The British and Irish Lions' tour of South Africa is set to go ahead as planned later this year after proposals to stage matches elsewhere were rejected.

Due to continued complications surrounding the coronavirus crisis, questions were raised over whether the Lions would be able to travel to South Africa for the eight-match trip.

But rather than host matches in the UK and Ireland, or take up Australia's offer to play games Down Under, it has been decided to press ahead with the original itinerary

The Lions and SA Rugby released a joint statement on Tuesday to confirm an agreement is in place over the staging of the tour, which begins on July 3 and continues into early August.

"After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the board's intended position is for the Tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021," said Lions chairman Jason Leonard.

"We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust Covid-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted Tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan."

However, the original plan for the Lions to play five warm-up matches against provincial teams, an invitational side and second-string South Africa A before the three-Test series with the Springboks could still change.

"We appreciate the Lions' faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour,” said SA Rugby president Mark Alexander in the same statement. 

"We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months.

"There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby, should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations. 

"But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners."

Speaking earlier on Tuesday, RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney acknowledged the preferred contingency plan of staging the tour in the UK had become increasingly unviable.

"It was always the preferred option to go to South Africa," he said. "We had to develop a whole range of different scenarios given the potential outcomes and one of those was a UK series.

"It's quite controversial as it's not the spirit of the Lions, but as fall-back option, we thought it was a strong one. If they can't host it, the agreement's off and we've probably run out of time to host it in the UK, so you play in 2025."

Lions coach Warren Gatland is due to announce a squad for the tour at the start of May, with the first warm-up match to be played on home soil on Murrayfield against Japan on June 26.

Ireland set the standard for future performances in wrapping up their Six Nations campaign with a 32-18 win over England, according to captain Johnny Sexton.

First-half tries from Keith Earls and Jack Conan - along with 22 points from the boot of Sexton - helped Andy Farrell's side claim a convincing victory in Dublin.

Ireland's place in the standings will only be decided when France meet Scotland in the tournament's final fixture next week.

But, whether he and his team-mates are leapfrogged in second place or not, Sexton had one major positive to take from the 2021 Six Nations.

He told ITV: "It was brilliant. We felt like we weren't far away all through the championship and it kind of clicked in some things.

"There's still lots of stuff we can improve on and get better, but that was the performance we wanted against a top-quality side. 

"[England are] one of the best sides in the world, who we have massive respect for - their players, their coaches, everyone - so that's the standard we've set now and hopefully we can keep backing it up and become more consistent. 

"I said to the boys last night that the only worry we should have is about backing up today and we put in a performance that will make us think twice about some of the standards that we set in that game."

England added an arguably undeserved hint of respectability to the scoreline as they ran in late tries through Ben Youngs and Jonny May following Bundee Aki's dismissal just past the hour mark.

Sexton believes that sort of indiscipline had hampered Ireland throughout the tournament, and called for it to be eradicated.

He added: "We still felt we should have stopped the try - a missed tackle - but we showed great guts throughout the tournament. 

"Sometimes when you don't take your chances, your performances are made out to be worse than they actually are. 

"The first game, we go down to 14, and indiscipline is still an issue at times. And against France, small margins, all these games. 

"Both of these teams could have been going for a championship today or a Grand Slam so they are the margins we have to make up next time we come together."

England put their points on the board through two Owen Farrell penalties - the second of which brought up his 500th Six Nations point - early in the first half and that late flurry of tries.

That left flanker Tom Curry rueing a failure to compete with Ireland in the "middle section" of the game.

"I'm obviously very disappointed. It's pretty gutting," he said.

"We knew it was going to be a really physical encounter. The past three times we have played them it has been all about physicality and today was no different.

"A bit of discipline cost us here and there. In the last 20 we showed a bit more of a glimpse of what we're about.

"It was that middle section where we need to back it up and we probably didn't do that today."

Johnny Sexton scored 22 points as 14-man Ireland saw off England 32-18 at the Aviva Stadium to end their Six Nations campaign on a high. 

Both sides were out of contention to win the competition heading into the final round of fixtures, but it was Ireland who claimed a third win in a row thanks to first-half tries from Keith Earls and Jack Conan. 

