By Alan Dymock
THERE IS a lot of love in the air. Not the kind of sickly sweet love, where champagne with strawberries is a must and a handmade card has to be presented on top of the Eiffel or Blackpool Tower while Frankie Goes to Hollywood blares out from a boombox circa ’92. Just lovely love for all things nice.
So celebrate all the international days and holidays this weekend by rounding up all of your chums, taking them down the boozer and indulging their love of Six Nations rugby. Here’s a look ahead at round four…
Return of the ‘lak
No sooner had everyone gruffly agreed that France were better without Freddie Michalak than Philippe Saint-Andre reinstated the mercurial half-back for the game against Ireland.
Inside him there is a steadying force, with Morgan Parra winning his 50th cap while having to hold the France fly-half’s hand. Their task will be to try to work around the Irish playmakers and hope that any trouble that befalls Michalak cannot be punished by a fit-enough Paddy Jackson.
The match-up between Michalak and Jackson will be interesting, and while the Irishman certainly seems to have the full support of his team, it only takes one bit of Michalak magic for us all to remember how good a player he can be when he is not dabbing kicks into gleeful defender’s chops.
In the perfect world the fancy flyers on either side perform, the packs put in brave displays and Jackson comes of age while Michalak actually pulls off something he has been trying since the opening whistle of the championship.
In the real world, though, it will be the team that is less wasteful that will renege on their recent form.
At Murrayfield there is a meeting of two teams still in the hunt for a title. Whether or not Scotland are likely to claim their first ever Six Nations title or Wales retain the trophy is irrelevant. This is a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Both teams are on a high and both want to ruck it out.
The back threes on either side of the ball are exciting and this game represents a chance for the tournament to flourish once again, with tries and turnovers, runs and rearguard action capturing the imagination.
If both throw the kitchen sink and the toilet, too, this has the potential to be the game of the tournament (unless Wales win. Then, of course, Wales versus England at the Millennium Stadium will undoubtedly be the game of the tournament…).
The Italians will be hoping that the reinstatement of Sergio Parisse can help them bounce back. However, England are on an upwards curve and by swapping in dynamic ball-carriers in Mako Vunipola, James Haskell and Danny Care, they are clearly planning an unrelenting punch to the guts of Italy.
Italy may not double over, but England are marching towards a Grand Slam and they are trying to pick up the pace.
Italy need to play a tad more negatively than they have in previous rounds. Their offloading has been superb, but they need to box-kick and pick-and-go to sap the English before looking to play with Jacques Brunel’s style. It may even help playing negatively at the start before picking up the pace on either side of half-time and then becoming negative again. If it is non-stop action and offloads for 80 minutes they will burn out against an England side conditioned to last.
For the hosts, they will be convinced that if they can keep swinging low, but at greater pace, they are assured of a victory.