'With the dust now settled on what proved a hectic and highly significant weekend a fortnight ago, there is much to ponder looking forward to Weekend Four and the matches which will make or break this year’s championship...'
No doubt, the big game of the weekend is in the English capital. England v France is always an impressive affair with the contest being as much a clash of cultures as a clash of rugby. This weekend tens of thousands of Frenchmen will descend on London to see if a rejuvenated England can match French firepower and Grand Slam ambition.
England’s side will feature some significant changes. Rising stars like Toby Flood and David Strettle will bring youthful exuberance, and a dangerous, exciting, ambition to the team. My old friend Mike Catt is also back and will be a steadying influence on the young pretenders. Catty is a true veteran, and will bring focus and direction to what could be an electrifying England back line. Catty is so experienced, even I remember playing against him! Add to that the lowered expectations post-Dublin and this new side’s ‘nothing-to lose’ position, and the performance might just be a blinder. Let’s hope so.
Whatever the outcome, Twickenham is, in a sense, a fitting curtain raiser to another major Anglo-Gallic meeting. As the thousands of French supporters return home across the Channel, they will be closely followed by an anticipated record number of UK delegates travelling to this year’s MIPIM. Depending on the on-field result, those of us travelling over will expect a healthy dose of banter. Fingers crossed that bragging rights fall to the English and everyone travelling to Cannes enjoys more success in France than the Welsh did a fortnight ago.
Talking of Wales, previously a trip to Rome was seen as something of a ‘banker’ for the home nations. Now, however, an injury-struck Welsh side will not be relishing playing a buoyant Azzurri on their own turf. Defeat for Wales would signal a significant shift in power as Italy become a more consistent force within the competition. Grand Slam winners to wooden spooners in two years would be a real gut-wrench, should the worst happen for the Welsh.
Unfortunately, I have also been reminded of my comments two weeks ago that I thought ‘It was hard to see anything but a Scottish win in Edinburgh’ – how wrong I was and what an opening few minutes for Italy. For Scotland, like Wales, it is now a matter of playing for pride.
The Irish, however, are playing for the Championship and, on the back of their sparkling and authoritative performance last week against England, no-one would bet against Brian O’Driscoll leading his men to victory. I just hope that this week’s prediction will not be the kiss of death for the Irish as it was for the Scottish!
Here’s looking forward to another great weekend of championship rugby. If you are travelling to Cannes, I look forward to seeing you there and, let’s hope, to celebrating success on all fronts.