This year’s Six Nations has provided enough twists and turns to already go down as a classic in the history books. With two weekends left there are still few clues as to which country will eventually end up as the victor. Here I’m going to look at what shape the teams are in, and ask why this year’s competition in particular has been so open.
Up till the latest round of matches Ireland were the form team, having seen off Wales comprehensively in Dublin after crushing the Scots on the opening weekend. With the experience of O’ Driscoll (gunning for a Grand Slam in his final year of international rugby), O’ Connell, and Heaslip, the Irish had the potential to put some space between themselves and the chasing pack with a win at Twickenham. Unfortunately for the men in green the kicking and forwards-oriented tactics which so routed the Welsh proved ineffective against England, who fronted up to deliver one of their most resounding displays in recent years. But more on them later, because despite this defeat Ireland still have as good a chance as any of winning the tournament. Although they have to travel to Paris, the disarray in which the French find themselves should mean a relatively good chance of victory for Joe Schmidt’s men. After that only perpetual minnows Italy stand in their way of an overall haul of eight points, which could well be enough for them to win the Championship.
England’s tournament so far has been impressive. Their agonising last-gasp loss to the French in Round 1 has been followed by a solid dismissal of Scotland at Murrayfield, before winning the game of the tournament so far against Ireland. Despite weathering concerted periods of pressure from a sniping, cunning, and multi-dimensional Irish back line, when England got their opportunity they took it with a scintillating link up between forwards and backs which eventually saw the rejuvenated Danny Care streak away to score. It would not be surprising if in a couple of year pundits look back and say that this result was the moment when England finally turned a corner and began to realise their potential.
England’s next big test however could make my optimism look rather silly. If Wales turn up to Twickenham in the form that saw them brush aside the farcical French, then England will have to take another step up in performance to continue their winning run. Regardless of the result next Sunday, it will be a much closer game than last year. Wales have proven that this time around they are far from infallible, despite missing only Jon Davies and Gethin Jenkins from their ideal starting line up. The Irish game was only partially made up for with victory over France and England’s pace and increasing guile, epitomised by full-back Mike Brown, could exploit an ageing pack and aggravate the petulantly combative Mike Phillips. Although on points Wales are as close to the title as anyone else, their run in is arguably more difficult than Ireland or England, who both still have Italy to play.
France have been as imponderable as ever. I have to admit that every year I back the French to win the title, purely on the potential of the mercurial talent pool at their disposal. This year as well they had the statistical advantage of playing in a post-Lions tour year, a factor which has led to their winning on the last four analogous occasions. Having started strongly however their challenge faltered in Cardiff when they met a Welsh team baying for blood after their humiliation at the hands of Ireland. Much has been made of the negative French game plan this year. Gone is the flair of Blanco, Saint-Andre, and even more recently Poitrenaud, whilst in its place a turgid forward game rarely even gives the back line the ball. Added to this, a number of world-class players with strong Six Nations pedigree are being left out by Saint-Andre seemingly because he’s fallen out with them in some way. Both Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc would give this team the direction and spontaneity which used to epitomise French rugby and which if not regained will leave this team in the wilderness for some time.
Scotland’s dramatic escape in Rome in the last round has probably ensured that this year’s wooden spoon is returning to Italy, but more success in the final games will be viewed as vital in order to give incoming coach Vern Cotter some grounds for optimism. Italy will count themselves unlucky not to have won that game and after proving competitive against Wales and France they have provided at least some sense of improvement, event though results have not been ideal.
So where does this leave us? Ireland are surely still in the driving seat despite their loss a Twickenham. They need to slip up and France, England, or Wales must go unbeaten from now to catch them without having to rely on points difference. Although many thought that the post-Lions hangover could affect the British sides, arguably this year sees the international scene finally tally with the domestic game. The Irish provinces have been formidable in the Heineken Cup this year and with a recent ex-Leinster coach as the new boss of the national team, this success is at last being transferred across. It’s come in good time too, with many of the ageing Ireland squad seeing this as one of their last tournaments. There is no doubt that the last two weekends of the Six Nations promise to entertain.