England were given an opportunity to launch a comeback 17 minutes from time when 26-6 behind, as Bundee Aki was dismissed for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. 

Yet despite Ben Youngs crossing over almost instantly, plus Jonny May adding a late second after Conor Murray was sin-binned, Ireland comfortably saw things through to earn a first win over England in five Tests. 

England were forced into a late back-line rejig as Ollie Lawrence replaced the injured Max Malins, but they settled quickly and took the lead through an early Owen Farrell penalty. 

Sexton slotted over three points to level things up, with the home side ahead four minutes later thanks to Earls' impressive score. 

Conan outjumped Tom Curry at a lineout and popped the ball to Earls, who found a gap and jinked his way past a couple of opponents for his second try of the tournament. 

It was the seventh Test running where England had conceded the first try and, while Farrell did reply with another penalty, Sexton restored Ireland's seven-point lead with one of his own. 

Andy Farrell's side then tightened their grip on the contest before half-time, the recalled Conan applying the finish to a patient move. 

England were given a lifeline when Earls had a try ruled out for Cian Healy's knock-on in the build-up, though Sexton split the sticks following an earlier infringement.  

The fly-half nailed another kick with an hour played but, just when it looked to be plain sailing for Ireland, referee Mathieu Raynal deemed Aki's challenge on Vunipola to be worthy of dismissal. 

Youngs charged over when played in by Jamie George to potentially set up a tense finale, only for the impressive Sexton to keep the hosts comfortably clear with two more penalties. 

May went outside his man to restore some pride for England in the final stages, at which point Ireland were down to 13 men after Murray was shown a yellow card, but there was to be no late twist.

Wales need a victory against France in Paris to reclaim the Six Nations crown, and complete a Grand Slam in the process.

Wayne Pivac's team have enjoyed a sensational turnaround in fortunes this year and last week's 48-7 thrashing of lowly Italy made it four wins from four.

With France subsequently losing to England at Twickenham, Wales will wrap up the title with a win on Saturday, while even a losing bonus point could be enough, though that may still leave the door open for Les Bleus to snatch glory should they win their postponed fixture against Scotland.

England are well out of the race, but their captain Owen Farrell is eyeing up a points landmark when the 2020 champions take on Ireland in Dublin.

Scotland, meanwhile, round off what will ultimately go down as a frustrating campaign against Italy.

We use Opta data to preview the round-five, Super Saturday encounters.

 

SCOTLAND V ITALY

FORM

Scotland have won their last five Six Nations games against Italy – the previous 10 clashes between the sides had seen them share five wins each.

Italy have lost 52 of 54 away games in the Six Nations, with their only two victories on the road coming in Scotland in 2007 and 2015.

That victory at Murrayfield in 2015 was Italy's last in the competition. Their losing streak now stands at 31 games, and they will pick up the wooden spoon for the 16th time in Six Nations history.

ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have the best tackle success rate (92 per cent) of any side in this year's competition. Hamish Watson leads the way in that regard, completing all 44 of his attempted tackles – he has made 133 consecutive tackles in the tournament without missing one, the second-longest such run in Six Nations history, behind Lionel Nallet's 154 for France.

Italy's Sebastian Negri has made 127 post-contact metres in the 2021 Six Nations, the most of any forward in the championship.

IRELAND V ENGLAND

FORM

England have won their last two meetings with Ireland in the Six Nations and could win three in a row against them for only the second time, after doing so between 2012 and 2014.

Ireland lost to France in their last home game, only once before have they suffered defeat in back-to-back home games in the Six Nations – in 2010 versus Scotland at Croke Park and 2011 versus France at the Aviva Stadium.

Jones' England have won their last four Tests against Ireland, preventing them from scoring any first-half points in their last two meetings and scoring an average of 4.3 tries per game in that run.

ONES TO WATCH

CJ Stander announced his retirement this week, with the 31-year-old set to hang up his boots at the end of the season. This will be his final appearance for Ireland, having won his 50th cap in the 27-24 win over Scotland in round four.

Owen Farrell, son of Ireland coach Andy, is the top scorer in the Six Nations this year (44) and is just six points away from 500 in the championship. Only Ronan O'Gara (557) has reached that milestone exclusively in the Six Nations (since 2000).

