When the Six Nations was brought to a sudden halt in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, many wondered whether the conclusion of this year’s championship would take place.
But, 237 days after the tournament was suspended, the final round of fixtures is taking place – and, fittingly, will provide an exciting conclusion to make it worth the long wait.
Three teams – Ireland, England and France – can still win the tournament.
England are expected to record a comfortable win against Italy in Rome to maintain the three-way battle, with the destination of the title decided by Ireland’s game in France in the final game on Saturday.
“I think the most likely outcome is England batter Italy and end up lifting the Six Nations trophy,” said former England international Ugo Monye on the BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
The various permutations are quite complicated and you can read the full details in this piece.
In simple terms, this is the state of play:
- Ireland will be champions with a bonus-point win over France, although victory without a bonus point might still be enough
- England need an emphatic win over Italy and hope Ireland lose by a low score in France
- France can leapfrog both of their rivals if they beat Ireland and better England’s result
‘England are prepped and ready to do their job’
Ireland might have the destiny of the title in their hands, but England are widely considered favourites to win it.
The Red Rose side are aiming for their first Six Nations triumph since 2017 and are expected to brush aside an Italian team which is already certain of the wooden spoon.
The Italians have lost their last 26 Six Nations matches, a run stretching back five years.
A bonus-point win for Eddie Jones’ side would pile the pressure onto both France and Ireland, with the English nervously waiting on the outcome in Paris.
England head coach Jones has been forced to contend with several injury problems – fly-half George Ford, full-back Elliot Daly, centre Manu Tuilagi, prop Joe Marler and second row/blind-side Courtney Lawes are the most notable absentees – and means there will be several debutants involved in Rome.
Nevertheless, Monye says it is an “exciting” squad which should secure a bonus-point victory – and possibly clinch the Six Nations exactly a year after England lost to South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final.
“I look at the starting XV and see mobility and athleticism right across the park,” he said.
“If they want to bully Italy they can do that, if they want to play wide, use their hands, play with speed, they can do that.
“England are prepped and ready to go out to Rome and do a job.”
|Italy have never beaten England in any competition, losing all 26 meetings|
|England have scored four or more tries in their past six meetings in the Six Nations, with an average winning margin of 33 points|
|Italy have finished within seven points of England on four occasions in the Six Nations, three of those have been at home|
‘Tall ask for Ireland to get bonus point’
Presuming England earn a bonus-point win in Rome, that leaves both Ireland – probably – and France – definitely – needing the same to stand any chance of overhauling Jones’ side.
Ireland are aiming for a fourth Six Nations title in seven years but it is the French who are more likely to score four tries, according to Monye and former Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip.
“Ireland can defend really well but I’ve had question marks over their attacking game for years,” said Monye.
“If they are going to be a force of nature like they were in 2018, and to become a world leader, their attacking game is the one thing which needs to get so much better.”
France have increased their steel and become harder to beat this year, largely thanks to the appointment of Englishman Shaun Edwards as their defence coach.
“The big factor coming into this, and we’ve seen the step change, is Shaun Edwards and the defensive system he has put in place,” Heaslip added on the Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
“It is aggressive and one of the most dominant in the Six Nations.
“France have the ability to score, they are not getting as many entry points in the 22 as Ireland but they are scoring more points every time they are in there.
“Can Ireland get the win? Yes. Can they get the bonus point? It is a tall ask.”
But can France break down another side well drilled by an Englishman?
Yet, while doubt has been cast about Ireland’s attacking threat, that does not necessarily mean France will be able to do enough to overhaul England.
Ireland’s recent success has been based on the solidity built by Andy Farrell, another Englishman who was Ireland’s defence coach before replacing Joe Schmidt as head coach last year.
That leaves many expecting the sides of Farrell and his old mentor Edwards – the pair having played rugby league together at Wigan – to negate each other and produce a low-scoring match which would leave England lifting the trophy.
“Who in recent history have done such a job on their teams that you see an Andy Farrell team conceding more than four tries or a Shaun Edwards team conceding more than four tries? That doesn’t happen,” said Monye.
|Ireland have managed to score four tries in just three of their 41 away matches in the Six Nations|
|Ireland have only scored four tries in Paris once before – and that ended in a 43-31 loss in 2006|
|France have won just one of their last nine Tests against Ireland|
|Les Bleus have scored only nine tries in their last nine Tests against Ireland, reaching at least 20 points only once|
|Ten of the last 13 meetings have been settled by a single-figure margin|
‘Not just a Welsh great, Alun Wyn Jones is an all-time great’
While Scotland’s trip to Wales bears no significance on the title, the match still carries real significance for both nations.
Defeat for Wales would mean they are likely to finish fifth a year after winning the Grand Slam, with head coach Wayne Pivac having already overseen three losses since replacing Warren Gatland.
Scotland are hoping to further compound a difficult start for Pivac by winning in Wales for the first time since 2002.
A home defeat would also ruin the occasion of Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones setting a new world record of 149 Test appearances.
“It’s an incredible achievement. It is such a shame to see the game played without fans because if there was ever a game a man deserved a crowd it was this game,” said former England wing Chris Ashton.
Monye added: “He will go down in history – not just Welsh history, but rugby union history – as one of the greatest guys to play our game.”