Match 1: Wales v France, Friday 8pm
Wales have made four changes to the team that lost to England in Round 3, as they look to become the first side this year to defeat France. Loosehead prop Wyn Jones and back rower Ross Moriarty have both dropped to the bench, whilst Taine Basham has perhaps surprisingly been left out altogether, as has Saracens centre Nick Tompkins, following his concussion against Leicester Tigers last weekend. Ospreys’ Gareth Thomas starts in the front row, whilst Josh Navidi makes a welcome return from injury and takes his place at flanker, as does Seb Davies, who normally plays at lock. The experienced Jonathan Davies also comes in, partnering Owen Watkin in the midfield.
France, meanwhile, have only made one alteration to their team, with star winger Damian Penaud having tested positive for Covid-19. Gabin Villiere returns from the knock that kept him out of the trip to Scotland two weeks ago to replace him, and there is more good news for head coach Fabien Galthie, as captain Antoine Dupont has not been kept out by an arm injury picked up in training this week. He once again partners Romain Ntamack in the engine room, whilst another Toulouse player, winger Matthis Lebel, is named on the bench; Toulon lock Romain Taofifenua joining Penaud in testing positive. Tighthead prop Mohamed Haouas is also included as a substitute, with Demba Bamba left out.
Keep an eye on….
The carries made by both teams, and the way they look to break through each other’s defensive line. Both Wales and France have plenty of physicality in their back rows, with Anthony Jelonch and Gregory Alldritt both players who like to get on the end of passes at speed, whilst Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau will be essential to Wales’ hopes of keeping France on the back foot. The defensive work from both sets of players, such as getting over the ball and winning turnovers, will also be critical in what could be quite a bruising encounter.
Match 2: Italy v Scotland, Saturday 2.15pm
Italy have only made two alterations to their team, both enforced through injury. Scrum-half Stephen Varney and hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi were both injured in the defeat to Ireland two weeks ago, so Callum Braley, who will join Northampton Saints in the summer, will partner Montpellier’s Paolo Garbisi in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Lucchesi’s natural replacement Hama Faiva is also unavailable, following his sending off in Dublin, so 25-year-old Giacomo Nicotera will make his debut in the front row, whilst former captain Luca Bigi is called up to the replacements as his understudy. Otherwise, head coach Kieran Crowley has resisted the urge to play around with his matchday squad too much, as he once again looks to end his side’s winless run in the Six Nations, stretching all the way back to 2015.
Scotland have made five changes from their home defeat against France two weeks ago. Centre Sione Tuipulotu, hooker Stuart McInally and number 8 Magnus Bradbury have all dropped to the bench, flanker Nick Haining is injured and winger Duhan van der Merwe will miss the rest of the tournament after his red card for Worcester Warriors last weekend. Edinburgh’s Sam Johnson is included to partner Gloucester’s Chris Harris in the midfield, whilst Kyle Steyn is also handed a start on the wing. George Turner comes into the front row in a straight swap with McInally, whilst influential duo Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson both return after missing the last outing, and start alongside Rory Darge in a strong back row.
Keep an eye on….
The reaction of both teams. Italy know that they have underperformed over the years, but Scotland will also feel that they could have done better in some elements of their last two games, especially as they have been on an upward curve in recent years. Therefore, both teams will know that this is an opportunity to show what they can really do, even though it is obviously a harder task for Italy, given the pressure being put on them both on and off the pitch.
Match 3: England v Ireland, Saturday 4.45pm
England have made three alterations for the visit of Ireland, as they look to keep alive their hopes of lifting the Six Nations trophy after next weekend’s final round of matches. Harlequins number 8 Alex Dombrandt has recently recovered from Covid-19, so is only named among the replacements. Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Simmonds takes his place and adds a different threat to the back row. Joe Marchant is also handed a place in the XI at outside centre, with Elliott Daly dropping to the bench, and Jamie George replaces the injured Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker. Newcastle Falcons’ Jamie Blamire is named as George’s understudy, whilst Wasps captain Joe Launchbury is set to make his first international appearance since the end of 2020 from the bench, following a string of injury problems.
Ireland have made six changes in all for the crucial trip to Twickenham on Saturday evening, with experience preferred by head coach Andy Farrell. As such, full-back Michael Lowry and winger Mack Hansen are both left out of the matchday squad, with Hugo Keenan and Andrew Conway regaining their places among the backs. Bundee Aki also comes in, as Robbie Henshaw moves to the bench, whilst captain Johnny Sexton makes his first start since the opening weekend, and his first since announcing his retirement after next year’s World Cup. Versatile prop Andrew Porter will miss the rest of the tournament with an injury, so fellow Leinster loosehead Cian Healy is drafted into the XI, and Ryan Baird is replaced by James Ryan in the second row.
Keep an eye on….
The two fly-halves. Johnny Sexton will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time greats, not just in Irish rugby but world rugby too. However, whilst he has now confirmed that his career will reach its conclusion next summer, his opposite number in this game, Marcus Smith, is someone who is still in the early stages of his international career. In effect, this is a case of student vs master, and it will be interesting to see which of them has the better game, especially as this could well decide the outcome of this clash.