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Thursday March 6, 2014 MYT 1:38:30 AM
Thursday March 6, 2014 MYT 1:39:05 AM
by mitch phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Southern hemisphere rugby fans might be underwhelmed by the standard of some Six Nations matches but they cannot help but envy the excitement, with this season's championship turning into a real nail-biter.
Ireland, England, Wales and France are all on four points after winning two and losing one of their opening three games and the title is anyones going into the penultimate weekend.
After losing their first game in Paris, England have fought back to put themselves in a great position to win what would be only their second title in 11 years.
They host Wales on Sunday and finish off away to Italy six days later and, though two more wins might not be enough, it may well be.
Wales are also in a good position considering they suffered a 26-3 thrashing in Dublin on February 8.
Should they triumph at Twickenham, as they did in 2012, then the Welsh might need only a home victory over Scotland to secure an unprecedented third successive outright title.
Ireland have the advantage in terms of points difference - 42 to the 21 of England, six of Wales and one for France - and will expect to extend that at home to Italy on Saturday.
However, they finish off with a daunting trip to Paris in the final game of the championship on March 15.
The points difference might prove too much for the French to make up but they should improve it on Saturday when they seek their 15th win in 16 championship meetings with Scotland.
Last season, of course, Italy and Scotland beat Ireland while France finished last after defeats by Italy and Wales.
England went into their final match dreaming of a grand slam but got smashed 30-3 as Wales took the title from their grasp.
The two teams meet again on Sunday and nobody in the England camp is shying away from the fact that they owe the Welsh, the only European side coach Stuart Lancaster has failed to beat in his two and a bit years in charge.
"I'd be lying if I said we didn't still carry an awful lot of hurt because that was a tough one to take. We ended up with a pretty embarrassing scoreline," said Tom Wood, forced into an emergency number eight role in the Millennium Stadium but back on the blindside flank on Sunday.
"I don't think we were bullied, I think we just got shell-shocked a little bit. That was a pretty harsh lesson so I'm looking forward to, hopefully, reciprocating."
England are already looking a different side 12 months on, with a host of new faces, especially in the backline.
Wales, however, will go into the game with their British and Irish Lions backbone intact and equally confident
They are further boosted by the return of Jonathan Davies, one of the biggest successes of the Lions' series victory over Australia. The centre will make his first appearance since suffering a chest injury in November, paving the way for George North to return to his favoured wing position.
While England and Wales were battling for the title last year, Ireland and France found themselves in the unusual position of trying to avoid last place.
The wooden spoon eventually went to France and, though they look a far better unit this year, they have still been horribly inconsistent.
They dug in well to edge England, took 40 minutes to get out of first gear before sweeping Italy away with a flamboyant 15 minutes, then were completely swamped by Wales last time out.
Their record against the Scots should see them through on Saturday - that match was their only win last season - but their final game against Ireland could go either way.
Joe Schmidt's team have probably been the most consistent in the championship and the Irish did not do much wrong in their only defeat, a nerve-jangling 13-10 loss to England at Twickenham.
They are sweating on the fitness of flyhalf Jonny Sexton, who has a thumb injury, while still hoping to give Brian O'Driscoll a victorious send-off in his final international season.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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