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.