Ireland kick-started their Six Nations campaign as they beat Italy for an eighth successive time in the competition, claiming a 48-10 bonus-point victory in Rome.

Having gone down to Wales and France in their opening matches – the first time Ireland had lost their first two games of a Six Nations campaign – Andy Farrell's men got their first win of the 2021 campaign on Saturday.

The returning Johnny Sexton was typically influential, on point with his kicking and integral to slick attacks as Ireland made it 21 wins from their last 22 Six Nations meetings with Italy.

Garry Ringrose, Hugo Keenan and Will Connors propelled Ireland to a 27-point haul in the first half, Ireland's best first-half total in a Test since February 2018, with CJ Stander and Keith Earls also getting in on the act to seal a routine triumph.

Welcomed back into Ireland's line-up after missing the defeat to France due to a head injury, Sexton marked his 50th Six Nations appearance with a simple three-pointer five minutes in, moments after Paolo Garbisi nosed Italy ahead.

Sexton was adding two more points to his tally five minutes later, with Ringrose having picked a gap in Italy's defence to score the game's first try.

Another Sexton penalty edged Ireland further in front and despite some spirited Italy attacking, the visitors struck again as Ringrose turned provider for Keenan.

Ireland had a third try before half-time, Sexton combining with Jordan Larmour to feed Connors in the corner, though Italy managed to strike back through Johan Meyer.

Yet Italy's work was undone by sloppy defending immediately after the restart – Stander bundling his way over.

Italy's issues were compounded before the hour, substitute Giosue Zilocchi sent to the bin for an attempted ball steal.

Ireland appeared to have made their advantage count when Stander found the line again, only for the try to be disallowed for a knock-on.

Luca Bigi's booking handed Ireland a further boost, though, and Connors hauled himself over from a maul before Earls piled further misery on sorry Italy.

 

Perfect comeback for Sexton

Since his Six Nations debut, Sexton has missed just seven of a possible 57 matches in the championship, including Ireland's defeat to Italy in 2013.

Sexton successfully converted all eight of his kicks on Saturday, tallying up 18 points in total to give him a pristine record. The pace of the game was ideal for the 35-year-old, who also made eight tackles and 20 passes – the last of which played in Earls late on.

More misery for whipping boys Italy

Italy's losing run in the Six Nations now sits at 30 games, the longest of any side in the competition's history. Their last win at home was back in 2013, against Ireland (22-15).

They have now conceded a try-scoring bonus point in 18 of their 22 matches since such add-ons were introduced to the Six Nations in 2017.

What's next?

Italy welcome Wales to the Stadio Olimpico on March 13, with Ireland facing Scotland in Edinburgh a day later.

Wales go in search of a Triple Crown in a blockbuster battle against England, but France will not have an opportunity to make it three Six Nations wins out of three this weekend.

Wayne Pivac's Wales side are level on nine points with Les Bleus following victories over Ireland and Scotland, both of whom had a man sent off.

George North will become the youngest player in history to win 100 caps, but defending champions England will be determined to spoil the Wales centre's big occasion at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.

The Red Rose beat Italy 41-18 last time out, following a loss to Scotland at Twickenham.

Winless Ireland will be expected to defeat the Azzurri to get up and running in the opening match of round three at Stadio Olimpico.

Sunday's planned showdown between France and Scotland was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the French squad.

We preview the matches in Rome and Cardiff with help from Opta.

ITALY v IRELAND

FORM

Ireland have scored 45 tries across their last seven games against Italy in the Six Nations (6.4 per game), scoring eight or more tries in three of their last five clashes.

Italy have conceded a try-scoring bonus point in 17 of their 22 matches since those incentives were introduced to the Six Nations in 2017; only England (9) have picked up more bonus points in the championship than Ireland (8). The Azzurri are the only side yet to register one.

Ireland have lost their opening two games of a Six Nations campaign for the first time. The last time they lost their opening three matches was in 1998, when they were beaten in all four Five Nations clashes.

ONES TO WATCH

Sebastian Negri has made 96 metres and made 21 tackles combined in Italy's losses to France and England. Franco Smith will need another strong showing from the flanker.

Ireland back-row CJ Stander has made more carries (36) than any other player in the 2021 Six Nations. He has topped the final rankings for this category in three of the last four editions of the championship.

WALES v ENGLAND

FORM

England have won six of their last seven Six Nations matches against Wales, with the last six of those fixtures all decided by a single-figure margin.