FRANCE V WALES

FORM

Wales are bidding to win a sixth Six Nations title (since 2000), only England (seven) have won the championship more often. If they win this match it would be their fifth
Grand Slam – no other side has more than three.

Recent history is on Wales' side heading to the Stade de France. They have won three of their last four away games against Les Bleus in the Six Nations (L1), triumphing in their last trip to Paris (24-19 in 2019) despite trailing by 16 points at half-time – the biggest comeback for a team in the competition. 

Indeed, pre-tournament favourites France have won only two of their last nine Six Nations games against Wales (L7) after winning nine of the previous 12 (L3).

ONES TO WATCH

Antoine Dupont already has four try assists in this Six Nations, only five players have ever recorded more in an edition of the championship, with Frederic Michalak
(seven in 2006) the only Frenchman to do so.

Louis Rees-Zammit is the joint top try scorer in the 2021 Six Nations (four, level with England's Anthony Watson). Shane Williams (six in 2008) is the only Welsh player to score more than four in an edition of the tournament.

Ireland number eight CJ Stander has dropped a retirement bombshell by declaring he will quit rugby at the end of the season.

Stander said the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and his club, Munster, tried to talk him out of leaving the game.

But 30-year-old Stander, who won his 50th cap in Ireland's 27-24 win over Scotland on Sunday, could not be persuaded to make a U-turn.

The South Africa-born back-rower said: "All professional sports people are told 'you will know when the time is right to hang up your boots'.

"It’s a sentiment one cannot fully comprehend until that day arrives. For me, that time has come, and I hereby publicly announce my retirement from all forms of rugby.

"I will be available to represent Munster until 27 June 2021 when my contract expires, and for international duty, until the end of the mid-year Test window."

Stander, who came to Ireland at the age of 22, said rugby had "started to take an unfair toll on my family".

He qualified to play for Ireland by residency and made his debut in the 2016 Six Nations, going on to play for the British and Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand a year later.

In 2018, Stander helped Ireland achieve a Six Nations Grand Slam, but now he says rugby must take a back seat.

"I asked myself whether I was still enjoying this enough to earn the continued support of Munster and Ireland, and to justify the sacrifices my family was making. From a performance perspective, the answer was yes," Stander said in a statement.

"But I always had the intent to retire while I was still playing some of my best rugby. I also knew I wanted my daughter Everli to grow up around her family in South Africa.

"When all these intentions and considerations intercepted each other during that training session, I discussed the implications thereof with [Munster] coach Johann van Graan and the Irish Rugby Football Union.

"I deeply appreciate that they tried to persuade me otherwise, but I knew it was time."

Johnny Sexton kicked a late penalty to make sure Ireland once again got the better of Scotland in the Six Nations, the visitors running out 27-24 winners at Murrayfield on Sunday.

Scotland went into the fixture still in with a shot of claiming the title but a 17th loss in the last 20 meetings between the two nations in the competition means Wales and France will fight it out to be crowned champions in 2021.

Hamish Watson's converted try in the 74th minute completed an impressive comeback from Scotland, who had trailed 24-10 at one stage in the second half.

However, having worked so hard to get back level in the contest, Scotland conceded a penalty from the kick-off, allowing Sexton to settle a see-saw contest in favour of Ireland.

The hosts had not played for a month – their round three fixture against France was called off due to a coronavirus outbreak within Les Bleus' squad – and were caught cold in the opening minutes of both halves.

Sexton slotted over an early penalty to start the scoring before putting his right boot to good use in open play, a cross-field kick meant for Keith Earls ending up breaking kindly for the late-arriving Robbie Henshaw to ground.

Finn Russell replied with a penalty and then cashed in on a fortunate break to get Scotland's first try.

Stuart Hogg charged down a clearing kick and twice hacked on before Russell did the same, James Lowe’s attempt to deal with the situation only knocking the ball up in the air to set up an easy finish for the fly-half.

The conversion made it 10-8 to Scotland, but a pair of Sexton penalties before the break was followed up by Tadhg Beirne plunging over in the 49th minute, his try by the posts leaving an easy kick to make it 21-10.

A further Sexton penalty built the lead out to 14, yet substitute Huw Jones gave Scotland hope, bursting through some weak tackling to make an instant impact following his introduction.

