- 13 Mar 07, 11:14 AM
London - As we count down to the final weekend of Six Nations action, there are still four teams with a chance - mathematically speaking, at any rate - of winning the title.
If, like me, maths in not your strong point, pens, paper, a calculator and a protractor may well be required for what follows....
Three teams (France, Ireland and England) are level at the top of the Six Nations table on six points, with the sides separated by points difference.
The French lead the way on +42, with Ireland not far behind on +38 and England +13.
* France, the bookies' favourites, need to beat Scotland at home on Saturday (15.30 GMT kick off)and maintain their points difference advantage over Ireland.
But if France lose, draw or win narrowly, the championship could well open up for a first Irish success since 1985.
However, crucially France have the advantage of playing after the final whistle will have blown on Ireland in Rome, so no matter what Eddie O'Sullivan's men do, the French will take to the field knowing the size of the task before they kick off.
* Ireland travel to Italy (13.30 kick off) and will hope to beat an Azzurri side weakened by injury and possible suspension by a big enough points difference to pile the pressure on France. Their best chance will lie in forcing the French force the pace in Paris.
* England will also at least know what they need to do to win the championship as they kick off last against Wales in Cardiff (17.30 kick off).
But for instance, if Ireland win by 10 points in Rome, that would mean beating a backs-to-the-wall Welsh side by 36 points. Realistically, they must win and hope both France and Ireland slip up.
Incidentally, in the unlikely circumstances the top two teams are level on points difference as well as points, the trophy is awarded to the team who scored the most tries during the Championship. If it is still level, the trophy is shared. By my reckoning, the tally of tries as it stands is:-
9 France and Ireland
* Italy still have an outside chance of the title, but they need to beat Ireland by some distance, and hope that Scotland and Wales both win handsomely. The odds of around 300-1 on some exchanges probably reflect the reality of their chances.
But there is also still interest at the other end of the table as well.
* Wales will be desperate to avoid the wooden spoon in front of their own supporters at the Millennium Stadium against England, and if they can win by at least five points they can haul themselves off the bottom of the table, presuming Scotland lose to France.
* Scotland, whose points difference (-31) is only only marginally better than Wales' (-36), need a win or a draw from their game against France to make sure of avoiding bottom place. But a decent win in Paris could even see them overhaul Italy in fourth place by virtue of points, if Italy (-26) lose to Ireland
So, who do you expect to be lifting the trophy on Saturday?
If I were a betting man - and I am - I would be tempted to stick a cheeky few quid on Ireland to come through on the rails and pip France, seeing as it's just after the Cheltenham Festival, it's St Patrick's Day and my father-in-law to be is a proud Irishman.
On a related note, does anyone else think the time has come to introduce the bonus point system used in most other major competitions, including the Tri-Nations and the Guinness Premiership, these days?
(Under this system, it's four points for a win; two for a draw; one for losing by less than seven points; and one for scoring four tries or more)
I'm a fan as it encourages teams to continue attacking to the last moment, even if the overall result of the match is beyond doubt.
I know that doing away with the standard two points for a win, one point for a draw system would end more than 100 years of history, and the traditionalists could well point out that there hasn't exactly been a lack of excitement under the present system.
By my reckoning, under this system, the table would look like this:
1. Ireland (14 points)
2. France (13 points)
3. England (13 points)
4. Italy (9 points)
5. Scotland (5 points)
6. Wales (1 point)
So not radically different to the table as it is, but Ireland would have gone into the final round of games in the box seat thanks to picking up a losing bonus point in their heartbreaking defeat to France earlier in the tournament.
Time for a change or leave it as it is?