Six Nations title race is wide open after 32 week break

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  • When referee Matthew Carley blows his whistle to restart the Six Nations on Saturday, it will be nearly eight months since the tournament came to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Thirty-two weeks on, Ireland will resume their campaign against Italy at the Aviva Stadium, a game originally scheduled for March 8.

    And although there are just four matches remaining, the tournament feels like it belongs to a different time or age, such has been the uncertainty over recent months.

    Nevertheless, the return of international rugby will provide some form of relief for those in lockdown across the world, injecting a little drama and giving a sense of belonging.

    Looking at the current standings, any one of four teams – England, France, Scotland and Ireland – can still clinch the championship.

    Ireland have a game in hand and can leapfrog to first in the table by beating Italy in Dublin on Saturday before the final round of matches takes place on October 31.

    The Men in Green’s opponents in that penultimate game will be a searing French outfit who set the tournament alight before the tournament was suspended indefinitely.

    Les Bleus beat England 24-17 on the opening weekend in Paris, and followed it up with a resounding win over Italy (42-0) before losing to Scotland (28-17) at Murrayfield.

    Lying second in the table, France, rejuvenated under new coaches Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards, need to score three points more than England in their last fixture to have any hope of securing a first crown since 2010.

    However, England, with a superior points difference of +15, are away to the Azzurri and look in pole position to secure both the bonus point plus championship.

    It’s nearly a surprise to find Andy Farrell’s Ireland in contention, given they were outmuscled and outsmarted by England at Twickenham in round three.

    To lose by only twelve points (24-12) was a reprieve, considering the bullying they took in contact for large parts of the contest.

    But after such a long hiatus from international action, anything can happen over this final week. The race for the title is wide open.

    Even with England and France’s advantage, should Ireland enjoy two bonus-point victories against Italy and Les Bleus, it would be enough to seal tournament honours.

    On the same weekend that the Irish government cancelled their game against Italy back in March, England v Wales and Scotland v France took place in front of capacity crowds at Twickenham and Murrayfield.

    Manu Tuilagi received a red card for a shoulder charge on George North in England’s win over Wales, with Eddie Jones criticising the dismissal, labelling it ‘a load of rubbish’.

    Still, the three-point victory (33-30) added some level of positivity for the Red Rose as it was their third successive win since losing to France on the opening day.

    For Les Bleus, after a flawless start to the campaign, their Grand Slam bid unravelled early on against Scotland.

    Francois Cros was sin-binned and Romain Ntamack suffered a head injury inside the opening 10 minutes. Just when it looked bad, it would get much worse before half-time.

    Prop Mohamed Haouas was handed a red card for punching Scotland flanker Jamie Ritchie, putting an end to any hope of a comeback in a tight encounter.

    Fast forward eight months and the impressive Ntamack plus Haoaus are named in the 31-man squad for the November programme as Galthie’s side attempt to finish their campaign on a strong note.

    Further north, Finn Russell is set to end his year-long exile from Scotland, having been named on the bench for Friday’s friendly against Georgia.

    The Racing 92 fly-half missed Six Nations matches in February and March for a breach of team protocol, with Adam Hasting’s filling the void left by his departure.

    Across to Ireland, Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Ryan Baird, Iain Henderson and Dave Kilcoyne have all been ruled out due to injury and suspension.

    If fit, all five players would have featured in the matchday 23.

    Farrell will be desperate to put to right their performance in Twickenham, plus nervy win over Scotland, with a bonus-point triumph in Rome on Saturday.

    With little opportunity to gain momentum in their first international since March, teams will have to opt for form and consistency as they aim to round off the Six Nations in the best possible manner.

    Whatever the outcome is from Saturday’s game in Dublin, it looks like England’s championship to lose. However, don’t write off a French side brimming with optimism under new management.