England, France and Wales head into round three of the Six Nations as the only undefeated teams in the Championship but, with the latter two playing each other in Cardiff on Friday night, that all looks likely to change this weekend.
Despite having had their wings clipped, literally, following injuries to the likes of Benjamin Fall, Marvin O'Connor, Teddy Thomas and Wesley Fofana, Les Bleus have strung together back-to-back home wins against Italy and Ireland.
Wales away is a different proposition altogether though, and the magnitude of the task confronting Guy Noves’ side is reflected in the effect it would have on the World Rugby Rankings. Win and France could lay claim to Wales’ position as the best-ranked team in the northern hemisphere.
On Saturday, the bottom two sides Italy and Scotland meet in Rome before Grand Slam-chasing England are back at their Twickenham headquarters, after successful trips to Scotland and Italy, to welcome Ireland, who are still searching for their first win of the Championship after a draw at home to Wales and a one-point loss in Paris.
Here's our snapshot of the weekend ahead:
WALES v FRANCE
Wales coach Warren Gatland makes three changes from the side which defeated Scotland in round two. In the pack, promoted from the bench, are Bradley Davies (into the second-row for the injured Luke Charteris) and flanker Dan Lydiate. Sam Warburton moves from six to seven to accommodate this, with Justin Tipuric dropping to the bench. Jake Ball comes on to the bench as replacement second-row after recovering from a knee injury. Among the backs Alex Cuthbert is included on the right wing with George North switching to the left wing to replace Tom James.
Noves turns to uncapped Stade Francais player Djibril Camara in the wake of France's injury crisis on the wing. Maxime Machenaud starts at scrum-half ahead of Sébastien Bézy, who drops to the bench. There are three changes in the pack, one in each row. Rabah Slimani reclaims his starting role at tight-head, ahead of Uini Atonio, while Paul Jedrasiak also starts, replacing Yoann Maestri, in the second row. The final change sees flanker Antoine Burban make his first appearance in the Championship, in place of Yacouba Camara.
- France have begun their Six Nations campaign with a pair of victories but have not won their opening three games in a season since they last claimed the Grand Slam in 2010.
- Wales have won their last four clashes with France since the RWC 2011 semi-final in Auckland, which Les Bleus won by the narrowest of margins, 9-8.
- The only try that France have scored against Wales in the last 421 minutes of rugby came when Brice Dulin scored late in last year’s encounter in Paris.
- George North has made more metres (177) and beaten more defenders (14) than any other player in this season’s Six Nations
- France have achieved twice as many offloads as any other country in 2016.
Wales will lose their position as the highest ranked northern hemisphere nation if they are beaten by France. Les Bleus can claim that status ahead of England and Ireland if they match or better the victorious side’s winning margin at Twickenham. A victory of more than 15 points would result in France’s rating points total being boosted by 2.39 to 83.00 – enough to see them jump up three places to fourth.
Wales, meanwhile, can only make minor inroads into the gap between themselves and South Africa in third. Four to six tenths of a rating point are available to Gatland’s side if they are able to stretch their winning run over France to five matches. Defeat at home could result in them falling to as low as seventh.
ITALY v SCOTLAND
With both sides losing their opening two games this has the potential to be yet another wooden spoon decider.
Since the Six Nations was formed in 2000 Italy have collected the wooden spoon 10 times and Scotland four. On no less than nine occasions have the boys in blue occupied the bottom two places between them. Only Wales in 2003 and France in 2013 have prevented Italy and Scotland having a complete monopoly on the wooden spoon.
It is three years since Italy won a Six Nations match on home soil while Scotland have been notoriously poor travellers. With such tight margins between the teams in recent years, it would take a brave person to predict the outcome of Saturday’s encounter at the Stadio Olimpico.
- Four of the last five tests between Italy and Scotland have been decided by four points or less. The last three have literally gone right down to the wire, with the winning score coming in the final minute.
- Italy need one try to register 100 in Six Nations history
- Scotland’s worst-ever losing run in the Six Nations will move into double figures with defeat in Rome.
- Neither of Italy’s two ‘Scots’, Tommaso Allan and George Biagi, will be involved.
Italy go into the weekend ranked 12th in the world, one place below Scotland. The Azzurri cannot improve their position, even with victory, as the gap between the two nations is too big at nearly five rating points. However, a home defeat for Italy would see them slip below both Tonga and Georgia if, as expected, the Lelos win by more than 15 points against Spain in the European Nations Cup. Scotland will become a top 10 ranked nation once again if they win in Rome as the points reward on offer would see them leapfrog Japan and Fiji.
ENGLAND v IRELAND
A third straight victory would represent a flying start to Eddies Jones’ tenure in charge and raise hopes of a first English Grand Slam since 2003.
After a draw and a defeat, defending champions Ireland need to win on Saturday to keep their slim hopes of completing an unprecedented hat-trick of titles alive.
England have won five out of their last six meetings with Ireland and haven’t been beaten by them at Twickenham since the 2010 Six Nations.
- England are yet to concede a try in the opening two rounds. Only two other sides have achieved this before, France eventually conceding a try after 201 minutes in 2000, and Ireland after 217 minutes in 2014.
