Hats off to Six Nations Rugby for having the foresight to schedule a down week in the 2018 Championship. It coincides with one of the most severe weather events in a generation. Simon Lewis used the pause to encapsulate the various whys, wows, wherefores, and what-nexts
— of a potentially momentous two games for Ireland. Scotland visit Dublin, next Saturday, and if Ireland overcome the uber-confident men in blue, and if France do a number on England, directly afterwards, then Joe Schmidt’s team could be crowned champions with a week to spare. Did we just jinx that? Either way, an Irish victory at the Aviva will set up a Grand Slam trip to Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
— as in the sheer, diaphanous membrane enveloping the Ireland camp. It protects Schmidt’s squad from any hint of optimism, hope, excitement, or expectation being emitted from the Irish public about the prospect of Six Nations success. Such bad juju would seriously undermine the fortunes of our brave boys and must be resisted at all costs.
— Much like loaves of bread, Ireland is running out. Without Jared Payne, since last summer, and missing Garry Ringrose, for the first three games, they lost Robbie Henshaw to a serious shoulder injury in round two. Next to disappear was Chris Farrell, a Six Nations debutant and man-of-the-match in last Saturday’s win over Wales. He suffered knee-ligament damage in training on Tuesday. Just as Ireland were considering cloning Bundee Aki to face the Scots, Ringrose looks likely to be pressed into service, without any game time since the New Year.
— That thing of wonder, which delivered the 2003 World Cup to England and the 2009 Grand Slam for Ireland, but remarkably underused in Test rugby since. Step forward Jonathan Sexton to resurrect the art and rescue Ireland’s 2018 championship campaign, at the first hurdle. His wonderfully executed kick, launched from behind France’s 10-metre line, was a thing of beauty and perfection. It brought victory in the Parisian rain. And the way this championship is unfolding, it may well take another to secure the title on March 17.
Defeats have been rare events on Jones’s watch, since he took charge, after the 2015 World Cup. Ireland were the first to inflict a defeat since that tournament, in the final game of the 2017 Six Nations, and, last week, it was Scotland, at Murrayfield. The parallels are obvious: championship away games in hostile environments and a failure to react to the hosts’ ferocity. The fascinating question is how England will react when they go into another lion’s den, at Stade de France.
— Phases, that is. As wonderful as Johnny Sexton’s game-winning drop goal in Paris was, it needed all 41 — count them — to put Ireland’s fly-half into position to execute. It was a compelling sequence of play, five minutes and 22 seconds of pulsating action, from the moment Sexton caught Anthony Belleau’s missed penalty, behind the posts, and marched his team upfield to dispatch the winning kick, every phase a heart-pounding drama in its own right. Easily the most memorable snapshot of the championship, so far.
— Ireland are the last men standing, following England’s defeat to Scotland, and now stand 160 minutes from rugby immortality, as they bid to join their predecessors, of 1948 and 2009, as the third team to sweep the board with their Northern Hemisphere rivals. The win over Wales was Ireland’s 10th in succession, equalling a record set by Eddie O’Sullivan’s side in 2002-03. Declan Kidney’s men also went 10 matches unbeaten, between 2008-09, and though that included a 20-20 draw with Australia, in November, 2009, it also included the Slam. An omen to match the momentum?
— There was controversy over the possible misuse of head-injury assessments to allow tactical substitutions, once benches have been emptied. France’s re-introduction of goal-kicking scrum-half, Maxime Machenaud, in the second-half against Ireland, was the subject of a Six Nations investigation. The independent match doctor determined the player who had replaced him, Antoine Dupont, needed an HIA, when it appeared he had sustained a knee injury. France were cleared of any involvement in the decision, but this remains a grey area.
— In the week Jamie Heaslip announced his retirement, after a year trying to overcome a back injury, Ireland lost another player for the rest of the championship. Chris Farrell suffered a knee injury in training, following Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier out of the tournament. Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson missed the Wales game, in which Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton suffered injuries. All four are expected to face Scotland, but to think that, on the eve of the competition, Ireland had the fewest injury concerns.
— Stockdale, the wing whose strike rate for Ireland now stands at eight tries in seven Tests. A year ago, he was watching the Six Nations from his sofa. Now, the 21-year-old cannot stop scoring tries. From a try on his Ireland debut, in the US, last summer, Stockdale scored November tries against South Africa and Argentina (two) while in this Six Nations, two apiece, against Italy and Wales, have propelled him to the top of the try-scorer charts after three rounds.
— As in Earls, who has been one of the standout players in this competition, not just for Ireland, but in the tournament. Only injury now keeps him out of Joe Schmidt’s sides, such is his pace, ruthless cutting edge, and clinical finishing skills — as well as the hunger displayed by his 60-metre chase-down of an Italian breakaway. Fast-developing into a national treasure.
— The Ireland front-rower made an admirable stand against bullies, while representing her country, at Donnybrook, last Sunday. Hats off to the Highfield and Munster forward for eloquently highlighting the idiocy she had to experience. “Poor choice of wording from a man in the crowd [Irish] yesterday... ‘Heifer’ in relation to myself,” Lyons wrote on social media. “You are seated three rows away from my family, who heard you, and surrounded by young children — girls and boys — who are all shapes and sizes. Rugby is a game for all!”
— Conor has been peerless during the Six Nations, certainly the best scrum-half in the competition and arguably the finest number-nine in world rugby.
With fly-half, Johnny Sexton, he forms the most-assured half-back pairing in the game and his influence on Ireland’s game is not to be underestimated.
His playmaking, box kicking, strong running and even lineout jumping make him the beating heart of this Ireland team and even when Sexton is below his best, as he was for moments against Wales last time out, Murray is happy to assume goal-kicking responsibilities from his partner.
— Three wins from three for Ireland, and still on course for the Grand Slam, suggest a majestic advance towards glory. Yet, they needed scores beyond 80 minutes to secure victories over both France and Wales. Only Italy have done the decent thing and stepped out of Ireland’s way, and, even then, that win came with the concession of three second-half tries, for a 56-19 scoreline. Memo to Rory Best and his team: we could do with a little less drama.
— Seanie looks set to return from the hip injury that has sidelined the open-side flanker since mid-December, but if he is to make his comeback against Scotland, next weekend, it will be without any game time, having been omitted from his province since the postponed trip to Scarlets. That means Dan Leavy looks set to continue at open-side, having replaced Josh van der Flier in the first-half of the opening round. How England must wish for such options. They still don’t have any number-sevens, if the reviews of their shock defeat to Scotland are any guide.
— French ill-discipline cost victory against Scotland, in round two, and it contributed significantly to their opening-day home defeat to Ireland. Usually, when a team concedes lots of penalties in one game and loses at home — as they did to the Irish, in Paris, having conceded 10 — there follows a change in approach, after a chastening review and harsh words. Not the French, who surrendered a half-time lead to Scotland in round two, reverting to old ways by conceding 13 penalties and allowing Greig Laidlaw to reel them in with a series of kicks.
— The feeling of nausea experienced by Scotsmen, whenever asked to leave Edinburgh for a Six Nations match. The Scots’ away record in this championship is pitiful: just six victories in 46 matches since 2000. Four of those have come in Rome, with a 2002 win in Wales, and 2010 victory in Dublin the only other scalps.
For all the optimism around Gregor Townsend’s side, coming into the 2018 campaign, the Scots were trounced in Cardiff, by Wales, in the opening round. There will be no danger of Scottish complacency when they visit Ireland, next week.
— Eddie Jones is no fan, given the abuse he suffered from Scots, on a train from Edinburgh to Manchester, after England’s Calcutta Cup defeat. Last season, it was Joe Schmidt who was held up in traffic, as Ireland’s bus journey to Murrayfield was disrupted. A fortnight ago, Scottish police boarded France’s plane and hauled a number of players off as part of an investigation, subsequently dropped, into an alleged sexual assault. No charges arose, but Jacques Brunel saw fit to omit the players from his squad. What is it with Six Nations coaches and transportation in Edinburgh?
— A symbol of Italy’s perennial struggle for acceptance in the Six Nations, Parisse’s decline as a player, from the heights of a majestic career as a No.8 who could carry the Azzurri on his broad shoulders, mimics their own.
He is still the captain, heart, and soul of this Italian side, as head coach, Conor O’Shea, attempts to overhaul the country’s rugby culture, from both the top down and bottom up, but time is running out for the Stade Francais star to experience the success his contribution deserves.
— Grainy film emerged last week, possibly taken from a grassy knoll across from an Edinburgh book depository, but more likely to be Row G at Murrayfield, of a heinous assault on our way of life. England’s Owen Farrell was captured brushing past a number of Scotland players on his way to the visitors’ dressing room. There was no video evidence of a melee, nor hint of a scuffle, as had been suggested. Just like Pizzagate at Old Trafford, or the Kennedy assassination, it may take years before the truth is revealed.
— We have not lacked for drama, but the occasional curveball is always welcome. So what prospect for giant-killing in the remaining two rounds? Italy visit Cardiff, chasing just a third away win in 18 seasons, while a Scotland victory in Dublin would not just be an upset, but also a first win there since 2010.
Though England’s trip to Paris is a potential banana skin, the paucity of attacking intent from the French does not bode well for thrill-seekers.
— As English football’s experiment with video assistant referees experiences teething problems, perhaps the FA should brace for a long-running saga. Take the Wales try that never was against England. Television match official, Glenn Newman, ruled Gareth Anscombe had failed to properly ground the ball, before English defender, Anthony Watson, did. Warren Gatland called it a “terrible mistake” and World Rugby decreed the law had not been applied correctly.
Rugby has long-embraced the TMO, but as long the position is held by a human, there will be mistakes.
— the long-defunct description for the gameplan deployed by Wales, under the stewardship of head coach, Warren Gatland. Sure, the Welsh can still bash it up through midfield to get over the gain-line, but as Ireland found, almost to their cost, they can also be devastating around the outside. Call it the Scarlets effect (that would be Wayneball, as in Pivac) or, as Andy Farrell preferred to describe it in deference to his British & Irish Lions coaching colleague, Rob Howley, Howleyball. Wales are evolving into a much more potent attacking force on Gatland’s watch.
— There has been plenty of it over the past three rounds: Teddy Thomas’ excellent nose for the tryline; Italian rugby hope, full-back, Matteo Minozzi; and the introduction to the Test scene of Ireland young gun, Jordan Larmour. Even the Six Nations, borne of hard men knocking lumps out of each other on muddy pitches of a winter’s afternoon, has room for a little razzle dazzle.
— Ireland have unveiled a heap of it in this championship, from front-row to back-three. The Six Nations has never been the ideal time to blood new players, Joe Schmidt preferring to do so either on tour or during November. Yet, injuries have opened up opportunities for rising stars. Prop Andrew Porter, lock James Ryan, and wing Jacob Stockdale were on the 2016 under-20 side that reached a World Championship final and are adapting exceptionally well to Test rugby. Throw in Larmour and the future is bright.
— Well, that caught your attention. Surely, it is clear by now, at least as obviously as it is to the player himself, that Munster’s soon to depart full-back is not part of Ireland’s plans. He may be in the zone with his province, but is not part of the Test zeitgeist.
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