Mick Cleary is the Daily Telegraph’s rugby union correspondent and has been covering international rugby for over 30 years.
He gives us his verdict on this weekend’s three RBS 6 Nations matches.
WALES v FRANCE (Friday, 8pm kick-off)
There is a lot at stake here. Wales were so poor in Dublin and coach Warren Gatland has pretty much said it is time to shape up or ship out.
There is no wiggle room for this Wales side – they have got to win this weekend. But they will have to go up several notches from Lansdowne Road.
The backing of the crowd will help and I think the Friday night setting will suit them more than France – their players are more used to playing then.
George North has moved to centre, they have a new guy at scrum-half in Rhys Webb and there are a few ifs, buts and maybes. But Wales are the defending champions even though they are not playing like it.
France have been unbeaten but not convincing for me. Confidence probably matters to them more than any other team. They are not yet a settled team or a team you trust to deliver. They are missing Thierry Dusautoir in the back row and I think that’s where Wales will edge it.
MICK’S PICK – Wales to win by 8-10 points.
ITALY v SCOTLAND (Saturday, 1.30pm kick-off)
This has a feeling of a wooden spoon clash about it already.
Scotland were dreadful last time against England – almost as dreadful as their pitch. They lacked any substance – a bit of determination isn’t nearly enough – and they provided no attacking threat.
This is a really important game for them and for the health of rugby in the country. The image of the game is dreadful and they are on a downward spiral they need to arrest – so this is huge.
Italy have been okay and you’d expect them to win at home, it’s no longer a surprise when they do so and they will certainly be disappointed if they lose to Scotland.
I just can’t see Scotland scoring tries and I can see Italy doing so.
MICK’S PICK – Italy to win by 8 points.
ENGLAND v IRELAND (Saturday, 4pm kick-off)
This is a really interesting game and I’d say Ireland are marginal favourites. If you look at the individuals on both teams then you have to say the Irish are better.
They have some stars of the game in Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Jonathan Sexton and Jamie Heaslip.
O’Driscoll equals the world record for Test appearances but it really is about what he brings out of the others around him.
Sexton has his mojo back and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is getting the best out of him.
The loss of Dan Cole is a blow for England, not because David Wilson isn’t an able stand-in but because he has been out injured and not played much.
If Ireland get the advantage in the scrum then it is game over. England did Ireland in the scrum in 2012 and if you get that domination up front and have assets elsewhere it is key.
Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes have impressed me and Dylan Hartley has become a seminal figure, but the back row are the key for me. Heaslip is a top player but Billy Vunipola is absolutely full of promise and that could be the tipping point.
It looks set to be a cracking contest that has got me really excited.
MICK’S PICK – Ireland to win by 3-5 points (but with no conviction)
MICK’S PLAYER TO WATCH – GEORGE FORD
He is a name that we will be picking out for years. Brian O’Driscoll is in something like his 15th season and I will be staggered if Ford is not still around in a decade or so.
People have compared Ford’s rivalry with Owen Farrell for the England number 10 shirt to the Rob Andrew-Stuart Barnes situation in the 1990s, but this is very different. They are both northerners, played rugby league together, their dads were rugby league players and they are great mates.
There will be a good rivalry between them but it could be that they both end up playing and Farrell goes to centre. It is just so exciting to see such talent emerge.
Farrell is seen as more methodical and predictable but he is a hard-nut competitor, he makes breaks and there is more to come from him.
Ford has different gifts and skills – he just needs international exposure. I hope he sees some action this weekend.