The 2018 Women's Six Nations will be decided by two near simultaneous Friday evening fixtures
After France’s win over England in the last round there seemed to be a general assumption that that was it – France will be the Six Nations champions. It’s all over bar the shouting.
But that is to forget that we have been here before. France have a great home record against England, but that does not mean that they have won the Six Nations in every even numbered year.
'Shock' French away defeats in games they were expected to win are far from unusual. France lost to Wales in 2008, Ireland (for the first time) in 2009, Scotland in 2010, Italy in 2013 and 2015, and Wales in 2016.
Even against Scotland this year things were looking decidedly shaky after 32 minutes, 3-0 down and down to 14 players. They turned the game around with two tries before halftime, but was that an escape or sign of a new strength in the team?
After a world record crowd in Grenoble in the last round, Colwyn Bay at 6pm on a Friday evening is likely to be a significantly different experience. For this game they make just two changes to the starting XV, Céline Ferer and Lise Arricastre coming into the team, with Romane Menager on the bench alongside Caroline Thomas creating a powerful 16-23, a tactic that worked spectacularly against Italy.
Wales opened the championship at the same time and venue in the first round where they beat Scotland by a single point. That remains their only win and they are heading for a possible wooden spoon. They are unchanged from last week’s disappointing loss to Italy, with Caryl Thomas looking forward to her 50th cap.
If France were to stumble, England will be waiting – not least because their match will be over having kicked off at the remarkably early time of 5.30pm on a Friday evening in Coventry. If this is an attempt to see whether England can attract larger crowds by moving games outside the capital, it is difficult to see what will be learned by starting at a time when many spectators will have barely finished work.
And that is before we consider how absurd it is to have what would always have been the two tournament deciding games at the same time on a Friday evening. If it is the intention to build on the growing popularity of women's rugby then sensible scheduling must be a priority.
England shuffle their side with four changes, Rowena Burnfield comes in as a blindside flanker, Kelly Smith on the wing, Lagi Tuima at outside centre and Caity Maddison staring at scrum-half, with Simon Middleton apparently using the game to experiment with some new combinations, which is an interesting thing to do with the title still a possibility. Then again, they should be far too strong for Ireland.
Ireland have a lot to prove after last weekend’s home defeat to Scotland. Louise Galvin starts as left wing, Ashleigh Baxter as blindside flanker, and Nicole Cronin makes her first start at scrumhalf. Ireland have never won in England, but until 2016 the scores had been closer almost every year. If they can they keep that sequence going them this would be their year, but realistically they do not look to have the form to upset England.
Two days later on Sunday, Scotland travel to Italy. With impressive away wins last weekend, both will be on a high in what could be a thriller in Padua. However, home advantage counts for a lot in this fixture - Scotland have never won in Italy, though they drew in 2010. Teams have yet to be announced, so we will return to this when they are.
England: 15. Ellie Kildunne (Gloucester-Hartpury, 7 caps); 14. Kelly Smith (Gloucester-Hartpury, 1 cap); 13. Lagi Tuima (Bristol Ladies, 4 caps); 12. Rachael Burford (Harlequins Ladies, 78 caps); 11. Danielle Waterman (Wasps FC Ladies, 81 caps); 10. Katy Daley-Mclean (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 98 caps); 9. Caity Mattinson (Bristol Ladies, 6 caps); 1. Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins Ladies, 38 caps); 2. Amy Cokayne (Wasps FC Ladies, 40 caps); 3. Sarah Bern (Gloucester Hartpury, 19 caps); 4. Abbie Scott (Harlequins Ladies, 28 caps); 5. Poppy Cleall (Saracens Women, 21 caps); 6. Rowena Burnfield (Richmond F.C, 46 caps); 7. Marlie Packer (Saracens Women, 58 caps); 8. Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning, 104 caps)
