Six Nations has been hallmarked by under-performing stars and teams

Dan Owen 16/03/2018
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Jacob Stockdale (3rd L) celebrates with his Ireland teammates

The end is nigh on another Six Nations tournament and you can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic about it all.

With the title race concluded with a week to spare the only thing we are left wondering is whether Ireland can clinch a third-ever Grand Slam when they take on England at Twickenham.

While for the men in green this is more than enough to whet the appetite on St Partick’s Day, for the other five nations and, more importantly, the rest of the watching world, there is very little to get excited about.

Is Ireland’s massive superiority and dominance to blame for this? No. We have to acknowledge that this edition of the Six Nations has been punctuated by under-performance.

Of the six sides taking part, four have undoubtedly been sub-par, Wales could be seen either way, and only Ireland can say they have performed anything like how they would want to – and that could have been a lot different had Johnny Sexton not slotted that opening-day last-play drop goal to down the French in Paris.

So where has it all gone wrong?

Let’s start easy. Italy are simply not good enough to compete. In terms of their domestic game, this season we have had our hopes raised by Treviso and Zebre and their performances in the Pro14 – they have a dozen wins between them this campaign.

Sadly, for coach Conor O’Shea, that has not translated onto the international stage and they continue to fall behind their northern hemisphere rivals. Whether or not they should be in the competition is up for debate, but certainly on the current showing they are not adding anything to it.

While Italy fight to develop and build for the future, France seem fixated on the past. Short-termism continues to blight Les Bleus with quick fixes employed to try and bring success – even to the point of re-employing Lionel Beauxis at fly half with injured Camille Lopez only able to watch on and wonder ‘what if.’

With such a wealth of riches at Jacques Brunel’s disposal, anything but challenging for the title should be seen as failure – but there’s now almost a sad acceptance they will be also-rans.

While the likes of Teddy Thomas pointed to brighter times in the early games, these have been few and far between, and even a win over England can only be seen as papering the cracks.

And then we have England. A side expected to win a Grand Slam, who could end up in fifth place should they lose to Ireland at Twickenham.

Considered the only true challengers to the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup prospects next September, England have spent the last two years riding on the crest of a wave. And have now been wiped out, spectacularly.

Underperforming individuals and units that have just not been competing have led to abject displays against Scotland and France. The once untouchable Maro Itoje looks distinctly average, the back-row lacks impact both with and without the ball, and a back-line that has spluttered to a near standstill.

Maro Itoje looks dejected after defeat to France

Maro Itoje looks dejected after defeat to France

They have been hit by two high profile injuries in Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola but any side with genuine World Cup aspirations cannot be impacted by a couple of absentees.

Denying Ireland a Grand Slam would put a little gloss on their campaign but will not hide the fact they have a number of passengers and need wholesale changes in the lead up to Japan 2019.

The wheels started to fall off the chariot at Murrayfield and while Scotland will always revel in beating their old enemy – it has been a case of the same old story for Gregor Townsend and his men.

When it has really come down to making a mark in the competition, Scotland have bottled it. The die was cast for them on the first afternoon of the Six Nations in Cardiff, when bereft of fight and intelligence they rolled over to a Wales side which couldn’t believe its luck.

While wins against France, England and probably Italy will put them firmly in the middle of the pack – you can’t help but think Scotland are currently a team with only one really decent performance in them, and until they can fix that and treat every game like England at home then they will be resigned to mediocrity for some time to come yet.

Wales started the campaign with relatively low expectation, with a catalogue of injuries to key players and a question mark over their new-found expansive playing style.

That was all blown out of the window in their opening day demolition job of Scotland, but then defeats at Twickenham and the Aviva brought things back down to earth.

The England game showed further signs of development, but in hindsight looks more like a huge missed opportunity, while they were schooled in forward play by Ireland.

In truth, there have been more positives than negatives for Warren Gatland, and despite him tipping Wales to win the competition before it started, you would think he would have quietly taken second place before a ball was kicked in anger.

Joe Schmidt talks with Warren Gatland

Joe Schmidt talks with Warren Gatland

Which leads us on to the champions. All credit to Joe Schmidt and his players apart from a pretty average display against France on the opening weekend, where they were fortunate to come away with the spoils. But since that narrow win in Paris, Schmidt’s men have dispatched their opposition with unerring efficiency.

Built on solid foundations their forwards typify all that is good in the northern hemisphere game – brilliant in the set piece, hard in the carry and brutal at the breakdown.

They have given halfback pairing Conor Murray and Sexton, the most comfortable of armchair rides. Add to this the emergence on the international scene of Dan Leavy, Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell we see a side performing well but also building for the future – these are exiting times in the Emerald Isle.

Sadly for Ireland, and especially if they don’t clinch the Grand Slam, this will not be a season they are remembered as the side that stood out, but rather it will be seen as a campaign of under-performance from the other nations who have been distinctly distant from their vintage.

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Finn Russell says Scotland are now a genuine force in world rugby despite Six Nations' title hopes being wiped out

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The Scottish fly-half was bullish about his side's progress.

Finn Russell believes Scotland can already claim to be a genuine force despite their poor away record as they look to ditch their tag as rugby’s nearly men.

Gregor Townsend‘s team head to Rome for their final Six Nations match on Saturday after their slim title hopes were wiped out by a 28-8 defeat at the hands of Ireland in Dublin.

The team have not won a championship clash away from home for two years but Glasgow fly-half Russell says Scotland are heading in the right direction following their emphatic victory over Australia in November and their first win against England in a decade.

If they beat Italy in Rome, Scotland will record three wins out of five matches for the second year running, a feat last achieved back in 1996 which, for Russell, would be proof that they are no longer also-rans.

“In my first Six Nations I don’t think we won a game and that was four years ago,” said the 25-year-old, who joins Racing 92 this summer.

Finn believes Scotland have made rapid strides under Conor O'Shea.

Finn believes Scotland have made rapid strides under Conor O’Shea.

“We are building. The ‘nearly men’ tag isn’t the kind of name we want to have and we are definitely working to change that.

“Against Ireland we worked very hard to put the second-best team in the world under a lot of pressure, we put New Zealand under pressure in the autumn, so it shows that on our day we can be there against the best.”

He added: “It has been a decent competition for us, although there are a lot of things we can look back on and we could have worked on in the Wales and Ireland games and it could have potentially have been different. It has been a successful competition for us.”

Italy are mired in another tortuous campaign that has seen them ship 23 tries and record four straight defeats.

But Russell said results do not give a true reflection of their growth under Conor O’Shea.

“They have a lot of danger in attack, a lot of flair, in attack and defence they are solid so we need to stick to our game plan, what we know, and hopefully that will take care of itself,” he said.

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Ireland coach Joe Schmidt plays down England counterpart Eddie Jones' comments of his side ahead of Saturday's Grand Slam showdown

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The Ireland coach has chosen to ignore Jones' negative comments.

Joe Schmidt has sought to defuse tensions over Eddie Jones branding his team the “scummy Irish” ahead of Saturday’s Grand Slam showdown with England at Twickenham.

Jones apologised on Wednesday after footage emerged of him referring to Joe Schmidt’s team as the “scummy Irish” and Wales as a “little s*** place”.

Ireland will chase just a third-ever 6 Nations clean sweep with victory over England in London on Saturday – but head coach Schmidt insisted his players will not be distracted by the fuss.

“I’m not exactly sure what they were,” said Schmidt, when asked about Jones comments in the Fuso video that had caused some offence.

“They are not directly relevant to us to be honest.

“Those words don’t impact on how we play or how his team plays and that’s our focus.”

A Youtube video surfaced on Wednesday of Jones delivering a talk on leadership for Fuso, the Japanese parent company of England sponsors Mitsubishi.

Jones insisted he was “very sorry” in a statement on Wednesday evening, shortly after the video came to light.

And a spokesman has confirmed that the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) had received a phone call and apology from their English counterparts.

Asked if Jones’ comments could hinder Ireland’s preparation for their tilt at a Grand Slam to add to the triumphs of 1948 and 2009, Schmidt said: “I don’t think so to be honest.

“I know it’s probably at the stage of being boring, which we don’t want to be described as, but the bubble we have here allows us to focus on the task in hand.”

Jones had issued an apology on Wednesday for his statements.

Jones had issued an apology on Wednesday for his statements.

Iain Henderson has dislodged Devin Toner to start Saturday’s Grand Slam decider. Peter O’Mahony, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy have been passed fit for Ireland’s all-out assault on just a third-ever NatWest 6 Nations clean sweep.

British and Irish Lions lock Henderson’s selection represents the sole change from Ireland’s 28-8 win over Scotland, that sealed their third Six Nations title in five years.

Flanker O’Mahony and full-back Kearney sat out training on Tuesday, but have since proved their fitness to start the St Patrick’s Day clash. Prop Healy appeared unsteady on his feet against Scotland, but Ireland insisted he suffered a shoulder “stinger”, not a head injury.

Ireland boss Schmidt has also insisted he remains unfazed by assistant referee Marius Van der Westhuizen acting as an official during England’s training session on Tuesday.

Schmidt admitted Ireland were taken aback by the move, but still moved to back Van der Westhuizen’s ability to officiate with full neutrality on Saturday.

“That is a bit of a surprise,” said Schmidt, of Van der Westhuizen helping out at England training this week.

“I’m sure in retrospect people are probably thinking it’s not the best thing to do.

“I know Marius and I would have no hesitation in standing by his integrity.

“I don’t think it will affect his decision making and we’ll stand by him as an official on Saturday.”

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