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Three-way title fight as virus-hit Six Nations ends at last

The 2020 Six Nations Championship finally concludes on Saturday, with three teams still in title contention.

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.

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.

‘Formidable France’

“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. “They are a formidable side, especially at home.”

Robbie Henshaw replaces injured centre Garry Ringrose for 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.

Arthur Vincent replaces injured wing Teddy Thomas. Gael Fickou moves out wide, with centre Vincent alongside Fiji-born powerhouse Virimi Vakatawa in midfield.

Team manager Raphael Ibanez, France’s 1998 Grand Slam-winning captain, said: “The message to the players is simple. We have as much chance of winning the Six Nations as Ireland and England in this final round.”

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

They have yet to lose to the Azzurri and even though their warm-up game against the Barbarians last week was cancelled after several players from the invitational side breached Covid-19 health protocols, beaten World Cup finalists England remain firm favourites.

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

England coach Eddie Jones insisted bonus-point considerations would not cloud his judgement, saying instead he wanted to see his side “maximising our performance”.

Saturday’s opening fixture between Wales and Scotland 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.

They are bolstered by the returning Exeter duo of captain Stuart Hogg and lock Jonny Gray, with gifted fly-half Finn Russell starting after his international exile ended when he came off the bench during last week’s 48-7 warm-up hammering of Georgia. 

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

The New Zealander has dropped out-of-form wing George North from his 23 and recalled Liam Williams.

‘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.

“He not only leads by example in the games but in training, he’s magnificent in the way he carries himself.”

Saturday’s match is being played behind closed doors in Llanelli after Cardiff’s Principality Stadium was transformed into a field hospital in response to the pandemic.

It also takes place 48 years to the day since Llanelli’s celebrated defeat of New Zealand, an anniversary given added poignancy by the death aged 72 on Thursday of Scarlets, Wales and British Lions great JJ Williams, who played in that 9-3 victory over the All Blacks.

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