France's hopes of successfully defending their title disappeared with defeat in Dublin a fortnight ago, but England and Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 hosts Ireland still have Grand Slam aspirations going into the penultimate weekend of the Women's Six Nations.
World champions England sit atop the standings on points difference from Ireland as the only unbeaten sides in the 2017 Championship, and victories over Scotland at the Twickenham Stoop and Wales at Cardiff Arms Park respectively will set up the mouth-watering climax at Donnybrook on St Patrick's Day.
The weekend's other match sees France tackle Italy in Parma and the Les Bleues, having not won on Italian soil since 2011 and seen Italy's spirited performance against England in round three, will certainly not be underestimating their lower ranked opponents.
WALES (10) V IRELAND (5)
Emotions will be running high at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday as Wales look to get their Six Nations campaign back on track after two successive defeats and also pay tribute to team-mate Elli Norkett, who was tragically killed in a car accident the day after their loss in Scotland two weeks ago.
Coach Rowland Phillips has made seven changes, two of them positional, from the side beaten 15-14 by Scotland with loose-head Caryl Thomas, number eight Shona Powell-Hughes, scrum-half Keira Bevan, fly-half Robyn Wilkins and winger Adi Taviner all coming into the starting XV. Sioned Harries moves across the back row to blindside to make way for Powell-Hughes, while Elen Evens switches from left to right-wing.
"This has been our most difficult team selection so far," admitted Phillips. "We got together for training on Saturday and certain players trained their way back into contention, which we were very happy to see.
"We need to perform and keep our concentration, because we know what an emotional occasion it will be. Elli was important to so many people. It's fitting and right that we'll be able to pay our respects to her on Saturday, and we'll all be carrying our memories of her this weekend."
Head coach Tom Tierney welcomes back three players in wingers Alison Miller and Hannah Tyrrell and centre Sene Naoupu, who were in Las Vegas last weekend helping Ireland to reach the Cup quarter-finals on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series.
Naoupu returns in place of the injured Claire McLaughlin, while the return of Miller and Tyrrell mean a move from wing to full-back for Kim Flood.
"The squad has been developing nicely over the course of the Championship, and while it was great to get the win against France in the last game, we haven't dwelled on that and have firmly turned our attention to the challenge the Welsh will give us," said Tierney.
- Wales' last win over Ireland in a test match was a narrow 15-14 success at Pandy Park almost six years ago to the day
- Ireland emerged the 21-3 winners when the sides met in last year's Championship
- Ireland have only ever started the Six Nations with four victories once before – when they won the Grand Slam in 2013
- Wales have not lost successive home games since 2014
- Ireland are on a five-match winning run in the Six Nations, dating back to their defeat by England at Twickenham last year
Ireland sit only one hundredth of a rating point below France after overcoming Les Bleues in the previous round but if both are victorious in round four the WRWC 2017 hosts' only hope of leapfrogging their rivals is to win by more than 15 points and hope their rivals win by a smaller margin. The same is true if both sides taste defeat against lower ranked opponents. Wales can only improve their position of 10th if they end Ireland's Grand Slam hopes and Italy slip to defeat against France.
ENGLAND (2) V SCOTLAND (13)
With a match-day squad featuring almost 1,000 caps between them, England will be looking to remain on top of the standings with a 19th successive victory over Scotland in the penultimate round of the Championship.
Coach Simon Middleton has made five personnel changes to the starting line-up from their last outing against a spirited Italian side with England's most-capped player Rochelle Clark, hooker Amy Cokayne, centre Amber Reed, winger Lydia Thompson (main picture) and full-back Danielle Waterman all returning.
In the second-row Harriet Millar-Mills and Tamara Taylor will swap jerseys, while Justine Lucas moves across the front row due to Clark's return.
“We hold a huge amount of respect for Scotland. They secured a brilliant win from 14-0 down against Wales last time, having taken Ireland to the final play of the game in the opening round,” insisted Middleton.
“Against Italy, our set piece and first-phase execution were outstanding but we didn’t back that up with good decision making in phase play. That lack of continuity has been recognised among the squad and we know exactly what we want to do to improve come Saturday.
“We are looking forward to what we expect will be a challenging contest.”
