This year’s edition of the Six Nations concludes this weekend, with England’s home clash against Grand Slam-chasing Ireland the match where most of the attention will be.
Here, we break down each of the three fixtures.
ENGLAND V IRELAND – THE BREAKDOWN
This must be getting boring from an English perspective but once again the main focus is going to be what happens on the floor.
In defeats to Scotland and France, England have been abject at the breakdown – both with and without possession of the ball.
They were turned over nine times by the French and they just can’t happen against Ireland.
In contrast, Ireland have been masterful in keeping this area of the game clean especially when in possession, allowing quick ball and a licence to release their backs.
It’s another new-look back row for England with Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds and James Haskell lining up and they have to make sure they are on site before their Irish counterparts securing quick, clean ball for Richard Wigglesworth and doing all they can to disrupt Conor Murray and his charges.
WALES V FRANCE – THE FIRST 20 MINUTES
Not renowned as fast starters, Wales have flown out of the blocks in the two Six Nations games they have won this campaign.
They firmly went for the jugular against Scotland and ran out comfortable winners, last week in Cardiff, Italy were able to get a foothold in the game for a time but the damage had been done.
With a new-found attacking intent expect Wales to try and get France on the back-foot early on and try and play on mental insecurities in the French camp.
Yes, they may have picked up a win against England last time out, but had been less than average before that and if they find themselves on the end of some adversity and waves of red pressure are likely to crumple.
On the other hand, if they can keep it close early on, use their strike runners properly and build phases they could still make things difficult for Warren Gatland’s men.
ITALY V SCOTLAND – THE UNFORCED ERRORS COLUMN
In part, both sides have been the architects of their own downfall this campaign through some very basic errors.
This was evident last time out when Scotland spurned three guilt-edged chances against Ireland through some pretty sloppy passing in the back-line. It was the same story in Cardiff with mistakes aplenty from intercept passes, to the ball just not going to hand.
Italy have once again come under pressure from those who question their worth in the tournament and at times have not helped themselves with an inability to keep the ball in hand.
There were glimpses of improvement in Cardiff, but it’s a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel.
The side that can string phases together, and not make the glaring defensive errors we have seen previously will come out on top in this one.
For the first time in his England tenure, Eddie Jones is under the microscope.
Up until a couple of weeks ago his record with the Red Rose stood at 25 tests, 24 wins and considering the state of things when he took over following a disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign that can’t be sniffed at.
However, two defeats on the spin and it’s being seen as a lot more than just a fly in the ointment. Questions over whether certain senior players deserved their place in the side, coupled with disastrous showings at the breakdown, and a backline failing to find its groove and all of a sudden, fine tuning in the run up to Japan 2019 is being replaced by calls for wholesale change.
Going into this weekend’s clash with Ireland, Dylan Hartley returns at hooker, while the more dynamic pairing of James Haskell and Sam Simmonds start in the back row.
There’s a reshuffle in the back line too, Owen Farrell switches to fly half with the struggling George Ford dropped, while Ben Teo moves to 12, and Jonathan Joseph comes in outside him.
One of the most telling changes however is Richard Wigglesworth starting at scrum half, England’s third different starter at nine in five matches.
At 34, he is no spring chicken and not a pick for the future by any means – but right now, he’s what England need.
They have been hit harder than many would have imagined by the loss of Ben Youngs. When the Leicester nine went down in a heap after rupturing his MCL against Italy, England lost a man who has been at the fulcrum of all things good about their game in the last couple of years.
He may not be the flashiest, or receive the global plaudits that perhaps he deserves but his impact on this side is immeasurable.
He marshalls the forwards well, has built a great rapport for both Ford and Farrell, times a pass beautifully, and has a very good kicking game. He’s never less than a seven out of ten.
Sadly, for England, Danny Care has not been able to replicate that and his buzzing style has not translated well into a starting berth in the international game. He has a field day against flagging defences with 15 minutes to go but fails to assert himself from the start.
This is where Wigglesworth fits in. Another consistent performer, the first thing he has on his side is the relationship with Farrell. Playing together week-in, week-out with Saracens has built up a bond of almost telepathic levels.
Wigglesworth will know exactly what the man outside him will want, when he wants it, and, given the right platform, the former Sales Sharks stalwart will deliver.
Another thing he has in the locker is an almost metromonic box kick. The story goes that when Chris Ashton was at Saracens, the backroom staff had worked out the perfect distance of a box kick to ensure a good chase was around 28 meters. Wigglesworth would drill and drill to find that length and come gameday would regularly drop the ball on a sixpence allowing Ashton to either challenge or immediately snuff out any hope of a counter attack.
And it is that point that’s crucial against Ireland. Rob Kearney, Keith Eales and Jacob Stockdale have counter attacked with real venom, but the equation to prevent this is pretty simple.
Don’t kick loosely to them, and ensure the chasing runners has something to go after. With Farrell at 10, the likelihood of kicking accuracy out of hand increases compared to Ford, and Wigglesworth likewise compared to Care, potentially nullifying one of Ireland’s most potent attacking weapons.
It may not be a move for the long term, but England would love nothing more than to be Grand Slam party-poopers, and get back in the win column as their focus sharpens on next year’s World Cup.
The end is nigh on another Six Nations tournament and you can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic about it all.
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.
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.
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.