The Six Nations goes from famine to feast this weekend.
After a lull in the action, which amounted to one round of fixtures in three weeks, we can look forward to a seminal seven days for northern hemisphere rugby.
Last time out France rediscovered their rugby-senses and disposed of Scotland with minimal fuss in the early Saturday kick-off.
The championship was revitalised a few short hours later in Cardiff.
Wales v England was billed as being potentially the game of the competition, and at this stage there’s been none better.
Wales emerged as the victors to leave themselves, England, and Ireland all vying for a title in the final two rounds.
Ireland were expected to get a bonus point win against the Italians. While their first objective was achieved, the aim to start playing good rugby still remains.
These are concerning times for Joe Schmidt and Ireland.
Scotland will get week four underway on Saturday afternoon against grand slam chasing Wales in Edinburgh. England welcome Italy to Twickenham, and Ireland reprise their Sunday slot from the last round to take on France.
Scotland v Wales (Virgin One/BBC One 2.15pm, Sat Mar 9th)
Scotland will do well to claim a win in either of their last games in this championship.
A home-tie against the Welsh is followed by a trip to Twickenham in the final round. So this weekend’s game offers their best chance of a win.
A rare win it would be.
In their last five Six Nations meetings at Murrayfield, Scotland have lost all but one (2017). It’s just as well they get to play hosts against Wales, they’re without a win in Cardiff since 2002.
Records are there to be broken and all that but it would constitute a major shock if Wales’ grand slam aspirations ran-aground in Scotland.
Scotland will be much improved for the return of a number of players. Finn Russell at 10 and WP Nell at tighthead in particular.
Wales are almost unchanged from their championship-changing win over England. Adam Beard comes in to the second row for Cory Hill.
Gatland’s side are strong in the back-row, and strong in the back-field, both these areas have become non-negotiables in this years’ Six Nations.
Scotland will improve for their disappointment in Paris last time out, and the return of Russell. However I can’t bet against Wales and Gatland to bring their grand slam decider to life by winning at Murrayfield on Saturday.
What a finish this was from @Gar_Davies9 in the reverse fixture last week!
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 8, 2019
England v Italy (Virgin One/ITV 4:45pm, Sat Mar 9th)
Things don’t get any easier for Italy.
After leading Ireland at half time in Rome, the Italians succumbed to second half pressure to eventually lose, and without the losing bonus point.
Despite a 13th straight loss in the competition, Italy are clearly making progress. Their problem is they don’t look like winning a game any time soon.
For England, it’s back to the drawing board somewhat. Familiar failings have reared the head this year.
Specifically, when the English are flying, they tend to slip when pressure and atmosphere reaches white-hot levels. A la Cardiff last time out, their grand slam match at the Aviva two years ago, or even against Wales and Australia in the World Cup four years ago.
It’s a worrying trend.
It won’t however worry them this weekend. Eddie Jones has picked a monster side to face Italy. Ben Te’o, Joe Cokanasiga, and Brad Shields will somehow add even more ballast to the already heaving mass that is this England team.
The retention of Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, and Billy Vunipola indicate just how seriously Jones and England are taking this weekend’s game.
England to win, and with a bit to spare. However I’m still backing Italy to survive a sizable handicap.
Ireland v France (Virgin One/ITV 3pm, Sun Mar 10th)
Two teams who have failed to meet expectations this year.
There’s pressure on both sides for very different reasons. Ireland will be desperate to avoid a repeat of 2007.
On that ill-fated season Ireland were expected to challenge for the Rugby World Cup after sustaining a level of performance and success for a number of years.
For many different reasons Ireland lost form in the run up to that tournament. They never recovered and another World Cup fell by the wayside.
Shadows of 2007 in 2019? You would think not but it can happen. Watching Ireland endure an existential crisis mid-championship is certainly fascinating. It’s not exactly ideal in terms of punting.
Speaking of hard to read, let’s look at the French.
Their 44-8 defeat at Twickenham marked a low-point in terms of how disorganised and rudderless a side can get. Fast forward a fortnight and the French are putting Scotland away with minimal fuss.
If, as expected, they retain their promising half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont at 9 and Roman Ntamack at outhalf, then France have the tools to penetrate the best of defences.
I think it’s fair to expect their performance to fall in between the two stools of their morose showing against England and their impressive display at home to Scotland.
Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland have won five of their last six meetings with France. Their disorganised chaos has typically been meat and drink for Schmidt’s powerplays and multi-phase attacks.
The problem for Ireland is that these facets have been sub-par all competition.
Ireland will welcome back Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander, Rory Best and Josh van der Flier to their starting 15 and could go a long way to rectifying recent issues across the board.
Ireland to win, but France should stay within reach.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 7, 2019
I’m looking at a risk averse approach this weekend.
Scotland and France certainly have the capacity to spring a surprise this weekend.
Backing Italy to beat a 31.5 point handicap is the best value leg of this treble.
Wales to Win at 1/2
Italy +31.5 to win at 10/11
And France +19.5 to win at 2/5