LONDON (AP) — England took a giant stride toward the Six Nations title by battling past France on Saturday, but defending champion Wales could push its old rival all the way after beating Italy to maintain its resurgence.
The Grand Slam is still on for England thanks to a 23-13 win at Twickenham, with Manu Tuilagi's fortunate 54th-minute try helping to turn the tide after the winless French went into halftime 10-9 ahead.
Wales looks like the only team able to stop the English juggernaut from a first clean sweep in the competition since 2003. A 26-9 win in torrential rain in Rome earned the Welsh a second straight victory, with Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert scoring their second-half tries and fullback Leigh Halfpenny kicking 16 points.
Wales' home match against England on the final weekend looks set to decide the destination of the title. "The Grand Slam doesn't cross people's minds, our feet are firmly on the ground," said England captain Chris Robshaw. "We are in a good place."
France is simply looking to avoid the humiliation of being awarded the wooden spoon for last place. With three straight losses, Philippe Saint-Andre's team props up the standings and things could yet get worse with an away match against Ireland next up.
"It was much better than the last two games, but again we have lost and we can't accept this," said Saint-Andre, whose side lost its way in the second half after a string of strange substitutions. England showed character and maturity to turn around a match that seemed to be in France's grasp at halftime.
Saint-Andre's drastic decision to make eight changes — one position — to his lineup paid off initially, with center Wesley Fofana scoring a marvelous try from the halfway line to add to a penalty by Morgan Parra.
The English wrested back the initiative in the second half, though. Tuilagi sprinted over for a 54th-minute try in the left corner after flanker Tom Wood kicked a loose ball out of a ruck and England's replacements then wore down France.
Toby Flood replaced the injured Owen Farrell, who had kicked 12 points with four successful attempts from six, and slotted over two late penalties to see England home. "Our players know they have been through a very tough 80 minutes," England coach Stuart Lancaster said. "France brought their A game today and put us under a lot of pressure.
"We kept our composure and our discipline and our defense grew. If you'd said to me at the start of the day we'd get a 10-point win, we would have taken it definitely." Like England, Wales has impetus after following up victory over France in Paris with another away win to keep the defense of its title alive.
Wales led 9-6 at the break in rainy Rome but did all the damage in the second half, with Davies collecting a chip through that bounced awkwardly for Italy's covering defense for the first try before Cuthbert raced through a small gap to dive over in the corner.
"We adapted really well to the conditions and the deluge," interim Wales coach Rob Howley said. "We showed patience and composure and we took our opportunities." Without suspended captain Sergio Parisse, Italy's chances nosedived when replacement skipper Martin Castrogiovanni was sent to the sin-bin in the 59th minute for an infringement in a scrum. The score was 19-9 at that point and Cuthbert went over two minutes later.
"Unfortunately, we struggled in an area that is usually one of our strongpoints," Castrogiovanni said of Italy's scrum. "As captain it's my responsibility." Flyhalf Kris Burton scored all of Italy's points with three penalties.
Scotland hosts Ireland on Sunday.