England will go in search of their first Grand Slam since 2003 when they take on France on Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
France vs England
Eddie Jones was trumpeted as England rugby’s saviour when he left the Stormers to instead succeed coach Stuart Lancaster after an unsuccessful World Cup campaign.
A few months later and England already have the Six Nations trophy in the bag with one round remaining, having comfortably accounted for Scotland, Italy, Ireland and Wales on their way to the title.
Playing a pragmatic, disciplined, physical and undeniably efficient brand of rugby, England were crowned worthy champs when Scotland pulled off an impressive win over France last weekend, ending the slim title hopes Les Bleus may have harboured.
England are undoubtedly deserving Six Nations winners, but it must be said that expected title rivals Ireland, France and Wales have been far from their best. It’s led to what has been a rather underwhelming Six Nations competition, but the Red Rose brigade will hardly care.
They’ve achieved every pre-season objective in reclaiming the Six Nations for the first time since 2011 and re-establishing themselves as a force on the world rugby stage.
Now it’s all about finishing in style, and there’s simply nothing to suggest they should come unstuck against a French side that was comprehensively outplayed by the Scots last weekend.
France still have plenty to play for, though, with a third-place finish quite possibly up for grabs, which would be a satisfactory return in the context of seasons gone by.
However, England will be fired up as ever for the final match of the Six Nations in Paris, with a victory set to serve as the perfect repost after the disappointments of last year’s World Cup campaign at home.
France – 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Wesley Fofana, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Xavier Chiocci, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Wenceslas Lauret, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Jules Plisson, Maxime Médard.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Jack Clifford, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Manu Tuilagi, 23 Elliot Daly.
Ireland vs Scotland
Ireland finally secured their first win of the Six Nations last weekend, proving to be far too strong for Italy. Coach Joe Schmidt selected an experienced team for that clash, and reaped the rewards as Ireland romped to a 58-15 victory.
The 2014 and 2015 Six Nations champs will be desperate to finish this campaign with another win to earn some form of redemption, and perhaps even sneak up to a third-place finish, but Scotland won’t go down without a fight.
The Scots have been superb this season, and after breaking their nine-match Six Nations losing streak, they’ve now won back-to-back games.
Scotland have lost a couple of players to injury this week, including influential flyhalf Finn Russell, but they will still be full of confidence as they head into what should be a highly competitive clash.
Ireland – 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Tommy O'Donnell, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 John Hardie, 6 John Barclay, 5 Tim Swinson, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Subs: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Moray Low, 19 Rob Harley, 20 Josh Strauss, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Sean Lamont.
Wales vs Italy
Wales should have little trouble in securing a third Six Nations win to ensure they finish as this season’s runners-up.
The Welsh do have their injury problems, and will be without captain Sam Warburton for Saturday’s clash in Cardiff, but the Italian squad is also far from full strength.
The Azzurri have endured another forgettable campaign, losing all four games thus far, and there is no reason to think that winless run will be broken on Saturday.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Dan Lydiate (c), 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin,1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Ross Moriarty, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Gareth Anscombe.
Italy – 15 David Odiete, 14 Leonardo Tailor, 13 Andrea Pratichetti, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommy Allan, 9 William Palazzani, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Valerio Bernabo, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Davide Giazzon, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Matthew Zanusso, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Jacopo Tailor, 20 Braam Steyn, 21 Alberto Lucchese, 22 Kelly Haimona, 23 Luke McLean.
Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images