ITALY v FRANCE
This is a Six Nations that both of the teams will want to put behind them and move on but with the World Cup looming ominously over them, they need to find some form quickly.
The great Sergio Parisse is probably going to play his last game in the coliseum of the Stadio Olimpico for Italy on Saturday so expect him to have a significant impact on the game, but he can’t keep carrying the other 14 men on the field.
We’ve seen that Italy can go through numerous phases, keep the ball and gain ground effectively at times but defensively they are a horror show. Too narrow and not trusting the man inside or outside of you will always plant seeds of self-doubt in any defender’s mind.
Jacques Brunel can count himself extremely lucky to still be in a job with France right now but he seems to finally be working towards a settled back line mixed with young exuberance and valuable experience.
Antoine Dupont (22 years old) and Romain Ntamack (19) seem to be a half-back partnership that will be entrusted with World Cup duties and although we have seen glimpses of what they can do in breaking down opposition we are still to see a consistency that will make the French public satisfied that the squad are heading in the right direction.
This match is the perfect opportunity for them to show that and I think this game will be open and fast, which will suit the visitors more.
FRANCE by 8
WALES v IRELAND
I promise you that I won’t mention the flipping roof because let’s be honest, it makes no difference to 30 professional rugby players so let’s all move on, shall we?
Wales will probably start favourites for this titanic clash in Cardiff but only because they are the home team.
The two teams are so closely matched in every department across the forwards and backs but for Wales to win this they will need to gain the ascendancy on the gain line. Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes will need to get the better of Johnny Sexton and Bundee Aki but that is asking a great deal.
Sexton hasn’t been at his World Player of the Year best in this tournament but his will to win has never waned. He showed that when he stormed off the pitch in a rage in Rome a few weeks back.
Sean O’Brien coming back into the back row and CJ Stander’s form means that the Welsh trio of Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric will face their sternest test to date in this year’s tournament.
Wales, although on an impressive run of wins, are still not firing properly yet and there is something vulnerable about them.
I think Ireland will spoil the party in Cardiff.
IRELAND by 4
ENGLAND v SCOTLAND
We won’t know how important this game will be right up until kick off but we already know that England will be overwhelming favourites either way.
The biggest story from Eddie Jones’ selection this week is that Joe Cokanasiga drops out of the match day 23 after last week’s Man of the Match performance. Jones has said that he wants to protect him and keep him fresh for the World Cup but I doubt that the Twickenham faithful see it that way.
Mark Wilson returns in the back row, as does Henry Slade in the 13 shirt.
The rest of the pack picks itself and the blend of power and bulk will be looking to dominate up front to release a free scoring back line.
Scotland are injury ravaged and struggling for form. They should take heart from their second half showing last weekend against Wales though.
Last year at Murrayfield, the Scottish back row dominated and won the game for the men in blue but this year is a different story. England’s has improved and been strengthened whereas it’s only Hamish Watson that survives for Scotland. John Barclay and Ryan Wilson were imperious last year and their loss to the squad is starting to show.
Gregor Townsend has made 6 changes to the team that lost to Wales at home and by taking this side to a stadium they haven’t won in since 1983 is a gamble in all honesty.
I can’t see Scotland getting even close to an England squad that will be seeking to finish the tournament with a statement performance.
ENGLAND BY 24