England can make another significant statement by claiming victory over France in Paris on Sunday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
SCOTLAND vs IRELAND, Edinburgh, Saturday, 4:15pm
Following Ireland’s surprise loss to England in Dublin last weekend, this clash has become of utmost importance to the defending champions.
Ireland’s hopes of a Grand Slam repeat came to a premature end last Saturday when they were utterly outplayed at home, and it will be interesting to see how they respond.
The Irish looked rattled by the physicality and intensity of England’s play, but they will see Saturday’s clash as an opportunity to quickly get their campaign back on track.
Scotland are certainly no longer a team that can be taken lightly, and memorably kicked off their season with a comfortable 33-20 bonus-point win over Italy.
Although Ireland have lost influential No 8 CJ Stander to injury, they do boast a pack that should be able to establish ascendancy up front, while flyhalf Johnny Sexton will be determined to bounce back from last Saturday’s rather innocuous performance.
While Ireland come into this encounter without Stander, another South African in Quinn Roux earns a start in the second row, and Cape Town-born Josh Strauss will wear the No 8 jersey for Scotland on Saturday.
This should be a closely-fought affair in front of a capacity crowd, but Ireland will be strong favourites to return to winning ways.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sam Johnson, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Simon Berghan, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Allan Dell.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 D’arcy Rae, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Rob Harley, 21 Ali Price, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Blair Kinghorn.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Quinn Roux, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
ITALY vs WALES, Rome, Saturday, 6:45pm
Wales used their get-out-of-jail-free card last weekend as they overturned a 16-point half-time deficit to snatch victory over France.
It was a result that extended Wales’ winning streak to 10 Tests, and they will now be targeting a bonus-point victory against a rather hapless Italian side.
Notably, though, Wales coach Warren Gatland has made as many as 10 changes to the starting XV that beat France last Friday, with Jonathan Davies taking over the captaincy.
Italy can be expected to be competitive in patches, but ultimately they will be no match for a vastly superior Wales team.
Italy – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Edoardo Padovani, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Luca Morisi, 11 Angelo Esposito, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Guglielmo Palazzani, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 David Sisi, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Nicola Quaglio.
Subs: 16 Luca Bigi, 17 Cherif Traore’, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Marco Barbini, 21 Edoardo Gori, 22 Ian McKinley, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams; 14 Jonah Holmes, 13 Jonathan Davies (c), 12 Owen Watkin, 11 Josh Adams; 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Nicky Smith.
Subs: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Hallam Amos.
ENGLAND vs FRANCE, London, Sunday, 5pm
Many England fans will still be buzzing after the tournament-opening win over Ireland, but coach Eddie Jones was very quick to contextualise the result.
Although Jones hailed the accuracy and efficiency of the team performance, he reiterated that these Six Nations clashes stand alone, and should not necessarily be used as a barometer for the World Cup later this year.
However, Jones will know that Saturday’s impressive performance against Ireland is sure to have emboldened his players with renewed belief after a horror 2018 Six Nations.
It’s been clear to see John Mitchell’s impact on the team’s high-intensity defence, while the Vunipola brothers were typically influential in the physical exchanges last weekend, with Owen Farrell running the show from flyhalf.
A big blow for England is the loss of Maro Itoje to injury, and it should make for a highly-compelling battle up front as France retain a powerhouse tight five despite opting to drop former Junior Springbok Paul Willemse.
In fairness, Les Bleus had the beating of Wales on the opening weekend before conceding two second-half tries, and it’s clear that they are increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Nevertheless, England come into this clash with a powerful, settled side that could well claim back-to-back bonus-point wins to start the season.
England – 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuiagi, 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 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Jack Nowell.
France – 15 Yoann Huget, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Félix Lambey, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhelm Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Pierre Bourgarit, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Romain Ntamack, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images