Six Nations: Final Round Preview
After six weeks, four rounds and 31 tries, Super Saturday is finally upon us. Tournament favourites France find themselves, incredibly, propping up the table, 2009 champions Ireland currently languish at fourth while England are hungrily eyeing up their first Grand Slam in a decade. You have to hand it to the Six Nations – it’s hardly predictable.
Ireland v Italy, Stadio Olimpico, 14:30GMT
After bursting into this year’s tournament with an opening win apiece, both Ireland and Italy will be disappointed to find themselves in the bottom half of the table. The men in green have seen their squad ravaged with injuries and enduring issues in the number ten spot. The Azzuri have had their share of fly half problems, with Lucian Orquera struggling for consistent form, as well as being denied the talismanic presence of Sergio Parisse for their crucial clash against Wales.
With the championship title out of the question for both, Ireland come to Rome to salvage pride back home with a victorious send off, while Italy will be yearning to give their ever-faithful fans a home win to see out the tournament.
Italians everywhere will have been dismayed to learn that their star prop Martin Castrogiovanni will be sitting out this clash, thanks to a thigh injury picked up against England last week. The front row will benefit though from the 14 years experience of Il Barone, aka Andrea Lo Cicero, the veteran prop playing his final (and 103rd!) match for the national side. In the backs, fullback Andrea Masi and wingers Luke McLean and Giovambattista Venditti were looking at their sharpest against England and will look to carry this form over to their final match.
For the Irish, the headache at flyhalf continues as Jonathan Sexton is forced to pull out for a second time after picking up another injury in training. Youngster Paddy Jackson gets another call up, with 23 year old Ian Madigan the youthful replacement on the bench. There’s a welcome return, though, for dynamic winger Craig Gilroy, and expect even more heart than usual from Brian O’Driscoll on what some fear could be his last outing in an Ireland shirt.
Wales v England, Millennium Stadium, 17:00GMT
Few stages prove more daunting a prospect for English sides than the Millennium Stadium. Few teams relish dashing English dreams more than the Welsh. Which is why this weekend’s second fixture proves such a mouthwatering prospect – England battling Wales in Cardiff for the Championship, and possibly for their first Grand Slam in a decade.
Who clinches the title may well come down to some tense to-the-wire mathematics:
- England win: A victory of any sort would see England seize the title and the Grand Slam, no questions asked.
- Wales win by eight points or more: England are denied by both the Grand Slam and the title, with the reigning champions holding onto the silverware.
- Wales win by seven points with more tries overall than England: Again, Wales will top the table and leave England in second.
- Wales win by seven points but tie England on tries scored in the tournament: The Championship is a tie.
The loss of captain Ryan Jones through injury is a blow to the Welsh, but Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuri and Sam Warburton will make a mighty back row – especially with the latter having rediscovered his form against Scotland. All eyes will be on top tournament point scorer Leigh Halfpenny, whose kicking success rate in the tournament currently stands at 81%, ahead of England’s Owen Farrell on 75%. Gethin Jenkins will lead the side, a worthy replacement skipper for Ryan Jones given his 97 cap wealth of experience.
The English will be thrilled to see Owen Farrell back from injury, as well as Leicester man Tom Croft back in the starting fifteen. Ben Youngs gets the nod over Danny Care this week, while centres Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt will have their work cut out for them against mountainous centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. Chris Ashton keeps his starting position, despite managing just one try so far this tournament and being singled out for his weak defensive performance. He’s missed eight tackles, some of them potentially try saving, in this year’s tournament.
Wales haven’t conceded a try in three matches, proving that England will have to put unprecedented effort into breaking a solid Welsh defence.Expect shuddering collisions among the backs and ferociously fought one-on-one front row battles in what could turn out to be the game of the tournament, as Wales seek to recreate the pain of 1999 on their English nemeses.
France v Scotland, Stade de France, 20:00GMT
A final last ditch attempt to avoid the wooden spoon after three defeats and an unsatisfying draw – thus goes the tagline usually tacked to Scotland or Italy in the closing stages of the Six Nations. But this year, this is how France’s story reads – hardly the finale French fans were expecting going into this year’s tournament. Scotland
Should Ireland fall to Italy, even a win might not be enough to keep France from grasping the wooden spoon without a massive points margin over Scotland. This amounts to considerable pressure, then, on Phillip Saint-Andre’s men to go out with a bang. Scotland, meanwhile, come to Paris knowing full well that they’ve already outplayed expectations, with a win only adding to their satisfaction. It would only be the second time in the Championship’s thirteen years that the Scots have managed to rack up three wins – a historic feat in itself.
Les Bleus will hope that starting fly half Frederic Michalak will deliver the goods after a patchy campaign with mixed performances, helped by the reassuring presence of Morgan Parra at scrum half. The formidable Mathieu Bastareaud is back in the centres for France, while Louis Picamoles will hope to inspire his side from the back of the scrum with yet another glittering performance.
Full-back Stuart Hogg has proved a deadly force on the counter-attack for Scotland and will be looking to gather kicks and pierce the French defence. The loss of powerhouse Richie Gray through injury means that Edinburgh’s Grant Gilchrist gets his first cap in the second row. Captain Kelly Brown knows he has his work cut out for him against opposite number Thierry Dusautoir, but will be hoping to lead his side to an unprecedented third consecutive Six Nations win – and a place in the history books.