Six Nations Championship 2014: Breaking Down Each Squad's Prospects

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Six Nations Championship 2014: Breaking Down Each Squad's Prospects
Andrew Medichini/Associated Press
Duncan Weir toasts his last-minute drop goal against Italy.

The penultimate round of matches takes place this weekend for the Six Nations Championship, and with four sides still in the hunt for the title, it's all to play for.

Ireland host Italy in Round 4's first bout, as both camps look to ease their third-round wounds after defeats by England and Scotland respectively.

France then travel to Scotland and come up against a Murrayfield outfit that felt every emotion in their last-gasp win at Italy last time out.

England take on Wales in the final fixture, and with both sides looking to ascend into pole position for lifting the title, Twickenham is set to be a cauldron of top-quality rugby.

With two games to go, and this round weeding out the title challengers and those falling at the second-to-last hurdle, let's take a look at each side's potential input in the next round.

 

Ireland

Peter Morrison/Associated Press
Ireland will have to battle hard in their fixture with Italy.

Currently leading the group, Joe Schmidt's side have it all to lose as they take on Italy at the Aviva Stadium.

Jonathan Sexton has been Ireland's top performer in the table this time around. With one conversion and one penalty, the Italians will have to be careful not to allow the 28-year-old Racing Metro star too much time with the boot.

The side will also have to continue their excellent points haul during games this season as they take on the bottom-placed side. Ireland have amassed 64 points from the first three matches of this year's tournament, gaining a 21-point difference over second-placed England.

But with game points at a premium, and in plenty of company alongside England, Wales and France, it's up to the Dublin outfit to continue their good work with the ball and extend their run at the summit of the table.

 

England

Michel Euler/Associated Press
Danny Care must add to Ireland try against Wales.

England's spirit came to the fore in the side's 13-10 win against Schmidt's men last time out, in a win that put Stuart Lancaster's side back in the hunt for their first Six Nations title since 2011.

Another kick-king, Owen Farrell, has played a pivotal role for his side as they reignited their own title aspirations with two wins since their opening-day defeat by France.

But it's not all about each side's potential to win a match with a set piece, as proved by Danny Care's performances against Ireland and during England's 20-0 win in Scotland. Care swung the game for his side against Ireland, his try on 56 minutes allowing Farrell to kick between the sticks to glean the eventual match-winner.

The half-back pair hadn't started a match together until this year's tournament, but speaking with the Guardian's Paul Rees, Care admitted that he enjoyed his team-mate's company:

We are both northerners and we both like to speak a bit. I had really been looking forward to partnering Owen and we are bringing out the best of each other.

He is looking outstanding when he attacks the line and he is such a physical force in defence: he is playing his best rugby in an England jersey. We are good mates off the pitch and enjoy relaxing with each other.

It will be important for Lancaster to ensure that spirits are kept high as Wales visit Twickenham, but with partnerships forming as seen between Care and Farrell, it's clear that English rugby has the right mettle to take on this year's elite—with positive signs for the future, too.

 

Wales

Alastair Grant/Associated Press
In focus: Can Halfpenny continue fine form with his boot?

Fast and furious was the order of the day for Wales last time out as they saw off France with ease at the Millennium Stadium.

Tries from George North and Sam Warburton gave Leigh Halfpenny the perfect opportunity to continue his fine form with the boot, doing so with aplomb to add a further conversion and five penalties to his excellent 79-point haul.

It will be imperative to the side, who travel to London, to keep the tries flowing against England as they look to provide the talismanic Halfpenny with plenty of chances to kick for glory.

However, the side's last trip out of Cardiff didn't go to plan as they endured a painful ride in the 26-3 defeat against Ireland. They found themselves 13-0 down at the interval and failed to make their half-time team talk count as Ireland continued to rampage on home turf.

As tweeted by BBC Sport, Wales will also have to deal with two call-ups as they prepare to battle for a chance at a third successive league title:

Of course, it isn't impossible for Wales, and their form this term will provide the side and its fans with every hope of causing an upset against England.

But if the side are to profit, they'll have to come out fast and play at a high tempo, putting England's full-backs under pressure early and make their possession count, while hoping that Halfpenny gets his chance to steal the show.

 

France

Michael Steele/Getty Images
France need to shut out Scotland to retain title hopes.

For France, their own hopes of bagging the title remain as they travel to Scotland, looking to get back to winning ways after their 27-6 drubbing by title rivals Wales.

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The game already looked won for the Welshmen at the halfway stage, leading 20-6 but dominating the visitors at every opportunity.

It was a weekend for the kickers last time out, as Jules Plisson and Jean Marc Doussain claimed consolation points for their side in the mauling in Cardiff.

If fourth-placed France are to pick up the trophy, they will have to not only pick up two wins out of two and keep an eye cast on opponents' results but also make their victories convincing to overturn a 41-point deficit on Ireland.

Scotland showed their vulnerability against Italy last time out, and it will be up to France to capitalise at Murrayfield, casting their Cardiff memories aside with a return to form.

 

Scotland

Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
Scotland's resolve on show in Italy in Round 3.

Last weekend's 21-20 win in Italy provided the biggest talking point of the round, as Duncan Weir's last-minute drop goal sealed a tight win for the side.

Looking set for yet another defeat with Italy seemingly having the game sewn up with minutes to go, it was a fairytale moment for the visitors as they stole both points and returned to Scotland having jumped from bottom spot:

The side will have to muster a similar ingredient if they're to get any sort of similar result at home to France, but knowing that they could cast their opponents' dreams aside with a win will provide plenty of reason to perform well.

As shown at the Stadio Olimpico, the never-say-die approach by Scotland sparked jubilant scenes at the full-time whistle. All the coaching staff will have to do is show replays of Weir's strike to gee their side up for the Round 4 match.

 

Italy

Andrew Medichini/Associated Press/Associated Press
Italy let a late lead slip at home to Scotland.

Bottom-placed and without a point in the tournament, Italy will be playing for pride as they look to cause the weekend's biggest upset at the Aviva Stadium.

The side largely have Tommaso Allan to thank for keeping their defeats respectable so far, with two conversions and four penalties adding to his try against Scotland.

But for Italy even to begin to dream of a win in Ireland, they'll have to make sure that Allan's co-workers bring their A-game and hope that Lady Luck presents the side with plenty of kicking opportunities.

Like France, Italy are presented with an excellent opportunity to have potentially the biggest statement in this year's Six Nations. A win against Schmidt's side would put a serious dent in Ireland's title chances.

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