Hogg landed the extras having taken over kicking duties, the full-back also on target to bring his team level after Watson's strength close to the line allowed the flanker to force the ball down.

Yet Sexton scuppered Scotland's hopes as he had the last word, drilling over the match-winning kick from close to the touchline.

Jamison Gibson-Park retained his place in the Ireland side, while Sean Maitland and Jamie Ritchie will return for Scotland in Sunday's Six Nations encounter at Murrayfield.

Gibson-Park started the loss to France and victory over Italy, with Conor Murray ruled out, and the scrum-half did enough to retain the number nine jersey.

Murray is back on the bench along with Jordan Larmour, who is replaced on the wing by the experienced Keith Earls.

Prop Cian Healy comes in at loosehead at the expense of Dave Kilcoyne, who is named among the replacements as Andy Farrell's men attempt to make it two wins from four in the tournament. 

Gregor Townsend has made four alterations to his line-up for Scotland's first match in a month after their clash with France was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak in Les Bleus' camp.

Wing Maitland and flanker Ritchie return from injury, replacing Darcy Graham and Blade Thomson respectively.

Zander Fagerson's suspension gives prop WP Nel the chance to start, Sam Johnson makes his first appearance of the tournament in place of James Lang.

Grant Gilchrist and Nick Haining will be ready to feature in the 2021 Six Nations for the first time from the bench.

 

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Will Connors, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, WP Nel, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie. Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: David Cherry, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Nick Haining, Scott Steele, Huw Jones, Darcy Graham.

France resume their bid to win a first Six Nations title since 2010 with a trip to face wounded England at Twickenham, and Wales should made it four wins out of four this weekend.

A coronavirus outbreak in the French camp led to their clash with Scotland being postponed, but they will be back in action against the Red Rose on Saturday a month after beating Ireland.

Wales shattered England's hopes of retaining the title with a 40-24 win at the Principality Stadium and will be expected to stay perfect when they face Italy in Rome, also on Saturday.

Scotland will look to reignite their title challenge when they face Ireland at Murrayfield on Sunday.

We use Opta data to preview the round-four encounters.

 

ITALY v WALES

FORM

Wales have won their last 15 Tests against Italy, and a 16th would represent their longest ever winning run against a single opponent in Test rugby (they won 15 in a row against France from 1908 to 1927).

A win over England secured Wales' fifth Triple Crown of the Six Nations era, They completed the Grand Slam in each of their previous four Triple Crown-winning campaigns since 2000 (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019).

Italy's losing run in the competition stands at 30 games and they have lost 19 in a row at home, stretching back to a defeat of Ireland eight years ago.

ONES TO WATCH

Azzurri fly-half Paolo Garbisi has made more kicks in play (29) and recorded more kicking metres (1,142m) than any other player in this year's Six Nations.

Josh Adams marked his first match of the tournament by scoring a controversial try against England and the Wales wing will fancy his chances of touching down again in Rome.

 

ENGLAND v FRANCE

FORM

England have won nine of their 10 home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row. Their only defeat came in February 2005, going down 18-17.

France have won seven of their last eight games in the Six Nations and will look for a fourth consecutive victory in the competition this weekend.

Les Bleus have scored the opening try of the game in 15 of their most previous 18 matches in this tournament, including their last eight in a row.

ONES TO WATCH

Wing Anthony Watson will win his 50th cap for England. He has the best average gain per carry rate (10.1 metres) of anyone to make 10 or more carries in the 2021 Six Nations and has also made the most post-contact metres (141).

France lock Paul Willemse has not missed any of his 34 tackles in the Six Nations this year and has made the joint-second most dominant tackles with four, England's Tom Curry (5) the only player to have made more.

SCOTLAND v IRELAND

FORM

Ireland have lost just three of their last 19 games against Scotland in the Six Nations, winning all the rest. Each of the men in green's defeats came by a margin of five points or fewer.

Scotland have lost their last two Test matches at Murrayfield. They have not been beaten in more consecutive games at their traditional home venue since losing four on the bounce between November 2014 and March 2015.

Gregor Townsend's side are the only team to average fewer than 10 missed tackles (8.5) per game in the Six Nations in 2021 and as a result boast the best tackle success rate of 92 per cent.

