Peter O’Mahony insists further Guinness Six Nations glory means “absolutely everything” to Ireland and stressed his countrymen would have metaphorically sacrificed limbs for such success in the recent past.

Retaining the championship crown has been touted as an anti-climax for Andy Farrell’s side after the holy grail of historic back-to-back Grand Slams was extinguished by last week’s agonising 23-22 loss to England.

Ireland are on the verge of a fifth title in 11 years going into Saturday evening’s Dublin showdown with Scotland, having endured a drought of more than two decades between 1985 and 2009.

Captain O’Mahony, who contributed to each of those successes, remembers the barren era and dismissed the suggestion current expectations have devalued the achievement of winning the tournament without a 100 per cent record.

“No, I don’t think so because it’s so rare,” said the 34-year-old.

“I know we’ve had a few in our most recent history but going back over a long period, we’re way down the list of championships won.

“You’re talking about back-to-back Grand Slams and no one has done it because it’s so hard, that’s why.

“You’ve got to win 10 Six Nations games in a row, win five away from home. It’s unbelievably difficult to win a game away from home in this championship, if you look at the stats across the board.

“So it’s everything to us tomorrow. Absolutely everything to us, another championship.

“It’s probably a manner of the Irish psyche, ‘Jesus, another championship’, you know what I mean? When all of a sudden a few years ago you’d have taken your arm and your leg off for one.

“We’re still in the same boat, it matters a massive amount to us. It’s what we’re here for, that’s the be all and end all of it, we’re here to win a championship for our country and it couldn’t mean any more to us.”

Ireland will be crowned champions by avoiding defeat to Gregor Townsend’s side or claiming two losing bonus points, while a single bonus point is also likely to be sufficient.

However, a pointless defeat would leave Farrell’s men sweating on the outcome of England’s clash with France in Lyon.

Ireland are seeking a 10th-successive win over their rivals, while Scotland have a slim chance of snatching the title but are realistically aiming for a first Triple Crown since 1990.

Munster flanker O’Mahony anticipates another feisty affair following last year’s fiery Rugby World Cup pool-stage clash in Paris, which the Irish won 36-14 to eliminate the Scots.

“It’s a competitive game and both teams always get stuck in and that’s what you want, isn’t it? You want both teams flat out,” he said.

“We’re not playing tennis or golf, you know what I mean? It’s a physical game and you’ve got to get stuck in and you’ve got to be on the edge – and that’s rugby.

“It will be very special if we win it.”

England captain Jamie George has given his players a simple message ahead of their Guinness Six Nations clash with France – do not believe the hype.

England travel to Lyon on Saturday with an outside chance of snatching the title from Irish hands having stunned Andy Farrell’s favourites 23-22 in round four through a last-gasp Marcus Smith drop goal.

It was their finest performance since routing New Zealand in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup, but that seismic victory was followed by crushing final defeat to South Africa week later.

Seeing the potential parallels for the last two rounds of their Six Nations, George and head coach Steve Borthwick have taken steps to ensure England are not seduced by the acclaim that greeted their statement win against Ireland.

“We believed the hype in 2019, we kept living it for three or four days afterwards,” George said.

“You’re in a World Cup final week and I had every distraction under the sun. People wanting to come over, thousands of people asking you for tickets, people from school coming out the woodwork who I hadn’t spoken to for 10 years.

“It’s great but it can be really distracting and I probably learnt that the hard way. We definitely got it wrong in 2019.

“You could see it in our energy and our life. Often you can see it in your work off the ball.

“It’s a World Cup final so you think you’re going to be absolutely buzzing. I was buzzing mentally, it was almost a situation that I was trying to convince myself that I was buzzing rather than having anything in my legs to be able to go and do it.

“We didn’t reach the highs of the week before and what I learnt is that you need to be able to give yourself the space to get away from things and reflect. Do what you’ve got to do.

“Steve was very conscious about it. It was one of the first things I spoke to him about when we met up again last Sunday and he was already all over it.

“Not many teams come to France and win. We haven’t done that since 2016. We’re very aware of that.

“We achieved something special last weekend, everyone felt that, but being able to back it up is a huge motivation for me. Good teams react well to setbacks, great teams make sure they back it up.”

England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson has revealed that ‘Le Crunch’ was his favourite rivalry and the fixture also gets George’s competitive juices flowing.

“I love it. I really respect how they see the game,” the Saracens hooker said.

