I decided not to write my usual follow-up/review blog of last week's matches in the six nations because in reality, they all seemed meaningless victories for the top 3 teams in the light of what is to come later today.
Wales cruised past a Scotland side that has made a wonderful habit out of losing these past few weeks. Yes, there were moments in the 2nd half when you felt that Scotland might get back into the game but the damage had already been done by the same kind of first-half mistakes that had cost the Scots against Ireland and France in their previous matches.
For their part England battered an Italy side whose performances this year have furthered calls from most of the coaches and fans of the Six Nations to have a relegation system put in place. The concerns I have about that are two-fold. Firstly if Italy were to drop out of the contest who would replace them? And secondly, what if one of the home-nations were to have a poor season and be relegated? Imagine coming into this last weekend of the contest with England playing Romania for the Transylvania Trophy as opposed to Scotland for the Calcutta Cup?
Ireland then did the necessary business against a lacklustre France to ensure that we are all set-up for a grandstand finish with 3 sides all in with a shout of winning the Six Nations and Wales looking to complete a Grand Slam.
Let the mind games begin
There was not much doubt that Eddie Jones would begin using his press conferences to try and sew some seeds of doubt into the minds of the Welsh players. After all, with the Wales v Ireland game taking place at 2:45pm today, Jones and all of England know that the title is very much Wales' to lose.
Early this week Jones stated that the Welsh players "looked tired" because they had made more tackles to which Welsh coach Warren Gatland replied
Tournament stats also suggest that it is, in fact, England who have made more tackles than anyone else in this year's tournament although I'm not sure that anything that Jones say about the Welsh or their preparation for this game should be taken very seriously. Donald Trump has become the most powerful man in the world by disseminating false information and looking to get a rise out of his opponents. Surely the Welsh aren't about to fall for it too?
If anything, such comments in the press may help to strengthen the Welsh and Gatland's resolve particularly when you bear in mind that this will be the New Zealander's final game in charge of Wales in the Six Nations. After 12 years in the job, adding a 3rd Grand Slam to his CV would be a fitting end to a generally successful spell for the rugby-mad nation.
Can the Irish stop the Welsh?
As noted above, how long the suspense continues to see who will be crowned Six Nations champion for 2019 will depend entirely on whether the current holders Ireland can break Wales' vice-like grip on the trophy.
While Ireland have been decidedly off-pace so far in the tournament, the first hour of rugby that they put together against the French last Sunday was arguably their best period of 2019 thus far. There have been question marks over the confidence of the men in green following the opening game mauling by England but the start against France (Ireland's first home game since that defeat) demonstrated that those doubts may be unfounded as the Irish decided against an early shot for 3 points and instead kicked for the corner which resulted in the first try being scored inside 3mins. But for a couple of knock-ons, Ireland might have had a couple more tries to add to the 4 that they did score in securing the bonus point.
Wales success in the championship to date has been built on defensive solidity and this is clearly demonstrated by the fact that they have conceded the least tries and total points in the tournament. However, where they have perhaps lacked a little bit is in their overall offensive play having scored fewer points than either of their challengers on Saturday as well as having failed to secure a bonus in the tournament thus far. What that suggests is that this encounter will be a close match in which game management and the ability to avoid mistakes could ultimately decide the winner.
For Wales, their tactics throughout have been quite evident. Use the more creative Anscombe at fly-half in order to edge themselves ahead and then bring on their finisher in the form Dan Biggar to pin the opposition back in their own half. As the performance against England showed, it's not just the ability to kick the opposition back into their own half which is effective for Wales, it is also the skill of the three-quarters to run the ball back at the opposition with interest should they choose to kick away possession. There is a reason that Liam Williams is the full-back for the Lions and if Ireland choose to kick it down his throat too often then it is going to be a very long afternoon at the Principality Stadium for the defending champs.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness for Wales and one that Ireland must capitalise on is their lineout which has a success rate of just 74% compared to Ireland's 92%. Field position and the set-play has to provide Ireland with the springboard they need to attack the Welsh. While the home team have been brilliant with their scrambled defence, the Irish have the talent in the backs to cause the Welsh problems if they are allowed to play rugby in the right areas - stats show that Jacob Stockdale has made more meters than any other player in this year's tournament.
All of England is with you Ireland because if you can pull it off then ............
The Scots will come to try and ruin the party
It's going to be quite a strange period for the England team waiting and presumably watching to see what the Wales v Ireland game produces. Come about 4:30pm this afternoon we will know if England are playing for the title or whether this is a game that will see the 2 sides squaring off for the Calcutta Cup and nothing more.
For those not in the know (and I had to google this myself so I thought i'd share it) England can't win the Six Nations on bonus points alone. If Wales win a Grand Slam then they will be awarded 3 bonus points taking them well clear (quite possibly 3 points clear) of any England challenge on that front which is of course entirely fair - the team that wins the most games should win the tournament!
Scotland have been perhaps the most disappointing team of the whole Six Nations. Following a decent start against lowly Italy they let an Irish side still hurting after their defeat against England score a couple of early tries and since then the pattern of conceding sloppy points has continued. To give them credit they did come out and have a go at the Welsh in the second half last week but even with ball in hand they found themselves going in the wrong direction more often than not. Injuries to key players haven't helped their cause but in general, they have not lived up to the tag of dark horses that they held pre-tournament.
England have been by far the most impressive team in terms of attack with Jonny May almost certain to score from the wing and Eddie Jones having the luxury of dropping the likes of Joe Cokanasiga from the squad altogether despite his impressive performance against Italy. The fact that England have scored more than twice as many points than Scotland this year while simultaneously conceding nearly half as few means that on paper this match is a foregone conclusion. Yet, the Scots will have last year's triumph at Murrayfield to draw upon both in terms of motivation and confidence and it is unlikely that they will just go quietly into the night and allow England the freedom of Twickenham regardless of what the result in Cardiff has produced.