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Eddie Jones’s England head to Dublin for their final match of the 2017 Six Nations just eight 80 minutes away from rewriting the record books.
Victory for England, already crowned Six Nations champions, over Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday would see them set a new record of 19 consecutive Test wins by a leading rugby union nation.
It would also mean they become the first side in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams and just the sixth in the long history of the Championship.
Yet England were some away short of top form in the opening rounds of this Six Nations although, like many good sides, they kept winning when below their best.
So when former Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy, in an Irish Times column, published between the third and fourth rounds, said “England look a team under ever-increasing strain,” it was not a fanciful notion.
But the shackles were thrown off in spectacular style during last week’s 61-21, seven-try rout of Scotland at Twickenham featuring a hat-trick from Jonathan Joseph.
That win came just a day after Ireland’s title hopes were dealt a hammer blow by a 22-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff where they couldn’t even manage one try, let alone seven.
In politics, many an Englishman has been stumped by the ‘Irish question’ but in rugbyterms it’s the hosts who face plenty of pre-match problems this week.
For all the criticism of Scotland’s defence, some of England’s attacking play was sublime. Now the question being asked of Jones’ men is did they hit peak form one week too early?
“Most teams in the Six Nations have one big performance, so we are anticipating them to be at their best on Saturday,” the England coach said when asked Thursday about Ireland.
But Jones insisted England’s “big performance” had not come and gone. “When I said ‘most teams’ we are not ‘most teams’,” he explained.
That might sound like typical English ‘arrogance’ coming from an Australian were it not for the fact England have won 18 Tests in a row.
Jones, benefitting from England’s large playing base and years of good youth development, has created a bench of replacements or “finishers” as he calls them who would start in many another side.
Such is England’s strength in depth that experienced scrum-half Danny Care finds himself playing second fiddle to Ben Youngs and impressive hooker Jamie George must wait his turn behind England captain Dylan Hartley.
“You look around the changing room and there are a lot of world-class players in a lot of positions,” said Care.
“George Ford (fly-half) and Owen Farrell (inside centre) as a combination seems to be working brilliantly.
“And you look at (flanker) Maro Itoje — he’s still only 22 but plays like he’s a 100-cap veteran.”
Powerhouse No 8 Billy Vunipola and wing Anthony Watson, who both scored tries off the bench last week, are now in the starting side, with left wing Elliot Daly cleared to play following a suspected concussion.
Ireland, who ended the All Blacks’ 18-match winning run with a 40-29 success in Chicago in November, suffered a setback when scrum-half Conor Murray was ruled out Thursday with a shoulder injury sustained against Wales.
The Irish will certainly need their forwards and a defence coached by Andy Farrell — Owen’s father — to front up if they are to win this weekend.
But Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took exception to Jones’s labelling his team’s play as “kick and clap”, with high ‘bombs’ from fly-half Jonathan Sexton their main weapon.
“I think last year he might have said that we kicked 60 percent of the ball that we had,” the New Zealander said. “And when it was mentioned to him that England kicked the ball more than we did it probably wasn’t convenient at the time.
“So we’ll do what we try to do best, and I know Eddie will have England really well-prepared to do what they do best, which is apply a heck of a lot of pressure.”
Owen Farrell will find himself on the opposite side to his father for the first time when Six Nations champions England bid for a record-breaking win against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.
Victory at Lansdowne Road would give England a 19th successive international win, breaking the record for a ‘tier one’ or leading rugby union nation they currently share with world champions New Zealand.
It would also mean that England, who have already retained the title with a week to spare, became the first team in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams.
But now England goal-kicking centre Owen finds himself on the opposite side to his father and Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell, who held a similar post with England until he left following the team’s first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup.
Farrell junior, however, said the only member of the family for whom this was a problem was his mother, Colleen.
According to her son, the ideal outcome for Mrs Farrell was a 3-0 England win, with Owen kicking the lone penalty.
“We don’t really joke about it. It’s not like he’s playing the game, there’s only one of us playing in it and he’s obviously got a coaching role,” Owen said.
“I think the only person it will affect is my mum, not us. She just wants everyone to do well. She wants 3-0 England I think!”
Farrell, once renowned for goal-kicking and defensive skills, has become a genuine playmaker as he demonstrated with the quality of his passing in the 61-21 rout of Scotland at Twickenham last weekend, a match where England scored seven tries.
Asked if his father would have come up with a plan to counter his attacking threat, Owen said: “I guess we’ll see…We don’t speak to each other every day. We speak to each other what I would say is the normal amount, as any family would.
“We chat a bit of rugby, but we also have general chat as families would.”
England coach Eddie Jones had no fear important tactical information may have inadvertently leaked out to the Ireland camp during a family conversation.
“They’ve probably been talking about rugby probably since Owen was big enough to sit at the table,” said Jones.
“I think they’re both mature enough to get on with it this week. Neither needs any more motivation to do well. They’re Farrells — I think that sums it up,” the Australian added.
Wales will field an unchanged side against France in their final match of the 2017 Six Nations, it was announced Wednesday.
Interim head coach Rob Howley has retained the same starting line-up that beat Ireland 22-9 at home last week for Saturday’s match in Paris.
If Wales win — and England beat Ireland in Dublin on Saturday to secure a Grand Slam — it will mean that the Welsh are assured of a top-four position in the world rankings ahead of the 2019 World Cup pool draw in May.
Saturday will see Wales bidding for their sixth straight win over France in a match where hooker Ken Owens wins his 50th cap, with experienced Bath forwards Taulupe Faletau and Luke Charteris remaining on the bench.
Although Wales have already been beaten by England and Scotland this season, a win at the Stade de France could see them finish second behind already-crowned champions England if other results fall in their favour.
“I was delighted for the players about Friday’s result and performance, and they deserve the opportunity to build on that in our final RBS 6 Nations encounter,” said Howley after announcing his team.
The former Wales scrum-half, in charge while Wales head coach Warren Gartland is seconded to the British and Irish Lions for the combined side’s tour of New Zealand in June and July, and his team had faced criticism after the successive defeats by England and Scotland.
But Wales responded impressively by scoring three tries against Ireland, including two from powerhouse wing George North, while not conceding any at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium last Friday.
