This Saturday sees the final game of the 2021 Six Nations for four teams, and the penultimate game for the other two. There are three interesting matchups this weekend, with the headline game being the clash of the top two, France and Wales, in Paris, whilst England travel to Dublin to face a resurgent Ireland, and Scotland host Italy in Edinburgh. This preview will look at all six confirmed lineups, picking out the key battles in the team, and where each can win or lose the game. We will also then give a prediction for who will come out on top in each game.
Scotland v Italy (KO 2.15pm)
LOCATION: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Three key matchups:
The second rows for both sides, particularly Niccolo Cannone and Sam Skinner, both wearing number four this weekend, will be ones to watch, with both capable of punching holes in opponents’ defences. Skinner is perhaps more attack-minded, whereas Cannone thrives more in tackling players, but both will be important players for their teams this weekend.
The back rows of both sides will be where the battle is won and lost. Scotland have their usual trio of Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson there, whilst Italy have their own powerhouses in Sebastian Negri and Johan Meyer, along with Michele Lamaro. When it comes to the breakdown situations, the race to get to the ball first will be one to keep an eye on, with all six capable of winning turnovers for their team. At scrums, the contest between Watson and Negri will be very interesting, because both are good in attack and defence.
The fly-half area will also be interesting to watch, with captain Stuart Hogg moving there from his usual full-back position, whilst Paolo Garbisi is a rising star of Italian rugby. The ability of both to kick and find space will be important in breaking down each other’s defences.
Off the bench:
Chris Harris will be a key replacement for Scotland, as we have seen at Gloucester how he is capable of taking a game by force and doing what is necessary to turn the game in his team’s favour. This could either be by getting on the front foot and meeting opposing defenders early, or by staying back and making key tackles as the last player; he can do both.
For Italy, the continued and now notable rotation of the props will see Andrea Lovotti and Giosue Zilocchi possibly come on midway through the first half, looking to add energy when their opponents are tiring. Maxime Mbanda has proven to be a back row who can add extra power to his side’s attack when required, and will be important in breaking down a tough Scottish defence in the second half.
Normally, this is the game where Italy fancy themselves to cause an upset, but Scotland have been impressive this year, building well on what they showed last year, as shown in previous analysis. Therefore, it looks again like Italy will do well to lose by a small margin. The Azzurri have had some good moments this year, but will need to forget their last game against Wales, which was them back at their worst. Scotland will be hungry for a win, having lost in two very tight games against Wales and Ireland already in this year’s tournament, and this game gives them an opportunity to get back on track before their last game, against France, which has been rescheduled for next Friday evening.
Ireland v England (KO 4.45pm)
LOCATION: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Three key matchups:
The front row battle between experienced props Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong, both of whom are excellent in scrums and always give their all when attacking, will be especially interesting to watch. Scrums could be won or lost depending on which of these two is more dominant.
Equally as important will be the battle between second rows Maro Itoje and Tadhg Beirne, with both capable of making important tackles at crucial times, and can find small gaps to score tries as well, as both have done so already this tournament. They have both proven themselves to be irreplaceable players for their teams this year, so could have a big say in who comes out on top after 80 minutes.
The wing battle between Keith Earls and Jonny May could also be important, with both looking to dominate in the air, and both capable of pacey runs to score tries behind opposing lines. However, the key point is that this is attack vs defence in a way, because we know the threat May poses when going forwards, but the last game for Ireland against Scotland allowed Earls to display his defensive skills, so his individual contest with the Gloucester winger could be one to keep an eye on.
Off the bench:
Ireland’s replacement props will be important to their hopes of winning, with Cian Healy adding experience and Andrew Porter always capable of charging through opposing defences. Jordan Larmour is an excellent player to have at 23, capable of playing at full-back or on the wing, and so can add quality at the back wherever required.
England are missing Henry Slade this weekend, but Harlequins’ Joe Marchant and Worcester Warriors’ Ollie Lawrence, the latter of whom started the Roses’ first game of the tournament, will add extra presence at the back in his place. We know that Marchant likes to get forward and score tries, wherever he plays, and Lawrence may need to use his good defensive ability to stop Ireland advancing when he comes on.
This could be a very tightly-contested game, with Ireland looking more confident now than at the start of the tournament, whilst England will want to end what has been an overall poor title defence with a win. Both sides have players who can exploit gaps, so it could come down to the kicks at goal that each earn, and this is where captains Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton could be decisive. Given this, and the fact that Sexton has been more consistent with his kicking this year, let’s go with an Ireland win, but only just.
France v Wales (KO 8.00pm)
LOCATION: Stade de France, Paris
Three key matchups:
The front rows for both sides are capable of causing problems for opponents. The battle between Welsh loosehead Wyn Jones and French tighthead Mohamed Haouas will be very interesting, with both showing their attacking abilities with the ball in this year’s tournament.
Whoever dominates on the wings will potentially decide the match, with Josh Adams competing with Teddy Thomas on one side, and Louis Rees-Zammit facing up against Damian Penaud on the other. All four have had moments of excellence this year, and have all shown their try-scoring threat, so it is very likely that both teams’ tactics will see them get the ball out to their wide areas as much as possible, testing each other’s defensive efforts in those channels.
With kicking likely to be a big feature of the game, both sides will need their full-backs to be solid at the back, and Liam Williams and Brice Dulin will need to be at the top of their game. We saw in the last game how Williams likes to advance forwards with the ball and create opportunities for his side, and Dulin likes to work with his wingers as much as possible. This is another factor which could help decide this game.
Off the bench:
The sight of Romain Ntamack on the bench will be a welcome comfort for France, even though it is unlikely he will get too many minutes, as he is only just back from a double jaw fracture, which required surgery and has kept him out of this year’s tournament so far. However, his quality and capabilities are evident to everyone who has ever watched him. Centre Arthur Vincent also adds power and directness to his side’s attack from the back line, so could be a key replacement in the second half.
Wales will once again be looking for fly-half Callum Sheedy to add extra creativity in the second half, finding spaces behind the French players when Wales need to get through their infamously well-organised, Shaun Edwards-drilled defence. Willis Halaholo has also shown this tournament what he can bring to the table, adding extra defensive strength and making important tackles in key moments, which, with the pace and power France have in the likes of Virimi Vakatawa and Gael Fickou in the midfield, will be needed.
With this game potentially deciding the Championship, we can expect that this game will be nervy at times and potentially have plenty of individual mistakes, as both teams will look to have and win back possession as much as possible. We have identified some key areas and players who could decide the game, but the fact that Liam Williams seems a bit more confident at running forwards than Brice Dulin could be what decides the game, as it could give Wales more opportunities to get into dangerous areas quicker. For this reason, we will go with a Welsh win.