Rugby Union: North hat-trick puts Wales in pole for Six Nations title

PARIS (AFP) - A hat-trick of tries by George North sparked Wales to a 61-20 thrashing of Italy in their final Six Nations match on Saturday and left it all to do for fellow title hopefuls England and Ireland later.

Wales coach Warren Gatland had been looking for a win of over 40 points and he got it as the Welsh sprang into action after leading only 14-13 at half-time in Rome.

Their victory - helped by Italy being reduced to 14 men on two occasions - ended France's slim hopes of the title as the Welsh went to eight points, the French can at best get to six if they beat England later on at Twickenham.

More pertinently the Welsh improved their points difference to plus 53 leaving the English requiring a victory of 17 points over the French and the defending champions Ireland a demanding 21 points win over the Scots in Edinburgh.

Both Ireland and England are on six points.

However, Wales will have to wait to receive the trophy as the authentic one is at Twickenham and a replica at Murrayfield leaving no possibility of a third one in Rome.

If they win it they will be handed it on their return to Wales on Sunday.

However, Gatland prayed that the last minute converted try by Italy would not cost his side dearly.

"It wasn't bad apart from the last two minutes!" Gatland told the BBC.

"You are always looking for the perfect performance," said Gatland.

"Hope that doesn't cost us the championship.

"I will be going into hibernation for a few hours!" he added with a grin.

Ireland are bidding to win successive titles for only the second time (1948/49), while Wales could be looking at their third crown in four years and gain a boost heading into the World Cup later in the year.

England are seeking their first Six Nations title since 2011 as they host an under-performing France - who have not won at Twickenham since 2005 - in the final match.

With England playing France last, coach Stuart Lancaster has decided to wait until half an hour before the kick-off to give his team talk so his players are clear as to what they need to do - apart from obviously beating the French.

"We firstly have to understand what will be the challenge. The Ireland match in Scotland will finish at about 4.25pm (also GMT) and we kick off at five," said Lancaster, who since taking over after the 2011 World Cup debacle has guided his side to second on the past three occasions in the championship.

"We will have to make sure the players understand the objectives. It might be just to win the game, or it could be to win it by 10 or 20 points.

"It is certainly an unique situation where the end of the championship is decided with staggered times, with the teams playing last knowing there is a certain points differential to score."

For the Irish, who saw their dream of only a third Grand Slam ended by Wales in a humdinger of a clash last weekend, it is a case of sticking with the solid no-frills strategy of coach Joe Schmidt which has served them well over the past two years but seen them score just four tries in this campaign.

"For us there's big trust in what we're doing," said O'Connell, who will win his 101st Irish cap.

"That's probably the biggest thing I see from a player point of view that's different from other teams I've been involved in - there's massive trust in what we're doing."