“The experience we showed and the intensity we brought to the match was hugely important, and that will be just as important as we face a good France team at home,” said Howley. “We put pressure on ourselves and turned that pressure into a result.”
He added: “For us, there are areas of the game we want to work on from Ireland, and we have an opportunity to do that on Saturday and finish the campaign with another quality performance.
“The players who took to the field at the Principality Stadium deserve the opportunity to start, and we were pleased with the impact from the bench, so will be looking for the same this weekend.”
Wales have not lost at the Stade de France since a 28-9 defeat in 2011.
They will face a France side who’ve also won two out of their four Six Nations matches so far this season, following victories over Scotland and Italy.
George North silenced his critics with a brace of tries that saw Wales run out 22-9 winners over Ireland in Cardiff on Friday to end the visitors’ hopes of a tilt at the Six Nations title.
The result means England will be crowned Six Nations champions should they beat Scotland on Saturday.
North scored a try in each half and Jamie Roberts a late five-pointer, Leigh Halfpenny kicking two conversions and a penalty. Ireland, who had Jonny Sexton sin-binned, had just three penalties to show for their efforts through the Leinster fly-half (2) and Paddy Jackson.
“We knew we were one performance away from winning a game, they have been down to fine margins every week,” man-of-the-match and scrum-half Rhys Webb told BBC.
“We showed glimpses of what we can do and there is more to come from us. You don’t become a bad team overnight.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones added: “We owed that to the Welsh people and to ourselves. We haven’t done ourselves justice in the last two games.”
Irish skipper Rory Best admitted that his team, who bounced back from an opening defeat by Scotland with wins over Italy and France, were “very disappointed”.
“We came here hoping and expecting to win and keep everything alive. Credit to Wales but we are frustrated with the errors we made.”
It was a brutal match, the ferocity of some of the early bone-jarring hits reverberating around a packed, expectant Principality Stadium in full song: Ireland made 81 tackles in the first half alone.
Recent encounters between the Celtic cousins have been closely-fought affairs, and this attritional ding-dong was no different, although the winning margin was Wales’ best since 1983.
Ireland dominated a frantic opening period, monopolising both possession and territory. The pressure eventually paid off after Webb was penalised for a high tackle, Sexton making no mistake with the long-range kick at the posts.
Wales, who opened their Six Nations campaign with victory over Italy before losing to England the Scots, came battering back, but the Irish defence held firm.
Breaks from South African-born flanker CJ Stander and winger Simon Zebo kept Wales pinned back, but the visitors suffered a blow when a groggy Sexton, who caught a Jonathan Davies knee to his head, was replaced by Paddy Jackson in the 19th minute.
No sooner had the replacement come on then Wales sprang from a line-out.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt had predicted before the match that players can bounce back from a poor display with a much-improved one, and so it proved to be for North, heavily criticised in Wales’ capitulation to Scotland.
Webb broke into midfield and found Halfpenny with a long pass, the Toulon full-back fed North who stepped inside Keith Earls and rode Zebo’s tackle for a fine try.
Halfpenny missed the conversion and Jackson restored Ireland’s lead with a penalty.
Wales ended an entertaining half in the ascendancy, however, a Webb chip to the corner gathered by Liam Williams who fed inside only for Davies to be held up.
English referee Wayne Barnes had no choice but to yellow card Sexton for killing the ball on the line, Halfpenny making no mistake with the resulting penalty.
Wales made their numerical supremacy pay immediately into the second period, Halfpenny doing well to follow up a Webb chip and bundle the covering, obviously injured Connor Murray into touch.
Alun Wyn Jones rose to pluck the ball in the resulting line-out, the maul trundled forwards and Webb found North unmarked on his wing for a simple try, his 30th on the international stage. Halfpenny knocking over the extras.
The returned Sexton orchestrated an Irish fightback, Wales withstanding a remarkable 26-phase of attack before Dan Biggar was harshly penalised for a high tackle, Sexton pulling back three points.
Biggar saw a drop-goal go off the post as a raft of replacements came on in what was turning into a war of attrition.
And then Robbie Henshaw arguably cost Ireland a pushover try when he joined a driving maul illegally.
Sexton conjured up a couple of pinpoint cross-kicks that threatened the Welsh line late on, but the home side had the last word when Roberts barrelled over from close quarters, Halfpenny booting the conversion to leave coach Rob Howley and his coaching staff breathing a massive sigh of relief after two weeks of intense scrutiny over their selection policy.
Ireland will attempt to set up an audacious bid for Six Nations glory over frontrunners England when they face Wales on Friday.
A victory for Joe Schmidt’s team, allied with an English win over the ever-improving Scotland side on Saturday, would make for a mouth-watering Six Nations title decider in Dublin on March 18.
But Ireland’s games with Wales are notoriously close, and it would be a brave person to rule out a Welsh team, albeit misfiring, playing at home with pressure on to assure a top-eight World Rugby ranking for the draw for the 2019 World Cup and also to shine in a bid to help guarantee spots on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer.
The Irish kicked off their Six Nations campaign with a surprise defeat by Scotland before bouncing back to beat Italy and France.
Wales overcame the Italians before slumping to defeats by England and Scotland, and find themselves contemplating a third consecutive Six Nations loss for the first time since 2007.
Both teams are unchanged for the Friday night fixture at the Principality Stadium, Rob Howley’s decision not to blood some younger Welsh players in place of more experienced but underperforming stars raising eyebrows.
“As coaches, we discussed giving the opportunity to the side to redeem themselves for the second-half performance against Scotland,” Howley said.
“Obviously, I know things have been said in the week about some players’ performance. But as a coaching team, we have talked about the opportunity just to go out again.
“There is an opportunity to go out at home in front of our own supporters and deliver a performance which the players are proud of and for the supporters to support that. It will be a huge game.”
Wales winger George North experienced perhaps his worst game for his country against Scotland, when the Welsh shipped 20 unanswered points in a woeful second-half showing.
But Ireland coach Schmidt insisted his team would not be targeting the giant Northampton flyer.
“What could be a bad day one day for a player can quickly become a good one next time out,” the New Zealander said.
“I think he will have a big one this time, unfortunately.
“And I’m sure he’s highly motivated to have a really good game, as are the rest of the Welsh XV.
