6 Bold Predictions for Six Nations Matchday 4
Round 3 of this year's Six Nations championship was a rip-roaring phase of massive transition in the competition's standings, putting four teams on four points apiece, showing just how balanced the tournament currently is.
However, for all that excitement, Week 4 promises to be the turn that separates these foes, with Ireland hosting Italy, France travelling to Murrayfield and England playing in London for the second round in a row, entertaining Warren Gatland's Welsh title defenders.
Ahead of next weekend's onslaught of action, we've compiled a selection of predictions for what's to ensue, some choices more bold than others.
Agree or disagree, let us know your views in the forum below regarding how you think Week 4 might pan out.
1. Ireland Put 35 on the Azzurri
Following the last-minute loss to Scotland in Week 3, Italy are now the only side in this year's tournament yet to claim a point for their troubles, sitting as heavy favourites to collect the competition's Wooden Spoon.
Jacques Brunel's side are leaking points as things stand. They have conceded an average of just under 25 points per game, with a trip to the Aviva Stadium not exactly the solution they'll be looking for.
Despite their attacking record being slowed at Twickenham last weekend, Ireland remain the highest-scoring team in the competition, having notched an impressive 64 points in their three outings thus far, two more than the 62-point tally amassed by France.
Joe Schmidt's men have been impressive in all aspects; their backs and forwards alike are showing great try potential. And in Jonny Sexton the side boasts another fine kicker to take over the mantle now long vacated by Ronan O'Gara.
With such a gulf in prospects coming into this top vs. bottom encounter, Ireland will become the first team to break the 35-point mark in one game during the 2014 Six Nations.
2. England Get Their Welsh Revenge
Last year's 30-3 loss to Wales was a crushing blow for England, the climax to their 2013 Six Nations that not only meant Gatland's side walked out as tournament winners but held some supreme bragging rights over their cross-border rivals.
The Anglo-Welsh rivalry is a talking point of Europe's premier rugby competition regardless of what results may have preceded it, but yet again, this year's clash has more than just a touch of spice to it.
Level on points, it will be England who take the advantage over their foes, showing the same tactically clinical approach that ended up to be Ireland's outdoing.
The home advantage of Twickenham may have played a part in Lancaster's team managing to beat Schmidt's table leaders in Week 3, and though some would argue that Wales aren't daunted by such frivolities, they will be subject to that same cauldron of pressure.
Upon travelling to the Aviva Stadium in Week 2, Wales were unable to break down the defensive strategy of the Irish, and Lancaster played the boys in green at their own game to an absolute tee.
With Owen Farrell kicking so well out of hand and the experimental English back line seemingly ever on the upwards trajectory, Lancaster's side will take a big step toward silverware with a win on home soil in Round 4.
3. Scotland Keep France Within a Score
It's been a destructive last week or so for the French.
The 27-6 loss in Cardiff exposed holes that Philippe Saint-Andre may not have been aware existed within his squad, but the team has been damaged substantially of late.
Wesley Fofana is set to miss the remainder of the tournament through a rib injury, Mathieu Bastareaud was neutralised against a George North figure playing out of position, Morgan Parra is unavailable for the trip to Scotland through suspension and Louis Picamoles has been dropped by his own coach due to dissent.
Needless to say that if Scott Johnson's side ever had a chance of beating Les Bleus, now is their time.
That being said, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. France are still a side boasting significant reserves, and even with Damien Chouly at No. 8, Jules Plisson and Maxime Machenaud playing as the half-back partnership of choice and Gael Fickou coming into the midfield, they have enough about them to triumph in Edinburgh.
But it won't be by as big a margin as one may have suggested coming into this tournament and a Scotland side that showed some encouraging gusto in their second half against Italy will keep their visitors to within five points come full-time.
4. Twickenham Puts on Another Sub 30-Point Display
The collision between Ireland and England last weekend was everything that the adoring rugby fan could have wanted; it was physical, end-to-end and featured some of the highest quality that the Northern Hemisphere has to offer.
But with just 23 scored in total, points were far from being in an abundance, and it's likely to be a similarly tight motif that takes centre stage when Lancaster butts heads with Gatland.
Again, England will seek to shore up their own defence first before even thinking to open up against a Wales team that has the potential to punish such notions in the blink of an eye, and it will tell on the scoreboard.
Since the beginning of 2010, England have played 23 Test matches at Twickenham but only three of those fixtures have resulted in a cumulative points tally of less than 30 points.
Against the odds, these two teams, each as wary of losing as the other, won't necessarily put on the most expansive of blockbusters, but the 13-10 English win over Ireland showed that even the edgy affairs can be most memorable ones.
5. Leigh Halfpenny Maintains Place on Top of the Point-Scoring Charts
Heading into Week 4, Leigh Halfpenny is at the head of the point-scoring charts, the Welshman currently just one point ahead of Ireland's Sexton, with 33 to his name in total.
Sexton is by no means ruled out just yet but even if the fly-half were to recover in time for this weekend, Schmidt may choose to field Paddy Jackson against Italy, just to give his first option that added bit of rest before the crunch finale against France in Week 5.
It's a factor that Halfpenny promises to benefit from, and the trip to face England may need his boot notching things over from the tee, not to mention the added try-scoring potential he brings to the back line.
6. Rob Kearney Edges Ahead in the Try-Scoring Race
No less than six attackers currently head the try-scoring ranks with two scores apiece after three rounds of this year's Six Nations, Ireland Rob Kearney being one of those in with a great chance of emerging as victor.
Yoann Huget would be the other joint-leader in with a chance of boosting his tally this weekend against Scotland, but the disruption currently afflicting France's backs means that the winger's chances aren't quite as assured as those of Schmidt's full-back.
As opposed to Huget, Michele Campagnaro, and Alex Dunbar, Kearney's and Luther Burrell's two tries thus far in the tournament have come from two separate matches, the aforementioned trio having grabbed their respective totals as a result of one-game sparks of brilliance.
The Italian defence promises to give way against Ireland's exertion in Week 4, and Leinster's Kearney will be one of those spearheading the assault through the Azzurri's core.