It is the final weekend of this years RBS Six Nations with England crowned champions last weekend already. They have also equel New Zealand record of 18-in-a-row wins against major test playing nations last week and all that is left is the small matter of the back-t-back Grand Slams and breaking the All Black record.
England stand on the verge of Six Nations history in Dublin this Saturday, as they face Ireland, looking to claim back-to-back Grand Slams.
Few would have predicted the English to be in this position following their World Cup exit in 2015, but under the tutelage of Eddie Jones and a new coaching team they have grown into a dangerous animal that also is one victory away from a Tier 1 record of 19 successive wins.
Reaching that number at the Aviva Stadium will be no mean feat, however, especially against an Ireland side hurting after losing to Wales.
Yes they are missing scrum-half Conor Murray and full-back Rob Kearney due to injury, but write off Joe Schmidt’s charges at your peril as whether they deny it or not, they will be determined to spoil the English party on Saturday.
England meanwhile will be desperate to avoid another 2001 scenario when they lifted the Six Nations silverware at Lansdowne Road but missed out on the Grand Slam after a 20-14 defeat.
They look the real deal at the moment and slack Scottish midfield defence or not, the English threw down a marker at Twickenham last week. The George Ford-Owen Farrell partnership came of age while Jonathan Joseph looked almost embarrassed at how easily he claimed a hat-trick.
In Dublin they have the boost of naming Billy Vunipola in their starting XV for the first time this year while from 1 to 23 it is fair to say that none of their players are struggling for form.
That is where England have the edge as confidence in their game appears sky high.
For Ireland they enter on the back of that poor performance in Cardiff, which was a game not dissimilar to this as now it will be them who are under pressure to shine after a loss.
If they are to hit back and end on a high they must concentrate their frustrations on upsetting the English fluidity whilst imposing their own high-paced physical style on their rival. Keeping their discipline in check is also vital.
England though should possess a touch more in their arsenal and even in what promises to be a hostile environment, it’s looking like being more 2003 than 2001 for this Six Nations finale. That would mean all smiles with the silverware, something Ireland will be eager to avoid.
2016: England won 21-10 in London
2015: England won 21-13 in London
2015: Ireland won 19-9 in Dublin
2014: England won 13-10 in London
2013: England won 12-6 in Dublin
2012: England won 30-9 in London
2011: England won 20-9 in Dublin
2011: Ireland won 24-8 in Dublin
2010: Ireland won 20-16 in London
2009: Ireland won 14-13 in Dublin
Ireland: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Conway
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tom Wood, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Aviva Stadium
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Scotland will have a point to prove when they host Italy in Edinburgh on Saturday after their disappointing exit from Six Nations contention.
Vern Cotter’s men will be reeling after their Six Nations hopes were snuffed out by a massive 61-21 loss to England last weekend where they conceded a demoralising eight tries.
Scotland looked as though they were heading for a fairy-tale ending to the European premier competition after beating Ireland 27-22 in the first round and then Wales in third after a 29-13 victory at Murrayfield.
So the extent of the loss to England would have added insult to injury. This will also be Cotter’s last game in charge of the side which will add extra gravity to their desire for a big win.
Cotter has turned his side from a predominantly forward orientated side playing negative rugby to a dynamic, exciting team for their spectators to enjoy.
After dismantling old foes like Wales and Ireland, beating Argentina and pushing Australia close at the end of last year, the Scotland rugby public will be sad to see him go.
Italy will be desperate for a win themselves after a poor showing in the Six Nations in 2017. Out of their four games Italy have failed to pick up even a single losing bonus point after being thrashed by their opponents week after week.
Their closest game was against England where they lost 36-15 and were ahead at half-time and still managed to concede five tries. There is no way Italy can avoid the wooden spoon in this game and will be playing for their pride more than anything else.
History is on Scotland’s side after claiming victory in the last three fixtures, winning 16-12 in Turin, then 48-7 in Edinburgh and most recently 36-20 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where tries from back row duo John Barclay and John Hardie along with a late effort from wing Tommy Seymour saw the Scots come out on top.
The home side will also take solace in the fact that they have won both of their home games this season which makes it three in a row after their 19-16 victory over Argentina last season, while Italy traditionally have not travelled well; their last win away was in June last year after sneaking a 24-20 win over the United States in San Jose.
