No disrespect intended to our French and Italian friends, but the main focus of Six Nations attention this weekend turns to the Four Home Unions. The top ten overall performers in this year’s Fantasy competition so far will be on parade in games at Cardiff and Twickenham which will also determine the main contenders for Championship title honours. Wales host Ireland on Friday night and England meet Scotland in rugby’s oldest International fixture on Saturday.
Ireland powered to their biggest Championship victory over France for 42 years on weekend three with Johnny Sexton returning to control proceedings by kicking three important goals. He landed the first drop goal of the Six Nations season and also picked up precious Fantasy points for a sparkling 50-metre run and his high tackle rate. However, it was his talented half-back partner, Conor Murray, who took the laurels as the most valuable non-kicking player of weekend three in the Fantasy ratings. Murray scored the only try of the game in Dublin and picked up the man-of-the-match award to go ten points clear of Ben Youngs, his nearest rival in the scrum-half position.
Billy Vunipola looks likely to be recalled to start for England vs. Scotland after a picture emerged hinting at Saturday’s lineup.
Wales had an unlikely spectator in the form of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry as Rob Howley’s side went through their paces ahead of Friday’s Six Nations showdown against Ireland.
Wales will want to put their dire second-half performance against Scotland behind them and restore confidence in front of their home crowd. They played with assurance in the opening half-hour at Murrayfield and put together as good a three-quarter move as any created during their glory days in the seventies. There was also something reminiscent of the great JJ Williams in the way Liam Williams finished the move with a try that was his third of the current campaign and brings him level with CJ Stander, Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy and Stuart Hogg as the leading try-scorers in this year’s tournament.
Scotland were the surprise packet of the last round. It was thought that the loss of Greig Laidlaw would be a grievous blow to their hopes, but their 20 unanswered points in the last 40 minutes against Wales ended a run of nine successive defeats against the Principality. Finn Russell was the man-of-the-match with an immaculate [7/7] kicking record which helped him to harvest 15 Fantasy points — his personal best for the season. Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour showed their hunger to score tries wide out and forced their way into the top dozen Fantasy performers of the weekend.
It’s true that the weight of history will bear down heavily on Scotland at Twickenham, where they have won only four times since 1911. Moreover, their 16 successive winless visits to the ground dating back to 1983 is the most unproductive away record for any Five or Six Nations fixture, but with Russell to kick goals and Visser and Seymour to threaten on the wings, England might have their work cut out to equal New Zealand’s world record by winning their 18th Test on the trot.
Billy Vunipola is likely to return for England after making a dynamic appearance for Saracens against Newcastle on Sunday. His barnstorming performances in the 2016 Six Nations earned him a place in our Fantasy back-row of the tournament, though he is unlikely to catch CJ Stander and the two Frenchmen, Louis Picamoles and Kevin Gourdon who are the top three Fantasy performers in the position so far this season.
France go to Rome in the knowledge that two of their last three visits to the eternal city have ended in defeat. Whoever loses Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off at the Stadio Olimpico will only have pride to play for on the last weekend. Guy Novès’ team are a work in progress but expect his flying wings Virimi Vakatawa, Noa Nakaitaci or Yoann Huget to find their try-scoring form soon. For Italy, Carlo Canna [who has a 100% kicking record in this season's tournament] will take every opportunity to grab goal points that might help the Azzurri avoid their twelfth Six Nations Wooden Spoon.
What we’ve learnt from round three
Johnny Sexton is quietly becoming the new Jonny Wilkinson
Johnny Sexton made a successful return from injury. Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Sexton does for Ireland teams what Wilkinson did so effectively for England: that is, build leads by kicking penalties or adding three points through drop goals. Against France he gave a master-class in this art, projecting Ireland into a ten-point lead with three kicks at a critical stage of the second half.
Mike Brown is the top ball-carrier
England’s Mike Brown has made the most metres in the Six Nations. Paul Harding/PA Images via Getty Images
He seems to have had a quiet Six Nations by his usual standards, but the England fullback has run further with the ball than any other player [266 metres]. Official stats show that there are only four members of the 200-club with Louis Picamoles [235m], Scott Spedding [233m] and Stuart Hogg [207m] hot on Brown’s heels.
Devin Toner is the line-out king
Devin Toner is a key cog to Ireland’s set piece. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
The Irish lock has won 17 throws to date and picked up two Fantasy points for pinching ball against the throw. Maro Itoje and Sam Warburton are next in line with a dozen lineout wins apiece. Itoje has been wearing the blind-side shirt of late but continues to pack down for Eddie Jones in the second-row at scrum time. The young Saracens forward has also stolen two against the throw and forms with Joe Launchbury the most valuable Fantasy second-row to date.
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