It’s the penultimate round of the Six Nations and depending on what happens in Dublin and Paris, the winner could be decided by Saturday night.
We take a look at the three matches and try to answer some of the burning questions including if Ireland can wrap it up with a week to spare, how will new Wales captain Taulupe Faletau fare and which version of France will turn up for Le Crunch?
FRANCE v ENGLAND
Can Jamie George take his chance to cement his spot?
Dylan Hartley’s injury has opened the door for British & Irish Lions No2 Jamie George and Eddie Jones will be hoping the Saracens hooker gives his pack a lot more mobility, so absent against the Scots.
Jones will be expecting George to play more as a flanker in open play, while still being solid in the set-piece, and get to the ruck quicker than the bulky Chris Robshaw, Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes. Sticking with the same back-row is a gamble by Jones and could easily backfire.
Will Les Bleus fire up for Le Crunch?
There is no game in rugby that France get up for like taking on England. French rugby is at a very low ebb, no one needs to be reminded of that, and with Jacques Brunel deciding not to call on the “Edinburgh eight”, Les Bleus go into the game out of form and under-strength.
But don’t expect a cake walk. France captain Guilhem Guirado, the top tackler in the tournament, will throw himself into everything and the impressive flanker Marco Tauleigne will have a field day at the breakdown if given time and space. It will be close and a home win is not impossible.
IRELAND v SCOTLAND
Can Ireland wrap up the Six Nations with a week to spare?
Whatever happens in Dublin, if Ireland beat Scotland by a whisker or a rout, England won’t be able to catch them if they can’t match that result in Paris against France. So if Joe Schmidt’s team get a bonus-point win by scoring four tries, very possible with winger Jacob Stockdale in the form that he is, Eddie Jones’ men must do the same to remain in contention.
The idea of heading to Twickenham next weekend with the title already in the bag, and in the hunt for a Grand Slam, is very appealing to Irish eyes indeed.
Can Scotland win away from home?
Scotland looked formidable against England, they also played very well against France before that. Both of those games were in Edinburgh. When they last played away from home, they were thrashed by Wales, losing by 27 points in week one.
That’s not to say Ireland shouldn’t be concerned. Scotland have a history of upsets against Ireland. The Scots last win in Dublin came in 2010, Ireland’s farewell game at Croke Park and a Triple Crown decider. They walked away with a narrow 23-20 win. Ireland should overlook Scotland at their peril.
WALES v ITALY
How will Taulupe Faletau fare as captain?
The big No8 is back from injury and been immediately entrusted with the captaincy. It’s a great honour for the quietly spoken 27-year-old as Wales’ coach Warren Gatland looks to the future.
Gatland has made 10 personnel changes and one positional switch including the return to the starting line-up of George North. Lock Cory Hill is the only survivor in the pack from those who started against Ireland.
Wales clearly already have on eye on the Rugby World Cup next year and this is a good chance for Gatland to see how his fringe players shape up and whether Faletau is a long-term option as skipper, especially with regular captain Sam Warburton’s ongoing fitness issues.
Will Italy ever be competitive?
This is the 19th year since Italy joined the Six Nations and the Azzurri are on track for their 13th wooden spoon.
As attractive as their rugby may be, and they do certainly know how to score tries (seven to date this year), they simply cannot compete with any of the other five nations. Even France with all their issues easily accounted for them 34-17 in week three.
The real problem for coach Conor O’Shea, and the Six Nations, is Italy don’t seem to be getting better. They continue to unearth talent like impressive flanker Sebastian Negri and ful-lback Matteo Minozzi but those rough gems are not enough to truly call it the Six Nations.
Here at Sport360 we’ve put together a list of the top performers in the Six Nations after three rounds – try-scorers, points scorers, tacklers, metres made and defenders beaten – and there’s some real surprises on the list.
Perhaps most surprisingly is Italy full-back Matteo Minozzi who is in the top five for both metres made (212) and defenders beaten (9). It shows even though Italy have not been on the winning side in their first three matches they still have some dangerous ball runners.
Another surprise is the tackle count topped by French hooker and captain Guilhem Guirado who has made 57 tackles in total including a heroic 31 in the narrow loss to Ireland in Round 1.
The next best single game performance was Scotland lock Jonny Gray who made 24 in the upset victory over England to see him third on the list with 53 behind Guirado and Welsh flanker Josh Navidi (56). They are followed by another Welsh loose forward Aaron Shingler (47) and the ever-reliable Chris Robshaw of England (44).
Not surprisingly dynamite full-back Stuart Hogg tops the metres made with 252 ahead of a duo of exciting young wings – Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale (244) and Wales’ Stef Evans (222).
