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RBS 6 Nations predictions
Mick Cleary is the Daily Telegraph’s rugby union correspondent and has been covering international rugby for over 30 years.
He gives us his verdict on this weekend’s three RBS 6 Nations matches.
IRELAND V ITALY (1430 GMT, Saturday)
Despite their narrow defeat by England, Ireland are in the box seat of the four teams on two victories and I expect them to strengthen their position in the Championship against the Azzurri in Dublin.
Italy are without their inspirational captain Sergio Parisse, although it seems he’s not that badly injured. It looks as if they’re keeping him under wraps for next week’s final match against England – the only team the Italians have never beaten in the RBS 6 Nations.
I really can’t see Joe Schmidt’s team stumbling at home and I expect them to travel to Paris next week with a decisive points difference advantage.
Mick’s pick – Ireland to win 32-20.
SCOTLAND V FRANCE (1700 GMT, Saturday)
France – what is going there? Seven changes from the team that played so woefully in Cardiff a fortnight ago, they’re back to that unpredictable team of old.
And Louis Picamoles did no-one a favour by sarcastically clapping referee Alain Rolland in that thumping 27-6 defeat by Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago, a gesture which has earned him the chop by an irate France coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
England will be kicking themselves losing in Paris in the opening round, either that or slightly annoyed about drawing them first up.
Mind you, Scotland were in a similar state to what France are in at the moment following their 20-0 defeat by England at Murrayfield.
But that last-minute win against Italy courtesy of Duncan Weir’s fantastic last-minute drop-goal will give them the all-important momentum going into this weekend’s encounter.
And with that in mind I expect them to win, although it would be great for the Championship if France won to set up an enthralling finale next week.
Mick’s pick – Scotland to win 27-21. Still can’t work France out.
ENGLAND V WALES (1500 GMT, Sunday)
This year’s game has a real resonance following England’s capitulation in Cardiff last year, a record 30-3 defeat which handed Wales their second successive RBS 6 Nations title.
That was a humiliating setback for Stuart Lancaster’s evolving side and that memory will still be hovering this weekend. England have to set the record straight, especially with the World Cup coming up next year.
The loss of Billy Vunipola is a big blow for England although his replacement Ben Morgan, the only change to the England starting XV from the Ireland victory two weeks ago, is a sturdy replacement.
The question mark hanging around the Gloucester number 8 is whether he can maintain Vunipola’s phenomenal work-rate well into the second half. Morgan’s impact during this Championship has been really impressive off the bench and has been a decisive factor in England’s second-half performances.
Exeter’s Tom Johnson takes Morgan’s place on the bench but I’m not sure whether he’s a natural fit as a number 8, he’s more a flanker and doesn’t have the same ball-carrying dynamics as Vunipola or Morgan.
The return of Jonathan Davies is an enormous boost for Wales as he once again lines up alongside Jamie Roberts in midfield. Although England contained the world record centre partnership of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll effectively at Twickenham two weeks ago, Davies and Roberts are a really potent and powerful partnership.
His return to fitness allows George North to return to his position on the wing after a one-match cameo alongside Roberts at centre. If Wales can get their top running game going then England will have a real job on their hands trying to nullify the deluge from so many talented backs.
Wales also have 12 Lions players in their starting XV compared with England’s one (Owen Farrell). However, don’t forget Wales were convincingly beaten 26-3 by Ireland, who lost to England. Can the hosts replicate that form on Sunday?
Mick’s pick – England to win – just. Like against Ireland it will be a narrow margin, maybe 2-4 points.
MICK’S PLAYER TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND – BILLY TWELVETREES
I’m really intrigued to see how the England centre gets on this weekend.
He had a decent match against Ireland but I’d like to see him take a game at the scruff of the neck, although that will be a real challenge against Lions pairing Roberts and Jonathan.