England out to ruin O'Driscoll's party
February 21, 2014
The majestic Brian O'Driscoll becomes the joint most-capped player in world rugby on Saturday © Getty Images
And then there were two. Just France and Ireland can win the Grand Slam but both face mammoth hurdles in the third round of the Six Nations if they are to continue their bid for a clean sweep. While teams vying for the championship will play in Cardiff and Twickenham this weekend, Italy and Scotland will attempt to record their first win of the tournament when they meet in Rome. Nothing is decided on the third round of a championship, but there is plenty on the line.
England v IrelandSaturday, 4pm, Twickenham, BBC One
Regardless of nationality or loyalty, Twickenham will rise as one to salute Brian O'Driscoll when he runs out on to the pitch on Saturday afternoon becoming the joint most-capped player in world rugby. It will be his 139th Test cap but he will give that scant thought as Ireland focus on keeping their Grand Slam bid on track. With victories over Scotland and Wales under their belt, Joe Schmidt has kept the faith with the team who won in round two with Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy named on the bench.
For England, they still have a shot at the title but will need to beat Ireland on Saturday. With Dan Cole crocked, Stuart Lancaster has named David Wilson at tight-head, despite him having played just 47 minutes of rugby for the past two months. Much of the focus will also be on George Ford who will make his Test debut if given the chance from the bench.
England head into the game after they eased past Scotland 20-0 in round two but Lancaster knows full well what lies in wait for his youthful team. In an attempt to harness the full power of the home crowd, Lancaster has opted for the team coach to park that little bit further away so the squad will walk into the ground surrounded by their cheering support in a Toulon-esque manner.
Weather: At present it looks like a cool 9°C come kick-off.
Odds: England are 4/7 favourites with Ireland at 11/8.
Prediction: Ireland by two
Italy v ScotlandSaturday, 1.30pm, Stadio Olimpico, BBC One
Two teams without a win in the 2014 championship, but one will go into this game more buoyant than the other. Italy seem to be stuck in a perpetual realm of being valiant losers but there are little glimmers of hope that their back line might finally be clicking with Michele Campagnaro now an essential cog in the centres. Tommaso Allan is showing confidence beyond his tender years while Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse, who will win record 104th caps on Saturday, add that element of experience.
Italy make three changes for the match with Angelo Esposito, Robert Barbieri and Alessandro Zanni all starting. Scotland too make three changes but their morale is likely to be a fair few rungs lower than Italy's.
Such was the ineptitude of their performance against England, there were calls for them to be booted out of the championship. Reactionary and overblown yes, but the pressure is on Scotland to stop the rot. There is still no place in the side for Kelly Brown while Ross Ford, David Denton and Tim Swinson drop out. Johnnie Beattie, Scott Lawson and Richie Gray start.
Weather: Perfect conditions for rugby with the temperature a comfortable 14°C.
Odds: Italy are favourites at 4/7 with Scotland priced at 11/8.
Prediction: Italy to heap the woe on Scotland with a five-point win.
Wales v FranceFriday, 8pm, Millennium Stadium, BBC One
Wales go into the match as reigning champions, but the French seem a more settled outfit. They are two from two heading into this game having seen off England and Italy and are going for the clean sweep. France's style of play is sometimes fairly route one but with the majestic Wesley Fofana in the centres, they have a sparkle of individual brilliance. Their only change sees Wenceslas Lauret replace Bernard Le Roux.
For Wales, it is not quite panic stations, but Warren Gatland has told his Wales players if they do not perform, it could be the last time they play for the country. Mike Phillips has been dropped with Rhys Webb starting while George North shifts to the centres. Luke Charteris also returns as they look to bounce back from that inept performance against Ireland.
Weather: The roof is shut but for those meteorologists out there, there's a chance of rain and a temperature of 6°C.
Odds: Wales go in as favourites at 4/7 with France at 6/4.
Prediction: Wales will bounce back in a kick-fest, winning 18-15.
What the coaches have said
"You have to be incredibly resilient, incredibly talented, a phenomenal professional, and there's your summary: that's Brian O'Driscoll." - Ireland's Joe Schmidt on Brian O'Driscoll
"I am happy with who I am. I'm not changing. And I don't really care what they say about me." - Scotland boss Scott Johnson
"If they don't play well on Friday night it could be the last time they will play for Wales." - Wales' Warren Gatland lays down the law
Three match-ups to watch
George North v Mathieu Bastareaud - The world's axis will shift a touch when North connects with Bastareaud in the centres.
David Wilson v Cian Healy - Much has been made of Wilson's lack of fitness and Ireland's Cian Healy will take advantage of any weakness.
Tommaso Allan v Duncan Weir - It's a case of 'here's what you could've won' when Allan runs out against Scotland. He could have been wearing a different shade of blue had he chosen to play for Scotland over Italy, but he will be part of the Azzurri come Saturday.
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.