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Six Nations round three preview – Wales v England, Italy v Ireland, France v Scotland

Warren Gatland used to play mind games in the week of a Wales-England Six Nations game, but he’s probably felt there was enough to be done working on his own head space in the past seven days.

Is the game going to be on? Or are my players about to go on strike?

What kind of mental stage is my captain in after spending a week of brinkmanship with our employers?

Or even, why did I sign up again for this mess?

The Wales coach could have been forgiven for asking himself all those questions in a week when Welsh rugby was described as “a laughing stock”, not by those guffawing on the other side of the world, but by skipper Ken Owens himself.

So, the outcome must be easy to predict, right?

It’s a copper-bottomed England win on Saturday evening isn’t it?

Well, not really, no.

England are not in the off-field mess that Wales have been in, although the aftershocks of the collapse of two of their clubs – Wasps and Worcester – have been felt by every player based on the other side of the border.

But they have their own issues – mainly on-field stuff – to be worrying about. Enough, it looks, to make them no more than reasonable favourites with most judges, but not the overwhelming favourites that say, Ireland are to beat Italy this weekend.

Most bookies are giving Wales around a six-points start, which shows a fair degree of confidence in Welsh resolve, given that Gatland’s team lost by 24 points against Ireland and then by 28 against Scotland.

The reasons is, with Steve Borthwick as their new coach, England have been far from convincing. They lost 29-23 at home to Scotland, who made the red rose look a bit pale and sickly.

And although England then overcame Italy, 31-14, it was not vintage stuff by any means and the Italians felt they had blown a big opportunity.

England no longer have a pack that many teams are scared of, their half-backs are steady but not spectacular, and their new inside centre, Ollie Lawrence, seems to be over-hyped as the new Manu Tuilagi.

All the off-field attention diverted much of the gaze away from the Wales team selection this week, where Gatland made nine changes.

Many of those saw the return of older, wiser heads such as Alun Wyn Jones, who will win his 157th cap, and Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau, who will both earn their 98th.

Whilst stopping short of claiming the week of meetings and threats could be spun to Wales’ advantage, Gatland did admit that this game was an occasion where people used to a laser focus, and capable of blotting out everything else, would be worth their weight in gold.

Gatland said: “It’s trying to manage making a few changes where we are giving players with not much international experience some experience around them to make that transition as smooth as possible.

“But also for those experienced players to give that knowledge down to the youngsters. It is just a balancing act at the moment.

“When you hear comments from the other top international sides in the world, when they used to say (about Wales) ‘this side is never going to go away, they will play for 80 minutes, they are not going to give in’.

“That is the level that we have to get to. We are not quite there at the moment, but we are working hard to get there.”

Wales seem to have a bigger creative threat at fly-half in Owen Williams, than an off-colour Dan Biggar, and the return of Louis Reece-Zammit on the wing gives them far more of a cutting edge.

If Wales can create a siege-type atmosphere early on and stay in the content for as long as possible, then they have a history of out-running and outlasting England in Cardiff in the late stages.

But if England get on top as quickly as Ireland did in round one at the Principality Stadium, then all the talk of tense atmospheres and fired up players with a point to prove, would be so much hot air.

In the earlier Saturday game in Rome, few people will expect Italy to prevent Ireland from taking another stride towards a possible Grand Slam.

Ireland have a few injury issues, but they have won their last seven games and showed in their 32-19 win over France last time out why they are justifiably ranked as the best team in the world.

Italy are improving and have the togetherness of 10 players from the Benetton club, but it is hard to see anything other than an Ireland win.

On Sunday, Scotland will feel they have a better opportunity to beat France in Paris than the bookies seem to think, most of whom give the Scots a nine or 10 points start.

Two years ago, Scotland won this fixture 27-23 and they should not be short of belief having started with two victories for the first time since the tournament was expanded from five to six nations.

France have had a fabulous last 12 months, but their defeat against Ireland in Dublin exposed some vulnerabilities Scotland can exploit.

Saturday 25th February – Guinness Six Nations

Italy v Ireland (2.15pm) 

Wales v England (16:45pm)

Sunday 26th February

France v Scotland (3.00pm)

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