Ireland, Wales in World Cup seeding tussle

Going into the final round of Six Nations matches on Saturday, however, they stand on the verge of a remarkable rise into the top four.

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Wales’ 22-9 victory over Ireland in their last match gave them a significant rankings boost and the prospect of a smoother run to the World Cup knockout stages.

Another victory over France in Paris, where they have won on their last two visits, coupled with an English success over Ireland in Dublin would put the Welsh among the top seeds for the World Cup draw in Kyoto on May 10.

That would mean avoiding world champions New Zealand, Australia and England in the pool stages of the competition, with all three of those sides assured of a place in Pot 1.

Ireland will stay in their current fourth position in the rankings if they do not lose to England regardless of what happens in other matches, a significant carrot for them as they seek to end the 18-game winning run of Eddie Jones’s side.

With Wales no longer in danger of slipping out of the top eight, it is France and Scotland who now face that prospect.

It was a fate that befell Wales before the 2015 World Cup, in which they ended up in a pool with Australia and England.

The loss of one of the game’s major powers in the opening round, in that case tournament hosts England, was a blow to the image of the sport.

France would need to lose by more than 15 points in Paris to slip below ninth-placed Argentina, which is the same scenario for Scotland against Italy at Murrayfield.

If both lose by more than 15 points it is the Scots who would be the lower ranked side.

(Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Ed Osmond)

Record number of Syrian kids killed: UN

A record number of children were killed in Syria last year, more than a third of them in or near a school, the UN children’s agency says ahead of the sixth anniversary of the war.

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More than 850 children were also recruited to fight – more than double the number in 2015 – with some used as executioners and suicide bombers, UNICEF said on Monday.

“The depth of suffering is unprecedented. Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis,” the agency’s regional director Geert Cappelaere said in a statement from Homs in Syria.

“Each and every child is scarred for life with horrific consequences on their health, well-being and future.”

At least 652 children were killed last year, up by 20 per cent from 2015, the agency said.

The figures – collected since 2014 – only represent formally verified casualties, meaning the true toll could be higher.

UNICEF also said there were at least 338 attacks against hospitals and medical personnel last year.

Half of Syria’s pre-war population has been uprooted in the conflict whose six-year anniversary falls on March 15.

Around 6.5 million people are displaced within Syria and nearly 5 million have sought shelter in neighbouring countries where conditions are getting increasingly desperate.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said nearly one million were trapped in besieged areas inside Syria with almost no aid.

It said siege and starvation continued to be used as weapons of war and called for an immediate end to all obstacles preventing civilians accessing aid.

UNICEF said many children were also dying from preventable diseases with the fighting making it difficult to access medical care and lifesaving supplies.

The agency added that Syrian families across the region were taking extreme measures to survive, often forcing children out of the classroom and into early marriage and child labour.

Ash Barty upsets Bouchard at Miami Open

Australian tennis comeback star Ashleigh Barty has stretched her winning streak to eight matches by beating former top-five player Eugenie Bouchard at the Miami Open.

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The Australian wildcard prevailed 6-4 5-7 6-3 on centre court, continuing the rich form that earned her a first WTA Tour title at the Malaysian Open and setting up a first-ever clash with countrywoman Sam Stosur in the second round.

“I love Miami,” said Barty. “It’s the first time I’ve played singles here, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s certainly nice to play on a beautiful centre court like this.”

Barty, 20, was off the tour for about 18 months, including a stint playing cricket but has come back better than ever and is ranked a career-high 91st after triumph in Kuala Lumpur.

Her match up against 23-year-old Canadian Bouchard, ranked 56, was a battle of past junior Wimbledon champions.

Bouchard reached No. 5 in 2014, the year she was the runner-up at Wimbledon and reached the semi-finals at two other grand slam tournaments.

But her recent form has gone in the opposite direction to Barty’s and she exited in the first round for a fourth straight tournament.

“I think I was able to be very aggressive on returns and use my forehand,” said Barty.

“It came with a few errors as well but I knew I needed to be aggressive to give myself a chance and I think I did that today.

She was looking forward to a clash with former US Open champion Stosur, who has slipped to No.91 in the world following patchy poor form this year.

“It’ll be nice to play Sam. We’ve practiced a lot together in the past but never played against each other.

“It’s very similar – I’m going to have to be very aggressive off returns and try and take her serve away from her, then I think it might be a little bit of a battle of the forehands from us.”