Six Nations set for dramatic finish as rugby shake-up looms
Twickenham (United Kingdom) (AFP)
Uncertainty over what will happen on the field is accompanied by uncertainty off it as the Six Nations heads into this weekend's 'Super Saturday' finale.
That three teams, with leaders Wales in pole position, can still win the tournament with a round to go is a case for leaving rugby union's self-styled "greatest championship" well-enough alone.
But change of some kind looks to be coming, with World Rugby outlining its plan for a new, unified, Nations Championship at a meeting of the global governing body this week.
World Rugby said Thursday the new annual tournament, which from 2022 would see the winners of the Six Nations playing the top team from an expanded, six-team southern hemisphere Rugby Championship in a final, could earn the sport £5 billion ($6.6 billion) in 12 years.
That plan could be scuppered, however, if the Six Nations accept a reported investment offer from former Formula One owners CVC Capital Partners.
As rugby fans try to make sense of it all, they know that if Wales beat Ireland in Cardiff they will be crowned Six Nations champions.
Victory would ensure a record third Six Nations clean sweep for Wales coach Warren Gatland following Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012.
Saturday will be former Ireland coach Gatland's last Six Nations match in charge of Wales before he steps down after this year's World Cup in Japan and his old side could yet be crowned champions if they spoil the party at the Principality Stadium and Scotland win away to England.
Gatland has named an unchanged team following last week's win over Scotland that extended his side's new Welsh record to 13 straight Test victories, with full-back Liam Williams fit after a shoulder problem.
- 'Embrace the emotion'
With his backroom staff also leaving the Wales set-up after the World Cup, two-time British and Irish Lions boss Gatland said: "For a number of us as coaches this is our last Six Nations game and the fact that it is in Cardiff is extra special.
"There is bound to be a bit of emotion on Saturday and that is something to embrace."
Reigning champions Ireland also have a New Zealander coach in Joe Schmidt, who like Gatland is standing down after the World Cup.
Schmidt has given a first Six Nations start to lock Tadhg Beirne in what will be Ireland captain Rory Best's farewell to the tournament.
Beirne, formerly of Welsh regional side the Scarlets, will be up against several familiar foes and Schmidt said: "Obviously, he's played plenty of times against the second rows that are going to be there with Adam Beard and Alun Wyn Jones."
Defeat for Wales would mean England kicking-off knowing victory over Scotland at Twickenham would secure the title despite a 21-13 defeat in Cardiff.
"All we are worried about is ourselves," said England coach Eddie Jones. "The only thing we can control is how we play."
Scotland hold the Calcutta Cup after a 25-13 victory at Murrayfield last season but they have not won at Twickenham since 1983.
The Scots are also on a run of three straight defeats this Championship.
"If no-one does think we're going to win, then that's fine," said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
Italy and France begin Saturday's action with only pride to play for in Rome.
The Azzurri may be operating at near maximum capacity but last week's 57-14 hammering by England was still a 21st successive Six Nations loss.
Jones subsequently suggested tournament chiefs consider relegation so as to give the likes of Georgia a chance.
But Italy coach Conor O'Shea was defiant ahead of what could be outstanding captain Sergio Parisse's last Championship match.
"Rugby can change very quickly. We'll be in the game (against France)," he said.
The former Ireland full-back may be proved right given how lacklustre France have been this season.
Player unrest was evident after a 44-8 drubbing by England at Twickenham and France were flattered hugely by last week's 26-14 loss away to Ireland.
Thursday saw France coach Jacques Brunel, previously in charge of Italy, denying reports of a rift with captain Guilhem Guirado.
"Guilhem's position as captain is secure and he will be there until the end of the World Cup," said Brunel.
? 2019 AFP