For Ireland and Spain, winning is all that matters this weekend with a Grand Slam and Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification respectively on the line. But there is still plenty for the rest of the teams to play for in Europe’s top two tiers, not least in Tbilisi where Georgia will be hoping to get the point they need from their match with Romania to reclaim the Rugby Europe Championship trophy from Sunday’s opponents.
In the Six Nations, winning or losing could be the difference between finishing second or fifth in the Championship table for Wales, France, England and Scotland, while all four of those countries, and Italy, could improve their position in the World Rugby Rankings too.
We take a brief look at the final round of the Six Nations and the games in Rugby Europe’s Championship, Trophy and Conference 1 South.
Italy (14) v Scotland (6)
World Rugby U20 Championship graduate Jake Polledri will make his Italian debut at the Stadio Olimpico after getting the nod ahead of Maxime Mbanda at openside. Otherwise, the Italian line-up remains unchanged from the one beaten by Wales in round four.
Scotland have decided to change a third of their starting line-up for the visit to Rome. Tommy Seymour has recovered from the back injury that ruled him out of the defeat to Ireland, while Glasgow Warriors centre Nick Grigg comes into the backline for his first Six Nations start. In the pack, hooker Fraser Brown, prop WP Nel and second-row Tim Swinson have all been promoted from the bench.
- Scotland have won four of the last five matches between these sides in the Six Nations, including the last two in a row.
- Scotland have not won three consecutive games against the Azzurri in the Championship since 2001-03
- Scotland have won on each of their last two trips to Rome in the Six Nations, this after winning just two of their previous seven away to Italy
- Scotland have lost 17 of their last 19 away games in the Six Nations. However, their two victories in that run both came in Rome
- Italy have lost their last 16 games in the Six Nations, the longest such run in the Championship’s history. One more defeat would equal the longest losing run in the Five or Six Nations (France – lost 17, 1911-20)
- If the Azzurri lose it will be Sergio Parisse’s 100th test defeat
- Pascal Gauzère will take charge of his sixth Six Nations game, with his previous five all involving either Italy or Scotland, including the clash between these sides in 2017 which Scotland won 29-0
If Italy win narrowly or draw they will move above Tonga and into 13th, or higher if the Lelos slip up against Rugby Europe Championship rivals Romania. A win of more than 15 points would guarantee the Azzurri a two-place rise to 12th even if Georgia comfortably beat Romania in Tbilisi. At best, Georgia can only improve their rating by a fraction under a quarter of a point which won’t be enough to move them any higher up the rankings as Japan are too far in front. The five-hundredths of a point on offer for a Scotland win will be enough to take them above South Africa and back into fifth.
England (3) v Ireland (2)
England coach Eddie Jones has chosen to split up the George Ford/Owen Farrell axis at 10 and 12 and select Farrell as his starting fly-half. Ben Te’o plays inside centre alongside Jonathan Joseph in midfield. Injuries to Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes have prompted a rethink in the pack with Sam Simmonds, England’s star in the opening round against Italy, lining up at number eight with Chris Robshaw and James Haskell at six and seven respectively. Dylan Hartley and Elliot Daly have been passed fit to start at hooker and on the left wing, while tight-head Kyle Sinckler makes his first start of the campaign in place of Dan Cole who drops to the bench.
Grand Slam-seeking Ireland make just the one change for the trip to London with Iain Henderson preferred to Devin Toner in the second-row. Toner has to be content with a place on the bench.
- Ireland come into this game having won the Six Nations already, meaning they’ve won three of the last five Championships, all under Joe Schmidt
- Ireland will be aiming to complete the Grand Slam for just the third time, having previously managed it in 1948 and 2009
- England have won four of the last six meetings between these sides in the Six Nations, with each of the last four games being won by the home side on the day
- England have won their last 15 home games in all competitions, only on four occasions has a tier one side won more consecutive matches at home (New Zealand three times, England once)
- Ireland have won their last 11 test matches, their longest ever winning run. Only New Zealand (seven occasions), South Africa (three occasions) and England (twice) have gone on longer such runs in all competitions among tier one nations
England can reclaim second spot from Ireland if they spoil the Irish party and win this weekend. Eddie Jones’ side will hang onto third place in the rankings come what may but a third consecutive defeat, by a margin of more than 15 points, would leave them just 11-hundredths above Australia in fourth. A big win for Ireland is worth a fraction under two and a quarter points, not enough to see them overhaul New Zealand at the top.
