England will give duo every opportunity to prove fitness ahead of Italy game

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Maro Itoje and Jack Nowell will be given every opportunity to prove their fitness for England’s Six Nations showdown with Italy at Twickenham on Saturday.

Itoje suffered an injury to the same knee damaged in the championship opener against Ireland on February 2 when performing a forwards drill in training on Tuesday.

Charlie Ewels is on standby to replace the Lions lock if he fails to recover in time with Joe Launchbury and George Kruis forming the starting second row partnership.

Nowell has been struggling with the shoulder stinger incurred in the opening two minutes against Wales and is also a major doubt ahead of Thursday morning’s team announcement.

Should he succumb to the injury, bulldozing Fijian-born wing Joe Cokanasiga will step up from the bench and into the number 14 jersey.

“We’ll give Maro every chance to make the weekend. He’s still got a good chance of making it,” defence coach John Mitchell said.

Jack Nowell

“We’re sensible enough to make sure the athlete’s health comes first. There’s no way that we want to create a setback for the athlete. But we’d like him to be there, he’s a bloody good player.

“Jack took a shoulder knock in the first minute of the match against Wales. He’s progressively increased his training all the way through and again he’s in a position to be considered.

“We’ll make sure his health is not at risk when we do make that decision.”

England remain in title contention despite their 21-13 defeat in Cardiff with bonus-point wins in the opening two rounds leaving them just two points adrift of Grand Slam-chasing Wales.

Italy have not won a Six Nations match since 2015 in a run spanning 20 Tests and have been unable to secure even a losing bonus points so far in this championship, but Mitchell views them as dangerous foes.

“We’re very mindful of the fact that they beat South Africa in 2017. They come with quite a lot of unpredictable attack,” Mitchell said.

“Being a defence coach, there’s a lot of variety in their attack and that creates different challenge for us. It also creates different opportunities for us as well.

“In saying that, I enjoy the way they play. They’re very possession based and with that variety in attack. They challenge you by playing with freedom.”

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Wales on course for the Grand Slam and other highlights ahead of Six Nations round four

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Wales face Scotland in the fourth round of the Six Nations in Murrayfield on Saturday, with the Dragons looking to continue their drive towards a first Grand Slam since 2012.

Elsewhere, England will be bidding to return to winning ways when they face Italy at Twickenham.

In the final match of the weekend, Ireland entertain France at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

Here, we take a look at the key highlights ahead of each game.

SCOTLAND V WALES (Saturday, 18:15)

Talking point – Grand Slam dreams building

The Dragons are now two games away from achieving a first Grand Slam in seven years, and judging by their sensational form in the last round against England, look hard to stop.

Scotland may have been hit hard by injuries, especially to talisman Stuart Hogg, but home advantage could count in their favour and make it a more difficult task for a granite-like Wales attack.

Could Warren Gatland’s side be distracted by Ireland on March 15 or news of domestic upheaval? Or will it be a routine victory?

Key Battle – Blair Kinghorn v Liam Williams

Set up to be a humdinger of a battle.

Kinghorn may be inexperienced in terms of his international career to date, but he was sublime against Italy and France.

Stepping in for Hogg, the 22-year-old ran hard against Les Bleus, making 112 metres from 16 carries and beating three defenders. He kicked well and his restarts were sharp.

Up against him this weekend is Williams who will be high on confidence after his man-of-the-match display against England.

Flawless in the air and with ball in hand, it will be a joy to watch both men in full flight at Murrayfield.

Prediction – Wales by 5 points

Scotland will be up for this fixture having performed poorly in the three rounds to date. With Finn Russell expected to come back into the fold, the home side will have more creativity in attack. But Wales are in searing form and should shade this one by a score.

ENGLAND V ITALY (Saturday, 20:45)

Talking point – Routine win expected for the Red Rose

The Grand Slam may no longer be on offer, but England know the championship is not out of reach yet, and need to secure a bonus-point win to keep their dreams alive.

Eddie Jones is likely to make a number of changes, but he will want to keep the momentum going strong in order finish the campaign on a positive note. Expect him to stick with most of his big names.

