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RugbyU: England, Wales set for showdown, Italy stun Ireland

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Grand Slam chasers England and defending champions Wales were eyeing Six Nations history on Saturday in a mouth-watering Millennium Stadium showdown as Italy shocked Ireland in Rome.

A lacklustre tournament, blighted by the weather -- which won't be an issue in Cardiff after England agreed to the closure of the stadium's retractable roof -- is now set for a rousing finale.

England coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw, in only their second year in their respective roles, are on the brink of overseeing a first Grand Slam for the Red Rose since their World Cup-winning year of 2003.

But Wales, who won the Grand Slam last season, could deny England the title, never mind the Slam.

Victory by seven points -- a feat Wales have managed four times in the last six years against England -- would see the hosts retain the title for the first time since 1979 provided they maintain their superior try-count.

A victory by eight points would secure the title outright.

Meanwhile, at Rome's Olympic Stadium, Irish superstar Brian O'Driscoll, in what could have been his 125th and final appearance for his country, saw his team slump to a 22-15 loss to Italy.

It was the Italians' first win over Ireland, who had started the tournament with a 30-22 win at Cardiff.

Winger Giovanbattista Venditti scored the only try in the 49th minute while O'Driscoll's afternoon was further clouded when he was sin-binned in the first half for stamping on the stomach of Simone Favaro.

England go into the Millennium Stadium clash having managed just one try in their last three outings, seemingly becoming more restricted in their play the closer they've come to European rugby's greatest prize.

Now, after a deeply unconvincing 18-11 win over Italy at Twickenham, they travel to a ground renowned for its raucous home support to face a Wales team bidding for a fourth Slam in eight years.

"We've been to intimidating places before, the likes of Ellis Park (in Johannesburg), and Wales is definitely up there," said Robshaw.

"When you come to a place like Cardiff, you might get one or two chances, and we've got to make sure we are good enough to make it count," added the Harlequins flanker.

"It's a huge occasion for English rugby, and there is a massive opportunity out there for us.

"It's one thing talking about in a room or on a training pitch, it's another thing doing it in front of 70,000 people."

As if to prove Robshaw's point, England have lost four of their last five Grand Slam deciders.

Meanwhile, Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips urged his side not to get caught up in the mathematics of the match.

"We've just got to go out there and win the game, end of story," said Phillips. "They (England) are a great side, they've beaten New Zealand and had a great run.

"Beating them by one point would be a great achievement," added Phillips, looking to help Wales end a run of five straight Millennium Stadium defeats.

England have made four changes, re-calling half-backs Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell and prop Joe Marler, with Leicester back-row Tom Croft making his first Test start in 12 months following a career-threatening neck injury after fewer than five hours of club rugby.

Interim Wales head coach Rob Howley lost one captain in Ryan Jones to injury and passed over another in Sam Warburton after the flanker indicated he wanted to remain in the ranks following last week's man-of-the-match winning display against Scotland.

Instead fit-again loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins returns to captain Wales for only the fourth time in his 12-year career.

Later Saturday, France, who only scraped their first point of the Championship in a 13-13 draw with Ireland last week, will be desperate to avoid finishing bottom of the table for the first time since 1999 when they face Scotland, who've already won twice under interim Australian coach Scott Johnson, in Paris.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130316/rugbyu-england-wales-set-showdown-italy-stun-ireland