As the Six Nations heads into its third round, ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE takes a look at the key match-ups ahead of the weekend’s action.
Italy vs Ireland
Italy host Ireland in Rome on Saturday, and Franco Smith has named an unchanged side to the one that lost to England in round 2. Although Italy were bested at Twickenham, there were signs of improvement for Smith’s young side and they will be looking to take the next step in their development this weekend.
Monty Ioane, scorer of a sublime try in the opening moments of the England match, has been in good form all Six Nations and will relish another opportunity on the wing.
Elsewhere in the backline the first-choice halfback pairing of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi continue to find their feet in international rugby. Garbisi has shown some good touches in the tournament to date and will hope to stamp his authority on proceedings.
Ireland travel to Italy having lost the first two games in the tournament and desperately in need of a bounce-back. Coach Andy Farrell has rung the changes, the most substantial of which is the return of captain Johnny Sexton. The Leinsterman hinted earlier this week that he might not make it to the next World Cup but his experience was sorely missed by Ireland last week.
The fleet-of-foot Jordan Larmour also gets his first test start of 2021 as he replaces Keith Earls, who drops to the bench. Larmour boasts real gamebreaking ability and will be desperate to make an impression this weekend and catch the eye of Lions coach Warren Gatland.
Italy will want to make use of their home advantage and target this game against an Irish side that has looked out of sorts since the departure of Joe Schmidt. They currently sit on 29 straight defeats in the Six Nations and will fancy themselves to break that streak this weekend.
Italy – 15 Jacapo Trulla, 14 Luca Sperandio, 13 Ignacio Brex, 12 Carlo Canna, 11 Monty Ioane, 10 Paolo Garbisi, 9 Stephen Varney, 8 Michele Lamaro, 7 Johan Meyer, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 David Sisi, 4 Marco Lazzaroni, 3 Marco Riccioni, 2 Luca Bigi (c), 1 Andrea Lovotti
Subs: 16 Gianmarco Luccesi, 17 Cherif Traore, 18 Giosue Zilocchi, 19 Niccolo Cannone, 20 Maxime Mbanda, 21 Callum Braley, 22 Frederico Mori, 23 Mattia Bellini
Ireland – 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Jordan Larmour, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jonathan Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Will Connors, 6 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Ronan Kelleher, 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Subs: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Billy Burns, 23 Keith Earls.
Wales v England
This weekend it is the turn of Eddie Jones’ England to front their old rivals, Wales, in Cardiff. Wayne Pivac’s men sit atop the Six Nations leaderboard with two wins from two outings. They’ll feel slightly fortunate to be in that strong a position and will know that they’ll need to produce a far stronger performance this weekend if they’re to come out victors against England.
In the pack Wales have picked their strongest back-row combination in Faletau, Navidi and Tipuric; they’ll be relying on these men to neutralise a hefty English pack and lay a platform for their backline.
Pivac has opted to select Jonathan Davies at inside centre as opposed to his more accustomed position of outside centre – the move suggests Wales will be looking to play more attacking rugby, relying on Davies’ ability to distribute.
Rees-Zammit, the hero of last round’s game against Scotland, returns on the wing and is partnered by the returning Josh Adams with Liam Williams transitioning to fullback. George North, who becomes the youngest player to win 100 caps for their country, is again playing at outside centre.
With four traditional wings in the backline Wales certainly do not lack for attacking intent. On the bench there is a welcome return for James Botham (grandson of England cricketer Sir Ian Botham).
England, still not quite over the shock of a first-round home defeat to Scotland, have made the short journey to Cardiff with a point to prove. Coach Eddie Jones and captain Owen Farrell have been under significant pressure and nothing less than a dominant performance will suffice to silence the growing throng of critics.
Jones has opted for consistency in the backline with the out-of-form Farrell retained in the starting lineup. In the pack Mark Wilson returns to add some impetus in the absence of the injured Courtney Lawes.
Waiting patiently on the bench is the 19-year-old George Martin, whose selection in the match day squad came as a complete surprise. Jones hopes that Martin can one day be England’s answer to Pieter-Steph du Toit and Saturday he will get the chance to show his mettle on his Six Nations debut.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Louis Rees-Zammit, 13 George North, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Kieran Hardy, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Subs: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhodri Jones, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Cory Hill, 20 James Botham, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Uilisi Halaholo.
England – 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinkler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 George Martin, 21 Ben Earl, 22 Dan Robson, 23 Max Malins.
France v Scotland