Ollie Lawrence has revealed that England’s stunning victory over Ireland was forged in the disappointment of their Calcutta Cup mauling at Murrayfield.

A 23-22 triumph clinched through Marcus Smith’s last-gasp drop goal means England will contest the Guinness Six Nations title on ‘Super Saturday’ when they face France in Lyon.

Ireland remain in the driving seat but the standout win of Steve Borthwick’s 20 Tests in charge means their dream of completing back to back Grand Slams is over.

All facets of England’s game came together on a captivating afternoon at Twickenham where their skills and intent were matched by a steely resolve and Lawrence admits the display was fuelled by their error-strewn mauling by Scotland in round three.

“We’re happy with the win. Coming to Twickenham, back home, it was really important for us to bounce back after the Scotland game,” said the Bath centre, who scored the first of his side’s three tries.

“We were really frustrated and disappointed that we didn’t put in our best performance up there. There was a lot of frustration in camp.

“We left a lot out there so our mindset coming into this game was that we’re playing against the best team in the world here. This is our home ground, let’s take it to them and bring the physicality and let’s have a go.

“Last week in training we worked a lot on our kick return and our counter attack, which is an important element of our game, but we didn’t really show it against Scotland.

“It was a shift in mindset – let’s shift the ball and have a go at these teams because we’ve got such good players but we need to utilise them.

“We got the balance right against Ireland that’s the reason we got the result we did.”

England were expected to be the latest victims of Ireland’s procession to becoming the first side since France in 1997 and 1998 to win successive Grand Slams, an outlook reflected in their startling odds of 4-1 underdogs.

Instead, they tore into Andy Farrell’s men from the start and never allowed their heads to drop even when James Lowe ran in what appeared to be a decisive 72nd-minute try for the champions.

“There was a lot of external noise that we did touch on throughout the week. A lot of focus was on trying to shut that up, but also trying to ignore it as much as we can,” Lawrence said.

“Because when you play well for England everyone is behind you and when you don’t get the result you want everyone can be on your back.

“As a team we tried to stay as close as we could and ignore that. Playing at home, against Ireland, showed we’re heading in the right direction.

“The title discussion will be outside noise. All we can do is go to France and try to win that game. That will be our focus for the week.

“We will probably look back and rue that result against Scotland. Fine margins, we didn’t perform that day but we did today so it’s a step forward.”

Huw Jones batted away any notion that Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was under pressure after Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations implosion in Italy.

The Scots blew their chance to set up a shootout for the title with Ireland in Dublin next weekend as they went down 31-29 in Rome despite holding a 22-10 lead after an encouraging opening half an hour.

It was the Azzurri’s first Six Nations victory at home for 11 years and their first in the championship since winning in Wales two years ago.

The surprise defeat cranks up the heat on Townsend just five months after the Scots – widely deemed to have one of the best squads in their history at present – suffered a second consecutive World Cup group-stage exit on the 50-year-old’s watch.

However, Jones claimed the players should carry the can for the debacle in the Eternal City and appeared irritated by the suggestion that it would place the long-serving head coach under renewed scrutiny.

“I don’t know about that,” said the experienced centre. “We’re all behind the coaches, we’re all behind Gregor.

“We love the way we play, the way we want to play. We have a good plan.

“When we execute it, it’s brilliant and we play some good rugby. I don’t think this defeat was on Gregor, I think it was on the players.

“We didn’t execute our plan well enough and Italy played well.”

Scotland looked in control after three tries in the opening half hour from Zander Fagerson, Kyle Steyn and Pierre Schoeman. But a disallowed George Horne touchdown – after a foul in the build-up by Schoeman was detected – two minutes into the second half when they led 22-16 proved pivotal.

Italy, who had scored in the first half through Martin Page-Relo, turned the screw with tries from debutant Louis Lynagh and substitute Stephen Varney, and some excellent kicking under pressure from Paolo Garbisi took the game away from the Scots before Sam Skinner’s late try gave them a glimmer of what ultimately proved false hope.

Saturday was one of Jones’ most soul-destroying days in a Scotland jersey, and he said: “We hate losing. It’s really tough to take, hugely disappointing.

“We spoke during the week before the game about having our best performance, having an 80-minute performance, but we were really poor in the second half. We let the game slip away from us.

“Credit to Italy, they were good, but we had that try chalked off and then conceded four or five penalties in a row. We couldn’t get back in the game and they managed that period better than us.

“Our discipline wasn’t good enough. We didn’t react to that try-swing well enough.

“We are gutted with our performance. Across the board we managed it badly. The leadership and the processes and the communication was good but we’ve all got to look at ourselves and the actions we took.”

