Whilst England’s emphatic Calcutta Cup triumph last week means this year’s Championship title has already been won by Eddie Jones’ men there is still much to play for on the final day of the 2017 Six Nations championship. With Warren Gatland naming his British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand in a months time Saturday’s fixtures represent another opportunity for the home nations players to impress, and with any of four teams in contention to finish in second place everything is to play for.
Scots look to send Cotter out on a high
Since taking over as Scotland coach in the summer of 2014, New Zealander Vern Cotter has slowly but surely rebuilt the fortunes of Scottish rugby. Having inherited a team low on confidence with little spark, he has given young players such as Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell the freedom to express themselves and the results are there for all to see with Scotland becoming a much more prolific force in attack compared to years previous. As if to emphasise how far Scotland have come under Cotter a final day victory over Italy this weekend will ensure Scotland finish a Six Nations campaign with three wins for the first time in eleven years. This just two years on from finishing bottom of the table with five defeats from five matches. Now with Cotter to leave his role as Scotland head coach following the Italy game to be replaced by Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend, there will likely be a feverish atmosphere inside Murrayfield for the visit of the Azzurri as both Scottish players and supporters will be desperate to send Cotter out on a winning note. However coming off the back of a woeful performance against England last week, captain John Barclay and his team-mates’ immediate focus will be on restoring pride in the jersey. With the likes of Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour recovering from injuries picked up at Twickenham to start on Saturday, Scotland will start as heavy favourites against an Italian side who have had yet another abysmal season. Connor O’Shea knew he had a big job on his hands when he took over as Italy head coach a few months ago, and despite some innovative tactics from him and his coaching staff – most evident in their match against the English – Italy have been well-beaten in all four of their matches this season, conceding 22 tries and failing to pick up even a losing bonus point in any of the matches. With that in mind Saturday’s match may all be about damage limitation for the Italians, especially with a number of Scotland players keen to make up for lost ground in the battle for Lions selection.
Welsh aim to quell French renaissance
After all the doom and gloom that greeted Welsh rugby in light of consecutive defeats to England and Scotland earlier in the championship, Rob Howley’s Wales side travel to Paris to face France with a spring in their step following their big win over the Irish in that bruising encounter last week. Having been criticised by the media and supporters for naming an unchanged line-up from the Scotland defeat, the Welsh players repaid Howley’s faith in them with a much improved display that stifled Ireland’s game with Rhys Webb, Sam Warburton and George North in particular delivering big performances. After a performance like that it is no surprise to find an unchanged line-up yet again for the trip to Paris, with Howley once again ignoring fans calls to bring in young players such as Sam Davies and Keelan Giles amongst the backs, or the experienced duo of Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau up front. Victory for the Welsh coupled with an English victory in Dublin later on, could see Wales rise to fourth in the world rankings meaning they will avoid the big guns of New Zealand, Australia and England in the pool stages of the World Cup in 2019. Despite all this Wales will be coming up against an improving French side who seem to finally be clicking into shape with Guy Noves in charge. Narrow defeats to England and Ireland coupled with victories over Scotland and Italy, have only told part of the story of France in this year’s tournament with their level of performance being much improved from years gone by. Their pack have been strong throughout the championship and in flanker Kevin Gourdon they possess one of the players of the tournament, whilst in attack Scott Spedding, Baptiste Serin and Gael Fickou have been star performers. Wales boast a formidable record over France in recent times and have won on their last two visits to Paris, however they will need to replicate their wonderful defensive display of last week against an exciting French side gaining in confidence.
Irish out to spoil English party
Having already wrapped up the title with a crushing victory over Scotland last week, greatness awaits Eddie Jones’ men as England go searching for a world-record 19th consecutive test win and with it secure back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time in Six Nations history. Having started this campaign slightly off the boil with a number of patchy displays against France, Wales and Italy, England finally produced a performance we know they are capable of with victory over the Scots, with George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in particular showcasing their attacking skills. With England’s cause strengthened even further by the return of Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson for the game in Dublin, Ireland will need to improve from recent performances. Joe Schmidt’s side started this Six Nations campaign as favourites in many people’s eyes but have been surprisingly lacklustre with a number of big players struggling to assert themselves in big matches. Having already lost to Scotland and Wales this year and with a Lions tour to come this summer, defeat against England would be a damaging blow to many Irish players’ chances of touring New Zealand this summer. In the more immediate short-term, those players will want to deliver a performance Irish fans can be proud of and as if they needed any more motivation to beat the English there is the opportunity to deny Jones’ men the Grand Slam. The chances of them doing that have been weakened slightly with Connor Murray’s absence through injury but in the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Jonny Sexton they have experienced men who have a point to prove after some below-par performances. England will start as slender favourites and given their ability in this campaign to win even when performances perhaps didn’t merit victory, Ireland will need to be wary at all times. Having denied New Zealand a record 19th consecutive test win in a historic victory in the autumn, Joe Schmidt will need his side to replicate that sort of intensity and composure if they are break English hearts in Dublin.