England can take a major step towards the Six Nations title with a victory over Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, writes DYLAN JACK.
FRANCE vs SCOTLAND, Paris, Saturday, 4:15pm
Scotland made a flying start to their campaign, scoring five tries in 70 minutes in their opening fixture against Italy. However, they have been unusually sloppy since, conceding three tries in the last 10 minutes of that match and then following up with a loss against Ireland in Edinburgh.
Gregor Townsend’s men have been full of running and inventiveness, but have lacked a certain precision to their execution and had the ball turned over several times at the breakdown against Italy.
This game should present Scotland with a chance to stay with the chasing pack as they face a France side down on morale and motivation after a 44-8 thrashing from England.
It is telling that France coach Jacques Brunel has dropped scrumhalf Morgan Parra, outspoken in the last week about the team’s apparent lack of preparation for the England match, in favour of a younger halfback axis of Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont.
Brunel has taken the step of righting their much-criticised back three, with Yoann Huget shifting to his preferred position out wide, Gaël Fickou moving to inside centre and Thomas Ramos coming into the starting lineup at fullback.
Scotland will be without Finn Russell and Huw Jones, but should still have enough to claim a win against France, who have looked rudderless and leaderless at key moments during the campaign.
Scotland – 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Pete Horne, 9 Grieg Laidlaw (c), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Alex Allan, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Gary Graham, 21 Ali Price, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Darcy Graham.
France – 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Félix Lambey, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Maxime Medard.
WALES vs ENGLAND, Cardiff, Saturday, 6:45pm
The big one. The outcome of this match will be a defining one for the rest of the tournament, with Wales right on England’s heels on the log. Should England continue their unbeaten run, they will be expected to move on towards a potential Grand Slam, with winnable games against Italy and Scotland in London to come.
Eddie Jones’ side have been in formidable form this year. The addition of John Mitchell as assistant has certainly had an impact on their high-speed defence, while an improved kicking game has seen them squeeze the life out of their opponents.
This attacking kicking game was used to incredible effect in Paris, as England ruthlessly exploited France’s makeshift back three to race into a 30-8 half-time lead, wing Johnny May running in a first-half hat-trick.
Wales will be desperate to upset the odds and claim a 12th consecutive Test win. It has not been as smooth a start for Warren Gatland’s charges, who needed a second-half meltdown to beat France in Paris before a much-changed team ground out a win against Italy.
Gatland should still have enough information from those games to field – injury permitting – a full-strength lineup for Saturday’s crucial clash.
England will be without Mako Vunipola, who has put in 38 tackles in the opening two games, due to injury, with Ben Moon replacing the influential loosehead prop.
Wales have gone for the attacking instincts of Gareth Anscombe over the composed kicking of Dan Biggar to form an experienced halfback combination with Gareth Davies.
There is no love lost between these sides, and the same applies to the coaches. Jones started stoking the tension by claiming the Test to be the ‘biggest match of the Welsh players’ lives’, and tongue-in-cheek referred to Gatland’s team as ‘the greatest Wales side ever’, while Gatland continued by labelling English tighthead Kyle Sinckler as an ’emotional timebomb’.
There is also a small side plot that has emerged this week of Gatland being considered as Jones’ successor when the Australian’s contract ends in 2021.
With so much on the line, it should make for an enthralling match at the Millenium Stadium.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Josh Navidi , 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Tomas Francis.
Sub: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin.
England – 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 George Kruis, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ben Moon.
Subs: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Joe Cokanasiga.
ITALY vs IRELAND, Rome, Sunday, 5pm
Ireland’s hopes of a second consecutive Grand Slam may have been brought to an end as early as the first round, but it has not been all doom and gloom surrounding the defending champions.
They did well to pick themselves up and wear down a physical Scotland outfit, which should give the Irish something of a psychological upper hand when the teams meet again at the World Cup.
Ireland are still well in the race to defend their title and will be keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the preceding Test, hoping Wales can pick up a win that will open things up for the next couple of rounds.
Italy have been competitive for the most part in their opening two fixtures, but suffered a massive blow for this game when they lost inspirational captain Sergio Parisse due to concussion.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has resisted calls for him to use the match to try out new combinations, making just four changes – all of them to his pack. Expect Ireland to come away with a solid win.
Italy – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Tito Tebaldi, 8 Abraham Steyn, 7 Maxime Mbanda , 6 Jimmy Tuivaiti, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Federico Ruzza , 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore’, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 David Sisi, 20 Alessandro Zanni, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Castello.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Subs: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 John Ryan, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Andrew Conway.
Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA