With just two rounds left in this year’s Six Nations the tournament looks Ireland’s to lose as the only undefeated team left.
Ireland face a rejuvenated Scotland in Dublin this weekend and they can claim the championship with a bonus-point victory, if England fail to do the same in Paris.
Here are changes that all the teams should consider to improve their chances as the competition reaches its pointy end:
The English back-row has been shown up to be cumbersome and lack mobility over the first three rounds and Eddie Jones simply can not persist with selecting three locks as well as Chris Robshaw. He needs someone quicker to the breakdown and providing a better link between the backs and forwards – so the returning Sam Simmonds needs to be in the starting XV.
Out wide George Ford seems to have lost confidence and penetration so Jones needs to look at going more direct, starting Ben Te’o at No12 and moving Owen Farrell to fly-half. The other option is a direct swap of Te’o for the underwhelming Jonathan Joseph. Fit-again Elliot Daly is also back in the mix on the wing, with Jonny May’s place under threat.
The “Edinburgh eight” may be considered again as France face England in Paris then Wales in Cardiff. It will be interesting to see which players Jacques Brunel chooses to recall from his exiled stars – if any – who were left out after some post-match shenanigans after the loss to Scotland.
Dangerous winger Teddy Thomas would definitely have come back into the starting line-up but he injured his ankle playing for Racing 92, while Louis Picamoles may struggle to unseat the impressive new No8 Marco Tauleigne who made 76 metres from 17 carries against Italy.
With Mathieu Bastareaud performing so well at outside centre there is choice to be made on who will partner him and Brunel may opt for the more experienced Gael Fickou rather than the direct Geoffrey Doumayrou.
What has been most impressive for the tournament leaders to date is how their back-up players have stepped up. Prop Andrew Porter, flanker Dan Leavy and centre Chris Farrell all had big shoes to fill against Wales but were among Ireland’s best in Dublin. Farrell is now injured, but first-choice Garry Ringrose is now fit again so he will come straight back in.
Fly-half Johnny Sexton has been struggling with a back injury and as much as Joe Schmidt might like to rest him, he can’t take that chance against Scotland – so Sexton will start. The other change Schmidt should consider is starting John Ryan at tighthead. As impressive as Porter was against Wales, Ryan brings a little more experience which might be crucial against the Scots.
Wales legend Mike Phillips called for a return to the Five Nations on Sport360 this week and it’s hard to argue with that as the gap between Italy and the rest seems to get bigger, not smaller, each year. As the Azzurri continue to underwhelm coach Conor O’Shea is looking at his options – but none are much better than those already in the starting XV.
Sebastian Negri in the back row has been one of Italy’s bright spots, taking a load off the waning Sergio Parisse, but their real issue is up front where they desperately need some hard-edged tight five forwards.
Dean Budd could make way for George Biagi in the second row while loose-head Nicola Quaglio, who was busy after coming on against France, deserves to start instead of Andrea Lovotti.
After their impressive win over England last-up Gregor Townsend has headaches of the right kind as his squad is bolstered by the return of five injured stars – Richie Gray, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Alex Dunbar and Darryl Marfo. The question is which of these does he bring into the starting line-up.
Their lineout has continued to improve since it fell apart against Wales in week one but Gray should still come back into the starting XV to shore up this facet of play. Fly-half Finn Russell was on his last chance against England but the 25-year-old produced when he needed it most – so expect him to hold his spot, but he may be partnered by livewire Ali Price rather than the safer Greig Laidlaw.
Warren Gatland could not hide his disappointment after the Dragons succumbed in Dublin. Wales have been near enough in their two losses against Ireland and England but they are just missing that touch of backline class or extra forward power that will get them over the line in a tough one.
George North is getting back to his best and although Gatland may not want to drop either of his wings – Liam Williams or Steff Evans – he could look at North slotting in at outside centre with Scott Williams moving to No12, which would certainly add some extra penetration to the Dragons backline.
The other change he should consider is Bradley Davies starting in the second row instead of Cory Hill. Davies is a far more damaging ball runner which is what Wales need more of in the tight five.
Ireland expect Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson to prove their fitness in time to face Scotland in Saturday’s Six Nations clash in Dublin.
The British and Irish Lions duo missed Ireland’s 37-27 win over Wales on February 24 and have since been battling to be fit for the Scotland encounter.
