Six Nations Reflections: The Review

Approaching the last weekend of the Six Nations, little more than pride is at stake in each of the three games, with England guaranteed mathematically to win the Championship after their win over Scotland last Saturday. With that in mind, the theme of this week’s reflection will be an overall look at the tournament, once again honing in on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, hence the unusual length of this week’s blog. It was a disappointing showing overall by the men in green, although preventing the English from winning the Grand Slam on St. Patrick’s weekend would improve the mood amongst supporters and would regain many plaudits for the team.

Starting at the foot of the table, Italy will be hoping to escape the dreaded wooden spoon with a win against Scotland. With the injuries still piling up for Scotland, I’d wonder if Conor O’ Shea’s Azzuri can put up a fight, however I fully expect Vern Cotter’s men to do the job, albeit maybe not by a huge margin. Italy can be relatively happy with their performances this season, even if they end on no points, as they have shown that all they’re lacking is fitness and a 10 who can kick proficiently to compete with the other five. For Scotland, it’s been a mixed bag, but in the end, has almost come to where you’d expect. Their penchant for scoring tries has added a new dimension to their game, but when the pressure was on in a tournament-deciding game, they caved badly. Promising signs but promise needs to be built on to achieve success.

The second game of the day features the two most unpredictable teams of the six, France and Wales. Currently sitting in third and fourth respectively, these two could well produce an absolute cracker of a game, as the French tend to play more expansively in Paris and Wales have nothing much to play for. France have been quite an enigma this year, as you know they can turn on the style when they want to, but they don’t seem to have the grit that they used to when it comes to dogged affairs such as the Irish game a few weeks back. They stumbled over the line against Scotland but threw the game away against England, while eventually getting the better of Italy. Before last weekend, most Welsh folk will have written their season off as a complete disaster, but I have a feeling that win will save their year and could well inspire victory in France. Both of these teams perfectly represent the chasing pack behind England. Neither deserve to be higher in the table this year, but I feel both are just some organisation away from challenging for a Grand Slam. The return of Welsh head coach Warren Gatland next year will make things very interesting.

So on to the top two in the table, the arch rivals facing off in Dublin on Saturday evening. While Ireland do have a tendency to rally after losses, the sheer might of England is a terrifying prospect. Schmidt has a genuine debate this week whether to shake up selection quite a bit in order to give some players more experience (Munster’s Darren Sweetnam and Ulster’s Craig Gilroy are being mentioned a substantial amount), or to stick with the old guard to avoid a soul-destroying demolition against the best team in the Northern Hemisphere. I just think there’s too much riding on this for Schmidt, who is generally a conservative coach, to take any huge risks. England won’t fear this Irish team and if they produce the same standard as last Saturday, expect them to emerge from the Aviva with the Grand Slam secured. Ireland have had their strangest few months of international rugby in quite some time. A first ever win against New Zealand in November sparked hopes of a Grand Slam and an all-conquering new group of younger Irish players, however, the deflating loss to Scotland and the abject attack against Wales have put them in an odd place. Personally, I’d take any other team in the world to bounce back against than England at the moment and just two wins from five games won’t be looked back on as a very successful season for the IRFU. As for the English, their new group of players in their early-mid 20’s are a frightening sight for any opposition and they’ll only look to improve from here.

One of the freshest aspects of this year’s Six Nations is the addition of the bonus point. The general consensus is very positive in regards to this supplement and we have had 59 tries scored in the tournament so far, a nine try improvement on this time last year. It’s also given the “chasing pack” as I earlier called them, hope that they can challenge for honours even if they lose a game. It retains some excitement in games that otherwise would be dismissed as dull or predictable. For example, in the game between England and Italy, England were forced to keep playing to get that fourth try and that is the type of thing that keeps the spectators entertained. Overall, this has been a fascinating tournament and while England are ahead of the rest this year, there’s enough quality in Wales, France and Ireland (maybe even Scotland if their team stays fit) to make next year’s just as intriguing.

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Wrestling With Wales: Reflections on Round Four of the Six Nations

Given that the fourth round of the Six Nations has taken place a day earlier than all of the other rounds, I decided to postpone this week’s blog until the Saturday night, in order to take in what turned out to be the decisive weekend of the tournament. There was no Six Nations trophy handed out in Twickenham, but the Calcutta Cup was handed over to English captain Dylan Hartley after they secured the Championship title with a 61-21 win against the Scots. It would be petty of me not to congratulate Eddie Jones’ men and credit is due to the men in white. They thoroughly deserve to win this competition and have undoubtedly been the best and most consistent side of the six.

