Following their impressive victory over Wales to kick off the Six Nations, England will be aiming to avoid any slip ups when Stuart Lancaster’s side host Italy at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday. Missing a host of players through injury and after a chastening defeat on their previous visit to Cardiff, England went to the Millennium Stadium last week as underdogs but upset the Welsh to get their Six Nations campaign off to the best possible start.
How they’ll back up that victory is just one intriguing aspect of the second round of games in the northern hemisphere’s flagship event, which offers key preparation ahead of the World Cup later this year.
Here’s the lowdown on all three contests this weekend.
England vs. Italy (Saturday, 9:30 a.m. EST, delayed coverage on beIN Sports at 7 p.m.)
England surprised plenty with their 21-16 victory in Wales, and a team with moderate expectations entering this year’s Six Nations has now become the favorites to win the trophy in the eyes of many. They are certainly massive favorites to beat the traditional minnows of the competition, Italy, in front of their own fans. England have won all 20 of their previous meetings with Italy, yet they have been given unexpected problems by the Italians in recent years. In the sides’ last match at Twickenham, England struggled to an 18-11 win, and the task for Lancaster is to prevent his players getting carried away with the win over Wales by already looking ahead to a possible title-showdown with Ireland in Dublin in two weeks’ time. The renewed confidence in the camp is evident in Lancaster naming an unchanged lineup. And he will know that if midfield trio George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell are as impressive as they were against Wales, England should have too much for an Italy team that were dismissed 26-3 by Ireland last week.
Ireland vs. France (Saturday, noon)
Ireland will welcome back star man Johnny Sexton when they attempt to remain on course to defend their Six Nations title with the visit of France to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The fly-half has been on the sidelines for 12 weeks following four bouts of concussion in the past year, but coach Joe Schmidt is confident Sexton is up to playing from the start.
"Johnny's very fit, he's done a lot of training with us, he's spent the last 12 weeks training; he just hasn't done any contact,” he said, reports BBC Sport. “He's done plenty of contact this week and he's primed and ready to go.”
Ireland have made two further changes to the team that opened up with a comfortable unspectacular, win in Rome, with Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip returning. Rory Best is fit after suffering a concussion against Italy. Despite getting a win over Scotland in Paris last week, France did little to convince that they can be a real contender in this Six Nations. Even France coach Philippe Saint-André is portraying his men as underdogs in Dublin, although there will be strong motivation, not just to bolster their hopes in this tournament, but to garner a massive lift ahead of their meeting with Ireland in Pool D of the World Cup in September.
Scotland vs. Wales (Sunday, 9 a.m., delayed coverage on beIN Sports at 7 p.m.)
Both Scotland and Wales come into the meeting at Murrayfield on the back of opening defeats, but the similarities largely end there. While Scotland earned credit and maintained upward momentum under coach Vern Cotter in a narrow loss in Paris, Wales’ very real hopes of winning the championship were dealt a severe blow by a loss to England in front of a packed and fired up Millennium Stadium crowd. Another defeat on Sunday and they can forget about the title. Their task is Edinburgh has been further complicated by the absence of wing George North. Liam Williams will instead start, with North being taken out of the firing line as a precautionary measure after he suffered two blows to the head against England. Yet Williams’ presence will bring back encouraging memories for a Wales side in need of a boost. He was a key part of the team that tore Scotland apart 51-3 in Cardiff the last time the sides met, in last year’s Six Nations. Indeed, Wales have beaten Scotland in each of the last seven championships. Still, rejuvenated from the depths of a year ago, Scotland will fancy their chances of causing Wales further upset.
Live streams of all three matches will be available via Premium Sports.