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Stars, drama and upsets: what to expect in Six Nations’ final straight

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/03/2018 Gerard Meagher
Clockwise from top left: Johnny Sexton, Danny Care, Sergio Parisse, Hamish Watson, Mathieu Bastareaud and Josh Navidi. © Getty images, Rex/Shutterstock Clockwise from top left: Johnny Sexton, Danny Care, Sergio Parisse, Hamish Watson, Mathieu Bastareaud and Josh Navidi.

Ireland

Ireland will claim a first Six Nations title since 2015 if they achieve a bonus-point victory over Scotland and England fail to do so in Paris. There was certainly an element of fortune to their victory against France but, as seen in recent years, away wins anywhere but Rome are at a premium – and they followed it up with an emphatic win over Italy and a powerful performance against Wales. Andy Farrell will not be happy with the six tries conceded in those matches but perhaps the most impressive thing about Ireland is how they have coped with injuries. Indeed, Andrew Porter, Dan Leavy and Chris Farrell were among their standout players against Wales after benefiting from others’ misfortune and, while Farrell is now also injured, Garry Ringrose’s return is timely.

Predicted finish 1st

Key player Johnny Sexton. The obvious choice but he remains the man that makes them tick.

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Scotland vs England - BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Britain - February 24, 2018   England’s Jonny May looks dejected after the match   REUTERS/Russell Cheyne © Catalyst Images Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Scotland vs England - BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Britain - February 24, 2018 England’s Jonny May looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

England

Eddie Jones identified the breakdown, his team’s intensity and their defensive spacing as the reasons why England lost to Scotland but perhaps he should add a concerning lack of ability by his players to think on their feet. Jones’ success has been founded on structure but, when things do not go to script, there is a tendency for his players to look lost. The fact that Dylan Hartley continues to come off before the hour mark does not help nor does the imbalance of the back row. That said, wholesale changes are not expected against what will be a physical France side – though perhaps it is time to abandon the policy of playing three second-rows in favour of introducing Sam Underhill. England must win in Paris to keep their tournament hopes alive – they may well need a bonus point – and truth be told, they need to beat Ireland as well to avoid a disappointing campaign.

Predicted finish 2nd

Key player Danny Care. England have struggled without Ben Youngs and Care must show he can perform impressively from the first whistle, as he does off the bench.

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Scotland vs England - BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Britain - February 24, 2018   Scotland’s John Barclay celebrates with teammates and the Calcutta Cup trophy after the match   REUTERS/Russell Cheyne     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Catalyst Images Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Scotland vs England - BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Britain - February 24, 2018 Scotland’s John Barclay celebrates with teammates and the Calcutta Cup trophy after the match REUTERS/Russell Cheyne TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Scotland

Optimism abounds after their Calcutta Cup victory but, as Gregor Townsend acknowledged, their away record in the Six Nations is dreadful. Their win in Italy aside, they have not won on their travels since 2010 and, while they will surely defeat the Azzurri in their final match, victory in Dublin on Saturday would be a huge statement. Whereas England were caught cold, Ireland will see them coming but Scotland will take heart from the joy Wales had out wide in Dublin. Yet the stars may need to align again for Finn Russell and co if they are to stun Joe Schmidt’s side.

Predicted finish 4th

Key player Hamish Watson. He was superb at the breakdown against England and will need to be again in Dublin. Ireland’s back row is so powerful, though, that he will have his work cut out.

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Ireland vs Wales - Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Republic of Ireland - February 24, 2018   Wales players line up for the national anthem before the match    REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne © Catalyst Images Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Ireland vs Wales - Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Republic of Ireland - February 24, 2018 Wales players line up for the national anthem before the match REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Wales

Consecutive defeats have knocked Wales out of contention for the title but Warren Gatland will be quietly pleased with a lot of what he has seen. They had very little of the ball against Ireland but used what little possession they had to manufacture three excellent tries and they gave England a mighty scare at Twickenham. It used to be that for all Wales’s endeavour they could not take their chances; that can no longer be said of a side who are playing some eye-catching stuff. They have unearthed a few gems too, particularly in Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi, and it must not be forgotten how many British & Irish Lions they are without. Gatland is set to rotate again against Italy and an emphatic win will only support the notion that this tournament is a significant one in Wales’s development.

Predicted finish 3rd

Key player Josh Navidi. James Davies may get a run at No 7 against Italy but how Navidi fares at the breakdown against France will be crucial if Wales are to end their campaign with a flourish.

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - France vs Italy - Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France - February 23, 2018   France’s Benjamin Fall and team mates celebrate after the game   REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier © Catalyst Images Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - France vs Italy - Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France - February 23, 2018 France’s Benjamin Fall and team mates celebrate after the game REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

France

With a little bit of luck and a fair wind, France could actually find themselves top of the table with three wins from three and while they let things slip against Ireland and Scotland, some credit is due for Jacques Brunel considering how recently he took over. Off‑field issues continue to add to the narrative that France are a team in chaos but there are promising signs and it is a great shame indeed that Teddy Thomas has been out of the side – first for his role in the late-night incident in Edinburgh, then with an ankle injury. The victory against Italy was error-strewn but both Mathieu Bastareaud and Yacouba Camara impressed and, while it may seem another tired cliché about the French, they are unlikely to roll over against England.

Predicted finish 5th

Key player Mathieu Bastareaud. France are limited without Thomas but Bastareaud makes the hard yards and is key for France in defence.

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - France vs Italy - Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France - February 23, 2018   Italy's Sergio Parisse and team mates look dejected after the game   REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier © Catalyst Images Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - France vs Italy - Orange Velodrome, Marseille, France - February 23, 2018 Italy's Sergio Parisse and team mates look dejected after the game REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Italy

It is now 15 successive defeats in the Six Nations and that will in all likelihood become 17 by the end of the competition. They may be improving but the problem for Conor O’Shea is that the rest are doing so at a quicker rate. Sebastian Negri’s performances in the back row are among the few bright spots – it is too early to herald him as Sergio Parisse’s successor but it is certainly true that the great No 8’s powers are waning – and they do have some lively backs who will benefit from the experience of exposure. If they could find a few hard-edged tight five forwards, perhaps they could think about ending their losing run but Italy continue to swim against the tide.

Predicted finish 6th

Key player Sergio Parisse. He has not been at his best yet but, if Italy are to claim an unlikely win, they need him to produce one of his epic performances for his country.

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