The Six Nations Championship 2014 is balanced on a knife edge, with four teams still in the race for the title.
Ireland, England, Wales and France have all taken two wins from three, with only points difference separating the rugby powerhouses.
As if they were trying to keep things tense, last weekend's fixtures did nothing to indicate which nation would take the grand prize.
Wales thumped France 27-6 in Cardiff on Friday night, per BBC Sport. Then the battle at the bottom took a dramatic turn on Saturday when Scotland snatched a last-minute win away to Italy. And England closed the weekend with an attritional victory over a determined Ireland at Twickenham.
With no team out in front, the penultimate round of matches is the time for players to stand up and be counted. Here are the key matchups that will decide the next Six Nations weekend.
|Ireland vs. Italy||Saturday, 8 March||14:30|
|Scotland vs. France||Saturday, 8 March||17:00|
|England vs. Wales||Sunday, 9 March||15:00|
Jonny Sexton, Ireland vs. Tommaso Allan, Italy
This is Ireland's opportunity to put a big score on the board. The Irish top the Six Nations table but only on points difference, so the objective in Dublin has to be to lay waste to the Italians with a score of 30 points or more.
Jonny Sexton is the man to make that happen. He is one of the premier fly-halves in the world, playing flat on the gain line to bring in his backs at every opportunity. If that comes as news to you, you don't watch enough rugby.
Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward agrees. He writes in the Daily Mail: "Sexton’s performance against Wales was one of the most dominant fly-half performances I have seen and makes him arguably the No 1 quarterback in world rugby right now in the way he orchestrates a game plan for his team."
However, the Irish No. 10 has a thumb injury and faces a race to be fit for the Italy match, per The Belfast Telegraph. The question is: How much will the injury prevent him from playing his trademark aggressive game?
Facing him will be youngster Tommaso Allan. He finally looks like a solution to Italy's fly-half problem, with The Rugby Paper's Nick Verdier calling him a "powerful and incisive runner and a very physical tackler."
Question marks still linger over his goalkicking, but his inventive streak is something Italy desperately need. Can the young pretender take the game to the great Sexton?
Scotland's Front Row vs. France's Front Row
What's that old saying about the French? You never know which team will turn up? Rarely has that been truer than in this Six Nations.
After going head-to-head with Italy's heavyweight pack, France's front three went missing against Wales. So many scrums collapsed that referee Alain Rolland made a double sin-binning, sending off France's Nicolas Mas along with Wales' Gethin Jenkins, per Wales Online.
To be honest, France have to make improvements all over the field, as Gavin Mairs writes in The Telegraph: "Philippe Saint-André’s challenge is to not only breathe fire into his front five again, who were outgunned by Wales, but also bring some attacking structure and encourage greater elan to his back line."
However, there is no better place to start than the front of the scrum. Without a functioning front row, France just won't get the platform they need to give their misfiring backs some breathing room to play behind them.
Scotland's front row is another trio with a lot to prove. Moray Low, Ross Ford and Ryan Grant were demolished by England, per The London Evening Standard. They were again hammered against Italy in last weekend's drama in Rome. But then things changed, as The Scotsman's Richard Bath writes:
After half-time, when Italy coach Jacques Brunel unaccountably took off his dominant front row and Scotland’s replacements Alasdair Dickinson and Geoff Cross stabilised the scrum against their replacements, Scotland surged back into the game.
Scotland's front row must take advantage of France's shakiness to kick on from their second-half performance and show the rest of Europe that they're serious about improving.
Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, England vs. George North, Wales
England have an inexperienced back line, and a gritty win over Ireland did not turn them into grizzled veterans overnight. Sitting at the heart of England's backs are Twelvetrees and Burrell, who share just 14 caps between them, per ESPN Scrum.
Wales, on the other hand, are experienced Six Nations campaigners. Inside centre Jamie Roberts is just 27 but has already notched up 56 caps for the current Six Nations champions, per ESPN Scrum.
But the Welsh have been forced into a drastic change. Giant winger George North was stationed at outside centre against France. The experiment worked on that occasion, with North snaffling a try against Les Bleus, per Rob Wildman of the Daily Mail.
That's not to say it will work twice. France failed to put up any resistance to the Welsh onslaught. If a resurgent England can set Twelvetrees and Burrell running at North, it will be a test for the 21-year-old's tackling abilities.
North admits he is learning, per BBC Sport:
Centre is different. As a wing, I am just reading what the 13 is doing, but when you are 13 then you are making things happen and the wing has to read off you. It's quite difficult to try to get used to that. Obviously, I made a few mistakes, but as a first run-out I was pretty happy with that.
Compared to North, England's centres have bags of experience. Running hard lines against the Welsh No. 13 could be their best opportunity of breaking through the ranks of red.
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