With the empahasis firmly on attacking rugby, this year's Six Nations is widely regarded as one of the best in recent times.
The upcoming Rugby World Cup 2019 pool draw has added to the drama too, with teams not only vying to reach the top four in the World Rugby Rankings in the hope that they will avoid one of the ‘big guns’ before the knockout stages, but also to avoid slipping out of the top eight and facing a possible 'pool of death'.
Ahead of the final round of matches on Saturday, it could be a nervy time not only for Grand Slam-seeking England but also for Scotland, France, Wales and Ireland with plenty of movement in the rankings possible.
Scotland entertain bottom-of-the-table Italy in the first clash of the day before France play host to Wales, followed by what should be a fitting finale - Ireland versus England in Dublin.
All three tests are the last that could affect the rankings ahead of the pool draw, which takes place in Kyoto, Japan, on 10 May, with the draw bands determined by how the directly qualified teams sit in the rankings.
As it currently stands, the draw bands are:
Band 1: New Zealand, England, Australia, Ireland
Band 2: Scotland, Wales, South Africa, France
Band 3: Argentina, Japan, Georgia, Italy
These are the 12 teams that qualified based on their top-three finish in pool play during Rugby World Cup 2015. The other eight teams will be determined by the RWC 2019 qualification process.
Ireland are the only team in band one in danger of dropping out this weekend because if Joe Schmidt’s side lose to England in Dublin, Wales will replace them in fourth position provided they beat France in Paris.
Meanwhile, Argentina still have a chance of squeezing into the top eight and will do so if Scotland lose by more than 15 points to Italy or if France lose by the same margin against Wales.
We take a closer look at all of this weekend’s matches, including in the Rugby Europe Championship where Romania are hoping to end Georgia’s six-year reign as champions with victory in Bucharest.
SCOTLAND (5) v ITALY (15)
Hooker Ross Ford, Scotland’s all-time record holder for appearances in the Championship, comes into the starting line-up at the expense of Fraser Brown, who moves to the bench.
Ford overtook Chris Paterson’s landmark of 53 Championship appearances when he came off the bench in the Calcutta Cup defeat to England and is the only change to the team that took to the field at Twickenham.
Six of the starting side were nursing injuries earlier this week, with Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Ryan Wilson continuing their graduated return to play protocol, while Finn Russell, Huw Jones (both knee) and Richie Gray (hamstring) have recovered.
Providing the trio complete the protocol, Hogg and Seymour will join Harlequins wing Tim Visser in an unchanged back three, while captain John Barclay and Hamish Watson accompany Wilson in the back row.
Scottish-born second-row George Biagi has been rewarded for his strong showing off the bench against France last weekend with a place in the Azzurri starting line-up.
Biagi will be joined in the starting pack by Zebre colleague Maxime Mbanda, who comes in for Simone Favaro, while back-row Federico Ruzza could make his test debut off the bench.
The other change to the pack sees a fit-again Ornel Gega come into the side at hooker in place of Leonardo Ghiraldini who drops to the bench.
An injury to Michel Campagnaro, arguably their most dangerous runner, has forced Italy into one change in the backs, with Tommaso Benvenuti set to win his 42nd cap.
- Scotland could, potentially, achieve their best-ever finish in the Six Nations, which is currently third on three occasions
- Scotland have won their last three test matches at Murrayfield but have not won four in a row at the venue since 2006
- Italy have lost their last five test matches since beating South Africa in Florence in November
- Italy have lost their last 11 Six Nations matches since beating Scotland in Edinburgh two years ago
- Italy have visited Murrayfield on 13 previous occasions and won just twice – in 2007 and 2015 (their only away wins in the Six Nations)
- If Scotland score two tries it will take their tally to 12 – their best return in a single Six Nations Championship
Scotland will drop out of the top eight – and be replaced by Argentina – if they lose by more than 15 points. Scotland cannot improve their rating with victory as a result of the 11.01 points between themselves and the Azzurri before home advantage is factored into the equation.
Italy can overtake Georgia and move into 12th if they win and the Lelos lose away to Romania. The gap between Italy and Romania will be less than half a point though, if they lose by more than 15 points and Romania beat Georgia by the same margin
FRANCE (8) v WALES (6)
Clermont Auvergne second-row Sébastien Vahaamahina has recovered from a back injury in time to line-up against Wales at the Stade de France, the only change to the starting line-up that beat Italy 40-18 in Rome last weekend. He replaces Julien Le Devedec, who drops to the bench.
Back-row Damien Chouly returns to the match-day 23 after missing the last two games because of a sprained ankle.
