Johnny Sexton's omission from the British and Irish Lions squad was one of Warren Gatland's "toughest decisions", the coach has admitted.

Ireland legend Sexton, the 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year, was one of the surprise exclusions from Gatland's 37-man selection for the upcoming tour of South Africa.

Sexton misses out despite the fly-half playing a key role on the 2017 trip to New Zealand, with Gatland expressing some concerns over the 35-year-old's "durability" and instead calling up Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell.

"There's no doubt that that was one of the toughest decisions that we had to make," said Gatland at a news conference on Thursday.

"I've got a huge amount of respect for Johnny and his quality, but it's such a pivotal position for us and it's about sending a message to the 10s that we have selected that we have the confidence and belief in them to do a job.

"When we looked at where we were going in South Africa probably the thing that kept coming back to us was Johnny's durability, being able to put a string of matches together consecutively, and big matches.

"He has been rested on a number of occasions and unfortunately that's possibly what swayed it for us in terms of us not having the confidence that he can get through what's going to be a tough, physical tour."

Billy Vunipola was also a notable absentee from the list, while other big calls saw Wales centre Jonathan Davies, England prop Kyle Sinckler and Ireland second row James Ryan left out.

However, Gatland did find room for Exeter Chiefs number eight Sam Simmonds, who has not played a Test for England since March 2018.

The Lions will face the Springboks in Tests on July 24, July 31 and August 7.

Alun Wyn Jones has been named captain of the British and Irish Lions for their tour of South Africa, leading a 37-man squad.

Warren Gatland announced his selection on Thursday ahead of the trip in July, which follows a warm-up against Japan next month.

Wales great Jones has been chosen for the leadership role having featured in the past nine Lions Tests going back to 2009, the longest run in the professional era.

Jones has already skippered the side once previously in the absence of the injured Sam Warburton in Australia eight years ago, clinching a first series win since 1997.

Elsewhere in Gatland's squad, Ireland's former World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton misses out despite playing a key role on the 2017 trip to New Zealand.

Billy Vunipola was also a notable absentee from the list, while other big calls saw Wales centre Jonathan Davies, England prop Kyle Sinckler and Ireland second row James Ryan excluded.

However, Gatland did find room for Exeter Chiefs number eight Sam Simmonds, who has not played a Test for England since March 2018.

"We believe we've picked a squad capable of winning a Test series in South Africa," Gatland - who opted for 11 Englishmen, 10 Welshmen and eight apiece from Ireland and Scotland - said following the squad announcement.

"Selecting a Lions squad is never easy and, in many ways, this has been the most challenging selection I have been involved in.

"Over the course of the last three weeks the coaches and I have rigorously debated each position.

"We saw some outstanding performances in the recent Six Nations, so competition for places has been tough with some incredibly tight calls to make. 

"However, we are very happy with the squad we have assembled and look forward to meeting up in Jersey in just over a month's time to start our preparation to take on the world champions.

"We've left out some very talented players which gives an indication to the strength of this squad and we know how important that stand-by list will be.

"Being selected for a Lions tour is the greatest honour for a British and Irish player and I congratulate everyone named today."

The Lions will face the Springboks in Tests on July 24, July 31 and August 7.


British and Irish Lions squad in full:

Josh Adams (Cardiff, Wales), Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales), Elliot Daly (Saracens, England), Gareth Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Chris Harris (Gloucester, Scotland), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, Scotland), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester, Wales), Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh, Scotland), Anthony Watson (Bath, England), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Tadhg Beirne (Munster, Ireland), Jack Conan (Leinster, Ireland), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath, Wales), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Jamie George (Saracens, England), Iain Henderson (Ulster, Ireland), Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, England), Maro Itoje (Saracens, England), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), Andrew Porter (Leinster, Ireland), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England), Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh, Scotland), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales), Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh, Scotland).

Alun Wyn Jones has been named captain of the British and Irish Lions for their tour of South Africa, leading a 36-man squad.

Warren Gatland announced his selection on Thursday ahead of the trip in July, which follows a warm-up against Japan next month.