While the manner of the defeat itself was bad enough, there was further reason for Scottish frustration later in the day when Ireland’s surprise defeat to England meant Townsend’s men had effectively squandered a golden chance to set up a last-day title shootout with Ireland.

Had they won in Rome, they would have been able to secure a first championship triumph since 1999 with victory in Dublin next weekend.

Instead – although still with an unrealistic mathematical chance of the title – they head to the Irish capital scrambling to avoid a demoralising two-win, bottom-half finish from a campaign that previously promised so much.

Jones admitted it felt like Scotland had let a huge opportunity slip from their grasp.

“Yes, definitely,” he said. “It is really disappointing.

“We wanted to get a win and then go to Dublin next week full of confidence and try to do something but this obviously takes the wind out of the sails a bit.

“We’ve got to react, we’ve got to react quickly and prepare for another game.

“We’ll go through a range of emotions but we’ve got to review it objectively and then turn our attention to Ireland.”

Jamison Gibson-Park feels the prospect of igniting another St Patrick’s weekend party in Dublin is a “massive” incentive to help Ireland swiftly move on from an agonising 23-22 defeat to England.

Andy Farrell’s men were on the verge of retaining the Guinness Six Nations title with a game to spare before being punished by Marcus Smith’s last-gasp drop goal at Twickenham.

The “gutting” late drama halted Ireland’s pursuit of consecutive Grand Slams but they will still win the championship if they beat Scotland next Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

Leinster scrum-half Gibson-Park is eager to lift more silverware on home soil following the jubilation of last year’s flawless tournament triumph, which was sealed with a win over England amid patron saint celebrations in the Irish capital.

“We’ve thrown a lot into this championship and we were pretty keen to go after the Grand Slam,” he said.

“That’s gone now but there’s still plenty to play for, thankfully.

“It’s massive, man. I mean we were able to get it done last year in front of our friends and family and home supporters, which means a huge amount.

“There will be that same drive next weekend for sure.

“Faz (Farrell) has already said to us that we’ve got to dust ourselves down, congratulate England and just get ready for Scotland.”

Jack Crowley’s four penalties ensured Ireland led 12-8 at the break in south-west London before James Lowe’s two tries put them on the cusp of glory.

But Steve Borthwick’s impressive hosts were the better side for large parts and deservedly snatched victory at the death as replacement fly-half Smith decisively added to scores from Ollie Lawrence, George Furbank and Ben Earl to spark wild scenes on the pitch and in the stands.

Gibson-Park was forced to play the final 30 minutes out of position on the right wing after the departures of Calvin Nash and Ciaran Frawley to failed head injury assessments exposed head coach Farrell’s decision to name a six-two split of forwards and backs on the bench.

The 32-year-old expects a thorough inquest into only Ireland’s second defeat in 22 games dating back to the summer of 2022.

“We are thankful over the last number of years, we have been on the right side of the ledge a lot of the time,” he said.

“But every now and again, it’s the way it goes.

“Plenty of things to review and obviously we have to dust ourselves down because there’s still a championship on the line.

“It will be tough but England showed up and sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles and you don’t end up on the right side of the result.

“It’s gutting but plenty to learn and we’ll have to show up for next week.”

Captain Peter O’Mahony credited England for derailing Ireland’s Grand Slam dream.

The Munster flanker, who was sin binned for hands in ruck just before the hour mark, said: “It was a massive pressure match, pressure environment.

“They’re a quality side and I thought they showed that in spades with the way they defended, clinical in their attack, and disrupted a lot of the stuff that we wanted to do.

“It was a savage battle out there.”

Ben Earl hit back at England’s critics after they produced their best display since the 2019 World Cup by dispatching Ireland 23-22 at Twickenham.

Marcus Smith’s match-winning drop goal in the last act of a spellbinding match denied Ireland the chance to complete back-to-back Grand Slams and ensured the Guinness Six Nations title will be decided on the final weekend.

England will be contesting the crown when they face France and they will head to Lyon lifted by an inspired afternoon against the current champions, a fortnight after they blundered their way to defeat by Scotland.

Steve Borthwick’s men were given little chance of beating Ireland – bookmakers rated them 4-1 underdogs – yet they delivered their most complete performance since the 2019 World Cup victory over New Zealand.

“Unbelievable really. I’m a bit emotional,” player of the match Earl said.

“Some of the crap that has been thrown at the team over this last week, apparently we are the worst England team ever. We have done pretty well for that accolade.

“We knew from the beginning of the game if we played our best stuff we would have a chance. Amazing stadium, amazing fans, amazing team-mates. Credit to the fans. What a great day.

“We train like that every day. We all know sometimes that doesn’t translate onto the pitch but people don’t see half the stuff we do. I’m just so pleased.”

