England's 25-21 win over Wales combined with Scotland's victory over France means the Six Nations trophy will be heading to Twickenham for the first time since 2011 irrespective of how Eddie Jones' side fare against Les Bleus in next Saturday's finale.
Super Maro has Grand designs
Billed as the Six Nations title decider, England versus Wales lived up to all the pre-match hype with a game every bit as dramatic as the Rugby World Cup 2015 showdown between the two nations back in September. Unlike then, Wales fell just short of completing a remarkable comeback and England remain on course for their first Grand Slam in 13 years.
Leading 16-0 at half-time, England appeared to be cruising towards the landslide victory that would have seen them replace Wales as the fourth best side in the World Rugby Rankings. A well-crafted try from Anthony Watson and Owen Farrell’s three penalties did not properly reflect England’s dominance on a day when Maro Itoje belied his tender years and test match inexperience with a man-of-the-match display.
Dan Biggar converted his own try from George Ford’s charged down kick to reduce the arrears by seven with 54 minutes on the clock, but Farrell’s boot stretched England’s lead to 25-7 inside the final quarter. Suddenly, Wales found the attacking edge that has been lacking up until this point, exploiting Dan Cole’s sin-binning to score 14 points in the space of four second-half minutes, George North and then Taulupe Faletau crossing to set up a grandstand finish.
Wales went for broke in search of the match-winning try in a breathless final few minutes but England held on, thanks in no small part to Manu Tuilagi tackling North into touch when the Welsh winger was in full flight, to claim the Triple Crown and keep their Grand Slam dreams alive.
Hogg the headline-maker
With England keeping up their end of bargain, it was left to Scotland to rid themselves of a wretched seven-match home losing run in the Six Nations and do the Auld Enemy a favour into the bargain.
With Stuart Hogg on top form, Scotland recovered from Guilhem Guirado's early try - and the loss of playmaker Finn Russell to injury - to lead 18-5 after the irrepressible full-back was joined on the scoresheet by the equally heroic Duncan Taylor, who produced a magnificent finish for the second time in the Championship.
Gael Fickou's converted try meant it was a six-point game at half-time and Maxime Machenaud kicked two penalties either side of a monster effort from 55 metres by Hogg before an hour was up to close the gap even further.
But Hogg's brilliant overhead pass saw Tim Visser's try secure victory. Greig Laidlaw's penalty with five minutes left added further gloss to a 29-18 triumph, their first over France since 2006, that was rapturously received on both sides of Hadrian's Wall.
Scotland's second consecutive victory was not enough for them to improve on ninth place in the rankings though.
Ireland cut loose
In the first match of the weekend, dethroned champions Ireland put nine tries on Italy to break their own Championship record and secure their first win of the 2016 Six Nations. In doing so, they leapfrog France into seventh place in the World Rugby Rankings.
Jamie Heaslip’s try on the stroke of half-time was an absolute belter and followed efforts from Andrew Trimble, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander. Receiving the ball inside his 22, stand-in full-back Simon Zebo set off on an electrifying run before his ‘out-the-back’ pass found Jared Payne in support. The ball then worked its way through several pairs of hands to Heaslip who just had enough gas and strength left in the tank to finish in the corner.
The highest scoring match of this year’s Six Nations produced five more tries for Ireland after the break, Payne, Heaslip, and replacements Sean Cronin, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden touching down as Ireland finally sprang into life. David Odiete and Leonardo Sarto scored for a well-beaten Italy who have collected an 11th wooden spoon in 17 years regardless of what happns against Wales on the final weekend.
European Nations Cup Division 1A
While Georgia have wrapped up a sixth straight European Nations Cup title with a round to spare, the battle to avoid relegation between Portugal and Germany will go right down to the wire.
Champions Georgia up to 12th in rankings
Tries from Tamaz Mchedlidze, Anton Peikrishvili and Giorgi Nemsadze and nine points from the boot of Merab Kvirikashvili saw Georgia record a 24-7 win over Russia in Sochi.
The Lelos now have an unassailable six-point lead over Romania at the top of the Division 1A standings, meaning the two nations will only have pride to play for when they meet in Tbilisi in the final round of fixtures next weekend.
Veteran full-back Kvirikashvili kicked Georgia into an early lead with a penalty on 14 minutes and converted Mchedlidze’s try seven minutes later in a first half which ended with both sides reduced to 14 men following yellow cards to Nemsadze and Russia fly-half Yury Kushnarev, who was playing in a national record 77th international.
Tight-head prop Anton Peikrishvili stretched Georgia’s lead nine minutes after the restart and the result was put beyond any doubt when Nemsadze atoned for his earlier misdemeanour by scoring on 62 minutes against a Russian team once again reduced in number through ill discipline. Kvirikashvili converted for a 24-0 lead.
Georgia played all bar the final two minutes a man down after Jaba Bregvadze was the fourth player to incur the wrath of young English referee Matt Carley, and Russia took advantage to score a try through Igor Kurashov which Kushnarev improved. That score prevented Russia, who'd lost 30-0 to Romania in the previous round, from being nilled in back-to-back tests for the first time in their history.
Georgia move above Tonga into a new high of 12th in the World Rugby Rankings as a result of their win, while Russia drop a place to 20th with Uruguay the beneficiaries.
Portugal on the brink
Russia remain third in the table, one point ahead of Spain who opened their account for the year with a 39-7 victory against neighbours Portugal.
Tries for wingers Ignacio Contardi Medina and Julen Goia Iriberri and five points from the boot of Bradley Linklater saw Spain race into a 15-0 lead in as many minutes. Jose Vareta’s converted try gave Portugal hope but Spain had the final word of the first half when Linklater kicked three more points from the tee.
Two tries from hooker Bonán Anibal Fernan within 10 minutes of the restart put significant daylight between the teams and the score remained at 32-7 until scrum-half Gregory Maiquez added the finishing touch to a victory which sees 22nd-placed Spain improve their rating by just over a quarter of a point. Portugal drop one place to 30th with Chile the beneficiaries.
Hat-trick hero Kinikinilau inpires Oaks
Tongan-born centre Paula Kinikinilau became the first Romanian to score a hat-trick for the best part of six years as the Oaks eased to a 61-7 win over Germany.
Winger Adrian Apostol scored the first try before the home side capitalised on Michael Poppmeier’s sin-binning to post two more through Ovidiu Tonita and Viorel Lucaci.
Kinikinilau got in on the act shortly after number eight Stelian Burcea had added to Romania’s 27-0 half-time lead, before New Zealand-born winger Stephen Shennan took his try tally to four in as many games.
Germany enjoyed some temporary respite when replacement front-rower Matthias Schösser dotted down but there was still time for Kinikinilau to strike twice in the final five minutes as Romania fell just six points short of matching their record score in tests against Germany.
Neither side's ranking was affected by the result which leaves Germany level with Portugal on six points at the foot of the Division 1A table, the Germans ahead on the basis of their victory over Os Lobos last month.
Both relegation candidates are at home in the final round with Germany taking on Spain and Portugal up against Russia.
Photo credit: Gogita Bukhaidze