“For me as a front-row forward going into this fixture I know exactly what is coming – it’s a physical battle, the confrontational element of it.

“There’s a line in the sand, it’s me versus you. What a great opportunity that is. I’ve loved playing French teams throughout my career, not just at international level but at club.

“There’s a consistency with how they judge the game and I’d agree with Martin in that respect – this is a game that is as big a rivalry as there is.”

Josh Adams says that Wales must not “shy away” from what awaits them in the pressure-filled cauldron of a wooden spoon decider against Italy.

Cardiff’s Principality Stadium has played host to Six Nations title successes and witnessed Grand Slam glory, but the contrast this weekend could hardly be greater.

There is no silverware at stake, just the Guinness Six Nations’ mythical “prize” for finishing bottom of the table. And this season it is a straight shoot-out between Wales and Italy.

Wales, currently four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents, must win to have any chance of avoiding a first wooden spoon since 2003.

Even victory might not be enough if bonus points come into play, and Wales wing Adams accepts that the heat is on.

“It is a bit of a different pressure,” he said.

“Pressure when you are in a game to win something, it feels a little bit different. There is something at the end of it, whereas this is a situation where we can’t afford to lose.

“We have to have the mindset that international rugby is all about winning, and we haven’t been able to do that yet. We are desperate to win.

“I have been in a relegation battle in the Premiership with Worcester. We lost our first seven games of the season and we were miles adrift at the bottom.

“It came down to a game against London Irish, where it was pretty much whoever won would stay up. This is similar in a way.

“You have to embrace it and not shy away from it. We can’t go in our shells and cover up.

“We have had the mentality of ‘let’s take this head-on, let’s be at our best this weekend and let’s finish with what we feel we deserve, which is a good victory’.

“Sometimes you learn best from your losses, but there are only learnings if you show improvements the following week, otherwise there is no point.

“I won my first Test at home against Scotland, then lost away against England and I didn’t lose for nine Tests after that. I was in a team that didn’t know how to lose.

“That is the sort of journey we are going to have to get to where it becomes second-nature where we understand how to close games out, how to squeeze opposition better and see tough Test matches out.

“International rugby is a cut-throat business, and you need to perform at your best every week if you want to win.”

Wales’ last Six Nations victory was against Italy in Rome 12 months ago, while the Azzuri triumphed 22-21 on their most recent Cardiff visit in 2022 when try-scorer Adams was named player of the match and promptly gave his medal to visiting full-back Ange Capuozzo.

That match was Alun Wyn Jones 150th Wales cap and Dan Biggar’s 100th, while this time around the game is George North’s farewell appearance before retiring from Test rugby.

“I would like to think we can send off George with a win and not have a repeat of the result when Dan and Al reached their incredible milestones,” Adams added.

“It is important we do something for George. He has had so many memorable moments for Wales, and his contribution to Welsh rugby has been incredible.

“There are no real words to sum him up. I would just like to say ‘thank you’ for the way he has helped me.”

Scotland co-captain Rory Darge hopes channelling the dejection of a shock defeat to Italy can help topple title-chasing Ireland and clinch an overdue Triple Crown.

Gregor Townsend’s side run out in Dublin on Saturday seeking to salvage silverware from a Guinness Six Nations campaign which disastrously unravelled in Rome.

While Scotland retain an extremely slim chance of snatching the title, the consolation of defeating Ireland, England and Wales in a single championship for the first time since the 1990 Five Nations appears to be the realistic extent of their ambitions.

“Coming here to get a result is going to be a tough ask but we’ve got a lot to play for,” Darge said at the Aviva Stadium on Friday afternoon.

“It’s 30-odd years since the Triple Crown for a Scottish team and obviously after a loss like last weekend, the first thing you want to do is get back out there and put things as right as you can. That’s what we’re looking forward to.

“The fuel is the result (against Italy, a 31-29 defeat). The fuel is how gutted we were after the game. It was a quiet changing room.

“A tough weekend to process what went on but that’s the fuel for me – and the Triple Crown.

“The opportunity to come to Dublin and beat one of the best teams in the world, that’s enough motivation.”

Scotland must beat Ireland with a bonus point and deny their opponents one while overturning a 76-point deficit in points difference to have a chance of finishing top of the table.

That improbable scenario seems even more unlikely given the reigning champions have won 13 of the last 14 meetings between the nations and are chasing a 10th success on the spin.