“They are so used to competing on the last day of the championship to win or lose the championship.
“So for them not to be in that position will certainly provide extra motivation for them.”
Wales have won just four of their last 12 matches – a run stretching back to last year’s Six Nations and including a defeat to Waikato Chiefs: the victories came over Italy, Japan, a season-weary Argentina and a disintegrating South Africa.
“In sport, sometimes fine margins make a huge difference and we need to get on the positive side of them. We expect a reaction on Friday night,” said Howley, in interim charge in the absence of the Lions-seconded Warren Gatland.
“The challenge for us is to make sure we deliver a performance this week.
“Every player has a point to prove when you pull the national jersey on. That’s the challenge of international rugby. It’s about handling the pressure from one minute to 80 minutes. That’s the challenge for all of us.”
England flanker James Haskell admitted his side had been out-thought by Italy as the debate over the Azzurri’s unorthodox approach to the breakdown continued on Monday.
Eddie Jones, the England coach, was seething as a struggling Italy, defying all pre-match predictions, led the Grand Slam champions 10-5 at half-time in Sunday’s Six Nations international at Twickenham after repeatedly refusing to form rucks.
With this game-plan they could legitimately stray offside — a move England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward called “innovative and inspired”.
England eventually regained their composure to win 36-15 on Sunday as they extended their winning steak to 17 successive Tests.
But an angry Jones called for the rulebook to be revised and accused referee Romain Poite of looking “flustered”, with the Australian adding: “I’ve never seen a referee lose his perspective of the game.”
But the man who pioneered the tactic accused Jones of being “rude” while World Rugby said French referee Poite and his colleagues had “officiated law correctly”.
Haskell was involved in a comical incident when, having asked Poite “what the exact rule is”, he received the reply: “I can’t say, I’m the referee, I’m not a coach”.
“Fair play to Italy, it was clever on their part and they are very well coached,” said Haskell.
“We will go away and tactically talk through a lot of things and work on how we can react a lot quicker but we got the win and so let’s not get too down on ourselves.”
A World Rugby spokesman indicated to AFP that no immediate rule changes were planned, saying: “There is a formal process for unions to request law clarifications, if they wish to do so.”
Engand’s Rugby Football Union said Monday they did not plan to utilise that procedure, with a spokeswoman explaining: “This type of issue is discussed ‘in the round’ with World Rugby, through the normal structures and meetings.
“World Rugby regularly issue clarifications on various laws so could decide to do this anyway due to the interest generated by yesterday’s match.”
As part of the standard post 2015 World Cup review into the laws of the game, officials were already looking into the tackle and ruck area prior to Sunday’s game.
England fly-half George Ford warned it would “kill the game quickly” if other sides followed Italy’s example as “there’s no rugby going to be played”.
Despite England’s outrage, this was not the first time the tactic had been deployed with New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs having done something similar in Super Rugby and Australia’s David Pocock nearly creating a try against Ireland last year with the ploy.
Ben Ryan, who as England Sevens coach pioneered the ‘no-ruck’ ploy in the abbreviated form of the game back in 2012, said he’d been stunned by Jones’s fury.
“I am flabbergasted with Eddie Jonesâs reaction to it. It is called coaching, Eddie,” Ryan, who guided Fiji to Olympic Sevens gold in Rio last year, told The Times.
“He is being quite rude to people, fellow coaches who outmanoeuvred him. Good on Italy. We haven’t seen England doing anything different at all.”
He added: “It is so easy (to counter). You either make sure there is an Italian in the breakdown, so it has to be called a ruck, or you run straight through the middle, where there is a hole. Then you have the advantage against a retreating defence.”
England did this in a second half where they scored five tries to overcome what Woodward, in his Daily Mail column, said was an “entirely legitimate” tactic.
Ireland coach O’Shea, whose team were thrashed 63-10 by Ireland in their previous match, was adamant the Azzurri had “played to the law”.
“We are not going to roll over and we are going fight,” he insisted. “Just because we took people by surprise, what do they want us to do?”
England kept their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams alive with a 36-15 victory over Italy at Twickenham on Sunday but only after being given a massive scare by the Azzurri.
In a week where Italy’s place in the Six Nations had been repeatedly called into question following their 63-10 thrashing by Ireland last time out, they defied all pre-match predictions to lead 10-5 at half-time.
And even when England recovered to go 17-10 up early in the second half, Italy centre Michele Campagnaro’s try on the hour mark cut the hosts’ advantage to 17-15.
Had Italy, who saw fly-half Tommaso Allan miss three penalties and fullback Edoardo Padovani off target with a conversion, landed all their goalkicks in difficult, blustery, conditions they might even have been celebrating a famous win.
Instead England, who scored five tries in the second half and gained a bonus point, stretched their impressive win streak to 17 in a row, just one shy of New Zealand’s all-time record for a tier-one nation.
Yet only two late tries from replacement back Jack Nowell and one from centre Ben Te’o put the result beyond all doubt and England found themselves frustrated up front.
Captain Dylan Hartley said: “We wanted to play quicker down at the ruck. I was confused by it.”
“Their mauling threat is huge and we conceded way too many penalties,” the hooker told ITV.
England coach Eddie Jones was typically less diplomatic and slammed Italy’s tactics, particularly in the ruck.
“Congratulations to Italy, but it’s not rugby today,” he said.
Italy coach Conor O’Shea countered by saying that his side had played within the laws of the game.
“Hopefully we’ve earned a bit of respect here today,” the Irishman said. “We are playing absolutely legally. We played to the laws and I thought we were fantastic.
“I’m very proud of the players today.”
Italy kept the game scoreless until the 24th minute when England prop Dan Cole was driven over for an unconverted try.
But Allan, who missed two earlier penalty attempts, cut the deficit for the vast underdogs with a well-taken drop-goal in the 33rd minute.
England, who had been massive odds-on favourites at 1/150 with some bookmakers before kick-off, astonishingly found themselves behind on the stroke of half-time.
An Allan penalty came back off the post and wing Giovanbattista Venditti was first to the loose ball for a try that stunned Twickenham.
Allan converted and Italy turned round five points in front.
But two tries in three minutes early in the second half from Danny Care and Elliot Daly, the latter converted by Owen Farrell, saw England into a 17-10 lead.