Wales have won their opening two games of the tournament for a sixth time. On four of the previous five occasions when they have started with back-to-back victories, they have gone on to win a Grand Slam (2005, 2008, 2012, 2019, not in 2009).

This weekend's visitors are the only team to have never conceded more than two tries in a Six Nations game played in Wales. They have scored 19 tries in Wales during the Six Nations, no visiting team have scored more (Ireland also 19).

ONES TO WATCH

North will become only the sixth Wales player to win a century of caps. The 28-year-old will form a new pairing with Jonathan Davies and will be looking to bring up his hundred with an all-action display.

Elliot Daly will win his 50th cap for England and coach Eddie Jones will expect the full-back to repay the faith he has shown in him after a slow start to the tournament.

Johnny Sexton is still "loving every moment" of playing rugby and has no intention of announcing his retirement, despite speculation over his future.

Ireland's captain missed the narrow home defeat to France in the second round of the Six Nations having suffered a head injury during his team's opening loss to Wales. 

However, Sexton is fit to return to action as Andy Farrell's side aim to finally get off the mark in this year's tournament when they take on Italy on Saturday at the Stadio Olimpico.

The 35-year-old raised questions over his career plans when he recently suggested he "might not" be around for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, though later clarified that was a "throwaway comment".

While already contemplating what may come in the next chapter of his life, Sexton remains as committed as ever to the game he loves.

"You never tell anyone your plans because they can change, can't they?" Sexton said.

"I've some things to work towards, whether it's over the next year or two years, I don't know. I'll work towards getting into the real world and starting another life.  

"There are some parts of this game that are amazing and you love – you'd love to be part of it forever. There are other parts, though, that you just can't wait to get a million miles away from. 

"I love it at the moment, I'm loving every moment of playing and I just want to focus on this campaign.

"If I stay on next year, I will try to make the most of that, just try to make the most of whatever is left." 

Sexton is under contract until the end of the campaign but has held negotiations about an extension for 2022, which will be a year out from the next World Cup on French soil. 

Asked if a new deal was close, he replied: "Nearly, nearly. I'm waiting on Leinster to see if they want to keep me or not. They have got a few good number 10s coming through!"

Ireland lost 21-16 to Wales after playing the majority of the match a man down following the red card for Peter O’Mahoney, while they were squeezed out 15-13 by Les Bleus last time out. 

"I don't think we've lost our confidence as a group. The start of the campaign has been a million miles off what we wanted, which was two wins from two," Sexton said on morale within the squad.

"But we took a lot of confidence from the Wales game with 14 men, in terms of the chances we created. The hard part in international rugby is creating chances – we've done plenty of that, we need to now go and take the next step and finish them off.  

"I don't think this group is low on confidence, we are all looking forward to finishing this campaign on a high."

Andy Farrell said Ireland are "hurting" physically and mentally after they suffered a 15-13 Six Nations defeat to France at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

Les Bleus ended a 10-year wait for a win in Dublin, digging deep to make it two wins out of two and consign the men in green to back-to-back defeats at the start of a Six Nations campaign for the first time.

France were clinical and defended brilliantly, with Charles Ollivon scoring a classy first-half try against the run of play and Damian Penaud crossing after the break.

Ronan Kelleher's first Test try after 57 minutes left a gripping battle in the balance and Ross Byrne's mammoth long-range penalty set up a tense finale, but France held on to leave Ireland's title hopes all-but over.

Ireland were already without Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and James Ryan due to injury and their luck at the start of the tournament was summed up when Iain Henderson and Cian Healy had to go off with blood streaming from their heads after a collision.

Both players were able to return but they were unable to prevent another defeat in a game of fine margins, with James Lowe's first-half try ruled out by the TMO as his foot made contact with the touchline. 

Ireland head coach Farrell said: "I thought we managed the game really well in the first half – even though the rain stopped it was still very wet, and obviously the French like to come with a lot of line speed.

"They defended really well in those last two minutes there. I thought the plan was going according to plan and we were doing very well set-piece wise, and our game management was very good. I thought we just lost our way a little bit in the third quarter there, and that got them back into the game.

"I suppose, really, when you look at it, if you give them set-pieces in your own half, they get over the gain line first phase, come round the corner second phase and get into their offloading game, then they're free-flowing. Some of that was a little bit soft from us.

