Six Nations Rugby: Who will win the Championship?
It's shaping up to be a thrilling weekend and, here, Chris Hewitt looks at the contenders.
They just about deserve to win this tournament, having shown sufficient character to prevail in Wales and enough ambition to score almost twice as many tries as anyone else. Yet they could just as easily finish fourth.
By winning so heavily in a mind-numbing game against Italy in Rome yesterday, the French will overtake their hosts with an eight-point victory at Twickenham this weekend.
There again, Les Bleus have won only once in London in the Six Nations era and are, on their own admission, so spooked by their trips across the Channel that they feel half-beaten before kick-off. Not only will England start as favourites, despite the heavyweight nature of the French pack, they will also have the overwhelming advantage of knowing precisely what they must do – an unwelcome, if inevitable, by-product of a rugby age ruled by broadcasters.
Stuart Lancaster, the red rose coach, will consider the claims of Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Tom Wood in selecting his starting side – something of a luxury, given that his opposite number, Philippe Saint-André, can barely move for injuries. For the avoidance of doubt, the notion that France have a realistic shot at winning the title is an affront to common sense, if not to arithmetic.
Ireland’s attacking game, such as it is, has served them poorly thus far: one try a game is not the stuff of which champions should be made, especially as they scored 16 in five matches last year. Yet they are in close touch with England in terms of the points differential and could easily make that up in Edinburgh, thereby presenting the current leaders with an uncomfortably difficult task against the French.
Indeed, their recent record at Murrayfield is dazzlingly good: a heavy defeat there in 2001 was succeeded by five victories, one of them by 30 points and another by 27. While they lost narrowly two years ago, their coach Joe Schmidt has surely filed the task ahead under the heading “eminently doable”.
Their principal advantage is that they are conceding even fewer tries than they are scoring: like the French, they have leaked just two all tournament, and are unlikely to be cracked open at this late stage. Scotland have something about them in the attacking department these days, but they are struggling to field a second decent wing in the absence of Tim Visser and Sean Lamont and are also feeling the lack of Alex Dunbar in midfield.
Warren Gatland’s men know what it is to lose in Rome, even if the head coach from New Zealand does not, but under the circumstances it is devilishly hard to see them coming up short this time.
They may be up against it in the set-piece department – the veteran loose-head specialist Gethin Jenkins is not having it all his own way; the highly regarded young tight-head operator Samson Lee broke down with injury during the victory over Ireland – but as the French demonstrated yesterday, Italy are not what they were in the scrum now that Andrea Lo Cicero, Salvatore Perugini and Martin Castrogiovanni are off the roster.
The problem for Wales is that they have to score 20-odd points before they even begin to make inroads into the advantage held by England and Ireland. In other words, they must subject the Azzurri to the kind of torments inflicted on them this time last year by England, who won 52-11. It is not impossible, but the Red Dragons have done nothing thus far to indicate that they might set the Tiber on fire with their scintillating running rugby.
Belfast Telegraph Digital