The opening quarter had ended with the game still scoreless as Italy frustrated England.
Hartley repeatedly asked for clarification from referee Romain Poite over what he would allow at the ruck, only for the French official to reply: “I am not a coach.”
England, unlike Italy however, did make the most of their first clear chance, with Cole bundled over from a catch and drive.
Farrell, winning his 50th cap, sliced his conversion but England were 5-0 up.
England, however, generally struggled to get out of their 22 and Italy’s pressure was rewarded when Allan landed a 20-metre drop-goal to cut the deficit to two points before Venditti’s try threatened an upset.
England regained the initiative with two tries in a matter of minutes at the start of the second half.
Care, in a move all too familiar to O’Shea, who coached him at London club Harlequins, then caught the Italian defence napping with a try off a quick tap penalty that left the scores tied at 10-10 following Farrell’s missed conversion.
Three minutes later, England went over again.
They won a line-out and, after Maro Itoje fed James Haskell, the ball was spread wide and wing Daly — whose late try saw England come from behind to beat Wales — went over.
This time Farrell converted and England had breathing space at 17-10.
Italy though were far from finished with Campagnaro, who plays his club rugby in England for Exeter, brushing past fly-half George Ford and weaving past fullback Mike Brown for a fine try.
Padovani failed with the conversion but England’s lead had been cut to just two points.
The normally reliable Farrell then missed another penalty before Nowell, either side of Te’o’s score, crossed twice against a tiring defence.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt hopes to end France’s title challenge and keep his own side’s dreams of Six Nations glory alive when the sides meet at Dublin’s Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Both Ireland, bidding for a third Championship in four years, and France have won one and lost one of their opening two matches, with Schmidt accepting defeat on Saturday would effectively end their title challenge.
“We’re desperately keen to stay alive,” said the New Zealander, who guided Ireland to successive Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015.
“England have taken a flier (the defending champions have won both their opening games and face whipping boys Italy on Sunday).
“Mathematically there is no other way of looking at it. By Saturday evening there will be two teams hanging in there (the winners of Scotland-Wales being the other) and two who will be scrambling for the minor placings.”
Schmidt, who guided the Irish to a historic series of Test wins over the southern hemisphere ‘big three’ of the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa last year, is looking to standout fly-half Johnny Sexton to provide the spark for an Irish win and avenge a controversial 10-9 loss to France last year.
“I think he’s a great orchestrator of play,” said Schmidt.
“I think he navigates us around the pitch really well and I think he sees things very much earlier and that allows other players to get into good positions.
“He brings other players into the game well because his experience is such that his option-taking is often very good and he varies play well for us.”
However, Schmidt has called on Sexton — one of three changes to the starting XV that thrashed Italy 63-10 a fortnight ago — with the increasingly fragile 31-year-old not having played for five weeks because of a calf injury.
Schmidt, though, says Sexton’s ability to slot straight back in again, as he did two years ago in kicking five penalties in an 18-11 win over the French after being out for three months, led to his recall instead of Paddy Jackson, who did little wrong in the first two games.
“You base it on the past and if they have come back and played well then they are more likely to replicate it in the future,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt conceded that with the weather unpredictable Sexton was best suited to adapt.
“If Doris (the storm that battered Britain and Ireland on Thursday) has done her best and blown through then we’ll be able to play our normal game, if not we will adapt,” he said.
His France counterpart Guy Noves — who Schmidt knows well from his time as assistant coach at Clermont when Noves was in charge of Toulouse — made three changes to the team that narrowly beat Scotland 22-16 last time out.
Noves said he had brought in Rabah Slimani instead of Uini Antonio at prop in order for the French to try to dominate the scrum from the off.
“The set play scrum where Slimani excels is one of Ireland’s strong points,” Noves explained.
“We need a super-strong scrum to start the match off on the right note,” added the France boss, who suggested Ireland had “temporarily fallen asleep” in losing 27-22 to Scotland in thei tournament opener.
Schmidt has been impressed by what he has seen of France, only edged out 19-16 by England in the first round, and hopes they don’t click against his side.
“Guy seems to have the right mix and the right players,” said Schmidt. “He is putting the foundations in place and I hope they don’t come to fruition on Saturday.”
Ireland stars Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray are expected to prove their fitness for Saturday’s Six Nations showdown with France by taking part in a full training session on Tuesday.
Sexton has been sidelined for Ireland’s first two Six Nations matches against Scotland and Italy due to a calf injury.
Kearney has struggled with a biceps problem and Murray sat out training on Friday with an adductor issue.
But team manager Paul Dean tipped the British and Irish Lions fly-half Sexton to use Tuesday’s training session to show he can face the French in Dublin.
“Everybody looks good to fully train tomorrow,” Dean said on Monday.
“Johnny Sexton will play a part in training today, but will fully train tomorrow. Hopefully when he comes through that, he’ll be fine for the weekend.
“Rob Kearney continues to make progress. He’ll do some contact work today and he’ll fully train tomorrow.
“If you talk to Johnny and Rob they’ll both say that they’re 100 per cent fit and ready to go, so we just need the medics to pass them and they need to prove to us that they are.
“Conor Murray’s workload was managed in Monaghan last week. It was a difficult week for the players last week, but I’m happy to report that the outlook is positive.”
Ireland, who also expect flanker Peter O’Mahony to return after hamstring concerns, narrowly lost their Six Nations opener against Scotland and then thrashed Italy in Rome.
Scotland suffered a major blow on Wednesday as the Scottish Rugby Union announced captain Greig Laidlaw will miss the rest of the Six Nations with an ankle injury.
The Gloucester scrum-half, capped 58 times, had to go off during the first half of Scotland’s 22-16 loss to France in Paris on Sunday and a subsequent scan revealed he had sustained ligament damage.
“Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw has been ruled out of the remainder of the 2017 RBS 6 Nations with an ankle injury,” the SRU said in a statement.
“Laidlaw will see a specialist later in the week to determine the best course of management and estimated time out of the sport.”
Laidlaw, 31, started the tournament in style, kicking two late penalties to give Scotland a thrilling 27-22 victory over Ireland in their opening match.