"A lot of lads that are hurting in there – physically hurting as well as mentally. Because they put their bodies on the line for their country. The effort's not the problem at all, but it still hurts to lose this game."

Huge roars echoed around the Aviva Stadium as the ball sailed into an empty stand to end France's 10-year wait for a win in Ireland.

Time and again Les Bleus have suffered the agony of defeat in Dublin, but they showed a combination of style and substance to make it two Six Nations victories out of two.

Booming bellows of celebration and relief could be heard loud and clear on a wet Sunday as France held on to win an almighty battle 15-13.

Les Bleus have not won a Six Nations title for 11 years, consistently proving to be great entertainers but falling short with defensive fragility, indiscipline and a lack of clear thinking.

This is a different France in the Fabien Galthie era, though, with defence coach Shaun Edwards having worked wonders in a relatively short space of time to make them such a tough nut to crack.

Englishman Edwards has given France a strong backbone and that was essential as they frustrated a wounded Ireland, who were missing captain Johnny Sexton, James Ryan and Conor Murray due to injury.

A try in each half from inspirational captain Charles Ollivon and Damian Penaud proved to be decisive, with France providing the cutting edge that Ireland lacked.

Ireland had 59 per cent possession but were only able to break through a brick wall of a French defensive once, when Ronan Kelleher nipped in to set up a tense finale.

France made 180 tackles to 122 from Ireland, who will head into a rest weekend with two defeats from two, while their conquerors lead the way with Wales on nine points after making a big statement.

Billy Burns made a confident start as he set about trying to make up for his costly last-gasp kick in the loss to Wales and although he was off target with a poor first penalty, the fly-half made no mistake soon after to put Ireland in front.

The men in green were dominant and had an extra man when Bernard Le Roux was sin-binned 23 minutes in for tripping Keith Earls.

France were under the pump but stood firm, the excellent Brice Dulin grabbing slippery high balls as Ireland continued to knock at the door, missing out on an opening try when the TMO spotted James Lowe's foot touched the line as he was tackled in the corner.

Les Bleus were relishing the battle and showed their class with ball in hand to hit the front in style after 28 minutes.

The mercurial Antoine Dupont and Matthieu Jalibert featuring in a showreel of offloads before Gael Fickou tossed a clever pass over Jamison Gibson-Park, setting up captain Ollivon for a brilliant score.

Jalibert booted France into a 10-3 lead at the break and Ireland's luck was out again when Cian Healy and stand-in captain Iain Henderson went off with blood pouring from their heads following an unfortunate collision.

Penaud extended France's lead with another clinical try following a strong carry from the powerful Fickou and a fine Jalibert pass, but Kelleher scooped a loose ball from a lineout to score his first Ireland try with 56 minutes on the clock.

The nerves were jangling when Jalibert hit a post from the tee and a mammoth Ross Byrne penalty reduced the deficit to two points with 16 minutes to play.

Yet France defended for their lives to get the job done, showing fight and finesse to avoid more Dublin doom and gloom.

Ireland's Six Nations hopes are in tatters after they fell to a second successive defeat, a comeback attempt falling short in a 15-13 loss to France.

Andy Farrell's side were undone by an early red card for Peter O'Mahony against Wales, but it was their failure to capitalise in the 10 minutes when France were down to 14 that proved key this time around.

Charles Ollivon scored the first of two France tries while they were undermanned, giving the visitors an advantage they never surrendered.

They led 15-3 five minutes before the hour and, although a spirited revival gave Ireland hope, the hosts could not complete a turnaround, meaning their championship prospects are effectively over. France, by contrast, go into the first rest weekend top of the table.

Matthieu Jalibert and Billy Burns each missed early penalties before Burns knocked a simple one over to give Ireland a 3-0 lead.

The hosts were then boosted further when Bernard Le Roux was shown a yellow card for tripping during a kick-chase.

James Lowe looked to have taken an immediate advantage when he went over in the left corner but the TMO ruled he had been pushed into touch by the scrambling France defence.

Ireland were punished for not taking that chance in stunning fashion as a wonderful France attack, in which the ball was intricately worked to the right and then back left, ended with Gael Fickou sending Ollivon over.

Jallibert added the extras and landed a penalty shortly before the interval.

France wasted a golden opportunity to go further ahead following a superb carry from Julien Marchand before Ireland's task was made more difficult when Cian Healy and Iain Henderson clashed heads in a tackle.

