By Max Mathews
- Father and son meet in round three as Owen Farrell’s England take on Andy’s Grand Slam-chasing Ireland
- Wales look to bolster faltering title bid against unbeaten France
- Italy host Scotland in potential wooden spoon battle
SIX NATIONS – All the talking points ahead of a crucial third weekend of this year’s Six Nations, with match-ups likely to decide this year’s Championship
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Farrells meet in father-son derby day
Not many would have expected England to be fourth after two rounds. Even then, they only just scraped past Scotland. However, a win against Ireland puts them right back in the frame to take the tournament, depending on how the traditionally fickle France fare against Wales.
England coach Eddie Jones was found out after his bolshy but not-the-wisest trash talk before the France game, and almost fell foul once again in the Rose’s gritty win against Scotland at Murrayfield. With an oddly imbalanced squad selection to face the Shamrock – with two (old) scrum-halves, no number eight, more locks than back-rowers and a completely untried full-back – the Australian is leaving his side vulnerable.
Without being too critical, the experiments of Tom Curry at eight, George Furbank at full-back and Owen Farrell at 12 with George Ford at fly-half have hardly proved massively successful in this tournament.
Despite an underwhelming Six Nations so far, former England stand-off Paul Grayson told BBC Sport he believes England on form can beat anyone in this tournament.
“After the run to the Rugby World Cup campaign, losing away in France without really firing a shot was very disappointing. England were just so ineffective.
“It is too early to call the experiment with Tom Curry playing at number eight in Billy Vunipola’s enforced absence. It didn’t work in the opening game in France. I would have liked to have seen a specialist number eight in the squad – either Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt or Exeter’s Sam Simmonds.
“For all that, though, the big caveat is that when England perform well we know that they are more than a match for anyone.”
However this weekend is far less about Jones’ continued experimental squad selection and more about the impending father-son duel at Twickenham. Father Andy Farrell’s Ireland side (so far) reflects the man: uncompromising, few frills, sturdy, solid, hard to come up against; son Owen Farrell’s England reflects Farrell junior also: in-your-face, good under pressure, iron-willed. This is a family affair as much as it is about old rivals and even older foes England and Ireland.
Despite two imperfect performances, Ireland have two wins from two against Scotland and Wales and remain on course for a Grand Slam. All this despite post-World Cup retirements, an aging half-back pairing in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and the transition from steely Kiwi Joe Schmidt to a new English boss.
Evolution not revolution is clearly Farrell senior’s strategy and it is working so far, but will a fired-up England prove a step too far in possibly Ireland’s biggest challenge yet or will the unbeaten Irish have one hand on the Six Nations crown if France slip up come Sunday?
Case for defence as Edwards faces old charges
For the first time in nine games and a seemingly interminable period for their Six Nations opponents, Wales approach this weekend on the back of a defeat. Losses can spoil hopes, but they can galvanise them too, as when the Welsh lost their opening game in 2013 – also to Ireland – but went on to the win the tournament. Leigh Halfpenny was one of the star players seven years ago, and was in bullish mood when he spoke to BBC Sport about the potential to bounce back:
“It is not all over – we are still in the hunt. We have to win our next three games to have a chance. We have lost one game and we are hurting from that. We were disappointed in Ireland and want to put that right at home to France in front of our fans.
“We have to win every game now and that is the challenge. We are hugely excited about that, but have to put in a performance against France.”
A strong spine of Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau (back from injury and subsequent loss of form), Dan Biggar and Halfpenny himself have been there and done it before in the Six Nations. But transmogrifying a defence-driven approach to an all-out attack, all-court game will take time and after an easy start against Italy the tactic was found out against a more clinical Ireland. Will their willingness to take risks and throw one-armed offloads pay off this weekend?
They face a side transformed in Fabien Galthie’s France. Or should that be Shaun Edwards’ France? Without taking anything away from the new French number one, Edwards’ fingerprints are all over this Gallic XV. Two steps forward against England were offset by a step back against Italy, however. Defensive looseness non-existent against England re-emerged with a vengeance against the Italians, and conceding 22 points to a side thumped by Wales without scoring will not please the hierarchy.
Nonetheless, precocious half-back duo Antoine Dupont and the much-underrated Romain Ntamack, together with young pretenders Demba Bamba, Gregory Alldritt and centre Arthur Vincent – with Vincent set for a full breakthrough next year – could lead Les Bleus to a hitherto almost unbelievable Grand Slam if they get through Wales’ defence without costly slip-ups at their own end.
Eternal City basement battle
Speaking of costly mistakes, Scotland and Italy’s Six Nations hopes are all but mathematically over. Not unexpected, but the manner of both team’s pair of defeats will disappoint the respective coaches.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has seen basic errors and an extremely public falling-out with star player Finn Russell derail their tournament this year, while Italy under new temporary coach Franco Smith showed signs of life last time out after their Welsh mauling. Realistically, however, this is the best chance of a win and a tenure-defining result for both.
The well-publicised and unedifying niggle between Russell and Townsend has of course resulted in another week of international exile for the former, while previously injured pair Sam Skinner and Matt Fagerson should add some beef and bustle to the pack after being called up following injuries. Stuart Hogg, the sole world-class talent in the current side, is apparently struggling with the burden of captaincy where it might better suit hooker Fraser Brown or lock Jonny Gray, for example.
A match-winning game performance from Adam Hastings, a win or even just crossing the try line would deliver a much-needed confidence boost for the Scots and potentially kick-start the side not just for the remaining fixtures, but this year and the entire four-year World Cup cycle.
Italy, meanwhile, remain in an almost permanent stage of flux. Attacking patterns have sharpened up, an England-style dual playmaker system with Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12 shows some promise, but save a few bright prospects in abrasive back-row Jake Polledri and flyer Matteo Minozzi the side is seemingly struggling without totem Sergio Parisse.
However, the Italians were much improved against potential Grand Slam winners France last weekend and could deliver a shockwave reminder about their (they will say deserved) future in the tournament with a few good results – as rumours of an Italian ejection continue to circulate. That starts with avoiding the wooden spoon against this weekend’s opposition. When in Rome…
Round three of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations take place this weekend, with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham, Wales entertaining France and Italy facing Scotland in Rome.
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