But he spent just 24 minutes on the field against France and left the Stade de France on crutches before returning to Gloucester on Monday to be assessed by the club’s medics.
The injury robs head coach Vern Cotter of both Laidlaw’s leadership skills and his abilities as a kicker.
Glasgow’s Ali Price came on for Laidlaw in Paris and is expected to retain the number nine jersey when Scotland welcome Wales to Murrayfield in their next game a week on Saturday.
Scarlets flanker John Barclay took over as captain against France, but was then forced off by a head injury.
It leaves Glasgow co-captain Jonny Gray as the most likely candidate to skipper Cotter’s men against the Welsh.
France pulled clear in the final 10 minutes to defeat battling Scotland 22-16 in the Six Nations on Sunday.
Scotland outscored France by two tries to one but Camille Lopez kicked 17 points to guide the hosts to victory.
Although wasteful at times, France coach Guy Noves said it was important to win following defeats to England, New Zealand and Australia in their previous three games.
“We’ve just lost three games to big teams. Those matches were close but today what I want to take away is this victory,” said Noves.
For 70 minutes Scotland looked capable of causing a second upset in successive weeks following their 27-22 victory over Ireland at Murrayfield.
But two late Lopez penalties as France turned the screw proved decisive.
“First of all we’re not particularly happy to lose the game,” said Scotland’s New Zealander coach Vern Cotter.
“We’ll have a good look at some of the reasons we didn’t have control from start to finish. There will be an honest review and then we’ll move on from there.”
Scotland weren’t helped by losing four players to injury during the game, including captain and kicker Greig Laidlaw.
Yet still they twice led after tries from Stuart Hogg and Tim Swinson, but a failure to convert either didn’t help.
France put the first points on the board when Josh Strauss was penalised for not rolling away and Lopez kicked a seventh minute penalty.
But a mistake by Scott Spedding gave Scotland a line-out on France’s 22-metre line and the visitors went through 15 phases before Hogg’s dancing feet took him over in the corner on 17 minutes.
Laidlaw’s conversion came back off the woodwork and moments later a second Lopez penalty put France back in front.
Scotland suffered a blow on 25 minutes as Laidlaw hobbled off.
Both sides were showing plenty of ambition but too often poor handling or an ill-advised offload brought a promising move to a shuddering halt.
Scotland had a let off when a relatively simple Lopez penalty came back off the upright.
But France soon rumbled up to the Scotland five-metre line and quick hands sent the ball right where Gael Fikou ducked under two tacklers to dive over in the corner on 31 minutes, Lopez nailing the conversion from wide right.
Just as France looked to be taking control, Scotland came storming back despite the loss of flanker John Barclay to injury as Finn Russell took over kicking duties and landed two penalties to send his team into the break trailing only 13-11.
The second half got off to a bad start for Scotland as Barclay’s replacement John Hardie also went off injured, meaning lock Swinson had to come on and play flanker.
And yet moments later, a brilliant offload from Russell sent Tommy Seymour scampering down the right wing. He gathered his own chip ahead and fed Swinson to go over under the posts.
But remarkably, from right in front of the posts, Russell hit his conversion under the bar.
That let France level up at 16-16 on 47 minutes through another Lopez penalty.
Scotland’s discipline was an issue and they were repeatedly penalised at the scrum.
Scotland saw centre Alex Dunbar go off for a head injury assessment, although he was able to return to the fray, but hooker Fraser Brown was next to take a knock to the head and be forced off.
France turned down two kickable penalties in a row, kicking the first to touch and opting for a scrum second time around but it came to nothing as Remi Lamerat lost control of the ball when trying to ground it one-handed.
It could have proved costly but Huw Jones was penalised for holding on after the tackle and this time Lopez dissected the posts, giving France the lead with eight minutes left.
And with his fifth penalty of the match three minutes from time, Lopez made the game safe.
When Stuart Hogg’s name appeared on the Scotland teamsheet for Sunday’s Six Nations clash against France, the Glasgow full-back was set to win his 50th cap.
What makes that so remarkable is that Hogg is just 24 years old, but such is the stature of this powerful and incisive runner that he is not only a certain starter for Scotland but also widely expected to wear the No.15 shirt for the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand this summer.
“I think it’s synonymous of the modern game that a guy of just 23 or 24 years of age can trot up 50 caps,” said Scotland’s assistant coach Jason O’Halloran.
“He’s been such an important player throughout that period and he’s certainly a talisman for us at the moment.”
Hogg scored two tries in Scotland’s surprise 27-22 win over Ireland last week in their Six Nations opener and was his team’s standout performer.
“He’s got quality players around him. I’d like to think that as dominant as Stuart was last week, we’ve got other threats on the field as well,” added O’Halloran.
“That makes him all the harder to look after when you’ve got Huw Jones inside of him, as well as Tommy Seymour and (Sean) Maitland around him as well, and Finn (Russell) on the inside with Alex (Dunbar).
“So we’ve got threats across the back line. He’s a magnificent guy who has a good way about him. He’s always got a smile on his face, he’s willing to play.”
Hogg is an integral part of a Scottish side that has earned plaudits for an attractive, attacking, running game.
And O’Halloran said this is no longer the Scotland of old that would hope for poor conditions and try to battle their way to a tight victory on the back of forward grunt and landing penalties.
“We want to be in control of our own destiny, we want to win or lose the game by the quality of our own performance, not turning up and relying on the opposition playing poorly to sneak a few penalties or maybe some sort of intercept try or turnover with our defence,” said the former All Black international.
“We want to construct tries with the quality of our attacking game and put them under pressure with our defence, and being good both sides of the ball.
“But we don’t want to win because they play badly.”
England coach Eddie Jones accepted his side had used up all their “get-out-of-jail cards” following a gripping 21-16 win away to Wales in the Six Nations.
The Grand Slam champions were 16-14 behind with just four minutes left when wing Elliot Daly, following a poor clearance kick by Wales centre Jonathan Davies, surged past Alex Cuthbert for a superb try in the corner.
As had been the case in their tournament-opening win over France the week before, England had come from behind to seal victory with a late try.
“We have used up all of our get-out-of-jail cards and against Italy (on February 26) we don’t want to be in that position again,” Jones said.
