In a scenario that will delight organisers, TV executives and armchair fans, the Six Nations championship is set to be decided in the final minutes of the final fixture of next weekend's "Super Saturday" triple bill when France face Ireland in Paris.
After smashing Italy 46-7 on Saturday Ireland go into the game with three wins and a +81 points difference. Any sort of victory for Joe Schmidt’s team is almost certain to bring them their second title in 29 years and complete a fairytale farewell for Brian O’Driscoll, playing his 141st and last international.
France also have three wins – somehow – but their feeble +3 differential means they would need an extraordinary landslide to have a chance.
England claimed their first Triple Crown since 2003 with their impressive 29-18 win over Wales at Twickenham on Sunday and travel to Italy needing victory to have a shot at that title.
Their +32 advantage means that they too would probably need to put 60 points on the Italians – an unlikely scenario in Rome – to prevail if Ireland also win. An England victory though would be enough should France also win.
A year ago it came down to the penultimate match and points difference, when an England win in Cardiff would have secured a grand slam while Wales needed to win by seven points to take the honours. Wales duly triumphed 30-3 to retain their title.
This year England get the ball rolling with a 12.30GMT kickoff in Rome. Wales, their hopes of a third successive title long gone, then host Scotland at 14.45 before Paris takes centre stage at 1700GMT.
Previous results in the two fixtures that matter have caused most British bookmakers to make England narrow favourites for what would be only their second title since their grand slam and World Cup-winning year of 2003.
In the last 50 years Ireland have managed just two wins in 30 championship games in Paris – though they did draw 17-17 on their last visit in 2012.
England, in contrast, have won all 19 of their games against Italy home and away, though their recent Rome encounters have been tight affairs with four, five, and four-point victories in the last three.
“We cannot underestimate Italy. They ran us very close in Twickenham last year and it was nip and tuck in Rome two years ago,” England captain Chris Robshaw said in his newspaper column on Monday.
“What will be critical will be hitting the same emotional intensity as we did yesterday.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster has long recognised the need to restore the “Fortress Twickenham” mentality that surrounded the west London venue during the peak of the Clive Woodward era and, slowly but surely, he, his team and the England fans seem to doing just that.
“Going to the ground was like nothing we had seen before,” said Robshaw. “The noise, the flags, the shirts – it was exactly what you want at home.
“We want teams to see Twickenham as a place to fear.”
With England facing Australia and Wales in the pool stage of the 2015 World Cup at the ground – which also hosts both semi-finals and the final – England will want to maintain the trend that has seen them beat all the sport’s major teams bar South Africa there since Lancaster took over at the start of 2012.
Ireland pushed them all the way three weeks ago, their 13-10 loss bein the only blot in this season’s impressive campaign.
Amid all the emotion of O’Driscoll’s Dublin farewell there was a thoroughly professional backdrop to the way they poured on the points in the latter stages against a punch-drunk Italy.
Schmidt is a real pragmatist and has dismissed the historical baggage surround Saturday’s game.
“We can’t get too distracted by history, points differential, what we need to do is really turn up and play on the field,” he said.
France have been laboured throughout the tournament and even the cliche of them delivering a classic performance just when it is least expected looks a long shot this year.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre, however, remains hopeful they can step up several levels from Saturday’s fortunate 19-17 victory in Scotland.
“It will be a different game at home in front of our crowd,” he said.
“I hope the Brian O’Driscoll party was in Dublin, not next week at the Stade de France.”
While all eyes will be on Paris, it will be an eerie atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium 12 months on from one of the venue’s greatest days.
Instead of lifting their team to a record, title-clinching victory over grand-slam chasing England, Welsh fans will watch their side play Scotland hoping to avoid a third defeat that could see them finish second-last in the standings. DM
Photo: England’s Joe Marler (L) challenges Wales’ Alex Cuthbert (C) during their Six Nations international rugby union match at Twickenham in London March 9, 2014. (REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)
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