England were headed for defeat when James Lowe crossed in the 72nd minute to nudge Ireland in front until a late do-or-die surge ended with Smith landing his decisive drop-goal.

Jamie George, the team’s captain who watched the nerve-jangling final moments from the sidelines, joked that the result was “never in doubt”.

“I don’t like watching but I was in awe of the boys on the field – the composure they showed but also going out there to attack the game and win the game,” George said.

“We didn’t panic at any stage and I have to admit it was a bit emotional at the end because of everything that’s gone on.

“I was just so proud of the players on the field. They applied themselves. It was never in doubt!”

Borthwick revealed that there are injury concerns over Chandler Cunningham-South and Henry Slade ahead of the final match against France and played down an exchange of words with Ireland boss Andy Farrell shortly before half-time.

“It’s between Andy and (me). I know people want to read things into that but Andy and I have a good relationship,” Borthwick said.

Andy Farrell is confident Ireland will quickly dust themselves down for another shot at Guinness Six Nations glory after their dream of successive Grand Slams was extinguished in heartbreaking fashion by England.

Farrell’s men were on the brink of retaining the championship title with a round to spare when Marcus Smith kicked a last-gasp drop goal to settle a captivating Twickenham encounter 23-22 in the hosts’ favour.

While back-to-back clean sweeps are now off the table, Ireland will still win the tournament if they defeat Scotland next weekend in Dublin.

“We said from the beginning that we’d like to be in with a chance of winning the competition on the last day and here we are,” said head coach Farrell.

“Look, the lads are realists, they’ll learn the lessons quickly.

“There’s not a problem at all about getting the lads back on track for next week.

“Six Nations (titles) are unbelievably difficult to come by. To win them you tend to have a lot of ups and downs.

“We were on the wrong side of that result but there will be absolutely no problem whatsoever getting back to work next week for what is a super important week for Irish rugby.

“You dust yourselves down. We’ve been very good at winning and moving on to the next one. We’ve got to be really good at losing as well.

“We’ve got to dust ourselves down tomorrow and make sure that we turn up with a smile on our face because we’ve got a championship to win next weekend.”

England were overwhelming underdogs ahead of Saturday evening’s showdown but emphatically answered their critics by producing the finest display of the Steve Borthwick era.

Yet James Lowe’s second try of the afternoon, which arrived in the 72nd minute and added to four Jack Crowley penalties, looked to have snatched victory for the visitors until Smith’s decisive intervention.

Farrell had no complaints about the result and was full of praise for the opposition, who crossed three times through Ollie Lawrence, George Furbank and Ben Earl to bounce back from a disappointing Calcutta Cup loss to Scotland in round three.

“Look at the quality of the players that they’ve got,” said Farrell.

“Certainly when you’re coming off the back of a defeat it tends to concentrate the mind a little bit – hopefully it does for us next week.

“We always prepare for every game for everyone to be at their best.

“I thought they were super tonight, I thought they were physical, they were challenging on the gain line and played a nice brand of rugby as well.

“To cut a long story short, I actually thought that England deserved to win.”

Frustrated Gregor Townsend refused to entertain questions about his future after Scotland suffered a calamitous second-half collapse on their way to a costly 31-29 Guinness Six Nations defeat in Italy.

The Scots arrived in Rome aiming to enhance their bid for a first top-two finish in the championship this century, while they still held out some hope of winning the title. However, their loss in the Eternal City, allied to England’s win over Ireland, leaves them staring at the prospect of a bottom-half finish.

Things looked to be going well for Townsend’s team when they led 14-3 and 22-10 during the first half following tries by props Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman and wing Kyle Steyn. A disallowed George Horne try early in the second half following a foul by Schoeman proved pivotal though.

Italy, who had scored in the first half through Martin Page-Relo, turned the match in their favour with tries from debutant Louis Lynagh and substitute Stephen Varney. And some excellent kicking under pressure from Paolo Garbisi took the game away from the Scots before Sam Skinner’s late try gave them a glimmer of hope.

Scotland incredibly still have an outside chance of finishing in the top two as they prepare to head to Ireland for their final match next weekend, but losing to Italy for the first time since 2015 represents a major setback for Townsend just five months after an underwhelming display at the World Cup brought pool-stage elimination.

When the head coach, who is contracted until 2026, was asked if he felt his job was under threat after his side became the first to lose a Six Nations match in Rome since 2013, he said: “I’m not going to answer that question.

“We’re disappointed with the result today, but we know this team have come on since the World Cup.

“We can look at this result and be really disappointed, but I’ve been really proud of how this team’s played during the championship so far.

