LONDON, ENGLAND – It’s a television executive’s dream final weekend. All three matches carry enormous significance, and a compelling tournament will reach a thrilling crescendo with “Le Crunch” between England and France. The title will likely come down to points differential, but a loss for England, Wales, or Ireland will rule them out of the race. There is no margin for error, and a rugby fan’s dream Saturday will start in Rome.
Wales vs. Italy
For nearly a decade, Sergio Parisse has put Italy on his back, and at times he has carried them towards respectability. After the false dawn of 2013, the Italians have struggled for consistency. It appears Jacques Brunel will avoid the dreaded Wooden Spoon, despite having the worst point differential in the tournament by far. That margin will likely get much, much worse at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday afternoon. Parisse has been ruled out of the game with an injury, and Wales need to play for tries. Last year, when England were in a similar position, they hung 47 points on Italy. Wales will look to do their old foes several points better. After an insipid display last weekend in Paris, 50 points looks like a very achievable goal for the Welsh. However, the Italians (almost) always perform much better at home. While victory looks far beyond their capabilities, they might be able to keep Wales to an almost respectable total if they can break the game up and maintain possession in the pack.
Parisse’s absence is the headline, but Kelly Haimona is able to return for Italy after missing the match against France. Haimona has been dreadful from the kicking tee, but he does offer some skill moving forward. It isn’t his fault that he is a center playing out of position. Italy’s back three is still capable of conjuring magic. Luke McLean is a rock-solid full-back, while Venditti is still trying to fulfill his promise. Wales have lost Samson Lee, potentially through the World Cup. Rob Evans and Aaron Jarvis will be Wales’ props, and Italy will look to target the inexperienced pair. The Welsh backline has plenty of firepower, with Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, George North, Liam Williams, and Leigh Halfpenny all looking to run through the Italians’ porous defense.
Ireland vs. Scotland
Murrayfield has not been a fortress for Scotland this year. Following a brave defeat to France in the opening round, the Scots campaign has gone downhill, reaching a nadir in their home loss to Italy. Though the scoreline against England flattered Greig Laidlaw’s team, they have been relatively close in all of their defeats this year. They will hope to play Ireland tough, but with Joe Schmidt’s team looking for points, things could get ugly. In the Scots’ (and Wales’, and England’s) favor, Schmidt’s kicking gameplan does not lend itself to high scorelines. Targeting Scotland’s back three could backfire, with Stuart Hogg, Dougie Fife, and Tommy Seymour all secure under the high ball. Vern Cotter’s charges can avoid the Wooden Spoon with a win, but they a brave and narrow defeat is a more realistic, yet still ambitious, goal.
Simon Zebo has been dropped after an uninspiring tournament, and Luke Fitzgerald re-enters the fray in Irish colors for the first time in four years. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have been a solid center pairing, and they will be targeting Mark Bennett and Matt Scott. Finn Russell looks like Scotland’s fly-half for the future, but he is going up against the form fly-half in European rugby. Ireland possess the stronger pack by far, and Scotland may have issues at scrum time.
England vs. France
Stuart Lancaster claims that a last minute defeat in Paris last season still haunts his dreams. He and England will enter the 2015 edition of Le Crunch knowing exactly what they need to do to secure a title. Lancaster and his staff probably have several contingency plans in place for every result in Rome and Edinburgh. If the English need a big victory, they will certainly go for the corners and try to put the ball through their hands. If Ireland or Wales go down to a shock defeat, and the English need only to secure a slim victory, they will play a more conservative gameplan that keeps with recent tradition. For France, a title is out of the question unless Wales and Ireland both lose earlier in the day. The chances of that happening are vanishingly remote, but the French rarely need inspiration to play well against the English.
England remain largely unchanged, but have inserted Geoff Parling into their second row and place Nick Easter on the bench. France, on the other hand, have endured a dramatic week centering around the health of fly-half Camile Lopez. Lopez was initially training with the team, and Phillipe St. Andre claimed that he was able to kick on Wednesday. However, Clermont were evidently unsatisfied with the health of their star fly-half, and demanded that he shut down for the next four to six weeks. It will be fascinating to see if Lopez is playing in the Champions Cup quarterfinal on April 4, but it is an ominous sign to see such stark divisions between French club and national rugby.