Ireland have the chance to stretch their lead at the top of the Six Nations standings to 10 points, for a couple of hours at least, as they kick off the weekend's action with a home game against Scotland on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
If Ireland win with a bonus point and England fail to match the result against France in Paris later the same day, then Ireland will be crowned champions with a round to spare. Round four concludes with a home game for Wales against bottom-of-the-table Italy on Sunday.
As well as having a major say in the make-up of the table, all three games could bring about significant changes to the top echelons of the World Rugby Rankings. A heavy England defeat accompanied by a big win for Scotland, for example, would see the new Calcutta Cup holders move to an all-time high of second place. Considering they have never ventured into the world’s top four since the rankings were introduced in October 2003, that would be some shift.
Just like Ireland, Georgia hold a five-point lead at the top of the Rugby Europe Championship and know that a win with a bonus point away to Russia this weekend would leave them virtually out of sight. Defending champions Romania, who play Georgia in the final round on 18 March, entertain Belgium and Spain host Germany with both of these matches counting towards the region's Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification process.
In the Rugby Europe Trophy, Portugal will look to put daylight between themselves and the Netherlands with victory in Moldova, while the Czech Republic welcome Switzerland to Prague.
Ireland (3) v Scotland (5)
Garry Ringrose will make his first start of this year’s Championship at outside centre as a replacement for the injured Chris Farrell, while British and Irish Lions prop Tadgh Furlong is also welcomed back into the starting line-up at tight-head, in place of Andrew Porter who has to settle for a place on the bench.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has made one enforced change to his starting line-up to face unbeaten Ireland. Glasgow Warriors winger Tommy Seymour has failed to recover sufficiently from the back injury sustained in the team’s Calcutta Cup win and is replaced by Blair Kinghorn.
- Scotland won the last meeting between these sides but have not won consecutive games against Ireland in the Six Nations, losing 14 of their 18 encounters
- Five of the last six meetings between the sides in the Championship have been won by the home side on the day
- Scotland have won away to Ireland just once in the Six Nations (lost eight), a 23-20 victory at Croke Park in 2010. Since that win Scotland have lost 16 of their 18 away games in the Championship, with their only victories coming against Italy (2014 and 2016)
- Ireland are unbeaten in their last 13 home games in the Six Nations (winning 11 and drawing two). Before that run they’d never gone more than seven such matches in the Five or Six Nations without defeat
- Overall Ireland have won their last 10 test matches, their joint longest winning run ever
Any form of victory for Ireland will see them replace a beaten England in second place. A win by 15 points or less would boost their rating to 87.64, while England’s total would drop to 87.50 if beaten by a similar margin. For Scotland, the prize for victory is a place in the world’s top four for the first time in history. They could even climb to the lofty heights of second if they win well and England go down in spectacular fashion in Paris.
France (10) v England (2)
France coach Jacques Brunel has opted for continuity, rewarding the majority of the team that ended a winless run of eights tests against Italy in Marseilles with another run out on Saturday. Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc is the only change to the team as a replacement for Lionel Beauxis, who drops to the bench.
Owen Farrell captains England in the absence of injured Dylan Hartley, whose place at hooker goes to Jamie George. Mike Brown drops to the bench for the first time under Eddie Jones with Anthony Watson’s extra pace getting him the nod at full-back with Elliot Daly fills Watson’s vacated position on the wing.
- England have won nine of the last 11 matches between the sides in the Six Nations, including the last three in a row. The last time they won more consecutive games against France in the Championship was a run of seven victories from 1989-95
- England lost their last match, against Scotland at Murrayfield, but have not lost two away games in a Six Nations campaign since 2009 (v Wales and Ireland)
- France have lost their last three matches at the Stade de France, only once have they endured a longer losing run at the venue (losing from from 1998-2000)
- England are unbeaten in their last nine fourth round fixtures in the Six Nations (winning eight and drawing one), a run that includes two victories over France (2009 and 2012)
- Jaco Peyper will referee a Six Nations match for the seventh time. England are the only team he’s yet to take charge of in the Championship, while he’s overseen four France games with Les Bleus winning three of them
England can marginally cut the gap between themselves and number one team New Zealand if they win by more than 15 points. Such a victory would be worth 0.18 of a point and leave the All Blacks with a 4.43 points cushion. France can climb as many as three places to seventh if they win well and Wales suffer an unexpected heavy home defeat to Italy. France cannot fall from 10th place, even with a heavy loss.
With Wales v @Federugby falling on Mothering Sunday we caught up with some of the players' mams to find out some interesting facts.— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 9, 2018
Can you guess who's mam I am?