Wales great Jones has been chosen as captain having featured in the past nine Lions Tests going back to 2009, the longest run in the professional era.

Jones has already skippered the side once in the absence of the injured Sam Warburton in Australia eight years ago, clinching a first series win since 1997.

It was not sealed in the fashion they would have hoped for, but Wales could belatedly celebrate Six Nations glory on Friday.

Wayne Pivac's side had missed the chance to claim a Grand Slam triumph last week in a heartbreaking last-gasp defeat to France.

But with France needing a bonus-point win by a 21-point margin in Friday's rearranged clash with Scotland - delayed due to an earlier COVID-19 outbreak - to deny Wales again, Les Bleus' loss in Paris handed them the title.

"It's a real emotional rollercoaster, the last seven days really," Wales head coach Pivac said on Saturday.

He added: "It was just different and that's what we've come to expect from this pandemic really.

"It was evident that we had to go and do something different and that was to watch us win a championship from our living room."

That was far from the only first in a tournament with its fair share of twists and turns, though, as Opta data shows.
 

MORE TRIES, MORE DRAMA

There were six tries in Friday's frantic affair at the Stade de France and that contributed to a new Six Nations record.

A total of 86 tries were scored across the 15 matches, the most in a single edition of the tournament in its history.

And Scotland's dramatic 27-23 success, sealed with an 80th-minute Duhan van der Merwe score, was a fitting end to the competition.

Eight of the 15 games were decided by margins of five points or fewer, another new benchmark.

"There were some great games," Pivac said. "It was just a shame we didn't have crowds. You can imagine how much of an atmosphere would have been generated.

"It was a good advertisement for the game and a lot of nations are heading in the right direction. It's exciting."

Van der Merwe beat two defenders in the decisive fixture and in doing so set a new tournament high of 31, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's 30 defenders beaten in 2000.

The wing's brace also saw him become the first Scotland player to finish a Six Nations campaign as the outright leading try scorer (five).

France needed to score at least one more try in order to have a chance of snatching the championship, but they still matched their best haul of 18 from 2006.

Not all the records were quite so impressive.

Italy conceded 239 points, 34 tries and had a points difference of -184, the worst such tallies for any team in an edition of the Six Nations.
 

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Wales' title was their sixth since Italy were introduced to the tournament to form the Six Nations in 2000.

Four of their previous five had been Grand Slam successes, a record over this period they could not extend thanks to France's epic win last week.

But Wales are now only one Six Nations crown behind England's seven.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to feel like we're on the right track," the title-winning coach said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves."

This was not a tournament England will reflect on fondly, even as captain Owen Farrell became only the third man - after Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Wilkinson - to reach 500 points in the Five/Six Nations.

Eddie Jones' outfit came in as defending champions but slumped to their joint-worst Six Nations finish, coming fifth as they had in 2018.

England also lost against Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the same Five/Six Nations campaign for the first time since 1976.

At the bottom of the table, though, there was no change.

Italy have picked up the Wooden Spoon in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the championship just once in the prior four seasons.

The British and Irish Lions' tour of South Africa is set to go ahead as planned later this year after proposals to stage matches elsewhere were rejected.

Due to continued complications surrounding the coronavirus crisis, questions were raised over whether the Lions would be able to travel to South Africa for the eight-match trip.

But rather than host matches in the UK and Ireland, or take up Australia's offer to play games Down Under, it has been decided to press ahead with the original itinerary

The Lions and SA Rugby released a joint statement on Tuesday to confirm an agreement is in place over the staging of the tour, which begins on July 3 and continues into early August.

"After reviewing information relating to the various contingency scenarios being considered, I can confirm that the board's intended position is for the Tour to go ahead as scheduled in South Africa in 2021," said Lions chairman Jason Leonard.

"We acknowledge that there is a significant amount of work still to be undertaken to deliver a robust Covid-19 countermeasure plan to ensure a successful, safe and uninterrupted Tour. SA Rugby will have our full support to help implement this plan."

However, the original plan for the Lions to play five warm-up matches against provincial teams, an invitational side and second-string South Africa A before the three-Test series with the Springboks could still change.

