Six Nations: Week 5 Preview

England secured a first Six Nations title since 2011 last weekend as they beat Wales at Twickenham and France were defeated by Scotland. The destination of the championship may have already been decided, but the final weekend will determine whether England can become the first team to win the Grand Slam since Wales achieved the feat in 2012.

Wales v Italy (1430 GMT, Saturday)

The final ten minutes of last weekend’s game against England showcased the quality that Wales are capable of producing. Scoring two tries and coming agonisingly close to a third, Wales were briefly at their rampant best as they threatened to derail England’s dreams of a Grand Slam.

Wales’ issue during the 2016 Six Nations has been an inability to play their best rugby for sustained periods. The latter stages of last weekend’s game were impressive, but the Welsh committed far too many errors, giving away eight penalties and making just 87% of their tackles. It hasn’t been an especially memorable tournament for Wales, particularly given the team’s successful recent history in the competition, but this weekend’s game against Italy will give them a chance to secure second place as they go up against the tournament’s weakest defence.

Italy have been disappointing in 2016 and look to have gone backwards after evidence of progress in recent years. Last Saturday’s 58-15 annihilation at the hands of Ireland highlighted Italy’s weaknesses when confronted with aggressive running rugby. In addition to their defensive struggles (Italy have conceded 157 points, 77 more than any other team), the Azzurri have lacked incisiveness in attack. Making just 13 line breaks and scoring only six tries, Italy have had problems on both sides of the ball and will be left with more questions than answers after disappointing World Cup and Six Nations campaigns.

Player to Watch: Dan Lydiate (Wales)

Dan Lydiate will captain Wales this weekend in the absence of Sam Warburton, just reward for his superb performances of late. Lydiate had a monster game against England despite defeat, making 24 tackles (10 more than any of his teammates) and being in the first three to thr breakdown on 35 occasions. Hitting the ruck 50 times, Lydiate lived up to his reputation as an indefatigable presence in the pack and will be important if Wales are to dominate the breakdown against Italy this weekend.

Ireland v Scotland (1700 GMT, Saturday)

Ireland’s defence of their title has fallen flat this year, but their performance against Italy last weekend was that of a team rediscovering its mojo. Scoring nine tries, recording 154 hitups, 10 line breaks and carrying for 1,110 metres (all single-game records for the 2016 Six Nations), Ireland were rampant and will be hoping to replicate that performance against Scotland in Dublin on Saturday.

It may have been a disappointing campaign for the Irish, but they have improved as the tournament has progressed and could secure a third-place finish if results go their way this weekend.

Scotland’s impressive victory over France at Murrayfield further demonstrated the progress they are making under the stewardship of Vern Cotter. Despite averaging the least amount of possession per game (46.4%), Scotland control 52.7% of territory (the most in the Six Nations) and are now a legitimate force at the scrum and breakdown.

Scotland’s lack of incisive ball carriers in the back line shows up in their lack of metres gained with the ball in hand (589.5m per game, fewest in the tournament), although the superlative performances of Stuart Hogg have given them a world-class point of focus in attack. If they can work on creating a more balanced backline in attack then this team has an opportunity to make great strides in the coming years.

Player to Watch: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)

Jamie Heaslip was in fine form against Italy last weekend, marshalling the Irish pack and crossing the line for two of the team’s nine tries. Carrying the ball for 83 metres, more than any other Irish forward, Heaslip’s performance was central to Ireland’s ability to exploit weaknesses in the Italian defence. Taking the ball into contact 10.75 times per game and averaging 56.5 metres carried, Heaslip is a fearless operator who combines grit and creativity at the number eight position.

France v England (2000 GMT, Saturday)

France host England in Paris this weekend and will be looking to spoil their opponents’ dreams of a Grand Slam. Les Bleus were disappointing in defeat to Scotland last weekend and have been relatively unconvincing throughout the tournament but will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s heavy defeat against England and finish with a flourish.

France’s main problems have been in defence, with the team making just 121.5 tackles per game at 88.7%, both tournament lows. They have also struggled to assert themselves with the boot, kicking for 463.7 metres per game, fewer than every other team, and controlling just 50.9% of territory, less than all but Ireland (42.7%). France have the ability to play devastating attacking rugby on their day (as illustrated by their 56 offloads, 21 more than next-best Italy), but those days have been too few and far between of late.

As the newly-crowned Six Nations champions, England will be desperate to secure their first Grand Slam since 2003 in Paris this weekend. England were superb for 70 minutes last week, keeping Wales at bay and taking advantage of their attacking opportunities, but the team’s near-collapse at the end showed that there is still plenty of work to be done.

Having recorded the fewest line breaks (13) and offloads (24) made during the tournament, England still lack fluency in attack but are starting to play at a higher tempo and get the ball to the flanks with greater regularity. There are also concerns with indiscipline, with England conceding 51 penalties over their four games so far.

That said, Eddie Jones has done superbly to help England bounce back from their World Cup disappointments and the team’s Six Nations success could well act as a strong platform for future development.

Player to Watch: Maro Itoje (England)

Maro Itoje has just four international caps to his name, but the 21-year-old plays with the confidence and intelligence of a veteran. Last week he shone against an experienced Welsh pack, making 16 tackles, carrying for 39 metres and dominating the lineout with two steals. Arriving within the first three to the breakdown on 33 occasions (second only to James Haskell), Itoje was key to his team’s control of the majority of the game. England may just have unearthed a diamond.

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