“I believe in this group. You can look at results and say: ‘We’ve lost to Italy, this team aren’t going to take that next step’. Or you can look at where we’ve grown since the World Cup.

“I still believe the performances the players are putting in can show we can beat anybody.

“But if we take our eye off the ball for a period of time, we can be beaten. That’s what happened today.”

Townsend admitted Scotland were architects of their own downfall – although he did acknowledge a superb performance from Italy, who won their first championship match since their victory in Wales two years ago.

“The credit has to go to Italy as well,” said Townsend. “There are two teams that play the game, not just one. I thought that Italy were very good even in the first half where we dominated most of the possession.

“But our actions after the try that was disallowed weren’t good enough. We gave Italy a way into the game through penalties and field position. If you give that to any team in the Six Nations, they’re going to take the points, which they did.

“It’s very frustrating that we didn’t get that try, which is down to our execution, and after that it was even more frustrating.”

Townsend admitted the result “hurts a lot” but he remains steadfast in his belief that Scotland are continuing to make progress overall under his stewardship.

“We won in Wales for the first time since 2002 this year,” he pointed out. “We retained the Calcutta Cup. We had a decision (over what would have been a match-winning try) go against us in the game with France.

“This result is very disappointing. We’ve lost against a good Italy side, one of the best Italian teams I’ve seen. But today is not what defines this team.”

Marcus Smith’s stoppage-time drop goal rewarded England’s standout performance of the Steve Borthwick era as the Guinness Six Nations title race was taken to the final weekend with a 23-22 victory over Ireland.

Smith, making his first appearance of the tournament after recovering from a calf injury, struck in the final act of the game to deny Ireland back-to-back Grand Slams on an afternoon of high drama at Twickenham.

Watched from the stands by former captain Owen Farrell, England’s attack finally ignited as Ollie Lawrence, George Furbank and Ben Earl plundered tries to topple opponents who had been installed by bookmakers as staggering 1/5 favourites to win.

The Achilles heel of failing to capitalise on visits to the 22 appeared to be harming them once again and their 8-6 lead was a poor return for half an hour of dominance that produced just a single try for Lawrence.

But they were inspired in the closing stages, soaking up James Lowe’s 72nd-minute try that appeared to have snatched the win for Ireland and then striking through Smith amid a late do-or-die assault.

England dazzled from the start and their first try had Furbank’s influence stamped all over it as he launched the counter-attack and then helped flash the ball to Lawrence, who finished in the left corner.

The early score developed into a full-scale onslaught as inspired England poured forward, directed by George Ford and with Earl, Ollie Chessum and full debutant Immanuel Feyi-Waboso making telling contributions.

Bundee Aki made ground with every carry as Ireland’s main weapon but he was swimming against the tide as the white shirts pressed again and a second Lawrence try was ruled out because of a knock-on.

The crippling handling errors and turnovers that led to Scotland retaining the Calcutta Cup in round three had vanished, replaced by players running hard on to flat passes and punching holes in the visiting defence.

Yet for all the hosts’ dominance, successive Jack Crowley penalties meant they trailed 9-8 and as Ireland produced their first sustained attack the fly-half landed a fourth shot from the tee.

England were guilty of inviting pressure when Ford missed a routine penalty and Furbank took the ball into touch, but when their line were breached for the first time in the 44th minute it was because of their opponents’ killer instinct by exploiting Henry Slade’s positioning in the blitz defence to conjure a try for Lowe.

Furbank hit back quickly by racing over in the left corner after slick approach work from his team-mates and suddenly the pendulum swung again.

Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony was sent to the sin-bin for hands in the ruck and England seized their chance, battering away at the green wall through route one until Earl forced his way over.

Marcus Smith replaced George Ford and Danny Care came on for his 100th cap but the Harlequins fly-half was unable to stop Lowe with his despairing late tackle attempt as Ireland crept back in front.

Elliot Daly missed with a long-range penalty attempt but there was still time for England to conjure the win, Smith splitting the posts after his team had battered away at the whitewash.

Owen Watkin hopes he can “prove a point” when he returns to Wales’ midfield against Guinness Six Nations opponents France on Sunday.

The Ospreys centre has been in and out of favour since winning the first of 37 caps against Australia in 2017.

He was overlooked for last year’s World Cup, not featuring among seven centres chosen by Wales head coach Warren Gatland in a preliminary training squad.

Watkin then gained a recall against Scotland in Wales’ Six Nations opener, only to be omitted for appointments with England and Ireland.

But he has been handed another opportunity, replacing Nick Tompkins as part of a new-look midfield combination with Joe Roberts.

Tompkins and 120 times-capped George North miss out this time around, and it is a golden chance for Watkin and Six Nations debutant Roberts to excel together at the start of a World Cup cycle.

