England could overtake Ireland at the top of the Six Nations log if they score a big win against Scotland on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
FRANCE vs ITALY (Marseille, Friday, 22:00)
France will be desperate to bounce back after losing their first two matches against Ireland and Scotland. They will fancy their chances of securing a bonus-point victory against an Italy side that has already leaked 102 points and 15 tries.
Coach Jacques Brunel has made five changes to the starting XV. Mathieu Bastareaud returns at outside centre, while there is a new back three in fullback Hugo Bonneval and wings Benjamin Fall and Rémy Grosso. Paul Gabrillagues will start at lock.
Anthony Belleau, Alexandre Lapandry, Arthur Iturria, Felix Lambey, Jonathan Danty, Louis Picamoles, Remi Lamerat and Teddy Thomas are unavailable for selection at present. The eight players were suspended following an incident that took place after the last game in Edinburgh.
France are still looking for their first win under Brunel, who replaced Guy Novès in late 2017.
France – 15 Hugo Bonneval, 14 Benjamin Fall, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Rémy Grosso, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Marco Tauleigne, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Adrien Pelissié, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Kélian Galletier, 21 Baptiste Couilloud, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Gaël Fickou.
Italy – 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Tommaso Boni, 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 Luca Bigi, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziano Pasquali 19 George Biagi, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward.
IRELAND vs WALES (Dublin, Saturday, 16:15)
Johnny Sexton kicked a late drop goal to hand Ireland a narrow win over France in round one of the tournament. Ireland thrashed Italy 56-19 the following week, and finished round two at the top of the Six Nations log.
It remains to be seen who will be at the top of the Six Nations pile at the end of round three. At this stage, Ireland lead England by virtue of their superior points-difference. There’s not much in it, though, with Ireland (39) only two points better off than England (37).
Joe Schmidt’s side may not be looking much further than a victory. Wales thumped Scotland in round one, and lost to England in controversial circumstances in round two. They will be tough to put away, even in Dublin, and the chances of Ireland scoring four tries against the Wales defence are slim.
Wales have conceded three tries to date. Only England and France have conceded fewer across the first two matches (two).
Wales will be under pressure, though. Ireland have the forwards to set a strong platform. They certainly have the halfbacks – Conor Murray and Sexton – to win the territorial battles and bring the outside backs into the game.
Another win would see Ireland well placed ahead of their next game against Scotland, which will also be played in Dublin. They may be hard-pressed to finish at the top of the log this week, though, given the likelihood of a big England win in Edinburgh.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 James Ryan, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Wales –15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 George North.
SCOTLAND vs ENGLAND (Edinburgh, Saturday, 18:45)
Scotland looked to be on the rise after beating Australia twice in 2017. They were brought down to earth, however, after a heavy 34-7 defeat to Wales in round one of this year’s Six Nations tournament.
Greig Laidlaw booted Scotland to a narrow win over France in round two. The Bravehearts will need to make another step up this week if they’re going to compete against England.
England coach Eddie Jones has made only one change to his side, with the hulking Nathan Hughes replacing the smaller Sam Simmonds at No 8. The visitors will be looking to impose themselves at the collisions and the lineouts. They have an excellent goal-kicker of their own, and Owen Farrell may well punish Scotland if they transgress in the tackle area.
One would expect England to win this match by a comfortable margin, and to overtake Ireland at the top of the log.
Scotland –15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 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 Scott Lawson, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Willem Nel, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 David Denton, 21 Ali Price, 22 Nick Grigg, 23 Blair Kinghorn.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May, 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 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Harry Williams, 19 George Kruis, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell.
Photo: Kieran Galvin/Getty Images