England v France
Twickenham, Saturday 23rd Feb, 17:00 GMT
England storm into this third fixture off the back of two impressive wins so far in the competition, whilst France limp to Twickenham bearing the scars of a brace of defeats. For Stuart Lancaster’s men, the Grand Slam is beginning to feel within reach, whilst the French will be fighting to salvage any remaining pride they can from this Championship.
This week marks the welcome return of two of England’s heavyweights, with hulking Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi and Northampton’s Courtney Lawes both making it to the starting fifteen. Tuilagi’s battle in midfield with his opposite number, Mathieu Bastareaud, will be particularly fiery, with both men renowned for their ferociously physical play and weighing it at over 17 stone.
Elsewhere, Ben Youngs gets the nod over Danny Care at scrum half once again, despite Care’s scintillating solo try for Harlequins last weekend, and former captain Dylan Hartley is selected over newcomer Tom Youngs at hooker.
Feeling the heat after falling to France and Italy, Philippe Saint-André has gone for something of a crowd pleasing starting fifteen, with several big names returning to the fray. François Trinh-Duc reclaims the number ten shirt from Frédéric Michalak, whilst Clermont’s Morgan Parra makes his return to scrum half. Vincent Clerc, joint top try scorer at the last World Cup, is welcomed back on to the wing, allowing the deadly Wesley Fofana to shift back into the centres.
These two sides haven’t faced each other since the last Six Nations, when a youthful and experimental new English side managed to sneak victory over France by just two points. Since then, England have continued to impress, while France have failed to maintain the impressive form shown in their Autumn fixtures. Considering England’s current momentum and home advantage, France will need to reignite the flair so clearly lacking from their last two games if they hope to prevent a damning third defeat.
Italy v Wales
Stadio Olimpico, Saturday 23rd Feb, 14:30 GMT
You never can tell with Italy. After defiantly defeating tournament favourites France with a passionately proud performance, they hemorrhaged points against predicted whipping boys Scotland. The Welsh have had a similarly mixed tournament, spending an entire first half against Ireland in mortifyingly lethargic form, before managing a deserved and grinding victory against the French.
Italy, though, go into this clash having suffered the heaviest of blows – the loss of captain, talisman and rugby demi-god Sergio Parisse. The skipper is out for the rest of the tournament, following a suspension for insulting a referee last weekend. The unenviable task of filling in for him falls to Fijian-born Manoa Vosawai, a Treviso man with just ten caps to his name. Legendary prop Martin Castrogiovanni will lead the side against Wales, but expect fellow veterans Gonzalo Canale, Andrea Masi and Alessandro Zanni to help fill the damaging void of Parisse’s absence.
The Welsh have gone for the same starting XV as last week, so will see their usual captain lacking once again in the starting fifteen – but Sam Warburton will be looking to win back his place with a big impact from the bench. Elsewhere wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert will make Italy pay for any indisciplined defence out wide, while the Martin Castrogiovanni – Gethin Jenkins duel in the front row should be quite the spectacle.
Italy haven’t beaten the Welsh in this tournament since 2007, their most successful tournament to date, and have only managed two wins against Wales in the history of their clashes. Although they boast a slightly more experienced side, with 42 more caps amassed than the Welsh, the Azzuri will struggle to vanquish over the visitors without their star player.
Scotland v Ireland
Murrayfield, Sunday 24th Feb, 14:00 GMT
Despite a resounding win over the Azzurri in the last round, Scotland know that Ireland pose an entirely different threat when they welcome them to Murrayfield this Sunday. The Irish, meanwhile, will be desperate to make up for a lackluster performance against England which saw them sink to fourth in the table. Both sides know victory is unquestionably vital to keep any dreams of claiming the Championship alive.
The Scots plump for an almost identical starting fifteen to the side that inflicted a merciless defeat upon the Italians. Only Euan Murray is missing, the Glaswegian prop refusing to play on Sundays due to religious beliefs and thus handing Geoff Cross the chance to stand out. Wings Tim Visser and Sean Maitland will look to add to their successes of the last two games out wide.
Ireland have lost some of their most steadying influences, with Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D’Arcy out through injury and Cian Healy banned for two matches after stamping on Dan Cole. All eyes will be on youngster Paddy Jackson, who takes up the role of fly half ahead of veteran Ronan O’Gara. Jamie Heaslip will hope to relegate his poor performance against England to the archives and lead his team with an exemplary performance. As ever, Brian O’Driscoll will need to be his usual talismanic self to spark a bit of magic from his backs.
Scotland can go into this clash knowing that a win is far from impossible – they have, after all, won two of the last four Six Nations meetings between the two sides and can look to exploit the inexperience of Jackson in the pivotal number ten shirt. Nevertheless, Ireland boast enough experience on the field to compensate for their lesser capped newcomers and will be hungry for a win and points after their last try-free match. It’ll be close, but if Ireland show the form they managed in their opening half against Wales then the home side will be hard pressed to clinch a win.