In any other year we would probably meter expectation after a demolishing of Italy, especially with such an embarrassing showing from the Azzurri as we got on Saturday. In a Six Nations where Ireland need to make amends for a poor start and tries/points are more relevant than ever though, this was promising stuff.
Let’s get the Italian analysis out of the way first, it will be brief. Conor O’Shea is to be commended for being the first Italian coach who seems to have real aspirations to make a change from the ground up. His long term plan is to find Italy competitive come the next World Cup and for prominent players to rise through the system as time goes on. This is all extremely promising stuff but in the meantime Italy have already been long enough at this to make Saturday’s result extremely worrying. Where have the massive wins over France and Ireland in 2013 gone? The boost from beating – an admittedly poor – South Africa in November? Nobody would object that Italian rugby needs some huge changes culturally and at youth level, but there was still progress being seen with them in the last few years at senior level that has taken a total nosedive recently. Lots of money has been injected into getting the right coaching outfits, yet the player standard still sits pretty low. What comes of them for the remainder of the tournament is worrying, especially that trip to Twickenham they have up next. 9 tries leaked against Ireland was bad, but depending how their confidence goes they could be staring down a much worse outcome against the English.
What then of Ireland? Well, the coaches and supporters alike wanted a response and they certainly got one. 9 tries, all expertly converted by Jackson and two hat-tricks to boot. There are still questions over how they got the Scotland game so wrong, but they truly couldn’t do more than they did against Italy. CJ Stander got to play the game he tried and failed to do against Scotland, Jamie Heaslip was everywhere again and the backline got an absolute armchair ride for a large part of the game to be honest. Many will, possibly rightly so, point out that there’s nothing all that much to learn from this game. Whilst I can understand that way of thinking, it isn’t entirely true. With the way Italy showed up Ireland were always guaranteed the win. They weren’t guaranteed the ferocity they brought to the game though, nor the 9 try haul they finished with. You can of course only play the team in front of you, and Ireland played the hell out of Italy. First ever hat-trick from a forward, only the second ever time that an out half has converted 9 from 9 in this tournament (the last one to do it was some fella called Wilkinson back in 2003, maybe you’ve heard of him?); Ireland came out blazing and did all they could to eradicate the errors shown against Scotland. There is still a likelihood that winning their remaining games won’t be enough and Murrayfield will continue to haunt them, but to have that first game go down as a single short circuit won’t be the worst thing in the long run. Good to remind them, and us, that they’re human once in a while too.
So where does Joe go from here? Miraculously, Ireland are going into the third round of the tournament with only one major injury – Rob Kearney who is set to miss the rest of the tournament – and are coming in with a significant boost to their morale after all the cogs kicked in gear against Italy. The loss of Kearney will likely have Schmidt move Simon Zebo to fullback with Andrew Trimble hopefully back in from injury onto the wing. Then of course General Sexton is due to return for the Dublin meeting with the French, although given what they did to him last year he’d probably be better off missing this fixture. There are some justified wonderings as to whether Paddy Jackson could actually be keeping the 10 jersey from him based on his recent showings, but the simple fact that Sexton is so injury prone lately means that him being the backup on the bench is just not something to trust in. That and the fact that on his day he’s one of the best outhalves in the world. The biggest question though is whether Ireland now have a realistic chance of snatching the title once more after results of round two?
Only England remain on course for a Grand Slam, and Italy certainly won’t be troubling the English hopes there. Denying them a bonus point would be nice, but unlikely. Scotland are set to miss Greg Laidlaw for the remainder of the tournament but there may still be a hope of them at least minimising the damage. What this means is that England can roll into Dublin come Paddy’s weekend with a maximum of 18 points, whereas Ireland can only be sitting on a max of 16 come that day. With France and Wales ahead for Ireland, two wins would be a fine thing let alone two with a bonus point, but even if that were the outcome a win could still likely be sufficient, depending on points difference between England and Italy. I’ll leave the hard maths there because my head is starting to hurt, but the crux of this argument is that Ireland definitely can do it. Look back at 2015 when Ireland were criticised week in and week out for winning “ugly” and “by any means possible”. The attack took a backseat and Ireland defended their way to victory, only to slam four tries against Scotland on the closing weekend when it was needed. They won’t be going out against France in just over a week’s time aiming for four tries straight off the bat, but they will know that it is likely necessary to help further their chances. Come the 50th, 60th or even 70th minute they will know whether it is likely to happen and worth going for. The same can’t be said for Friday night in Cardiff but that single extra point could make the world of difference. As to whether this bonus point experiment pays off or not, well, it’ll all depend on how everyone stands on that final weekend really. You’d have to think that the Six Nations Committee and indeed World Rugby would prefer this year’s competition to end with a Grand Slam or at least the top team finishing well clear of the opposition though, because there is a nightmare scenario ahead potentially.
Say Ireland win the next two games but don’t obtain a bonus point. Ireland then sit on 14 points. England roll into Dublin with max return from their next two games and then sit on 18 points. In theory, all England need to do is obtain a losing bonus point and deny Ireland from getting one in order to take the title. Of course England would go hell for leather to get the Slam, but this is the key area that the bonus points don’t adapt well to the Six Nations. Whatever about the lack of a round robin structure, the lack of pool stages is the real issue. In other competitions the bonus points are only relevant to the pool stages, such as in the European Champions Cup. In that competition a team can go into the final weekend knowing they are top of their table and qualified, but they also know that their seeding in the top five is at stake pending the results of the final weekend. No such pressure exists in the Six Nations. Fair enough, these are all “what if?” and worst case scenarios but it does look as though the bonus points have been introduced in a year when the results of the tournament could reflect poorly on their inclusion. Time will tell I suppose.
Also, for anyone interested the Rugby Europe Championship (Tier 2/3 Six Nations equivalent) produced a cracking game last weekend as tournament joint favourites Romania took on Germany, the Tier 3 Germans having never beaten a Tier 1/2 team before. I won’t say anything about the result – though you can probably guess from my last remark there – but it was a great game and worth a watch, or at least the last ten minutes if you have time: