The Six Nations returns this weekend with Ireland currently in prime position in the chase for this year’s title – and the only side still in the running for a Grand Slam.
After victories in their last round of fixtures, both France and Scotland will be looking to continue their current momentum in this tournament, whilst England will be looking to bounce back following a disappointing display against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Wooden spoon favourites Italy will be hoping to build on an improved performance despite eventually succumbing to defeat against the French last time out, but will have to play out of their skins to secure a first Six Nations victory since 2015 in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Principality Stadium.
Here’s a look at this week’s fixtures…
Ireland v Scotland, Saturday 10 March, 14:15
Joe Schmidt’s side will be first up in action this weekend as they take on a Scotland side buoyant after securing a first Calcutta Cup victory against England in a decade.
The Irish possess plenty of firepower in their ranks, including the impressive Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki, which will bring confidence that they can make it four consecutive victories in a row and stop Scotland’s momentum in the process.
Johnny Sexton is also unlikely to be so profligate as he was with his kicking in missing 10 points against Wales, whilst Scotland will be hoping the fly half has a similar off-day in Dublin.
Gregor Townsend’s increasingly impressive charges have been the leftfield tip of many leading pundits to make a breakthrough this campaign, and it’s not hard to see why – Scotland flew out of the blocks against England.
The Scots will likely need to make a similar fast start against the Irish to help improve on their poor away record in Six Nations fixtures. Can they secure a first victory away from Murrayfield since 2010? That came in a 20-23 victory in Dublin – albeit at Croke Park.
France v England, Saturday 10 March, 16:45
It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for Eddie Jones after a sluggish England performance against Scotland, and an unfortunate run-in with Scotland fans leading to his decision to quit using public transport.
The Australian will be looking for his side to put in a far more disciplined performance against France in Paris and reclaim some much-needed momentum.
This week’s news that captain Dylan Hartley is a doubt for the fixture is another blow for Jones’ men, but there are still reasons to be cheerful about England’s prospects. Jones has indicated he is looking to make several changes to help shake his side out of their lethargy – and as a man widely known for chewing over a defeat, some bold tactical decision-making could help reap rewards.
For the French, victory against Italy offered some light at the end of the tunnel after a challenging year which has seen them pick up only one win in 11 months.
Head coach Jacques Brunel has already started the mind games, installing England as ‘red hot favourites’, and he will be hoping the torrential conditions anticipated in Paris will play into the host’s hands. The form of Mathieu Bastareaud will likely be the key to the French securing a second successive Six Nations victory.
Wales v Italy, Sunday 11 March, 15:00
Wales will be hoping for a smoother ride against the Italians in this year’s Six Nations after taking the best part of an hour to pull clear of Conor O’Shea’s side in their 2017 encounter.
Wales will be desperate to get back to winning ways after consecutive defeats to England and Ireland, and Warren Gatland looks set to make plenty of changes to refresh his side.
The expected return of Bath and Lions No. 8 Taulupe Faletau will be a huge boon for the Welsh as they look to kick-start their campaign against the tournament’s traditional strugglers.
For Italy, Conor O’Shea can take heart from a battling performance against the French, despite his side eventually falling to a 34-17 defeat.
The Irishman has won plaudits for the baby steps he has taken in moving this team forward, but they remain without a Six Nations victory under his tenure. The calm leadership of Sergio Parisse may be their best hope in transforming their fortunes here as they look to avoid another wooden spoon.
1 Ireland P3 W3 L0 D0 BP – 2 Pts – 14
2 England P3 W2 L1 D0 BP – 1 Pts – 9
3 Scotland P3 W2 L1 D0 BP – 0 Pts – 8
4 Wales P3 W1 L2 D0 BP – 2 Pts – 6
5 France P3 W1 L2 D0 BP – 2 Pts – 6
6 Italy P3 W0 L3 D0 BP – 0 Pts – 0
Still to play…
Saturday 17th March 2018
12:30 – Italy v Scotland
14:45 – England v Ireland
17:00 – Wales v France
All image sources from PA images