Having lost a game due to COVID-19 in Round 3, things have been less turbulent in the run up to this weekend's batch of Six Nations matches. Wales are two matches away from a remarkable Grand Slam, while France are still in the mix for a clean sweep, but goodness knows when, or even if, their postponed match against Scotland will take place.
The weekend starts in Rome with Italy hosting Wayne Pivac's unbeaten Wales. The two sides could not be coming at this from a starker contrast in fortunes. Italy last won a Six Nations game in 2015; Wales are three on the bounce having beaten England last time out. Then attention switches to Twickenham where Eddie Jones' England are hoping for a response against France after losing two of their first three championship matches. And then on Sunday, it's all eyes on Edinburgh as Scotland host Ireland at Murrayfield. Scotland's match against Les Bleus was postponed last time out so they'll be raring to go against Ireland, while Andy Farrell's side got their championship up and running with a win in Rome last round.
To help you with your ESPN Rugby Pick'em decisions, here's how the teams are shaping up ahead of the fourth round.
Italy vs. Wales
(Saturday, Rome, March 13, 15.15 (local); 14.15 (GMT)
Franco Smith is well aware of Italy's dismal recent Six Nations record -- they need a rugby equivalent of an ugly 1-0 win in football. Just somewhere, they need that little dab of luck. But it hasn't come in this Championship; the stats are bleak with Italy having conceded 139 points, and scored just 38. But all they can do is look to gradual evolution.
"We are meeting our goal: to improve our performances and to become more and more competitive match after match," Smith said this week. "Every week we're together, staff and players, we are working hard to win."
They'll eventually get over the line, but it's fascinating to see Smith mix things up this week. He has made five changes to the team that started against Ireland with Stephen Varney back from the injury that saw him ruled out just minutes before their Round 3 match. There are also starts for Mattia Bellini, Danilo Fischetti, Giosue Zilocchi and Niccolo Cannone.
Wales went early with their squad selection this week, naming it on Tuesday instead of the customary Thursday. It's a tactic which Clive Woodward and Warren Gatland have done in the past. It's a sign of confidence, Wales saying: we know our team and are confident in ourselves, and we don't care one iota if you know our XV too. Pivac made just two changes from the side that beat England in Round 3. Kieran Hardy misses out through injury at scrum-half so Gareth Davies starts, while second-row Adam Beard drops out of the 23 so Cory Hill starts alongside the evergreen Alun Wyn Jones. Jones is now up to 155 Test caps -- a remarkable total -- and Pivac does not expect the fine old warrior to stop anytime soon, despite the links with a lucrative switch to Japan.
"He is enjoying life and while he is enjoying life I think he will want to keep going," Pivac said. "Certainly he will keep getting selected when he is putting the performances that he is."
But Jones will know the perils of complacency, and he'll be ensuring his team are aware of the gigantic banana skin awaiting them in Rome. Wales boss Pivac is aware of Italy's strengths, and has quiet admiration for their slow building process which will hopefully bear fruit in the future. "I like what they're doing. Hopefully they'll just stick with it because it does take time."
Prediction: Wales will continue their Grand Slam charge with a win in Rome and expect the exciting Louis Rees-Zammit to grab a couple of tries along the way.
England vs. France
(Saturday, Twickenham, March 13, 16.45 (GMT)
Eddie Jones' England side have been manufacturing frustrating scenarios in training this week -- like poor refereeing calls -- in an attempt to get them ready for whatever comes their way Saturday. Wayne Barnes and Matt Carley have both been in camp, as England look to address their penalty count which has ultimately contributed to their downfall against Scotland and Wales. Owen Farrell's communication could well be key on Saturday, and he has addressed his own ways of engaging with officials this week as England look to bounce back from that defeat in Cardiff last time round. Jones has freshened things up with Max Malins, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Charlie Ewels all starting, while Ollie Lawrence is back on the bench. The selection of Malins is perhaps the most eye-catching, as he replaces long-term full-back Elliot Daly.
"[Malins] has always been able to beat people and open the game up," Jones said. "That's been constant. He's probably now just doing it more and more, with the chances that he's got."
But France will be no light touch, despite their turbulent last three weeks where they had an outbreak of COVID-19 in the camp which ultimately led to their match against Scotland being postponed after 12 players tested positive. "You accept and listen to criticism," France coach Fabien Galthie said. "It is part of our situation."
Although it seems like a year ago that France last played, in that topsy-turvy match against Ireland, they will are still on for a Grand Slam, and have Romain Ntamack back in the mix, after he recovered from injury to take a spot on the bench. Matthieu Jalibert is retained at fly-half but France make four changes overall with Virimi Vakatawa returning at centre, while Teddy Thomas comes in on the wing for Gabin Villere. Romain Taofifenua takes Bernard Le Roux's spot while Dylan Cretin steps in for Anthony Jeloch. All eyes will be on that mesmeric scrum-half Antoine Dupont with Jones hoping to keep things tight around the ruck area to ensure the ridiculously talented No. 9 doesn't end up running the game.
Prediction: We're predicting a narrow England win with between six and eight tries scored for Pick'em purposes.
Scotland vs. Ireland
(Sunday, Murrayfield, March 14, 15.00 (GMT)
It's been a long time between matches. Scotland have had to stew on that defeat to Wales back in Round 2 after their Test last time around was called off due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the France camp. So, Scotland have tried to remain introspective, and have used the extra time to work with the younger players in the squad, a luxury rarely afforded in these days of the ever-condensing rugby calendar and the resulting chaos and strife. But it's back to business on Sunday and Scotland are still in the mix for the championship, if other results go their way.
"They're a very aggressive side, they go hard at the breakdown and they have a number of threats," Scotland backs coach Mike Blair said of Ireland in the week. "We know them well, I'm sure they'll have a few tricks up their sleeves, too." Scotland have made four changes for the match with WP Nel starting at tight-head, Sam Johnson getting the nod in the centres, Sean Maitland returning on the wing and Jamie Ritchie back at blindside.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton said the players are coming "out of their shell" and lock Iain Henderson said Farrell has encouraged the squad to "find their voice." It's about fostering an environment where the players are accountable to one another and building and developing as a group. The 48-10 victory against Italy last time out was ruthless and exactly in the image of Farrell: no messing around, land the winning punch when space allows and get the job done. Farrell makes three changes from the side in Rome with Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Keith Earls the changes to the starting XV. Conor Murray returns on the bench after injury so Jamison Gibson-Park keeps his spot at scrum-half.
Prediction: We're backing a Scotland win, but with Johnny Sexton to outscore Finn Russell.