Six Nations: round four preview


March 9, 2023

After a week off, the Six Nations return this weekend, and with so much to play for, it promises to be an exciting round of rugby. I am here to rule the events of the weekend as we enter into potentially one of the most exciting tours in the history of the Six Nations.

Italy v Wales, Saturday, 14:15

Welles travels to Rome to avoid the wooden spoon, a fate he has not suffered since 2007. Italy’s dramatic improvement has enriched the tournament, but their entertaining approach has yet to be rewarded with a win. Italy pushed Ireland closer, their complex attacking plays causing many problems to the Irish defence. The Azzurri’s offensive ambition has won them plenty of admirers, but Saturday saw them shed the underdog tag, and it will be interesting to see how they cope with the high level of expectations. Ang Capuzo’s injury is a huge blow; The jet-heel fullback’s ability to attract multiple defenders at once is an important aspect of Italy’s offensive play. Capuozzo is a world superstar, and his absence would diminish any side.

But Italy’s threats run deeper than Capuozzo realized, as demonstrated by the united nature of their attack against Ireland. His back line has been particularly impressive; Lorenzo Cannon punctured the Ireland defense with several fiery runs, while Sebastien Negri has been equally attractive. Italy will play with their usual pace and ambition on Saturday, and you’d think a quick start would be key against a low-confidence Wales team. Italy’s victory in Cardiff last year marked the beginning of something of a revolution, and winning on Saturday would represent the next step.

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It has been a torrid tournament so far for Wales, beset by a myriad of off-field problems. Pay disputes briefly put their game against England in doubt, and given the chaos it was understandable; You could forgive the Welsh players if their focus was elsewhere. You can’t doubt the motivation or commitment of the Welsh players, but the issues surrounding their game must be continually undermined. However, Wales’ on-field performances have been poor, lacking clarity and direction, much like their union. Gatland has changed his side to no avail and it will be interesting to see how he chooses to counter the high-tempo Italians.

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While Italy’s attack has flourished, Wales look clumsy and lateral, devoid of confidence and cohesion, lacking any edge. Wales must do more to get their most potent attacking weapon, Louis Rees-Zammit, on the ball. Italy’s defense showed some weaknesses in the first half against Ireland, and Wales’ forwards need some pace to step up as ball carriers and work their backline. On a positive note, Wales’ discipline against England was much better, but they will need to kick better on Saturday, as Italy will be happy to have depth in attack. Saturday marks a big moment in Welsh rugby. Defeat will only deepen the misery, while victory will provide the much-needed lift.

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England v France, Saturday, 16:45

England welcomes France who are looking to keep their slim title ambitions alive, with both sides seeking a win to keep the pressure on Ireland. England strangle Wales with the accuracy of their kicking game and the intensity of their defence, but they will need more imagination to beat France. Steve Borthwick seems to have agreed that Marcus Smith will replace captain Owen Farrell at fly-half. England’s attack against Wales was reasonable but they will need to be quick to unlock Shaun Edward’s defence. It would be a bold move on Borthwick’s part, but it could be a decision partly driven by Farrell’s struggles from T to Cardiff.

Selecting Smith suggests that Borthwick wants England to play at a higher pace, with less emphasis on kicking. Smith ignited Harlequins’ backline in their win against Exeter after being released to get some minutes under his belt. Smith is the main man in Quins, and if England are going to take him, they have to give him the license to play. France’s defense is patient, and England can expect a greater fight at the breakdown than in Cardiff. Borthwick would have noted France’s struggles against Scotland’s line-out drives, an area where England had some success against Italy and Wales. England will also need to replicate the defensive excellence they displayed in Cardiff, but they can expect a tough test against a formidable French pack.

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France haven’t been at their thrilling best, but they still pose a significant threat. He displayed his clinical edge against Scotland in the first half, ruthlessly exploiting his chances. In their wins against Italy and Scotland, France came off the blocks but collapsed dramatically in the second half. England can quietly fancy their chances if they can withstand the inevitable early pressure. The ban of Uni Antonio, as well as Mehmed Hawais, leaves France looking bare in the dark, an area Elis Ganz will be keen to exploit. France have a dismal record at Twickenham, their last win at the HQ coming in 2005, but this French side is different. He may not have fired on all cylinders yet, but he has shown the character and resilience of champions, while his ability to get away with scores of nil makes him a consistently dangerous proposition.

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Scotland v Ireland, Sunday, 15:00 PM

In a weekend of exciting fixtures, Scotland’s clash against Ireland tops the bill. Scotland will look to derail Ireland’s Slam ambitions and boost their own title hopes. Despite their defeat in France, confidence is running high, and a win on Sunday would represent a golden moment in the history of Scottish rugby. Gregor Townsend would have been relieved by Italy’s high-tempo attack from the problems Ireland had caused, an approach Scotland would look to replicate. However, they should be more accurate than against France, where they left many points on the field.

Scotland should have defended better than in the first half in Paris, scoring three tries in the opening twenty minutes after they were forced to chase the game down. Ireland are notorious for their quick starts, and they will need to come off the block on Sunday if Scotland are to have a chance of winning. Equally important will be Finn Russell’s game-management. He pulled the strings beautifully against France in the second half with his kicking game pulling the French back, but was guilty of some over-ambition in the first half. Ireland will be wary of the dangers in Scotland’s back line in the red-hot form of Huw Jones and Duhan van der Merwe. Scotland’s pack need to provide the front-foot ball and allow Russell to play with pace.

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However, in Ireland, they face masters of the breakdown, and the likes of Josh van Flier will prefer to slow the Scottish ball down. Ireland’s intensity at the breakdown is unparalleled, and they know that if they can stop Finn Russell from getting a platform to play, their chances of winning go up significantly. Ireland showed some small signs of decadence against Italy, but they eventually showed the composure of champions to pull out the victory. He has been ruthless in attack throughout the tournament, and his clinical edge proved the difference against the Italians.

Ireland have also been strengthened by the return of several key players. The return of Tadhg Furlong has been particularly timely after Finlay Belham was injured in Rome, with Propp’s dexterous tackling skills as much as his prodigious strength. Johnny Sexton is also in line to return, as are Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw. It will be interesting to see if Farrell throws Henshaw straight to the side. Despite their lack of playing time, the partnership of Henshaw and Ringrose has been vital to Ireland’s rise to the top. Henshaw’s defensive abilities could be vital against the dual threats of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones. Ireland are the best side in the world for a reason, but they face a huge challenge on Sunday in what promises to be an exciting match.

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