TWO ROUNDS GONE, five grand slam dreams dead. Only one side can claim that prize this year although plenty still harbour hopes of a championship. Out of those, you are probably safe to dismiss Welsh and Scottish chances, while both England and Ireland are staring at the back of an eight ball.
So, who’s going to be smiling come the third weekend in March? And what does the rest of Europe make of Ireland? Smug upstarts or a genuine world class force? We canvassed the views of the leading broadcasters and writers in France, Scotland, Wales and England.
STATE OF THE NATION
“Rewind to this time last year, England had a settled side but one that was going backwards following their 2019 World Cup performance, and there was a clear awareness that Eddie Jones needed to rebuild his squad.
“And he has, firstly during the summer internationals, when the Lions were away in South Africa, more so in November. People are a bit wary of the tag, New England, although there has definitely been a mindset shift; the arrival of fresh faces such as Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward into the team, the evolution of the way the team plays.
“Beating the world champions in November was a sign they were going in the right direction – and then came Murrayfield. So much of their attacking play was lateral, the absence of Manu Tuilagi reminding you that he is the most important player in English rugby.
“With him, opportunities develop. Without him – as Jones suggested this week, they have to be so accurate, so creative, so intricate and so smart. An alternative isn’t really there at 12. From an Ireland perspective, you just have to think back to the opening minute of the 2019 game in Dublin, when Manu executed a pre-planned move off a line-out which led to Jonny May getting across in the corner. If Manu is there, England’s attack looks so different.”
(Alex Lowe, rugby correspondent, London Times)
“We used to lose games like Saturday. You only have to think back to 2018, Johnny Sexton’s drop goal; we entered injury time ahead in that game, but we ended up losing. The World Cup quarter-final in 2019 was a similar story. We had the lead. We lost.
“That is why Saturday feels so good because we won against a big team. A big team, yes that is what Ireland are considered now. The way they played in the second half, with tempo and skill, was so deeply impressive.
“As for France, are very confident about this team with regard to this year’s championship. The World Cup remains the big one for us, but a grand slam is a step towards that. We beat the All Blacks, we beat Ireland, and we did it in different ways. On Saturday, when we had to defend phase after phase of attack, we could absorb the pressure. We stuck to our game-plan. So yes, things are going great for us right now but we have to remain humble because there is room for improvement.
“One thing we are seeing in France now is that the national rugby team is increasingly becoming recognised. That wouldn’t have been the case last year; it was all about the national football team then, the world champions. That’s changing. The rugby team is generating a great atmosphere in the stadiums; their attitude is resonating with people, too.
“Prior to this championship, they went to the French Foreign Legion’s army camp for training. That sort of thing toughens up a team. A while ago, we used to win a big game now and then – but then lose two in a row. That has changed. We can beat everyone now. I’m proud of this team. We are all beginning to believe in them.”
(Romain Magellan, Canal Plus)
“Heading into Cardiff last weekend, there was so much positivity, partly because of the win over England, partly because Wales had been so comprehensively beaten by Ireland the week before; and then what did we get? Scotland were just terribly flat.
“Too much, it seems, was made of the fact they had won their previous four away games in the Six Nations – but when you look more closely at that, one of those was in Rome, the other three in empty stadiums, so that exposes as a myth the idea that Scotland had overcome their away day blues.
“Three wins have been the benchmark for us in recent years and Gregor has achieved that in three out of his four seasons. Last season they beat England and France away yet finished fourth. Beating Italy is a must; avoiding a humiliation against France is the goal. I know our recent record against France in Murrayfield has been good but they aren’t as flaky or as wayward as they used to be. The old question about which France will turn up no longer applies. We sort of know now. They have instilled Anglo-Saxon qualities in there. That will be hard, while Scotland’s record in Ireland is dismal. So that game will be tough, too.”
Alasdair Reid (Scottish Rugby Correspondent, The Times)
“They are marginally in a better place now than they were a week ago but I certainly don’t think we can say Wales are back on track for another Six Nations. Far from it.
“One thing that struck me, though, after I left the stadium on Saturday is that it is now five internationals since Alun Wyn Jones has stepped onto the pitch and it is the best part of eight games since Ken Owens was there. Now, those two have been the totem of the Wales national side for 16 and 12 years respectively.
“Now I’ve been at games when Alun Wyn hasn’t been there, pre-World Cup warm ups for example, and Wales have looked all at sea. So in a way, Saturday was significant because Wales are having to learn to move on without these greats who are in their mid-30s. It is almost like the team is going through the grieving process where they are going to get games like Ireland which are just horribly difficult but you are also going to get wins like Saturday, which was character-building. You look at the back-row, Taine Basham, Jack Morgan, both are 22.
“There is the making of a new Wales coming through – whether it will be as good as before is debatable. They have to adapt. On Saturday they did.”
Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson and Johnny May are not going to feature in this year’s championship but Courtney Lawes is back after concussion while Joe Launchbury is also back training after missing the first two games. The big addition is Manu Tuilagi. If he stays fit, they are capable of beating anyone on their day.
Jamie Richie, a real breakdown menace, was a big loss in Cardiff; Rory Sutherland is out for a few weeks, Matt Fagerson came off in Cardiff but may yet feature again in the coming weeks.
They’ve had to endure nightmare losses. Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Ken Owens, Leigh Halfpenny, Taulupe Faletau, George North have all been missed. Josh Navidi may return for the final two games.
The fixture list has fallen quite nicely for England. After Murrayfield, it was Italy. While Rome wasn’t built in a day, England, as a team, were rebuilt and are suddenly feeling a lot better about themselves. The week off helps with regard to getting their injured players back while Wales at home in round three is preferable to an away day in Paris for a team trying to build up a head of steam. Ireland in Twickenham and a final day trip to the Stade de France will be tough.
They have England away next, then France and Italy at home. Given the personnel Wales are missing, two wins from five would be just about par. You can’t see them winning in Twickenham but you can envisage them causing the French nightmares. Expect them to win respect rather than the points in that match.
Their record against France in Edinburgh is good but this isn’t the old France. Les Bleus are convincing in a way the pre-2020 team was not. After that it is Italy in Rome – where Scotland struggled last time out – followed by Ireland in Dublin. They’ll certainly win one of those games, and have a decent chance of winning all three. More likely, they’ll get bonus point defeats against France and Ireland.
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They’ve three tough games left, Wales away being a lot trickier than people realise, while Scotland in Murrayfield has been a sorrowful mystery for previous French coaches. This time, you imagine, it’ll be different. Should France enter the final day needing a grand slam then their raucous home support will drive them to it, irrespective of whether England have turned a corner or not.
Prediction: Champions and grand slam winners
WHAT IS THE PERCEPTION OF IRELAND IN YOUR COUNTRY?
“Over here, people have been really impressed with the job Andy Farrell has done, in terms of changing the way the side plays, in terms of the rejigging of the front row and the general evolution of the side from the last World Cup. Personally, I’m a big fan of Hugo Keenan but it’s not just him. Mack Hansen, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher have been introduced by Farrell while Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Andrew Conway and Andrew Porter have moved up from the bench.
“It’s not just that it is an evolving team; it is also seen as one with huge growth potential. Put it this way, England fans will be nervous about Ireland coming across to Twickenham.”
(Alex Lowe, The Times)
“The players I interviewed after the game on Saturday all delivered the same message, that Ireland are a really good team, with a high skill set, impressive decoy runners and excellent ball retention attributes. Ireland are a good team to watch. Even though they lost on Saturday, the level of play they produced in the first 25 minutes of the second half was astounding; they will win many, many big games in the future. That is why we are so excited about our win last weekend, because it was against a good team. If you were shit, we would not be as excited.”
(Romain Magellan, Canal Plus)
“If Irish rugby folk are feeling a bit smug about how they are doing, well they have ample grounds for behaving that way. When rugby turned professional in 1995, Scotland and Ireland were pretty much at level pegging in terms of resources. There was no demographic reason why Scotland would fall so far behind Ireland, not just at Six Nations level, but across the board, with regard to the provincial scene and underage level.
“Some have suggested SRU officials should jump on an aeroplane to see how things work in New Zealand; I think they’d be better off hopping on a Ryanair flight to Dublin. There is a quiet jealously for what Ireland are doing over here although the Irish team, over the last few years, have been considered quite cynical. Thirty-odd years ago everyone loved Ireland but then again that was when they lost all the time. The world has gone off them a little bit which is what happens when you keep losing to them.”
(Alasdair Reid, The Times)
“The general view here is that Ireland are a class team. Results wise, Wales were blown away by them in Dublin and there is a view that Ireland are better coached, Mike Catt’s input clearly being felt whereas the jury is still out on Wayne Pivac. Perhaps he is now where Andy Farrell was before the wins Ireland had last year against England and New Zealand.
“There is also the opinion here that Ireland and Scotland have used their project players a lot more effectively than Wales – think Bundee Aki, before him CJ Stander and Jared Payne. And the last point is that envious glances get thrown across the Irish Sea at the system in Ireland; it seems a lot more connected than here. They are getting a lot more right than Wales are in terms of the systems that have been put in place.”
(Owain Jones, The XV)
Wait hold on a minute, what about Italy, have you not thought about them?
We have, and after much consideration, we consider it unlikely they will win this year’s Six Nations.
Gavan Casey is joined by Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella to discuss the prospect of South Africa replacing Italy in the Six Nations and reflect on Ireland’s performance in Paris, before looking ahead to the URC action this weekend.
Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud