The Six Nations comes to a climatic end this weekend as England could win their first Grand Slam since 2003 as they face a dispirited French team in Paris.
Wales v Italy
Wales will be looking to close out their championship in style and build on from the last 10 minutes from their narrow defeat against England last Saturday. They have the perfect opposition, in the form of the Italians as they have been leaking in tries throughout the competition and conceded nine at the hands of a 58-15 demolition job by Ireland.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland knows that his team will need to be clinical and perform better to impress the ever-demanding Welsh faithful: “This weekend is all about finishing off the tournament well and putting in a big peformance.”
Gatland also stated that it was a chance for some players to regain his faith after their display on Saturday. The New Zealander added: “Saturday is a good chance for some of the players to redeem themselves.”
Italy have already claimed the unwanted wooden spoon for this year’s championship and are already looking to the future as Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’ Shea is poised to take over from current head coach Jacques Brunel from next season.
Dan Lydiate will captain Wales for the first time on Saturday as Rhys Webb replaces Gareth Davies at scrum-half, after his cameo against England inspired Wales’ rallying but insignificant defeat. The other three changes for Wales are imposed as Hallam Amos, Luke Charteris and Justin Tipuric come into the XV. The Azzurri also have injury problems as they make five enforced changes with former Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni coming in for the Italians along with Tommaso Allan, Valerio Bernabo, Quintin Geldenhuys and Andrea Pratichetti.
Ireland v Scotland
Ireland host the Scots in what has been a disappointing campaign for them. They started the tournament having won the championship back-to-back and looking for their third in succession to shake off the cobwebs from their quarter-final exit World Cup exit to Argentina last year. The Irish have been largely uninspiring this year as they are still reeling from last year’s retirement of motivational leader Paul O’ Connell.
Last week’s performance against Italy was their best by far and they will be buoyed by a vibrant Aviva Stadium on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Scotland have been gradually improving as the tournament has been progressed and will be looking to upset the Irish and claim their first win in Dublin since 2010. The opposition head coaches, Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt know each other very well having worked with each other in their homeland New Zealand and in France with Top 14 side Clermont and talk of a “friendly rivalry.”
Ireland only make one change from the Italy game with Tommy O’ Donnell deputising for Josh van der Flier as captain Rory Best recovered from a minor calf problem. The Scots make three changes for their final game as Duncan Weir, Ryan Wilson and Tim Swinson come in for Finn Russell, Josh Strauss and Jonny Gray respectfully
France v England
Can they do it? Judging by their shady record it will be an astounding no. Since the Five Nations, became Six in 2000 England have had five chances to complete the Grand Slam and have only done so once in 2003, with their nearest miss coming three years ago when they were trounced by Wales who won the title in the process.
This is arguably England’s best chance to win since 2003 as they are up against a French side that is going through a rebuilding phase, however they would want nothing more than to scupper their old foes Grand Slam ambitions in the annual Le Crunch battle. All indicators lead to a resounding English win and the statistics back it up, however to even the fair-weathered rugby union fan, Les Bleus are renowned for their unpredictability and seem to thrive on the big stage/occasion.
The build up to the Stade de France showdown hasn’t come without controversy as the Six Nations senior bodies decided not to sanction England prop Joe Marler for his “Gypsy boy” taunt at Welsh counterpart Samson Lee. The WRU (Welsh Rugby Union) said that they were “surprised” by the officials lack of action to which England’s outspoken head coach Eddie Jones claimed that they were trying to derail his side’s Grand Slam bid. “They are happy to do anything to upset us in the preparation for the Grand Slam.” The Australian added, “maybe the WRU don’t know whether they’re Arthur or Martha.”
Even though Marler has been cleared to play against France, Jones has dropped him in favour of Mako Vunipola. England’s other change comes at scrum-half with Danny Care replacing Ben Youngs. France head coach Guy Noves has also made two changes with Loann Goujon and Bernard Le Roux coming in for Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret respectfully in the back row.
This could be the start of something special under the Jones regime or another opportunity added to the near misses catalogue by England over the past 16 years.