The RBS Six Nations may be coming to a close this weekend, but there's still plenty to play for, with Ireland, England and France all still challenging for top spot.
England travel to Stadio Olimpico as they take on bottom-placed Italy, with Stuart Lancaster's side looking to add a top-of-the-table finish to his team's Triple Crown victory. Wales host Scotland and France take on Ireland, with both sides knowing that defeat for England would mean either of these sides could bag the title.
There are also a number of player-based incentives on offer in the final round, so let's take a look at what's at stake as the contest comes to a close.
|RBS Six Nations: Final round fixtures|
|Date||Time||Fixture||Venue||TV Info||Live Stream||Prediction|
|15 March||12.30 p.m. GMT, 8.30 a.m. ET||Italy vs. England||Stadio Olimpico||BBC Sport||BBC iPlayer||14-32|
|15 March||2.45 p.m. GMT, 10.45 a.m. ET||Wales vs. Scotland||Millennium Stadium||BBC Sport||BBC iPlayer||22-18|
|15 March||5 p.m. GMT, 1 p.m. ET||France vs. Ireland||Stade de France||BBC Sport||BBC iPlayer||6-22|
|RBS Six Nations: Table as it stands|
Will Continuity Favour The Visitors In Paris?
The weekend's big tie, without doubt, is the grudge match at Stade de France as Ireland travel to Saint-Denis, with both sides harbouring an excellent chance of claiming the 2014 title, regardless of England's result in Italy.
Ireland currently top the group on points scored, with Joe Schmidt's men holding a 49-point advantage over England, and a mammoth 78-point swing over their final fixture opponents; knowing that a win will seal their second title after four years without victory.
Philippe Saint-Andre's outfit, unbeaten at home, will be looking for their sixth title as they know that a victory over Ireland, and an Italian win, will place them two points ahead of the chasing pack in the final standings.
However, Ireland have only faced one trip away from the Aviva Stadium so far, which ended in defeat after Danny Care's try, followed by a conversion from Owen Farrell, sealed a narrow 13-10 victory for England at Twickenham.
Peter O'Mahony's inclusion into the starting XV sees the only change from the side's 46-7 drubbing of Italy with Iain Henderson dropping to the bench, per the Guardian, with Schmidt's men opting for continuity which, as tweeted by Irish sports writer Ciaran O'Raghallaigh, could have historical benefit to the side:
Meanwhile, Saint-Andre has drafted Louis Picamoles back into the side after he was dropped for the match with Scotland because of disrespectful behaviour toward referee Alain Rolland, according to BBC Sport, with quick-footed youngster Gael Fickou introduced to the starting side, along with Remi Tales and Dimitri Szarzewski, per BBC Sport.
Four changes for France and just one switch for Ireland present an interesting match-up, and with team chemistry high within the Ireland camp, you'd fancy them to overcome another altered France line-up.
Can Italy Avoid The Wooden Spoon?
Finishing bottom of the table can be demoralising, but when your side is on the verge of picking up the gong for a 10th time in 14 years, you would do anything to make sure that doesn't happen.
Italy take on England in Rome, looking to cause an upset that will not only save grace for the hosts, but also end England's hopes of picking up the 2014 title. It will be a big ask for Jacques Brunel's side, who would require Wales to pick up a big win against Scotland to help overturn the 25-point difference between the Scots and Brunel's men.
It's been a disappointing tournament, once again, for Italy who have failed to impress and, largely, have proved themselves to be mere punching bags for their fellow competitors, scoring just 52 points across their four matches.
Triple Crown winners England look set to name an unchanged starting XV, and they have drafted Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi onto the bench after his six-month injury lay off. According to the Guardian, Lancaster is happy with his starting side:
It's great to be able to name an unchanged XV and we have been able to achieve consistency of selection in a very competitive squad this campaign. The Wales result was very significant for us but we need to finish the tournament well in Rome.
We have had a tight turnaround and the key this week has been to manage the players' recovery and get them in the best shape for what will be a tough match against Italy.
However, according to BBC Sport, Lancaster's plans could be dealt a blow as Harlequins prop Joe Marler could miss the match as he awaits the birth of his first child, which could see Mako Vunipola replace Marler and Matt Mulan be brought onto the bench, telling at a press conference:
Joe's partner is in labour as we speak so we are waiting to see how that plays out during the course of the day. We will make a decision before the captain's run on Friday if he will, or won't, take part in the game.
The good thing is we have got a British [and Irish] Lion on the bench in Mako who can come in, start and is desperate for an opportunity.
A late switch could put a spanner in the works as England look to ready themselves with plenty of time before kick-off, however, plans will have been put in place with Marler's situation, and with Vunipola waiting in the wings and licking his lips at international rugby, England have the perfect replacement lined up.
Who Will Take The Top Points-Scorer Title?
According to the Guardian's Michael Aylwin, Wales' Leigh Halfpenny is set to miss the final fixture with Scotland, which could open the door for Ireland's Jonathan Sexton or England's Farrell to bag the top points-scorer in the 2014 competition.
As highlighted above, Halfpenny's 51 points for his side have jettisoned him to the top of the table but, just two points behind, Sexton's ability with the boot could easily see him take top spot, with Farrell's own kicking prowess—just nine points behind Halfpenny—also placing him in realistic contention.
Victory for Sexton—both with Ireland in contention to lift the title, and his own gong on the line—would cap an excellent year for the Leinster man, who spoke at a press conference of how his team-mates are desperate to taste international success, per Irish Times' Gavin Cummiskey:
I was very lucky that I was at Leinster in a period when we were in nine finals; we won six. Blessed to be there for that period of time and picked on the Lions more on the back of my Leinster form rather than Ireland form and then achieved success there.
It is the same for a lot of the boys. There are only three or four guys who have lifted a trophy with Ireland. We are all desperate to go out and do it this weekend.
Ireland will be hoping that Sexton's big tournament success at club level can rub off on his international team-mates, and cap an excellent tournament that will signal their second Six Nations title victory.
Final Standings Prediction
Going into the final round, Ireland, England and Wales will go into their respective fixtures as favourites and, with their major points haul at the top of the table, Schmidt's men will go into the tournament's final match against France with hope of clinching top spot.
However, France will offer a stern test to their opponents and with title hopes of their own, the side will expect that home advantage can work in their favour as the Stade de France fills with fans who remain hopeful of seeing Les Blues pick up the title.
England know that only a victory will do as they take on lowly Italy, and they will be hoping for a narrow victory for France so that England can cap a memorable tournament by pipping Saint-Andre's men to the post on points difference.
|RBS Six Nations: Predicted final table|
The match between Wales and Scotland will see nothing more than pride to play for in Cardiff, as the hosts hope that victory over Scott Johnson's side can help them leapfrog third-placed France, leaving Scotland fifth-placed and Italy to pick up, unfortunately, another wooden spoon.
Form favours the brave, and with this, Ireland and England will both prove too hot to handle in their respective matches as Ireland go on to snatch the title ahead of Lancaster's side, with a win in Wales doing enough to pacify fans who had hoped for their third successive title win.
It will be key for each side to finish the tournament with plenty of pride and experience, too, with next year's Six Nations providing a chance for this year's winner to defend their crown. With plenty of respective tours to undertake later this year, plans will be set ready for next year's Rugby World Cup, hosted in England, as each side look to take their Six Nations form onto the biggest stage.