Ed Byrne and Ultan Dillane entered the fray as replacements for their bloodied team-mates but could not help Ireland wrest control of the game away from France.

The visitors' command was strengthened in the 57th minute when Jallibert looped a long pass out to Brice Dulin, who shrugged off a defender and fed Damian Penaud for France's second try.

Yet Jallibert failed with the conversion and, after Ollivon was penalised from the kick-off, Ronan Kelleher marked his introduction by strolling over following a fortunate bounce at a line-out.

A long-range penalty from Ross Byrne trimmed the gap to two points and Jallibert failed to respond in kind nine minutes from time as he struck the upright from 51 metres.

But as in Cardiff last week, Ireland failed to produce a dramatic final say and will likely be playing for little more than pride for the rest of the tournament.

Fabien Galthie has promised France are prepared for whatever "chaos" they might encounter as they prepare to tackle Ireland in Dublin.

The thumping 50-10 win over Italy in Rome last week gave France a fast start to their Six Nations campaign, but they were always expected to win comfortably there, and taking on Ireland is a very different prospect.

Galthie has made two changes to his starting XV for Sunday's game, bringing in wing Damien Penaud and flanker Anthony Jelonch for Teddy Thomas and Dylan Cretin.

France are looking for back-to-back wins over Ireland in the Six Nations for the first time since 2010-11, having beaten them in Paris in October, but Les Bleus have lost five of the past seven encounters between the teams in the championship.

However, Galthie feels France are shaping up as an increasingly formidable force, saying: "You just have to look at the results. We won eight out of 10 matches."

The defeats in that sequence cited by Galthie came with 14 men at Murrayfield in last year's Six Nations, and in sudden death to England in the Autumn Nations Cup.

"In Scotland we lost following a red card and in London we lost in extra time. We are doing it the right way, we continue our march," Galthie said. "We will continue to make progress in many areas. We have a significant space for improvement.

"You have to be prepared for any challenge, anywhere and against anyone. You have to prepare to experience chaos with as much solidity as possible.

"This is what we prepare for without forgetting to face the unexpected."

Galthie believes Penaud may be an ideal physical fit for the task of stopping Ireland, and he said of Jelonch: "He has this ability to be tough in combat, moreover the more the intensity rises, the more he becomes dominant."

 

France: Brice Dulin, Damien Penaud, Arthur Vincent, Gael Fickou, Gabin Villiere, Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Pierre Bourgarit, Hassane Kolingar, Uini Atonio, Romain Taofifenua, Dylan Cretin, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Bouthier, Teddy Thomas.

Ireland will be without Johnny Sexton for Sunday's visit of France in the Six Nations after their captain suffered a blow to the head against Wales. 

Sexton underwent return-to-play protocols after the incident in the loss but has not been cleared to play. 

The news comes after Sexton hit out at a French doctor who claimed the fly-half had suffered approximately 30 concussions in his career, with neurologist Dr Jean-Francois Chermann subsequently apologising. 

Billy Burns will start instead for Andy Farrell's side, who lost 21-16 in Cardiff, with Jamison Gibson-Park also in the XV as scrum-half Conor Murray sits it out with a hamstring injury. 

The captain's armband goes to Iain Henderson for the first time, with the suspended Peter O'Mahony replaced by Rhys Ruddock following his red card in the Welsh capital. 

James Ryan also sustained a blow to the head in that game and, like Sexton, will be absent this weekend.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Billy Burns, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson; Rhys Ruddock, Josh Van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Will Connors, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour.

 

Buoyant Scotland will go in search of back-to-back wins over Wales for the first time in 18 years and France travel to Ireland for a mouthwatering Six Nations showdown this weekend.

Scotland ended a 38-year wait for a win at Twickenham on the opening weekend with a dominant 11-6 defeat of the defending champions.

Gregor Townsend's side need to follow that up on Saturday with a victory over a Wales side that got the better of 14-man Ireland at the Principality Stadium following Peter O'Mahony's first-half red card.

France started the tournament by hammering Italy 50-10, but will face a bigger test in Dublin, while England should respond to their Calcutta Cup defeat by beating Italy at home on Saturday.

Ahead of the second round, we preview the upcoming matches with help from Opta.

 

ENGLAND v ITALY

FORM

The Red Rose have won each of their 21 fixtures against Italy in the Six Nations, and they are the only team yet to suffer defeat against the Azzurri in the championship.

