Six Nations 2019: all you need to know before round three
Wales and England meet in a mammoth clash with Ireland travelling to play Italy
Joey Carbery impressed when he replaced Johnny Sexton during Ireland’s win over Scotland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/InphoI
And breathe. The aching two-week hiatus is over - the 2019 Six Nations returns with a vengeance this weekend.
And what a weekend it is. We are only heading into round three but the destiny of the title could be as good as decided by Saturday tea time.
Or, by close of play on Sunday, we could be looking at a four-way shootout for the Championship.
Ireland are back in the hunt, after they followed an opening weekend defeat to England with victory over Scotland at Murrayfield last time out.
But Ireland’s hopes of defending their Six Nations crown are no longer in their own hands. Joe Schmidt’s men could win their final three fixtures, picking up a bonus point in each, and still fall short.
Which brings us onto the big one. Wales welcome England to Cardiff on Saturday night for a fixture which will shape the whole tournament.
If Warren Gatland’s side win, Ireland still have a chance. If they don’t, it’s all but curtains.
A defining weekend awaits - here is all you need to know before round three of the 2019 Six Nations.
England are the only side with full points from their two opening fixtures, and have by far the healthiest points difference.
Friday February 1st - France 19 Wales 24
Saturday February 2nd - Scotland 33 Italy 20
Saturday February 2nd - Ireland 20 England 32
Saturday February 9th - Scotland 13 Ireland 22
Saturday February 9th - Italy 15 Wales 26
Sunday February 10th - England 44 France 8
The story so far
Ireland’s title defence began with a chastening defeat to England, prematurely ending audacious hopes of back-to-back Grand Slam victories. The manner of Ireland’s defeat brought the nation crashing back to earth, following on from a golden 2018 which culminated in a victory over the All Blacks. However, Joe Schmidt’s side rallied in their second fixture against Scotland. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was efficient, with the visitors the more clinical side in an error-strewn affair at Murrayfield. Joey Carbery dazzled after a rocky start in Edinburgh, adding some creativity to a narrow Irish attack, and he could be handed a rare start at outhalf as Ireland travel to Rome on Sunday.
The empire is striking back ominously, with England looking every bit the champions elect after the first two rounds of fixtures. If their win in Dublin was convincing, their subsequent rout of a dismal France was an evisceration. Saturday’s trip to play Wales in Cardiff looks to be the last significant hurdle between Eddie Jones’s side and the title, with Italy and Scotland still to visit Twickenham. England’s power game has been impressive - as well as the speed and precision of their backline - while Owen Farrell has controlled things with aplomb thus far.
It has been an slightly ungainly, cumbersome start to the Championship for Wales, but they sit with two wins from two and look the side most likely to threaten England. Warren Gatland’s side took advantage of a French meltdown to win their opener in Paris, before a much-changed side grunted their way to victory in Rome a week later. The outgoing Kiwi has experimented a lot in the opening two games, but he should now know his best starting XV for Saturday’s mammoth clash with England - injuries allowing. The Welsh have now won 11 consecutive Test matches - if they can make it 12 this weekend the Championship is wide open again.
Scotland were flying for the first 70 minutes of the tournament, but have stuttered since. They allowed Italy to run in three late tries in their opening fixture, before delivering an incredibly sloppy performance against Ireland a week later. Gregor Townsend’s side were full of the usual inventiveness and running during that 22-13 defeat, but their execution left a lot to be desired, with countless handling errors in the second half. Victory over France in Paris this weekend would breathe new life into Scotland’s campaign - defeat could see it limp towards a meek end, before it ever really got going.
Having headed into the Six Nations with tentative hopes of seeing a French revolution in its infancy, instead Les Bleus have seemingly sank further into the mire in the opening two rounds. If their performance against Wales - which saw them cough up a 16-0 half-time lead - was careless at best, then their showing at Twickenham was abysmal. Les Bleus have appeared rudderless and without any sense of cohesion or leadership. But - and there’s always a but with France - they have shown glimpses of brilliance with the ball in hand, witness Damian Penaud’s try in the defeat to England.
Italy’s long wait for a win in the Six Nations - stretching back to 2015 - goes on after two opening round defeats, but it is not all doom and gloom for Conor O’Shea’s side. They rallied in the last 10 minutes in their first game against Scotland, before keeping Wales honest in Rome last time out and preventing Warren Gatland’s side from securing a bonus point. They have been typically burly up front, while there have been flashes of pace from the backline. The visit of Ireland will be tough but the Azzurri will back themselves to compete physically on Sunday, especially if the visitors’ continue to look narrow in attack.
Round three fixtures
Saturday February 23rd, France v Scotland, Stade de France (2.15pm)
Saturday February 23rd, Wales v England, Millennium Stadium (4.45pm)
Sunday February 24th, Italy v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico (3.0pm)
Can I watch it?
Of course - Virgin Media One will be showing all three games live and free-to-air. BBC One will be showing Saturday’s double-header, in Paris and Cardiff, while ITV are showing Ireland against Italy on Sunday.
And you can also follow all three games via the Irish Times liveblog, which is normally underway half an hour before kick-off.
Ireland will be without Garry Ringrose for the trip to Rome, with the centre continuing rehab on a hamstring injury with Leinster this week. CJ Stander remains unavailable, but Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson are back in the fold.
England will have to win in Wales without arguably the standout player of the opening two rounds, Mako Vunipola. Maro Itoje is still absent – he limped off with a knee injury in the win over Ireland.
Warren Gatland doesn’t have any fresh injury concerns, just the litany of existing ones. Dan Biggar limped off during his last outing for Northampton but is expected to be fit, while Leigh Halfpenny has also returned to training.
Cruelly, the Scots head to Paris without their two star players. Finn Russell has been ruled out with concussion, to add to the absence of Stuart Hogg. Townsend is also without centre Huw Jones, while John Barclay, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson, Sam Skinner and WP Nel are all still out. Scotland the brittle.
Jacques Brunel has turned to youth to try and rejuvenate France, naming 22-year-old Antoine Dupont at nine and 19-year-old Romain Ntamack at 10, despite the latter playing the majority of his rugby for Toulouse this season at inside-centre. Yoann Huget reverts from fullback to the wing, with Thomas Ramos at 15 and Gael Fickou starting at 12.
There is one headline absentee for the Italians this weekend – captain Sergio Parisse, who was in line to make his 137th international appearance – has been ruled out with concussion. A galling blow for the Azzurri.
France 4-9 Draw 22-1 Scotland 2-1 (Handicap France -6 10-11)
Wales 8-5 Draw 22-1 England 4-7 (Handicap England -4 10-11)
Italy 16-1 Draw 66-1 Ireland 1-100 (Handicap Ireland -29 10-11)
I take it England are hot favourites to win the thing?
Yep, the betting is as follows :
No Grand Slam 13-8
Can I go?
Unsurprisingly, the Millennium Stadium is a complete sell-out for Saturday evening, meanwhile the cheapest tickets left for the Stade de France are €139. Tickets for the Stadio Olimpico are running out as well – but those remaining can be purchased here.
Who’s on the whistle?
The men in charge this weekend:
France v Scotland - Nic Berry (Australia)
Wales v England - Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Italy v Ireland - Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
The power of nine
A good omen for Wales (and therefore Ireland)? They have beaten England in 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009.
And for Scotland? The last time they beat France in Paris. . . 1999.
Cymru am byth!
Not to worry, I can see Italy getting a result at Twickenham.