ONES TO WATCH

Hamish Watson has been an influential performer for Scotland, winning three turnovers and getting through a huge amount of work in the back row.

Ireland back-row Tadhg Beirne has recorded the most ruck arrivals (117) in the tournament, hitting the most rucks of anyone in both attack (87) and defence (30).

Jacob Stockdale has been recalled to Ireland's Six Nations squad for the round four encounter with Scotland on Sunday.

Stockdale has played no part in the tournament so far due to a knee injury but made his return for Ulster against the Ospreys last month.

The versatile back also featured in a Pro14 defeat to Leinster last weekend and was called up by Ireland head coach Andy Farrell on Monday.

Stockdale's last appearance for his country came in a 31-16 Autumn Nations victory over Scotland in December.

Flanker Josh van der Flier will go through the graduated return to play protocols ahead of the showdown at Murrayfield, where Ireland and Scotland will be looking for a second win of the tournament. 

Shane Daly will not travel with the 36-man squad, as the centre is to remain with Munster.

Ireland hammered Italy 48-10 in round three following defeats to Wales and France.

Johnny Sexton will continue to strut his stuff for Ireland and Leinster after signing a one-year contract extension to the end of the 2021-22 season.

The 35-year-old laid to rest speculation over his immediate future as he agreed a longer deal with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) on Tuesday.

Sexton, the 2018 World Player of the Year, is Ireland's captain and talisman, with the fly-half in no rush to hang up his boots. 

"I am really enjoying my rugby and I want to keep learning and adding value to both the Ireland and Leinster environments," he said. 

"I am enjoying the challenge of captaincy and the added responsibility that it brings. My appetite for success is the same as it ever was and the ambitions of both the Ireland and Leinster squads match my own."

Sexton's impressive list of honours includes three Six Nations titles with his country, for whom he was won 97 caps, and four European Cups with Leinster. 

Ireland's 2021 Six Nations campaign started with back-to-back loss against Wales and France before Saturday's thrashing of Italy.

Johnny Sexton says Ireland are "on a journey" and praised the team's character to bounce back from consecutive Six Nations defeats to hammer Italy in Rome.

Andy Farrell's side had started the tournament with defeats to Wales and France, the first by five points and the second by only two.

Ireland outclassed a poor Italy side on Saturday, though, with the Azzurri now having lost 30 straight Six Nations matches following the 48-10 reverse – the longest losing streak in the competition's history. 

The visitors ran in six tries while Sexton, returning to the side from a head injury, was eight from eight from the tee. That represents the most by any Ireland player while maintaining a 100 per cent success rate from the tee since Paddy Jackson kicked nine of nine against Italy in 2017.

With games against Scotland and England to come, Sexton is keen to ensure Ireland build on a promising display.

"We need to keep our performance levels like that against two very good sides," Sexton told ITV Sport after his 50th Six Nations appearance.

"Scotland have been very impressive in the first two rounds and if not for a red card would have been top of the table, probably. 

"This group is on a journey together, we're a year into it and we'd have liked to have had that performance earlier. 

"It's not for the want of trying, it's just little mix-ups along the way. Thankfully we put them right.

"We played very well, all of our forwards did – they've been very impressive over the first two rounds. 

"We've felt as a team that us backs have let them down at times. We improved on a lot of those areas today and thankfully got the victory we were desperate for. 

"We spoke about how close we were in the first two – both very different games but just very proud of the boys, the way we bounced back, it's a real sign of character when things have been going the way they have in the last few weeks, just to stick together and to show the work we've been doing behind the scenes."

Ireland have now won 21 of their 22 games against Italy in the Six Nations, while the 38-point margin of victory was their biggest in any Test match since beating the same opposition 63-10 in February 2017.

Ireland kick-started their Six Nations campaign as they beat Italy for an eighth successive time in the competition, claiming a 48-10 bonus-point victory in Rome.

Having gone down to Wales and France in their opening matches – the first time Ireland had lost their first two games of a Six Nations campaign – Andy Farrell's men got their first win of the 2021 campaign on Saturday.

The returning Johnny Sexton was typically influential, on point with his kicking and integral to slick attacks as Ireland made it 21 wins from their last 22 Six Nations meetings with Italy.

Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and Will Connors propelled Ireland to a 27-point haul in the first half, Ireland's best first-half total in a Test since February 2018, with CJ Stander and Keith Earls also getting in on the act to seal a routine triumph.

Welcomed back into Ireland's line-up after missing the defeat to France due to a head injury, Sexton marked his 50th Six Nations appearance with a simple three-pointer five minutes in, moments after Paolo Garbisi nosed Italy ahead.

Sexton was adding two more points to his tally five minutes later, with Ringrose having picked a gap in Italy's defence to score the game's first try.

Another Sexton penalty edged Ireland further in front and despite some spirited Italy attacking, the visitors struck again as Ringrose turned provider for Keenan.

Ireland had a third try before half-time, Sexton combining with Jordan Larmour to feed Connors in the corner, though Italy managed to strike back through Johan Meyer.

Yet Italy's work was undone by sloppy defending immediately after the restart – Stander bundling his way over.

Italy's issues were compounded before the hour, substitute Giosue Zilocchi sent to the bin for an attempted ball steal.

Ireland appeared to have made their advantage count when Stander found the line again, only for the try to be disallowed for a knock-on.

Luca Bigi's booking handed Ireland a further boost, though, and Connors hauled himself over from a maul before Earls piled further misery on sorry Italy.

 

Perfect comeback for Sexton

Since his Six Nations debut, Sexton has missed just seven of a possible 57 matches in the championship, including Ireland's defeat to Italy in 2013.

Sexton successfully converted all eight of his kicks on Saturday, tallying up 18 points in total to give him a pristine record. The pace of the game was ideal for the 35-year-old, who also made eight tackles and 20 passes – the last of which played in Earls late on.

More misery for whipping boys Italy

Italy's losing run in the Six Nations now sits at 30 games, the longest of any side in the competition's history. Their last win at home was back in 2013, against Ireland (22-15).

They have now conceded a try-scoring bonus point in 18 of their 22 matches since such add-ons were introduced to the Six Nations in 2017.

What's next?

Italy welcome Wales to the Stadio Olimpico on March 13, with Ireland facing Scotland in Edinburgh a day later.

Wales go in search of a Triple Crown in a blockbuster battle against England, but France will not have an opportunity to make it three Six Nations wins out of three this weekend.

Wayne Pivac's Wales side are level on nine points with Les Bleus following victories over Ireland and Scotland, both of whom had a man sent off.

George North will become the youngest player in history to win 100 caps, but defending champions England will be determined to spoil the Wales centre's big occasion at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

The Red Rose beat Italy 41-18 last time out, following a loss to Scotland at Twickenham.

Winless Ireland will be expected to defeat the Azzurri to get up and running in the opening match of round three at Stadio Olimpico.

Sunday's planned showdown between France and Scotland was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the French squad.

We preview the matches in Rome and Cardiff with help from Opta.

ITALY v IRELAND

FORM

Ireland have scored 45 tries across their last seven games against Italy in the Six Nations (6.4 per game), scoring eight or more tries in three of their last five clashes.

Italy have conceded a try-scoring bonus point in 17 of their 22 matches since those incentives were introduced to the Six Nations in 2017; only England (9) have picked up more bonus points in the championship than Ireland (8). The Azzurri are the only side yet to register one.

Ireland have lost their opening two games of a Six Nations campaign for the first time. The last time they lost their opening three matches was in 1998, when they were beaten in all four Five Nations clashes.

ONES TO WATCH

Sebastian Negri has made 96 metres and made 21 tackles combined in Italy's losses to France and England. Franco Smith will need another strong showing from the flanker.

Ireland back-row CJ Stander has made more carries (36) than any other player in the 2021 Six Nations. He has topped the final rankings for this category in three of the last four editions of the championship.

WALES v ENGLAND

FORM

England have won six of their last seven Six Nations matches against Wales, with the last six of those fixtures all decided by a single-figure margin.

Wales have won their opening two games of the tournament for a sixth time. On four of the previous five occasions when they have started with back-to-back victories, they have gone on to win a Grand Slam (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019, not in 2009).

