The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the main talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the final round of the Six Nations.
No prizes for guessing this one as Wales go for their third Grand Slam under the guidance of New Zealander Warren Gatland. Following their successes in 2008 and 2012 they will look to repeat the trick when they face Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. The visitors are themselves in contention for the title but it is only an outside chance, with England starting the weekend in second place and heavy favourites for their encounter against Scotland. It should be a thrilling and tight contest, with the Welsh resilient rather than dominant and the Emerald Isle showing signs that they are getting better as the tournament goes on. The pressure is on Gatland’s outfit and the visitors would love nothing more than to spoil their party but the Welsh did not fail in 2005, 2008 or 2012 when a Grand Slam was on the line.
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Team to watch – Italy
Can they finally win their first game in four years? Not since 2015, when the Azzurri overcame Scotland 22-19 at Murrayfield, have they claimed victory in the Six Nations. It is an abysmal record and once again questions abound over the legitimacy of their place in the competition following their barren run. Although Conor O’Shea’s men have had their moments in the 2019, they have not really got close in their four previous encounters. That could change on Saturday as Les Bleus visit Rome after suffering two heavy defeats on their travels already. Despite dominating the first half of their game against Wales and comfortably defeating Scotland in Round Three, their form on the road has not matched their displays at home and Italy will think they can take advantage of France’s away day blues.
Player to watch – Wesley Fofana (France)
In his final Six Nations match, after announcing that he will retire following the World Cup, the Clermont Auvergne centre will look to end on a high. Fofana featured against Wales but has been out injured for the previous three matches, meaning the talented back has just one more match in the annual competition. The 31-year-old has been an outstanding servant of the French game and would have gone down in the pantheon of great players from the country, but injury has rather disrupted his career over recent years. Fofana has yet to get to the 50-cap mark but could do so by the end of 2019, which would be apt for an individual who has been one of Les Bleus’ few consistent performers.
— Fédération Française de Rugby (@FFRugby) March 14, 2019
One-v-one battle to watch – Alun Wyn Jones v James Ryan
The experienced Jones faces the no less impressive Ryan, who enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2018 but has struggled to have the same impact this year. While Ireland’s issues haven’t necessarily stemmed from a weaker set-piece, no doubt their lack of dominance has hampered Schmidt’s men. Devin Toner’s absence has therefore been a blow and more pressure has been rested on the shoulders of the youngster. To the 22-year-old’s credit, he was excellent against France and it ran much more smoothly in Round Four, but they will need a similar display this weekend if the Emerald Isle are to spoil the hosts’ Grand Slam party. As for captain Jones, he has been exceptional in this campaign, even if their lineout has suffered a few wobbles. His influence has been felt throughout the past few weeks and it will be a titanic battle between those two exceptional performers.
James Ryan tries to make it a level playing field by tackling Antoine Dupont on his knees but still ends up smashing him anyway. pic.twitter.com/7DQL0o4GLn
— Cian Tracey (@CianTracey1) March 11, 2019
Subplot of the weekend – 36 years of hurt
Scotland claimed a 22-12 triumph over England at Twickenham in 1983 and since then they have only endured disappointment at the ‘home of rugby’, but will that awful run end in the final match of the 2019 Six Nations? Unlikely, if injuries are anything to go by. Their squad has been decimated, with important cogs Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones and Ryan Wilson all out, while the Red Rose are almost at full-strength. It appears as though that record will extend and, by the time they next meet in London, it will be getting towards the 40-year mark, but what an achievement it would be if the current group of players were to stun the home crowd.
Best of the rest
Although the Premiership takes a break and the PRO14 has another week off, the Top 14 returns and there are several crucial encounters at both ends of the table. In the battle to avoid relegation, Grenoble host Racing 92 and Agen take on La Rochelle, while play-off contenders Bordeaux-Begles and Stade Francais go head-to-head. On Sunday, there is another intriguing top-six battle where leaders Toulouse face Pierre Mignoni’s Lyon, who currently reside in third place.