Irish buoyant ahead of three-way fight for Six Nations title

Julian Guyer
·3-min read

Ireland believe they have a "cracking opportunity" to win the Six Nations when they face France in Saturday's coronavirus-delayed final round of matches.

Some 237 days after the coronavirus pandemic brought the tournament to a halt Ireland, currently a point ahead of title rivals England and France, have the destiny of the Championship in their hands.

Ireland will be crowned champions if they win away to France with a bonus-point, achieved by scoring four or more tries.

With the Stade de France match the last of the day's three fixtures, both the Irish and the French will kick-off knowing exactly what they need to do.

"It just presents a cracking opportunity for us tomorrow for us to go out there and express ourselves and win a game of rugby," said Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby.

Ireland thrashed Italy 50-17 in last week's Covid-delayed clash in Dublin, while France were impressive during a 38-21 warm-up win over Wales.

"We could score four tries but they (France) are so dangerous they could score six," said Andy Farrell, the Ireland coach and father of England captain Owen ahead of a match where Ireland prop Cian Healy will win his 100th cap.

France would have been bidding for a Grand Slam under new coach Fabien Galthie but for a surprise fourth-round defeat by Scotland.

That match saw France hurt by prop Mohamed Haouas's red-card as they had been when Sebastien Vahaamahina was sent off for a similarly reckless piece of foul play during a World Cup quarter-final defeat by Wales in Japan last year.

If France can keep 15 players on the field, they could win their first Six Nations title for a decade.

They will first need a clean bill of health and France team manager Raphael Ibanez said Friday there were no coronavirus cases in his squad despite sharing a training ground with their female counterparts who have suffered an outbreak.

- 'Vigilant' -

Les Bleus' women's match in Ireland scheduled for Sunday was postponed after several of the travelling players tested positive for the illness.

"We have to be very careful and vigilant with the men's team. The players have been responsible," Ibanez said Friday. 

"Until today every player has been tested regularly every Monday and Thursday. Everyone is negative,.

France can lift the Championship for the first time since 2010 by beating Ireland and bettering England's result in Italy earlier on.

"It represents something massive," said France captain Charles Ollivon. "We're focused on the game, we're here to win."

England will look to put the pressure on by thrashing perennial strugglers Italy in Rome earlier in the day.

But last year's losing World Cup finalists will go into the game not having played for several months after last week's match against the Barbarians was cancelled when it emerged players from the invitational side had breached Covid-19 health protocols.

"We understand that rugby at the moment is a bit of a laughing stock," said England coach Eddie Jones.

Scrum-half Ben Youngs will win his 100th cap in a match where lock Jonny Hill makes his Test debut after helping Exeter complete a European Champions Cup and English Premiership double during the previous fortnight.

Saturday's opening fixture between Wales and Scotland in Llanelli may have no bearing on the title but is not without signficance.

The Scots are eyeing a third victory this tournament and a first win on Welsh soil since 2002.

Title-holders Wales, by contrast, are trying to avoid a fourth succesive defeat under coach Wayne Pivac.

- 'Phenomenal Jones' -

Another loss would be a miserable way for Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones to mark his record-breaking 149th Test appearance, the lock topping the tally he shares with retired New Zealand great Richie McCaw.

"It's a phenomenal achievement," said Pivac of Jones's looming landmark.

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