As we approach Round 3 of the 2014 6 Nations, it promises to be another exciting two days of action as the only two unbeaten sides both face a stern away test of their title winning credentials.
With the action kicking off in Wales on Friday night and then continuing the next day in London and Rome, come Saturday evening we should have a much clearer idea as to which side could be lifting the 6 Nations trophy.
Can Wales get their 6 Nations campaign back on track? Will England end Ireland’s dreams of a Triple Crown and Grand Slam and who will emerge victorious from the potential wooden spoon decider?
Wales v France (Friday 21st Feb, 8pm GMT)
Wales XV -Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams, Rhys Priestland, Rhys Webb, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Alun-Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins.
France XV – Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Hugo Bonneval, Jules Plisson, Jean-Marc Doussain, Louis Picamoles, Wenceslas Lauret, Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Papé, Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Thomas Domingo
The only Friday night action of the 2014 6 Nations sees France travel to the Millennium Stadium and face a Wales team looking to bounce back from their Irish defeat two weeks ago. With the French buoyed by two opening victories and an entirely different opposition from just twelve months ago, a result which many would have banked on as a certain home win prior to the competition beginning now seems a much closer tie to call.
For Wales the major news is that of Mike Phillips being dropped to the bench, with Rhys Webb taking his place at scrum-half and making his first start. Elsewhere in the team and George North moves in from the wing and takes up the centre position in place of injured Williams whilst Luke Charteris and Liam Williams receive call-ups to the starting line-up. Warburton retains his place as captain, having missed the opening fixture on home soil, and forms part of an unchanged second row alongside Lydiate and Faletau.
The visitors make just one forced changed due to injury, with Lauret starting on the wing in place of Le Roux who suffered concussion against Italy last time out. The French bench sees a greater shake-up as Brice Mach, Vincent Debaty and Rémi Talès come in for Benjamin Kayser (injured), Rabah Slimani (suspended) and Francois Trinh-Duc (dropped).
Some final interesting points of note, the last time France won their opening three 6 Nations games was when they went on to win the Grand Slam in 2010 whilst Wales have lost only one of their last seven 6 Nations games compared to the French having not won in their last four away trips.
2013 Result: France 6 – 16 Wales
LR Predictions: Wales 22 – 15 France
Look out for: Rhys Webb – Although no stranger to the international scene having come through the Welsh ranks, Webb makes his first start and has big boots to fill having replaced Lions scrum-half Phillips. With coach Gatland looking to restore some calm to the team, an impressive performance from the 25 year old Ospreys player could see him cement a place for the rest of the 6 Nations as well as looking further ahead to the Rugby World Cup next year.
Italy v Scotland (Saturday 22nd Feb, 1:30pm GMT)
Italy XV – Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori, Sergio Parisse, Robert Barbieri, Alessandro Zanni, Joshua Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto De Marchi.
Scotland XV – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw, Johnnie Beattie, Chris Fusaro, Ryan Wilson, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Moray Low, Scott Lawson, Ryan Grant
Like it or not but for many this is billed as the 6 Nations wooden spoon decider as both sides begin the match with no wins between them after the first two rounds of action. Whilst Scotland cruised to victory last year, this time round seems an entirely different prospect as performances so far indicate the Azzurri starting as pre-match favourites.
The hosts look to bounce back from their defeat in Paris and would certainly take a repeat of the 13-6 victory in the same fixture two years ago. Making three changes to the starting line-up, Angelo Esposito, Robert Barbieri and Alessandro Zanni replace the trio of Tommaso Iannone, Mauro Bergamasco and Francesco Minto, with only Iannone keeping his place in the 23 man squad.
For Scotland, coach Scott Johnson makes three changes to the defeated Calcutta Cup side and the most significant being the return of Richie Gray to the starting XV. Dave Denton and Ross Ford are both casualties from the England loss with Johnnie Beattie and Scott Lawson called in as replacements for the must win match. In search of a morale boosting victory, for players and fans alike, the changes have been made ‘to improve the supply and quality of possession’ according to Johnson.
2013 Result: Scotland 34 – 10 Italy
LR Predictions: Italy 35 – 28 Scotland
Look out for: Richie Gray – The Scotland prop will no doubt be out to prove a point having only come on as a replacement in the opening 6 Nations match and then finding himself dropped for the England match. All his British & Irish Lions experience will be needed to help steady a side which has already conceded almost fifty points and yet to even score a try.
England v Ireland (Saturday 22nd Feb, 4pm GMT)
England XV – Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Danny Care, Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler
Ireland XV – Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy.
Last time round and the 2013 fixture resulted in the lowest scoring affair in 6 Nations history, with just six penalties the only points achieved. Add to the equation that Ireland have yet to concede a try whilst England shut out Scotland last time out and you have all the hallmarks of a another close but low scoring match.
As expected, England are forced into making just one change to their starting line-up as Bath prop David Wilson is called up in place of injured Dan Cole. The only other change sees Wilson’s team-mate George Ford called up to the bench for Brad Barritt, with Stuart Lancaster keeping faith with the side that retained the Calcutta Cup two weeks ago. Although the Grand Slam has proved elusive for another year, the Triple Crown is still up for grabs and means there is plenty at stake for England as a win will throw the 6 Nations tournament wide open.
Ireland arrive at Twickenham bidding to keep their 6 Nations and Grand Slam hopes firmly on track. A win on Saturday would secure their first piece of silverware with the Triple Crown up for grabs and avenge the 30-9 defeat the last time Ireland visited the home of rugby. Naming an unchanged XV, coach Joe Schmidt makes just two changes to the bench as Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy come in for Dan Tuohy and Tommy O’Donnell respectively. Should Murphy make it onto the pitch then this would also mark the international debut of the Leinster number eight.
2013 Result: Ireland 6 – 12 England
LR Predictions: England 15 – 12 Ireland
Look out for: Luther Burrell – With two tries in his first two games for England, Burrell is on fire but this weekend brings a whole new challenge as he faces Irish counterpart Brian O’Driscoll. Given his current form, few would bet against him making it three from three but BOD will also be capturing plenty of attention too as he makes a world record equaling 139th appearance.