After successive defeats, Conor O’Shea’s Azzurri gave Ireland a brief scare in Rome and were ahead at half-time. But facing a stronger England side, it is inevitable they will fall to a 21st successive Six Nations defeat.

Key Battle – Tom Curry v Braam Steyn

Curry has been consistently superb over the three Six Nations matches to date. He was impressive against Wales in round three, making 24 tackles, seven carries and capping off a fine performance with a try too. It’s hard to believe he is only 20.

In Steyn, Italy have an equally influential player who has eased the pressure on stalwart Sergio Parisse this campaign and looks to be a force for many years to come.

The Benetton flanker is a menace with and without the ball, and has the strong carrying ability to put England under serious pressure.

Prediction – England by 30 points

For all the talk about Italy potentially putting it up to England, it’s unlikely they will be able to keep with a side that – aside from defeat to Wales – is starting to purr with confidence again. Italy may bag a try or two, but England should score 40 points.

IRELAND V FRANCE (Sunday, 19:00)

Talking point – France hoping to exploit Ireland’s kicking game

Ireland will put pressure on France with their kicking game, but after the trouncing against England, Jacques Brunel’s men will be more versed and sharp in their defence of this tactic.

And with the fearless trio of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos pulling the strings, Les Bleus will be looking to test Ireland at every opportunity with ball in hand.

The Men in Green will aim to hold possession and inflict long sequences on their opponents, but whoever can make least mistakes will win this.

A close battle expected.

Key Battle – Conor Murray v Antoine Dupont

Murray is the best scrum-half in the world on his day but his contributions of late have been subpar by his own high standards.

The Munster man is still finding his groove after recovering from a lengthy neck injury but has the crisp passing ability and strong game management to give Ireland a foothold against France on Sunday.

His opposite number though is a star in the making.

Even after 11 international appearances, 22-year-old Dupont has the running, passing and kicking game for France to build a game around him for the next decade.

And with Ntamack outside him, both can pose a real threat at the Aviva.

Prediction – Ireland by 13 points

A tight game is expected in the early stages, but Ireland have enough class in attack and defence to gain the upper-hand and should clinch victory here by two scores.

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France can exploit weaknesses in Ireland's game, says Brunel

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Jacques Brunel believes France can exploit “weaknesses” in Ireland’s game in Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations clash in Dublin.

Les Bleus boss Brunel has named an unchanged 23 to face Ireland, keeping faith with the full match squad from the 27-10 victory over Scotland in Paris.

Brunel resisted the temptation to recall fly-half Camille Lopez, with Toulouse duo Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack continuing in the half-back pairing.

England exploited France’s muddled back-three set-up with clinical tactical kicking to route Les Bleus 44-8 at Twickenham on Sunday, February 10 – but Brunel insists his side can cause problems for Joe Schmidt’s men this weekend.

“What England offered us was of high quality; we have worked since then but it’s hard to predict everything,” said Brunel.

“The Irish are going to put pressure on us with their kicking game whether it’s Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton.

“We will try to master this characteristic of the Irish game.

“We watched their tournament matches, we saw their ability to hold the ball and inflict long sequences on their opponents.

“We know what to expect but they were well beaten by the English. There are weaknesses and we will try to pressurise those.

“They beat New Zealand in November and are still the number-two team in the world. But everything is moving quickly – look at Wales, who have almost become invincible.

“Ireland continue to be certain about their game and remain very successful, after losing to England they were able to bounce back against Italy.

“It’s very difficult to take them on because their game is very well structured and programmed.

“Their group of players is difficult to counter. We must be effective and not lose energy, and we must make smart decisions.”

Toulouse star Dupont has fast emerged as France’s premier scrum-half in this tournament, and now Brunel admits Les Bleus are already relying on the in-form 22-year-old.

“I hope that our pack of forwards will put our pivots in the best shape to develop good conditions,” said Brunel.

“Antoine Dupont is young, he is growing. He must be manager and hub of the game. He regulates the speed of the team.

“His trump card is the level of his physical conditions – we can count on him.”

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