“I am sure Nick and George are disappointed at not playing, but Joe and I have been disappointed as well when we haven’t played in the last two games,” Watkin said.

“I just want to get on the field, but I do enjoy playing at inside centre and it is where I have played for most of the season at the Ospreys.

“Nick and George have played together in the last two games, and so Joe and I have been the opposition for them in training. You come to terms with a combination quite quickly.

“Joe is still pretty young, but I am looking forward to seeing him getting out and playing at the weekend. Hopefully, we can build a partnership together.

“I’ve got a chance to prove a point and show I am really capable of holding on to the 12 or 13 jersey.”

Wales have suffered four successive Six Nations defeats against France, while their only victories in the last 14 tournament starts were against Scotland in 2022 and Italy last year.

France, though, are also struggling on the back of a comprehensive defeat against Ireland and a home draw with Italy.

Watkin added: “We know it is going to be a massive test for our back-line, but I think we’ve got a back-line that can cause problems.

“France haven’t been consistent, but you can never doubt a French team. They can turn up when they want, and when you look at their team they have got some really dangerous players.

“We’ve got to be on our game for 80 minutes.”

Scotland’s Guinness Six Nations campaign unravelled in disastrous fashion in Rome as they crashed to a first defeat against Italy since 2015.

Gregor Townsend’s side looked set to tighten their grip on second place – and keep themselves on course for a first top-two finish this century – when they held 14-3 and 22-10 leads in the first half following tries from props Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman either side of a score from Kyle Steyn.

However, the Scots completely lost their way after the interval as they fell to a 31-29 loss against an Italian side who – despite several encouraging displays that helped draw a capacity crowd to the Stadio Olimpico – had not won a Six Nations match since victory in Wales two years ago.

This chastening defeat in the Eternal City is sure to crank up the heat on head coach Townsend five months after exiting the World Cup at the group-stage.

Italy got the chance to get the scoreboard ticking over just seconds into the match when Scotland were penalised on their own 22 immediately from the kick-off. Paolo Garbisi saw the ball fall off the tee while the clock was running but the fly-half kept his composure to re-tee and send his kick between the posts.

Scotland soon gained a foothold, however, and they got themselves in front in the sixth minute when Fagerson powered his way over from close range after a sustained spell of pressure inside the Italian 22. Finn Russell converted.

The visitors crossed the whitewash again five minutes later when they worked the ball out to the right and Blair Kinghorn fed Steyn, who bundled his way past two Italians to cross the line. Russell converted again.

The Azzurri summoned a swift response as scrum-half Martin Page-Relo lobbed a clever kick over the top and centre Juan Ignacio Brex ran gleefully over just to the left of the posts in the 15th minute. Garbisi converted.

Shortly after Russell kicked a close-range penalty, Scotland scored their third try of the match in the 28th minute as Schoeman finished things off after being fed by George Turner in a driving maul. Russell’s conversion drifted wide.

Italy finished the first half strongly and reduced their interval deficit to 22-16 with a couple of penalties kicked by Garbisi and then Page-Relo, who was on target from close to the half-way line.

Scotland thought they had extended their advantage two minutes into the second period when scrum-half George Horne – on his first start since the 2019 World Cup – bolted over after excellent play by Huw Jones to release him but it was subsequently chalked off after Schoeman was adjudged to have committed a foul in the build-up.

The prop’s needless indiscretion was to prove hugely pivotal. Just two minutes later, Italy closed to within a point when debutant Louis Lynagh – son of former Australia international Michael – ran on to Garbisi’s kick-through and darted over the line. Garbisi – with the chance to edge his team in front – saw his conversion attempt come back off the post.

The Scots found themselves in trouble in the 57th minute when the Italians got themselves in front as replacement scrum-half Stephen Varney found a gap between Andy Christie and Jack Dempsey to nudge his way over. This time Garbisi was on target.

Garbisi then scored a huge penalty from distance to put the hosts nine points ahead with seven minutes to play, placing the Scots in a state of desperation.

Replacement lock Sam Skinner – denied a match-winning try against France a month previously – pushed over with two minutes left and Russell converted to bring the Scots back to within two points and set up a tense finish.

Townsend’s team were unable to find another score, however, and – as the Azzurri celebrated a rare and deserved victory – the Scotland players slumped to their knees in abject despair as a campaign had that promised so much was reduced to rubble in Rome.

Warren Gatland believes that Antoine Dupont’s absence from the Guinness Six Nations has proved “a massive loss” for France.

Les Bleus’ mercurial World Cup captain has joined the sevens circuit ahead of the Paris Olympics later this year.

And France have struggled without him, being beaten comprehensively by Six Nations title favourites Ireland and then drawing at home against Italy, either side of narrowly defeating Scotland.

