Shane Nolan gives his predictions for this weekend's Six Nations matches.
This weekend’s action begins at 14:25 on Saturday as Wales travel to take on the Scots in Murrayfield. Scotland are aiming to recapture their form from the Ireland game, following a defeat the last time out against France. Wales haven’t really set the tournament alight this year, stumbling past the Italians and losing to Eddie Jones’ England side two weeks ago. However, despite their poor start, the bookies’ odds of a 10/11 Welsh win seem quite appealing. The Welsh have a good record against Scotland and will have little fear heading up north.
Perhaps most damaging to Scottish chances is the injury to captain and goal-kicker Greg Laidlaw. Ali Price came off the bench last week but the young scrum-half is still inexperienced at test level. Henry Pyros will be called up from Glasgow Warriors but he had a patchy game in the loss to Ulster last weekend. Although the Grays and John Barclay will offer leadership, Finn Russel will certainly be less trustworthy with the kicking tee. A tight game should produce a Welsh win and end this much improved Scotland side’s Triple Crown ambitions.
At 16:50 in the Aviva, Ireland will be hoping to continue their resurgence against Guy Noves’ France. Despite their quality players, the French are simply too unstructured to compete for this year’s title. Much has been spoken of the potential for nostalgic French flair but it simply isn’t there. Their Fijian wingers, Clermont’s Nakataici and the currently unattached Vakatawa, were criminally poor against Scotland, running the ball over the side-line on at least five occasions. If Simon Zebo dared to do that once, Schmidt would be picking Fergus McFadden ahead of him! It’s something you wouldn’t see in schoolboy rugby and it coughed up possession every time the French were looking dangerous. Their solid scrum and the continuously imperious form of Louis Picamoles makes the French dangerous but they just don’t seem to have a plan. In contrast, Schmidt has everything planned to a tee. It will be a close enough encounter ending with an Irish win, reminiscent of their world cup clash in 2015, hopefully minus the injuries. The greatest talking point has been whether to start Jackson or Sexton. It really should not matter. Jackson should be good enough to transfer his fine Ulster form into a competent performance against France. If Sexton starts, even better again. Van Der Flier may be out but with Murray and Kearney said to be fit, I would be confident of an Irish victory.
On Sunday, England welcome Italy to Twickenham for their annual drubbing. The only real question about this match is how wide the margin of victory will be. Paddy Power have the line in and around the forty one point mark, and it would be hard to disagree. If Ireland can put nine tries past the hapless Italians then England will surely do the same. I’ve mentioned before that England can play open rugby when it suits them, notably against Australia back in the autumn. England have the luxury of deciding whether to go around, over or through the Italians. I feel they will take the latter option, meaning Ben Te’o, should he start or come on, could do some serious damage. The returning Mako Vunipola, if he gets game time could also have a pleasant afternoon stroll through a frail Italian defence. It is matches like this that should bring about the introduction of Georgia through a relegation/promotion play-off, as these annual annihilations are not doing anybody any good.
Scotland v. Wales. Winner: Wales
Ireland v France. Winner: Ireland
England v Italy. Winner: England