So what went wrong for Ireland? Well, let me start in Cardiff last night, where a war with Wales sealed the fate of Schmidt’s warriors. The first half-hour was quite impressive from the Irish, matching the levels of intensity and physicality posed to them by Wales. An injury to Conor Murray heavily restricted his play and this didn’t help the attacking flow we all expected to see. The tactic heavily employed by Johnny Sexton whereby he kicked out of hand more than I’ve ever seen him do so similarly didn’t help the attack gain any momentum. It’s unclear whether it was the player himself who decided to keep implementing this, but regardless, it dominated our attacking plan and didn’t prove as fruitful as imagined. Another heavily criticised aspect of the Irish play was the determination to try and run through the Welsh defence, which simply wasn’t going to work as soon as Ireland went behind. All of these factors contributed to a disappointing loss, but the simple fact on the night was that Wales wanted it more and most definitely deserved their eventual 22-9 win.

With the men in green defeated in the Principality Stadium, it was left to Scotland to stop the English securing the Championship in a fiery Twickenham. This wasn’t before France demolished Italy in Rome. The Italians were just 16-11 behind at half-time, but a second-half scoreline of 7-24 in favour of France just continued the trend of second-half collapses for Conor O’ Shea’s men. The French will take solace from their victory but bigger questions have to be answered by the French Federation, which is a topic for another day. Today was all about England. Scotland will know they’ve been very unlucky in this year’s competition, given their injury list, which just kept growing this evening. However, it’s not like they helped themselves today, either. With 3 minutes on the clock, the Scots were 7-0 down and were playing with 14 men. Granted, they were restored to 15 when Fraser Brown returned from the sin bin. The damage had been done though, as all the English needed was that bit of confidence. They never looked back and a hat-trick from Jonathan Joseph, quickly becoming a star in this England side, helped them to a 61-21 victory.

While many expected next week’s clash in the Aviva to be a Championship decider, it still is a Grand Slam decider. It’s just that the Grand Slam on offer is for England and we only have pride and a table position to fight for. However, there’s life in this dog yet. If anyone can stop this Grand Slam, it could well be the Irish. We might as well hold out some hope.

Eye on Ireland: Reflections on Round 3 of the Six Nations

Another week, another whirling round of Six Nations and three more fascinating games of rugby. The English were perplexed by Conor O’ Shea’s Italians, after Scotland shocked Wales and Ireland ground out a win against France. With another week’s break, the attention of this week’s blog is drawn to last week’s round of results. The top two in the table remain the same, England out in front with Ireland closely behind. Scotland have taken the initiative and moved into third, while Wales and France will both be disheartened by their respective positions of fourth and fifth. Italy prop up the table on zero points and the outlook isn’t exactly rosy for the men in blue.

The weekend opened in Murrayfield with the Celtic clash of Scotland and Wales. Having backed Wales, I was quite surprised by how they fared. Cotter’s troops made a tremendous comeback and it was a performance that symbolises the new Scots. In previous years, they would have given up at 13-9 down, but they’ve reinvented themselves and their new capacity for scoring tries makes them a genuine threat no matter who they play. While they might struggle against England, they’ll certainly make a game of it. The English themselves found themselves bamboozled by Italy last Sunday, whose defensive tactics took advantage of a rule that not even the English captain knew existed. Eventually they did overpower Italy to get a bonus point win, but it shows they very much lack a plan B, which will give hope to their remaining opponents, Ireland and Scotland.

Speaking of Joe Schmidt’s men, they laboured and laboured and got their rewards against a French side that never entirely looked like winning, but always kept in touch. The main few points to come out of the game were the outstanding showings by the half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. There were doubts aplenty going into the game about the fitness of Sexton and how he’d fare in a full-blooded international game, especially given his lack of match practice in recent times. However, whatever doubts about him were quickly washed away in this stream of impressive kicking out of hand, off the tee and all-round game management. He was, of course, helped by the unanimous man of the match exhibition by his half-back partner Murray. He’s solidly continuing to cement himself at the top of the pile in terms of scrum-halves in world rugby. The work of centre pairing Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose can’t be overlooked in dealing with the French onslaught on Sexton. They made the hard yards and drew in players so Sexton would have the space to direct the game as he saw fit. World Player of the Year nominee Jamie Heaslip was also in excellent form, while his back row partners Stander and O’ Brien were key in winning penalties that led to gaining territory and also points. One wonders where the French can go from here other than back to the drawing board. They look aimless and almost as if they need the opposition to hand them the game to win, such as their fixture against the Scots.

Going into the fourth round of games, the Wales game has always been and still remains a must-win for Ireland. They simply must keep the pressure on England and hope that Scotland do them a favour, however unlikely it may be.