And so we advance to the second round of the tournament, where the top teams begin to edge away in their bid to take the championship. Can Italy storm to another win, making it one of their most successful tournaments to date? Will there be a second defeat for France, silencing the host of pundits who had them down as tournament favourites. And will England be able to take the roar in Ireland’s Aviva Stadium in their stride?
Italy v Scotland
Many will already have written this off as the classic wooden spoon fixture with the tournament’s two weakest sides battling it out for fifth and sixth place. But Italy’s win against all odds over France has lent a different spin to this year’s clash.
Buoyed by last week’s against-all-odds win, the Azzurri will now be eyeing a far greater prize than a token win at Murrayfield, potentially a fourth place finish for the first time in six years. Scotland, meanwhile, will be desperate to secure what they will no doubt see as their most realistic scalp of the tournament.
Wisely, the Italians have opted for just one injury-forced change to their victorious side from last week, with Gonzalo Canale coming into the centres for injured Alberto Sgarbi. Talismans Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogivanni will once again look to lead with experience, while Luciano Orquera will look to provide the kicking, spark and imagination which earned him Man of the Match against France.
Scotland, meanwhile, will look to build on the few positives to be gleaned from their opening effort at Twickenham. Expect wingers Tim Visser and Sean Maitland to be hungry for more chances and looking for work off their wings. 22 year old flanker Rob Harley gets his chance to shine as he replaces the injured Alasdair Strokosch.
Scotland will be hugely relieved to be playing at home, but Italy are sure to be riding on a wave of confidence and self belief. If the Azzurri display the impenetrable defence they showcased in last week’s game, the home side will struggle to clinch a victory – even at Murrayfield.
England v Ireland
After crucial first week victories, both England and Ireland will no doubt be hoping for follow up wins to cement their bids for the championship. The Irish will prove far tougher an opponent for Stuart Lancaster’s men, particularly if they find the flair that saw them trample on Wales for an entire forty minutes. England, meanwhile, will be hoping they can recreate the form which saw them dominate Scotland throughout last week’s clash.
This week’s line up sees the welcome return from injury of Manu Tuilagi, although the centre finds himself on the bench thanks to a storming debut last week by Billy Twelvetrees. Flanker James Haskell is the only new addition to the starting lineup, with Tom Wood switching to eight man after injury ruled out Ben Morgan.
Ireland, meanwhile, have gone for the same lineup as last week, with coach Declan Kidney clearly hoping to see a repeat performance of his team’s dominant opening quarter.
If both teams show up displaying last week’s form, this looks set to be an incredibly close fixture – and one that may well decide the eventual winner of this year’s competition. Much will come down to the kicking and game organisation of the two fly halves, England’s golden boy Owen Farrell and his idol and Lions favourite Jonny Sexton.
Wales v France
This week’s match marks a pivotal point in both the French and Welsh campaigns, with a second defeat for either side all but obliterating any hopes of topping the table. The French will be hungry to make amends for losing to Italy, a match they were widely expected to dominate.
Wales, meanwhile, will look to play the kind of rugby that nearly saw them claw back last week’s disastrous match against Ireland. They’ll know full well that taking forty minutes to warm up simply isn’t an option against a French side hungry for a first victory – especially at the Stade de France.
The Welsh will have to deal with the loss of captain Sam Warburton to injury, but Justin Tipuric looks to set to step up to the challenge on the flank. Ryan Jones takes up the captaincy in Warburton’s absence.
France will also be without their captain, after Pape succumbed to injury in Italy, leaving Thierry Dusautoir to reclaim his captaincy. Chunky centre Mathieu Bastareaud finds himself in the starting line up, with coach Philippe Saint-André hoping the ‘Bulldozer’ might galvanise France into action this week.
The lack of some of Wales’ most skilled and experienced players was telling in last week’s match – and they’ll feel their absence all the more keenly against France. If the French pull their socks up this week and shrug off the complacency of last week’s match, victory against the Welsh seems likely. After all, it’s eight years since the Welsh last managed to topple a French side at home.