This weekend's visitors are the only team to have never conceded more than two tries in a Six Nations game played in Wales. They have scored 19 tries in Wales during the Six Nations, no visiting team have scored more (Ireland also 19).

ONES TO WATCH

North will become only the sixth Wales player to win a century of caps. The 28-year-old will form a new pairing with Jonathan Davies and will be looking to bring up his hundred with an all-action display.

Elliot Daly will win his 50th cap for England and coach Eddie Jones will expect the full-back to repay the faith he has shown in him after a slow start to the tournament.

Johnny Sexton is still "loving every moment" of playing rugby and has no intention of announcing his retirement, despite speculation over his future.

Ireland's captain missed the narrow home defeat to France in the second round of the Six Nations having suffered a head injury during his team's opening loss to Wales. 

However, Sexton is fit to return to action as Andy Farrell's side aim to finally get off the mark in this year's tournament when they take on Italy on Saturday at the Stadio Olimpico.

The 35-year-old raised questions over his career plans when he recently suggested he "might not" be around for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, though later clarified that was a "throwaway comment".

While already contemplating what may come in the next chapter of his life, Sexton remains as committed as ever to the game he loves.

"You never tell anyone your plans because they can change, can't they?" Sexton said.

"I've some things to work towards, whether it's over the next year or two years, I don't know. I'll work towards getting into the real world and starting another life.  

"There are some parts of this game that are amazing and you love – you'd love to be part of it forever. There are other parts, though, that you just can't wait to get a million miles away from. 

"I love it at the moment, I'm loving every moment of playing and I just want to focus on this campaign.

"If I stay on next year, I will try to make the most of that, just try to make the most of whatever is left." 

Sexton is under contract until the end of the campaign but has held negotiations about an extension for 2022, which will be a year out from the next World Cup on French soil. 

Asked if a new deal was close, he replied: "Nearly, nearly. I'm waiting on Leinster to see if they want to keep me or not. They have got a few good number 10s coming through!"

Ireland lost 21-16 to Wales after playing the majority of the match a man down following the red card for Peter O’Mahoney, while they were squeezed out 15-13 by Les Bleus last time out. 

"I don't think we've lost our confidence as a group. The start of the campaign has been a million miles off what we wanted, which was two wins from two," Sexton said on morale within the squad.

"But we took a lot of confidence from the Wales game with 14 men, in terms of the chances we created. The hard part in international rugby is creating chances – we've done plenty of that, we need to now go and take the next step and finish them off.  

"I don't think this group is low on confidence, we are all looking forward to finishing this campaign on a high."

Andy Farrell said Ireland are "hurting" physically and mentally after they suffered a 15-13 Six Nations defeat to France at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

Les Bleus ended a 10-year wait for a win in Dublin, digging deep to make it two wins out of two and consign the men in green to back-to-back defeats at the start of a Six Nations campaign for the first time.

France were clinical and defended brilliantly, with Charles Ollivon scoring a classy first-half try against the run of play and Damian Penaud crossing after the break.

Ronan Kelleher's first Test try after 57 minutes left a gripping battle in the balance and Ross Byrne's mammoth long-range penalty set up a tense finale, but France held on to leave Ireland's title hopes all-but over.

Ireland were already without Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and James Ryan due to injury and their luck at the start of the tournament was summed up when Iain Henderson and Cian Healy had to go off with blood streaming from their heads after a collision.

Both players were able to return but they were unable to prevent another defeat in a game of fine margins, with James Lowe's first-half try ruled out by the TMO as his foot made contact with the touchline. 

Ireland head coach Farrell said: "I thought we managed the game really well in the first half – even though the rain stopped it was still very wet, and obviously the French like to come with a lot of line speed.

"They defended really well in those last two minutes there. I thought the plan was going according to plan and we were doing very well set-piece wise, and our game management was very good. I thought we just lost our way a little bit in the third quarter there, and that got them back into the game.

"I suppose, really, when you look at it, if you give them set-pieces in your own half, they get over the gain line first phase, come round the corner second phase and get into their offloading game, then they're free-flowing. Some of that was a little bit soft from us.

"A lot of lads that are hurting in there – physically hurting as well as mentally. Because they put their bodies on the line for their country. The effort's not the problem at all, but it still hurts to lose this game."

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