They tackle Wales at the Principality Stadium on Sunday, when Gatland’s team will target a first Six Nations victory over them since 2019.

“It just shows when you are with a team – and we have been lucky enough with this in the past and it is the challenge going forward – that having two or three X-factor players in your team can make a massive difference,” Wales head coach Gatland said.

“Sometimes you get two relatively even teams, but it is the individual brilliance of someone who can change a game.

“There is no doubt for me that Dupont is a massive loss for them. He is probably the best player in the world.

“We have already seen what he has done with the French sevens team. They won the sevens tournament (in Los Angeles).

“(Romain) Ntamack is a big loss for them in terms of that nine-10 partnership. It is difficult to put your finger on it.

“They have made some changes. They have probably thought they don’t feel like they can win the Six Nations, so there is a chance to give players in their squad an opportunity.”

Whether Wales can take advantage of France’s current position remains to be seen.

Gatland’s team have yet to win in this season’s tournament, raising the potential scenario of a wooden-spoon decider against Italy next weekend if they do not triumph on Sunday.

It is 21 years since Wales last finished bottom of the Six Nations table, although they were fifth in three of the past four seasons.

Considerable interest will surround the appearance of a new centre pairing, with Six Nations debutant Joe Roberts partnering Owen Watkin after Gatland left out George North and Nick Tompkins.

And captain Dafydd Jenkins has been moved from lock to blindside flanker as Will Rowlands and Adam Beard team up in the second-row.

Gatland added: “We’ve spoken to the two boys (Roberts and Watkin) about their roles. They have got a chance to make a statement.

“The big thing for them – what I am looking for – is not about them playing, but them being vocal, making sure they communicate to the 10s and take that communication from the outside.

“That is a massive thing for us in terms of work-on, but also them realising how vocal they need to be in attack and defence.

“We had spoken early in the tournament about giving Daf that chance (at blindside). He was pretty excited when we did talk about it in one of the earlier games.

“When we said we were playing him at second-row, he joked we didn’t have the guts to put him in the back-row!

“It is a good chance as a young player to get that opportunity in a different position.

“We know what a big pack France will put out and particularly that first 20 or 30 minutes. They were really direct against Italy in that time and could have been three tries up.

“We have got to expect a real physical challenge, particularly in the early exchanges of the game.”

Wales will target a first win of their Guinness Six Nations campaign when they tackle France in Cardiff on Sunday.

Warren Gatland’s team have lost all three matches in this season’s tournament so far, but they host a French side struggling for form.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points ahead of the game.

A big chance for Wales

Recent history does not favour Wales, having lost their last four Six Nations games against France, although two of those defeats were by just four points. But they have a golden opportunity to end that sequence, taking on a team that saw title hopes effectively extinguished by Ireland on opening night, before edging past Scotland and then being held to a draw at home by Italy. New-look Wales have shown glimpses of promise as Gatland begins building for World Cup 2027 and victory over France would do wonders in terms of that process.

Nervy Italian job

Wales have not finished bottom of the Six Nations for 21 years, but a wooden-spoon decider beckons against Italy in Cardiff next weekend if they are beaten by France. Wales lost all five games of the 2003 tournament under Gatland’s fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen, while Italy triumphed on their last Principality Stadium visit two years ago. Worryingly for Wales, they have suffered 12 defeats from the last 14 Six Nations starts, toppling only Scotland two years ago and Italy in 2023. With two home games to come, Wales have control of their own destiny, but the margins are fine.

Winnett is a winner

Heading into the penultimate round of Six Nations fixtures, few players have made a bigger impact on the tournament than Wales full-back Cameron Winnett. With Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Louis Rees-Zammit – all previous options in the number 15 shirt – unavailable to Gatland, he turned to 21-year-old Winnett and it has proved an inspired choice. Winnett had played only 15 games of professional rugby before gaining a first Wales squad call-up, but after three Six Nations appearances he topped the statistics for metres carried and metres gained and was the highest-ranked back in terms of carries, leaving the likes of James Lowe and Duhan Van Der Merwe in his slipstream.

France’s World Cup hangover

France had to cope with huge expectation and pressure to win last year’s World Cup on home soil, but it all ended in devastating fashion through a 29-28 defeat against quarter-final opponents South Africa. They then saw mercurial captain Antoine Dupont switch to playing sevens ahead of the Paris Olympics and Les Bleus have simply not recovered during an underwhelming Six Nations campaign. Will a first loss to Wales in Cardiff since 2018 now follow? Neither team has momentum, both sides are in the table’s bottom half, yet France appear to be the ones most vulnerable.