Ken Owens will win his 50th cap as Wales name an unchanged match-day squad. All 23 players who featured in the last Friday's victory over Ireland in Cardiff are included for Wales' Six Nations finale.
Owens, who made his international debut at Rugby World Cup 2011, lines up alongside Rob Evans and Tomas Francis in the front row. Captain Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball are named in the second row with Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau completing the forward pack.
Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar are named at half-back with Scarlets duo Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies partnering in the midfield. Liam Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny again comprise the back three.
"The players who took to the field at Principality Stadium deserve the opportunity to start and we were pleased with the impact from the bench so will be looking for the same this weekend,” said interim Wales coach Rob Howley.
- France’s only defeat in their last four Six Nations matches at Stade de France was 31-21 to England in round five last year
- France scored four tries against Italy in round four, the first time they have achieved the feat since 2012
- Wales have won their last five encounters with France since their RWC 2011 semi-final defeat, their best run of success over Les Bleus since the 1950s
- Wales and France have yet to receive a yellow card in this year’s Championship
- Camille Lopez (current top points scorer with 57) is bidding to become the first Frenchman to win the Six Nations Golden Boot since Gerald Merceron in 2002
France will drop out of the top eight and into band three for the pool draw – being replaced by Argentina – if they lose by more than 15 points. The best they can hope for in victory is fifth, with a win of more than 15 points and a defeat for Ireland by the same margin taking them to within four thousandths of a point behind the Irish and a place in the top four.
Wales will enter the top four if they beat France and Ireland lose to England, but they will drop to eighth if heavily beaten.
IRELAND (4) v ENGLAND (2)
Kieran Marmion will partner Johnny Sexton at half-back for Ireland after Conor Murray was ruled out for the visit of England with a shoulder injury.
The other enforced change sees Rob Kearney (knee) miss out on a 76th Ireland cap with Jared Payne stepping in at full-back. Munster utility back Andrew Conway is in line to win his first cap if called upon from the bench.
After 19 consecutive starts in the Six Nations, second-row Devin Toner has to settle for a place among the replacements as Iain Henderson gets a rare chance to shine from the start.
England have called up Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson from the bench as they go in search of back-to-back Grand Slams and a world record 19th consecutive win. Jack Nowell and Nathan Hughes take their place on the bench as a result of the changes.
Saturday's match will see 30-year old back-row forward Tom Wood win his 50th cap for England if he takes to the field.
"The intensity of training has been good. It's going to be quite an occasion in Dublin so we understand we have to be prepared emotionally, physically and mentally,” said England coach Eddie Jones.
"The mood in camp has been positive. We're very excited ahead of what is a huge opportunity for the players. You sense the intensity has stepped up; it has in training, definitely. The message to the players has been quite simple, we're playing Ireland on Saturday and that is the only thing that counts.”
- Ireland’s only defeat in their last seven matches at the Aviva Stadium was to New Zealand in November
- Ireland have not been beaten in Dublin in the Six Nations since England visited in 2013
- England are bidding to become the first team to win successive Six Nations Grand Slams – the last side to achieve it in the old Five Nations was France in 1997 and 1998
- A win for England would see them overtake New Zealand’s record of 18 successive tier one test victories, set between 2015-16.
- England have gone to Dublin with a Grand Slam on the line three times before, winning in 2003 (when Ireland also had the chance of a Grand Slam) but losing 2001 and 2011
England will gain half a rating point for a narrow victory, while a win of more than 15 points will bring them 0.77 of a point, closing the gap between themselves and New Zealand to a fraction under three points.
Ireland will drop out of the top four if they lose and Wales beat France. Third-placed Australia cannot be caught by Ireland even if they win by more than 15 points. In such a scenario, Ireland will pick up 2.22 points, taking them on to 85.40 points compared to Australia’s 86.35.
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP
The Rugby Europe Championship also comes to a conclusion this weekend with Spain taking on Belgium in Madrid on Saturday, followed 24 hours later by Russia versus Germany and the title decider between Romania and Georgia.
SPAIN (18) v BELGIUM (27)
Spain head coach Santiago Santos has named an identical 23-man matchday squad to the one that so impressed against Germany last weekend, as Los Leonos go in search of their third win of the competition.
Belgium, on the other hand, have made five changes - four in the pack and one in the backs.
Blindside flanker Bertrand Billi is joined in the back-row by openside Baptiste Lescarboura and number eight Thomas De Molder, while the other changes to the forward pack come at loose-head prop and lock respectively, with Julien Massimi and Tuur Moelants called up.