"We appreciate the Lions' faith and share their desire to see a safe and successful tour,” said SA Rugby president Mark Alexander in the same statement. 

"We have been in regular contact with our government to make that a reality against the backdrop of the pandemic and its predicted progression over the coming months.

"There are serious financial implications for SA Rugby, should the event take place without any supporters in attendance, and we cannot ignore that in our considerations. 

"But we are determined that the eventual outcome will deliver the best occasion and experience for players, supporters and our commercial partners."

Speaking earlier on Tuesday, RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney acknowledged the preferred contingency plan of staging the tour in the UK had become increasingly unviable.

"It was always the preferred option to go to South Africa," he said. "We had to develop a whole range of different scenarios given the potential outcomes and one of those was a UK series.

"It's quite controversial as it's not the spirit of the Lions, but as fall-back option, we thought it was a strong one. If they can't host it, the agreement's off and we've probably run out of time to host it in the UK, so you play in 2025."

Lions coach Warren Gatland is due to announce a squad for the tour at the start of May, with the first warm-up match to be played on home soil on Murrayfield against Japan on June 26.

Ireland set the standard for future performances in wrapping up their Six Nations campaign with a 32-18 win over England, according to captain Johnny Sexton.

First-half tries from Keith Earls and Jack Conan - along with 22 points from the boot of Sexton - helped Andy Farrell's side claim a convincing victory in Dublin.

Ireland's place in the standings will only be decided when France meet Scotland in the tournament's final fixture next week.

But, whether he and his team-mates are leapfrogged in second place or not, Sexton had one major positive to take from the 2021 Six Nations.

He told ITV: "It was brilliant. We felt like we weren't far away all through the championship and it kind of clicked in some things.

"There's still lots of stuff we can improve on and get better, but that was the performance we wanted against a top-quality side. 

"[England are] one of the best sides in the world, who we have massive respect for - their players, their coaches, everyone - so that's the standard we've set now and hopefully we can keep backing it up and become more consistent. 

"I said to the boys last night that the only worry we should have is about backing up today and we put in a performance that will make us think twice about some of the standards that we set in that game."

England added an arguably undeserved hint of respectability to the scoreline as they ran in late tries through Ben Youngs and Jonny May following Bundee Aki's dismissal just past the hour mark.

Sexton believes that sort of indiscipline had hampered Ireland throughout the tournament, and called for it to be eradicated.

He added: "We still felt we should have stopped the try - a missed tackle - but we showed great guts throughout the tournament. 

"Sometimes when you don't take your chances, your performances are made out to be worse than they actually are. 

"The first game, we go down to 14, and indiscipline is still an issue at times. And against France, small margins, all these games. 

"Both of these teams could have been going for a championship today or a Grand Slam so they are the margins we have to make up next time we come together."

England put their points on the board through two Owen Farrell penalties - the second of which brought up his 500th Six Nations point - early in the first half and that late flurry of tries.

That left flanker Tom Curry rueing a failure to compete with Ireland in the "middle section" of the game.

"I'm obviously very disappointed. It's pretty gutting," he said.

"We knew it was going to be a really physical encounter. The past three times we have played them it has been all about physicality and today was no different.

"A bit of discipline cost us here and there. In the last 20 we showed a bit more of a glimpse of what we're about.

"It was that middle section where we need to back it up and we probably didn't do that today."

Johnny Sexton scored 22 points as 14-man Ireland saw off England 32-18 at the Aviva Stadium to end their Six Nations campaign on a high. 

Both sides were out of contention to win the competition heading into the final round of fixtures, but it was Ireland who claimed a third win in a row thanks to first-half tries from Keith Earls and Jack Conan. 

England were given an opportunity to launch a comeback 17 minutes from time when 26-6 behind, as Bundee Aki was dismissed for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. 

Yet despite Ben Youngs crossing over almost instantly, plus Jonny May adding a late second after Conor Murray was sin-binned, Ireland comfortably saw things through to earn a first win over England in five Tests. 