Glasgow flanker Darge insists the Scots have “full belief” they can cause problems for Andy Farrell’s men.

“Tomorrow, all we can do is focus on ourselves and then hopefully prove something for you,” he told reporters.

“In recent years, it’s not been the case but we’ve got full belief that if we do everything we can we’ll put the pressure on them. Every moment is going to be huge.

“If you aren’t in a moment or you switch off, they’re likely to make you pay for it.

“That’s an area that we have had a lot of growth and there’s still an area of growth for us – staying in every moment and the mental space of it.

“They seem to be able to deal with a lot that’s thrown at them.

“We just need to focus on what we can do better from the Italy game but also what we think might put them under a bit of pressure.

“We’ve had a lot of learnings as you can imagine over this last week and it’s just about putting it out there.”

Topsy Ojo believes the best is yet to come from England after their dramatic 23-22 triumph over Ireland in the Six Nations.

Marcus Smith’s drop goal claimed an last-minute win at Twickenham, keeping their tournament hopes alive going into the final weekend.

Broadcaster and former player Ojo believes Steve Borthwick’s men can still go up a gear ahead of their Lyon showdown with France on Saturday.

“There are more gears for them and they will definitely say the same too,” Ojo told the PA news agency.

“The big one is consistency of performance and whether they will be consistent week on week. That is what England are striving for.

“How do England regenerate that emotional and physical high, because it was a bruising encounter and they really put everything into that.

“It was incredible, it was a brilliant Test match.

“They’ve been working hard behind the scenes and making small steps after the defeat to Scotland. Sometimes you need a lot of factors to conspire to deliver that performance.”

Last week’s match at Twickenham handed Ireland their first defeat since October.

England will need them to lose at home to Scotland without a bonus point and claim a bonus-point victory over France if they are to complete the unlikely task of lifting the trophy.

Ojo admitted: “The odds will be low.

“Anything from a win or a losing bonus point will do it for them (Ireland), they’re back at home and after the disappointment of the weekend where they had the championship in their hands before England snatched it away, you would like to think they will finish strongly.

“Last weekend did show that anything is possible.”

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been ruled out of the tie after he reported concussion symptoms on Monday.

Ojo talked up the Exeter winger’s impact and admitted his absence will be a shame going into the final gameweek.

Ojo said: “He’s a talent no doubt and it’ll be a shame that he won’t be able to carry on that performance against France on the weekend.

“He’s got himself in the squad because he’s a handful and makes things happen, he was allowed to do that on Saturday. He showcased his strengths and he was one of the most dangerous players. It was brilliant to see.

“He went out and did the things I’ve seen him do in the Premiership. His maturity off the field is impressive as well.”

Aaron Wainwright insists nothing but victory will be acceptable for Wales in Saturday’s wooden spoon decider against Italy.

Wales must win in Cardiff to have any chance of not finishing bottom of the Guinness Six Nations table for a first time since 2003.

Narrow defeats against Scotland and England this season were followed by heavier losses at the hands of Ireland and France, leaving Wales four points adrift in sixth place.

Even if they topple Italy, Wales could still remain rooted to the basement should losing bonus points come into play.

Asked how desperate he would be to avoid having a wooden spoon on his resume, Wales number eight Wainwright said: “It would be embarrassing.

“We can’t afford to go out tomorrow and lose. We need to win. I don’t think anything else is acceptable.

“Massive respect to the Italians for what they’ve done so far in the tournament, but we are definitely going out there and getting a win to end the campaign on a high.

“We were accurate and played well in the first 20 minutes (against France), and it is about doing that against Italy and sustaining it for the rest of the game.

“We won in Rome last year, and we will be looking to do the same this time to finish on a positive note and take something away from this campaign.”

Italy beat Wales at the Principality Stadium two years ago, and they now return to tackle a team that have lost their last six home games in the Six Nations.

Warren Gatland had a Six Nations win ratio of around 70 per cent during his first stint in the job from 2008 to 2019. Since he returned for last year’s tournament, it stands at barely 10 per cent.

There are mitigating factors, including post-World Cup retirements of Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny – George North will follow after Saturday’s game – Louis Rees-Zammit quitting rugby for a possible NFL career, Liam Williams moving to Japan and the likes of Jac Morgan, Taulupe Faletau and Dewi Lake all being sidelined by long-term injuries.

