Six Nations: Five storylines to follow on the penultimate weekend including Le Crunch and Ireland’s toughest test

Colin Newboult

Ahead of the fourth round of the Six Nations Championship, we delve into the big talking points going into the games on Saturday and Sunday.

Ireland’s toughest test left

One of Ireland’s sternest challenges awaits them this weekend as they continue their bid for a Six Nations Grand Slam. After dispatching France in Round Two, Andy Farrell was afforded the opportunity to rest a few star players against Italy, but even if he was a betting man, he would not gamble against the Scots this weekend.

The well-oiled Irish machine should steamroll, even if it is ultimately tight on the scoreboard, right over the Red Rose on Super Saturday, despite the improvements Steve Borthwick’s men have made. However, they face the side that arguably counters their game plan best this weekend.

Scotland are happy to play without the ball, and their defence is good enough to go through multiple phases without capitulating. Their ability to hold up ball carriers and pick their moments to compete at the breakdown will produce some enticing battles. The Scottish pack can set up at the set-pieces and produce a real arm wrestle with the Irish forwards.

While Gregor Townsend’s side are willing to defend for long periods, when they get the ball, they are lethal and pounce on any opportunity. This is bound to be a box office clash.

Farrell or Smith, or both

Reports have surfaced that Owen Farrell is set to be dropped, with Marcus Smith taking the reins at fly-half, while others simply can’t comprehend the idea of the conservative Borthwick opting for the maverick over the safe pair of hands. It is a fascinating subplot and one which could ultimately be pivotal in how England fare at the Rugby World Cup.

Borthwick would certainly be a brave man to take Farrell out of the XV, the player he named as captain before the Six Nations and someone so highly respected by his peers. However, the former Leicester Tigers head coach has been pretty consistent in his approach and will reward form should individuals make themselves impossible to ignore.

Smith’s display for Harlequins against Exeter Chiefs may have therefore swayed the England boss, who knows his fly-half, whoever it may be, needs to be better off the tee. Farrell has struggled with his kicking in this year’s tournament while Smith was pretty much pinpoint in the Premiership last weekend.

Of course, Borthwick may well opt for both and go back to the dual 10-12 playmaking axis. England were most fluid in phase play in the opener against Scotland with those two in tandem, so don’t write off that combination just yet.

Scotland’s Triple Crown duck

Townsend’s charges shot the lights out in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations, defeating England 29-23 and Wales 35-7. The victories were accompanied by the Calcutta Cup and Dobbie Weir Cup, and this weekend, Scotland have the opportunity to secure one more elusive title: the Triple Crown.

Not since their Grand Slam title-winning Five Nations campaign in 1990 have Scotland claimed that trophy, a record they will look to rectify this weekend. Just one team stands in their way, and it happens to be the table-topping world number one side Ireland.

Despite the loss to France in Round Three, Townsend’s men will be confident they can knock over Ireland. The Scots have already broken some trends this tournament, winning their opening two games of the Championship for the first time since 1996 and claiming their first success over a Warren Gatland-led Wales team. It was also their biggest-ever triumph over Wales in the professional era.

A victory over Ireland will secure the Triple Crown, and it would be the first time Scotland has beaten a team ranked number one in the world. With an in-form Finn Russell firing the Scottish attack and, with weapons like Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, and Duhan van der Merwe at his disposal, 2023 may just be Scotland’s year to break their Triple Crown duck.

Title hopes in the balance ahead of Le Crunch

There are plenty of variables but, in layman’s terms, one of these teams should remain – however slight – in title contention going into the final round of the Six Nations. Both England and France have had their critics over the course of this competition, but a victory here would be huge.

For the Red Rose, they are under a new regime with Borthwick at the helm, and a win, combined with further improvements in certain aspects of their game, would be significant. They have taken small steps forward against Italy and Wales, but this is no doubt a much bigger test of their capabilities.

Les Bleus may have suffered a decline since the start of the Autumn Nations Series, but they are still the favourites for their home World Cup later this year. Fabien Galthie’s men have incredible talent throughout the squad and will look to put their indifferent form behind them to set themselves up for the rest of 2023.

After failing to find their best in the opening three matches, the French have a point to prove. They also have a chance to end a barren run, with the national team failing to emerge triumphant against England at Twickenham for the past 18 years. 2005 was their last victory at the ‘home of rugby’, where Dimitri Yachvili starred in an 18-17 success, so there is plenty of motivation for Galthie’s charges.

A huge chance for Italy

Welsh rugby is quite simply in disarray at the moment, opening up the opportunity for an improving Italy to make it successive victories over them. The Azzurri broke their 36-match losing streak in the Six Nations when they stunned Wayne Pivac’s men last year, and they have shown gradual development since then.

Although Kieran Crowley’s outfit have succumbed to France, England and Ireland in the 2023 edition, they have been competitive in all three matches, especially in the home encounters. They gave the French and Irish real frights and, on form, will fancy themselves of toppling the Welsh.

Wales actually remain slight favourites with the bookmakers, but Warren Gatland’s return has not yielded the upturn in results and performances many expected. They have been even worse than last season, with their smallest margin of defeat coming against an England side whose kicker had an especially bad day at the office.

The contract row between the players and the WRU has certainly not helped matters but, with tensions slightly eased, their focus can now be fully on what happens on the field. This match may well be the least important of the weekend but, in some ways, it is the most intriguing.

READ MORE: Sir Clive Woodward: Owen Farrell has to start at fly-half if England are to win the World Cup