The Rugby World Cup begins in earnest in just two weeks, with England set to host the four-yearly showcase. As the tournament draws ever closer each warm-up game becomes more important, as countries make the final adjustments to their squads, and playing styles. There are some great matches in store this weekend as England and Ireland face off once again after a close battle for the Six Nations earlier in the year, while Scotland travel to France on the back of two victories over Italy – including a record 48-7 win last week at Murrayfield.
That Scottish win was only their second of 2015, and came just a week after they beat Italy 16-12 in Rome. Scotland were imperious in last week’s game, taking the Italian defence apart to rack up a record points score. Sean Lamont and Tim Visser both grabbed a brace each, and Italy were ruthlessly punished for poor ball retention and handling.
We backed Scotland to win that game, but Ireland let us down last Saturday as they fell to a shock 16-10 defeat to Wales in Dublin. The Welsh put in an awesome defensive display to keep Ireland out, inspired by Justin Tipuric. The Irish simply didn’t perform at their best, and new question marks have been raised over their World Cup prospects, despite their victorious Six Nations Campaign just a few months ago.
England v Ireland
England are a short price to overcome Ireland at Twickenham, but are worth backing at -200 with Coral to do the business on Saturday afternoon.
Former Ireland hooker Keith Wood has questioned coach Joe Schmidt’s selections, and says he’s ‘nervous’ about the decision to only include two specialist scrum halves in the World Cup squad. Schmidt selected Conor Murray and Eoin Redden, but left out Isaac Boss and Kieran Marmion, with utility back Ian Madigan taken as cover. Wood described it as an ‘uncomfortable risk’ to take in one of the technical positions, and also believes that wing, Andrew Trimble, should have been taken to the party too.
Schmidt has selected a strong side to play England on Saturday though, with 12 players retained from the side that won the Six Nations clinching game against Scotland. The only changes see Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney and Jack McGrath, come in for Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy – the latter of which continues to be rested as he recovers from surgery.
England’s approach has also been questioned, but this time by Wales selector Warren Gatland in what might be a bit of mind games leading up to the big tournament. The two sides share a place in Pool A in the World Cup, and we’ve already tipped England to come out on top. Gatland has questioned England’s tactical and selection dilemmas, claiming that Wales are the ‘more settled’ team.
England, however, will brush aside his comments as they prepare to do battle with Ireland on Saturday, and they have announced a near first-choice side for the Twickenham match. Brad Barritt returns from injury, having not played since November 2014, while Geoff Parling will feature in the second row. Barritt and Joseph – who are considered to be England’s first choice centre partnership – will start a test together for the first time, and this game will be a pointer to how they might perform in the World Cup.
Apart from New Zealand (16), no other side has beaten England more times a Twickenham than Ireland, who have conquered on 13 occasions. However, the last of those was in 2010, and England were unbeaten in four tests against Ireland home and away prior to the 9-19 defeat at the Aviva Stadium earlier this year.
It could be a low-scoring affair on Saturday if the stats are anything to go by, as none of the last 8 tests between the two have exceeded 40 points, while the last three tests have seen just three tries between them.
Ireland have only lost two of their last ten away test matches, but England have won six in a row at Twickenham, and will be desperate to lay down a marker ahead of the tournament they host in just a few weeks time. Ireland’s defeat at the hands of Wales will have knocked the confidence a little, and England can take full advantage as they look to bounce back from their own disappointing result – a shock 25-20 loss to France two weeks ago.
France v Scotland
The other match on Saturday that we can have a small interest in is the night game between France and Scotland, which kicks off at 8pm in Paris.
The Scottish had a poor Six Nations this year, compounded by a humiliating home defeat to Italy. They’ve taken their revenge on the Italians in the last two games, winning both – 16-12 in Italy, and 48-7 in Scotland. The French are a much better side than Italy, of course, but Scotland could easily get to within 11 points of their rivals, even if they lose the game.
France have had two recent warm-up games against England, losing 19-14 at Twickenham before going on to beat them 25-20 in Paris. It’s hard to read too much into that result though, and if it had been a competitive game it might well have been a different outcome. The last three internationals between France and Scotland have seen the French win by 7 points, 2 points, and 7 points respectively, with two of those games taking place on French soil.
Scotland are never a side to place too much faith in, but they are on a high after two consecutive wins, and if they can carry that form into this weekend, they are capable of getting much closer to France than a +11 handicap suggests.
England to beat Ireland
Saturday 5th September 14:30 GMT
Scotland (+11 Handicap) to beat France
Saturday 5th September 20:00
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