A Welsh Grand Slam will hurt Ireland

Every week, Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline.

Unless Joe Schmidt and his diagnostic engineers can fix whatever’s gone wrong with the green machine, Ireland will finish the Six Nations as they started it — taking a hit.

The one awaiting them in Cardiff on St Patrick’s weekend raises the danger of something more painful than losing their status at No 2 on the global rankings.

As well as Wales superseding them in that respect, there will be every likelihood of the new champions relieving the old ones of €235,000.

A Grand Slam is worth an extra €1.15m, manna from heaven for the winners but it burns a large hole in the pockets of their victims. The bonus is not added to the prize money but taken from it which means that the five other countries have to pay for it out of their cut.

They all had 20% of their prize money deducted last season to pay for the Irish Slam, worth €75,000 extra per player from a total pay out of €5m. The promise of another jackpot having vanished against England, Ireland have precious little time to rediscover their mojo if they are to stop Wales cleaning up instead.

By beating England at their own power game, the Welsh have done the exchequer at Twickenham the back-handed favour of saving them the €1.15m earmarked for a Slam covered in red roses.

With a match fee of around €25,000, win or lose, the vanquished are not exactly on their knees financially, just professionally.

If Ireland finish as they are now, third place would mean a 50% drop in prize revenue from last season. But if Schmidt and the mechanics get the engine purring again for the France match next week, and keep it at full throttle in Cardiff, the holders could possibly still beat the odds and top the pile.

After a Sunday in Rome when it looked as if a few old relics had been moved from The Forum to the Stadio Olimpico, the smart money will be on Wales to keep winning. They will expect to overpower Scotland in Edinburgh before returning home with only the misfiring conquerors of the All Blacks left to beat.

England will fancy filling their boots against Italy at Twickenham because they always do. There’s still a way to go, long enough for the spluttering champions to come roaring out of the pits with a rebore, their aerodynamic drag refined, Gurney flaps not flapping and volumetric efficiency restored.

Manage all that and the Formula One jargon could conceivably extend to a chequered flag. If that sounds unlikely, well so did England winning in Dublin and the same team then losing in Cardiff.

If Schmidt gets the real Ireland to stand up in Dublin 24 hours later, three teams will go into the final round with a shot at the title.

If not, the IRFU will have no option but to write off another €235,000.

O’Mahony still standing as Six Nations nears home stretch

Of the 90 players on the starting grid of the Six Nations less than a month ago, almost 90% have failed to go the distance, some because of injury, the vast majority because of tactical changes.

Of the few to have been in action for every minute of every match thus far, fewer still are forwards. They can be counted on the digits of one hand — two Englishmen, one Italian, a Scot, and a solitary Irishman.

Given his reputation for a durability forged in the toughest theatres of action, Peter O’Mahony is probably the least surprising of the five.

The other four are also back row forwards — Mark Wilson, Billy Vunipola (both English), Scotland’s James Ritchie and Italy’s formidable South African, Braam Steyn.

Six backs can also claim a record of ever-presence hitherto: Jonathan Davies and Josh adams from Wales, the English trio of Elliot Daly, Henry Slade, and Owen Farrell plus Italy’s left wing Angelo Esposito.

A week’s rest will help but with so many already counted out of the tournament because of injuries in the first three rounds, the number of those still standing through every minute of the two closing weeks will have shrunk still further.

When the final reckoning is made, rugby’s annual endurance test could be left with as few start-to-finish contenders as the 1928 running of the world’s most renowned steeplechase, a year famous for the most improbable of Irish victories.

From a field of 42 at Aintree back then, Tipperary Tim, bred by former Munster and Ireland second row forward Jack Ryan from Cashel, came home all alone.

The horse, the first 100-1 National winner, won by a distance from Billy Barton, the only other finisher.

Ulster feeling pinch at gate

Ulster’s new chief executive, former Scotland forward Jon Petrie, has addressed the vexed subject of shrinking gates at Ravenhill.

‘’It’s fairly easy to point to the things that have happened on and off the field over the course of the past few years,’’ says Petrie. “Our reputation has taken something of a hit.’’

PRO14 attendances are down this season from 14,674 at the same stage last year to 13,233 – almost a 1,500 drop. Munster’s PRO14 crowds over the same period have fallen by a similar margin, from almost 14,000 last season to below 12,500.

But they have sold out Thomond Park twice this season, recording gates of 26,267 against Leinster over Christmas and again for the Champions’ Cup pool clincher against Exeter three weeks later.

Ulster, unsettled by the departure of their coaching team and the fall-out over the sacking of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, have yet to welcome a full-house this season. They came closest against Munster (16,804) and Racing (16,842) but have yet to fill Ravenhill to its 18,000 capacity.

As for domestic attendances, Connacht are bucking the trend. Average crowds in Galway for the eight PRO14 home matches have topped 6,000, an increase of almost 600 per match over the first eight home fixtures last season.

Stockdale follows trail of preaching punchers

Jacob Stockdale will have found many new admirers for the honesty with which he tackles the act of juggling sporting fame with his Christian principles.

“It can be tricky,” the minister’s son says in an interview with the Presbyterian Herald

There’s a very small percentage of people who have any sort of Christian faith within the rugby world and that can be a tough challenge.

He can always count on the spiritual presence of a serious bible puncher in his corner, former world heavyweight champion George Foreman.

A pastor at a church in Houston, Texas, Foreman bases his theology on a simple principle: “If you believe in God, you’ve got to fight for Him.”

A Baptist minister, sadly long gone, blazed a trail in that respect in a different part of the US but not

before he had written himself into ring history by winning three world titles at three weights. His name? The

Reverend Henry Armstrong, better known as ‘Homicide Hank’.

Regions are feeling the pain in Wales

Wales may be sweeping all before them on an unprecedented scale but their four regional teams are locked in a grim fight to stay afloat. The position was so serious this time last week that Ospreys were in danger of going out of business.

That they happen to be the only Welsh team to win two PRO12/14 finals gave their imminent demise a cruelly ironic twist. Hot on the heels of disappearing from the Premier League football circuit, Swansea faced the prospect of a far worse fate for its professional rugby club.

Born out of a shotgun marriage between the All Blacks of Neath and the All Whites of Swansea when the Welsh Rugby Union boiled their famous old clubs into four regions, Ospreys had been the one success story, until the money ran out.

They have been reprieved but for how long, nobody knows.

The WRU wants to create a new region in North Wales, an area with massive followings for the football clubs of Manchester and Liverpool.

Wales cannot afford five regional teams, never mind four which left the Ospreys more vulnerable than the Blues in Cardiff, the Scarlets in Llanelli and, in spite of their chronic record, the Dragons in Newport.

Compared to the threadbare state of the game in Wales below Test level, the Irish provinces are in paradise.

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