There’s a strange look to the Six Nations table right now. England – yes, hapless, hopeless, permanent manager-less England – find themselves as co-leaders with a 100% record. Is it a false position after beating two of the competition’s minnows? Or are these the early rays of a bright new era of English rugby? We’ll know just how much to scoff at the renaissance and a lot more besides after this weekend’s game.
England v Wales – Sat. 4pm BBC1 & RTE2
England are sitting pretty after successfully negotiating two cauliflower-eared banana skins. You can’t really criticise a team which manages to grind out wins. But with this version of the Sweet Chariot we’re prepared to make an exception. How you view England will depend a lot on how highly you rate Scotland and Italy. Are they making progress from their comparatively low ebbs or are they still a bit crap but occasionally capable of making life difficult for people? In neither of those games did England look vastly superior to their hosts, but that’s easier to accept if you big up the standard of the opposition. Two charge-down tries were a ringing endorsement of the length of Charlie Hodgson’s arm, but a damning indictment of England’s lack of creativity. They got away with it in Edinburgh and Rome, but they’ll need to give Wales more to think about.
Wales provide company for England at the top of the table and can feel pretty smug with their championship so far. They were well worth their win in Dublin and really gave Scotland a second half kicking at the Millennium Stadium. They’ve been playing well and hopes of securing a quick-fire Triple Crown are well-founded. They welcome back captain Sam Warbuton from a dead leg and the addition of Alan Wyn Jones to the line-up isn’t likely to weaken it. Wales are not at full strength in the front row, but it may not matter as their attacking threat might be the difference. England contained the ‘head-butting a wall’ approach of the Scottish back line, but were less comfortable against the not highly rated Italians. The Welsh are going to be far more dangerous than either of the previous assignments.
England are capable of again grinding it out and making it a hat-trick of unpleasant wins, but Wales are the favourites and are worth backing with the -3 point handicap.
Ireland v Italy – Sat. 1.30pm BBC1 & RTE2
It has been a couple of weeks since Ireland have stuck their heads between the thighs of other men in anger. The theory is they’ll be almost rabid to atone for the heartbreak of shooting themselves in the foot against Wales. That’s one way of looking at it, but equally they might have overdone it on the Rich Tea biscuits in the last couple of weeks. Ireland may be sluggish and slow out of the blocks. They trounced the Italians at the World Cup and the absence of Brian O’Driscoll aside, not much has changed since. In Dunedin, the Italians put it up to Ireland in a first half that was tighter than a ‘medium’ jersey on your average retired prop, but when the game opened up, Ireland’s superior back line came to the fore and put some sizeable daylight between the teams. A repeat of that general pattern wouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Italy are without some key players for the trip to Dublin. A fractured rib means Jacques Brunel won’t be able to call on the power of Martin Castrogiovanni’s fantastic hair for the remainder of the Six Nations and won’t have Mauro Bergamasco at his disposal thanks to an ill-advised punch against the Ospreys in the Rabo Direct Pro12. Already in his brief reign, Brunel has signalled his intent to make the Italians more of an attacking threat, but there’s still an absence of players of the calibre required to deliver on his attacking intentions.
More than likely, Italy will make it sticky for Ireland for the majority of the match before Ireland cut loose towards the end. The handicap is tantalisingly set at Ireland -15 points and where you come down on that will depend on how much cutting loose Ireland will be able to do. Over The Line suspects it’s slightly too much to cover and we’d take the Italians +15, but history has shown us that we’re terrible gamblers here, so go with your heart.
Scotland v France – Sunday 3pm BBC1 & RTE2
Any optimism Scotland took from their moral victory over England at Murrayfield quickly evaporated in Cardiff when they got firmly put in their place by Wales. Against the Sweet Chariot, they at least had the debatable excuse that the semantics of what counts as ‘downward pressure’ cost them victory. Against the Dragons, all they had to clutch at was a first half were they weren’t as totally outclassed as they were in the second half. If you can completely ignore the Wales game, then you might be of the opinion they can cause an upset against France, especially with the benefit of home advantage. David Denton looks like he’ll cause problems for any defence in the world and Greig Laidlaw will bring some much needed creavity to the backs, but is it enough to trouble France? Probably not.
France have been idle since week one after they realised a little too late that freezing conditions might lead to a playing surface more suitable to figure-skating rather than rugby. The Scots’ best hope might be – excuse the unintentional awful pun – catching Les Bleus cold, but there’s no guarantee that’s how it’ll go down. Their opening weekend win over Italy was immensely encouraging for Phillipe Saint Andre. France were pedestrian for much of the match in the face of an impressive Italian performance and still recorded a comfortably victory thanks to some clever sucker-punching. That’s the danger for Scotland. They may be able to put pressure on France, but when they mistakes come – and there will be mistakes – the French will most likely punish them.
A France win looks on the cards and they should have enough Gallic flair/Gaelic errors to cover the -6 point handicap.