Guillaume Piron is named at inside centre in an otherwise unchanged back line.
- Spain have won 12 of the14 fixtures between the two nations, including 11 consecutively from the first game in 1954
- Belgium have won one and drawn one of the last three, beating Spain 18-6 in 2006 in Liege
- Spain are the joint lowest try scorers in the Championship with six and have the lowest points tally (61), but they have the second-best defence (five conceded) behind Georgia
- If Spain win, they will be guaranteed a top-three finish for the third time in six seasons
- Belgium need at least three points from their final fixture to have any hope of avoiding a relegation play-off against the Rugby Europe Trophy winners
With 7.18 points difference between Spain and Belgium before home advantage is taken into consideration, Los Leones cannot improve their rating even with a convincing victory.
For Belgium, a first win of 2017 would result in at least a one place rise to 26th, above Hong Kong, while a win of more than 15 points would see them come within one-thousandth of a point of Portugal.
Ahead of their final Rugby Europe Championship match against Russia we look back at our time behind the scenes with Germany pic.twitter.com/U7Nke0xX66— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) March 16, 2017
RUSSIA (20) v GERMANY (24)
Russia head coach Alexandre Pervukhin has made wholesale changes to his pack for the visit of Germany, with second-row Evgeny Elgin and blindside flanker Victor Gresev the only survivors from the eight that packed down in last week's loss to Georgia.
In the backs, captain Vasily Artemyev reverts back to his usual position on the wing after a spell at centre, with Denis Simplikevich switching to the right flank at the expense of Igor Kurashov. Igor Galinovskiy fills the hole in midfield.
Chris Hilsenbeck comes into the Germany squad at fly-half to start his first game of the Championship. The 25-year-old, who appeared as a replacement in the epic round one 41-38 win over Romania, takes the place of Raynor Parkinson who shifts out one position to inside centre. Jamie Murphy drops to the bench.
The only other changes to the team that lost to Spain in Cologne last weekend come in the pack where Sebastian Ferreira moves from the back row to the second row in place of Timo Vollenkemper, who is named amongst the replacements, with Kehoma Brenner wearing the number seven jersey.
- Germany can move into third place if they garner more points than Spain in the final round
- It is still possible for Russia to finish third if they pick up maximum points and Spain don’t take anything from their game against Belgium
- Russia have won all eight of the previous meetings between the two dating back to 1992
- Russia’s biggest win was 89-6 in Krasnodar in 2000
- Germany lost 46-20 on their last visit to Russia in 2016
A win of more than 15 points would propel Germany up five places to 19th and relegate Russia to 23rd. However, Russia will climb one place to 19th if they win and Spain are beaten.
ROMANIA (16) v GEORGIA (12)
Romania captain Mihai Macovei makes his first start for Romania at number eight since the famous Rugby World Cup 2015 victory over Canada after swapping roles with Andrei Gorcioaia, who moves to the openside flank from his role at the back of the pack in last week's win over Belgium.
Asides from that positional switch, the Oaks side shows four changes of personnel from the team that took to the field in round four.
In the forwards, Otar Turashvili gets the nod at hooker after missing the game against Belgium, with Marian Capatina dropping to the bench.
Romania's two-try hero against Belgium, Jack Cobden, is omitted from the matchday squad, while fellow wing Madalin Lemnaru has to settle for a place on the bench. The only other change comes at scrum-half where Florin Surugiu, a replacement against Belgium, trades places with last week's starting number nine, Valentin Calafeteanu.
Lelos head coach Milton Haig has made just two changes to the side that beat Russia 28-14 in round 4.
Soso Bekoshvili comes in at tight-head for Lasha Tabidze to continue his ever-present record in the squad since making his debut at the start of February, while Merab Sharikadze is named at centre alongside David Kacharava. Lasha Tabidze and Giorgi Koshadze drop to the bench.
- This is Georgia’s 200th test, having made their international bow back in 1989
- Romania have won eight – including seven of the first nine fixtures – to Georgia’s 11 in the overall head-to-head, with one draw (9-9 in Bucharest in 2013)
- Romania have not beaten Georgia since a 22-10 win at home in 2010
- Romania’s record points scorer Florin Vlaicu became the Oaks’ first caps centurion against Belgium last weekend
Ratings points are available to Georgia for the first time in this year’s Championship, with 0.78 of a point on offer for a narrow victory – enough to lift them above Japan to equal their best ever position of 11th.
Depending on the margin of victory, Romania stand to gain between 1.22 and 2.17 points, cementing 16th place in the rankings.
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