England were forced into a late back-line rejig as Ollie Lawrence replaced the injured Max Malins, but they settled quickly and took the lead through an early Owen Farrell penalty. 

Sexton slotted over three points to level things up, with the home side ahead four minutes later thanks to Earls' impressive score. 

Conan outjumped Tom Curry at a lineout and popped the ball to Earls, who found a gap and jinked his way past a couple of opponents for his second try of the tournament. 

It was the seventh Test running where England had conceded the first try and, while Farrell did reply with another penalty, Sexton restored Ireland's seven-point lead with one of his own. 

Andy Farrell's side then tightened their grip on the contest before half-time, the recalled Conan applying the finish to a patient move. 

England were given a lifeline when Earls had a try ruled out for Cian Healy's knock-on in the build-up, though Sexton split the sticks following an earlier infringement.  

The fly-half nailed another kick with an hour played but, just when it looked to be plain sailing for Ireland, referee Mathieu Raynal deemed Aki's challenge on Vunipola to be worthy of dismissal. 

Youngs charged over when played in by Jamie George to potentially set up a tense finale, only for the impressive Sexton to keep the hosts comfortably clear with two more penalties. 

May went outside his man to restore some pride for England in the final stages, at which point Ireland were down to 13 men after Murray was shown a yellow card, but there was to be no late twist.

Wales need a victory against France in Paris to reclaim the Six Nations crown, and complete a Grand Slam in the process.

Wayne Pivac's team have enjoyed a sensational turnaround in fortunes this year and last week's 48-7 thrashing of lowly Italy made it four wins from four.

With France subsequently losing to England at Twickenham, Wales will wrap up the title with a win on Saturday, while even a losing bonus point could be enough, though that may still leave the door open for Les Bleus to snatch glory should they win their postponed fixture against Scotland.

England are well out of the race, but their captain Owen Farrell is eyeing up a points landmark when the 2020 champions take on Ireland in Dublin.

Scotland, meanwhile, round off what will ultimately go down as a frustrating campaign against Italy.

We use Opta data to preview the round-five, Super Saturday encounters.

 

SCOTLAND V ITALY

FORM

Scotland have won their last five Six Nations games against Italy – the previous 10 clashes between the sides had seen them share five wins each.

Italy have lost 52 of 54 away games in the Six Nations, with their only two victories on the road coming in Scotland in 2007 and 2015.

That victory at Murrayfield in 2015 was Italy's last in the competition. Their losing streak now stands at 31 games, and they will pick up the wooden spoon for the 16th time in Six Nations history.

ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have the best tackle success rate (92 per cent) of any side in this year's competition. Hamish Watson leads the way in that regard, completing all 44 of his attempted tackles – he has made 133 consecutive tackles in the tournament without missing one, the second-longest such run in Six Nations history, behind Lionel Nallet's 154 for France.

Italy's Sebastian Negri has made 127 post-contact metres in the 2021 Six Nations, the most of any forward in the championship.

IRELAND V ENGLAND

FORM

England have won their last two meetings with Ireland in the Six Nations and could win three in a row against them for only the second time, after doing so between 2012 and 2014.

Ireland lost to France in their last home game, only once before have they suffered defeat in back-to-back home games in the Six Nations – in 2010 versus Scotland at Croke Park and 2011 versus France at the Aviva Stadium.

Jones' England have won their last four Tests against Ireland, preventing them from scoring any first-half points in their last two meetings and scoring an average of 4.3 tries per game in that run.

ONES TO WATCH

CJ Stander announced his retirement this week, with the 31-year-old set to hang up his boots at the end of the season. This will be his final appearance for Ireland, having won his 50th cap in the 27-24 win over Scotland in round four.

Owen Farrell, son of Ireland coach Andy, is the top scorer in the Six Nations this year (44) and is just six points away from 500 in the championship. Only Ronan O'Gara (557) has reached that milestone exclusively in the Six Nations (since 2000).

FRANCE V WALES

FORM

Wales are bidding to win a sixth Six Nations title (since 2000), only England (seven) have won the championship more often. If they win this match it would be their fifth
Grand Slam – no other side has more than three.