Replacements: 16. Lark Davies (Worcester Valkyries, 9 caps) ; 17. Rochelle Clark (Wasps FC Ladies, 136 caps) ; 18. Justine Lucas (Wasps FC Ladies, 32 caps); 19. Cath O'Donnell (Loughborough Lightning, 3 caps); 20. Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins Ladies, 1 cap); 21. Leanne Riley (Harlequins Ladies, 20 caps); 22. Zoe Harrison (Saracens Women, 4 caps); 23. Amber Reed (Bristol Ladies, 48 caps)
Ireland: 15. Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster); 14. Megan Williams (Old Belvedere/Leinster); 13. Katie Fitzhenry (Blackrock/Leinster); 12. Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/Leinster); 11. Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster); 10. Niamh Briggs (UL Bohemians/Munster); 9. Nicole Cronin (UL Bohemians/Munster); 1. Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster); 2. Cliodhna Moloney (Railway Union/Leinster); 3. Leah Lyons (Highfield/Munster); 4. Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/Leinster); 5. Paula Fitzpatrick (St. Mary's/Leinster); 6. Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster); 7. Claire Molloy (Bristol); 8. Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians/Munster)
Replacements: 16. Ciara O'Connor (Galwegians/Connacht); 17. Laura Feely (Galwegians/Connacht); 18. Fiona Reidy (UL Bohemians/Munster); 19. Ciara Cooney (Railway Union/ Leinster); 20. Anna Caplice (UL Bohemians/ Munster); 21. Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster); 22. Michelle Claffey (Blackrock/Leinster); 23. Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster)
Wales: 15. Hannah Jones (Scarlets); 14. Jaz Joyce (Scarlets); 13. Kerin Lake (Ospreys); 12. Robyn Wilkins (Ospreys); 11. Jess Kavanagh-Williams (RGC); 10. Elinor Snowsill (Dragons); 9. Keira Bevan (Ospreys); 1. Caryl Thomas (Scarlets); 2. Carys Phillips (c) (Ospreys); 3. Amy Evans (Ospreys); 4. Siwan Lillicrap (Ospreys); 5. Mel Clay (Ospreys); 6. Alisha Butchers (Scarlets); 7. Bethan Lewis (Scarlets); 8. Sioned Harries (Scarlets)
Replacements: 16. Kelsey Jones (Ospreys); 17. Gwenllian Pyrs (RGC); 18. Cerys Hale (Dragons); 19. Natalia John (Ospreys); 20. Nia Elen Davies (Scarlets); 21. Jade Knight (Scarlets); 22. Lisa Neumann (Scarlets); 23. Alecs Donovan (Ospreys)
France: 15. Jessy Trémoulière; 14. Caroline Boujard; 13. Carla Neisen; 12. Jade le Pesq; 11. Cyrielle Banet; 10. Caroline Drouin; 9. Pauline Bourdon; 1. Lise Arricastre; 2. Agathe Sochat; 3. Julie Duval; 4. Safi N'Diaye; 5. Audrey Forlani; 6. Marjorie Mayans; 7. Céline Ferer; 8. Gaëlle Hermet (c); ;
Replacements:; 16. Miléna Soloch; 17. Caroline Thomas; 18. Patricia Carricaburu; 19. Fiona Lecat; 20. Romane Ménager; 21. Yanna Rivoalen; 22. Camille Boudaud; 23. Marine Ménager
Italy (squad): Forwards: Lucia GAI (Stade Rennais Rugby, FRA), 60 caps; Gaia GIACOMOLI ((Rugby Colorno), 10 caps; Michela MERLO (Rugby Mantova, tutorata Rugby Colorno), 2 caps; Eleonora RICCI (C.R.A.T. A Coruña, SPA), 3 caps; Beatrice VERONESE (Valsugana R. Padova), 4 caps; Melissa BETTONI ((Stade Rennais Rugby, FRA), 45 caps; Silvia TURANI (Rugby Colorno), 3 caps; Giordana DUCA (Frascati Rugby Club 2015), 4 cap; Elisa PILLOTTI (Chicken 2012 Rugby), 12 caps; Valentina RUZZA (Valsugana Rugby Padova), 22 caps; Ilaria ARRIGHETTI (Stade Rennais Rugby, FRA), 34 caps; Giada FRANCO (Rugby Colorno), 3 caps; Elisa GIORDANO (Valsugana Rugby Padova), 29 caps; Isabella LOCATELLI (Rugby Monza 1949), 20 caps
Backs: Sara BARATTIN (Iniziative Villorba Rugby) 81 caps; Jessica BUSATO (Inziative Villorba Rugby), 4 caps; Beatrice RIGONI (Valsugana Rugby Padova), 31 caps; Veronica MADIA (Rugby Colorno), 10 caps; Manuela FURLAN (Iniziative Villorba Rugby), 65 caps; Maria MAGATTI (Rugby Monza 1949), 25 caps; Aura MUZZO (Iniziative Rugby Villorba), 5 caps; Michela SILLARI (Rugby Colorno), 43 caps; Sofia STEFAN (Stade Rennais Rugby, FRA), 42 caps
Scotland: To be announced.