Six Nations: The Breakdown – Ireland chase Grand Slam and Sexton wants record, but France lurk with intent

By Sports Desk March 17, 2023

Ireland can make it a glorious farewell to the Six Nations for record-chasing captain Johnny Sexton as they chase a Grand Slam on Saturday, with England their visitors.

It will be Ireland's title and a clean sweep of wins if they get the better of Steve Borthwick's team at the Aviva Stadium, while Sexton's next points will make him the leading scorer in championship history. He stands level for now with former team-mate Ronan O'Gara on 557 points.

Celebrations could already be in full swing in Dublin before kick-off in the unlikely event of Wales upsetting France in Paris earlier in the day.

France are the only team who can deny Ireland Six Nations glory now, trailing by four points going into the final round of matches.

Bonus points could yet be a factor in the final reckoning, but Ireland will be optimistic they can take that out of the equation by getting the better of an England side who were thrashed last week by Les Bleus.

Scotland face Italy in the day's opening game, before attention turns to the race for the trophy.

Here, Stats Perform runs down key aspects to look at in the three games, with the help of some standout Opta data.

FRANCE v WALES

FORM

Fabien Galthie's France team were so impressive at Twickenham last week they brought a tear to the coach's eye. That 53-10 drubbing in London showed France at their best, and they have won each of their last three Six Nations matches against Wales.

The tide has turned in the rivalry, given France had lost seven of the previous eight battles between the sides in the competition. After last year's Grand Slam, France will believe they can ramp up pressure on Ireland by getting the win at the Stade de France, having won nine of their last 10 Six Nations home matches, including each of the last four.

Wales stopped a six-game run of defeats in the Six Nations by beating Italy 29-17 last time out, to the relief of coach Warren Gatland. It was their longest run without a Six Nations victory since a seven-game sequence in 2006 and 2007, when they lost six and drew one.

There are areas where Wales are still doing well. For instance, they have conceded the joint-fewest turnovers of any side in this year's Six Nations (44, level with Ireland), and only Ireland (30) have won more turnovers than Wales (23). However, it would be a surprise if France do not ramp up the pressure on Ireland with a comfortable win and perhaps a bonus point into the bargain.

ONES TO WATCH

France will look to wings Damian Penaud and Ethan Dumortier to trouble Wales. Five players in this year's Six Nations have a 50 per cent or better tackle evasion rate among those who have faced 20 or more attempted tackles, and Penaud (79 per cent) and Dumortier (51 per cent) are among them.

For Wales, Taulupe Faletau will win his 100th cap and become the eighth man to reach that landmark for the team. Veterans George North and Alun Wyn Jones are among those coming into the starting XV, with Gatland giving the old-stagers a chance to potentially sign off their Six Nations careers in style.

IRELAND v ENGLAND

FORM

Ireland have won their last two Six Nations clashes with England, scoring exactly 32 points in each of those games, and the men in green have bagged 13 wins from their last 23 encounters with this weekend's opponents.

After finishing strongly last year, Ireland are on a seven-game winning run in the Six Nations, and an eighth win in a row would be a record for the team.

That would be cause for celebration alongside the Grand Slam, which would be a third for Ireland in the Six Nations era after 2009 and 2018 clean sweeps. They are chasing a fifth Six Nations title in all, and a seventh Triple Crown in this six-team era.

England's defeat to France last time out was their heaviest ever in the championship, so they have recalled Owen Farrell after dropping the captain, as coach Borthwick looks for a major response.

This game could yet be tight. Ireland (37) and England (34) have conceded the fewest penalties in this year's Six Nations, and they have achieved the highest share of territory per game (England – 60 per cent, Ireland – 59 per cent). Something has to give.

ONES TO WATCH

Sexton scored seven points against Scotland last weekend to move level with O'Gara, so his first kick at goal on Saturday will be a big moment. The record has been in his sights since the start of his final Six Nations, and the 37-year-old should clinch it on home soil.

Dan Cole is poised to win his 100th Test cap for England. He starts among the replacements, ready to become just the fourth player to reach a century for the England men’s team, after Jason Leonard, Ben Youngs and captain Farrell.

SCOTLAND v ITALY

FORM

The days of this fixture being a wooden spoon decider are gone for now, with Scotland much improved in recent years. Italy, too, are a stronger side than they have been for a good while, so they will be frustrated to have lost four from four so far.

Scotland have won each of their last seven Six Nations matches against Italy, their longest winning run against any nation in the championship. Their last Six Nations loss to the Azzurri was a 22-19 setback at Murrayfield in 2015, which was Italy's seventh win over the Scots in the championship. Italy have had just six wins against all other teams in the championship combined.

Italy's recent record in the Six Nations is truly dire, losing 40 of their last 41 games, with the exception among those defeats coming on the final weekend of last year's championship, when they won 22-21 in Wales.

ONES TO WATCH

Scotland's Matt Fagerson has made the most tackles of any player in the 2023 championship (70), while team-mates Jonny Gray (37), Jack Dempsey (32) and Luke Crosbie (32) are the only players to have made 30-plus tackles without missing one. Fagerson, Gray and Dempsey feature this weekend. Their prowess could be key as Scotland look to cope without injured backs Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg.

Italy's Juan Ignacio Brex and Paolo Garbisi are two of three players to have provided a championship-high six break assist passes in this year's championship, matching Ireland's Mack Hansen.

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    Italy must be "meaner" when they face Spain in Thursday's heavyweight Group B clash after starting Euro 2024 with an unconvincing win over Albania, says Luciano Spalletti. 

    The Azzurri were stunned by the fastest goal in European Championship history on Saturday as Nedim Bajrami put them behind within just 23 seconds, but goals from Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barella saw them rally for a 2-1 win.

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    They have also gone unbeaten through 10 games at the tournament for just the second time (seven wins, three draws), previously doing so in their first 10 between 1968 and 1988 (four wins, six draws), lifting the trophy in 1968.

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    Their strike rate of 160.2 in the final five overs when chasing at the T20 World Cup is the second highest of any team, behind only West Indies (163.8).

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