Scotland v Wales
Murrayfield, Saturday 9th March 14:30
Scotland welcome Wales to Murrayfield in a fixture that will see both sides brimming with confidence off the back of two consecutive wins. Whilst England look set to take the championship if they continue their recent form, this clash could end up being the decider for second place.
Remember, of course, that both teams find themselves steered by interim coaches at this point. Rob Howley will have been monumentally relieved to see Wales’ dismal international record of an eight match losing streak come to an end against France, while Scotland’s Scott Johnson has seen his faith in younger players rewarded with third place position in the table. Both men have much at stake in this tournament as their players, with a permanent spot as head coach surely the ultimate prize.
After grinding to a well-deserved victory against Ireland without a scoring a single try, Scotland fans will hope to see a little more glamorous rugby this time around. Victory would be a historic moment for the Scots, making it three consecutive Six Nations wins for the first time since 1996.
History, admittedly, does lie in Wales’ favour, with the Welsh having won three of their last four matches at Murrayfield. They’ll also be be buoyed by the knowledge that their side boasts 200 caps more than their rivals – and that they’ve won their last four consecutive away Six Nations fixtures.
Euan Murray makes returns to the starting line up, having missed the last fixture for religious reasons, pushing Geoff Cross onto the bench. Duncan Weir pulls on the number ten shirt instead of Ruaridh Jackson, while Tim Visser and Sean Maitland remain on the wings, despite having little chance to shine in the tournament thus far.
Wales give former captain Sam Warburton the nod over Justin Tipuric, although the captaincy remains firmly in the hands of Ryan Jones. Prop Paul James and lock Alun Wyn Jones have also worked their way back into the starting fifteen.
Ireland v France
Lansdowne Road, Saturday 9th March 17:00
From tournament favourites and title contenders to sixth and fourth place in a matter of weeks, it’s been a nightmare championship for France and Ireland. Les Bleus limp into this fixture having scored fewer points than any other team, while Ireland run out off the back of a shock defeat to Scotland. No title hopes here – both sides will be playing to salvage dignity, rather than glory.
France’s fall from favourite to failure has been a meteoric one, kicked off with an wholly against the odds loss to Italy in the opening round and a mere six points scored against Wales the following week. A sound loss to England in the third round obliterated any remaining title hopes and has led many to question coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s selection choices.
Ireland’s campaign has been only marginally less painful. An impressive away win against Wales in the opening weekend was followed by two painful, joyless defeats. Not a single try was scored in their 6-12 loss to England, played in horrendous conditions, while Craig Gilroy’s solitary try against Scotland was of little consolation in defeat. Currently in fourth position, Ireland will be yearning for a win to prevent them tumbling yet further down the table.
Once again, Saint-Andre has made some controversial selection calls, selecting Frederic Michalak at fly-half over specialist number ten Francois Trinh Duc, despite the former’s shaky performances so far this tournament. Centre Mathieu Bastareaud also finds himself on the bench, despite having a big impact on his appearances thus far. The French continue to mourn the loss of captain Pascal Pape, who remains sidelined with injury.
For Ireland, the number ten shirt has proved something of a headache, with Jonny Sexton still recovering from an injury picked up against England. Declan Kidney has gone for youngster Paddy Jackson again, despite the fly half’s shaky performance against Scotland, and has controversially omitted veteran Ronan O’Gara from the squad entirely. Cian Healy returns following a one match suspension for stamping on England Dan’s Cole, while Fergus McFadden steps in for injured Craig Gilroy.
England v Italy
Twickenham, Sunday 10th March 15:00
Despite both kicking off the championship with dream home wins, England and Italy’s campaigns have since taken very different paths. Italy’s ambitions are now limited to a respectable mid-table position, whilst their hosts have inevitably turned their gaze to the glittering possibility of their first grand slam in a decade.
Now fourth in the world and unbeaten since felling the All Blacks in December, Stuart Lancaster’s side are riding a wave of considerable confidence. With Italy’s drop in form since their opening fixture, some may view this match as a mere stepping stone to a dramatic Millennium Stadium finale with the Grand Slam at stake.
For the Azzurri, a win here at Twickenham after two miserable defeats is a considerable ask, even with the return of talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse from his one match ban. In eighteen meetings, Italy have never managed to defeat England – and with the home side on blistering form against the backdrop of a Twickenham crowd, it’s hard to see Italy making history on this occasion.
The loss of injured Owen Farrell and his blissfully steady headed kicking is a blow to England, but the experienced Toby Flood steps into the void with Freddie Burns on the bench. Mako Vunipola is rewarded for his fine form off the bench with his first England start, while Danny Care snatches the number nine shirt back from Ben Youngs after some stunning club performances for Harlequins. Watch out for Tom Croft, who makes a return to the bench after recovering from a hugely dangerous neck injury.
Italy welcome skipper Parisse back to the side after a successful appeal against a ban that would have ruled him out for the rest of the tournament. Luciano Orquera returns as starting fly half, after being dropped to the bench following a disastrous showing against Scotland.