Wales (7) v France (8)
Captain and second-row Alun Wyn Jones returns to the Wales pack along with Scarlets duo Rob Evans and Ken Owens and flanker Josh Navidi. Navidi lines up at openside alongside British and Irish Lions Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau at six and eight respectively. Behind the scrum, Lions trio Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and George North start together for the first time as a back-three trio in the 2018 Championship. Elsewhere, Scott Williams is reunited with Hadleigh Parkes in midfield.
France have made three changes for the trip to Cardiff as they go in search of a hat-trick of victories. Two of the three changes come in the front row where Adrien Pelissie replaces the injured Guilhem Guirado at hooker while Cedate Gomes Sa is preferred to Rabah Slimani at tight-head prop. In the backline, Gael Fickou is brought onto the wing with Benjamin Fall moving to full-back and Hugo Bonneval dropping out of the match-day 23. After inspirational performances in wins over Italy and England, centre Mathieu Bastareaud is handed the captain’s armband in Guirado’s absence.
- Wales have won five of the last six games between these sides in the Six Nations, although France won their most recent encounter last year
- Wales have won their last three matches against France at the Principality Stadium, restricting Les Bleus to no more than 10 points on each occasion, this after losing five of their previous six at home to France in the Championship
- France have won just two of their last nine away games in the Six Nations, while Wales have won seven of their last eight at home
- Ben O’Keeffe will take charge of a Six Nations game for the second time, with Les Bleus involved in his only previous Championship game – a 40-18 victory against Italy in 2017
- Wales’ next victory will be their 250th in Four/Five/Six Nations history, a tally only England (258) have reached
With only a fraction over half a point on offer for a big win, Wales cannot climb any higher than their present position of seventh, unless Scotland fail to beat Italy in Rome. France can climb as high as sixth if they win well, leapfrogging Wales and a beaten Scotland in the process.
RUGBY EUROPE CHAMPIONSHIP
Germany (28) v Russia (20)
Germany’s team has yet to be announced
Russia have made five changes for the match in Cologne. Valery Tsnobiladze and Evgeny Pronenko come into the front-row at hooker and tight-head while Dmitry Krotov replaces Tagir Gadzhiev at openside. In the backs, Alexei Mikhaltsov is named on the left wing and Alexander Budychenko gets a run out at full-back.
- Russia have won all nine previous games against Germany dating back to 1992
- Russia won 52-25 when the sides met in Sochi last year
- Russia are the only side not to receive a card of any description in this year’s Championship
- Germany need to score 12 points to avoid having the lowest total in a single season at this level for a decade. They have managed just 31 points in their first four games
- Germany haven’t won away from home in Europe since beating the Netherlands in Amsterdam in 2014
An emphatic victory would lift Germany back into the world’s top 25 ranked nations, or up two places above the Netherlands and Brazil, to 26th, if Belgium beat Spain. A defeat would result in Germany dropping below Chile to 29th. A heavy Russian win combined with a defeat for Spain would see the Bears replace Los Leones in 19th place.
Belgium (25) v Spain (19)
With their place in the Championship already safe, Belgium have chosen to make wholesale changes – 12 in total and two positional – to their starting line-up. Blindside flanker Gillian Benoy is the only player to stay put from last week’s 62-12 loss against Romania with Craig Dowsett moving from full-back to the left wing and Ervin Muric switching to the opposite side of the pitch. Inside centre Jens Torf wears the captain’s armband.
For Spain, Gautier Gibouin takes on the captaincy and moves from openside to number eight in the absence of regular leader Jaime Nava. Vincent Guillaume comes into the back row as a result, while 36-year-old veteran Kalokalo Gavidi packs down alongside David Barrera in the second row in the other change to the pack. In the backs, Dan Snee is named at inside centre in place of Thibaut Alvarez and Charlie Malie is preferred to Mathieu Peluchon at full-back. The goal-kicking responsibilities will fall to Brad Linklater who is promoted from the bench to the right wing with Ignacio Contardi the man to miss out.
