Six Nations talking points
Cardiff (United Kingdom) (AFP)
Ireland won the Six Nations Championship with a week to spare after previous title-holders England failed to match their bonus-point win over Scotland.
France's victory in Paris saw England suffer back-to-back defeats for the first time under Eddie Jones while Italy's losing streak continued with a defeat by a much-changed Wales.
Below, AFP Sport looks at some of the main talking points to emerge from the fourth round of matches:
Ireland's central reservation
It was hardly surprising that at times during Ireland's 28-8 win over Scotland in Dublin, the centre pairing of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose failed to get their moves right. Ringrose was New Zealand-born Aki's third centre partner of the tournament and Ireland will hope for greater cohesion when they bid to secure a Grand Slam against England at Twickenham on Saturday. The good news for the Irish is that Jacob Stockdale can't stop running in tries, his double against Scotland taking his tally for this season's tournament to six. The Ulster wing's penchant for the intercept is a danger to opposition midfields, for all Ireland have concerns in that area themselves.
Bastareaud embodies French revival
When Mathieu Bastareaud was recalled to the France squad by Jacques Brunel at the start of this year it seemed a backward step. The burly Toulon centre -- who is built like a prop -- had not played for his country for two years under Brunel's predecessor Guy Noves. One of the casualties of the fall-out from France's humiliating 2015 World Cup quarter-final thrashing by New Zealand, Bastareaud had been deemed surplus to requirements. But after missing France's first two Six Nations matches this year -- both lost -- due to a ban for uttering a homophobic slur in a club game, his return has given the team a huge boost. Having starred in attack during France's 34-17 win over Italy two weeks ago, he made the difference at the breakdown on Saturday, capping a superb display by forcing an England knock-on under the French posts in added-on time at the Stade de France as the visitors pushed for what could have been a match-winning converted try in a game Les Bleus won 22-16 instead. Bastareaud is back and France are reaping the rewards.
Gatland's gamble pays off
When Wales coach Warren Gatland last named an experimental side, it nearly resulted in a shock defeat by second-tier Georgia before his new-look team hung on for a 13-6 home win in November. There was rarely any danger of a repeat display when, having made 10 changes, in a bid to develop squad depth ahead of next year's World Cup, Gatland saw Wales overpower Italy 38-14 in Cardiff on Sunday following back-to-back defeats by England and Ireland. For Italy this was a 16th successive Six Nations loss. They do now offer more of a threat behind the scrum but the problem for the improving Azzurri is that their rivals are not standing still.
© 2018 AFP