Centres of attention

Wales boss Gatland sprung two major selection surprises ahead of facing France by omitting World Cup centres George North and Nick Tompkins. Joe Roberts makes a first Six Nations start as North’s replacement – with Owen Watkin taking over from Tompkins – and it is a decision that has divided opinion. There are those who understand the rationale at this early stage of a World Cup cycle to test an alternative midfield partnership, but others have been left baffled that two of Wales’ most consistent performers with 155 caps between them are not required on this occasion. Masterstroke or misjudgement?

Jamie George has warned history-chasing Ireland that his England team are ready to “defend our home” when the rivals clash in the Guinness Six Nations on Saturday.

Andy Farrell’s men are hunting a fifth successive victory in the fixture that would place them on the brink of completing back-to-back Grand Slams – an achievement last managed by France in 1997 and 1998.

England, meanwhile, have been licking their wounds after a comprehensive defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield that leaves them facing another championship of underachievement.

Victory over Ireland would be the highlight of Steve Borthwick’s 20 matches in charge and while the visitors are overwhelming favourites to triumph, George believes the Twickenham factor will level the playing field.

“We believe that we’re going to win. We don’t want anyone, any opposition, to come to Twickenham and have an easy ride,” England’s captain said.

“We have respect for them. I can’t emphasise enough how much respect we have for Andy Farrell and Peter O’Mahony’s team. They’ve got brilliant players across the board.

“But this is England. This is Twickenham. This is home. And we’re going to defend our home, like every Englishman would.

“Ireland have got to come and get the result here. And we’re a team that’s hurting off the back of the Scotland result, hugely motivated and hugely excited about the potential of where we can go. It’s about time we put that out in the field.”

Ireland have compiled an impressive record over the last two years, winning 23 out of 25 Tests and losing only to New Zealand and France.

Borthwick described them as the best team in the world on current form, surpassing even South Africa who retained the Webb Ellis Trophy last autumn.

England appear to have only a puncher’s chance of causing an upset, but George insists his side thrive as underdogs even if it is a tag they want to shed.

“I think historically it has worked well for us,” the Saracens hooker said.

“If you look at the World Cup just gone, no one gave us a chance against Argentina, no one gave us a chance against South Africa.

“I know the South Africa result did not go the way we wanted it to but the sort of performance showed the sort of team that we wanted to be.

“Fundamentally we don’t want to go in with an underdog title ever when we’re playing at Twickenham.

“But at the same time we’re playing against a very, very good team, the best team in the world who we have the utmost respect for.

“I am not too worried about spoiling their party too much. I want to make sure we get our things right.

“If we get our things right then we are going to come out on the positive end of the result.

“That is genuinely what I believe and I have seen some positive signs this week that we are going to be going in the right direction.”

Peter O’Mahony believes Ireland’s current team is the best he has ever played in ahead of a pivotal Guinness Six Nations showdown with England.

Andy Farrell’s men will run out at Twickenham as overwhelming favourites and have the chance to retain the championship title with a round to spare.

Captain O’Mahony has lined up alongside the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton during his Test career, but feels the class of 2024 is arguably the greatest Irish side of that period.

“Look, I’ve been lucky to play with lots of good players and teams,” said the Munster flanker, who will win his 104th cap in south-west London.

“If I had to nail the colours to the mast I’d have to say yes.

“It’s hard to compare because rugby has moved on and the game is different, but in a short answer, I think it is.

“I think the quality of player, it’s a really, really healthy, good, thought-provoking, enjoyable environment, but obviously the quality of performance and results speaks for itself.

“Hard to compare but yeah, it’s certainly up there anyway.”

Ireland have triumphed in each of the past four meetings with England and will set a new championship record of 12 consecutive wins by extending that run on Saturday evening.

Doing so with a bonus-point will be sufficient to clinch the title, while the extra point would not be required if Scotland fail to beat Italy and score at least four tries earlier in the day.

World Cup semi-finalists England, who are priced at 4-1 to win by bookmakers, are still striving for consistency under head coach Steve Borthwick.

Yet O’Mahony warned Ireland’s pursuit of successive Grand Slams could easily be derailed as he dismissed the significance of the pre-match predictions.

“It’s not something that we really buy in to,” the 34-year-old said of the favourites tag.

“I know you’re probably sick of hearing it from me, but it’s a Test match tomorrow, Ireland versus England. It’s about who plays better tomorrow. It’s not about anything else.

“It’s not about previous form or where you stand, it’s about who plays better tomorrow and that’s something that we’ve always been focused on, our performance.

“We know if we play well tomorrow we’ll be in with a shout. But if we don’t fire this English team has incredible quality and can beat anyone on their day.