Five players have made Test debuts during an extensive Six Nations rebuild, but Wales’ lack of depth is highlighted by their front-row replacements on Saturday – Evan Lloyd, Kemsley Mathias and Harri O’Connor – having just 41 minutes of international experience between them.

Gatland has never lost to Italy as Wales boss, and he said: “We are all aware it is an important game for us. We are at home.

“We have felt like we’ve been in all the games for long periods and put ourselves in positions.

“We could have won a couple more games than we have at the moment, and that is frustrating for us. But I talk to the players continuously about game-management scenarios and looking to improve.

“They (Italy) look probably in better shape physically than they have ever been in the past. They have got some depth across the whole of the squad.”

Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins said: “In these sorts of games you can tell who is meant for the Test arena and who really wants it.

“There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel; 2003 probably wasn’t the best season (for Wales), but then you go to 2005 and they are winning Grand Slams.

“That is our aim and where we want to be.”

England and France clash in the climax to the 2024 Guinness Six Nations in Lyon on Saturday night, by which time it will already be known if anything is at stake on the match.

Here the PA news agency examines five talking points as England aim to snatch the title from Ireland’s grasp.

Farewell to Manu?

Manu Tuilagi’s first appearance of the Six Nations could also be his last for England. Although the Sale centre has remained tight lipped over his talks with French clubs Montpellier and Bayonne, he appears certain to leave at the end of the season, at which point he will be 33-years-old. England teams have been built around his marauding runs for over a decade and the national side are unlikely to field his like again. When he steps off the bench it will be only his 60th cap, a legacy of long spells out injured. Had he been fit for every match since his debut in 2011, he would have amassed 156 caps by now.

Ford holds on… for now

Marcus Smith emerged as England’s match winner when Ireland were stunned in round four, landing the deciding drop goal as well as providing a cutting edge in attack. But in a show of faith from Steve Borthwick, George Ford continues at fly-half to complete a full set of starts in the Championship. It is easy to forget amid Smith’s headline-generating intervention at Twickenham that Ford has performed well in this tournament, most notably orchestrating the comeback against Wales in round two and pulling the strings to potent effect last Saturday. But for all Ford’s influence, Smith is the coming man and a stellar performance will be needed against France to hold on to the jersey for the summer tour to Japan and New Zealand.

Bonus points fiasco

For the first time since bonus points were introduced in 2017, a scenario has arisen whereby the Six Nations winners can claim the title despite accumulating fewer victories than the side finishing second. That is the prospect facing England if they win at Groupama Stadium and Ireland claim at least a bonus point against Scotland. It is hard to envisage any outcome other than Ireland successfully defending their title, but if they do so with their closest rivals beating more teams, it will be a bad look for the tournament.

Unleash the big beasts

France’s starting and replacement forwards weigh a combined 1,000kg, a startling total that can be both a strength and weakness for the hosts. They field the four heaviest players in Uini Atonio, Emmanuel Meafou, Georges-Henri Colombe and Romain Taofifenua – each of them over 21 stones. But with such size and power comes vulnerabilities that can be exploited through clever half-back play, a good kicking game and superior conditioning.

The stats signpost home win

France are odds-on favourites to register their third win of the tournament and there is one statistic that helps explain why. Since becoming the Six Nations in 2000, Les Bleus have performed better than any other side in the final round of games, winning 17 of 24 matches. England, meanwhile, have the second worst record with just 10 victories. Whatever the data suggests, ‘Le Crunch’ is set up to be a humdinger with England lifted by a triumph over Ireland that is their greatest performance since the 2019 World Cup and France impressing against Wales in their last outing.

Peter O’Mahony is determined to prevent the “torture” of another tense Guinness Six Nations finale but admits Ireland are aware of all possible permutations ahead of Saturday’s title decider against Scotland.

Andy Farrell’s men will retain the championship crown by avoiding defeat or claiming two bonus points on ‘Super Saturday’ in Dublin, while a single bonus point is also likely to be sufficient.

However, a pointless loss would leave Ireland sweating on the outcome of England’s clash with France in the final round-five fixture.

Captain O’Mahony was part of the Irish squad which endured an anxious wait to celebrate tournament glory in 2015, when only points difference ultimately elevated them above England and Wales.

“You have to discuss these things, especially the guys who are making decisions around refereeing calls, that kind of stuff, penalties,” said O’Mahony of the permutations.

“We are going out to win tomorrow, that’s what we do for every Test match.

“Of course, there’s a handful of us who might have to make a decision or need to know the permutations but we want to put in a performance tomorrow that’s capable of winning.”

Ireland defeated Scotland 40-10 at Murrayfield on the final weekend nine years ago to leapfrog Wales, who beat Italy 61-20 earlier in the day, at the top of the standings.

Joe Schmidt’s side then nervously watched on at Murrayfield as England – requiring a 26-point win over France at Twickenham to snatch the title – fell agonisingly short in a 55-35 success.

“That was the mad day, wasn’t it? Yeah, it was torture,” said O’Mahony.

“Wales went out and put up a big score, then we did the job and then it was pure carnage the last game.

“I’m sure it was a great watch for the rest of the world. I remember watching it from the stairwell in Murrayfield, praying to God, so, look, that’s what the Super Saturday means for the competition.

“It’s great that there are so many teams involved that can win it.”

Manu Tuilagi has declined to reveal his plans for next season amid expectation that Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with France would be his final game for England.

Tuilagi has held talks with Top 14 clubs Montpellier and Bayonne in a move that would make the 32-year-old unavailable for Test selection by Steve Borthwick.

It has raised the prospect that if he wins his 60th cap by stepping off the bench in Lyon, it will be the powerful Sale centre’s farewell in a Red Rose jersey.

When asked what his plans for 2024-25 are, Tuilagi replied: “The plan is to hopefully get on the pitch on Saturday. I don’t really know what I am doing tomorrow to be fair!

“For me representing England and getting opportunity is a blessing and I can’t wait. Every time I get to represent England it could be the last game.

“Every game could be your last game, so you have got to make the most of it and enjoy it.”

As Tuilagi was speaking at the Groupama Stadium, the electronic curtain that formed the back drop in the press conference room unexpectedly started lowering.

It was an accidental moment of symbolism for a player that England have never been able to adequately replace during his long spells out through injury since making his debut in 2011.

He has been an automatic pick for four successive England coaches, bringing ball carrying clout to the midfield and proving unplayable on his day – even against the best opposition.

It will be hoped that his first appearance of the Six Nations after missing the opening rounds with a groin injury will be a fitting exit if he does follow former team-mates Owen Farrell, Henry Arundell and Joe Marchant across The Channel.

“I feel very blessed to be able to get back into the team. We’ve got an unbelievable team. For me to be able to get this opportunity again – I love it,” Tuilagi said.

“Whenever you get the opportunity to be a part of it it’s a blessing. It’s been an amazing campaign for us.”

When naming him on the bench for the final match of the 2024 Championship, Borthwick described Tuilagi as the social glue for his squad who has the ability to raise the game of his team-mates.

He also spoke of the time taken by the 2013 Lions tourist to help mentor younger players – a contribution appreciated by rookie wing Tommy Freeman.

“Manu is the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life. The most compassionate, supportive bloke. Very good at coffee art as well,” Freeman said.

“Manu is a class lad to be around, he gives you a hand here and there, he knows exactly what Test rugby is all about, he has been a part of the game for years and he will definitely add wherever he can.

“The impact he has on the game is a big one – the way he moves his weight around gives us lads a bit of energy to spur from.”

Andy Farrell believes the chance to end a 34-year Triple Crown drought makes Scotland a major threat to Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations title bid.

Farrell’s reigning champions are on the cusp of retaining their crown and will do so on Saturday evening by avoiding defeat to the Scots or claiming two losing bonus points.

Gregor Townsend’s visitors, who have the slimmest of chances of snatching the title, will be desperate to bounce back in Dublin after being embarrassed by Italy last weekend.

While Scotland have not beaten rivals England, Ireland and Wales in a single championship since the 1990 Five Nations, Farrell acknowledges they have a track record of toppling Test rugby’s leading nations.

“They’ve been consistent at beating big teams over the years and playing a brand of rugby that’s been great for everyone to see,” he said.

“When you’re disappointed, all you want is an opportunity where there’s a trophy on the line.

“And I know that as far as the Triple Crown is concerned, they’ve not won that for some time now and that makes them dangerous in our view.

“We’ve got to be ready for them to be as good as they’ve ever been against us.”

Ireland are chasing a 10th consecutive victory over Scotland, having helped eliminate them in the pool stage of the last two Rugby World Cups.

“We’ve been lucky enough over the last few years to get on the right side of victory against Scotland,” said Farrell.

“But they’ve been tough, tough battles and hard-fought games, and you’ve got to be on point to make sure you continue in that manner.”

Scotland need a bonus-point win, a major swing in points difference and to avoid Ireland claiming a bonus point to overhaul their rivals.

Even then, Townsend’s men would be reliant on the result of France’s clash with England in Lyon, which concludes ‘Super Saturday’.

Although there are scenarios in which Ireland could finish top of the table in defeat, Farrell is determined to clinch championship glory in style after the pursuit of back-to-back Grand Slams was halted by England in round four.

“I love winning titles, there’s no doubt about that, but this is an occasion for us to perform when it really matters,” he said.

“We said it in the Grand Slam game last year (a 29-16 win over England) and we were able to get over the line but the performance wasn’t exactly white hot, so that’s what you’re always chasing.

“Of course winning matters a lot.

“Certainly winning Six Nations titles, however, means an awful lot but having said that, we pride on ourselves on performing well when it matters and I suppose that’s what we’ll judge ourselves on first.”

Lifting the trophy on St Patrick’s weekend for the second successive year would provide a springboard for what promises to be un unforgettable 2024 for Irish rugby.

Farrell’s men face a two-match tour against world champions South Africa in July before hosting New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia in the autumn.

“This year doesn’t get any better for Irish rugby, it doesn’t get any better,” said Farrell.

“Look at what we’ve got coming up.”

Ireland are within touching distance of retaining the Guinness Six Nations title ahead of hosting Scotland.

Andy Farrell’s men were denied potential back-to-back Grand Slams by last weekend’s 23-22 defeat to England but remain in pole position to win the tournament.

Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the main talking points ahead of Saturday’s match in Dublin.

Ireland’s title to lose

Ireland know victory or a draw will guarantee championship glory, while two losing bonus points would also be sufficient. Any other result would complicate matters and open the door for England to snatch the title. Steve Borthwick’s side, who begin the weekend four points off the pace, require a bonus-point win away to France in the final fixture of ‘Super Saturday’ on the back of halting Ireland’s 100 per cent record. Scotland and Les Bleus are also mathematically still in the title mix. However, their respective hopes of finishing top of the table are highly improbable due to Ireland’s vastly-superior points difference.

What might have been

The Aviva Stadium clash should arguably be a straight shoot-out for the title and could easily have been a Grand Slam showdown. Ireland were seconds away from remaining on track for a clean sweep before Marcus Smith’s last-gasp drop goal settled a Twickenham thriller. Scotland, meanwhile, are likely to still feel aggrieved about their controversial round-two loss to France, which was sandwiched between wins over Wales and England. The Scots’ campaign subsequently unravelled in disastrous fashion with a shock 31-29 defeat to Italy. Clinching a first Triple Crown since the 1990 Five Nations appears to be the only realistic achievement available to Gregor Townsend’s men amid a lingering sense of what might have been.

Testing times for Townsend

A major setback at Stadio Olimpico cast fresh doubt on the future of Scotland head coach Townsend. His side have produced plenty of statement results, including four consecutive Calcutta Cup victories. But he has also overseen successive World Cup pool-stage exits, while frustrating inconsistency means the Scots’ wait for a maiden Six Nations title goes on. The 50-year-old, whose contract runs until 2026, refused to entertain questions about his position after a calamitous second-half collapse in the Italian capital. Townsend insists he still believes in his players and will be desperate to end the championship by lifting silverware to alleviate mounting pressure.

Decade of dominance

Ireland have played pivotal roles in Scotland’s recent underwhelming World Cup campaigns during a decade of dominance of this fixture. At the 2019 tournament in Japan, the Irish began with a 27-3 win over Townsend’s men in Yokohama, before emphatically eliminating their rivals in France last year thanks to a crushing 36-14 Paris success. Ireland have won 13 of 14 meetings between the nations since 2014, including nine on the spin following a 27-22 Murrayfield loss in 2017. They are strong favourites to extend that streak as Scotland bid to become only the second away side – after France in 2021 – to triumph in Dublin during the Farrell era.

Concussion concerns

Ireland’s unchanged starting XV raised some eyebrows given Calvin Nash was forced off following a thunderous collision with England’s Tommy Freeman just six days ago. Concussion protocols remain a hot topic but Farrell insisted he trusts the medical experts as he moved to allay any concerns surrounding the Munster wing. The Englishman has also ditched his six-two split of forwards and backs on the bench in favour of a more conventional five-three selection. The bold call backfired in London due to head injury assessments dictating the withdrawals of Nash and his replacement Ciaran Frawley, who is not fit to feature this weekend.

Wales and Italy will contest the Guinness Six Nations’ least-wanted “prize” in Cardiff on Saturday.

Avoiding the mythical wooden spoon for finishing bottom of the table is front and centre for both countries, with Wales four points adrift of their fifth-placed opponents.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points heading into the game.

Wooden spoon stirs the pot

Wales have not finished last on the Six Nations log since 2003, when a 33-5 defeat against France in Paris meant they lost all five games under head coach Steve Hansen. The Wales team that day included players like Iestyn Harris, Gareth Thomas, Dwayne Peel, Gethin Jenkins and Martyn Williams as they suffered a heaviest reversal of the tournament. Wales have won the Six Nations title on six occasions since then, including four Grand Slams, which highlights this season’s demise, while Italy are striving to avoid a ninth successive wooden spoon after Scotland had that dubious distinction in 2015.

Farewell to George North

From the moment he arrived on the Test match stage as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2010, North has proved an inspired presence for Wales and the British and Irish Lions. He will retire from international rugby after Saturday’s game, having helped Wales win four Six Nations titles – including two Grand Slams – and played in four World Cups. His Wales try-count stands at 47 in 120 games, and he has averaged almost one touchdown per game against Italy, with his sizeable haul including a hat-trick in 2015. North deserves every accolade he will receive as a modern-day Wales great whose pace, power and try-scoring prowess made him box-office entertainment.

Wales’ rebuild will continue

Whatever happens against Italy, short-term pain must be eclipsed by potential long-term gain as Wales head coach Warren Gatland continues moulding a new-look squad. Since the World Cup, Gatland has seen Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar retire from Test rugby, with North to follow, Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe head to club rugby in Japan, while Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake and Taulupe Faletau were among Six Nations injury absentees. Gatland has paraded five new caps during the tournament – including the exciting Cardiff trio of Cameron Winnett, Alex Mann and Mackenzie Martin – and he asked Welsh supporters for patience that has so far been reciprocated.

Italy need to do a job

Italy have shown some impressive form in this season’s Six Nations, beating Scotland, drawing with France away from home and going down by just three points to England. The victory over Scotland was their first Six Nations triumph in Rome since 2013, and players like centre pairing Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello, wing Louis Lynagh and captain Michele Lamaro have excelled. The challenge now is to produce another performance of the type that almost defeated France and then accounted for Scotland. They return to Cardiff two years after claiming a dramatic 22-21 success, and there will be expectation in the Azzurri camp of a repeat performance.

Cardiff no longer a fortress

The Principality Stadium has played host to some memorable Welsh rugby moments, with Six Nations title triumphs and Grand Slam glory topping that list. Recently though, the Cardiff venue has seemingly lost its aura. Wales have suffered six successive Six Nations defeats there, with all five of their championship opponents winning on the road. It is 13 losses and one draw from the last 20 capped internationals at home, with victories only being recorded against Canada, Fiji, Australia, Scotland, Argentina and England (World Cup warm-up match) in full internationals during that time. The atmosphere remains among world rugby’s finest, but opponents are no longer fazed by what awaits them.

Leicester Tigers were fined £309,841.06 but avoided a points deduction for breaches of salary cap regulations on this day two years ago.

The punishment came after it emerged the Premiership club had entered into an arrangement whereby a third party made payments to the image rights companies of Leicester players.

The payments were made over the four seasons from 2016-17 to 2019-20 and should have been declared as part of the Tigers’ salary cap obligations, but were not disclosed.

Leicester, who led the Premiership at the time and went on to win the title in 2022, avoided a harsher sanction because the salary cap was exceeded by less than the ‘overrun’ limit.

It is when this ceiling – which ranges from £325,000 to £350,000 each season – is breached that more formal charges are triggered.

Leicester’s highest ‘overrun’ during the period was £147,750 in 2016-17 and their total across the four seasons was £391,941.06.

The Tigers accepted the outcome of Premiership Rugby’s investigation into the matter and did not appeal against the punishment.

Premiership Rugby had been given stronger powers to act two years previously after a review of salary cap regulations in the wake of the Saracens affair.

Saracens were fined more than £5million and relegated in 2020 for repeated breaches of the rules.

Leicester chief executive Andrea Pinchen said: “We accept the decision and the acknowledgement that there was no overrun in the most recent season of the review.