Wales (7) v Italy (14)
Fit-again number eight Taulupe Faletau will lead Wales for the first time as he returns to the starting line-up as captain. The 70-times capped player, who becomes the 31st World Rugby U20 Championship graduate to captain his side in test rugby, features in a new-look back row with fellow British and Irish Lion Justin Tipuric wearing six with Scarlets flanker James Davies making his international debut at openside. Coach Warren Gatland has named a much-changed line-up for the visit of Italy with the experienced Bradley Davies getting his first start of the year in the second row and hooker Elliot Dee making his first start for Wales. Gareth Anscombe comes in to partner Gareth Davies at half-back with Owen Watkin coming in for his first Six Nations start at centre. Liam Williams moves to full-back as George North comes into the starting XV to form a back-three alongside Steff Evans.
Italy coach Conor O'Shea makes just one change to his starting line-up from the loss in Marseille with Giulio Bisegni replacing Tommaso Boni at outside centre to win his first cap since last year's Championship.
- Wales have won their last 10 matches against Italy in the Six Nations, with their last defeat coming in Rome in 2007
- The last time Italy came away from Cardiff with anything from this match was on 11 March, 2006 when the sides drew 18-18. Only Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni remain in the Italy side from that day
- Warren Gatland has a 100 per cent win ratio against Italy in the Six Nations as a head coach (eight with Wales and two with Ireland), his sides averaging 4.4 tries per game against the Azzurri
- Italy have lost their last 15 games in the tournament, only France (17 defeats, 1911-20) have endured a longer losing run in the Five or Six Nations
- Wales have won 10 of their last 12 home games in the Championship, with only England winning at the Principality Stadium in that run (2015 and 2017)
- Wales are just two tries away from scoring their 200th in the Six Nations, they would be the fourth side to reach this milestone (England, Ireland, France)
Wales will not pick up any reward for victory, due to the large rating points differential between the teams, but a win for Italy would be worth between two and three points depending on the margin of victory. Any form of win would be enough to improve the Azzurri’s position by one place but they’d have to win by more than 15 to replace Georgia in 12th.
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP
Romania (17) v Belgium (28)
Romania coach Lynn Howells makes four changes of personnel and one positional to the team that scraped past Russia 25-15 last time out. Ionel Badiu and Marian Capatana come in for Mihaita Lazar and Andrei Radoi at loose-head and hooker respectively, while Moyake Kuselo’s inclusion at openside sees Andrei Gorcioaia shift to the opposite flank. The only change to the backline sees Marius Simionescu replace Fonovai Tangimana on the right wing.
Belgium go into the match with a vastly different starting line-up to the one that enjoyed a record 69-15 win over Germany last weekend. Thomas Wallraf, on the right wing, is the only back to retain his place while, in the forwards, the Black Devils have two new props in Lucas Sotteau and James Pearse. Craig Dowsett captains the side from full-back.
- Romania need to win with a bonus-point to keep the pressure on Spain in pursuit of the Europe 1 ticket for RWC 2019
- Belgium can guarantee their place in Europe’s second-tier competition next season if they win on the weekend and Germany don’t
- Romania have won all six previous meetings with an average winning margin of 39 points
- Belgium’s 69-15 win over Germany in round three was their first at this level
Romania cannot move up or down in the rankings this weekend. No points are on offer for a win, given the large points differential between themselves and the Black Devils, while even a large defeat and the loss of three whole rating points would not result in them falling below Uruguay in 18th. For Belgium, a two-place rise to 26th is possible.
#Georgia front row Duo getting 50th caps at @rugby_europe Championship 2018 #ნარო50#შადრე50#Locomotive Hooker @ShadreM gained 50th Cap against @BelgianRugby in #Kutaisi & @MHR_officiel Prop #MishaNariashvili to win his 50th Cap Tomorrow against @russiarugby#გილოცავთბიჭებო pic.twitter.com/OMMfxyRhpb— Georgian Rugby Union (@GeorgianRugby) March 9, 2018
Russia (20) v Georgia (12)
Injuries have hit Russia hard during this Rugby Europe Championship campaign and interim head coach Mark McDermott has been forced into further changes. Hooker Stanislav Selsky and tight-head Evgeny Pronenko are welcomed back into the front row while the other change to the pack comes in the back row where Anton Rudoi replaces Dmitry Krotov. The backline is unchanged from the one that fell to a 25-15 defeat to Romania last time out.
Lelos coach Milton Haig makes three changes of personnel and one positional from the side that took to the field in last week’s 23-10 win over Spain in Tbilisi. Anton Peikrishvili comes into the front row on the tight-head and Nodar Cheishvili is Giorgi Tkhilaishvili’s new second-row partner. The other change is a significant one as it sees the return of Merab Kvirikashvili at full-back. In making his first appearance of the season, Kvirikashvili will extend his Georgian national record to 109 tests. Ioseb Matiashvili moves to the left wing to accommodate him.
