There is another feast of rugby this weekend as six teams finalise their preparations for the Rugby World Cup which begins in just a fortnight’s time.
Ireland v Italy, Friday 24th August, 19.45
Ireland take on Italy on Friday night at Ravenhill with a number of injury concerns. Veteran scrum-half Peter Stringer remains a doubt after suffering back spasms in training this week – Eddie O’Sullivan is unlikely to risk such an important player at this stage and Isaac Boss will take his place in the team. Flanker Stephen Ferris has also withdrawn from the replacements bench with a knee injury and Brian O’Driscoll was not selected because of his fractured cheekbone. O’Sullivan expects all his players to be fit to play in the World Cup.
Italy coach Pierre Berbizier has named a slightly understrength side with Roland De Marigny starting at fly-half after Ramiro Pez was ruled out with a shoulder injury, while Josh Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, Andrea Lo Cicero, Santiago Dellape and Marko Stanojevic are other big names to be rested.
Ireland will relish the physical challenge in the forwards, but their talented backs should be far superior to Italy – expect to see at least a 20-point winning margin for the Irish to send them into the World Cup confident of escaping from the Group of Death.
Scotland v South Africa, Saturday 25th August, 17:00
Jason White’s Scotland team will face the toughest of tests against the Springboks on Saturday, but will have taken heart from their convincing win over Ireland. Coach Frank Hadden has made 4 changes to his starting line-up, with Gavin Kerr, Kelly Brown, Dave Callam and Nikki Walker earning a start, replacing Allan Jacobsen, Allister Hogg, Simon Taylor and Sean Lamont respectively. Chris Paterson will feature again at fly-half, and the South African rush defence will offer a fierce examination of his credentials.
South Africa has named a full strength side and coach Jake White has one eye on their showdown with England. Danie Roussow starts at Number 8 behind an enormous pack, while the prodigious Francois Steyn starts at inside centre, replacing the injured Jean De Villiers, and JP Pietersen is on the wing ahead of Ashwin Willemse.
The Scots will look to match the Boks up front in what should be a very physical encounter, but South Africa’s strength at the breakdown should win the day for the visitors by a small margin.
Wales v France, Sunday 26th August, 14:45
Gareth Jenkins’ side complete their warm-up series by hosting France at the Millennium Stadium. The game sees the return of Shane Williams to the fold after missing the last two games with an elbow injury. James Hook retains his place at fly-half, whilst Jonathan Thomas, Martyn Williams and Alix Popham combine to form a strong back row unit.
Bernard Laporte will not name his starting XV until Saturday, but centre David Marty will not figure after picking up a calf injury. Lionel Beauxis is likely to start at fly-half ahead of David Skrela, whilst Sebastian Chabal looks set to feature in the second row. Serge Betsen will captain the team from the openside flank in the absence of Fabien Pelous and Raphael Ibanez.
The World Cup hosts will arrive in Cardiff following back-to-back wins over the World Champions, whilst Wales may still be reeling from their 60-point demolition against the same opposition. Williams will provide a bit more spark to the Welsh backline, but France should dominate and win by 10.