1. What a difference a year makes
A year on from the chastening 30-3 defeat in Cardiff, England look a team transformed. For all the talk of having exacted revenge over Wales for that game, it is not what England players, coaches and, indeed, fans should be most pleased about. It is the way in which this England team are playing. Yes, there were errors, but when you are playing a more open game that is always going to happen. Gone is the one-dimensional attack of England; now there are dangerous runners all over the pitch and you sense that there has been a shift in the way the players think when they get the ball.
All credit to Stuart Lancaster et al for engendering an atmosphere within the squad that allows the players license to play with confidence. The only negative has been indiscipline, which could end up costing them the Championship as it has seen their points difference take a beating.
2. What now for Wales?
If England are heading in the right direction, the same cannot be said for Wales. The things they usually excel at – defensive security, powerful runners smashing over the gainline, superior fitness – have all let them down this Six Nations. Sure, they have plenty of Lions who have played far too much rugby and look fatigued, but their problems run deeper than that. Gatland’s stubbornness is at times an asset, but he surely has to admit that they now need to develop an alternative gameplan to the one based purely on power.
There also needs to be a changing of the guard. Against Scotland, with nothing on the line, players like Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Mike Phillips should be dropped from the squad to allow younger players a chance. They are all past their prime and starting to show their age – if you don’t give other guys a go now, then when?
3. France still in with a shout
Quite how, nobody is too sure, but the French are still in with a chance of winning this Six Nations. With a points difference of just +3 (which really goes to show how bad they have been), they would need either Italy to beat England or to rack up a cricket score against Ireland themselves – neither of which look particularly likely to come to pass, but stranger things have happened, and Ireland do have a woeful record in Paris… Put it this way, if Italy do pull off the unlikely and beat England, France will will come out firing, knowing points difference no longer matters and they just need a win.
4. Ireland on fire, but can they prove it Paris?
They have been the team of the championship so far, no doubt about it. Against Scotland, Wales and Italy they have sublime, accurate and exhilarating rugby which has rightly seen their points difference gallop away from the others and put them on the brink of a first title since 2009. At the weekend they reversed an old tendency to fall away towards the end of games and kicked things up a gear in the second half to blow the Italians away.
And yet, doubts still linger. They lost away to England, and have a terrible record against France in Paris. It shouldn’t play on their minds, but it will. And how French would it be, after all their bad press, for things finally to click and for them to beat Ireland? Certainly if, as expected, England beat Italy by a comfortable margin, there will be some added nerves jangling around the Ireland squad.
5. Scotland must find winning knack
Scotland did not deserve to lose to France. They played better rugby, scoring more tries, dominating the territory and possession stats as well as having an upper hand over both the scrum and the lineout. France, however, managed to snatch a win thanks to an interception try from Yoann Huget. Lucky? Perhaps, but the top teams always find a way of winning this sort of game. That Scotland could not shows their lack of nous of how to grind out a victory. Ironically, the only way to do this is to start winning. Assuming they fall to Wales this weekend, it will be another mediocre campaign for the Scots.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images