Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend's Six Nations fixtures.
Ireland v Wales
Brian O’Driscoll will win his 100th cap for Ireland in their penultimate game at Croke Park on Saturday.
The Ireland skipper will join prop John Hayes in the 100 club and become only the 14th player to notch up a century of caps.
Wales’ stand-in captain Martyn Williams will also pass a landmark at the weekend. When the 34-year old flanker runs out in Dublin he will pick up his 95th cap and overtake Colin Charvis to become the most capped Wales forward.
Last weekend Ireland pipped England to the post in their 20-16 win at Twickenham, whilst Wales attempted another epic comeback in Cardiff. Warren Gatland’s team were 20-0 down at half time against France, but the men in red heroically fought back after the break. Despite Wales’ best efforts, France were victorious to the tune of 26-20: Freddie Michelak obviously learning from Scotland fly-half Dan Parks’ mistake, as he booted the ball into touch at the final restart.
This week, the absence of Wales skipper Ryan Jones sees the selection dilemma over the captain’s form handily removed for Warren Gatland. Gloucester number eight Gareth Delve has been brought into the starting XV to replace the injured skipper.
Over in the Irish camp, coach Declan Kidney has named an unchanged side. Geordan Murphy keeps his place at full back despite Rob Kearney’s recovery from a knee injury. Kearney will take a seat on the bench, which means Andrew Trimble drops out of the 22.
For me, this is the game to watch this weekend. Ireland are still gunning for the Championship, whilst Wales have a point to prove. If Ireland can get the wheels turning, scrum Wales into the ground and fire up their backline, then the men from the Emerald Isle will be one step closer to winning the Triple Crown.
However, if Wales can drastically reduce their error count and stop Ireland from notching up a healthy lead in the first 20 minutes, then they could rain on O’Driscoll’s parade.
Saying that, I can’t see Wales breaking down the Irish away from the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium.
My prediction: Ireland to win by 5.
Scotland v England
Stick, twist or go bust?
Those were the questions being asked of Martin Johnson ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup.
Most England rugby fans would loved to have seen Johnno take a gamble. He could have started Ben Foden at full back and brought Courtney Lawes and Chris Ashton into the mix. Yes, it would have been quite a Northampton Saints love in, but alas it was not to be.
Instead, the England coach has persisted with the dull looking Delon Armitage at number 15, Joe Worsley replaces Lewis Moody at flanker, James “Mr Anonymous” Haskell keeps his place, and Leicester’s Louis Deacon is still in the starting XV.
Still, at least Foden and scrum-half Ben Youngs are on the bench.
A lot has been said about Johnson’s lack of imagination and how England’s World Cup chances are being severely threatened by his conservatism.
However England are where they are, and Andy Robinson must be rubbing his hands with glee.
The Scotland coach has been quite unlucky recently. Last weekend Scotland became the favourites to win the wooden spoon after they were embarrassed by Italy in Rome. The week before (as if anyone can forget), an eight point lead ten minutes before time was transformed into a 31-24 win to Wales with only 13 Scots left on the pitch. Add to that the horrific injury suffered by Thom Evans and Chris Paterson’s kidney damage and things were looking bleak.
If England are to win the Calcutta Cup then the English forwards need to run at the Scots and tackle hard. Danny Care needs to pass the ball to Wilkinson immediately instead of taking a step, and England’s centres need to pressurise Dan Parks. The Glasgow fly-half controlled the game well against Wales and England need to stop him grabbing the initiative. Oh, and England’s backline needs to come up with some ideas and actually execute them, rather than jogging around aimlessly and kicking the ball away at will.
If Scotland are to win then they need to take England on up front and utilise their pack strength. Parks needs to pay a blinder and Scotland captain Chris Cusiter has to get the better of Danny Care.
Whilst this match has all the promise of being a slow affair with little to excite, I for one hope that Scotland will fly out the blocks like they did against Wales and give England a good spanking. At least that would mean maybe, just maybe, Martin Johnson will make some changes for the game against France.
Then again, probably not.
My prediction: Scotland to win by 7.
France v Italy
Completing this weekend’s Six Nations fixtures are hot Championship favourites France against serial wooden spoon winners Italy.
There’s not much to say other than France will beat Italy and marchons towards their final game with the Grand Slam in their sights.
Italy beat Scotland 16-12 last weekend, but this will not trouble Marc Lievremont’s France one iota.
Lievremont has made two changes in his starting XV to face the Azzurri. One man wrecking machine, Mathieu Bastereaud, will start on the bench after struggling with a calf injury. David Marty comes in to replace the centre, whilst Julien Malzieu also drops to the bench to be replaced by Marc Andreu.
Freddie Michelak is also out after he tore his cruciate ligament when playing for Toulouse last weekend. Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvilli takes Michelak’s place in the 22, which means first choice number nine Morgan Parra will move to fly-half if stand-off Francois Trinh-Duc is forced from the field.
Italy’s main area of strength lies with their pack, but even Martin Castrogiavanni and Carlo Antonio Del Fava will have their work cut out against rampaging French forwards.
The question is not whether France will win, but by how many.
My prediction: France to win by 25.
So what do you think?