France are the favourites to reign supreme but it’s all to play for in the final round of the Six Nations on a super Saturday for the ages, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Last year’s winners Wales will want to end their campaign on a high when they host Italy to kick-off the day’s action in Cardiff. Then it’s down to serious business.
Unbeaten France have their fate in their own hands as a victory over England in Paris will see them secure their first Six Nations title and Grand Slam since 2010.
However, if Les Bleus slip up in Le Crunch, Ireland can clinch the title and a Triple Crown with a win over Scotland in Dublin.
Wales v Italy
Saturday, 19 March – 16:15
The Welsh have lost the title but gained a greater respect for the valour and resolve they’ve shown in a campaign without a long list of injured frontline players.
They’ve displayed the heart of a champion to rebound from a first-round rout (29-7) to beat favoured Scotland (20-17) and push England (23-19) and France (13-9) to the limit. Winless Italy produced their best performance of another torrid campaign last weekend but still went down 33-22 to Scotland.
They’re guaranteed the dishonour of a 17th wooden spoon and will be condemned to a championship whitewash by Wales, for whom this is a chance to take off the shackles of their extremely tactical game plan and thrill their fans with a big and entertaining win.
Ireland v Scotland
Saturday, 19 March – 18:45
With so much focus on the pressure, a home win for Ireland would put on France and possibly see them snatch the title, Scotland are being overlooked in the build-up to the final round. The Scots started the championship as dark horses and can end it as kingmakers as an upset in Dublin would guarantee France the title.
Gregor Townshend’s charges have been inconsistent, winning two and losing two, but they showed in their 20-17 opening-round win over England at Twickenham that they can upset the applecart if they put their best foot forward.
The 33-22 triumph over Italy last weekend was a timely confidence-booster and Stuart Hogg and company will want to sign off with a statement-making stunner.
Ireland passed the mental test we said their task at Twickenham boiled down to last weekend, holding their nerve against a spirited 14-man England in front of a partisan crowd to triumph 32-15 in the end.
They have superior cohesion and are a bad stylistic match-up for Scotland, winning the last six showdowns in their rivalry. With their heightened mental strength, a switched-on Ireland should score a rather comfortable win to keep their title hopes alive.
France v England
Saturday, 19 March – 22:00
The championship-concluding Le Crunch is not quite the “final” many expected it would be with England out of the running following their second loss last weekend, but it’s still a massive occasion.
Assuming Ireland triumphs at home as expected, it’s a must-win for France, who’ve been imperious in their undefeated march up to this point but face the possibility of tripping over the final hurdle and leaving empty-handed for the second successive year.
Should England condemn them to that cruel fate, it would undo all the hard work and run of victories over Italy (37-10), Ireland (30-24), Scotland (36-17), and most recently, Wales (13-9).
England showed exceptional character after the hammer blow of lock Charlie Ewels’ red card just 82 seconds into the crunch clash against Ireland last weekend and that they hung in at 15-all with 10 minutes remaining was nothing short of spectacular.
With nothing to lose, they’ll throw everything at the French and after dominating the Irish at scrum time, they’ll target the set-piece in the hopes of putting Les Bleus on the back foot.
Fabian Galthie’s team have great drivers in captain Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, and Melvyn Jaminet, staunch defence, unrivalled counter-rucking, and potent finishing ability that give them a decided advantage.
The big question is, can they kick the bogey that’s long-troubled France, that being dropping the ball on big stages when they’re expected to prevail? That’s the main takeaway the rugby world will take out of the Six Nations decider with the global showpiece taking place next year, in France.
They showed the requisite composure to get over the line in the tensest and toughest challenges of their campaign against Ireland and Wales, which indicates they’ll finish the job against a game that outmatched England’s side.