Competition for the 2018 Natwest Six Nations crown is coming to boiling point this weekend, with Ireland entering the penultimate round with an opportunity to wrap up title with a week to spare.
After another short break, Europe’s elite competition returns for back-to-back weekends of action, with Ireland knowing a bonus-point victory over Scotland could seal the crown for them, while England seek a big win over France over the Channel to keep their hopes of a title defence on course and Wales will be out for a morale-boosting triumph over Italy.
Ireland 14:55 Scotland
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland open Round 4 in Dublin at the Aviva Stadium with a five-point cushion over second-placed England as well as a 24-point superior points difference, meaning a bonus-point victory over Scotland and England failing to collect a full quota in France would mean the competition is over with a week to spare.
Scotland, though, have proven they are no longer a given scalp, with a stunning triumph over England at BT Murrayfield in Round 3, raising eyebrows aplenty, meaning Ireland will have to bring their ‘A’ game if they are to secure a first Six Nations crown since 2015.
Schmidt’s Ireland have claimed all points bare a bonus last time out against Wales, however, they come up against an increasingly formidable Scotland side, who did take them down in the 2017 edition of the Six Nations, albeit at Murrayfield.
In what promises to be a fiercely-contested affair, the battle up front could prove pivotal for Scotland as Ireland return to full strength in the pack with Tadgh Furlong back to full fitness in the starting XV, while lock Iain Henderson will prove a force from the bench.
France 16:45 England
Stade de France
After a slip in Round 3, England will seek to get their Six Nations hat-trick bid back on course with nothing less than a bonus-point win over France likely to satisfy head coach Eddie Jones.
Defeat to Scotland has left Ireland in the driving seat, but Jones’ side will be expected to respond with vigour as they make the short trip over the Channel to face a France side, who put in an eye-catching display in a resounding victory over Italy in Round 3 and their flashy attacking division could cause headaches for England.
England’s hand has been forced into one change as captain Dylan Hartley is ruled out injured, meaning Owen Farrell leads the side, with Jamie George named at hooker; meanwhile Jones has made some bold changes in the backs with Anthony Watson at full-back with Mike Brown dropped to the bench and Ben Te’o and Elliot Daly both earn starting berths.
Bulk in the backs in the order of the day for England on Saturday evening, but Jones is simply going like-for-like with the imperious Mathieu Bastareaud lining up for Les Bleus, alongside a potent back-three, meaning England can ill-afford any breaks in concentration.
Wales 15:00 Italy
A disappointing campaign for Wales could do with an injection of encouragement, which could come at the Principality Stadium on Sunday as Warren Gatland’s side welcome Italy to Cardiff.
With just one win from the opening three rounds Wales are languishing in fourth place and Gatland has rung the changes for the visit of the Azzurri, with the headline inclusion being the return of Toby Faletau in the Welsh back-row as well as captaining the side.
Scarlets flanker James Davies joins Faletau in the back-row to make his international debut, while Liam Williams, Steff Evans, Hadleigh Parkes, Gareth Davies and Cory Hill are the only survivors from the defeat to Ireland in Round 3.
Italy are without a win in the 2018 Six Nations and have not beaten Wales since 2007, yet they come up against a Welsh outfit lacking significant experience which could prove Conor O’Shea’s best opportunity to chalk up a scalp this season and given Wales’ dip in form you would not rule out an upset.