Italian pack will test French character

It is a shame that the closest and hardest match to predict for this round of the Six Nations tournament has fallen victim to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

It is a shame that the closest and hardest match to predict for this round of the Six Nations tournament has fallen victim to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Ireland have developed a happy tradition of performing well against Wales in Cardiff and after the fine victory against France two weeks ago they must have been looking towards this game with deserved confidence.

Whereas Ireland were looking forward to the match, the last thing France want is to be playing Italy away from home in a must win game. The French are lacking in confidence and have spent most of the last couple of weeks looking for excuses rather than solutions after their loss in Dublin.

As predicted, coach Bernard Laporte has made many changes to his backline. Franck Combard and Richard Dourthe have been replaced by Sebastien Bonetti and Thomas Lombard with Christophe Dominici replacing David Bory on the wing. Jean-Luc Sadournay comes in at fullback for the injured Xavier Garbajosa and as expected scrumhalf Fabien Galthie returns.

With Christian Califano’s replacement of Sylvain Marconnet in the front row the only change in the forwards, there are a number of players who played against Ireland who could consider themselves lucky to still be in the team. No 8 Christophe Juillet is obliged to put in an outstanding performance and the lineout throwing and jumping combination of Raphael Ibanez and second row David Auradou must improve.

One aspect of the Italian game that was particularly effective against England was their lineout where they gained almost one hundred percent on their throw.

They must be smiling at the prospect of playing against France whose lineout was particularly poor against Ireland.

The return of Troncon and Galthie, ironically both after suspensions, will improve both teams in their organisation and decision-making. The key return for Italy is obviously that of outhalf Diego Dominguez who squares up against a decidedly out-of-form Christophe Lamaison.

If Italy were found wanting against England it was in their inability to match the speed of the English outside backs and France have certainly added pace to their backline.

The French rely very much on confidence to produce their best and while they must be favourites to win today’s encounter, a storming first-half performance by Italy, as they produced against England, could serve to reawaken French self-doubt.

Theoretically Scotland’s surprise win over England last year should mean they have no chance at Twickenham. The only thing that could beat England would be over-confidence but the memory of last year’s match must be still strong in the minds of the English players.

The key to the match will be whether Scotland tries to play the ball as Wales did against England, or whether they are more inclined to put the ball behind the England defence and attempt to pressurise wing Ben Cohen and fullback Iain Balshaw into making mistakes.

They certainly committed those blunders against Italy but then the Italians lacked the speed and the loose forward pressure to capitalise.

Stars of the second half performance for Scotland against Wales Tom Smith’s try aside were the three loose forwards. In Martin Leslie, Budge Pountney and Jon Petrie, Scotland possibly have the fastest loose forward combination in the championship.

Perhaps the weakest part, uncharacteristically, of England’s game against Italy, was their back row performance. Especially at No 6 and No 8 it will be Scotland’s speed against England’s power.

Unfortunately for Scotland Jonny Willkinson had an off-day with his kicking in the Tetley’s Cup Final and he is unlikely to have two off-days in a row. Ireland can only hope England once again saunter through the match and, assuming the next full round of games goes ahead, they arrive in Dublin at their usual over-confident best.

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