Ireland's audacious bid to claim a Six Nations Grand Slam will be thoroughly challenged when they welcome the in-form Scotland to Dublin on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
IRELAND vs SCOTLAND (Saturday, 15:05)
The outcome of this fixture will have a big impact on which side edges ahead in the three-way race – between Ireland, England and Scotland – for the Six Nations title. As it stands, Ireland lead the way on 14 points, followed by England on nine and Scotland with eight.
Scotland will be hoping to repeat their heroics of 2017, when they stunned Ireland 27-22 in Edinburgh. But with a rare shot of winning the Grand Slam, Ireland’s goal will not be seeking revenge for that result, but to go out and claim a win which will consolidate their position at the top of the log ahead of Super Saturday (the final round in the competition).
Ireland are the only unbeaten side left in the tournament and a win in Dublin will effectively end Scotland’s title aspirations while piling more pressure on England ahead of their away game against France.
Scotland will not want for motivation either. Any sort of victory and a French upset win over England, will take the Scots to the top of the standings and put them in a strong position to win the Six Nations as they play bottom-placed Italy in the final round.
The battle between the British & Irish Lions halfbacks – Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw of Scotland and Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray of Ireland – will be crucial, but it's the forwards battle that will be decisive. Scotland's pack dominated England up front, which ultimately laid the foundation for their Calcutta Cup win over Eddie Jones' men. Ireland have to patrol the breakdown area with caution in order to deny the Scots the ascendancy.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has stuck largely with the team that beat England two weeks ago, but was forced to include rookie wing Blair Kinghorn after Tommy Seymour was ruled out with a back injury.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has recalled tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong and outside centre Garry Ringrose, replacing Fergus McFadden and the injured Chris Farrell respectively.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Seán Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Iain Henderson, 20. Jordi Murphy, 21. Kieran Marmion, 22. Joey Carbery, 23. Jordan Larmour.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Blair Kinghorn, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Pete Horne, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Gordon Reid.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 David Denton, 21 Ali Price, 22 Nick Grigg, 23 Lee Jones.
FRANCE vs ENGLAND (Saturday, 18:45)
'Le Crunch', as this fixture is affectionately known, takes on a far greater importance this time around than it has in recent years.
England are favourites to win in Paris, but France have shown improvement since coach Jacques Brunel’s self-imposed ban on eight of his initial squad members. France’s upturn in form coupled with the fact that England have lost their last two away Tests, sets up an intriguing evening's play at the Stade de France.
Mathematically, France can still win the championship. They trail log leaders Ireland by eight points and there are still 10 points on offer from the last two rounds. But for all intents and purposes, Les Bleus should consider their title chase over.
By contrast, England will have it all to play for when they travel across the channel for a match that will determine their Six Nations fate. Luckily for the defending champions, they will know exactly what needs to be done because the Ireland-Scotland fixture precedes this clash.
Ideally, England will be hoping for another Scottish upset victory in Dublin, but at the end of day, beating France and claiming maximum log points will be Eddie Jones’ only concern.
Jones has acted accordingly with his team selection, omitting Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph in favour of Elliot Daly and Ben Te’o. Jamie George also earns a rare start in the absence of Dylan Hartley.
However, the better part of England’s playbook revolves around stand-in captain Owen Farrell. The reigning champions need their playmaker to produce the type of performance that will leave France in tatters and improve their hopes of a third consecutive Six Nations title.
France have made one change to their team, which sees the experienced Francois Trinh-Duc start at flyhalf ahead of Lionel Beauxis.
France – 15 Hugo Bonneval, 14 Benjamin Fall, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Remy Grosso, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Marco Tauleigne, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhelm Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Adrien Pelisse, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Kelian Galletier, 21 Baptiste Couilloud, 22 Lionel Beauxis, 23 Gael Fickou.
England – 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Jonny May, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 James Haskell, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Jonathan Joseph, 23 Mike Brown.
WALES vs ITALY (Sunday, 17:00)
Wales are in an identical position as France: A team with a slender chance of going all the way if other results go in their favour.
After making the perfect start against Scotland in round one, Wales' campaign was derailed by back-to-back to defeats against England and Ireland. And while they were desperately unlucky in the 12-6 loss to England, the best Wales can hope for now is a top-three finish.
Coach Warren Gatland has selected a second-string lineup, but one still better placed to win compared to the struggling Italy side. No 8 Toby Faletau, flyhalf Gareth Anscombe and wing George North come into the Wales team that boasts a total of 10 personnel changes, while star fullback Leigh Halfpenny will provide cover off the bench.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Owen Watkin, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 James Davies, 6 Justin Tipuric, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Nicky Smith.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Seb Davies, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Leigh Halfpenny.
Italy – 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Maxime Mbanda, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Giovanni Licata, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward.
Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images
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