Wales will be looking to stop the Irish juggernaut when the two meet at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
WALES vs IRELAND (Saturday, 4:30pm, SuperSport 6)
Ireland have won their last 10 internationals – a run that has included victories over Australia, England and the Springboks. They were dominant in their dismantling of the English a fortnight ago – a side that proved too strong for Wales on the opening weekend of this year's tournament.
The Welsh have responded from that defeat in customary fashion, and remain in the running for the title. If they're to extend their interests beyond this weekend, they'll need to find a way past Ireland, a side that completely outclassed them when the two met in Dublin last year, running out 26-3 winners.
Wales have named an unchanged side from the one that saw off France in Paris, with Sam Warburton set to become the most-capped captain in their history when he leads the side out at the Millennium Stadium.
Jamie Heaslip returns at No 8 for Ireland having missed the victory over England, while flyhalf Johnny Sexton has recovered from a hamstring strain to start in the pivot position.
Sexton was superb against the English, producing a masterclass from the No 10 jersey. Ireland are the form team in Europe and Sexton the form player. If they play to their potential, Ireland should move one step closer to a Grand Slam with victory in Cardiff.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Wales 65, Ireland 49, Draw 6
In Cardiff: Wales 35, Ireland 19, Draw 2
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones.
ENGLAND vs SCOTLAND (Saturday, 7:00pm, SuperSport 6)
Both sides will be hurting after their respective defeats in the last round. England were outmuscled by a better Irish side, while Scotland were undone by a monumental scrumming display from Italy and now seem destined for the wooden spoon.
England welcome back fullback Mike Brown and Courtney Lawes for the match at Twickenham, with Alex Goode and George Kruis making way. The inclusion of Lawes will be a massive boost for the English, who struggled in the lineouts against Ireland.
Scotland coach Vern Cotter has made five changes to his side, most notably among the forwards where No 8 David Denton and lock Jim Hamilton return. Among the backs, Finn Russell returns from his two-week suspension, while Greig Laidlaw will continue to lead the side from scrumhalf.
England have not lost to Scotland at Twickenham since 1983, and that's not about to change. However, it's the respective performances of both sides that will determine the true winner here, where anything but a convincing home win will put an end to England's championship aspirations.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: England 72, Scotland 42, Draw 18
In London: England 43, Scotland 14, Draw 7
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Adam Ashe, 22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 23 Greig Tonks.
ITALY vs FRANCE (Sunday, 5pm, SuperSport 1)
Phillipe Saint-André's downward spiral of dumbness has seemingly reached a point of no return following France's loss to Wales in Paris. French rugby is in a shambolic state at present and although they'll enter Sunday's match as slight favourites, it's on reputation alone.
There's little to suggest they'll be able to overcome the recent trend and avoid a third successive loss to the Azzurri in Rome. Saint-André has made eight changes to his starting XV in a bid to spark some life into their play. Scott Spedding returns at fullback, while the halfback pairing of Sébastian Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez are given another chance despite failing miserably against Wales.
Italy coach Jacques Brunel has made three changes to the side that edged Scotland in Edinburgh. The experienced Andrea Masi returns at inside centre, while Leonardo Sarto comes in on the wing. Up front, Samuela Vunisa starts at openside, replacing the injured Simone Favaro.
France have been bitterly disappointing during the Six Nations, and have been hindered by Saint-André's constant tinkering. A loss to Italy less than six months out from the World Cup could spell the end for the Tricolores coach, and it couldn't come soon enough.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Italy 4, France 60, Draw 1
In Rome: Italy 3, France 27, Draw 1
Italy – 15 Luke McLean, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Andrea Masi, 11 Giovambattista Venditti, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Samuela Vunisa, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 George Fabio Biagi, 3 Dario Chistolini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Matias Aguero.
Subs: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Barbini, 20 Guglielmo Palazzini, 22 Tommaso Allan, 23 Enrico Bacchin.
France – 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Sébastian Tillous-Borde, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Subs: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Damien Chouly, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Mathieu Bastareaud.
Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP Photo