- Spain could finish as runners-up for only the second time at this level
- A win for Spain would be enough for them to secure RWC 2019 qualification
- Spain won 30-0 when the sides met in Madrid last year
- Belgium’s only win against Spain in 15 attempts was 18-6 in Liege in 2006. They also managed a 21-21 seven years later
- Belgium have gone 190 minutes without scoring a try against Spain
Two and a quarter points are on offer for a big Belgium win but that would still not be enough for the Black Devils to improve their position, although the gap between themselves and Namibia above would be cut to just nine-hundredths of a point. The win that would take Spain to Rugby World Cup 2019 would not be accompanied by any improvement in their position in the rankings, even though they stand to gain a maximum of three-quarters of a point.
Georgia (12) v Romania (17)
With five players facing late fitness tests, Georgia will confirm their matchday 23 following tomorrow morning’s captain’s run. Two players in the provisional starting XV, number eight Lasha Lomidze and wing Alexander Todua, are touch and go, while the participation of three of the replacements – Mikheil Gacheciladze, Lasha Malaguradze and Giorgi Tsutskiridze – is also still in doubt.
Departing Romania coach Lynn Howells hands a test debut to South African-born flanker Dumani Mtya in a side showing four changes to the one that took to the field for the 62-12 win over Belgium. Myta is the only new face in the pack with Florin Surugiu, Florin Vlaicu and Fonovai Tangimana coming in at scrum-half, inside centre and on the right wing.
- Georgia only need a bonus point to reclaim the Rugby Europe Championship trophy
- Romania can only win the title if they get a bonus-point victory and deny the Lelos anything from the fixture
- Romania won last year’s fixture 8-7 – their first win over Georgia in seven years
- Romania won on their first four visits to Georgia, between 1998 and 2003, but never since
- Full-back Catalin Fercu made his 100th start for Romania in last week’s win over Belgium
Rugby Europe Championship leaders Georgia cannot catch Japan above them as even the most resounding of victories is only worth 0.24 of a point, and the gap between the nations is 1.86 points. Should Georgia’s title hopes disappear with a heavy defeat, they also face the prospect of ending the weekend ranked in 15th place below the Oaks, Tonga and Italy.
RUGBY EUROPE TROPHY
Switzerland v Poland
- Fourth plays fifth with Switzerland at home for the first time in four games
- A draw or two bonus point will be good enough for Poland to secure their place in the Trophy for 2019
- Switzerland won 22-12 when the sides met in Warsaw in 2017. Poland won both encounters before that: 15-8 (2000) and 20-15 (2004)
A two-place rise to 31st is the prize on offer for a big Swiss win if it is accompanied by a defeat for the Czech Republic away to the Netherlands. The best Poland can hope for is to climb three places to 31st. In the event of a heavy defeat, Switzerland would drop three places to 36th with Uganda and Lithuania both profiting.
Netherlands v Czech Republic
- The Netherlands need to win with a bonus point to take the Trophy title race to the final round. They trail Portugal by four points and Os Lobos still have to travel to Poland.
- The Czech Republic will give themselves a chance of finishing runners-up if they beat the Dutch
- They are on a four-game winning streak against the Dutch, earning a 22-10 win the last time they faced each other, in Prague in November 2011
If the Dutch win and Belgium lose they will replace their Lowlands neighbours in 25th, a gain of two places. A handsome win for the Czechs would result in a six-place rise to 25th if Belgium and Germany are beaten.
RUGBY EUROPE CONFERENCE
There are also two games being played in Conference 1 South this weekend, both of which count towards the rankings. Malta can win the competition with a round to spare if they beat their hosts and nearest rivals Israel at the Wingate Institute located south of Netanya. Based on the rankings, Malta are favourites, although a convincing win of more than 15 points would still be worth 1.16 points and lift the Mediterranean island nation to 37th place, dropping Israel two to 60th.
In the other game is a battle of the bottom two between Bosnia and Herzegovina, who are currently ranked 75th, and Andorra, who are eight places higher in 67th. If the home side win well, they will gain nearly one and quarter points and climb seven places to 67th. Andorra can improve their position by three places in victory. Neither side has won yet this season.