England have hosted Italy on 10 occasions in the Six Nations, winning each of those 10 fixtures by an average margin of 31 points and scoring 5.6 tries per game.

Italy have won just twice away from home in the Six Nations (losing 50 and drawing one), with both victories coming against Scotland at Murrayfield (2007 and 2015).

 

ONES TO WATCH

George Ford comes into the England side, with captain Owen Farrell moving to outside centre, in one of five changes to the side, and the fly-half will be ready to make a statement after being named on the bench for the loss to Scotland.

Italy endured a torrid start to the competition, but Luca Sperandio scored a fine try. The wing had seven carries and made 52 metres. The Azzurri will need to get Sperandio flying down the flank again in London.

 

SCOTLAND v WALES

FORM

Scotland were superb against England and will be aiming for consecutive wins over Wales in the Six Nations for the first time since 2002-2003.

Wales had an extra man, but Ireland could consider themselves unfortunate to go down 21-16 in Cardiff. The Welsh have lost their last six Tests away from home and will be in for another huge battle at Murrayfield.

They have conceded 30 points per game in that miserable sequence of matches on their travels.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Captain Stuart Hogg was man of the match in a rousing performance from Scotland against Eddie Jones' men. The full-back made 112 metres and had 13 carries. He was also brilliant with the boot, kicking for 367 metres.

Louis Rees-Zammit showed why he is so highly rated in Wales' win over Ireland. He dived to finish magnificently in the corner as Wayne Pivac's side made a winning start at home last Sunday.

 

IRELAND v FRANCE

FORM

Flanker O'Mahony's reckless dismissal proved to be costly for Andy Farrell's Ireland side in Cardiff. They will be looking to avoid suffer back-to-back losses to Les Bleus in the Six Nations, having not endured such a fate since 2010-11.

Ireland have won five of their last seven clashes with France in the Six Nations (L2) after winning only four of their 30 previous meetings with them in the Five/Six Nations (D3 L23).

 

ONES TO WATCH

Antoine Dupont was the player of the opening round of the tournament. The mercurial scrum-half assisted four tries, the joint-most by any player in a Six Nations match, equalling the record set by Frederic Michalak against Italy in 2006. He also scored a try of his own in a sublime performance.

Ireland lock Tadhg Beirne made the most carries (21) of any player in the opening round. He also hit the most rucks of any player (48) and was Ireland’s joint-highest tackler (10, level with CJ Stander).

Johnny Sexton has hit out at the "inaccurate and highly inappropriate" comments of a French doctor regarding the Ireland star's concussion record.

Dr Jean-Francois Chermann, who stood Sexton down from playing duties for 12 weeks at Racing 92 back in 2014, told RMC Sport on Tuesday that Sexton had suffered approximately 30 concussions in his career.

His remarks came after the fly-half sustained a blow to the head in Ireland's Six Nations loss to Wales, meaning he is undergoing return-to-play protocols ahead of Sunday's visit of France.

Sexton was angered by Chermann's words when addressing the subject in his pre-match news conference.

"I am pretty saddened and shocked by the inaccurate reports that were thrown out yesterday," he said. "We've been here before and it's very frustrating.

"For me, I just think it's totally inappropriate that a doctor that I have seen – many years ago now – felt it was appropriate to come out and talk to whoever it was and say those things.

"It's inaccurate and highly inappropriate and I am pretty disappointed but, for me, I am so used to it, it's almost like water off a duck's back, but for my wife and mum it's very upsetting.

"But that's the world we live in.

"I thought there was patient and doctor confidentiality, I am pretty sure that exists in the world, and I just can't get over the fact that someone thought it was appropriate to just come out of nowhere and just start saying things that weren't even accurate, that's the most hurtful thing."

Peter O'Mahony has been banned for the next three rounds of Six Nations games following his red card in Ireland's opening defeat to Wales.

O'Mahony was dismissed in the 14th minute of Ireland's 21-16 loss in Cardiff after leading with his elbow to the head of Tomas Francis while attempting a clearout.

The flanker can now not feature for Ireland again until their final match of the tournament, which sees them host England on March 20.

O'Mahony admitted to dangerous play in the ruck and that his actions merited a red card during a disciplinary hearing.

The disciplinary committee deemed the entry point for his offence to be a six-week ban, but halved that suspension after taking into account O'Mahony's record and conduct in the hearing.

