By Max Mathews
- England entertain Wales with fiery encounter expected at Twickenham
- Scotland aim to build on Italy win against Grand Slam-chasing France
- Ireland’s clash with Azzurri postponed due to on-going coronavirus fears
SIX NATIONS – All the talking points ahead of a pivotal fourth weekend of this year’s Six Nations with the title potentially being decided in this set of fixtures.
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Feisty Twickenham encounter on cards
This weekend’s encounter at Twickenham will be the 135th meeting between England and Wales, and it could be one of the most explosive yet even rivalling arguably their most brutal encounter. 40 years on from Paul Ringer’s sending off for Wales in a no-holds-barred, ultra-violent Five Nations war which England edged 9-8, the two bordering nations again pick up the gauntlet in the English capital.
There’s nothing to suggest it won’t be comparably combustible. The visitors again could take up their positions as whingers-in-chief after their complaints against France, and as two sides who have developed quite the distaste for one another – through sheer competition – this weekend whets the sporting appetite.
Whether the eight English-born Welsh players, including George North, Jake Ball, Will Rowlands, Ross Moriarty and Nick Tompkins are targeted by opposing players in the same way Scotland forward Ryan Wilson received special attention, will prove an interesting watch in particular – as will the two starting XVs be fascinating to observe.
Biggar blow dents Welsh hopes
England will expect to have a fairly similar side, despite Mako Vunipola’s continuing absence – this time due to elements other than injury – with another six-two split of forwards and backs expected in what will likely prove a physically demanding encounter. Anthony Watson is back in the squad and could make a return to a back three with a number of square pegs in round holes with natural centres Elliot Daly and Jonathan Joseph recently taking up spots in the backfield.
Finally and most bizarrely, Jones has called up 22-year-old scrum-half Jack Maunder to add competition to grizzled veterans Willi Heinz and Ben Youngs for the Rose. What Dan Robson – who was outstanding for Wasps against London Irish – or Ben Spencer have to do to get in the squad is becoming beyond many.
For Wales, the potential of losing Dan Biggar remains after his injury for Saints last weekend and despite bringing in Sam Davies as cover, coach Wayne Pivac will be eager to see the fly-half passed fit. You’ve got to be pretty sure a player’s going to come through to admit your confidence he’ll play, but ex-Wales captain Sam Warburton revealed exactly that with bullish words to BBC Sport:
“He [Biggar] doesn’t need a scan. He’s going to train and do stuff with the physios, but everyday so far the feedback from the physios has been good, he’s had a really good response.
He’s ticking all the boxes he needs to. He’s on a good course so, hopefully, with no hiccups, we’ll have some good news. There are no guarantees but we’re confident at this stage.”
With only the internationally green Jarrod Evans as an option if Biggar doesn’t make it through, the further absentees of Gareth Anscombe, Rhys Patchell and Owen Williams are set to provide a sizeable headache for Saturday’s visitors.
England coach Eddie Jones put the heat on Patchell before their Six Nations match in 2018 and although Biggar – even if half-fit – could handle the mental pressure (the physical pressure is another matter), there’s no guarantee Evans or Davies could manage the partisan Twickenham atmosphere.
Rangy Rowlands meanwhile, limped off for Wasps against London Irish but if fit could prove a fillip off the bench to add some grunt and guile into a flagging pack, with flanker Josh Navidi and winger North expected back after knocks as well. As underrated wing Josh Adams is now out for the rest of the tournament, world-class back three player Liam Williams’ return now can’t come soon enough.
Scots reconcile looking to thwart Les Bleus
From one returning star to another, flashy fly-half Finn Russell has reportedly gone some way to heal rifts in the Scots’ camp, although the number ten will not appear for the foreseeable future – certainly not this tournament either. Fellow stand-off and current Scotland coach Gregor Townsend should be pleased in principle, although this is a temporary ceasefire rather than an outright declaration of peace.
In a nutshell, the exiled Russell has held fairly positive talks with his head coach and will offer his expertise on the French team he plays alongside in the Top 14 for Racing Metro.
His stand-in Adam Hastings has received minimal media coverage given the Russell saga’s prominence but has done a quietly assured job driving Scotland around the park and will come up against Romain Ntamack opposite him this weekend. Ntamack has been the breakout star of the tournament and how Hastings manages this cucumber-cool, calm youngster will likely dictate the balance of this game.
Scotland’s forwards have a big test ahead. So often inconsistent to the point of huge frustration, the potential in the likes of Rory Sutherland, Zander Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury could easily match up to the likes of Demba Bamba, wily lock Bernard Le Roux, French captain Charles Ollivon and the excellent Gregory Alldritt.
Realistically, it’s difficult to look beyond France by 10-15 points despite Scotland’s victory last time out against Italy. On the other hand however, familiar weaknesses of ill discipline and complacency – which would have infuriated head coach Fabien Galthie and defence coach Shaun Edwards – crept back in perceptibly against Italy last time out. Scotland are the kind of side to exploit that ruthlessly if in the mood (for example, coming back from 31-0 down to draw with England last year).
England and Ireland, knowing France need to slip up at some point if they are to win the title, will probably pin their hopes on the France v Ireland game in Paris rather than this one. But never say never in sport.
Coronavirus threatens chaos
As fears of Covid-19 grips the globe, sport has already taken quite the battering internationally, and this weekend is no exception. As Serie A battles to put out even half a fixture list with an extensive Italian outbreak, Rugby Union has not been immune also with Ireland’s match against the Azzurri called off by Six Nations organisers, along with the women’s match on Sunday.
The two other men’s matches this weekend will go ahead, however England’s clash with Italy in Rome on March 14 has also been cancelled, together with the Red Roses’ meeting in Padua in the north of country next weekend – one of the worst-hit areas outside of China.
This really is uncharted territory but quite simply, governing bodies won’t allow players’ welfare to be hit. On that note, England lynchpin Mako Vunipola – who had his flight rerouted through Hong Kong on his way back from Tonga – went into self-isolation despite not being ill and is likely to be out for the rest of the tournament.
From a playing perspective, it’s an opportunity for explosive young buck Ellis Genge and the eccentric Joe Marler to stamp their authority on a Wales scrum which was going backwards at times against France.
On a final note ahead of this weekend, Six Nations fans of any country should keep an eye on developments that organisers aren’t ruling out games being taken off free-to-air television. Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan however, has officially tabled a motion in Parliament to counter this and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has called for its protection as he feels it is an ‘integral part of Welsh culture and identity’. Watch this space.
The fourth weekend of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations 2020 sees England host Wales on Saturday, with Scotland entertaining France at Murrayfield on Sunday.
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