CARDIFF, WALES – Crunch time has arrived in the 2015 Six Nations. Following England’s slip-up against Ireland in Dublin, the Irish can effectively seal back to back titles with a win against Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Elsewhere, the Auld Enemies meet at Twickenham in a Calcutta Cup clash, while Italy and Ireland square off in Rome.
Wales v. Ireland
Unquestionably the top clash of the weekend, the teams will kick off on Saturday afternoon. Wales still have a chance at re-entering the title conversation with a victory. Assuming England win against Scotland, all three teams will be on 6 points, presumably with similar point differentials. Ireland will have the edge, since they still have to face Scotland, while England must face France. Wales have the easiest final round against Italy, but the highest mountain to climb, since their current point differential is only plus five. All this is putting the cart before the horse however. Last time these teams matched up in Cardiff, Ireland won a memorable clash by blowing the Welsh out in the first half. Their match last year was the first time the defending champion Wales showed serious cracks in their armor, and Ireland cantered to a 26-3 home win. Now, Ireland is missing legendary talisman Brian O’Driscoll. However, Jonny Sexton has upped his game, and has a serious claim to the title of world’s best fly-half. He and Conor Murray make an impressive half-back pairing, but Wales 9-10 axis is solid as well. Rhys Webb has proved far more dependable than Mike Phillips, while demonstrating an impressive ability to snipe around the edges of the ruck. Dan Biggar has been solid, but the center partnership of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts has yet to fire. This should be a razor-tight contest with enormous stakes. For Wales, it is probably the highest pressure match ahead of the Group of Death that awaits at the World Cup. For the Irish, there is the chance of maintaining a Grand Slam challenge, and laying down a serious marker as the Northern Hemisphere’s premiere Webb Ellis Cup contenders.
Expert Panel Picks
Unsurprisingly, the Expert Panel is split right down the middle on the outcome of this crunch clash. Blaber, Harrington, and Yates have kept the faith with the unbeaten Irish, while Hall, Loyd, and JWB feel that home-field advantage will be enough to give the Welsh the edge.
Scotland vs. England
The Scots have not won the Calcutta Cup since 2008, when they defeated England at home. The Scots have not won at Twickenham since 1983, the longest stretch in their history. The nadir might have come in last season’s truly dire 20-0 defeat at home, which contributed to Scott Johnson losing the team, the fans, and then his job as coach (though he was demoted upwards, demonstrative of the dysfunction in Scottish rugby). Scotland have received unwelcome news ahead of the match, learning that Alex Dunbar is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. England welcomes Courtney Lawes back for his first match in this season’s Six Nations, while Mike Brown has recovered from his concussion and is back in the starting fifteen. The Scots are smarting from their home defeat to Italy, a result which sent shockwaves throughout Scottish rugby. Though they had yet to secure a positive result in this season’s tournament, the general feeling before the Italy match was that Scotland were improving. Instead, they fell apart in the last fifteen minutes, and a result eluded Vern Cotter’s charges once more. England are also coming off of a loss, and will be attempting to bolster their point differential ahead of a tough final round match against France.
Expert Panel Picks
In a desperate attempt to pick up ground Blaber has picked Scotland. Yeats has his hatred of the English to blame for his foolhardiness, while the rest of the panel made the safe choice. For reference, most odds have England as 1/14 favorites. In other words, you’d have to bet 14 dollars to win a dollar on the bet. The bookies are confident, and so is most of the panel.
Italy v. France
While most teams at least make a show of taking Italy seriously, France have rung the changes for their match in Rome. Phillipe St. Andre has continued his nonsensical selection policy, changing eight players for the clash in Rome. The last time these sides met at the Stadio Olimpico, defeat condemned France to their first Wooden Spoon in more than a decade. The Italians are coming off the high of winning away from home for only the second time in their Six Nations history. Though odds were that they would be the last-place team in this year’s competition, it now appears they will avoid that ignominy. Sergio Parisse has been immense all tournament, but Italy still lack any semblance of quality from fly-half. Luciano Orquera has been recalled, hardly a step forward for Jacques Brunel. The French are still deserved favorites, but their displays thus far have been unimpressive. The home match against Scotland was closer than it should have been, while narrow defeats to Ireland and Italy were hardly surprises.
Expert Panel Picks
Unsurprisingly, the entire panel has chosen France to win. However, they did the same when the Italians were facing Scotland, and they were punished for their lack of faith. Confidence doesn’t run too high however. Only Loyd has made France his pick of the week. It may be a closer contest than their legacies suggest.
Feel free to add your thoughts below. And please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, Nick Hall, Junoir Blaber, James Harrington, Scheenagh Harrington, Jamie Wall, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Jake Frechette, Jaime Loyd, Karen Ritter and Declan Yeats, respectively.