DAVID NICHOLSON asks if Ireland have what it takes to go all the way or will Scotland find their home form in Dublin
THE Six Nations has reached boiling point after three rounds of action has left Ireland undefeated in pole position, with a grand slam beckoning.
Defending champions England were upended in a tumultuous tussle at Murrayfield, as the Scots were too strong at the breakdown and laser sharp in attack against them.
Wales lost for the second time, but the vagaries of the bonus point system leave them with an outside chance of the championship if other results go the right way for them.
But head coach Warren Gatland has publicly conceded the championship and is experimenting in his side’s home tie against Italy.
Gatland has made 10 changes for Sunday’s (11 March) home match.
This is partly experimentation and a practical measure for the six-day turnaround before Wales’s final match against France.
New skipper Taulupe Faletau takes the armband from Alun Wyn Jones, who has been rested.
“We have two games at home and we want to finish the championship well,” Gatland said.
“Finishing in the top three is important for us and there’s a chance to give some time to players in the squad to see where they are at this level and develop more depth in the squad.”
The statistics show that Ireland had 69 percent possession and spent three-quarters of the game in the Welsh half and that pressure led Wales to uncharacteristically concede penalties.
Wales gave away just two penalties against England at Twickenham but conceded nine at Lansdowne Road.
But Wales could have nicked a victory in the closing moments as a Steff Evans try made it a three-point game with two minutes remaining.
A Wales win at the death would have broken Irish hearts, but, as Wales went for broke, Jacob Stockdale picked off a loose Gareth Anscombe pass and cantered home under the posts.
England and Wales will be hoping that Scotland’s fine form at home can survive today’s trip to Dublin and help them by bursting the Irish bubble.
That will be an uphill task as Joe Schmidt’s men are third in the world rankings and look to be in fine form.
What will concern Schmidt, however, is how Wales remained in a game where his side had the majority of possession and territory. The ease with which Wales counter-attacked and scored freely off so little ball will also give his defensive coach nightmares.
France has traditionally capitalised following a British and Irish Lions tour, with the best British and Irish players battling fatigue after a long season.
That has not happened this year as Les Bleus seem to be struggling with fitness levels late in their games.
The three returning Welsh Lions did not have the best of games against Ireland with fly-half Dan Biggar being removed midway through the second half.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny’s kicking game looked secure, but he was off the pace in attack. Both Biggar and Halfpenny are not in the first 15 to face Italy.
Despite playing almost non-stop, top-flight rugby veteran skipper Alun Wyn Jones has shrugged off any fatigue from his long season and had another outstanding game for his country.
Jones gets a well-deserved break from international duty as his team face the bottom side.
But England’s Lions Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola looked off the pace and lacked their usual aggression against the Scots.
The English forward pack had a torrid time in Edinburgh, losing the crucial breakdown battle, and the shell-shocked Englishmen conceded 13 penalties.
Including game time against Wales, the much-vaunted England attack has scored only one try in over 100 minutes of open play.
Skipper Dylan Hartley was characteristically blunt after the match, saying: “Scotland dominated from the start and we were a bit passive, especially at the breakdown.
“We have to look at that. We were poor and gave Scotland the lead. We didn’t match their intensity. It’s very raw at the moment and this has to be part of our journey. We have to learn from this.”
England coach Eddie Jones has brought in British and Irish Lions hooker Jamie George to replace the injured Hartley.
The captain’s armband has been given to centre Owen Farrell, who was England’s most aggressive player against the triumphant Scots. Unfortunately, Farrell’s aggression was in the tunnel after the players left the field following the pre-match warm-up.
Full-back Mike Brown is on the bench, while Anthony Watson switches to full-back with Elliot Daly returning on the wing.
Worcester’s Ben Te’o replaces Jonathan Joseph at outside centre.
Scotland had not beaten England for 10 years and had failed to score a try against them at Murrayfield since 2004.
But with 24-year-old centre Huw Jones scoring a brace of tries in the opening 40 minutes, he has plundered 10 tries in 14 Tests and is looking for his side to replicate their Murrayfield form away from home.
Scotland won the battle of the back rows at Murrayfield and England conceded nine turnovers at the breakdown.
England suffered only their second defeat in 26 games under Jones and leaves the defending champions five points behind Ireland in the Six Nations table.
But for the trip to Paris the coach has kept faith with Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw and Nathan Hughes in the back row.
If the French forwards boss the breakdown, then England could be in for a torrid afternoon at the Stade de France.
With forwards like Wenceslas Lauret and Yacouba Camara, who are experts in the back row, Les Bleus will bring a lot of dynamism to open play.
Centre Mathieu Bastareaud is the heaviest back in this year’s Championship at 19 stone, but, ominously for England, he won four turnovers against Italy.
New-look Wales take on Italy at home on Sunday, which should guarantee a further bonus point before they face France in their final match.
Ireland’s tussle with Scotland looks to be the pick of the fourth round of matches and then Schmidt’s men travel to Twickenham for their final game and a tilt at immortality.
Wales face France in their final match at the Millennium Stadium and have the advantage of kicking off last. Expect fireworks if they are still in with a sniff of the title and know exactly what they have to do.