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RBS 6 Nations predictions - week five
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 Saturday’s final round of RBS 6 Nations matches with the Championship still up for grabs.
ITALY v ENGLAND (12.30pm)
There will be a slightly strange atmosphere in Rome because of the staggered kick-offs for the final weekend, as England still don’t quite know what’s required to win the Championship.
Even if they win by a huge margin they’ll still have wait for the result from Paris, so they’ve been saying all week they’ll treat it like a normal match.
They’ll travel to Rome in a very positive mood and with history on their side – they’ve never lost to Italy home or away in the Championship. However, their last three visits to Rome have been close finishes – 2008 by four, 2010 by five and 2012 by five, so it’s not an easy place to win these days.
However, I don’t expect it to be quite as difficult this time. Although coach Jacques Brunel has got them playing more attacking rugby, they seem to be more vulnerable in defence this year and, as we saw in Dublin last week, can capitulate easily if things are going wrong.
England are playing with so much confidence of late, with a real intention to score tries. Head coach Stuart Lancaster has named the fit-again Manu Tuilagi on the replacements’ bench, which means he’ll come on at some stage during the second half as an impact substitute.
It’s a good opportunity for the Leicester centre to re-establish himself back in the squad. Alex Goode, whom he replaces in the 23-man squad, is playing well but he’s more of a creator – Tuilagi is a finisher.
I can imagine if things are going really well they will put him on the wing with one eye on next year’s World Cup. With Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell – the find of the tournament for me – playing so well at the moment, it won’t be easy for Manu to break that partnership.
Italy will have the brilliant Sergio Parisse back, but I expect England to win comfortably. The focus will then switch to Paris.
Mick’s Pick: England to win 38-15. They’ll definitely win – but it’s all about how many points they score.
WALES v SCOTLAND (2.45pm)
How quickly fortunes fluctuate in this tournament. Wales were going for a record third successive Championship victory a few weeks back, but suddenly it’s all doom and gloom following their defeat against England last week.
There are some suggestions it’s an end of an era, especially after Warren Gatland made six changes to the team that lost against England this weekend.
Wales really didn’t offer much at Twickenham last week; George North was ordinary, as was Jamie Roberts, who was outplayed by the brilliant Billy Twelvetrees, who had his best game in an England shirt.
They should see this match as a springboard to what is effectively a World Cup year, with the summer tours and autumn internationals.
Scotland will want to re-establish some credibility after yet another disappointing campaign. It’s also Scott Johnson’s last match in charge before his move upstairs as the country’s director of rugby.
New coach Vern Cotter, who’ll be leaving his role with French team Clermont Auvergne at the end of the season, will have a real challenge on his hands. He’ll want to have the same impact that fellow New Zealander Joe Schmidt has had with Ireland. And how Scotland need fresh impetus.
Mick’s Pick: 28-16 to Wales. Wales are still a good side.
FRANCE v IRELAND (5pm)
Ireland have the late kick-off in their favour as they’ll know the result of England’s match against Italy in Rome.
However, their record in Paris is awful – their last victory was in 2000 when Brian O’Driscoll tore the hosts apart with a delightful hat-trick on his RBS 6 Nations debut.
And what better place for possibly Ireland’s greatest ever player to end his glittering career? But will it be a fairytale ending? Not if you use Ireland’s record in Paris as a yardstick – they have only won four times in the French capital since 1928.
And how are France level on points with Ireland and England at the top of the Championship? They have been woeful, lack shape and self-belief.
They weren’t particularly impressive against England when they won, courtesy of a late escape from Gael Fickou. From a French perspective, they don’t really have much to lose – Phillipe Saint-Andre’s job will be safe so there’s no threat of a regime change.
Ireland have underachieved with their last generation, a really poor return considering the talent they have had at their disposal.
But a victory would be a fantastic send-off for O’Driscoll – the most capped international in rugby history.
I don’t think there will be a repeat of his 2000 hat-trick, his pace isn’t as searing as it used to be, but what more could you ask for than a RBS 6 Nations title on your last match for your country?
Mick’s Pick: 30-20 Ireland – What a way to kick-start the St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Monday.
MICK’S PLAYERS TO WATCH
I’m really looking forward to seeing Gael Fickou up against Brian O’Driscoll. The Frenchman is like the 2000 version of O’Driscoll. It’s going to be fascinating to see who’ll come out on top.