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Relegation debate forms backdrop to key weekend

Fri, Feb 24, 2017, Posted by   print

2007 World Cup

7:23 PM GMT

Round three of the Six Nations is where teams either maintain their title charge or fall away; campaigns are made or broken.

England sit pretty at the top of the standings after two rounds and are the team to beat, but across pitches in Edinburgh and Dublin will be four teams looking to state their claim for being Europe’s premier side.

The Six Nations has passed so far without controversy; yellow cards have been issued for technical offences, rather than rambunctiousness. But the main talking point has come off the field, in the boardrooms of unions around Europe as the annual debate continues over whether promotion-relegation should be introduced to the Six Nations.

In short, of course it should be brought in. They talk of the competition as one of the last bastions of tradition, but there is no room for sentimentality in rugby, let alone an unwillingness to change.

Introducing promotion/relegation is long overdue. It is not the role of those in the boardrooms to prevent tier-two advancement — instead they should be encouraging it. Georgia, or any of those in the Rugby Europe Championship, should be allowed to have a shot at the top table.

On the field, away from the blazers, it feels like the tournament has not yet come to boil — it is still just warming up. That should change this weekend. Saturday will see two fiery encounters, as England lie in wait on Sunday with their match against Italy.

Murrayfield plays host to the opener, with Scotland welcoming Wales. We have so far seen both sides of Scotland in this tournament: the brilliance of their opening-round win over Ireland was tempered slightly by their defeat in Paris.

Losing to the ever-improving France is no disgrace, but for Scotland to really hammer home their message of improvement, they needed to take that match and simply have to win on Saturday against Wales.

It is no stretch to say that this is one of Scotland’s most important matches of the Six Nations era. Win it and they have a chance to be in the mix on the final weekend; lose it and it will be another campaign of mediocrity.

Wales will be hurting after losing to England in round two, but they have reasons for optimism. George North is back fit, but all eyes should be on their brilliant back-rower Ross Moriarty. The decision by Rob Howley to substitute him moments into the second half against England remains curious, but that he keeps his place in the team — with Taulupe Faletau lying in wait on the bench — is a huge credit to the way he is playing at present.

Attention then shifts to Dublin, where Ireland host France. Ireland will be full of confidence after their 63-10 shellacking of Italy in round two and have Jonathan Sexton back in the team. Nothing less than a win will suit Joe Schmidt’s side, but France are still playing up to that overused cliché of being unpredictable.

Ben Te’o trains during the Six Nations. David Rogers/Getty Images

They could have won their opener against England and did beat Scotland, but you sense they are still prone to implosion. The absence of the brilliant Loann Goujon is a blow in their back-row, but Bernard le Roux is no mean deputy as they change three, with Rabah Slimani and Yoann Huget both starting — the latter will hope to stamp his influence on the game on the counter.

Then comes Italy’s trip to Twickenham on Sunday. The Azzurri are ranked as 500/1 outsiders to win the match and even the most optimistic rugby romantic will struggle to see how they can beat Eddie Jones’ juggernaut of a side.

Italy make four changes, with the inclusion of Michele Campagnaro long overdue at outside centre, but despite having three superb coaches in Conor O’Shea, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt, this will be damage limitation.

England change four themselves, with Ben Te’o starting his first match at outside centre, and though they have refrained from saying it in the press this week, they will be eyeing a big victory against an Italy side who have already shipped 96 points in this championship.

Win and it will be No.17 on the trot, but this match could prove influential for England’s future endeavours with their new-look centre partnership of Te’o and Owen Farrell.

Championship credentials are on the line this weekend. At the moment there are five sides who harbour hopes of winning the tournament. By the end of the weekend five will become three.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/18758425/six-nations-promotion-relegation-forms-backdrop-crucial-weekend
Relegation debate forms backdrop to key weekend
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