European rugby’s love affair with the Six Nations continues on this Valentine’s Day weekend, with three mouthwatering fixtures to look forward to, while, in European Nations Cup Division 1A, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Spain, Portugal and Germany will all be vying for their own heart-warming victories.
Last weekend's action, the closest round of Six Nations fixtures ever played, gave few clues as to who will this year's title. A combined winning margin of just eight points was the lowest in the history of the northern hemisphere’s flagship championship, and the second set of matches look equally hard to predict.
Yes, Italy have yet to beat England, home or away, in 25 years of playing each other, but aside from the last time they met in Rome which ended in a 52-11 win for England, recent games in the Italian capital have been nip-and-tuck. Also, Italy’s performance against France in Paris suggests they are ready to give Eddie Jones' side a tough ride on Sunday.
Scotland travel to Wales the day before looking to put the disappointment of losing to the Auld Enemy behind them, while, in the first of Saturday's fixtures, and possibly the hardest of all the three matches to call, it’s a swift return to Paris for former Racing 92 fly-half Johnny Sexton as Ireland take on France.
"Did You Know?"
FRANCE v IRELAND
Ireland won the first-ever fixture between the two: 19-8 at Lansdowne Road in 1909, but France have the superior head-to-head record with 55 wins to Ireland’s 32. France’s last eight test matches at the Stade de France have all been close with a winning margin of seven points or less – five coming down on the side of the home team and three in favour of the visitors.
Ireland’s record number of points in a match against Les Bleus is 31 (February 2006) but it didn’t stop them being beaten on that occasion, 43-31, at the Stade de France.
- Ireland are bidding for back-to-back wins in Paris for the first time in almost 90 years.
- France are five tries short of scoring 200 against Ireland
- Sixteen points on Saturday would make Johnny Sexton the second highest points scorer in fixtures between the two nations. He is currently fifth on 58 points but has Ollie Campbell, Morgan Parra and Michael Kiernan within his sights. Ronan O’Gara is way out in front on 127.
Victory for France, who currently sit eighth, would see them become the higher ranked of the two nations in the World Rugby Rankings with an Irish loss - in tandem with an England win - resulting in a two-place drop for them to eighth. Ireland could move up to fourth - above Argentina and Wales - if they register their biggest-ever win in Paris and Wales lose at home to Scotland.
WALES v SCOTLAND
Scotland last won in Cardiff in 2002 and have lost to Wales seven times in succession. They last tasted success against the Welsh in 2007 when Chris Paterson kicked all of their points in a 21-9 victory. That was also the last try-less match between the two sides.
In the overall head-to-head, Wales hold sway with 69 wins to Scotland’s 48. There have only been three draws since fixtures began in 1883.
- Wales won 26-23 at Murrayfield last season despite conceding 17 penalties in the match.
- If Scotland lose at the Principality Stadium, it will be their 250th defeat in the history of the Championship. It would also extend their losing sequence in the Six Nations to nine matches, their worst run since the 1950s.
- Welsh players carried the ball 155 times - more than any other country in round one.
With a maximum of 0.04 of a rating point on offer for beating 11th ranked Scotland, Wales cannot improve their current standing of fourth in the rankings as the gap between themselves and South Africa is too large. Potentially, Wales could drop as many as three places in the rankings to seventh if they are beaten by the Scots, Ireland win in Paris and England reduce the Italian defence to shreds in Rome. Scotland will return to the top 10 with victory in Cardiff.
ITALY v ENGLAND
England have a 100 per cent record in tests against Italy, having won all 21 encounters since the first meeting at Rugby World Cup 1991. England’s 80-23 win against Italy at Twickenham in 2001 is still a Six Nations record for most points in a match. Jonny Wilkinson set the individual record in that game too, with a 35-point haul.
- After defeat to Ireland on the first Sabbath of March last year, England will be hoping normal Sunday service is restored when they take on Italy in Rome in the final match of the weekend. Prior to last season's defeat to the Irish, England had won nine Sunday fixtures in a row in the Six Nations, a run dating back to March 2006.
- England made 164 tackles in defeating Italy 47-17 in last year’s corresponding fixture.
- Azzurri centre Luca Morisi became the first Italian to score more than one try in a match against England when he bagged a well-deserved brace at Twickenham last year.
A repeat of their handsome victory over the Azzurri at the Stadio Olimpico in 2014, combined with defeats for Wales and Ireland, would push England back up to fifth in the rankings. Lose, however, and they are in danger of dropping to an all-time low of ninth. It would take France to avoid being beaten by Ireland and a comprehensive victory for Scotland against Wales in Cardiff for that to happen. Italy cannot climb from 12th, even if they claim a first win over England.
