After what seemed a lifetime, but was merely a two week break, the Six Nations is finally ready to get back under way with a number of questions to be answered. Firstly, will Wales be able to maintain their recent momentum and dash Ireland‘s dreams of only a third ever Grand Slam? And will Scotland be able to secure their first victory over England at Twickenham for over 20 years? We have highlighted the five key battles the teams face in pursuit of victory.
England v Scotland
Mike Brown v Stuart Hogg
It was clear that England missed Mike Brown against Ireland as the red roses withered under a barrage of Irish high balls at the Aviva Stadium. The Irish kicked the ball away 44 times in 80 minutes however Brown’s timely return from concussion is going to be met with another headache in the form of Stuart Hogg. The Glasgow Warrior has been in electrifying form in the opening three fixtures despite his team’s inability to keep composure in the final minutes. Hogg has beaten more defenders (12) and gained more ground than anyone else this tournament amassing 317 meters in the process and is well on his way to surpassing the standards that earned him a Lions call.
Ben Youngs v Greig Laidlaw
Ben Youngs appears almost symbolic in the debate on England’s gameplan – or the lack of it. Critics have argued that the scrumhalf lacks the box-kicking prowess of Richard Wigglesworth and isn’t quite as sharp as Danny Care around the fringes. However Youngs will be hoping to show that his all-court game when he clashes with Greig Laidlaw on Saturday. The Scottish captain is aiming for his country’s first victory at Twickenham since 1983 and whose own kicking precision will be pivotal in pinning back the fleeting feet of Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson.
Wales v Ireland
Leigh Halfpenny v Johnny Sexton
While not occupying the same position on the field the key to victory at the Millenium Stadium will most certainly lie with the place kicking of Leigh Halfpenny and Johnny Sexton. In their first three fixtures Wales and Ireland have managed just seven tries between them, instead relying on the boot to build a score. Halfpenny is currently the tournament’s leading points scorer with 39, managing 15 in his last outing against France, and will be hoping to go kick-for-kick with Sexton if Wales have any chance of derailing the Irish advance towards a first Grand Slam since 2009.
Alun Wyn Jones v Paul O’Connell
Paul O’Connell will reach the lofty environs of rugby centurions as he wins his 100th cap on Saturday, yet it will be his ability to dominate the Welsh lineout that could lead to Ireland’s 11th straight victory under Joe Schmidt. The men from the Emerald Isle lost just one of their 12 lineouts at the Aviva stadium against England whilst stealing possession from their opposition on three occasions. Alun Wyn Jones and second row partner Luke Charteris will look to negate the jumping of O’Connell and Devin Toner as the inevitable kicks out of hand from Sexton will leave them pinned back in their half. Although six years younger than the Irish captain, Alun Wyn Jones is almost his mirror image, matching O’Connell’s tenacity, unrelenting work rate and his loathing of defeat.
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Jamie Roberts v Robbie Henshaw
Robbie Henshaw will be hoping to repeat his man of the match performance against England in what will be only his ninth test appearance. While the man from Connacht managed to shackle the elusive running of Bath centre Jonathan Joseph he faces arguably his biggest challenge in the test arena in the form of the 17 stone battering ram, Jamie Roberts. The Welshman, and two times Lions tourist, has put in a number of concrete performances this tournament, but his ability to consistently smash through the gain line in a congested midfield will be crucial to the homeside’s momentum.