Six Nations: Five storylines to watch ahead of Round Three as Wales and England clash after fraught week

Colin Newboult

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

The Welsh off-field drama

The players and the Welsh Rugby Union came to an agreement on Wednesday, which meant the game between Wales and England would indeed go ahead. Huge credit must go to the players who stood their ground against the governing body and were able to work out a satisfactory deal. This story still no doubt has some way to run, given the state the WRU finds itself in, but for now the feud has been quelled.

It therefore begs the question, as we start to look forward to Saturday’s encounter, how the players will react to the events of the past week or so. Although they have remained professional and diligent, going through their usual training routines, it will have taken a significant mental toll, and perhaps a physical one too. There is no doubt that England will be better prepared having only had to focus on the game itself.

Supporters will forgive those on the field should it go very badly at the Principality Stadium, knowing full well what they have gone through over the past few months, but both players and fans will also be fired up. Cardiff is always a cauldron for visiting Englishmen and women but it will possibly be even more fearsome for Steve Borthwick’s side before, during and after the game.

The tense on-field action

After the mess was, for the time being at least, sorted, focus shifted to Saturday’s game, which is crucial for both struggling sides. Welsh rugby is in a mess off the field but it is also faltering on it, with Warren Gatland’s return not exactly yielding positive results or, most pertinently, good performances. They were poor against Ireland and Scotland to start the Six Nations, conceding a combined total of 69 points over the two matches.

The English have been better than their Welsh counterparts under their new head coach Borthwick, but there are a number of issues which have yet to be resolved. Borthwick has identified the areas and step-by-step is looking to put his imprint on the squad, but it is something which will take time.

You would therefore expect this weekend’s clash to be tight and tense, with ambition lacking in attack and kicking very much the order of the day. On paper and on form, England are in a better place, but you never know how the Welsh will respond to their recent travails. This is exactly the sort of episode which could galvanise Gatland’s team and, especially against their great rivals, it wouldn’t be a surprise should Wales come out on top.

Another step towards an Irish Grand Slam despite Sexton’s injury

There may be a contrast in fortunes at fly-half for Italy and Ireland going into this match, but it is very unlikely to change the outcome of the game. Paolo Garbisi’s return is timely for an Azzurri side which are evidently developing nicely under the guidance of Kieran Crowley. Tommaso Allan has done a decent job in his absence but Garbisi, even at his age, is a class above the Harlequins man.

The 22-year-old has a superb game understanding and, mixed with his creativity and athletic traits, he will give that Italian backline an extra edge. Conversely, the Irish are without their main man behind the scrum with Johnny Sexton ruled out due to injury, but Andy Farrell’s men will simply be too strong for the hosts. It seems that whoever steps in does a fine job at the moment and Ross Byrne displayed that when he came on for Sexton against France.

Byrne is not at the level of his Leinster compatriot but he certainly looks a much better pivot to the one who was all at sea prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. That winning kick against Australia in the Autumn Nations Series last year has given him a huge confidence boost and he has gone from strength-to-strength since then. With so much experience around the Ireland fly-half and a pack in front of him which continues to dominate the gain line, a third match out of five should be ticked off in their quest for a Grand Slam.

A truer test of Scotland’s capabilities

Gregor Townsend’s charges have been the surprise package of the Six Nations so far. It shouldn’t be the case, considering the talent they have in the squad, but their incredible ability to disappoint when backed to perform has been the bane of Scottish rugby. It appeared as though that would once again rear its ugly head in the opening round against England but, as the game reached its crucial stages, there was a different look to the team.

They showed remarkable composure to soak up the pressure and then land the killer blow with a fabulous team score, resulting in a 29-23 triumph. At the final whistle there were joyous scenes but it was certainly more muted this year, knowing that they have not backed up these big results in the past. There seems to have been a positive mentality shift within the squad and that was demonstrated by their dismantling of Wales a week later.

Nevertheless, those challenges pale in comparison to what awaits in Paris this weekend. France may not be at the level they were last year, but they still have the power and the talent to blow Scotland away on Sunday. It will be a significant test for the visitors but, if they can come through this, Townsend’s charges can dare to dream of a first Six Nations title and, potentially, a Grand Slam.

Declining France or saving themselves for the big one?

While Scotland look a better side this year, they are also boosted by the form of the French, who have gradually declined since their Grand Slam success last year. Although they won all three Autumn Nations Series encounters in 2022, none of the performances were exactly convincing. All good sides can have dips so it did not leave us concerned, but their efforts so far in the 2023 Six Nations certainly has.

Obviously, discipline was an issue against Italy and that disrupted their game, but they aren’t quite getting the purchase in either set-piece or carry at the moment. They almost look ‘underpowered’, which is odd to say about a XV full of quality athletes, and are therefore unable to dominate the gain line. There is still plenty of time to go until the World Cup but they need to start putting the pieces in place ahead of their home tournament.

They were better against Ireland but it always felt like Andy Farrell’s men were in control, despite the odd moments of brilliance from the likes of Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont. It is not time to panic for Les Bleus – far from it – but now would be a good moment for them to get it together and show their supporters they are moving in the right direction. If not, and Scotland claim a victory in Paris, the pressure will begin to ramp up.

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