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Friday Mar 8, 2024

Key takeaways from the Six Nations team selections for round four

Round four of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations is fast approaching, with little over 24 hours to go until Scotland and Italy kick-off the action in Rome.

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Whilst only one team remains in contention for a Grand Slam, the title could certainly still be on the line on the final weekend if England can stop Ireland at Twickenham.

To do so, England would need to produce the best performance of the Steve Borthwick era. Fortunately for Borthwick and his coaching staff, they have got the playing group to do so and, as such, will very much depend on if they can hit the emotional pitch that brought them within a point of a World Cup final appearance just five months ago.

Closing out the weekend is a new-look French side who will be reeling from their fortunate draw at home to Italy in round three. Never has a side looked too rudderless without one player, as Fabien Galthie’s side gets to grips with an Antione Dupont-less life for the time being.

Galthie wields the axe

Eight changes to any side is significant, but to an international side heading on the road, it is monumental. Far and away, the biggest surprise/disappointment in this year’s Championship has been France’s complete capitulation as a world-class operation.

As touched upon above, the absence of Dupont is significant, but Les Bleu’s issues extend far deeper than just one player being unavailable. Seemingly incapable of closing out attacks as a team, the brightest moment so far for Galthie’s charges has been a moment of brilliance from Louis Bielle-Biarrey to claim the most unlikely of victories in Edinburgh.

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This lack of direction has prompted a complete philosophy change from the French coaching staff as they have changed their key playmaking 9-10-12 playmaking axis for round four.

Although Jonathan Danty is unavailable through injury, word from the camp was that the underperforming La Rochelle star would have been under pressure to keep his place. In the halfbacks, Mathieu Jalibert’s injury meant a change at ten was coming, but the removal of his Bordeaux teammate Maxime Lucu would indicate that changes were coming irrespective of fitness. It was disappointing to see the duo, who are so dynamic for their club Bordeaux, be unable to translate this form to the international arena.

In their place comes an up-tempo pairing of Racing 92’s Nolan Le Garrec and Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos, who shifts from fullback to flyhalf. Posing a threat around the base of the ruck, Le Garrec will keep the Welsh defence honest in a way that Lucu simply hasn’t in the previous three outings this should afford Ramos more time at ten to bring his lethal backline into the equation.

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Adding further bite to the French pack, the debut for Emmanuel Meafou brings a true enforcer to the table, whilst Julian Marchand’s start at hooker should aid a more direct approach.

Perhaps most important, however, is the return of captain Gregory Alldritt, who will bring a level of calm that was absent in round three. Combining this leadership with his ability to get over the gainline, France will lean into their renowned power game in Cardiff.

Crowley’s biggest test to date

Marseille on opening night should’ve been about as tough as it gets for a young flyhalf who is looking to make the jersey his.

Yet, like a duck to water, Crowley, playing behind an admittedly dominant pack, was close to flawless on that Friday night. Continuing this form into rounds two and three, the Munster playmaker has added an extra layer to the complex Irish attack with his running game that a late-career Johnny Sexton simply didn’t have.

With plenty of credit in the bank, Crowley will now face what will be his biggest test to date away to a niggly England team that will be in his face from the off.

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Should England manage to disrupt Ireland’s lightening quick ball, the onus will fall on Crowley’s shoulders to get his side on the front foot by navigating England’s blitz defence.

Based on the evidence we have seen so far for both Munster and Ireland, Crowley will take this in his stride, and if he does what he is capable of, he will prove without a doubt that he is the man to drive this Irish team forward.

Questions around England’s rebuild persist

England are rebuilding… This is the message that Steve Borthwick and his camp have pushed out since the beginning of this year’s Championship.

Utilising the approach of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Borthwick and his coaching team have sprinkled in several young (or at least internationally inexperienced) players throughout the Championship.

When it comes to a handful of key positions, Borthwick has opted for experience and players who fit his style of pragmatic kick first rugby. Front and centre of these selections are the likes of George Ford, Dan Cole, Henry Slade and Jamie George, all three of whom are closer to the end of their career than the beginning.

Undoubdetly the trio have been great servants of English Rugby over the years, the question into this year’s Championship however was should they still be starting for England? By selecting George as captain, Borthwick has taken a similar view as Ireland head coach Andy Farrell did by selecting Peter O’Mahony. Both players are more than capable of still playing at test level but have young guns (Theo Dan and Ryan Baird) nipping at their heels for the starting berth.

When it comes to Ford, this is hands down the most contentious of positions with both Marcus Smith and Fin Smith in the squad. To embrace a more expansive game plan, both of these would be better options to start in the number ten shirt than the tactically astute but attacking limited Ford.

This therefore poses the question of does Ford’s inclusion limit England’s development namely the backline youngsters of Lawrence, Freeman, Feyi-Waboso and Furbank? Whilst nobody can take away from England the fact that they pushed eventual World Champions South Africa to the brink in the semi-final, the game plan that worked in the torrential downpour of that October evening in Paris is limited to say the least.

When the men in white take to the Twickenham turf on Saturday afternoon, their pack will consist of Ellis Genge (29 – 60 caps), Jamie George (33 – 88 caps), Dan Cole (36 – 110 caps), Maro Itoje (29 – 79 caps), George Martin (22 – 12 caps), Ollie Chessum (23 – 22 caps), Sam Underhill (27 – 35 caps), Ben Earl (26 – 29 caps) whilst the backline sees Alex Mitchell (26 – 14 caps), George Ford (30 – 99 caps), Tommy Freeman (23 – 8 caps), Ollie Lawrence (24 – 23 caps), Henry Slade (30 – 60 caps), Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (21 – 4 caps), George Furbank (27 – 8 caps). This line-up brings an average age of 27 and 651 caps (including saturday-s fixture). On the bench the age profile is slight higher with players closer to 28 years hold as an average with an average of just shy of 40 England caps. In total saturday’s 23 will have 968 which is just 19 short of the World Cup winning Springbok side’s 987.

On both the experience and playing style fronts, England fans will be questioning are their team really rebuilding?

Gatland leans into underdog mentality

Wales head coach Warren Gatland has been open about the fact that his team are in a deep rebuild following a sustained period of success with their ‘golden generation’.

Could this acknowledgement of where Wales are have lead to the selection of Joe Roberts and Owen Watkin ahead of Nick Tompkins and George North in the centres?

By and large the experienced centre pairing have been noted as a driving force for Wales so far in this Championship and as such their dropping ahead of what feels like a winnable game at home to France caused debate earlier in the week.

Taking a macro view of the final two rounds, could Gatland be looking to give the less experienced pairing a crack against a side many believe should win before bringing back his first choice pairing for what could be a wooden spoon decider against Italy in round five?

Scotland experiment ahead of Dublin trip

Italy are not easy beats in 2024 especially not in Rome, however in reality Scotland should have far too much for their hosts to handle.

With this mind, the question for Scotland this weekend is, are they preparing for Dublin with a 6 – 2 bench selection?

Clearly this tactic has paid dividends with the Springboks winning the World Cup and Ireland blitzing both France and Wales. Does Gregor Townsend see the best path to victory in Dublin as being one of matching fire with fire against a side that has routinely overpowered them?

Opting for just Ali Price and Kyle Rowe as their backline cover tomorrow afternoon, Townsend has made it clear that his pack will be tested more than his backline in the final two rounds in what is a fascinating shift away from the norm for the Scots.

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