and Graeme Morrison gets a chance at centre ahead of Andrew Henderson.
2007: England won 42-20 at Twickenham, London
2006: Scotland won 18-12 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2005: England won 43-33 at Twickenham, London
2004: England won 35-13 at Murrayfield, Edinburgh
2003: England won 40-9 at Twickenham, London
Prediction: England to win by +/- 15 points, with Scotland’s inability to score tries, England’s strong pack & Jonny’s boot contributing to their downfall…
Scotland: 15 Hugo Southwell, 14 Rory Lamont, 13 Simon Webster, 12 Graeme Morrison, 11 Nikki Walker, 10 Chris Paterson, 9 Mike Blair (captain), 8 Simon Taylor, 7 Allister Hogg, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Scott MacLeod, 4 Nathan Hines, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen.
Replacements: 16 Fergus Thomson, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Craig Smith, 19 Jason White, 20 Kelly Brown, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Dan Parks.
England: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Jamie Noon, 12 Toby Flood, 11 Lesley Vainikolo, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Michael Lipman, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Steve Borthwick, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Phil Vickery (captain), 2 Lee Mears, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Ben Kay, 19 Luke Narraway, 20 Paul Hodgson, 21 Mathew Tait, 22 Charlie Hodgson.
Date: Saturday, 8 March
Kick-off: 15.15 GMT
The last game of the weekend is in Paris on Sunday, with Marc Lievremont’s young & experimental France vs Italy, coached by Nick Mallett. Lievremont is clearly building towards the future by exploring his options in different positions and blooding youngsters such as the exciting Francois Trinh-Duc, however the loss to England – at home – did not sit well with the French public, and he will be expected to win this game convincingly. Italy on the otherhand, have shown glimpses of promise under Nick Mallet, with encouraging displays against England and Ireland. Their crushing defeat away to Wales will be fresh on their minds – ensuring that both teams show up with a point to prove.
France has made several changes to their team again, with Trinh-Duc and Yachvili being recalled. Anthony Floch and Yann David get their first starts at fullback and outside centre respectively, with Yannick Jauzion returning to the midfield. Lievremont has also picked a very young & inexperienced loose trio – with Ibrahim Diarra making his debut. Parisse, Zanni and Sole will be relishing that challenge.
For the Italians, Kaine Robertson returns from injury. The pack looks solid, barring the banned Mauro Bergamasco, with Josh Sole taking his place. Ex-Shark Carlo del Fava starts at lock alongside the veteran Marco Bortolami. Another ex-Shark, the pacy loose forward Jaco Erasmus, starts on the bench – Mallet will be looking to this dynamic indivdual to come on as an impact player. Keep an eye out for him!
2007: France won 39-3 at Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2006: France won 37-12 at Stade de France, Paris
2005: France won 56-13 at Stadio Flaminio, Rome
2004: France won 25-0 at Stade de France, Paris
2003: France won 53-27 at Stadio Flaminio, Rome
Prediction: The Italians led by talisman Sergi Parisse will put in a valiant effort, with their forwards exerting significant pressure on the French pack. However the usual Italian problems of (i) poor discipline (ii) lack of a world-class flyhalf (iii) predicatable & slow back 3 & (iv) poor kicking will cause them to stutter – France to pull away and win by just under 20 points.
France: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Aurélien Rougerie, 13 Yann David, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 Ibrahim Diarra, 5 Jérôme Thion, 4 Lionel Nallet (captain), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Fabien Barcella.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18 Arnaud Méla, 19 Julien Bonnaire, 20 Julien Thomas, 21 Damien Traille, 22 Vincent Clerc
Italy: 15 Andrea Marcato, 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Mirco Bergamasco, 11 Ezio Galon, 10 Andrea Masi, 9 Simon Picone, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Josh Sole, 5 Marco Bortolami, 4 Carlo Antonio Del Fava, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lo Cicero.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Carlos Nieto, 18 Salvatore Perugini, 19 Jaco Erasmus, 20 Pietro Travagli, 21 Enrico Patrizio, 22 Alberto Sgarbi.
Date: Sunday, 9 March
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 16.00 (15.00 GMT)