In a statement, Six Nations organisers said: "The committee considered all the relevant evidence, including the player's oral evidence, together with the clips of the incident.

"In assessing the seriousness of the offending, the committee found that the offending was reckless."

Ireland will attempt to bounce back on Sunday when they welcome France to Dublin.

Wales are set to be without four players for their Six Nations clash with Scotland next Saturday as they count the cost of a hard-fought win over Ireland.

Wayne Pivac's men had to recover from a first-half blip as they surrendered a 6-0 lead to 14-man Ireland after the visitors had Peter O'Mahony sent off for leading with the elbow to the head of Tomas Francis.

Ireland went into the break 13-6 ahead despite their personnel disadvantage, but tries from George North and Louis Rees-Zammit proved enough for Wales to claim a 21-16 victory.

However, it was something of a pyrrhic triumph with Johnny Wiliams and Hallam Amos poised to miss the visit to Murrayfield with head injuries, while Pivac also ruled out Tomos Williams with a hamstring issue and Dan Lydiate, who is suspected to have a knee ligament problem.

"We've picked up a few injuries so we're looking at those now, we'll make a better assessment [on Monday]," Pivac said.

"We're sort of counting the walking wounded after that one.

"The six-day turnaround means certain players won't be playing for us, two with the head knocks. A six-day turnaround means any head knocks, you're gone.

"Unfortunately we lose a couple of players straight away. We'll see how the rest of the squad is [on Monday] and look at what sort of side we can put together on Tuesday.

"Johnny Williams went off for a HIA [head injury assessment] and didn't come back on. The other one was Hallam Amos who took a late knock too. Those are the two head knocks.

"Then we've got a hamstring for Tomos Williams – we're hoping that's not serious but it won't turn round in six days, I wouldn't have thought."

Pivac added of Lydiate: "We're going to get that scanned but it's not looking too good. It could be an ACL but we'll get that scanned for a definite result.

"It's very disappointing for Dan and he's very disappointed in the changing room right now."

Ireland coach Andy Farrell, meanwhile, expressed confidence O'Mahony will make amends for his indiscretion, telling BBC Sport: "We've seen red cards for that in the past haven't we?

"I think we've seen yellow cards for other incidents that didn't quite go our way.

"He's been around enough a long time and he's gutted. He's been a pretty stalwart player for us in the past and he'll continue to do so in the future."

Wales took advantage of Peter O'Mahony's early dismissal and survived a fightback from 14-man Ireland to start their Six Nations campaign with a 21-16 win in Cardiff.

O'Mahony was sent off in the opening 15 minutes for contact to the head but Andy Farrell's men overcame their disadvantage in personnel to lead 13-6 at the interval.

But tries from George North and Louis Rees-Zammit turned the contest back in Wales' favour, with Ireland unable to produce another riposte.

The visitors were also dealt a late blow as Johnny Sexton went off with a head injury, giving Farrell plenty to worry about ahead of next week's clash with France.

Ireland were pinned for side entry at the ruck in the opening five minutes, giving Leigh Halfpenny the chance to boot Wales into a three-point lead.

O'Mahony was guilty of a much more serious infraction in the 14th minute, the flanker seeing red for leading with the elbow to the head of Tomas Francis as he attempted a clearout.

Wales, who earlier lost Dan Lydiate to a leg injury, doubled their advantage four minutes later through Halfpenny's trusty right peg.

However, Ireland enjoyed the majority of possession and territory thereafter in the first half and were rewarded for an extremely spirited fightback.

A pair of Sexton penalties drew Ireland level and a break from Robbie Henshaw then enabled Tadhg Beirne to dive over and give them a seven-point lead to defend.

Wales saw scrum-half Tomos Williams suffer a hamstring injury on the stroke of half-time but his absence did not prevent the hosts from getting back into the contest.

North capitalised after a series of Ireland handling errors to surge through a gap on the right and touch down, but Halfpenny misjudged the conversion attempt.

But that instance of profligacy from the tee did not prove costly as Rees-Zammit produced a stunning finish in the right-hand corner to put Wales back in front.

Halfpenny atoned for his earlier miss with a superb kick from the sideline to add the extras before knocking over a more routine kick as a penalty made it 21-13.

Billy Burns trimmed the deficit back to five points shortly after Sexton's exit but he failed to find touch with a penalty as he attempted to push Ireland to the five-metre line in stoppage time as Wales survived a dramatic final push from the visitors.

