It's Six Nations Predictions time again.
Will Ireland's recent love affair with the Six Nations continue to flourish in Paris this Valentine's weekend? Will Scotland lose their hearts in Wales, or will England's red roses woo the Italian crowds?
Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend:
France v Ireland
This game is already being tipped as the championship decider. The result of this match will crush the Grand Slam hopes of one of this year's main protagonists, and it's a real shame this fixture isn't being saved until the final weekend.
France won their opening game against Scotland 18-9, with human wrecking ball Mathieu Bastereaud twice bulldozing his way over the line. Ireland looked rusty against an Italy side lacking in precision which also boasts arguably the most turgid backline in international rugby. Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll described his team's performance as "mediocre" despite their 29-11 victory. France's scrum destroyed Scotland, although the return of Stephen Ferris into the Ireland pack is welcome to Ireland's perceived area of weakness. France are without Aurelien Rougerie and Benjamin Fall who miss the clash through injury so Toulouse's Vincent Clerc and Brive's Alexis Palisson take their places. O'Gara retains the number ten shirt for Ireland, and Keith Earls makes his first Six Nations start.
Ireland last won in Paris ten years ago in 2000, when Brian O'Driscoll's brilliant hat-trick helped his team to a 27-25 victory. Last year, Ireland beat France 30-21 at Croke Park. This is undoubtedly the game of the weekend, if not the tournament. It's a tough one to call. My heart says Ireland but my head says France. I know it's Valentine's weekend, but my head is overruling my heart on this one.
My prediction: France to win by 8.
Wales v Scotland
Wales clawed England back to 20-17 in the last few minutes of their battle at Twickenham last Saturday, after Alun Wyn Jones' thoughtless trip cost the men in red 17 points during his stint in the sin bin. Despite Wales seizing the momentum in the second half England were 30-17 victors. Wyn Jones will play this weekend after Wales coach Warren Gatland threatened to drop the lock, and the only two changes in the Wales side see Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Thomas come in for Tom James and Luke Charteris. Wales are still missing Lions front row maestros Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees which is a blow, especially after Scotland's scrum crumbled against France last week. Wales need to reduce their error count and not let Scotland off the hook as they did with a series of missed penalty kicks against England. Oh, and that infamous sin-binning. I hope to see more from Jamie Roberts and the wonderful James Hook this week.
Scotland welcome back prop Euan Murray to bolster their scrum, and fly-half Dan Parks and Rory Lamont also return. Godman had a pretty God awful game last weekend and is replaced by Parks who has enjoyed a good season so far with Glasgow. Super sidestepping king Max Evans is also dropped, as is Moray Low. Scotland coach Andy Robinson has added extra spice to the encounter by preventing Wales from closing the Millennium Stadium roof for the match. It's all within the rules of course, and I don't blame Robinson for stopping Wales from getting any sort of extra advantage. To get anything from this game the brothers Sean and Rory Lamont need to put to away their chances against the Welsh. There were positives from the France game as Scotland did break the line, but then the attacks fizzled out and Scotland came away empty handed.
This is a must win match for both sides. With home advantage on their side, I'm going for Wales.
My prediction: Wales to win by 12.
Italy v England
Serial wooden spoon winners Italy host a revitalised England on Valentine's Day. If rugby be the food of love, play on. Or something like that. Martin Johnson has made two changes to his starting XV with Dan Cole getting the nod ahead of David Wilson, and a fit again Riki Flutey pushing Toby Flood to the bench. The replacements haven't been named yet (at the time of writing), and both Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw have been struck with illness. Is that Courtney Lawes I see hovering near the starting XV? Don't be daft, it's Louis Deacon. Lawes was originally sent back to Northampton but was then recalled, and he will now stay with the England squad. Shontayne Hape has also been doing the rugby hokey cokey - in, out, in, out - and might yet get to shake it all about with an appearance from the bench.
Italy are without injured lock Carlo Del Fava and scrum-half Simon Picone. Sergio Parisse is out for the entire competition due to a knee ligament injury. Italy coach Nick Mallet will confirm his team to face England on Friday 12th, but I expect to see pretty much the same starting line up as last weekend, injuries aside. Craig "Controversy" Gower was pretty anonymous in Italy's 29-11 defeat to Ireland, and the entire Italian backline was so ineffective England really should stamp their authority on this game.
My prediction: England to win by 25 points.
So what do you think? Are my predictions right this week or am I wearing my rose-tinted spectacles?
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