Although none of the results came as a shock, the glorious unpredictability of the 6 Nations was underlined by three away victories in the opening round. Italy came close to shocking France in Rome, which would have been only the fourth time they have beaten France in 47 matches since the sides first met in a fully recognised international in 1937. Scotland beat England for the third time in a row for the first time in over 50 years and did so with the help of a solo try for the ages by Duhan Van Der Merve.
Suddenly Ireland’s matches in against Scotland in Murrayfield, and later in the World Cup pool stage in September, do not seem quite so much of a done deal. When you consider Ireland’s pool in the World Cup also includes World Champions South Africa, and that even winning the pool is likely to be rewarded by a quarter-final against either the All Blacks or France in their home ground World Cup, the enormity of the challenges facing Ireland this year is put into sharper focus.
All of this is not to take away from the opening 30 minutes of Ireland’s performance against Wales, which saw them leading 27-3 and almost scoring another try until the otherwise imperious Doris knocked on. This was an opening performance on a par with the unprecedented wins in the second and third tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand. That it was achieved without our talismanic players, Henshaw and Kelleher, and late withdrawals Furlong, Healy, and Gibson Park is all the more impressive. Ireland’s problematic strength in depth in key positions is improving nicely, with Bealham, Herring, Kilcoyne, Murray, and McCloskey substituting capably.
Even more heartening was the fact that some more of our players are approaching World class. Van Der Flier gave a performance worthy of a World Player of the Year. Caelan Doris may soon join him with that accolade. Ryan has overcome a slump in form to establish himself as a leading lock making light work of facing Alun Wynne-Jones, the world’s most capped player. Sheehan must be the most dynamic, fleet footed and elusive winger (eh hooker) in World rugby and his line-out throwing is immaculate. Porter, Beirne and O’Mahony may have had better days, but are class players even when below their best.
In the backs Sexton continues to pull the strings and Ringrose is inviting comparisons with O’Driscoll. Wingers Lowe and Hansen may not be the most fleet footed in the world, but are constantly seeking involvement and adding value to our plays. Man of the match, Keenan has continued his meteoric rise from the relative obscurity of the 7’s game and doesn’t appear to have yet found a ceiling to his potential. Subs Casey, Aki, Conan, and Byrne ensured there wasn’t a sudden drop in standards when they came on.
Ireland lost focus and intensity for the next 40 minutes which is not hard to do when you are 24 points up. Wales upped their game but were restricted to one try by a combination of good defending and poor finishing. Ireland reassert their authority in the last 10 minutes and Van Der Flier capped the performance with a walk in bonus point try. Hansen almost got in at the death.
This was a performance by an Ireland team determined to prove they are not inhibited by their favourites tag and happy to embrace their World No. 1 status in a hostile atmosphere. 40 minutes of dominance will not be enough to beat France this week-end, or South Africa or New Zealand in a world cup. Scotland, too, may provide a sterner test, especially with their tails up in Murrayfield. This is an Irish team that is being tested in all sorts of ways, and so far has not come up short.
France will be a different proposition than the team which turned up for a training ground jaunt against Italy. They almost paid the price for their lack of intensity and no doubt Fabien Galthié had some choice words for them in the dressing room. No other team seems to be able to switch their performances on or off quite like the French, however, and Ireland would do well not to read too much into this performance. They have threats all over the pitch, not least their mercurial Captain Dupont. Normally their much bigger and heavier packs try to steamroll us up front. Hopefully we will have Furlong back to lend a hand. We will also need to develop some smart plays in the backs to ensure France can’t hide their slower forwards in the defensive line.
Italy maintained their recent upward curve in their performances with their forwards surprisingly matching the French eight. Schoolboy errors at the back cost them dearly, however, and they will have to develop more effective exit strategies rather than trying to run the ball from everywhere. In schoolboy looking full back Ange Capuozzo they have found a new gem, however, and he scored well in the corner to bring Italy back into the game. They will get better as the tournament progresses and can’t be taken for granted by anyone, including Ireland.
England have the strength in depth to overcome their slump in form and could easily have defeated the Scots despite an indifferent performance. Their 9-10-12 axis doesn’t seem to be operating as smoothly as required, and the forwards have lost their traditional intimidating dominance. Even Itoje, our traditional bogeyman, seems human after all. Borthwick has a lot of work to do with almost every aspect of their play, but England have never lost to Italy in the 29 matches they have played since 1991 and I doubt they will lose in Twickenham next Sunday. It should be an intriguing match, though.
Scotland are euphoric with their 5th. victory against England in 6 Matches. Remarkably Townsend has never lost in Twickenham as head coach and this is the first time they have ever won twice in a row there. With pacy winger Darcy Graham yet to come back in and Hogg and Russell in good form, they have a backline to trouble anyone. They would be my dark horse for the Championship despite their notorious inconsistency and I would back them to beat Wales this weekend.
This year’s competition is probably as unpredictable as any, although like last year, Ireland’s meeting with France may prove to be the decider. France are ranked just behind us in the world rankings and haven’t lost in a year. If we can run the legs from under their heavier forwards and match them in the tight, we are in with a good chance. World rugby’s new guidelines to speed up the game, if enforced, could be to our advantage, although presumably a French player will go down “injured” from time to time to give his team mates a breather. Either way, let’s hope there are a lot more exciting matches to come in the world’s oldest championship.