Buoyed by their first Six Nations victory in seven years, Scotland coach Shade Munro has kept changes to a minimum with two in the starting line-up and two on the bench. Sarah Bonar will make her first test start after five appearances off the bench as one of two changes in the back-row with Jemma Forsyth stepping into the starting line-up to replace the infuential Jade Kronkel, who is ruled out through injury, at number eight.
The other changes see Rachael Cook and Abi Evans come onto the bench.
“The win against Wales gave the squad a massive boost of confidence and was reward for all the hard work they’ve put in,” admitted Munro. “The players showed great character and composure to get the one-point win. While it was a solid performance in both defence and attack, there are still plenty of aspects we need to refine.
“We are under no illusion how difficult England are going to be given they are top of the table having won all their games in this year’s Championship, but I have every faith our players will rise to the challenge and remain focused on improving our performance.”
- England's WRWC 2014 winning captain Katy Mclean misses the rest of the Championship as a result of a three-week suspension for her red card against Italy
- Scotland's long-awaited Six Nations win last time out against Wales came 2,576 days after their last, against France in 2010
- Scotland have not won back-to-back Six Nations matches since 2006
- Scotland's last away victory in the Six Nations was against Spain 11 years
- England have won their last 18 meetings with Scotland since the visitors triumphed 15-13 in April 1999
- Scotland have only scored points once in their last seven meetings with England, their 42-13 loss when they last travelled south of the border
- England have lost only one of their last 10 tests, against New Zealand at the Twickenham Stoop last November
- That loss is one of only two England have suffered at the Twickenham Stoop, the other also against the Black Ferns in the Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 final
- England's Amy Wilson-Hardy is the top try-scorer in 2017 with four tries but is rested for this match. She has one more than her team-mates Vicky Fleetwood, Lydia Thompson and Danielle Waterman
- The Red Roses also boast the top point scorer in the 2017 Championship in Emily Scarratt, who has kicked 28 points to date
- Scotland's Heather Lockhart will draw level with former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan if she comes off the bench to play her record-equalling 58th Six Nations match
If England remain on course for the Grand Slam with victory over Scotland it will have no impact on their rating in the World Rugby Women's Rankings as a consequence of the 21.32 points separating the two before the home advantage is factored in. However if Scotland can stun the world champions then they will climb two places to a new high of 11th – above South Africa and Samoa – and England will surrender second place to Canada.
ITALY (9) V FRANCE (4)
Defending champions France have lost both their away matches in the Championship to date and coach Samuel Cherouk has made five changes to the starting line-up from the Irish defeat in round three, four of them in the backline.
Céline Ferer coming into the second row in place of Lenaig Corson, who drops to the bench. Yanna Rivoalen and Audrey Abadie form a new half-back pairing with Shannon Izar shifting from the left wing to full-back with Caroline Boujard filling the vacant spot.
Italy coach Andrea di Giadomenico has also kept changes to a minimum, with Elisa Cucchiella returning to the front row to necessitate a move across to tight-head for Marta Ferrari as the only changes to the forward pack from that which battled to a 29-15 loss against England in round two.
Maria Grazia Cioffi has recovered from the injury she suffered against Ireland in round two to return at outside-centre. Michela Sillari therefore shifts out to the right wing as a result with Sofia Stefan, a try scorer against England, vacating that spot to partner Cioffi in the centres again.
- The Azzurra were victorious when the sides last met on Italian soil, 17-12 in Badia Polesine in 2015
- Italy will be going for a hat-trick of wins on home soil, having also beaten Les Bleues 13-12 in Brescia in 2013
- In fact, all three of Italy's wins in the head-to-head have come on Italian soil – in 1998, 2013 and 2015
- France were comfortable 39-0 winners when the sides last met in Bourg-en-Bresse in round one last year
- Italy have not started a Six Nations campaign with four defeats since 2012
- Les Bleues have only suffered three away defeats in the Six Nations once before, across the 2008 and 2009 Championships
If France can match Ireland's margin of victory or defeat this weekend then the sides will remain unchanged in fourth and fifth, Les Bleues increasing their slender advantage by as much as eight hundredths only. France will surrender fourth place, though, if they can only manage a narrow win and Ireland beat Wales by more than 15 points. Italy can swap places with Spain above them if they win by more than 15 points. A smaller margin of victory will see them retain ninth unless Wales secure an emphatic win over Ireland.
For more information on Women's Rugby World Cup 2017, visit rwcwomens.com.
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