With just two rounds of action and six games remaining, it’s still everything to play for in Round 4 of the 2014 6 Nations this weekend.
In what is turning out to be one of the most closely contested tournaments for years, a four-way tie at the top means that this weekend is make or break for Ireland, England, Wales and France as no side can afford to lose and in fact no nation has ever won the title with two losses during the 6 Nations.
Whilst safe money is on Ireland to beat Italy, who knows how France will perform against Scotland and don’t forget the little matter of England v Wales, where revenge for 2013 is sure to be on the hosts agenda. Another thrilling weekend of rugby action awaits…..
Ireland v Italy (Saturday 8th March, 2:30pm GMT)
Ireland XV – Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, 5 Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy
Italy XV – Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto, Luciano Orquera, Tito Tebaldi, Robert Barbieri, Paul Derbyshire, Joshua Furno, Marco Bortolami, Quentin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto de Marchi
Following the narrow defeat to England last time out, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt makes just one forced change as Iain Henderson comes in for the injured Peter O’Mahony. Paul O’Connell leads the side whilst Jonny Sexton has recovered from the thumb injury which threatened to rule him out. On a personal note, the Irish legend that is Brian O’Driscoll is all set to become the most capped test player in history as he makes his 140th Test appearance (132 with Ireland and eight for the British & Irish Lions).
In a move that seems like admitting defeat even before kick-off, captain Sergio Parisse is rested ahead of Italy’s final match against England in Rome the following weekend. Not that the Azzurri will be lacking in experience as stepping in to captain the side will be Marco Bortolami, who is set to earn his 103rd cap. Elsewhere in the Italy line-up, London Wasps back Andrea Masi returns whilst Michele Rizzo warms up the bench following his suspension for the red card received in the opening match against France.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that Ireland are overwhelming favourites for this tie and will certainly be looking to rack up the points should the title come down to points difference. For Italy, time is running out to avoid the wooden spoon for what would be the first time since 2011.
2013 Result: Italy 22 – 15 Ireland
LR Prediction: Ireland 32 – 9 Italy
Look out for: Jonny Sexton – second in the 2014 6 Nations points scoring chart, Ireland will be relying on their Lions fly-half to keep the scoreboard ticking over. How serious his injury is remains to be seen and don’t be surprised to see him taken off as a precautionary measure with France awaiting in Paris for the final game next weekend.
Scotland v France (Saturday 8th March, 5pm GMT)
Scotland XV – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw, Dave Denton, Kelly Brown, Johnnie Beattie, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Geoff Cross, Scott Lawson, Ryan Grant
France XV – Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Mermoz, Maxime Médard, Jules Plisson, Maxime Machenaud, Damien Chouly, Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Sébastian Vahaamahina, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Papé, Nicolas Mas, Brice Mach, Thomas Domingo
The Scottish captain merry-go-round continues as Kelly Brown is recalled after being omitted for the defeat against England and victory over Italy last time out. Out to prove a point to coach Johnson, Brown starts instead of Chris Fusaro whilst the backs remain unchanged. Scotland know that they will have to be at their best to challenge a French side who have everything to play for and will want to keep their title chances going to the final weekend. The hosts will certainly be looking to build on the spirit shown in Rome and with a passionate home support they could well record back-to-back wins just like in the 2013 tournament.
It’s all change for France as coach Philippe Saint-André makes seven changes to his starting line-up, with Wesley Fofana, Yannick Nyanga and Dmitri Szarzewski forced out through injury and replaced by Maxime Mermoz, Sébastian Vahaamahina and Brice Mach. One change that is already well documented is that of Louis Picamoles being dropped following his disrespect towards the referee against Wales two weeks ago. His number eight place goes to USA Perpignan’s Damien Chouly who will no doubt seize the opportunity to claim a first team place for the remainder of the 6 Nations.
In the final game of the 2013 6 Nations, Scotland were bravely defeated 23-16 in France and expect there to be a close result this Saturday. With so many changes in the French side they will still be the pre-match favourites, which takes the pressure off Scotland to give the Murrayfield fans something to cheer about.
2013 Result: France 23 – 16 Scotland
LR Prediction: Scotland 18 – 16 France
Look out for: Kelly Brown – All eyes will be on Scotland’s captain Kelly Brown as he leads the side having been dropped for the previous two matches. The Saracens number eight has the big match experience and will be looking to lead by example to prove that Johnson was wrong to omit him and that the captaincy firmly belongs on his shoulders.
England v Wales (Sunday 9th March, 3pm GMT)
England XV – Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Danny Care, Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, David Wilson, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler
Wales XV – Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jon Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Rhys Webb, Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins
England make just two changes as Ben Morgan comes in for the injured Billy Vunipola whilst Tom Johnson is rewarded for his club form with Exeter Chiefs and claims a place on the bench. Whilst many were expecting the return of Manu Tuilagi after training with the squad this week, the decision has been made by Lancaster to make sure the Leicester centre is fully fit following just one match after his five month absence. All eyes will also be on the England wings as Nowell and May face increased pressure to score having drawn blanks from the opening three rounds.
Warren Gatland originally made two changes for the short trip to Twickenham, with Jonathan Davies making a long awaited return and Alun Wyn Jones returning from a foot infection. On Friday however, it was announced that Luke Charteris had also been ruled out with a neck injury, with his place being taken by Jake Ball who makes a second consecutive start. Rhys Webb retains his place ahead of Mike Phillips after impressing against France a fortnight ago whilst George North returns to his favoured position on the wing for what looks on paper to be a very strong Wales side. Taking to the field with a more experienced side that contains a number of Test winning British & Irish Lions, Wales are looking to put themselves in the record books by becoming the first side to claim a hat-trick of titles.
Whether they admit it or not, England players and fans alike will be seeking revenge for the 2013 demolition at the hands of Wales. Twelve months of hurt will have been building up and with the Triple Crown at stake for England, as well as the title for both sides, this is a must win match that is almost too close to call. Home advantage will be crucial and expect the Welsh fans to be drowned out by a chorus of ‘Swing Low’ echoing around Rugby HQ.
2013 Result: Wales 30 – 3 England
LR Prediction: England 17 – 15 Wales
Look out for: Jonathan Davies – Returning for the visitors and going up against his opposite number, in form Luther Burrell, Davies makes his first appearance since injury against South Africa in the autumn tests forced him out. The Scarlets centre has just 65 minutes of game time since returning but has already been quoted as saying that the lengthy lay-off has left him feeling refreshed rather than rusty. The fact that Gatland has selected someone with so little game time shows the quality of the Welshman and the importance of this game.