By Michael Slavin
With only two weeks left in the 2022 Six Nations Championship, there is still a lot to play for in this year’s edition of the European rugby tournament.
France is leading the way, in search of their first Grand Slam and first overall win since the 2010 season. Even though Les Bleus are at the top, they face two hard fixtures to close out the tournament. These involve defending champions Wales this week in Cardiff, followed by a possible title decider against England, in Paris. The young side come into this week’s match against Wales, off the back of a thorough demolition of Scotland, scoring 6 tries at Murrayfield to end Scottish title hopes. Les Bleus may continue to maintain their top position given Antoine Dupont’s fitness, the team’s forward dominance, and their flare-based playing style.
Head Coach Andy Farrell is in his third tournament as in charge of Ireland. The team is hoping to hold onto their second-place position, to avoid their third successive third place finish. The Irish team has had dominant wins over Wales and Italy and a narrow away loss to France in which they pushed Les Bleus further than any other team so far. The team can win their first title since 2018, if they win the match against England this weekend and against Scotland in the final week. Captain Johnny Sexton announced earlier this week that, following a contract extension to the end of the 2023 World Cup, he is set to retire from the game after the tournament in France. Whilst Ireland are not the favourites for the title, if France slip up at any point it is Farrell’s men who seem best poised to take advantage and win the tournament.
Despite a narrow loss to Scotland in the first week, Eddie Jones’ England side have undergone a remarkable resurgence which has found them in third place in the Six Nations table. Led by Marcus Smith in the absence of captain Owen Farrell, the side handily beat Italy and managed a win over Wales at Twickenham last week. Going into this week’s home fixture against Ireland, they face a race against time to get several key members of the forward pack ready for the clash. Players Tom Curry and Joe Launchbury, recovering from head and knee injuries respectively, may potentially return to the side, whilst Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt returns from Covid-19 isolation tomorrow at the earliest. If England hopes to reclaim the Six Nations trophy, they require a win against Ireland, a year’s best performance in France in the final week, and some help from their old rivals, Wales, this weekend.
Going into the game’s fourth week, Scotland’s early title hopes are in tatters, following a loss against Wales in the second round, and a battering from France last week. Injuries to the pack have taken a toll, with Jamie Ritchie still out from the first game of the tournament and Matt Fagerson also injured from the second. Experienced international player Jonny Gray returns to the squad after missing their defeat to France with a foot injury. However, Scotland will be without South African-born winger Duhan van der Merwe following his red card for club side Worcester Warriors last Saturday. Scotland go away to Italy in the early kick-off this Sunday, with a tough fixture in the final week away against Ireland. Scottish fans will undoubtably look back on this tournament with an air of “what if?” tinging any positive memories.
Title holders Wales go into the final two weeks of the tournament with an air of disappointment following a lacklustre campaign. This is, however, not without mitigating circumstances. Wayne Pivac’s side have faced a major injury crisis, with Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, George North, and Leigh Halfpenny all missing the entire tournament. To compound this, Taulupe Faletau and Josh Navidi have only returned this week to the squad having missed the first three fixtures. Having been denied the Grand Slam last year, in the final week by France, Wales may find joy in upsetting the French title hopes this weekend with returning stars, ahead of a final week match against Italy.
The Azzurri require a historically impressive end to the tournament to avoid finishing at the bottom for the seventh successive season. This follows a controversial loss to Ireland in which they played most of the match with 13 Men. Facing Scotland this weekend and Wales in the final week, Italy would have to record two wins for the first time since 2013. They will also have to win away at Wales for the first time in Six Nations history, to avoid being the recipient of the Wooden Spoon for 2022. Despite showing clear signs of improvement, the young side appear resigned to once again fall to the bottom of the pack.