Recent history is on Wales' side heading to the Stade de France. They have won three of their last four away games against Les Bleus in the Six Nations (L1), triumphing in their last trip to Paris (24-19 in 2019) despite trailing by 16 points at half-time – the biggest comeback for a team in the competition. 

Indeed, pre-tournament favourites France have won only two of their last nine Six Nations games against Wales (L7) after winning nine of the previous 12 (L3).

ONES TO WATCH

Antoine Dupont already has four try assists in this Six Nations, only five players have ever recorded more in an edition of the championship, with Frederic Michalak
(seven in 2006) the only Frenchman to do so.

Louis Rees-Zammit is the joint top try scorer in the 2021 Six Nations (four, level with England's Anthony Watson). Shane Williams (six in 2008) is the only Welsh player to score more than four in an edition of the tournament.

Ireland number eight CJ Stander has dropped a retirement bombshell by declaring he will quit rugby at the end of the season.

Stander said the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and his club, Munster, tried to talk him out of leaving the game.

But 30-year-old Stander, who won his 50th cap in Ireland's 27-24 win over Scotland on Sunday, could not be persuaded to make a U-turn.

The South Africa-born back-rower said: "All professional sports people are told 'you will know when the time is right to hang up your boots'.

"It’s a sentiment one cannot fully comprehend until that day arrives. For me, that time has come, and I hereby publicly announce my retirement from all forms of rugby.

"I will be available to represent Munster until 27 June 2021 when my contract expires, and for international duty, until the end of the mid-year Test window."

Stander, who came to Ireland at the age of 22, said rugby had "started to take an unfair toll on my family".

He qualified to play for Ireland by residency and made his debut in the 2016 Six Nations, going on to play for the British and Irish Lions on their tour of New Zealand a year later.

In 2018, Stander helped Ireland achieve a Six Nations Grand Slam, but now he says rugby must take a back seat.

"I asked myself whether I was still enjoying this enough to earn the continued support of Munster and Ireland, and to justify the sacrifices my family was making. From a performance perspective, the answer was yes," Stander said in a statement.

"But I always had the intent to retire while I was still playing some of my best rugby. I also knew I wanted my daughter Everli to grow up around her family in South Africa.

"When all these intentions and considerations intercepted each other during that training session, I discussed the implications thereof with [Munster] coach Johann van Graan and the Irish Rugby Football Union.

"I deeply appreciate that they tried to persuade me otherwise, but I knew it was time."

Johnny Sexton kicked a late penalty to make sure Ireland once again got the better of Scotland in the Six Nations, the visitors running out 27-24 winners at Murrayfield on Sunday.

Scotland went into the fixture still in with a shot of claiming the title but a 17th loss in the last 20 meetings between the two nations in the competition means Wales and France will fight it out to be crowned champions in 2021.

Hamish Watson's converted try in the 74th minute completed an impressive comeback from Scotland, who had trailed 24-10 at one stage in the second half.

However, having worked so hard to get back level in the contest, Scotland conceded a penalty from the kick-off, allowing Sexton to settle a see-saw contest in favour of Ireland.

The hosts had not played for a month – their round three fixture against France was called off due to a coronavirus outbreak within Les Bleus' squad – and were caught cold in the opening minutes of both halves.

Sexton slotted over an early penalty to start the scoring before putting his right boot to good use in open play, a cross-field kick meant for Keith Earls ending up breaking kindly for the late-arriving Robbie Henshaw to ground.

Finn Russell replied with a penalty and then cashed in on a fortunate break to get Scotland's first try.

Stuart Hogg charged down a clearing kick and twice hacked on before Russell did the same, James Lowe’s attempt to deal with the situation only knocking the ball up in the air to set up an easy finish for the fly-half.

The conversion made it 10-8 to Scotland, but a pair of Sexton penalties before the break was followed up by Tadhg Beirne plunging over in the 49th minute, his try by the posts leaving an easy kick to make it 21-10.

A further Sexton penalty built the lead out to 14, yet substitute Huw Jones gave Scotland hope, bursting through some weak tackling to make an instant impact following his introduction.

