Key Matchups for Super Saturday that will decide the 2019 Six Nations Champions
The final weekend of the 2019 Six Nations is upon us and Super Saturday is set to put in its annual extravaganza; a solid six and a half hour shift, however will we all cope? A three-way race for the title is being run by the second, third and fourth-ranked teams in the world with Ireland, Wales and England all standing as potential champions; though admittedly, Ireland’s chances are remarkably remote. But who will play the largest influence on their side’s potential success this weekend? Here’s who we think will be key
Ireland: Never mind the ‘Sexton Loop’, O’Mahony and Best must crank up the standards of Ireland’s pack
Quite simply, Ireland have been off the pace this year. A somewhat mindboggling phrase to associate with a Joe Schmidt team, but a coach can only do so much, and the international game’s ebb and flow nature has only truly been broken by the All Blacks over the years.
While a significant portion of Ireland’s success under Schmidt has come from his admiral-in-chief Johnny Sexton, a well oiled, ferociously drilled forward pack set the oh-so-crucial platform. The Irish eight, while hardly the biggest pack on the international scene, dominated the contact and breakdown areas, utilising ruthless efficiency over blunt force trauma alone. Furthermore, their set-piece possessed the ruthless efficiency befitting a side that conquered the All Blacks twice in two years.
To truly quell the Welsh and work on affecting their own game plan and attempt to both create and capitalise on holes in Shaun Edward’s revered red defensive line, the breakdown and lineout will be of the utmost importance.
While Rory Best is the captain, the Ulsterman is a calm, controlled head, meaning Munsterman Peter O’Mahony must be the man charged with providing fire and brimstone to the Irish pack. The 29-year-old, one-time British and Irish Lions captain never gives anything less than something resembling 150%, but he must search for new ways to help drive the standards and maintain his charges' emotional levels.
Do this, and Sexton, Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose will be provided with the best possible chance of manipulating Wales’ defence, with the predatorial Jacob Stockdale ready to make the most of any such opportunities.
Ireland will be relying on an unlikely Scottish win at Twickenham on Saturday if they are to lift consecutive Six Nations trophies following their 2018 Grand Slam, but you can be sure anguish of a below average campaign, by their own standards, will be driving the Irish for a full 80 minutes.
Wales: To shut down the Irish, Beard must rule the roost at set-piece
On the other side of this particular Celtic coin, lineouts have become a staggering 58% source of tries so far this Six Nations (via Six Nations), while the Welsh lineout itself has been far from convincing; music to the ears of the aforementioned O’Mahony.
Wales’ lineout success so far this tournament sits at 74%, deflating returns when compared to Italy’s 98%, England’s 90%, Scotland’s and Ireland’s 89% and France’s 88%.
If Wales are planning on securing the Grand Slam in Warren Gatland’s final tournament in a twelve-year reign, they must batten down the hatches in the air. If O'Mahony can weave his tendrils into the Welsh set-piece, the roots could prove fatal.
Starting in every game bar Wales’ victory over England, Adam Beard provides Scarlets hooker Ken Owens with an easy target, but he must also work alongside legendary captain Alun Wyn Jones to solidify their own possession. At 6ft8", he is one of the few men on the intenrational scene able to rival Devin Toner's tree-like limbs; and fortunatly for the Welsh, the 6ft10" Leinsterman will not be on Cardiff turf this weekend. However, even without Toner, O’Mahony is the chief lineout pest in world rugby and could put a serious spanner in the works of a Welsh Grand Slam.
England: Avoid Wales repeat, Slade must come to the fore
A chest-thumping dispatching of Conor O’Shea’s brave Italians has filled the role of defibrillator this week, with English blood pumping proudly once again after a defeat to Wales flatlined the momentum of their early tournament success. But it would be folly to allow the concerns of a Welsh defeat to fade into the background noise of Manu Tuilagi’s return and the rise of Joe Cokanasiga.
Owen Farrell and his charges became far too comfortable in the success they garnered from the boot against Ireland and France. Farrell’s trusty right peg failed to punish the Welsh back three, with two Test fullbacks in Liam Williams and Josh Adams wining the ariel battle and proving quite the contract to the out-of-position Robbie Henshaw and Yohan Huget. Furthermore, Williams’ and Adams’ wily Welsh teammates provided subtle blocking lines to allow the high-flying duo time to collect; something the best nations execute to perfection in the modern game.
The lesson for England? Be ready to adapt and avoid obstinacy and stagnation in their approach. Henry Slade was denied the opportunity to work his magic against the Welsh restricted by an onrushing red line. To solve this, the Exeter centre must begin to swap in and out of the twelve slot with bulldozing centre Manu Tuilagi at an increased frequeny, something that could improve his attacking prospects and go some way in varying England’s attack. Allowing Manu Tuilagi to slip into his preferred position at outside centre would also add another string to Eddie Jones’s bow.
With Scotland’s back three down to the bare bones this week, Slade’s threat as a kicking option must be utilised. The 25-year-old’s ‘cultured’ left boot punished the Irish last month, and it could do so again at Twickenham. Whether he’s threading the ball into touch for the territory game or sending chips and grubbers for the likes of Tuilagi and a highly-skilled back three to collect, Slade could be the key to hitting England’s refresh button mid-game, but it will rest on Farrell’s shoulders to bring him into the game.