Despite missing the pair, Ireland were still able to record a bonus-point win over Wales, with Andrew Porter proving to be a more-than-able deputy at tighthead.
Ireland have racked up three straight wins in this year’s tournament and are now closing in on a third title in five years, and will be keen to avenge their loss at Murrayfield in the competition last year.
Meanwhile, fit-again Richie Gray has been added to the Scotland squad for the remainder of the Six Nations, the Scottish Rugby Union has announced.
The experienced second-row forward returns from long-term back and calf injuries to be named in Gregor Townsend’s revised squad ahead of their final two fixtures against Ireland and Italy, with 10 players added in total.
Alex Dunbar, Zander Fagerson, Darryl Marfo and Fraser Brown are also recalled after injuries, while George Horne has been handed a first senior call-up.
Townsend will be hoping his side can follow-up on their back-to-back wins over France and England – with a win in Dublin throwing them right back in the mix for the Championship – especially with them set to face Italy on the final day of the campaign.
With another weekend free of Six Nations action, it’s a good opportunity to look at where each of the sides are.
Wales. This is a tricky one. There had been so many positives from the first couple of games but the Ireland game brought things back down to earth a little bit. I don’t know if there had been too many plaudits, because they were just off the pace a bit in Dublin.
International rugby often comes down to a will to win – wanting to put in that big tackle or smash a ruck and we didn’t see a lot of that – and I think the coaches have to take some of the blame there. Wales allowed Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray to have a free ride and they bossed the game.
Wales should have been in their faces from the start, getting them on the ground, blocking runs – nothing dirty but just a professionalism that doesn’t allow these very good players to dominate a game.
Wales have done some very good things but, in those bigger games, need to be street-wise and give as good as they get – I sometimes think we’re too nice, but there has to be a balance between aggression and control that they need to find; expect some changes now for the Italy game.
Ireland have been Ireland. They have been very well drilled and do the basics of the game well. Against Wales they comfortably won the battle up front and that set the platform for their win. You look at that side and every player is comfortable with the game-plan, they know their jobs and execute very well – and that’s hard to play against.
At no point did they lose their control and that’s so important in international rugby. It is very difficult to go from playing aggressively in a tackle or ruck and then have to put in a delicate pass or use soft hands but they are doing it well and it will continue to help them as the competition goes on.
England came unstuck at Murrayfield and I think their issue is some of the players being picked are simply not good enough. The breakdown against Scotland was an absolute disaster and Chris Robshaw has to have a massive question mark over his place now.
I just don’t see any dynamism from him. He’s not winning ball on the floor and not making strong carries so I wonder what he’s doing there. Someone like Sam Underhill would be a much better option. Here’s a young, hungry guy who is fast and powerful, great in defence and has made an impact off the bench.
I’ve spoken about it before but again, I don’t know how Dylan Hartley is in the side, and I’d also drop Jonny May too. I’m not sure he’s got the greatest rugby brain and when you have Denny Solomona in the form he’s in I would be picking him every time.
I’ve been critical of Scotland in the past, but it was great for them to get that win over England – and it was much deserved too. The thing for them is now backing it up. There’s no point having one big performance and everyone being happy about it. Scotland have to string wins together if people are going to take them seriously on the world stage. The starts next weekend in Ireland and that isn’t going to be easy.
I have given France a lot of stick over the tournament, but it was good to see them get a win over Italy last time out. The interesting game for me though was their under-20 game. That is the side they should be putting their efforts into right now. They need to make sure those players are getting the opportunity to really develop and become the France side of the future.
Their league structure isn’t helping with this as a lot of these U20 players should be featuring for their club sides but can’t get into teams because of foreign imports. I know this first-hand because I was one of those imports.
Unless the players coming in are international class then it’s harming those young players – and those even younger who see these great players not getting a break, it can be massively disheartening, and is something that needs to be addressed.
I’m really struggling with Italy. At the start of the tournament I was really hoping to see them do well, and even if they didn’t get results, I just wanted to see some development and we are not getting that. I know a lot of people have talked about Georgia coming in and being the sixth team in the competition, but I wonder if we would be better going back to the Five Nations.
Games would all be competitive and, in a time when there is a call for players to play less, it would take a game out. Let’s see what happens next weekend.
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