“It’s not long ago they were competing in the last two games of the World Cup. We know we’re in for a huge test tomorrow here at Twickenham as always.”

Peter O’Mahony believes Ireland’s current team is the best he has ever played in ahead of a pivotal Guinness Six Nations showdown with England.

Andy Farrell’s men will run out at Twickenham as overwhelming favourites and have the chance to retain the championship title with a round to spare.

Captain O’Mahony has lined up alongside the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton during his Test career, but feels the class of 2024 is arguably the greatest Irish side of that period.

“Look, I’ve been lucky to play with lots of good players and teams,” said the Munster flanker, who will win his 104th cap in south-west London.

“If I had to nail the colours to the mast I’d have to say yes.

“It’s hard to compare because rugby has moved on and the game is different, but in a short answer, I think it is.

“I think the quality of player, it’s a really, really healthy, good, thought-provoking, enjoyable environment, but obviously the quality of performance and results speaks for itself.

“Hard to compare but yeah, it’s certainly up there anyway.”

Ireland have triumphed in each of the past four meetings with England and will set a new championship record of 12 consecutive wins by extending that run on Saturday evening.

Doing so with a bonus-point will be sufficient to clinch the title, while the extra point would not be required if Scotland fail to beat Italy and score at least four tries earlier in the day.

World Cup semi-finalists England, who are priced at 4-1 to win by bookmakers, are still striving for consistency under head coach Steve Borthwick.

Yet O’Mahony warned Ireland’s pursuit of successive Grand Slams could easily be derailed as he dismissed the significance of the pre-match predictions.

“It’s not something that we really buy in to,” the 34-year-old said of the favourites tag.

“I know you’re probably sick of hearing it from me, but it’s a Test match tomorrow, Ireland versus England. It’s about who plays better tomorrow. It’s not about anything else.

“It’s not about previous form or where you stand, it’s about who plays better tomorrow and that’s something that we’ve always been focused on, our performance.

“We know if we play well tomorrow we’ll be in with a shout. But if we don’t fire this English team has incredible quality and can beat anyone on their day.

“It’s not long ago they were competing in the last two games of the World Cup. We know we’re in for a huge test tomorrow here at Twickenham as always.”

Rory Darge feels Italy’s Stadio Olimpico would be “a nice place” for Duhan van der Merwe to become Scotland’s record try-scorer – but the co-captain stressed that his team’s focus is solely on leaving Rome with another Guinness Six Nations victory.

The Scots have won two of their three championship matches so far to sit second in the table – albeit six points adrift of Grand Slam-chasing Ireland – going into the penultimate round of fixtures.

While the priority for Gregor Townsend’s side is to get the points that will keep them on course for a first top-two finish in the Six Nations era, the fixture has added spice because Van der Merwe goes into it with 26 international tries to his name – one shy of the county’s record-holder Stuart Hogg.

A score or two by the South Africa-born wing on Saturday would see him join or overtake the former full-back, who will be at the Stadio Olimpico to support his old colleagues after completing a charity cycle to the Eternal City in aid of the My Name’5 Doddie foundation.

Back-rower Darge said: “I know one of Duhi’s tries in particular (his second one against England) was off our defensive efforts and then the turnover attack, so if we do get ourselves right, then we can put guys like that in.

“He’s obviously a great finisher. Sometimes you only need to give him half a chance and he comes away with a chance, so it (the record) could happen.

“It would be a nice place for him to do it but I don’t think he’ll have too much of his mind set on that.

“He’ll just be focused on his role, and he might come away with a couple, but we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure Italy will put us under a lot of pressure.”

Darge insisted Edinburgh wing Van der Merwe has remained as humble as ever in the wake of the Calcutta Cup hat-trick a fortnight ago that put him on the cusp of Hogg’s record.

“Duhi’s always the same,” said the Glasgow forward. “Around training and around camp, he’s always quite laidback but when he gets out there he’s a Test-match animal, and it’s class to be able to play with him.”

Darge’s only previous experience of playing at Stadio Olimpico was a 33-22 victory two years ago in front of a crowd of 41,214.

This time, the famous arena in north-west Rome – used predominantly for football – is set to be full to capacity, with 70,000 tickets having been sold on the back of encouraging championship performances from the Azzurri against England and France.

“Italy are a really good side,” said Darge. “We saw that against France, and they’re obviously playing at home where they’ll have a really good atmosphere and good backing.

“The Stadio Olimpico is different (to other Six Nations venues) but the Scotland fans always travel well for this one, so that will be massive for us.

“It’s a long walk from the changing room but it’s a cool stadium. Inside the changing room, on the walk in, with all the jerseys on the wall and stuff like that, there’s a lot of history behind it, so it’s a cool place to be playing rugby.”

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