Realistically, four teams – Wales, England, France and Ireland – are in the running for the title. The weird world of math insists we should add Scotland into the mix – but math and rugby don’t often mix. Almost certainly not when considering Scotland as serious title contenders.
In fact, one game stands out this week as the one that will have an enormous bearing on the outcome of this year’s competition. After Saturday’s aperitifs, in which Ireland entertain Italy in Dublin and Scotland welcome France to Edinburgh, the main course – between England and Wales at Twickenham is arguably the one that all-but dictates where the 2014 title will be heading.
Ireland v Italy
Good news for Ireland. Jonny Sexton’s thumb, which he injured against England and could have called a premature halt to his Six Nations, is better. He’s in the starting line-up to face Italy in the opening Six Nations’ game of the weekend.
More good news for Ireland. Brian O’Driscoll is in line to win a world record 140th cap in front of an adoring crowd in what, injury permitting, will be his penultimate international appearance.
Bad news for Ireland. This will be Brian O’Driscoll’s farewell appearance in Dublin.
More bad news for Ireland. Coach Joe Schmidt has decided not to risk Munster captain Peter O’Mahony’s troublesome hamstring against Italy – not with a potential tournament decider against France next weekend.
Good news for Ireland. Italy coach Jacques Brunel has dropped Sergio Parisse. You read that right. Italy’s talisman has not trained all week, so maybe Brunel’s hand was forced, but it’s a call that – in its own way – is up there with Warren Gatland’s decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll for the Lions’ decider Down Under.
History arguably proved Gatland right. It’s unlikely to be as kind to Brunel. Especially as an Irish defeat in BOD’s Dublin farewell party is unthinkable.
Scotland v France
You have to feel for Scotland’s interim coach Scott Johnson. He hasn’t actually done that much wrong. He doesn’t have the largest pool from which to pick his players. He took over when Scotland were so far down that the doldrums were an upward step – and he engineered a couple of famous victories during his time.
But this Six Nations was always going to be difficult. Already, pundits are wondering out loud and in print how Clermont coach Vern Cotter will “turn things around” when he takes over in the summer. Don’t forget, though, that Johnson will be Cotter’s boss as he’s to become Scotland’s first director of rugby, in charge of the game at all levels in Scotland.
Italy coach Brunel may have dropped skipper Parisse for the game against Ireland, but Johnson’s been there, done that. He ditched captain Kelly Brown for the England and Italy games, but the monster lock has been recalled for the France game.
Philippe Saint-Andre has made seven changes to the side that lost to Wales last time out. Wesley Fofana, Yannick Nyanga and Dmitri Szarzewski are injured, and have been replaced by Maxime Mermoz, Sebastian Vahaamahina and Brice Mach.
Jean-Marc Doussain, Hugo Bonneval and Wenceslas Lauret are dropped, with Maxime Machenaud, Maxime Medard and Alexandre Lapandry coming in. Doussain is on the bench, no doubt saved by Morgan Parra’s suspension.
Louis Picamoles, meanwhile, will stay at home after his petulant reaction to being sin-binned by the referee in Cardiff. Despite all the changes – enforced and otherwise – France should be too strong for a Scotland side that, in all honesty, doesn’t know who it’s playing for.
England v Wales
Recent history and the presence of 12 British Lions in Wales’s starting line-up will count for little when they face England at Headquarters on Sunday. This is not an idle comment. This match is at roofless Twickenham, not the covered cauldron of the Millennium Stadium – where, lest we forget, last year’s game was still very much in the balance 10 minutes into the second half.
Other things have happened too, since Wales’s now near-mythical 30-3 win in Cardiff. The scrummaging laws have changed, for one, which means the Adam Jones effect is not as powerful.
George North has moved to Northampton, where England quartet Luther Burrell, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley all play their rugby. Burrell says they know just how to deal with him, and not many people smaller than Lawes are likely to argue with Burrell. Speaking of Lawes, he and Joe Launchbury are surely the form forwards of this tournament, in case the Welsh pack hadn’t noticed…
And, finally, although perfectly coiffed Aussie Steve Walsh – who refereed the Welsh to victory in the last two Six Nations’ encounters between the sides – will be in the vicinity he is not refereeing. All this is good news for England, for whom revenge is a dish best served with a lightly chilled Chablis in the West car park before the game.
So, it’s just a matter of overcoming Warren Gatland’s mind games, outplaying 12 British Lions to stop Wales winning twice in a row at Twickenham for the first time in 36 years and prevent them becoming the first side to win three championships in a row. Easy.
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