England vs France no longer only game in town
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By Mitch Phillips
London - England against France has been the key fixture of the Six Nations over the past decade but Sunday's Twickenham clash between the winners of nine of the last 10 tournaments is in danger of being a sideshow. After the world champions lost to Wales and the Six Nations holders scraped past Scotland last week, Ireland's title credentials look more impressive and their game against Scotland at Murrayfield now carries extra resonance.
So too in Rome where Wales play Italy looking for what in recent seasons have become rare back-to-back wins amid whispers of a possible first Welsh title for 11 years.
After the low-quality, high-tension nature of the opening weekend's games, predictions for the second round are as reliable as the Millennium Stadium turf.
What is certain, however, is that England and France can only improve and both coaches have reacted to their dire displays with major changes.
Bernard Laporte recalled Dimitri Yachvili for Pierre Mignoni at scrumhalf along with five other changes to the team who came from 9-0 down to beat Scotland 16-9 with a late Damien Traille try on Saturday.
One of them, the return of flanker Serge Betsen, is a huge boost and the scourge of the world's halfbacks will put real pressure on England's reshaped backline.
Andy Robinson, frustrated and confused by his side's toothless display in losing 11-9 to Wales, has dumped teenage centre Mathew Tait and World Cup-winning scrumhalf Matt Dawson.
In comes Olly Barkley to give a kicking option at 12, while fiery 22-year-old Harry Ellis gets his first start at number nine.
Also back to join Joe Worsley in the first-choice back row are Martin Corry and Lewis Moody.
France have not won at Twickenham since 1997 but Robinson said he was preparing for a backlash.
"France are still the most dangerous side in world rugby," he said. "They've been written off so many times but they are always capable of a world-class performance."
Ireland face an anxious few days to discover whether centre duo Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy will recover from hamstring strains in time for Saturday's Murrayfield game.
Captain O'Driscoll made the difference last week as two cutting breaks led to the first two of Ireland's three tries in their laboured 28-17 victory in Italy.
Ireland have made only one change, with Johnny O'Connor of Wasps replacing Munster's Denis Leamy at openside flanker.
Lock Malcolm O'Kelly wins an Irish record 70th cap in Edinburgh, after equalling Mike Gibson's 69 appearances in Rome.
He and his forward colleagues will be looking for a more dominant display after being embarrassingly bullied by their Italian counterparts.
Unsurprisingly, after their most encouraging performance for several years, Scotland are unchanged.
"It's a justified reward for a very positive effort from everyone involved in the game last Saturday," coach Matt Williams said.
Wales too will send out the same starting XV who secured their first Cardiff victory over England for 12 years.
"It is a good feeling to be able to ask the same personnel to just go out there and do it again," said their coach Mike Ruddock.
The Italians beat Wales in this fixture two years ago and, as last week's excellent display showed, they have improved since.
However, coach John Kirwan, who initially named an unchanged team but lost centre Gonzalo Canale to a training injury, has brought some hard-nosed All Black realism to the buoyant camp this week.
"I've received many compliments for our squad after the match against Ireland, of course they're welcome, but let's not forget that we lost," he said.
"We can't sit on our laurels. We must have a winning mentality and we'll have to lift our level again against Wales."