Accenture Analysis: Nick Mallett's take on RBS 6 Nations Round Five
RBS 6 Nations
At this stage, with the exception of Italy, I would contend that the sides competing in the RBS 6 Nations have all, at times, shown the great quality and the depth of potential that exists in this part of the rugby world.
The biggest improvement has of course been from England, who with a week to spare have won the title, but will now be desperate to beat France and win their first Grand Slam since 2003.
France v England
At the start of the Championship, I thought the fixture list had been kind to England and so it has proved over the last six weeks.
They started the Eddie Jones era with two winnable away games against the Scots and the Italians, which allowed them to build momentum for tougher home games against Ireland and Wales.
Now they will play their final game against a battered and bruised French side, who Scotland have just beaten.
Forget the Triple Crown, forget the RBS 6 Nations title; if England don't now finish the Championship with the Grand Slam as well they will be desperately disappointed.
England have been the dominant side of this Championship, however, and I expect that to continue in Paris where they will simply be too tactically savvy for the French, who are now only playing for pride.
France's fast and loose approach to the Championship has seen them concede a turnover every five minutes but most damagingly of all, nine of these have been made in their own 22, a telling statistic uncovered this week by the Accenture Analysis Team.
Let's be honest, France won't be able to rectify the problems of this year, or even the last eight years, in the space of a week.
Confident England are favourites
England will arrive full of confidence and you can see clearly the impact Jones has had on these players. They make so many good decisions; when to pass, when to kick, and it all looks seamless.
And Jones is now able to introduce new players into what has become a winning team, and none look better than Maro Itoje.
It is difficult not to get carried away about Itoje, but I have to say he is such a find for England. He looks absolutely incredible.
He is big and strong, perfect for a lock, but then offers so much more: he is a wonderful athlete and leader, he has quick feet, he is quick over the ball, a great tackler, and possesses a real engine, being as powerful in the 80th minute as the first.
He is strong, lean and able to explode forward and break games open with his pace and power, which makes all the difference.
Wales v Italy
I hate to say it, but this could get ugly for Italy; I mean really ugly, and Wales could hand them a real hiding in Cardiff.
You could see by the body language of the Italians during their 58-15 defeat to Ireland last weekend that they are completely gone and no longer putting their bodies on line to defend.
The Italians are allowing an alarming number of clean breaks against them, Accenture's data showing that they have conceded 44 breaks so far compared to the Championship average of 21, highlighting their diminishing belief.
Time for Welsh attack
This might be a non-contest for the Welsh, but they will still want to finish strongly and secure a runners-up spot in style.
I liked the Wales I saw against England in the final stages of last weekend's game when they had nothing to lose, and decided to go for it and ditch their usual risk-averse territorial kicking game.
Yes, they were helped with the extra man, but they played with more width, stretched England, kept the ball in hand and immediately got more penetration to score two late tries.
Ireland v Scotland
At first glance this game might appear to have not much riding on it, but both sides will still be desperate to finish third in the table.
Finishing in the top half and with two wins instead of one will make a big difference to how Ireland feel about themselves, and similarly a third win would be huge for Scotland.
I know I have been tough on Scotland, and got tired of all their talk, so I am pleased to see them backing it up with some wins now.
After beating France for the first time in 10 years, Scotland will certainly feel a huge surge of confidence for this game.
Solid Scottish set-piece
They are showing improvements all over the field; they have sorted the issues they had with their front five, and now no longer have any real problems with their scrum and line-out.
When looking at Scotland's performances with the Accenture Analysis Team I was struck by how impressive Scotland have been in disrupting their opponents in defence, limiting the opposition to an average ruck speed of 4.32 seconds thus far in the Championship and slowing down both England and Wales' attacking game in particular.
But overall, I feel it has been the vitality and invention of their backs that has triggered this mini-comeback and, above all else, offers Vern Cotter's side some real hope for the future.
At the heart of any Scotland side in the future has to be the immense Duncan Taylor, whose performances this year have given the backs a new reassuring solidity about them.
Taylor makes so few mistakes, he takes the ball into contact well, has good lines of running, defends well and in this year's RBS 6 Nations has proven he also has a big match temperament.
The defending champions may have their problems, but in Josh van der Flier they have found a true unsung hero, with data from the Accenture Analysis Team highlighting his importance. Van der Flier has been a defensive master, averaging 49 rucks per game and he will again be part of an Ireland side reinvigorated by the manner in which they beat Italy by playing with more width and cutting edge than their first three games.
This will be a tight and entertaining game between two evenly matched sides, but I think the Scots could sneak it and grasp a third consecutive win in this year's Championship.
Nick Mallett is part of the Accenture Analysis Team during the RBS 6 Nations, providing fans with insight and analysis to #Seebeyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby, visit accenture-rugby.com or download the Official RBS 6 Nations app.
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