“I thought it was a great game of Test rugby,” added Jones after England moved to within two wins of world champions New Zealand’s all-time record of 18 successive Test victories by a leading rugby nation.
“A lot of credit goes to Wales, who were superb. They hit hard and hit often off the ball, which made it a fantastic Test match.”
The Australian, yet to lose a Test as England boss since his appointment following the team’s first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 World Cup, added: “We are a gritty team with characters in there that don’t know how to get beaten, and that was evident here.
“At stages I thought we were going to fade out of the game, but we hung in there making tackles.”
Jones, paying tribute to his hard-working locks, said: “Courtney Lawes is like a human ice-pack. He has ice all over him after that many tackles and carries. Joe Launchbury as well.”
Shortly before his blistering score, Daly had raced back to prevent Wales fly-half Dan Biggar scoring a stunning intercept try.
“The boy’s got gas and he’s got that X-factor about him and that’s what we like him,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily think wing is his best position, but it suits us at the moment.
“You’ve got to be running over 10 metres per second to score that try, and he can do that.
“Elliot might get a run out for Manchester United with that kick out (after the Biggar interception). It was a pretty good tackle. He did really well for us.”
Wales led 13-8 at the break after Liam Williams crossed to cancel out an early try by England scrum-half Ben Youngs.
But the lead never got beyond five points and Wales coach Rob Howley was left to rue a lack of composure in the closing stages.
“The intensity and application of our players for 75 minutes was outstanding,” he said.
“We played with pace and accuracy, as did England,” the former Wales scrum-half added.
“England know how to win, and we lost, but it was a fantastic performance.
“In the final 10 minutes, we had to execute under pressure, and we didn’t. But that is Test match football.”
Wales suffered a setback when George North was ruled out an hour before kick-off after failing to overcome a leg injury sustained in their preceding 33-7 win away to Italy.
Howley, however, said he expected the powerhouse wing to be fit for Wales’s next match, against Scotland on February 25.
“It was pretty evident this (Saturday) morning that the haematoma hadn’t settled, which is pretty important,” Howley explained.
“We gave him every opportunity, and this morning it was fairly obvious that we would be putting him at risk if he started the game, so hopefully we made the right decision.
“He will be fit for Murrayfield selection.”
Italy captain Sergio Parisse has warned against “surprise plays” and Ireland’s intention to “do damage” when they clash in a potential Six Nations bruiser in Rome on Saturday.
A week after succumbing 33-7 to Wales, Italy host Joe Schmidt’s men hoping a more disciplined performance at the Stadio Olimpico keeps them in contention throughout the second half.
But facing the 2015 champions less a week after a 27-22 upset to Scotland dented Ireland’s victory plans for the tournament, says Parisse, is not ideal.
“They’re coming off a defeat they probably haven’t digested yet,” Parisse told media as he ran the rule over Saturday’s opponents on Friday.
Parisse also believes Ireland have the game skills to adapt to Italy’s traditionally defensive game.
“Compared to the other teams in the Six Nations, Ireland are able to adapt their game depending on which team they are playing. They’re also adept at scoring tries off the scrum and the line-out,” he added.
“We have to be wary of surprises because Ireland will have studied and prepared well. Their coach is astute, they have very strong players, and they’ll want to go out and do some damage.”
Despite an historic 20-18 victory over South Africa last November, Italy’s hopes of following suit last week were undone by a disastrous second half.
Having led 7-3 at half-time, the hosts gifted a rash of penalties to Wales who, after prop Andrea Lovotti was sent to the sinbin on the hour, then ran in three late tries to seal the win.
O’Shea made 35 appearances as a full-back for Ireland but as he prepares to face his country for the first time as an opponent, the former Harlequins handler has left no stone unturned.
“After last week’s disappointment, the coach reiterated to us this morning, in no uncertain terms, how important this game is,” added Parisse.
“It’s a crucial game for us but it’s going to be more complicated than last week, because we can’t make errors like we did, especially in the second half.”
It will be Parisse’s 123rd Italy appearance and his 75th as captain, but — despite a liking for ageing rockers the Rolling Stones — it doesn’t mean he’s any closer to retiring from the international game.
Parisse was rumoured to be set to quit international rugby following Jacques Brunel’s spell in charge, before O’Shea’s arrival at the helm.
“I’m a little old but until my body tells me otherwise, I will be available for this squad,” added Parisse, who admitted the music blasting from his earphones pitchside was “the Rolling Stones”.
“One year, two, I can’t say when my body will tell me it’s time to stop. Obviously it’s a pleasure playing for Italy under O’Shea.
“We talk a lot about what we needs to be done for Italy and Italian rugby.”
Flanker Loann Goujon replaces Damien Chouly in coach Guy Noves’s solitary change to his France team announced on Friday to face Scotland in the Six Nations on Sunday.
France made a positive start to their tournament campaign last week but still went down 19-16 to England at Twickenham and Noves has kept faith with almost his entire starting line-up.
It means young Bordeaux-Begles scrum-half Baptise Serin, who only made his France debut in June, retains his place ahead of Maxime Machenaud.
Goujon, 27, will win his 15th cap as he replaces veteran Chouly, 31, who drops to the bench.
It’s Goujon’s first start since he was injured in France’s 52-8 win over Samoa at the beginning of November.
Although losing to last season’s Grand Slam winners a week ago, France posted some impressive statistics during the match, making more yards, more offloads and beating more defenders than England over the 80 minutes.
All that was lacking was points on the board and Noves has retained 21 of his match-day 23, the only other changes seeing forwards Christopher Tolofua and Julien Le Devedec come onto the bench in place of hooker Clement Maynadier and lock Arthur Iturria.
“It’s normal (not to make many changes) if changing everything means that we’re not satisfied with what happened — when you lose a match by three points in England in the last nine minutes,” said Noves.
“For the most part the lads delivered, even though once again we need to develop more character to finish matches in the right way.”
Noves said Goujon would give his side more power.
“We wanted a little more density in the pack, although they’re two very similar players,” said Noves.
“The aim is to be a bit more powerful.”
Noves keeps faith with tighthead Uini Atonio despite the New Zealand-born front-rower being penalised several times against England.
His second half replacement Rabah Slimani made an instant impact and scored France’s only try of the game.
