We are now over halfway through the 2024 Guinness Men’s Six Nations!

Ireland – Championship favourites from the off – have claimed all 15 points available from their opening three fixtures, putting each of their opponents to the sword. The melee in the middle is tightly fought, with Scotland, England, and France each having suffered a loss. However, the former two are yet to have their stab at the reigning Champions. Despite their defeat to Ireland, Italy are pushing the peloton hard for a mid-table finish. This heaps pressure on a young Welsh side to find a result in the last two rounds; can they fell the French this weekend?

With insights presented by Sage to hand, Scotland’s evolution from last season is clear. Where in years gone by this team has been characterised by flair alone, they elect when to attack all-out and when to be more conservative. In their historic Calcutta Cup victory, they averaged just 3.2 passes per possession – fewer than any other team. They were also the only side not to make ten consecutive passes in a possession. However, they reaped the rewards of the pressure exerted by Finn Russell’s boot. The leader of this Scottish team, Russell has delivered 811 more kicking metres to his side than any other player. This ultimately afforded long-range specialist Duhan van der Merwe his opportunities to strike from deep. Last season, his wonder try against England started 57.5 metres from the whitewash; this season, he scored his second from 62.5. Can anybody stop him?

Italy will certainly be hoping not to give him the same opportunities he was afforded by England. Their emphasis on passing rather than kicking may starve Scotland of the counterattacking opportunities on which they thrive. Italy have the second-highest pass-to-kick ratio in the Championship (6.4), and Paolo Garbisi has made more passing metres than any other fly-half, a total of 474. If Italy can pressure Scotland with the quality of their attack, they could find profitable field position and scoring opportunities. Italy have gained more metres from penalty kicks than any other team (571), while Scotland have conceded the most (574).

England have similarly been trying to expand their attack. They have the highest average pass distance in the Championship (6.3 metres), and 15.5% of their passes have travelled more than ten metres – second only to Wales. Much of this width starts with quality service from scrum-half: Danny Care and Alex Mitchell have the joint-longest average pass distance (eight metres). However, England maintain their emphasis on contestable kicking; they have made more box kicks (35) and kicked more up-and-unders (14) than any other team. Their hope will be that their quality in the air will deprive Ireland of the possession they crave, allowing them to progress downfield all the while.

Ireland’s game plan could be described as ‘possession, possession, possession’. In the Championship so far, they have averaged more passes per possession than any other team (seven), demonstrative of their continuity in attack. Against Wales, they surpassed their own record for passes in a match this season by making 252. Throughout their squad, Ireland understand their game and execute it with frightening precision. They have looked a well-oiled machine in the opening three rounds, yet to be properly tested in the Championship. So much so, despite having the shortest average pass distance (5.9 metres), they are the only team that has average over a kilometre of passing metres per match.

The latest victims of the Irish onslaught were Wales, now the only team to have lost each of their matches in the Championship so far. A fresh-faced side, Wales have shown plenty of endeavour in the opening three rounds. They have made the second-most passing metres this season, an average of 952 per match. However, their total pass distance has declined round-on-round. Similarly, considerable adjustments to their kicking game were made in Round 3. In the face of relentless Irish pressure, Wales made the fewest kicks they’ve made in a match this season (21) but leathered the ball as far from their try line as possible, a round-high average of 34 metres. Dafydd Jenkins and his charges will need to regather their composure to seize an opportunity against out-of form France.

The mysterious erraticism of French performances has returned. They command world-class personnel and beat Scotland at Scottish Gas Murrayfield, but drew against bottom-of-the-table Italy last weekend. Since the outset of the Championship, France have struggled to live up the reputation they built preceding the Rugby World Cup. Where last season they could deliver electrifying moments in the blink of an eye, their attack hasn’t been as fluid in this campaign so far. Without these moments of explosive brilliance, they’ve averaged the second-most passes per possession (5.7) searching for opportunities. Les Bleus will need to rediscover their spark to seize control of the middle of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations table in Round 4.