England start their quest to retain the Six Nations title against Scotland on Saturday just over three months after they were crowned champions. 

The Red Rose dethroned Wales at the end of October, pipping France on points difference in a dramatic finale to a tournament that ended almost nine months after it started due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Eddie Jones' side are favourites to win the competition again, but Les Bleus are also well fancied to end an 11-year wait for Six Nations glory and face Italy in the first match. 

England do battle with Scotland for the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham, with Wales and Ireland locking horns in Cardiff on Sunday. 

Ahead of the opening round, we preview the upcoming matches with help from Opta.

ITALY v FRANCE

FORM

France have won 19 of their 21 previous Six Nations matches against Italy (L2), including their last seven in a row. Their two defeats in that time both came in Rome, in 2011 and 2013.  

Italy have lost their last 27 Six Nations matches, the longest losing streak in the history of the competition. Their last victory came at Murrayfield against Scotland in 2015, while they have not won at home since 2013. 

Les Bleus achieved a cumulative points difference of +31 in the first 20 minutes of their 2020 Six Nations matches. No other side managed a positive double-digit points difference in that period of matches, but Italy had a -39 difference. 

ONES TO WATCH

France wing Teddy Thomas scored a try in his last Test against Italy and is capable of lighting up the tournament. He can get off to a storming start in Rome.

Paolo Garbisi caught the eye at fly-half last year after being handed his debut against Ireland in October. Hopefully for his country, there is still much more to come from the 20-year-old.

ENGLAND v SCOTLAND

FORM

The last time England hosted Scotland in the Six Nations they drew 38-38 two years ago. Scotland clawed back the biggest ever half-time deficit (-24 pts, 7-31) by a side to avoid defeat in the tournament’s history, almost snatching victory before a late George Ford try denied them. 

Scotland have never beaten England at Twickenham in the Six Nations (D1, L9), their last victory against them the Red Rose at the London venue came in 1983 in the Five Nations (22-12).  

Gregor Townsend's side concluded the 2020 edition by winning their last three games in a row, their best run in the Championship since Italy joined in 2000. 

ONES TO WATCH

England captain Owen Farrell has scored exactly 1,000 Test points, one of just six men to reach that milestone. He is just four points away from reaching a century against Scotland.

Finn Russell returns to the Scotland side and the creativity provided by the fly-half will be key for Townsend's men.

WALES v IRELAND

FORM

Wales have lost their last two home games in the Six Nations, the last time they suffered three consecutive defeats at home was in 2002-03. Wayne Pivac's side have lost their last four games in the competition, their worst streak since 2006-07 (L5).  

No team scored more tries than Ireland in the Six Nations last year (17, along with France), four of those were launched from the back of a scrum. Wales (2) were the only other side to score multiple tries following a scrum.  

Ireland scored seven tries in the final quarter of their fixtures in 2020, more than any other side. Wales, meanwhile, scored the joint-second most in that period (6, level with England). 

ONES TO WATCH

Louis Rees-Zammit turned 20 this week and the Wales wing can celebrate in style with a livewire display at the Principality Stadium.

Ireland centre Garry Ringrose had terrible luck with injuries last year, but he is ready to fire on all cylinders in 2021.

French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte says there is "no question" that the Six Nations will be staged this year.

The Telegraph this weekend reported that the tournament was in doubt after the French sports ministry imposed a ban on playing cross-border elite sports with clubs from the United Kingdom due to a new strain of coronavirus.

With the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup reportedly set to be suspended, the French government and Six Nations officials are expected to hold talks on Monday.

Yet Laporte does not believe there is any doubt that the competition, which starts in just four weeks' time, can be staged. 

He told RMC on Sunday: "It's a puzzle, but I think we should not be alarmed for the Six Nations tournament.

"The tournament will be played, with a health protocol dictated by the government, and linked to this mutant virus. Everything went well in the autumn [when the Autumn Nations Cup was staged], so will the upcoming Six Nations tournament, I'm no more worried than that."

The former Les Bleus coach added: "We have a meeting at the beginning of the week with the ministry of sports, a meeting also with the Six Nations Council.

"But we already talked to each other every day, and today there is no question of considering anything, except that we will play the tournament."

France are due to face Italy in the first game of the Six Nations at Stadio Olimpico on February 6.

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