By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – The Six Nations was a late adopter of bonus points but their presence has added extra intrigue to this weekend’s penultimate round with Wales, England and Ireland jockeying for position going into next week’s Super Saturday finale.
Bonus points were introduced into the Six Nations in 2017, having been in place in the southern hemisphere for years and brought into the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
Fears that a team with four victories and a potentially maximum six bonus points could top the standings ahead of one winning all five matches but with no bonus points were allayed by the addition of three bonus points for a Grand Slam which would guarantee top spot.
That of course is what Wales will be hoping to achieve when, with three wins in the bag, they head to Scotland on Saturday (1415GMT) before what could be a rip-roaring last-day showdown with Ireland in Cardiff.
Wales top the standings with 12 points but defeat in either of their last two games would almost certainly end their chances of a first title since 2013 as they have yet to register a bonus point.
Such a defeat would open the door for England and defending champions Ireland and, despite their loss in Cardiff, England look best placed to cash in.
They are on 10 points with two bonus points in the bag. They will expect to collect another for scoring four tries against Italy on Saturday (1645GMT) and would then be in the fortunate position of going into the final game of the championship against Scotland, who have not won at Twickenham since 1983, knowing exactly what they need to finish top.
Ireland have nine points, including one bonus, and almost certainly need to rack up some more, beginning at home to France on Sunday (1500GMT) to have any hope of retaining their title.
Few players or coaches this week will allow themselves to speculate on the bonus point scenario but organisers, broadcasters and many fans will be hoping the results and scorelines fall right to set up a nail-biting last day to match that of four years ago.
SIGNS OF LIFE
The pre-bonus point 2015 championship produced a thrilling, points-fest of a finale which ended with England needing to beat France by a margin of 26 at Twickenham to win the title, but falling just short as they triumphed 55-35.
Champions Ireland, England and Wales all ended with four wins, with positions decided by points difference.
Remarkably that year was the last time Italy managed a win – over Scotland – and they have lost 20 in a row since then.
They showed some signs of life for an hour against Ireland two weeks ago but, as so often, faded away and they are the longest of outsiders to end their losing streak by beating England for the first time.
Last time they came to Twickenham they did at least give Eddie Jones’s team a scare with their since-outlawed “no ruck” tactic that helped earn a 10-5 halftime lead before the home side fathomed out a solution. This time, however, England should collect the four-try bonus point win with relative ease.
Wales will know they cannot drop their guard at Murrayfield, where they lost on their last visit – albeit their only defeat to the Scots in their last 12 meetings.
Scotland are still hard-hit by injuries to key players while Wales are brimming with confidence after their late comeback win over England.
Ireland are really struggling to find the form that brought a Grand Slam and victory over the All Blacks last year and will be wary of a French team that clicked well at times when beating Scotland.
Jacques Brunel took the rare step – for a French coach – of naming an unchanged team and bench for the clash, giving promising young halfback pairing Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack another chance to shine.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)