- For all the talk about England being at ‘sixes and sevens’ at the breakdown, it is interesting to note that they have won more turnovers (24) than any other side.
- Saturday’s clash brings together the 2016 Six Nations’ two most prolific ball carriers: CJ Stander (42) and Billy Vunipola (41).
- Ireland are without a win in the opening two rounds, the first time this has occurred in the Championship since they were “whitewashed” in 1998.
If France beat Wales by 15 points or less in Cardiff on Friday night, England will go into Saturday’s clash against Ireland at Twickenham knowing that a one place rise to fifth is within their grasp. A first defeat under Jones could see England slip as low as eighth to equal their lowest ever ranking.
The best Ireland can hope for with victory is a jump of two places to sixth.
EUROPEAN NATIONS CUP DIVISION 1A
The European Nations Cup Division 1A returns on Saturday with three exciting games, all broadcast live and free of charge on Rugbyeurope.tv
ROMANIA v RUSSIA
With Georgia set to take on Russia and Romania in the final two rounds, this match between the second and third-placed sides in the Division 1A table could decide who challenges for the title when the competition comes to a close in March.
With five wins and two defeats across the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Romania occupy second spot behind Georgia with 24 points. Russia are two points in arrears in third knowing that victory would see them replace the Oaks as Georgia’s nearest challengers - unless they fail to register a bonus point and their rivals pick up two.
They first met in 1975 in the unlikely setting of Burgas in Bulgaria when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. Romania won 30-0. From 1994 onwards, the two nations played each other at increasingly regular intervals, with Russia recording their first win in 2004 in Krasnodar, the venue for last season’s fixture. Russia edged Romania 16-13 on that occasion and as a result snapped a six-game losing streak to the Oaks.
In the overall head-to-head, Romania have won 12 games to Russia’s six with one draw.
- Romania scrum-half Valentin Calafeteanu scored all 13 of his side's points in the defeat to Russia last season after taking over the goal-kicking duties from injured record points scorer Florin Vlaicu. With Vlaicu retaining his status as first-choice kicker Calafeteanu has only managed six points for Romania in nine appearances since.
- It’s been a heady start to number eight Anton Rudoi’s international career. A week after marking his first cap against Spain with a try, when he became the oldest debutant in Russian history, aged 32 years and 350 days, the Enisei-STM player bagged a brace in the 46-20 round two win over Germany.
Romania start the weekend in 17th place in the World Rugby Rankings, 3.29 points and one place above Russia. Victory by more than 15 points would result in the Oaks picking up just over half a ranking point. That would only be enough to lift them above USA into 16th if, on the same day, the Eagles fail to beat Brazil in the Americas Rugby Championship.
It would take Russia’s biggest ever win over Romania for the Bears to have any chance of trading places with their East European rivals. Russia are certain to remain where they are in the rankings even if they are heavily beaten in Bucharest because Canada, the side immediately below them in 19th, are playing against Argentina XV which is not a test match and therefore does not count towards the rankings.
GEORGIA v SPAIN
Victory would take Georgia one step closer to a sixth successive European Nations Cup title, and all but extinguish Spain’s hopes of matching their previous best finish of second.
The Lelos go into the weekend seven points clear at the top and with a vastly superior points differential to any of their rivals. After losing both of their opening games in 2016, Spain occupy fourth place on 12 points.
Spain won their first encounter with Georgia in Madrid in 2000 (36-32) but have only come out on top twice in the 15 meetings since. Georgia have won 12 and there was one draw, 6-6, in Spain in 2004.
The sides were locked at 13-13 at half-time in last season’s encounter but Georgia found an extra gear after the break to score 13 unanswered points.
- Spain were the last team to beat Georgia in the European Nations Cup when they won 25-18 at the Estadio Nacional Universidad in Madrid in February 2012.
- Georgia are on a 21-game unbeaten run in this competition.
Ranked 14th in the world, defending champions Georgia cannot improve their position with any form of victory because they are playing an opponent some eight places and more than 11 rating points below them. Spain, however, would pick up two points and two places with victory to move into the world’s top 20 again.
GERMANY v PORTUGAL
Germany host Portugal in a game sure to have big implications in the relegation battle. Germany sit just four points behind Portugal in the 2014-16 standings, and know that a win in round three would give them a great chance of staying in the top division.
Germany won three of the first four games between the two nations, between 1974 and 1994, but Portugal have won the last five including three in this competition.
Portugal have only won once since they beat Germany 11-3 in last season’s competition: a 36-11 win against Zimbabwe at the Hong Kong Cup of Nations back in November. Germany are still waiting to build on their two-test series win over Brazil in November.
- Germany have failed to score a try in their last four fixtures against Portugal, dating back to April 1995.
A rise of three places to 23rd is on offer to Germany if they are able to break their 17-game losing streak at this level. With less than one rating point separating 27th-placed Portugal from the four sides ranked immediately above them, victory in Hanover will come with big rewards for Os Lobos. A gain of 1.33 points would see them climb four places to 23rd with Germany falling to 30th.