Hogg landed the extras having taken over kicking duties, the full-back also on target to bring his team level after Watson's strength close to the line allowed the flanker to force the ball down.

Yet Sexton scuppered Scotland's hopes as he had the last word, drilling over the match-winning kick from close to the touchline.

Jamison Gibson-Park retained his place in the Ireland side, while Sean Maitland and Jamie Ritchie will return for Scotland in Sunday's Six Nations encounter at Murrayfield.

Gibson-Park started the loss to France and victory over Italy, with Conor Murray ruled out, and the scrum-half did enough to retain the number nine jersey.

Murray is back on the bench along with Jordan Larmour, who is replaced on the wing by the experienced Keith Earls.

Prop Cian Healy comes in at loosehead at the expense of Dave Kilcoyne, who is named among the replacements as Andy Farrell's men attempt to make it two wins from four in the tournament. 

Gregor Townsend has made four alterations to his line-up for Scotland's first match in a month after their clash with France was postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak in Les Bleus' camp.

Wing Maitland and flanker Ritchie return from injury, replacing Darcy Graham and Blade Thomson respectively.

Zander Fagerson's suspension gives prop WP Nel the chance to start, Sam Johnson makes his first appearance of the tournament in place of James Lang.

Grant Gilchrist and Nick Haining will be ready to feature in the 2021 Six Nations for the first time from the bench.

 

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Will Connors, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.

Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Chris Harris, Sam Johnson, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, George Turner, WP Nel, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie. Hamish Watson, Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: David Cherry, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Nick Haining, Scott Steele, Huw Jones, Darcy Graham.

France resume their bid to win a first Six Nations title since 2010 with a trip to face wounded England at Twickenham, and Wales should made it four wins out of four this weekend.

A coronavirus outbreak in the French camp led to their clash with Scotland being postponed, but they will be back in action against the Red Rose on Saturday a month after beating Ireland.

Wales shattered England's hopes of retaining the title with a 40-24 win at the Principality Stadium and will be expected to stay perfect when they face Italy in Rome, also on Saturday.

Scotland will look to reignite their title challenge when they face Ireland at Murrayfield on Sunday.

We use Opta data to preview the round-four encounters.

 

ITALY v WALES

FORM

Wales have won their last 15 Tests against Italy, and a 16th would represent their longest ever winning run against a single opponent in Test rugby (they won 15 in a row against France from 1908 to 1927).

A win over England secured Wales' fifth Triple Crown of the Six Nations era, They completed the Grand Slam in each of their previous four Triple Crown-winning campaigns since 2000 (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019).

Italy's losing run in the competition stands at 30 games and they have lost 19 in a row at home, stretching back to a defeat of Ireland eight years ago.

ONES TO WATCH

Azzurri fly-half Paolo Garbisi has made more kicks in play (29) and recorded more kicking metres (1,142m) than any other player in this year's Six Nations.

Josh Adams marked his first match of the tournament by scoring a controversial try against England and the Wales wing will fancy his chances of touching down again in Rome.

 

ENGLAND v FRANCE

FORM

England have won nine of their 10 home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row. Their only defeat came in February 2005, going down 18-17.

France have won seven of their last eight games in the Six Nations and will look for a fourth consecutive victory in the competition this weekend.

Les Bleus have scored the opening try of the game in 15 of their most previous 18 matches in this tournament, including their last eight in a row.

ONES TO WATCH

Wing Anthony Watson will win his 50th cap for England. He has the best average gain per carry rate (10.1 metres) of anyone to make 10 or more carries in the 2021 Six Nations and has also made the most post-contact metres (141).

France lock Paul Willemse has not missed any of his 34 tackles in the Six Nations this year and has made the joint-second most dominant tackles with four, England's Tom Curry (5) the only player to have made more.

SCOTLAND v IRELAND

FORM

Ireland have lost just three of their last 19 games against Scotland in the Six Nations, winning all the rest. Each of the men in green's defeats came by a margin of five points or fewer.

