England and Ireland face off in a must-win and must-watch showdown in the pick of the weekend’s Six Nations action, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The victors will keep their title hopes alive while the losers will see theirs go up in smoke, setting the stage for a titanic tussle in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham on Saturday.
The fourth round kicks off with another crunch clash as Grand Slam-chasing France head to Cardiff, where they’ll be confronted by a spirited Welsh side.
Sandwiched in between the two blockbusters is a rumble in Rome pitting Italy against Scotland on Saturday afternoon. While both are out of the title race, they’ll have more than pride to play for in the form of the brand-new Cuttitta Cup.
Wales v France
Friday, 11 March – 22:00
Unbeaten France are flying high, however, they’ll have to shield against complacency to avoid crashing down to earth in Cardiff. A depleted Wales were always going to struggle to retain their title. That ship has indeed sailed, but they won’t be pushovers.
The Dragons deserve a ton of credit for the way they regrouped after being thumped 29-7 by Ireland in the opening round. They saw off favoured Scotland 20-17 in a character-filled triumph and fought back gallantly from 17-0 down to push England to the brink before ultimately succumbing 23-19 at Twickenham.
That dog within will make Wales tricky customers and if nothing else, will ensure France are forced to work hard for their win. Following an easy victory over Italy (37-10) and a crucial win over Ireland (30-24), Les Bleus delivered a near-perfect performance to smash Scotland 36-17 at Murrayfield and are, therefore, sizeable favourites to continue their surge.
With rain on the cards, it’ll be interesting to see if Wales pull a bit of gamesmanship and opt to keep the roof of the Millennium Stadium open. France have shown an aptitude to adapt their game to the conditions they’re met with, but being forced into a wet-weather arm-wrestle is the path of more resistance. Either way, France’s versatility will see them slay the Dragons.
Italy v Scotland
Saturday, 12 March – 16:15
The introduction of the Cuttitta Cup gives the clash in Rome some much-needed spice considering both sides are out of the running for the Six Nations crown.
The new silverware, unveiled in Edinburgh on Monday, has been crafted in memory of former Italy captain and hugely respected and popular Scotland scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta, who died of Covid 11 months ago aged 54.
The disappointing defeats to Wales and France following their big win over England at Twickenham will add fuel to Scotland’s fire and spell more misery for Italy.
Routed 37-10, 33-0 and 57-6 by France, England and Ireland respectively, the Azzurri have regressed every week and are in for another licking.
England v Ireland
Saturday, 12 March – 18:45
With both teams having registered two wins and a loss, it’s do-or-die time at Twickenham. Ireland sit second, three points behind unbeaten France, with England in third, one point behind the Irish.
After falling over the first hurdle against Scotland at home, England recovered by whitewashing Italy (33-0) and stuttering past Wales (23-19). Eddie Jones’ men are yet to hit their straps, which is why they’re slight underdogs despite having home ground advantage.
Ireland, in turn, were irrepressible against Wales (29-7) and ruthless against the Azzurri (57-6), which came either side of a narrow 30-24 loss to France in Paris that snapped a nine-match winning streak.
When you look at the tangibles, the Irish are better on paper and on the pitch. They have a more complete composition and have been more clinical. The likely determining factor is neither of these but, rather, their composure or lack thereof.
It’s more than the fact that playing at a sold-out Twickenham gives England players an extra arm and a leg. It’s that, under Andy Farrell, Ireland have won just two out of seven fixtures on the road – at Murrayfield and in Rome. That poor away record will probably have many punters going for the plus money on England.
For me, Ireland have sufficient cool heads in key positions to pass the mental test. Also, make no mistake, England will be feeling the pressure as well. Ireland might be marginal favourites, but there’s an internal expectancy in any English camp when they play on home soil.
Up against it, it doesn’t help the hosts that they’ve lost hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, lock Jonny Hill and star scrumhalf Raffi Quirke to injury, while prop Andrew Porter is Ireland’s only injury setback.
I’m expecting Ireland’s mental strength to match their physical prowess and see them edge a classic cliffhanger.