Scotland have made one change to their side with Ross Ford coming in at hooker. The number two will add some physicality to the Scottish pack but more importantly his vast experience in the royal blue jersey will be important.
Cotter has dropped Fraser Brown to the bench after his transgression last week where he lifted England winger Elliot Daly above the horizontal angle to cop a yellow which led to speculation among many pundits saying that it should have been a red.
The Italians have made four changes to their side with Tommaso Benvenuti replacing Michele Campagnaro at outside centre, Maxime Mata Mbanda’ comes in for Simone Favaro on the flank, George Biagi takes Andries Van Schalkwyk place in the locks while up front Ornel Gega is in for Leonardo Ghiraldini as hooker at Murrayfield.
2016: Scotland won 36-20 in Rome
2015: Scotland won 48-7 in Edinburgh
2015: Scotland won 16-12 in Turin
2015: Italy won 22-19 at Murrayfield
2014: Scotland won 21-20 in Rome
2013: Scotland won 30-29 in Pretoria
2013: Scotland won 34-10 at Murrayfield
2012: Italy won 13-6 in Rome
2011: Scotland won 23-12 at Murrayfield
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Gordon Reid Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Cornell Du Preez, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Matt Scott
Italy: 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Maxime Mata Mbanda’, 5 George Biagi, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Andries Van Schalkwyk, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Francesco Minto, 22 Marcello Violi, 23 Luca Sperandio
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
France and Wales will be determined to finish their respective campaigns on a high when they face off in what promises to be a thrilling encounter in Paris on Saturday.
With England securing their second successive championship with their win over Scotland last week, both France and Wales are amongst the tournament’s also-rans.
They will however be desperate to finish the tournament on a high as both sides know that victory will secure them second position in the standings if England beat Ireland in their final match in Dublin.
A top four Rugby World Cup seed is also on the horizon for Wales if they can win in Paris, and if England defeat Ireland later in the day.
Although both les Bleus and Wales have delivered impressive performances, they are still some way off the standard set by England who claimed narrow wins over these sides earlier in the competition.
France have impressed throughout this year’s tournament but still lack the killer instinct of a great side – like England – and although they have come on in leaps and bounds they are very much a work in progress.
The play of les Bleus‘ forwards has been particularly impressive in this year’s tournament with players like the talismanic number eight Louis Picamoles and flanker Kévin Gourdon combining brilliantly throughout, and their showdown – alongside Fabien Sanconnie – with Wales’ back row of Ross Moriarty, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric will be one of this Test’s highlights.
France secured their first bonus-point win of the tournament last week when they beat Italy 40-18 in Rome but they still committed to many handling errors – something which they can ill afford against Wales, who will be quietly confident as they have won the last five encounters between these sides.
Wales delivered arguably their best performance of the championship in their 22-9 triumph over Ireland in Cardiff last weekend and France’s head coach Guy Novès knows his side will have to be at their best if they want to beat Rob Howley’s charges.
“When you see the intensity, the rigour, the pragmatism, the lucidity and the accuracy in all their movements, their defensive physicality… you saw the Irish, who are one of the best teams in the world, fell apart and couldn’t put in place their game,” he said.
“We still have a lot of work to do. If we play and make as many mistakes (as we did against Italy), we won’t survive against Wales. That’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, Warbuton has put the result against Ireland behind him and feels Wales must improve on their performance from that match if they want to beat their hosts.
“Home advantage has a massive part to play in this championship because the teams are so close together that home advantage is another to take you over the finish line,” he said.
“So we know that if we are to win in Paris we will have to produce our best performance.
“We are pleased with the way we played against Ireland but there weren’t a lot of pats on the back. Because there were a lot of times when, in the second half, we made errors where we shouldn’t have, and we could have lost that game.
“So we’ve still got a bit of an edge about us, because we want to put those things right and put in a better performance against France.”
2016: Wales won 19-10 in Cardiff
2015: Wales won 20-13 in Paris
2014: Wales won 27-6 in Cardiff
2013: Wales won 16-6 in Paris
2012: Wales won 16-9 in Cardiff
2011: France won 9-8 in Auckland
2011: France won 28-9 in Paris
2010: France won 26-20 in Cardiff
2009: France won 21-16 in Paris
2008: Wales won 29-12 in Cardiff
France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julien Le Devedec, 20 Bernard Le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)