The heat is on with blockbuster battles in London and Edinburgh set to have a major bearing on the Six Nations title race this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Championship resumes after a one-week break with Ireland in pole position on 15 points. Scotland, England, and France, all on 10 points, are second, third, and fourth respectively where losing is not an option if they are to keep their title hopes alive.
The two teams out of the running, Italy and Wales, kick-off Round Four in Rome on Saturday followed by Le Crunch at Twickenham, while top-of-the-table Ireland and Scotland square off at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Ireland could wrap up the title should they secure a bonus-point win and the England-France Test ends with neither side earning maximum points, so it’s all to play for.
Italy v Wales
Saturday, 11 March – 16:15
It’s a pick ‘em in Rome. Wales will have revenge on their minds for last year’s shock 22-21 loss in Cardiff. Their current off-field turmoil galvanised the Dragons to an extent against England last time out.
While the 20-10 defeat was a third straight loss and kept them rooted to the bottom of the log, it was by far their best performance and a starting point they’ll look to build on.
Italy gave Ireland a scare, as they did France in the opening round. It’s no coincidence that both of those hearty performances came at home and I expect that to be the difference between the sides in a cliffhanger.
England v France
Saturday, 11 March – 18:45
A bit of history: the last seven matches in this rivalry were all won by the home team. Furthermore, France haven’t beaten England at Twickenham since their 21-15 triumph in 2007. With that said, not only does this year’s Le Crunch have high stakes as a must-win for both teams, it’s also one of the most intriguing tactical battles.
England played Springbok-like rugby against Wales, putting boot to ball often, and reaped the rewards as they claimed their first win in Cardiff in six years. Now Steve Borthwick has surprised by handing the No 10 jersey to the mercurial Marcus Smith, meaning a tactical shift is loading.
France have power and depth in the tight five, mobile loose forwards, tactically astute drivers at nine, 10 and 15, and dangerous strike runners. With their bases covered, Les Bleus should break their Twickenham drought.
Scotland v Ireland
Sunday, 12 March – 17:00
Scotland have been the most skillful team of this year’s Championship but in Paris the previous round, they showed their die-hard spirit. Down a man and 12-0 before France also saw red, the deficit grew to 19 and the game looked dead and buried.
However, the Scots stayed composed and fought back to within four before a last-minute try by Gael Fickou sealed their fate. Marrying skill and heart means Scotland will be a massive test for Ireland at Murrayfield, more so than any other time in recent history, with Fabien Galthie going as far as to call them the best Scottish team of all time after the match.
Ireland were made to work hard by Italy but nevertheless racked up their third consecutive bonus-point win. It’ll be their ruthless efficiency against the passion and playmaking prowess of their hosts. Scotland will stay in the fight, but Ireland have the pack to force Gregor Townshend’s troops to play their game and leave with a hard-fought win.