With Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 now less than five months away, there could be no more fitting climax to the Women's Six Nations than a Grand Slam decider between world champions England and tournament hosts Ireland in Dublin on Friday.
England currently top the standings by one point (19 to Ireland's 18) but have a far superior points to their hosts (154 to 39) and so the Red Roses need only to avoid defeat at Donnybrook to claim their first Six Nations title since 2012.
That last success was England's sixth Grand Slam in seven years, but if Ireland can triumph on home soil they will win their third title in the last five years and second clean sweep.
The Women's Rugby World Cup trophy will be present at Donnybrook on Friday before England captain Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt hand it over at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday to mark the start of a trophy tour that will take in all 32 counties of Ireland over the next four months.
Three other nations who will be competing at WRWC 2017 may no longer be in title content, including 2016 champions France, but they will nonetheless be looking to finish the Six Nations on a high to take momentum into their preparations for the showpiece event from 9-26 August.
Italy will face Scotland in Cumbernauld on Friday knowing they must win with a bonus point – and deny their hosts anything – if they are to avoid the wooden spoon. The Championship then concludes on Saturday with the meeting between France and Wales in Brive.
SCOTLAND (13) V ITALY (9)
Scotland welcome back influential number eight Jade Kronkel, her country's only full-time player, for the visit of Italy to Broadwood Stadium after she missed the heavy loss to England through injury. The only other change to the starting line-up sees prop Katie Dougan handed her first start after eight appearances off the bench.
“We are aiming to end this year’s Six Nations campaign on a positive note with a strong performance against Italy,” admitted coach Shade Munro.
“It’s been pleasing to see the squad improve in many aspects, but there is more work to be done to reach our full potential. We need a consistent and solid performance at Broadwood as Italy are a very good side and have been improving with every game in the tournament.”
Italy have named a starting line-up boasting nearly 500 caps and showing just two changes from the team beaten 28-5 at home to France.
Both changes come in the pack with Isabella Locatelli partnering Alice Trevisan in the second row, while Rugby Monza team-mate Lucia Cammarano is included in the back row at openside flanker.
- In their last home match, Scotland finally brought their seven-year winless run to an end by defeating Wales 15-14
- Scotland have not won two matches in a single Championship since 2006
- Scotland have won the wooden spoon in the previous six Championships
- Italy are yet to win in the 2017 Championship but have not suffered a whitewash since 2009
- The Azzurra have only won one of their last four Six Nations matches on the road, 16-12 against Wales in Aberavon last year
- Scotland won five of the first seven meetings with Italy but haven't tasted victory since 2009
Italy are unable to improve their position even with victory over Scotland and could still fall one place if Wales upset the higher-ranked France. Scotland, though, will climb above South Africa to a new high of 12th if they can win their second match of the Championship. If the Scots can win by more than 15 points then they will also leapfrog Samoa and sit just once place below the Italians.
IRELAND (5) V ENGLAND (2)
Ireland coach Tom Tierney has made one change to his starting line-up for this St. Patrick's Day winner-takes-all encounter with England with Larissa Muldoon getting the nod over Mary Healy at scrum-half. That means second-row Marie-Louise Reilly will win her 50th cap for her country.
"There's a very strong spirit in this squad that's been developing nicely over the last few months and, while the performances to date haven't been as accurate or as clinical as we would have liked, we've ground out four wins in a row to set up a very big game this Friday evening in Donnybrook," said Tierney.
"England are arriving to Dublin on the back of a huge win against Scotland so their confidence will be high, and deservedly so. They have shown throughout the Championship that they can score tries from anywhere and they have a strong and skilful pack as well.
"From our point of view, we have a huge opportunity on St. Patrick's Day and for us it's about looking to rectify some of the areas of our game that we haven't been happy with over the past few weeks and if we can make those small changes, then Friday's game should be a great one."
His counterpart Simon Middleton has the luxury of selecting seven of the 10 top point scorers in the 2017 Championship his match-day squad, including Kay Wilson who, unsurprisingly, keeps her place on the win after her Six Nations record haul of seven tries in the 64-0 win over Scotland last weekend.
Amy Wilson-Hardy returns on the right wing in place of Lydia Thompson in the only change to the starting line-up.
“We have put ourselves in a position to realise our Six Nations ambitions of winning the Championship but we’re under no illusions of how difficult the task will be,” said Middleton.
“Ireland have had a great competition so far, showing immense resilience to win four tough games. It promises to be a fantastic end to the tournament and we are confident that come Friday we will be as ready as we can to win our first Grand Slam in five years.”
- This is only the second time in Women's Six Nations history that both sides are going for a Grand Slam in the final round. On the previous occasion, France beat England 13-12 in Bourg-en-Bresse to complete the clean sweep in 2004
- The Red Roses have twice failed to complete the Grand Slam at the final hurdle, both times against France, in 2004 and 2016
- England have won six Grand Slams in comparison to Ireland's one
- England have won the Six Nations on eight occasions, Ireland twice
- Ireland have won the last two meetings between the sides on Irish soil, 25-0 in 2013 and 11-8 in 2015
- England, though, have won the last three encounters since that 2015 loss
- This will be England's first visit to Donnybrook, a venue Ireland have only tasted defeat at once – against Wales in 2006
- Ireland are on a six-match unbeaten run in the Six Nations since losing to England in round three last year
England cannot surrender second place in the World Rugby Women's Rankings even if they suffer a heavy loss in the Irish capital, although their cushion over third-ranked Canada could shrink to less than two tenths. Ireland can climb into the top four if they win, as France cannot improve their rating. The Irish can climb to fourth even with defeat, if France lose to Wales.
FRANCE (4) V WALES (10)
Les Bleues coach Samuel Cherouk has made four changes, all in the backs, to the team that took to the field in Italy last weekend.
Jessy Trémoulière replaces Shannon Izar at full-back, Chloé Pelle takes the place of Camille Grassineau on the wing, while Jade Le Pesq and Caroline Druin form a new half-back combination.
Wales produced a much-improved performance in going down 12-7 to Ireland last weekend and coach Rowland Phillips has made a handful of changes as his side hope to end the Six Nations on a winning note against France at the Stade Amédée Domenech in Brive on Saturday.
Scrum-half Sian Moore, winger Jasmine Joyce, centre Gemma Rowland and full-back Elinor Snowsill all come into the starting line-up, which will feature seven of the team that overcame Les Bleues 10-8 at The Gnoll last year.
“There are only small parts of our game that need improving, so we didn’t want to make any drastic changes to the side,” said Phillips. “The players showed the right amount of attitude and desire last Saturday in Cardiff, which we want them to carry into this weekend’s game.
“It’s been a difficult campaign for this squad in more ways than one, but I know we’ll be stronger for it as we enter the next phase of preparation for this summer’s World Cup.”
- France have suffered two defeats in 2017, both away from home
- France have won their last 10 matches on home soil and haven't tasted defeat since the WRWC 2014 semi-finals against Canada
- Their last Six Nations defeat in France came at the hands of England in 2012
- Wales have scored only 27 points in 10 previous meetings with France on French soil
- Wales won the last meeting between the teams, 10-8 at The Gnoll in 2016
- That was only Wales' fourth victory in 22 meetings with Les Bleues
- Caroline Ladagnous is the only non-English player in the top seven try-scorers in this year's Championship with four
France cannot improve their rating with victory as a result of the 9.73 rating points separating the teams before the home weighting is added. That means that Les Bleues could fall out of the top four even if they win, depending on the outcome of the Grand Slam decider in Dublin the day before. Wales can climb one or two places with victory, depending on the margin.
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