The pressure was on coming into the penultimate weekend of Six Nations action, as a few teams in the middle of pack were at risk of losing any hope of a late title challenge.
Wales and France were the only remaining undefeated teams ahead of the fourth weekend of play. The Welsh completed the Triple Crown a fortnight ago, while France have a game in hand after their tie with Scotland was postponed following a COVID-19 outbreak in the French camp.
Italy were still winless and pointless after three games, while Ireland and England occupied third and fourth respectively.
To kick off a potentially decisive weekend, Wales looked to move a step closer to completing a second Grand Slam in three years against the struggling Italians. The Azzurri would need a performance of a lifetime to stop the in-form Welsh, who have shown no signs of slowing down so far this tournament.
France were back in action for the first time in almost a month,with Les Bleus needing nothing less than a win in order to remain within touching distance of Wales. Their opponents England were also in desperate need of a victory and for other results to go their way. Another defeat for the reigning champions would all-but end any lingering hopes they had of retaining their title.
On Sunday, Scotland returned to action against Ireland. The Scots still have a game in hand, so a victory for them could spark a sense of urgency ahead of their final two games of the campaign. As for the Irish, a third defeat in four would ultimately be the killer blow in terms of their already slim titles chances.
With the stage almost set for next week’s thrilling finale, another captivating weekend of Six Nations Rugby lied ahead.
Italy 7-48 Wales
Wales now have one hand on the Six Nations trophy after a ruthless performance against the winless Italians. Italy have now lost 31 consecutive Six Nations matches, with their last victory coming in 2015 against Scotland.
An early Dan Biggar penalty and Josh Adams try got the visitors off to a merciless start.
The onslaught continued shortly after thanks to Taulupe Faletau, who crossed after some dazzling attacking play from the Welsh.
Ken Owens then scored Wales’ third try of the game to make the score 0-22 after just 22 minutes.
With the victory all-but sealed, Wales still continued to show no mercy to their feeble opponents, as Owens scored his second of the game on the half-hour mark.
Wales have put on a masterclass in attacking fluidity and defensive discipline against each of their opponents so far, once again showcasing exactly why they are the tournament favourites.
Italy had an impossible mountain to climb in the second half, and Wales made sure that mountain got even bigger after George North’s 43rd career-try for his country.
The hosts then scored their first of the game through Monty Ioane, but it was mere consolation as Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit each crossed to cap-off a merciless performance for the visitors.
This was the 16th consecutive Welsh win over Italy, which now marks Wales’ new longest winning streak against a single opponent. Wales have now also scored 17 tries in four games this campaign, matching their all-time tournament with one game still left to play.
Wales are on course for a historic Six Nations campaign. With the title now in their hands, a victory against France in the final weekend of action is all they need in order to complete an unforgettable Grand Slam triumph.
Another devastating loss for Italy has once again sparked discussion with regards to replacing The Azzurri with Georgia for the 2022 Six Nations Championship. Italy will be hoping to end the tournament on a high next week when they face Scotland at Murrayfield. Could it possibly be their final game as one of the six nations?
England 23-20 France
France suffered a major blow to their title chance as England came from behind to record a hard-fought victory in ‘Le Crunch’ at Twickenham.
The reigning champions were up against a French side who had yet to lose a game this tournament, so the odds were very much not in the host’s favour, especially after two defeats in their first three games.
And it was indeed France who came out swinging right from the get-go as Antoine Dupont crossed after barely a minute of action. Another dazzling move from the scrum-half this tournament showed just how influential Dupont has been for the French team over the last year.
Despite a bright start, the visitors were not in the driving seat for long, though. Anthony Watson levelled the score 10 minutes later on his 50th Test appearance for the Red and Whites. Shortly after, England went ahead through an Owen Farrell penalty.
A cracking affair was very much in store as both teams were going at it hammer and tongs after just 15 minutes of play.
Another Farrell penalty put England six points ahead, before France rallied to reclaim the lead thanks to a penalty from Matthieu Jalibert and a try from Damian Penaud.
The half-time whistle blew with Les Bleus leading 17-13. France’s execution on offence was the difference maker for them, but England’s passion and heart throughout the first half meant that this game was far from over.
A pair of penalties from each side in early stages of the second half saw France maintain a four-point lead over the hosts with 25 minutes left to play.
As the game went on, England and France continued to claw at each other with real intensity as the final whistle loomed.
France may have thought they had the victory in the bag after a scoreless period of time, but with three minutes left on the clock, Marco Itoje had the last word as he powered through the opposition to the seal a dramatic win for the English.
A memorable night for England, but Wales’ victory meant the reigning champions were now out of the title race.
As for France, they have an uphill task ahead of them following their first defeat of the tournament. If the French lose to Wales next week, their game in hand against Scotland will be meaningless as the Welsh will claim their second title in three tournaments.
Les Bleus need high-scoring wins against both Wales and Scotland to have the best chance at the clinching top spot.
England’s championship hopes may be over, but they’ll have their heads held high after a well-deserved victory over their rivals across the channel.
Scotland 24-27 Ireland
Ireland recorded their second win in two games after a narrow victory over Scotland, who following this defeat have no chance at glory.
The hosts came into the game knowing if they won each of their remaining three matches, which includes a game in hand against France, and Wales lose next week, the Scots would be right in the mix for this year’s Six Nations crown.
But after less than five minutes of play, the Irish opened the scoring via a Jonathan Sexton penalty. Robbie Henshaw then crossed shortly after to deservedly extend Ireland’s lead after some poor defending from Scotland.
Ireland may have established an early lead, but Scotland’s fighting spirit then took center stage as Finn Russell put Scotland ahead with a penalty and try of his own.
The Scots’ lead didn’t last long, though, as another Sexton penalty put the Irish right back in front.
Sexton then completed a first half hat trick of penalties to give Ireland a four-point lead heading into half-time.
In what was a feisty half, it was still very much anyone’s game going into the final 40 minutes. Tadhg Beirne powered over to get the second half started and give the Irish their biggest lead of the encounter.
The game was then put beyond Scotland’s reach thanks to Sexton’s fourth penalty. The Scots were now down 14 with 25 minutes left to play. Was there any way back for the hosts?
You bet. A Huw Jones try put Scotland within seven of their opponents, setting up a frantic final 10 minutes.
Scotland then completed the fightback and equalised thanks to Hamish Watson and a well-worked Scotland attack.
While the hosts would have thought momentum would remain on their side, Sexton scored yet another penalty to restore Ireland’s lead.
The penalty kick ultimately proved to be the winner as Ireland secured the victory after a relentless 80 minutes from both sides.
Ireland may have moved into second, but as a result of Wales’ win over Italy, the Irish were already out of the title race before kick-off at Murrayfield.
Regardless, Ireland can go into the final round of fixtures in high spirits and hoping to end the campaign with a third straight win when they take on England.
With England, Scotland and Ireland now fully out of title contention, all eyes will be on next week’s blockbuster clash between Wales and France.
A Wales victory will win them the title, while France can still dream of lifting their first championship since 2010 if they record victory and then beat Scotland the following week.
France’s tie against Scotland is reportedly set for Friday, March 26.
England will be looking to end their campaign with a second straight win when they visit Ireland, while Scotland host Italy in a game of little significance for both teams.
Here is the schedule for next week’s final round of fixtures, as well as France and Scotland’s game in hand:
Saturday, March 20: Scotland vs Italy – 14:15, Ireland vs England – 16:45, France vs Wales – 20:00
Friday, March 26: France vs Scotland – TBD