It is a huge week in the Six Nations, so we’re not even going to pretend that anything else in the world of rugby matters*. Heck, England could be champions again by Saturday night.
(*of course there are other things that matter – but just not as much as they’ll matter in a fortnight’s time, when we’re struggling for things to write about.)
Wales could do England a favour with a win over Ireland this evening, which is probably why they’ve picked the same bunch of chancers who took the field in Edinburgh a fortnight ago. This means that Rhys Webb will continue to do his impression of a pre-teen whose Ritalin has worn off, Alun Wyn Jones will continue to show all of the leadership and tactical nous of General Melchett, and the backs will continue to try and win games by running over people rather than around them. Sam Warburton must be thinking that he got out just at the right moment.
By contrast, the Irish have every reason to stick with the same XV that were such comprehensive winners over the French. The lineout still remains a fascinating omnishambles, where Rory Best seems to have given up even trying to be accurate (or indeed to throw straight), but the rest of the team is purring along like a well-oiled kitten. The only fly in the ointment is that Andrew Trimble, who was an effective replacement against the French, is injured again. The inclusion of Tommy Bowe as his replacement should at least please Eddie Butler, after the World’s Most Hopeless Commentator spent the entirety of the last Scotland game mis-identifying Tommy Seymour.
Eddie Jones always looks so ultra-cool on the outside, but he’ll be pooping masonry as he waits for news of Owen Farrell‘s leg injury. It’s not the thought of having to play Ben Te’o that will panic him, but the prospect of George Ford‘s haphazard goalkicking.
Elsewhere, Jack Nowell and Johnny May continue their job share on the wing opposite Elliot Daly, Ben Youngs replaces Danny Care at scrum half and Billy Vunipola is back on a bench that is curiously lacking in a second row yet still containing Tom Wood.
Scotland’s form in this tournament means that Big Vern will be leaving with his reputation enhanced at the end of the tournament. It has gone largely unnoticed, but a win over England means that they will take the Triple Crown for the first time since 1990 and the days of David Sole, the Hastings Brothers and so on (has anyone else noticed that, for all of its rabble-rousing, Scotland have been a bit pants since they started singing Flower of Scotland?).
Hamish Watson (who should never have been benched in the first place) replaces the injured-yet-again John Hardie in an otherwise unchanged Scottish lineup, Ali Price has the not-too-difficult job of making Youngs look slow and indecisive, and Stuart Hogg will once again be Flashheart to Alex Dunbar‘s Baldrick.
The Italians might have baffled England with their lack of rucking at Twickenham, but it isn’t a tactic that they are likely to employ in this match, not least because it really only stands a chance of working if (a) you remember that if you don’t engage at the ruck, you then have to tackle the next ball carrier before they make two dozen extra yards and (b) your opponent has an actual game plan – at least one of which rules out using it against this French team.
Leonardo Ghiraldini gets his turn at starting in the strange rotational system that Conor O’Shea is using at hooker, Carlo Canna returns at fly half with Thomasso Allen out for the tournament, Angelo Esposito starts on the wing and a whole host of new names occupy the bench.
It has become something of a tradition for teams to try out new lineups against the Italians, and yet it rarely does any good (as England almost found out). Guy Noves seems to be a man with an almost manic dedication to never playing the same side twice. This means that Virimi Vakatawa returns on the wing, whilst Brice Dulan replaces Scott Spedding at full back, which is like replacing Hagrid with Dobby. Fabien Sarconnie is the latest to get the chance to pack down on the open side, and on the bench the name of Francois Trinh-Duc rises like a phoenix once again. It will, of course, be utter chaos, but that seems to be how Noves likes it.