Having navigated through the opening two rounds of the 2021 Six Nations unscathed, we're a match down this weekend after Sunday's championship match between France and Scotland was postponed. France have been battling a growing number of COVID-19 cases in their squad and there was optimism the match would take place through to Wednesday.
But then on Thursday morning, the whole picture changed with a further COVID-19 positive result in the French camp. The Six Nations organisers now face a logistical headache to reschedule that match while protecting the integrity of the championship. But while the suits butt heads in the boardroom over that, the championship charges on with two matches on Saturday. The depleted Round 3 starts in Rome on Saturday lunchtime where Italy and Ireland meet with both looking for their first win of this year's Six Nations. And then attention shifts to Cardiff where Wales -- one of two sides still on for a Grand Slam -- look to protect their 100% record against England.
To help you with your ESPN Rugby Pick'em, here's how the teams are shaping up ahead of Round 3.
Italy vs. Ireland
(Saturday, Feb. 27, 15:15 local; 14:15 GMT)
Italy's record in the Six Nations is miserable. They are now 28 matches without a win, their last victory coming in 2015 at Scotland. Back then Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do" was at the top of the charts, but Italy have had little affection from the tournament since then. Such is their turnover in the intervening six years, not a single player remains in their 23 from those who played a part in that win at Murrayfield. That points to the double-edged sword of potential and pressure: on one hand Italy face the challenge of fast-tracking the next generation as the old slip off into the sunset, with results suffering. But they are realising some of their potential, and their stable half-back partnership of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi is something they've missed. Eventually it'll click and the two sides will harmonise. So, it's a welcome break from the norm to see Franco Smith name an unchanged XV for Saturday's match from the one that lost at Twickenham in Round 2. Italy were far from outplayed by England, and scored two tries against the usually impressive English defence. There's potential there but Smith knows they have to turn that into victories.
However, there is pressure bubbling around Ireland as well. Andy Farrell's side are zero from two so far in this Six Nations but have made seven changes for Saturday's trip to Rome. At the forefront of Farrell mixing things up is the return of captain Johnny Sexton at fly-half, after he sat out their Round 2 defeat to France due to injury. Ireland battled hard against France, but eventually succumbed to a two-point defeat. It's been the story of their championship to date -- they lost by five points to Wales in Round 1 having played 66 minutes with just 14 men. So Ireland will be hoping to rid themselves of those frustrating regrets when they travel to Rome. The bookmakers have them as firm favourites with a 22-point advantage, and Farrell will hope his new-look side deliver a win to do their tag as favourites justice. While Sexton returns at No.10, there are also starts for Ronan Kelleher, who scored one of only two Irish tries in their opening two defeats, Tadhg Furlong, David Kilcoyne, Will Connors, James Ryan and Jordan Larmour. Craig Casey and Ryan Baird will win their first caps if given a chance off the bench.
Prediction: Ireland will win in Rome in a match which will have more than 50.5 points scored for Pick'em purposes.
Wales vs. England
(Saturday, Feb. 27, 16:45 GMT)
Wales and France are the two unbeaten sides left in this year's championship but, of the two, Wales are flying under the radar. They've won both matches by the skin of their teeth and against 14 men. First Peter O'Mahony was sent off against them in round one, and then Zander Fagerson in their second-round clash at Murrayfield. That was decided thanks to Louis Rees-Zammit's wonder try which earned Wales a hard-fought 25-24 win on Scotland's patch. But we're still trying to work out exactly what this Wales side are. At the moment they're closer to the impressive outfit Warren Gatland moulded than the free-flowing, attacking Scarlets side Wayne Pivac coached prior to taking the Wales job after the 2019 World Cup. They're more pragmatic now than at the start of his tenure, but while their opponent's selection has stayed pretty even-handed, Pivac has not been afraid to chop and change. They have made five changes for Saturday's clash in the usually raucous Principality Stadium with Kieran Hardy, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Navidi and Josh Adams all starting in what is Wales' most experienced ever Test team, with 902 caps among them.
It will be a momentous day for North, who wins his 100th Test cap on Saturday. It's a remarkable feat for a man who's still just 28 years old and it's a crying shame the place won't be packed to mark the achievement.
"He's still highly motivated and wants to play for Wales well past 100 games," Pivac said of North. "I'm sure he's going to do that with the attitude he's showing at the moment and the form he'll bring to the 13 jersey."
The pick of Davies at 12 is also intriguing. He's usually lining up at outside centre, but Pivac feels his long-term future is at the inside centre spot. But Wales know above all else, they'll need to put together an 80-minute performance if they are to continue their unbeaten run, and it's down to Jones' side, who are growing in form and confidence, to stop them.
Jones has made just two changes from the side that knocked over Italy in Round 2. Jamie George returns at hooker, while Mark Wilson takes the injured Courtney Lawes' spot at blindside. There's also the intriguing prospect of 19-year-old back-row George Martin potentially making his debut from the bench, having only recently come into the squad for the injured Jack Willis. Jones knows many fancy his England side to stop Wales' unbeaten run -- especially with the Principality Stadium fear factor eliminated -- but he's leaving little to chance. So it's tried and tested options in the backs, with familiar faces in the pack, including Billy Vunipola who admitted earlier in the week his own form was "rubbish." But Jones' England are focusing on their discipline. They are well aware that of Wales' previous two opponents ended up with red cards, and England need to tread carefully and precisely.
"It's about making sure we maintain our composure," Jones said. "We are evolving into a more street-smart team, but the game is about pressure situations."
He's also wary of wise old soul Alun Wyn Jones and his ability to mix things up.
"It's his [Jones'] 146th Test, so he knows what he's doing," Jones added. "He has targeted players in our team. We've spoken about him and we understand what he'll be trying to do. I am sure [Alun Wyn] Jones is going to be looking for those situations and we're going to have to deal with them."
Prediction: Expect Rees-Zammit to bag a try, but England will come away from Wales with the win.