Italy v Ireland
You always put pressure on yourself when you get the chance to wear an Irish jersey. It’s a special occasion every time; it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. So I don’t think Ireland will have any problem with a lack of motivation this weekend.
That said, Italy haven’t been good so far in the Six Nations. Through their history they’ve been capable of putting in a big one-off performance, and are generally extra difficult to beat at home, so Ireland will be very focused on ensuring they’re not the ones on the receiving end of it. There’s no doubt it’ll be a tough, physical battle but if Ireland are 100% focused on the game they should emerge victorious.
Against Italy, you probably have more freedom to try a couple of things or to play a little bit wider because you tend to get a bit more front-foot ball. Their defence would be rigid and tough to break down, depending on the conditions, but if you’re able to gather some momentum, it would certainly have a waterfall effect, which happens regularly in their games. Ireland just need to win that struggle for momentum, which usually starts up front, and then spread the ball into the wider channels, something you can generally do after 40 or 50 minutes against the Italians.
Ireland don’t necessarily need to be more expansive. They just need to win with a bonus point and stay breathing down the necks of the English. Anything can happen when England travel to Wales, so a victory should be, first and foremost, what Ireland look for. After that they can look for as many tries as they can get.
There has to be a bit of experimentation. There are only a handful of games left before the World Cup, so you’d like to see Joey Carbery getting a real chance at 10, though he’s now been ruled out through injury, and it’ll be good to see Chris Farrell getting another shot. There’s a lot of competition for places in the side, so giving game-time to the guys who are second-in-line is quite important, particularly in this match.
You don’t want to go out and lose matches, and Joe Schmidt hasn’t rotated the squad enough to suggest he’s holding anything back. He’s going for every match and trying to win every game. You need momentum for the Six Nations, but also to build on that going into the World Cup – you can’t rely on warmup matches.
He and the boys are going full out. They still want to win this tournament and still fancy their chances.
France v Scotland
I don’t think Scotland can get a result here, especially with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg not playing. They’re two very important players for the Scots and Pete Horne has gone into 10, but he’s normally a 12. So that’ll be difficult for him.
The French are really keen to put on a performance and right some of the wrongs from earlier in the competition, and they should have too much quality for Scotland. France have shown in glimpses what a quality team they can be – but they lack a bit of direction, which comes from the top. Looking in from the outside, it seems as if they’re trying to play a territory game one minute, and then the next minute they’re trying to run it out of their 22. It can appear as if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.
I’ve played with and against some of their players and you can’t fault them for their effort – things could end up being player-driven as happened at the 2011 World Cup. They have massive strength-in-depth, but the form players are not necessarily all on the pitch at the right time or in the right position. The players may need to drive it a bit more themselves and take a bit of ownership. Hopefully we’ll see that on Saturday, and I fancy them to get a win this weekend.
Wales v England
Wales have looked strong but they were lucky to get a win against France, who as we’ve mentioned haven’t been playing well, while against Italy they failed to get the bonus point. When you look at them, there are things that make you think, “Wow” – they’re good at times and they get good results, but it could be a false reading as I’m not sure they’re actually playing that well.
Wales are always really dangerous at home. Cardiff is a tough place to go and having played against Wales in the Millennium Stadium, I know what a lift their crowd can give them. But I reckon England will win by a decent enough margin.