England to gain Wales revenge
George Primarolo looks ahead to this weekend's crunch Six Nations matches and fancies England to get the better of Wales at Twickenham on Sunday.
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England, Wales, France and Ireland are all in with a shout of winning this year's competition and this weekend will go a long way to deciding the destination of the title - check out our match-by-match verdicts below:
Although they will have been smarting after their narrow defeat against England a fortnight ago, Ireland still sit pretty on top of the Six Nations table courtesy of their healthy points difference and they will be looking to boost that on Saturday afternoon when they face Italy at the Aviva Stadium. This match will have added significance given that it will be Brian O'Driscoll's final home game in an emerald green shirt and his teammates will want to give him the send-off he deserves. Ireland played magnificently in defeat against England and coach Joe Schmidt is getting a real tune out of his players at the moment. However, there were some simple errors that his side made against England and they will want to cut those out ahead of a potential title-winning match against France in Paris in just over a week's time. There will be a late fitness test given to fly-half Jonny Sexton after he injured his thumb against England. However, he trained freely on Tuesday which will give Irish supporters some hope. There is a danger that Italy will be reduced to mere spectators here as the whole of Ireland gears up to wish O'Driscoll a fond farewell. The Azzurri put their hearts and souls into their recent encounter with Scotland at the Stadio Olimpico and it remains to be seen just how much their last-gasp defeat has affected them. Italy have recalled Wasps' Andrea Masi to the squad while prop Michele Rizzo also returns after being sent off against the French in round two. As with all their performances, they will be looking to give Ireland a tough time both in the forwards and in defence and Ireland could be pushed all the way if they don't give their opponents enough respect. This is highly unlikely though in what is set to be an emotionally charged fixture. While the layers may not have given Ireland handicap backers a lot to work with, it is likely that Ireland will win this match comfortably and set up what could be a title showdown with the French in Paris next weekend.
Verdict: Ireland by 20
While Scotland may have salvaged some pride after their performance against Italy a fortnight ago, France blotted their copybook in no uncertain terms with a limp and lifeless display against Wales in Cardiff. After conjuring up a victory against England on the opening weekend and then powering past Italy with some sublime rugby, the spark just wasn't there in round three and they rather tamely rolled over and let Wales walk all over them for the majority of the match. If history has taught us anything, it's that France can easily come back from a dire performance and Scotland would do well to ignore the poor French and concentrate on the side that can tear teams apart at their very best. The Scots too have their inconsistencies but these tend to come from the coaching set-up rather than the players themselves and Scott Johnson's selection during this tournament so far has been nothing short of baffling. After dropping skipper Kelly Brown from the squad for the England and Italy games, he is now back in the side and it looks as if Johnson is being a little more pragmatic with his choices ahead of this fixture. Other changes see Geoff Cross rewarded for a solid display against Italy at tight-head and David Denton enlisted for the back-row in place of Ryan Wilson who has been laid low by a tonsillitis bug over the last few days. The backline is unchanged while on the bench, Euan Murray returns to the squad after missing the first three games of the Championship due to injury. France have a little bit to prove now but there's no denying the power and strength they have at their disposal. When it all comes together, they look very good. When it doesn't, they look toothless and without direction. French coach Philippe Saint-André has made seven changes with three of the changes coming due to injury. Wesley Fofana, Yannick Nyanga and Dmitri Szarzewski all drop out of the starting XV and are replaced by Maxime Mermoz, Sébastian Vahaamahina and Brice Mach. Louis Picamoles has been dropped for disrespecting the referee during the Wales game, with Damien Chouly coming in at number eight. Wenceslas Lauret, Jean-Marc Doussain and Hugo Bonneval have all been dropped. This sees Alexandre Lapandry coming in at openside, with Maxime Machenaud getting the start at scrum-half and Maxime Médard returning to the wing. I don't envy the layers in having to price up this game to be honest. On the one hand, France are clearly better on paper and should have no trouble in beating a Scottish side that has plenty of weaknesses. On the other, Scotland come into this game on a high having shown grit and determination to win in Italy two weeks ago while France's confidence will have been knocked after a lifeless display in Paris. I wouldn't be totally surprised to see Scotland push France all the way in this but I'd expect the talent of Les Bleus to shine through in the end. I'm not a huge fan of backing sides away from home giving up as many points as France though so I'm happy to sit this one out.
Verdict: France by 7
Sunday's sole fixture sees England take on Wales at Twickenham in a match that could go a long way to deciding the destination of this year's Six Nations. At least one of these sides will still be in with a shout heading into the final round of games next week and both head into this on the back of encouraging victories a fortnight ago. England fought hard and thoroughly deserved their win over Ireland in a match that could conceivably have gone either way at several points. I still think that England are the best side in this year's competition but they need to start putting games to bed. Their inability to take their chances at crucial moments cost them dear against France and very nearly cost them the game against Ireland. Johnny May will have learned a valuable lesson from his mistake in the first half of that particular encounter and will hopefully emerge a better player because of it. England coach Stuart Lancaster will name his starting XV on Friday with Ben Morgan expected to start at number eight in the place of the injured Billy Vunipola. Wales bounced back from a tepid display against Ireland in Dublin almost a month ago to raze the French defence to the ground in Cardiff and blow the Six Nations wide apart once more. There had been suggestions that Warren Gatland's men were at the end of their tether after the Ireland game but they showed that rumours of their demise had been greatly exaggerated with a measured performance against a below-par French outfit. Of course, Wales' task was made easier by the apathy of Les Bleus but it showed that they were no back number and their victory has set things up nicely for a titanic clash this Sunday. Gatland has named Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones in the Welsh starting line-up after Davies returned from injury. The only change in the pack sees Jones return in the second-row after missing the last game with a foot infection. There is one positional change in the backline with George North returning to the wing from centre in place of Scarlets back Liam Williams, who rides pine this week. England will be looking for revenge on Sunday after Wales ruined their Six Nations hopes last year and I think they will get it. Although Wales come into this match having won two from two, you get the distinct impression they're not the side they were last year. They were arguably lucky to beat Italy on the opening day of the tournament and didn't really have to get beyond fourth gear to dispose of a disappointing French side two weeks ago. Sandwiched between this was a comprehensive defeat by Ireland and if things go to plan, then this match could be England's for the taking. My only major concern would be England failing to close the game out once more but they are a young side which is learning all the time. Wales are always a threat to any defence but England's rush defence (masterminded by Andy Farrell) has been superb to date and the home side have to be backed only giving up four points.
Verdict: England by 8