Two pulsating rounds of 6 Nations action has whetted the appetite. A rest week has created the anticipation. Like boxers who have set sat on their stool for too long, the teams are ready for Round Three. Now we find out who will become contenders and who can be discounted.
The pre-tournament consensus read that Scotland were the best attacking force in Europe, Ireland were the most organised, Italy had improved and Wales were finished.
And then the tournament kicked off.
The Story So Far
Any hype ended with a sudden bang from the first whistle of the first game. Ill-prepared Scotland capitulated against an impressive Welsh side. France held pre-tournament favourites Ireland to penalty kicks and a nerve wracking, last gasp drop goal. And in Rome, Italy were, once again, cast aside by England.
We head into round 3 of the 2018 incarnation of this historic tournament, with Ireland and England set atop the table on course for a grand-slam decider on the final day. Wales and Scotland sit in third and fourth with one victory a-piece. Propping up the table are the controversial French and hapless Italians.
It seems that a week of the 6 Nations cannot go by without the French causing a media storm. Les Bleus are in utter disarray. Week one and the French Rugby Federation (FFR) were up in front of the authorities over head injury assessments.
Round two, and six players were hauled into an Edinburgh police station for questioning. Fortunately for the FFR, no action will be taken against them over the HIA controversy. However, five players are now unavailable as a result of the incident following their loss to Scotland.
Who knows what round three will bring, but Last Word on Rugby looks forward to each match, this weekend.
Round Three Fixtures
France v Italy – Friday February 23, 20:00
Italy travel to France with a sense of optimism. Not based on their own record but at the shear chaos of the opposition. The Azzurri have started their campaign against, arguably, the two toughest opponents in England and Ireland. They have scored 34 points in those two games and played well in short patches. Tommaso Benvenuti has been a bright spark for the Italians on the wing and talismatic captain Sergio Parisse plays every match at a high level. Is a first victory since 2015 on the cards?
The old saying that ‘you never know which French team will turn up’ is more selection based this week, rather than any philosophical temperament (see above repercussions from round two). The returning Mathieu Bastareaud will provide some go-forward but, Les Bleus are certainly short at half back and are now missing their key try scorer, Teddy Thomas.
The French public are right to be worried about this Friday-night encounter. Italy have the scalp of South Africa, and would dearly love to secure at least one victory of the 2018 NatWest 6Nations championship.
Ireland v Wales – Saturday Feb 24, 14:15
A fascinating Round three match-up in Dublin, starts the Saturday fixture list. Warren Gatland returns to the country he once coached in what will be his 100th test as head coach of Wales. Only Graham Henry can say he stayed with one country more than ‘Gats’.
Wales set a few records straight with a classy opening day victory over Scotland. The men in red won’t have lost too much momentum from a narrow loss away to England either. A back line decimated by pre-tournament injuries is bolstered with a returning (and rampaging) George North. Gatland may also be able to call upon his rock-solid goal kicker Leigh Halfpenny who could make a return in Dublin.
Ahead of them, are an Ireland side that haven’t hit full stride yet. They will be wanting to show that they are the real deal in 2018. This Irish side need a sustained test against a side that will put them under pressure. Wales will bring that this weekend.
The news that Tadhg Furlong should be fit in time for the Wales clash, is a welcome relief for head coach, Joe Schmidt. His key selection now will be who replaces the injured Robbie Henshaw in the centre? Does Keith Earls move from the wing or can Bundee Aki fill the void at 13?
Scotland v England – Saturday Feb 24, 16:45
Murrayfield hosts this years’ Calcutta Cup in the final game this weekend. Scottish fans will not want to remember the 2017 version, heading down to Twickenham full of hope and leaving on the back of a 61-21 hammering.
Scottish fans were similarly flying high before the start of this tournament, after an impressive autumn and domestic success for Glasgow Warriors. The manor of defeat in Wales meant that Gregor Townsend and his staff had to go back to basics, starting with the captain.
The returning Greig Laidlaw put in a Man of the Match performance in his side’s victory over France. The question has now become ‘where’ not ‘if’ you fit him in, with Townsend electing to finish the game with the scrum-half in an unfamiliar stand-off position. The Scottish pack has been beset with injuries, but prop forward WP Nel returns from a broken arm, in a much needed boost to the Scottish front row.
That front row will be severely tested against an English pack aiming to have the most feared scrum in World Rugby. Eddie Jones has flown in the mighty Georgians to battle harden his pack in the build up to this game. Their strength in depth, continues to be a factor in this tournament. Sam Simmonds looks set to miss several games, but Jones has the choices of Nathan Hughes and James Haskell to return to the fold.
However, it is still that critical position of 13 that Jones is battling to fill. Ideally, the Australian would like a mixture of Joseph’s footwork and Te’o’s straight running, to start against Scotland. One thing is for certain, no-one will question if Jones will pick Mike Brown at full back.
NatWest 6Nations current standings:
This is the current standing…
Take a look at what the papers had to say after Round Two!
— NatWest 6 Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 12, 2018
Ireland enjoy a marginal points differential, but have not been as convincing as England. Two key fixtures in Round Three will see which team can convince their fans they are title contenders.
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