Stockdale, 21, also tops the try-scorers list with four – one ahead of Scotland’s Huw Jones and France’s Teddy Thomas, who has only played two matches.
The ever-accurate Leigh Halfpenny tops the point scorers list with 36 but it’s perhaps surprising to see France’s scrum-half Maxime Machenaud second on 33. His goal kicking could be crucial on Saturday in Paris.
Former Chiefs’ Super Rugby star Bundee Aki has been having a superb debut Six Nations with Ireland and he tops the defenders beaten list with 12, two ahead of Jones, England’s Anthony Watson and again surprisingly Italy flanker Sebastian Negri, who has the best solo performance in this category beating eight defenders in the match against France.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is an omission from one of the categories. In the top tackler list Ireland does not have one player in the top 40, with Aki again topping the Irish tacklers with just 24 – over 30 behind Guirado.
This reveals just how the tournament leaders have dominated the possession to date in their matches, enjoying 66.6% of the ball (63% v Italy, 68% v France and 69% v Wales) compare this to Italy who have had just 42% possession to date (37% v Ireland, 52% v England and 37% v France).
Six Nations Top performers after three rounds
TOP TRY SCORERS
4 Jacob Stockdale (IRE)
3 Huw Jones (SCO)
3 Teddy Thomas (FRA)
2 11 players
TOP POINTS SCORERS
36 Leigh Halfpenny (WAL)
33 Maxime Machenaud (FRA)
32 Johnny Sexton (IRE)
31 Owen Farrell (ENG)
29 Greig Laidlaw (SCO)
MOST METRES MADE
252 Stuart Hogg (SCO)
244 Jacob Stockdale (IRE)
222 Steff Evans (WAL)
212 Matteo Minozzi (ITA)
187 Jonny May (ENG)
186 Huw Jones (SCO)
MOST DEFENDERS BEATEN
12 Bundee Aki (IRE)
10 Huw Jones (SCO)
10 Sebastian Negri (ITA)
10 Anthony Watson (ENG)
9 Matteo Minozzi (ITA)
9 Jacob Stockdale (IRE)
9 Teddy Thomas (FRA)
57 Guilhem Guirado (FRA)
56 Josh Navidi (WAL)
53 Jonny Gray (SCO)
47 Aaron Shingler (WAL)
44 Chris Robshaw (ENG)
All stats compiled from sixnationsrugby.com.
Farrell, the team’s inside centre and goalkicker, starts as captain for the first time after Hartley conceded defeat in his battle with the injury sustained in training at the start of the week.
Hartley has been an ever-present under Eddie Jones, starting all but one of his 26 Tests in charge and always acting as skipper, and his absence at the Stade de France is part of the most radical team selection of the Australian’s reign.
Jamie George, the British and Irish Lions’ starting hooker against New Zealand last summer, is given the number two jersey while Mako Vunipola has been named vice-captain.
“Owen will be very proud to be captain but at the same time he’s disappointed for Dylan to miss out through injury. He knows the position of captain carries a lot of responsibility,” Jones said.
“We need to make sure we have one strong voice among the forward leaders and Mako has been doing some great work behind the scenes. He will step up and take that on officially against France.”
In total there are five changes – two of them positional – to the side defeated 25-13 by Scotland at Murrayfield on February 24.
Mike Brown has been dropped at full-back following his disappointing display in the Calcutta Cup, resulting in Anthony Watson moving from the wing and Elliot Daly being immediately reinstated after his recovery from ankle and calf injuries.
A further development of significance sees the power of Ben Te’o preferred to the quick feet of Jonathan Joseph at outside centre.
“Mike Brown has been excellent for us but he was a little bit off against Scotland and we’ve decided to start Anthony Watson there,” Jones said.
“We want to attack a little bit more so Anthony starts at full back with Elliot Daly on the left wing and Jonny May on the right wing. It’s a great back three for us.
“Elliot has come back into camp and is in really good fettle, moving well and he’s obviously a very good player having done so well for the Lions in the summer.
“It was always the plan – we felt we’d need someone a bit bigger and stronger on a slower track at the Stade de France and this is why Ben Te’o starts.”
Brown and Joseph are included on a heavily-changed bench that sees Luke Cowan-Dickie present as a reserve hooker.
Kyle Sinckler is back as tighthead prop cover – Harry Williams has been struggling with a neck problem – and is joined among the replacements by James Haskell and Sam Simmonds.
“This game is about the opportunity for the team to move forward and we want a response from the players this week,” Jones said.
“Against France we want to be brutal and aggressive on the gain line and to play with a great tactical discipline.”
England team to face France: