After the short break, all six International sides competing in the RBS Six Nations Championship will re-focus back onto the task. Mid-season, round three is a critical step for each side–most importantly for Ireland and Wales, in their chase of all conquering England.
RBS Six Nations Re-Starts Saturday
Saturday February 25
Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield. 14:25 GMT
After the close loss to France, the unfortunate outcome was that Greig Laidlaw was injured. And even though that is a disaster, it is not a mortal-wound. The player himself will be heavily involved–imagine him sitting on the bench, even hobbling down the side lines–but the call is ‘united as One’.
Whenever the Celtic relations are pitched against each other, the result is laced with passion. How can it not be? The Scots will be fearless, while the Welsh visit Edinburgh with some goals to be met. They have not been impressive, and will feel that they are a better International side. Drawing that out of players is the key for both coaches.
Vern Cotter Must Engineer a ‘Bonnie Victory’
When the whistle blew in round one, the crowd was euphoric. It was a memorable win over Ireland. What Vern Cotter needs to engineer, is a consistent ability. His men can work hard, toil away but if they can only win on occasion, a Six Nations title [and berth] is not secure. He knows that three wins are a clear goal, and having John Barclay and John Hardie back is certainly a positive.
The statistics though, favour Wales continuing a sequence of wins  in recent years – see below;
Chance for Scotland to break the 3rd longest winning streak amongst 6N teams against Wales this Sat (Note: wins across all competitions) pic.twitter.com/vE7mItZ2P0
— rugby (@theblitzdefence) February 20, 2017
Wales will have George North back, and that side are also looking to string results together. The statistics also show they can score tries, and Dan Biggar holds the key to the attack. It is just the defence where many fans have fears. Can they hold out Stuart Hogg? That will be where the game is won and lost.
Ireland v France, Dublin. 16:50 GMT
The onus will be on the French to ‘take the game’ to the Irish. No time to sit back, as Guy Noves continues his push for performance. A fifty percent win record is nothing to dissuade his vision, but so too will his opposite. Joe Schmidt was admittedly ‘surprised’ by the loss to Scotland, so both sides have goals to redress their places in the Championship.
A home crowd will assist Ireland, but they too must be confident in their forward play (see below) and counter the aggressive French. Les Bleus hold a nine-to-six advantage in results in the Six nations. And that strong history is a reminder of when France were highly placed–now the Ireland team have been more fancied. So it is up to the players to represent their heritage once again.
— RBS 6 Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 21, 2017
Player Fitness After Weeks Break Tested
Josh van der Flier will sit out this match, while Rob Kearney returns. He will have to fit straight back into test rugby, after a bicep injury. Skipper Rory Best is keen for a run after his absence in Rome–the hooker will play his heart out; as usual, in an semi-audition for the June trip to New Zealand. Devin Toner too, will again be asked to assume much of the leg-work (and will offer more too).
After re-joining his team mates, Frenchman Mathieu Bastareaud was showing head-knock symptoms that proved enough to have the Toulon center withdrawn from the test side. This will have upset planning, but the French must adapt quickly. Noves had already lost Damien Chouly so he will need his squad depth to satisfy any holes, if they are to pursue a win in Dublin.
And pursue any chance of a Championship. As this writer proposed before Round One, staying in-touch with England was key. After France gave up their early running back in London, they claimed a vital win [over Scotland]. Ireland did the same, but over lesser opposition. So the Irish will truly have the tougher objective this weekend.
Sunday February 26
England v Italy, Twickenham. 15:00 GMT
It might be the fans match of the round if nothing more than a perverse interest in just ‘how much can England score?’
No disrespect or insult to Italy. They have had a good 12 months–broadcasters will surely replay the win over South Africa at least once this week. But the truth is, they have very little chance.
In terms of difficulty, ask Graham Henry or Steve Hansen which matches are more difficult, and they will say ‘the ones where you expect too much’. And English rugby fans must be circumvent. It is not the quantity, but the quality–and Eddie Jones has not been entirely impressed with two victories already.
Players need To Be Both Effective and Ruthless
In preparations this week, Jones will have set out a plan first. He will ask the side to operate effectively, as their primary task. To be in unison, to counter what attacking play Italy throw their way–and that is where the satisfaction will be received.
📋 SQUAD UPDATE | 28 players assemble at Pennyhill Park to train for Sunday’s game against Italy.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 20, 2017
If you were to say that ‘the second half needs to be as well polished as the first’ that is a practical goal. Substitutions will be used to introduce combinations, and re-introduce some returning players [Anthony Watson and Mako Vunipola]. To ‘not let the opposition cross their English 22 meter line’ is a good plan. Or to ‘keep the penalty count under six’. Realistic goals. But do not wish for 100 points….as that is when you can trip on your own shoe laces. [Ask Henry or Hansen].
The reality is, with a slight buffer on the points table and an unbeaten record, the English side are favourites. Not ‘a dead certainty’ or indomitable, but close to it. For all others; if they have not already faced the English, then they will want another side to trip up the Poms to have any chance.
Past the Midway Point of the Season
After this weekends matches, there is another weeks break before the final two rounds complete the 2017 Championship. Players will mostly revert back to their respective clubs: Pro 12, Top 14 or Aviva Premiership. Most will feel they must maintain that edge, stay ‘match fit’ and be prepared for the final assault on the RBS Six Nations title.
For management, these short windows will mean they retain some players, releasing most but also holding hopes that none are injured during the break. A tough balance, to go alongside the expected tough competition this weekend.
The Six nations re-starts Saturday. As usual, it will be hugely popular across the globe, so fans will be ready. Nations focus on the prize at hand; with most also looking ahead to the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
Join us, as Last Word On Rugby brings you full coverage of all the results, highlights and outcomes from Round Three.
“Main photo credit”