“We are thankful this matter has been brought to a conclusion and pleased that we can now focus all of our energy and efforts on the future of the club.”

Steve Borthwick has urged Manu Tuilagi not to turn his back on England after priming the powerful Sale centre for a cameo role in Saturday’s clash with France in Lyon.

Tuilagi will make his first appearance of the Guinness Six Nations, filling the vacancy on the bench created when Immanuel Feyi-Waboso’s concussion-enforced absence resulted in Elliot Daly’s return to the starting XV.

It could be his farewell appearance in a Red Rose jersey as he considers a lucrative move to the Top 14 at the end of the season – when he will be 33 years old – with Montpellier his likely destination.

Tuilagi has been a central figure for four-successive England coaches because of his carrying threat but he could soon be following former team-mates Owen Farrell, Henry Arundell and Joe Marchant across The Channel.

“I’m hopeful Manu will be staying in England. There are no plans confirmed as yet, to my understanding,” Borthwick said.

“Ultimately it’s up to Manu and the opportunities that present themselves. From my point of view, he knows I would want him to be in England – I want all our best players playing in England.”

Tuilagi would have been involved earlier the Six Nations had it not been for a groin problem sustained in mid-December, the latest in a long list of injuries that have made him unavailable for international duty for lengthy spells.

Although in the twilight of his career, Borthwick believes Tuilagi still has plenty to offer England – both on and off the field.

“Manu adds huge amounts to this squad. He’s a player who impacts upon people and he impacts upon games. I’m looking forward to seeing him impact upon this game on Saturday night,” Borthwick said.

“Manu has been training well and has looked sharper and sharper. His training, work ethic and what he delivers on the field are always excellent.

“We’ve got a number of young players in this squad and he takes the time and the care to help them and pass his knowledge on.

“The very best players make everyone else be five per cent or 10 per cent better because of their presence and Manu has that effect.

“He’s socially robust within the group, he’s brilliant at bringing people together. He’s the one at the coffee machine making coffee for everyone to sit, chat and spend time with each other. He brings people together.”

Borthwick has kept faith with George Ford at fly-half despite Marcus Smith’s match-winning contribution off the bench in the 23-22 upset of Ireland last Saturday.

Smith brought extra zip and creativity to England in the latter stages, as well as landing the decisive drop goal, but Ford was also excellent outside of his goalkicking problems and his growing understanding with full-back George Furbank is seen as key.

“The prime reason for the decision is that both of them played really well. George played a really good game in many ways and the blend of the two of them is an exciting blend,” Borthwick said.

“We are trying to build that consistency and cohesion. If players haven’t played with each other, you can’t expect them to read each other.

“Having consistency in selection helps this team build and that’s an important step for us.”

Ireland will host World Cup conquerors New Zealand and Joe Schmidt’s Australia during a mouth-watering four-match autumn series against southern hemisphere opposition.

The All Blacks, who beat Andy Farrell’s side 28-24 in the quarter-finals of last year’s global tournament in France, will visit Dublin on Friday, November 8.

Former Ireland boss Schmidt will bring the Wallabies to the Aviva Stadium for the series finale on Saturday, November 30.

In between those stellar fixtures, the reigning Guinness Six Nations champions will take on Argentina, on Friday, November 15, and Fiji, on Saturday, November 23.

With a two-match summer tour against world champions South Africa already scheduled for July, Ireland will end the year having faced each of Test rugby’s other 10 leading nations.

The game against Australia has been arranged as part of the Irish Rugby Football Union’s 150th year celebrations.

Head coach Farrell, who is preparing for Saturday’s Six Nations title decider against Scotland, said: “This November’s line-up is a hugely exciting one for the Irish rugby public and we are looking forward to competing against four hugely talented sides.

“There is an added dimension to this year’s autumn series, with a fourth match against Australia set to mark the IRFU’s 150th celebrations.

“We look forward to testing ourselves against some of the most exciting teams in the world, with whom Ireland has such strong traditions and rivalries. It promises to be a series to remember.”

The matches will be the final fixtures before Farrell takes a break from his role to focus on leading the British and Irish Lions on their 2025 tour of Australia.

Series fixtures

Ireland v New Zealand, Friday, November 8, 8.10pm – Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland v Argentina, Friday, November 15, 8.10pm – Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland v Fiji, Saturday, November 23, 3.10pm – Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Ireland v Australia, Saturday, November 30, 3.10pm – Aviva Stadium, Dublin

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