- A bonus-point win for Georgia would guarantee them the title if Romania fail to match the result against Belgium
- Georgia have only conceded one try and 10 points in their first three games
- Georgia are on a 16-match winning run against Russia
- Russia’s last win (15-9) came in the first fixture between the nations in May 1993
With only a third of a point on offer for a big win, Georgia cannot catch Japan above them in the rankings. The Lelos would drop below Tonga in defeat, though, and also Italy if the margin is greater than 15 points.
Spain (19) v Germany (28)
Spain coach Santiago Santos rested many of his regulars for last weekend's trip to Georgia given it did not count towards Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification and so only three players remain in the starting line-up to face bottom side Germany in prop Jesus Moreno Rodriguez, centre Thibault Alvarez and full-back Mathieu Peluchon. Jaime Nava will captain the squad from number eight in a match which sees the Webb Ellis Cup in attendance as the RWC 2019 Trophy Tour visits Madrid this week.
- Third-placed Spain (52 points scored) take on bottom-of-the-table Germany (21 points) in a game between the two lowest scoring teams
- The sides have only scored eight tries between them, with Spain crossing the lines six times and Germany twice
- Spain are unbeaten in their last six games against Germany dating back to 2006
- Spain’s only home loss to Germany in four previous clashes came in the first-ever fixture between the two nations, on 9 June, 1929.
It is not possible for Spain to improve their rating or position this weekend due to the large points differential between themselves and Germany. A big win for Germany would see them move back into the world’s top 25 – unless Belgium beat Romania in Buzau.
RUGBY EUROPE TROPHY
Moldova (45) v Portugal (24)
Moldova have overhauled their pack and rejigged their backline from the team that narrowly lost 22-20 at home to Switzerland. Second-row Veaceslav Titica is one of only four survivors in the pack along with hooker Alexandru Colev, flanker Serghei Budajan, who moves from six to seven, and number eight Alexandru Siscan. The only new face in the backs comes at scrum-half where Vadim Preguza takes over from Semion Popa. Ion Copitov moves from the right to the left wing as Alexei Cotruta steps inside one position to play at 13, while Michai Gherghies, who played outside centre against the Swiss is now named on the right wing.
Three members of the Portugal side that reached the World Rugby U20 Trophy final in 2017 could make debut against Moldova this weekend. Joao Melo starts at hooker and Rodrigo Freudenthal and Goncalo Prazeres are named on the bench. Portugal will be captained for only the second time by number eight Joao Lino, while Goncalo Uva wins his 99th cap from the second row.
- Portugal can pull five points clear at the top of the table if they win with a bonus point against the side propping up the table
- Moldova are on a seven-game losing run
- Portugal won 59-0 when the sides met 12 months ago, in what was the first fixture between the two nations
In the last 10 months, Moldova have slipped 10 places in the rankings to their current position of 45th. But they could make up nearly all of that lost ground if they pull off a surprise win against Trophy leaders Portugal with a margin of more than 15 points. Such an outcome would see them climb eight places to 37th. The best Portugal can hope for is a one-place rise to 23rd with Namibia demoted to 24th.
Czech Republic (33) v Switzerland (31)
Stepan Pekar, Ondrej Kutil and Martin Havlicek feature in a new-look front row as the Czechs make several changes to the side beaten 45-12 last time out in Portugal. In fact, Dan Hosek is the only survivor in the front five altogether as Vojtech Havel moves to the blindside in an otherwise unchanged back row. There are four changes in the backs, one of them positional, including new faces on either wing. Jan Cizek shifts out one position from outside centre to the right wing while Jiri Pantucek comes in on the left. Ales Stejskal wears the No.13 jersey and Martin Cimprich is selected at fly-half.
Swiss coach Olivier Nier makes five changes, one of them positional, to the team that lost 31-17 to Portugal at the end of February. The only alteration to the pack comes in the second-row where Nicolas Guyou partners Edgar Alber. In the backs, Julien Gros is named at fly-half in place of Sebastien Dimitri, Antoine Cazot and Liam Kavanagh, who shifts from full-back, form a new-look midfield combination and Donovan O’Geady fills the vacant No.15 jersey.
- The Czech Republic will move above Switzerland and into third place in the Rugby Europe Trophy if they win
- Switzerland were the last team to beat the Czech Republic in a test at home, 20-14 in October 2015
- The away side has won all four previous meetings dating back to the first game in 1999
Any form of win would be enough for the Czech Republic to leapfrog the higher-ranked Swiss, while a place in the top 30 is theirs for the taking if they win by more than 15 points. The Swiss would draw level with a beaten Germany on 55.31 points if they do a number on their hosts and win well.
The World Rugby Rankings update at 12:00 GMT every Monday.