Six Nations: England heavy mob still favourites as Wales face Scotland

England remain the bookies’ favourites to win the Six Nations despite losing to Wales a fortnight ago. On the eve of the penultimate round of matches, the Welsh are top of the table with three wins from three but England are only two points behind because of their accumulation of bonus points.

Furthermore, the English have a gentle run-in, facing Italy in Twickenham tomorrow before hosting the Scots a week later. Given the way those two nations have performed in the tournament, at least one bonus point win is a racing certainty for Eddie Jones’ side.

Wales, on the other hand, travel to Edinburgh tomorrow and then face Ireland in Cardiff. They should beat Scotland, although in front of their home crowd they will be desperate to erase memories of their woeful performance in Paris last month. Can Wales, so clinical and keyed-up against England, reach such heights again? If they slip up just once in the next eight days the title will almost certainly end up in England.

Unwanted distractions

In addition, Wales’ preparations have been disrupted by the controversial announcement this week of plans to merge the Ospreys and the Scarlets, a proposal affecting 13 of the players who will start against Scotland. “There is no doubt it has been a challenge for the players in the last couple of days,” said Warren Gatland earlier in the week. “That’s why we had [WRU chief executive] Martyn Phillips down here yesterday addressing the players. Just trying to put them at ease in terms of what is going on.”

On the plus side, apart from the injury to second row Cory Hill, Gatland has been able to choose from a settled squad and the inclusion of Adam Beard for Hill is the only change to the side that pulled off the magnificent win against England.

Unlucky 13?

That was the 12th successive victory for Wales and the form book suggests it won’t be unlucky 13 for the men in red, with Gatland having never lost to Scotland in ten meetings as Wales coach.

The Scots, whose cause in Paris wasn’t helped by an injury crisis, welcome back fly-half Finn Russell who has recovered from a head knock. He is paired by scrum-half Ali Price, in for Greig Laidlaw, while wing Darcy Graham earn his first start in place of the injured Sean Maitland and Peter Horne replace Sam Johnson in the centre. Jonny Gray and Tommy Seymour will both win their 50th caps.

Rise to the challenge

Acknowledging the size of the task facing his side, coach Gregor Townsend said they will use last season’s win against England as inspiration. “[Wales] have a very good record against us and are in excellent form,” said Townsend. “It’s a similar challenge to the one we faced last year against England, who had also been on a very good run of results in their preceding games. We rose to the challenge that day and found a way to win, and I firmly believe we can reach that level of performance once again on Saturday.”

Massive attack

As for England, Eddie Jones has made five changes to the side that lost in Cardiff and there is a first Six Nations start for Bath wing Joe Cokanasiga, so impressive in the autumn win against Australia. He replaces the injured Jack Nowell while Ben Te’o is paired alongside Manu Tuilagi in a physically frightening centre combination that is the heaviest ever fielded by England. “It’s massive – I wouldn’t like to play against it!” England captain Owen Farrell told the BBC. “We need to make sure those boys get in the game.”

Between them Cokanasiga, Te’o and Tuilagi weigh 51 stones and Eddie Jones has asked them to [4[ “do a lot of damage” against Italy, reports the Daily Telegraph.

In the pack there are starts for prop Ellis Genge, second row Joe Launchbury and Brad Shields in the back-row.

Italy need a miracle

Italy have made three changes to the XV that lost to Ireland two weeks ago with the welcome return of talismanic captain Sergio Parisse one of them. It’s now four years, one month and 20 games since Italy won a Six Nations match and with England the only side they’ve never beaten in the tournament there’s more chance of seeing a lion in the Colosseum than there is an Azzurri win at Twickenham.

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea was nonetheless sounding suitably gladiatorial at the pre-match press conference. “This is an Italy team that’s preparing to win,” he declared. “We’re sports people, we’re competitive people. I’ve said to the players I don’t want them to even think about the result, their job is to deliver a performance of intensity, physicality and ambition.”


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