EUROPEAN NATIONS CUP DIVISION 1A
Like the opening round of the Six Nations, European rugby’s second tier competition went according to the World Rugby Rankings with wins for the higher-ranked Georgia, Romania and Russia on the opening weekend.
ROMANIA v SPAIN
This is the 34th meeting between the countries since 1958. Spain have won twice in Madrid, both by a small margin: 6-0 in 1992 and 13-12 10 years later. Romania won 29-8 in last year’s corresponding fixture.
Los Leones need to beat the Oaks if they are to harbour any hopes of matching their previous best ENC Division 1A finish of second. They are currently fourth in the standings, five points behind Saturday’s visitors Romania, who are three in front of Russia.
"Did You Know?"
Romania secured all five points in their opening match against Portugal, New Zealand-born debutant Stephen Shennan and back-rower Vlad Nistor both grabbing two tries apiece. Florin Vlaicu kicked 14 points on his first start at fly-half for 14 months.
Spain, meanwhile, were undone with a try in the dying stages, as they fell to a 22-20 defeat to Russia in Sochi. In-form centre Ignacio Contardi scored his third try in as many games for Los Leones.
- Romania need five points to reach 1,000 points in tests against Spain. Their biggest win over Spain is 74-3 in 1978.
- Montauban loose forward Pierre Barthere is set to win his first cap for Spain after being named in Santiago Santos’ squad of 23.
Spain will return to the word’s top 20 ranked nations if they beat Romania for only the third time in their history. Romania can only make headway in the rankings if USA lose at home to rivals Canada. In such a scenario, the Oaks would move up one place to 16th.
PORTUGAL v GEORGIA
Missing 13 frontline players due to HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series commitments, Portugal surprisingly came away from Tbilisi with a losing bonus point in last season’s corresponding fixture. Merab Kvirikashvili kicked five penalties as Georgia recorded an unconvincing 20-15 victory.
That was the Lelos’ 13th victory against the Portuguese since these nations first came together in 1997. Georgia are on a 13-game unbeaten run against this weekend’s opponents, dating back to 2005, when Portugal won 18-14 in Lisbon. Portugal had the edge in the early meetings, however, winning four out of the first seven encounters. There have been two draws.
Portugal threw away a 14-7 lead against Romania in Cluj last weekend, as they slipped to a 39-14 defeat, while defending champions and top of the table Georgia recovered from the setback of conceding an early try against winless Germany to run out 59-7 winners.
- Replacement forward Lasha Lomidze had the honour of scoring Georgia’s 500th try in test matches when he touched down for the second time in the 65th minute of the Lelos’ match against Germany.
- Portuguese forwards Duarte Diniz and Diogo van den Toorn scored their maiden test tries in the defeat to Romania.
Georgia are unable to improve their rating and will remain in 14th even in victory, a consequence of the 13 places that separate them from their hosts Portugal. They could, however, drop two places if they are well beaten and USA come out on top in their Americas Rugby Championship match against Canada in Texas. A first win over Georgia for more than a decade will result in Portugal gaining at least two rating points, with the potential of a four-place rise to 23rd in the world.
RUSSIA v GERMANY
Russia have won all seven of the previous meetings, dating back to 1992 when they won 13-10 on home soil. Subsequent matches have been largely one-sided affairs with the Russians averaging nearly 50 points per game. That said, Russia had to overturn a 15-12 half-time deficit before registering a 46-22 victory away to Germany in last season’s corresponding fixture, Alexey Volkov and Igor Kurashov making a positive impact off the bench that day with a brace of tries.
Number eight Anton Rudoi’s 76th-minute try ensured Russia edged Spain in Sochi in round one. But Germany’s long wait for a win at this level continued for at least another week after they suffered a 59-7 loss to Georgia.
- Winger Denis Simplikevich raced home for two tries in Russia’s 22-20 win against Spain to take his overall tally to seven in 11 apppearances.
- Germany welcome back scrum-half and captain Sean Armstrong and a host of other players who missed the Georgia defeat through injury or unavailability.
A jump of four places to their highest ever position of 22nd is within Germany’s reach if they break their duck against Russia, and win in some style, and Uruguay slip up badly away to Brazil in the Americas Rugby Championship on Friday. Russia could also drop out of the world’s top 20 if they are beaten and Spain trump Romania in Madrid.