“We wanted to see if Uini has understood what we’ve told him and whether he’ll perform differently. We wanted to offer him an olive branch,” Noves said of the 26-year-old former Samoa youth international.
France’s defensive statistics were also better than England’s with fewer errors and tackles missed.
But for the third time in a matter of three months, they lost a closely-fought encounter against a top side following test defeats to Australia (25-23) and New Zealand (24-19) in November.
“It’s true that against Australia we could have won but didn’t; against New Zealand we had a chace at the end and lost by little; against England we lost at the end: it’s annoying,” said Noves.
They welcome a buoyant Scotland who were in fine form a week ago as they eased past highly-fancied Ireland 27-22 at Murrayfield.
“They had a tough year or two but now their work is starting to bear fruit,” Noves said of the Scots.
“You can see that physically and technically they’re not the same Scotland of a few years ago.”
Two yeas ago, Scotland finished bottom of the table with five defeats from five but they have come on leaps and bounds since then under New Zealander Vern Cotter.
They were a minute away from knocking Australia out of the World Cup quarter-finals in late 2015, finished above France in the Six Nations last year and, having run Australia close again in November, they toppled Ireland last week.
Wales will give George North and Dan Biggar as long as they can to prove their fitness for Saturday’s Six Nations clash against England in Cardiff.
Both powerhouse wing North and fly-half Biggar took part in Friday’s training session at the Principality Stadium after coach Rob Howley named the pair in his starting side announced Thursday.
North suffered a leg injury during Wales’s tournament-opening 33-7 win away to Italy on Sunday, while Biggar went off at half-time in Rome after suffering a blow to his ribs.
“They both took part in training today,” Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde told reporters at the Principality on Friday.
“We are the same as we were yesterday. We will give them both as much time as possible, leading up to the game.
“Everything we have asked him (North) to do, he has been able to do.
“Obviously, we have got contingency plans in place. We’ve got (wings) Steff Evans and Alex Cuthbert with the squad as well.
“Everybody has got their heads on psychologically,” insisted the former Wales hooker.
The 24-year-old North, already a veteran of 69 Tests, did some on-field stretching exercises as Cardiff wing Cuthbert and uncapped Scarlets flyer Evans trained as well.
If North is ruled out, the 44-times capped Cuthbert, whose 15 Test tries included a match double in Wales’s 30-3 Six Nations title-winning rout of England four years ago, is in line to take over.
Wales have until an hour before Saturday’s 1650 GMT kick-off to confirm their side.
McBryde was uncomfortable at being pressed on the exact state of North’s fitness and said: “I can’t go into 50/50s or 60/40s or whatever. All I can do is rely on what the medics are telling me.
“They (Biggar and North) have done everything asked of them up until now and it’s obviously a close call because we are leaving it late.”
If Cuthbert plays, it will be his first Six Nations appearance since he featured in Wales’ 25-21 defeat by Grand Slam champions England at Twickenham last year.
Should Biggar be sidelined, Ospreys colleague Sam Davies, who impressed off the bench in the second half at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, would make his first Test start.
The 23-year, all of whose four caps have come as a replacement, showed his big-match temperament when he landed the last-second drop-goal that rescued a win for Wales at home to Japan in November.
McBryde, who played with Davies’ father Nigel, a former centre, for both Llanelli and Wales, said of Sam: “He’s not fazed by anything, there’s a freedom about him, there’s the ability to forget about what’s gone on before and just focus on the present.”
McBryde added: “He’s mature, he’s part of a ‘young leaders group’ we’ve got in the squad and he’s a very confident individual.
“I’ve been very impressed by what he offers off the field as well as on it.”
“He’s fitted in really well — nothing like his father!,” joked McBryde.
England are on a national record 15 successive Test wins following last week’s unconvincing 19-16 defeat of France at Twickenham.
While beating England is no longer the ‘be all and end all’ for Wales, the rivalry is still sharp enough.
“We are neighbours, aren’t we?,” said McBryde. “I have got two English brothers-in-law.
“It is that English-Welsh rivalry, and wanting to get the better of your neighbour, it’s as simple as that.”
England coach Eddie Jones has insisted on the Principality’s retractable roof remaining opening and there was a light-hearted moment on Friday when a phone went off and McBryde answered it by saying: “Eddie? Sorry mate, I am in the middle of a press conference.”
Asked about the roof decision, McBryde added: “He (Jones) has just rung me now to say he has changed his mind, apparently!
“It is going to be dry tomorrow, so it won’t have that much of an effect on the game.”
Wales star Sam Warburton has compared arch-rivals England to world champions New Zealand ahead of their Six Nations clash in Cardiff on Saturday.
Grand Slam champions England will arrive in the Welsh capital aiming for a 16th successive Test match win against all opponents.
The All Blacks hold the world record of 18 straight international wins by a tier-one nation but another Six Nations clean sweep this season would see England go one better.
“England are deservedly tagged as the best team in the northern hemisphere,” Warburton told the BBC.
“It’s a fair judgment to compare them to the All Blacks right now — that’s how good they are. It is going to take a huge game out of us to get a win and it will be one of the biggest games of the championship for sure.”
Even when they are not one of the world’s leading teams, England, for historical reasons, remain the one their European rivals want to beat above all others.
But they have become an even bigger target under Eddie Jones, with the Australian yet to lose a match as England boss after taking over after a 2015 World Cup where defeat by Wales prevented England getting out of the group stage and played a major role in the sacking of Stuart Lancaster.
“If you’re Wales the biggest game you play in the Six Nations is England,” said back-row forward and former skipper Warburton.
“If you’re Scotland, it’s England. If you’re Ireland, it’s England. Or if you’re France or Italy, it’s England,” added Warburton, whose father was born in England.
“We know as players that’s the one game the fans look forward to most and you sense that in the build-up. It’s a huge occasion for everyone in Wales.”
England, who beat Wales twice in 2016, started the defence of their Six Nations title with an unconvincing 19-16 win against France at Twickenham on Saturday.
By contrast, Wales launched their Six Nations with a 33-7 win away to Italy the following day that included 30 unanswered points in the second half in Rome.
Warburton, back in the ranks this season after experienced lock Alun Wyn Jones was appointed captain by interim coach Rob Howley, could miss out on a starting berth against England if No 8 Taulupe Faletau recovers in time from a knee injury.
