Friday night’s game is a tantalising battle between Grand Slam hopefuls France and comeback Kings Wales.
Who can forget the men in red’s pulsating victory over Scotland in Cardiff in week two?
Confidence will be high in the Wales camp, but the task facing Gatland’s men this weekend is a formidable one.
The Wales coach has focussed his criticism on his back row after the last gasp win over Andy Robinson’s Scotland. With Andy Powell dropped in the wake of Golf Buggy-gate and Martyn Williams and captain Ryan Jones unusually below par, Wales’ forwards need to up their game.
Will Williams (l) and Ryan Jones (r) provide good service to Stephen Jones (c)?
Alun Wyn Jones is out after undergoing surgery on his elbow and Deiniol Jones and Bradley Williams get a chance to impress in the second row. Scrum-half Mike Phillips returns to the bench despite only playing 40 minutes of rugby in the past four months. Dwayne Peel must be left wondering if his move to Sale has scuppered his international career.
France coach Marc Lievremont will be forced to juggle his team again after injuries to Benjamin Fall, Pascal Pape and Fulgence Ouedraogo.
Both winger Fall and lock Pape suffered ankle injuries and will be replaced by Julien Malzieu and Julien Pierre respectively. Pape’s absence means Sebastien “The Caveman” Chabal comes onto the bench and Julien Bonnaire replaces Ouedraogo.
Alexis Palisson has recovered from Jerry Flannery’s can-can kick and starts on the wing.
As for the game, I think the clash between centres Mathieu Bastereaud and James Hook will be a fascinating one to watch.
The forward battle will be the key area though, and France’s powerful scrum will be a stern test for the Wales pack. Gethin Jenkins came off the bench against Scotland but doesn’t feature in the 22 to face France.
If Wales get good service from the pack they will give the flair-packed France a run for their money. However, I can’t see France slipping up at the Millennium Stadium.
My prediction: France to win by 8.
England v Ireland
It’s make or break time for England. After two lacklustre games for the men in white, Ireland will be a much sterner test.
A stuttering performance against Wales and an unimpressive win over Italy mean Martin Johnson’s team is still on for the Grand Slam. However write off Ireland at your peril. Declan Kidney’s men were taught a rugby lesson in France a fortnight ago and only a win against England will keep their championship dreams alive.
Johnson has only tinkered with his match day 22 after criticism over the team’s performance in Rome. He has stuck with (maybe not so) Super Jonny at fly-half and Ben Foden and Joe Worsley both start on the bench.
As for Ireland... OK so a back to back Grand Slam is no longer possible for Brian O’Driscoll and chums but the Triple Crown is definitely in their sights.
Rory Best will start at hooker for Ireland after Jerry Flannery was banned after his not exactly subtle kick on Alexis Palisson.
Ireland's first choice fly half: Jonny Sexton
Wunderkind Jonny Sexton snatches the number 10 jersey from Ronan O’Gara with the Munster man relegated to the bench. Rob Kearney is out with injury and he is replaced by Leicester’s Geordan Murphy. A fit again Donnacha O’Callaghan pushes Leo Cullen to the bench.
England is hardly a dynamic force in the world of rugby at the moment, and Ireland will have been busy licking their wounds after the 33-10 hammering in France. Unless Martin Johnson and co’s strategy has undergone a total revamp in the last couple of weeks, then I expect England to kick the ball away ad infinitum which will give Ireland ample opportunity to run it back at them. And past them. And over the line.
The key battle I’ll be watching is Jonny v Jonny. Fly-half of the recent past v fly-half of the future. I wonder who will take control and pull the strings to orchestrate a win? I think it will be Jonny Jnr.
My prediction: Ireland to win by 12.
Italy v Scotland
Andy Robinson’s Scotland committed what can only be called rugby hari kari against Wales two weeks ago. Quite why Mike Blair chose to run the ball rather than boot it into touch when the clock went red only he will know. Add to that the two late sin binnings and 13-man Scotland could only watch as impish Shane Williams skipped over the line to snatch a last gasp win.
So what next? Well, all is not lost as this weekend they face serial wooden spoon winners Italy.
England made tough work of overcoming the Azzurri but Italy looked much more convincing than they did against Ireland. Surely Scotland have enough flair to overcome the tournament whipping boys though?
In a word: yes.
Max Evans returns for the Scots after scoring a try after coming off the bench against Wales. Hugo Southwell and Simon Danielli replace Chris Paterson and Rory Lamont and Allan Jacobsen is in for Alistair Dickinson in the front row. The Scots are looking to turn their fortunes around and end a two-game losing streak in the tournament.
Evans will hopefully take it to the Max.
Italy coach Nick Mallet has named only one change for Italy as Carlo Antonio Del Fava starts in the second row after a remarkable recovery from knee surgery.
Italy will be targeting the game against Scotland as their most realistic chance to notch up a win as Scotland are the only team they have beaten in the Six Nations.
However the Scots will be looking to turn their 70 minute performance against Wales into a full 80 minute win against Italy. If they don’t, the wooden spoon awaits…
My prediction: Scotland to win by 13.
So what do you think? Will France march on towards a Grand Slam?