Scotland have lost their last two Test matches at Murrayfield. They have not been beaten in more consecutive games at their traditional home venue since losing four on the bounce between November 2014 and March 2015.

Gregor Townsend's side are the only team to average fewer than 10 missed tackles (8.5) per game in the Six Nations in 2021 and as a result boast the best tackle success rate of 92 per cent.

ONES TO WATCH

Hamish Watson has been an influential performer for Scotland, winning three turnovers and getting through a huge amount of work in the back row.

Ireland back-row Tadhg Beirne has recorded the most ruck arrivals (117) in the tournament, hitting the most rucks of anyone in both attack (87) and defence (30).

Jacob Stockdale has been recalled to Ireland's Six Nations squad for the round four encounter with Scotland on Sunday.

Stockdale has played no part in the tournament so far due to a knee injury but made his return for Ulster against the Ospreys last month.

The versatile back also featured in a Pro14 defeat to Leinster last weekend and was called up by Ireland head coach Andy Farrell on Monday.

Stockdale's last appearance for his country came in a 31-16 Autumn Nations victory over Scotland in December.

Flanker Josh van der Flier will go through the graduated return to play protocols ahead of the showdown at Murrayfield, where Ireland and Scotland will be looking for a second win of the tournament. 

Shane Daly will not travel with the 36-man squad, as the centre is to remain with Munster.

Ireland hammered Italy 48-10 in round three following defeats to Wales and France.

Johnny Sexton will continue to strut his stuff for Ireland and Leinster after signing a one-year contract extension to the end of the 2021-22 season.

The 35-year-old laid to rest speculation over his immediate future as he agreed a longer deal with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) on Tuesday.

Sexton, the 2018 World Player of the Year, is Ireland's captain and talisman, with the fly-half in no rush to hang up his boots. 

"I am really enjoying my rugby and I want to keep learning and adding value to both the Ireland and Leinster environments," he said. 

"I am enjoying the challenge of captaincy and the added responsibility that it brings. My appetite for success is the same as it ever was and the ambitions of both the Ireland and Leinster squads match my own."

Sexton's impressive list of honours includes three Six Nations titles with his country, for whom he was won 97 caps, and four European Cups with Leinster. 

Ireland's 2021 Six Nations campaign started with back-to-back loss against Wales and France before Saturday's thrashing of Italy.

Johnny Sexton says Ireland are "on a journey" and praised the team's character to bounce back from consecutive Six Nations defeats to hammer Italy in Rome.

Andy Farrell's side had started the tournament with defeats to Wales and France, the first by five points and the second by only two.

Ireland outclassed a poor Italy side on Saturday, though, with the Azzurri now having lost 30 straight Six Nations matches following the 48-10 reverse – the longest losing streak in the competition's history. 

The visitors ran in six tries while Sexton, returning to the side from a head injury, was eight from eight from the tee. That represents the most by any Ireland player while maintaining a 100 per cent success rate from the tee since Paddy Jackson kicked nine of nine against Italy in 2017.

With games against Scotland and England to come, Sexton is keen to ensure Ireland build on a promising display.

"We need to keep our performance levels like that against two very good sides," Sexton told ITV Sport after his 50th Six Nations appearance.

"Scotland have been very impressive in the first two rounds and if not for a red card would have been top of the table, probably. 

"This group is on a journey together, we're a year into it and we'd have liked to have had that performance earlier. 

"It's not for the want of trying, it's just little mix-ups along the way. Thankfully we put them right.

"We played very well, all of our forwards did – they've been very impressive over the first two rounds. 

"We've felt as a team that us backs have let them down at times. We improved on a lot of those areas today and thankfully got the victory we were desperate for. 

"We spoke about how close we were in the first two – both very different games but just very proud of the boys, the way we bounced back, it's a real sign of character when things have been going the way they have in the last few weeks, just to stick together and to show the work we've been doing behind the scenes."

Ireland have now won 21 of their 22 games against Italy in the Six Nations, while the 38-point margin of victory was their biggest in any Test match since beating the same opposition 63-10 in February 2017.

Page 2 of 4
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.