Ross Moriarty was at No 8 against Italy in a back-row featuring Warburton and Justin Tipuric.
“The back-row competition is so fierce at the minute, I don’t want to put pressure on him, but Toby (Faletau), when he’s playing well, is one of the best players in the world,” said Warburton.
“If he did come back I’m sure there would be a few selection headaches in the back-row because Ross and Justin went extremely well against Italy.”
England and Wales will name their teams on Thursday.
It was once billed as ‘Le Crunch’ but outspoken England coach Eddie Jones was ready for a rugby ‘war’ against France in the opening match of his Grand Slam champions’ Six Nations title defence at Twickenham on Saturday.
England, on a 14-match unbeaten run — 13 of those wins since Australian coach Jones was installed after their lacklustre first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup — will be firm favourites.
But Jones insisted ‘Les Bleus’ would prove as formidable opponents as any of the ‘teams’ who’ve troubled England in their long history of rather more serious conflicts with France.
“It’s always a historic game, certainly there is history between France and England,” said Jones.
“We’ve got one staff member who is into history — (defence coach) Paul Gustard.
“There’s been 20 wars between England and France. That’s a lot of rivalry there. There is another one happening on Saturday,” the Australian added.
“We are going to face a side that’s desperate for success. They are under pressure to play with French flair.”
But Jones, coming right up to date, said an upset was possible if England followed the example of an Arsenal football side coached by French manager Arsene Wenger after their hopes of Premier League title glory suffered a setback with a surprise 2-1 midweek defeat by Watford.
“If we do what Arsenal did on Tuesday when it was 2-0 and the team wakes up, if we do that against France, we will be in trouble because they can score some points.
“Itâs really important that theyâre in the game right from the start. We have to front up, do the business.”
Jones has drafted utility back Elliot Daly in on the left wing while injuries have seen him reshape his pack.
Maro Itoje, best known as a lock, makes his first Test start in the back-row after blindside flanker and former England captain Chris Robshaw was ruled out of the entire Six Nations with a shoulder injury.
“The boyâs got athletic ability,” said Jones of Itoje. He’s a great defender and thatâs what we want from 6 â- a great defender. He fits that spot that Robshaw had.”
Turning to Daly, whose last England appearance saw him sent off for a dangerous tackle against Argentina in November, Jones added: “He has a big left-foot kick and he has genuine pace and can also play outside centre.
“The way we want to attack France, that’s going to be important for us.”
With George Kruis, Itoje’s lock partner at both Saracens and England, out with a knee problem, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will start in the second row.
England will also be without the injured Vunipola brothers, with prop Mako replaced by Joe Marler, who said drinking vast quantities of milk lay behind his recovery from a fractured leg.
France will be looking to go one better after running both world champions New Zealand and Australia close in November defeats.
Scrum-half Baptiste Serin has been given the chance by France coach Guy Noves to show what he can do from the start against England.
“Serin was very effective off the bench in November after a very good tour of Argentina,” said Noves.
“It seemed wise to see what he could give in a difficult context from the start of the match.”
An admiring Noves was wary of even an injury-hit England.
“Like anyone else, we can only admire the continuity in their results, their mindset,” he said.
“But I hope we will show we can start doing the same, and that we will match up. We know their development system is so good that even with a few injuries, they have enough depth.”
Someone knows the English game well is gifted France back-row Louis Picamoles, now with Premiership side Northampton, where he plays alongside England captain Dylan Hartley.
“Itâs helped his career, coming to Northampton,” said Jones of Picamoles, whom he labelled a “lovely player”.
“He would be probably 15 percent fitter than Iâve ever seen him.”
England prop Joe Marler has been suspended for two matches and fined 20,000 pounds ($28,310) by World Rugby for calling Wales counterpart Samson Lee a “gypsy boy” during last month’s Six Nations match at Twickenham.
Marler, who made the remark in England’s 25-21 win, had originally escaped punishment from Six Nations tournament organisers before the global game’s governing body stepped in.
A misconduct charge was brought by World Rugby and Marler attended an independent judicial hearing in London on Tuesday.
“Joe Marler has been suspended for two matches and fined 20,000 pounds to be paid to a suitable equality charity in the UK after an independent judicial committee upheld a misconduct charge against the player…,” World Rugby said in a statement.
“The charge was admitted in its entirety by Marler and upheld by the independent judicial panel.”
Six Nations Rugby, in its ruling, accepted Marler had made the comment “in the heat of the moment”, while the player said he “deeply” regretted the incident and had apologised to Lee at halftime of the match.
England coach Eddie Jones reprimanded Marler while Lee and Warren Gatland played down the comment as banter before the Wales coach later apologised for saying that.
The Welsh Rugby Union said it was disappointed with a Six Nations decision not to punish Marler, who could have been handed a four-week suspension.
The 25-year-old played in England’s final game of the championship and came off the bench during a 31-21 win in France that clinched the Grand Slam.
Marler will be able to return to action on April 18.
England prop Joe Marler says he is not a racist despite calling Wales counterpart Samson Lee a “gypsy boy” during last month’s Six Nations match at Twickenham.
Marler, who faces a World Rugby disciplinary hearing on Tuesday for making the remark in England’s 25-21 win, said in a statement on Monday he would accept any punishment handed down.
“I’m not a racist. What I said to Samson was out of order and wrong and I am sorry it was said,” he was quoted as saying by British media.
“Whatever happens to me I will accept. I’m sorry to anyone who was offended. Saying it was ‘in the heat of the moment’ isn’t an excuse but one comment, one mistake, does not make me a racist.”
Rugby’s governing body said Marler’s remark “amounts to misconduct and/or a breach” of its code of conduct.
The Harlequins player apologised to Scarlets player Lee, who is from the traveller community, during the halftime break.
England coach Eddie Jones reprimanded Marler while Lee and Warren Gatland played down the comment as banter before the Wales coach later apologised for saying that.
The Welsh Rugby Union said it was disappointed with a Six Nations decision not to punish Marler who could have been handed a four-week suspension.
The 25-year-old played in England’s final game of the championship and came off the bench during a 31-21 win in France that clinched the Grand Slam.
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