As the 6 Nations moves towards its climax, each of the sides will be setting targets.
For Scotland it’s simply a matter of continuing their upward progress. They have home advantage as they take on Wales and can take inspiration from their 2017 win 15-14.
Wales travel north to Glasgow buoyed by a defiant performance against the Red Roses. The two tries they scored at the end of each half renewed their faith in their methods and resilience. Rowan Phillips has announced this squad:
Lauren Smyth (Ospreys); Jasmine Joyce (Scarlets), Hannah Jones (Scarlets), Lleucu George (Scarlets), Jess Kavanagh (RGC); Robyn Wilkins (Blues), Keira Bevan (Ospreys); Caryl Thomas (Dragons), Carys Phillips (Captain, Ospreys), Amy Evans (Ospreys), Gwen Crabb (Ospreys), Mel Clay (Ospreys), Alex Callender (Scarlets), Bethan Lewis (Dragons) Siwan Lillicrap (Ospreys)
Bench: Kelsey Jones (Ospreys), Cara Hope (Ospreys), Cerys Hale (Dragons), Alisha Butchers (Scarlets), Manon Johnes (Cardiff Blues), Ffion Lewis (Scarlets), Lisa Neumann (RGC); Elinor Snowsill (Bristol Bears)
France Both Lénaïg Corson and Safi N’Diaye will be missing from their second row through injury – a sad setback to their hopes. But it gives the selectors the opportunity to test out their back-up strength. Will their absence be enough to ensure victory for their Irish hosts? Probably not, but their senior players will remember the result at Donnybrook two years ago, a 13-10 home triumph.
Ireland still aren’t back to the giddy heights of their two Championship wins of 2013 and 2015. There was intense frustration at the result in Italy (29-27). Several new caps have been making their mark, and they must hope that things begin to click when the French come into town. The loss of Leah Lyons to injury is a blow to their hopes of forward domination.
Italy will want to remind everyone that they are the coming nation; they had a first-ever win over Ireland in Round 4. Now they face the biggest challenge, taking on the professionals away from home. They managed three tries against the Red Roses at the Stoop two years ago, but since then were put firmly in their place at the World Cup 56-13.
England The target has been plain from the kick-off: to regain the crown lost to France last year. Their performances have set new standards, but they are aware of weaknesses that need addressing. All three sides they have played have scored tries against them – even if the Irish one didn’t involve crossing the line. Any scoreline finishing -0 must be a first objective. Bench players will need to prove their defence remains watertight right to the end.
England and Italy are both unbeaten after three rounds – the first time ever the Azzurre can claim the achievement. They will have to set sensible targets for this game: they failed to break Wales down in an eventful but fallible 3-3 draw. England topped 50 points in Cardiff.
We can be sure Simon Middleton would love to include in his next side all the contracted players who have had little or no chance to shine thus far. A XV picked along these lines would include: Jo Brown, Rowena Burnfield, Bryony Cleall, Vicky Fleetwood (newly restored to health, we hope), Claudia Macdonald, Emily Scott and Carys Williams. Sadly selection can’t operate by sentiment alone.
Sandy Park Exeter had already sold 8700 tickets for the Italy game over a week before the event. That’s nearly twice the best gate that the Twickenham Stoop has achieved! The first 5-figure return can’t be far away.
Scotland v Wales Friday 8 March KO 19.35
England v Italy Saturday 9 March KO 12.05
Ireland v France Saturday 9 March KO 19.00
How to fill the international gap for all the non-international players? The French are experimenting with a 10-a-side knock-out cup for the Top 16 clubs. They have met three times in the qualifying phases, then the successful eight will play off for the cup on Sunday. An interesting move. They believe 10-a-side provides the best balance for meaningful games with reduced forces.
Meanwhile in England the Tyrrells Development sides can bask in a sort of reflected glory, but that still leaves large swathes of players unoccupied. Saracens have recently demonstrated the depth of their playing power: two full internationals in their second team, even another on the bench! But that is the redoubtable Sonia Green, their longest serving and most revered player, happily restored to health after a lengthy injury.