Well, that was interesting. Whether it was Scotland showing all the highland resolve they could muster to oust the Welsh, Ireland commanding a win over the French amidst a somewhat imperfect performance or Italy frustrating the hell out of the English – this was certainly an entertaining and educational weekend of rugby. Ireland, and indeed Scotland, are now the only two teams in with a shout alongside the English with their unbeaten run continuing, and a truly fascinating two weeks of rugby lie ahead.
Keeping the focus primarily on Ireland, it was good but not great. Whilst a win over the French is never something to be sniffed at, the fact is that Ireland left scores out there. More importantly, had they taken their chances they would’ve easily been on 3 tries by the 60 minute mark and that elusive bonus point would have most definitely been on. Sure enough the weather can come in for a large portion of the blame here – that was easily the worst conditions I’ve seen a Joe Schmidt Ireland team play in – but the fact remains that Ireland had the chances on the stroke of half time and around the 58 minute mark to deliver the killing blows that would have seen them primed to press on for a bonus. Come Paddy’s weekend other results mean that England could still sniff it even if they lose to Ireland by less than seven points and this could be the game the Irish rue the most, maybe even more than the opener in Murrayfield. What did work, worked brilliantly though, with both Sexton and Murray close to their best and the evidence well and truly laid out that when together the two can truly lay claim to being one of the world’s best half back pairings. When Sexton dips, Murray picks up the slack and vice versa and their command of the game ensured France didn’t make anything close to the inroads they would have liked too.
In truth we only wanted a win and a bonus point would’ve been, well, a bonus. The title is within Ireland’s grasp now and if Scotland can at least deny England a try bonus and we can overcome the Welsh, it’s all still on for Paddy’s weekend. The shock tactics deployed by Conor O’Shea’s Italy against the English made sure that our points difference will likely stay healthier than England’s for the remainder of the tournament; and so that final game still sits as mouth-wateringly primed as it was in the beginning. Another pleasant turn of events in this year’s Six Nations too has been the fact that there has been actual competition on so many fronts. Scotland have two massive wins under their belt and Italy were still in it by the 70th minute against England. France, to their credit, look intimidating for the first time in a long time also. Though it wasn’t enough against Ireland and England, Wales should be genuinely worried if you ask me. It is incredible to think that before this tournament (and indeed in the early rounds) there was talk of relegation for Italy once again, that the Scotland win against Ireland was a once off and their trip to France proved they don’t have the mettle to be contenders and Wales were dark horses ready to be still in the running come the final weekend. The fluctuations round to round have been superb. For the first bonus point year to be so open and exciting is a truly great turnaround, though it is somewhat ironic that only half that excitement can be attributed to said bonus points.
What then of the permutations Niall? Everyone loves permutations! As it stands, only Ireland, England and Scotland stand a realistic chance of taking the title for 2017. There’s a maths professor somewhere in the world that could work out how Wales and France still stand a chance, but the first three are the true contenders. Scotland will have a delicious opportunity come the final weekend, if they overcome the English in Twickenham that is. Victory in that cauldron leaves Scotland with a points difference to chase against Italy in the final round, and the hope that we do them some favours in Dublin too. As for The Old Enemy and their trip over here, things still look much the same. One crucial difference is Scotland and their showing against the Welsh. Having beaten Ireland and then falling to France in a game they should’ve won, it was hard to expect the Scots to put up a proper fight against the English. Now though, after what they did against an admittedly average Wales, not only is the bonus less and less likely for England against them but England beating them at all is now far from a given. Eddie Jones’ men haven’t looked up to scratch at all this year and the guerrilla tactics of Conor O’Shea and his crew showed a team that can be easily rattled. We’ve all had sights set on Ireland taking the Slam and title away from England come the final game, but the reality of it now is that the Scots could rule that out of the equation, leaving England fighting for the title all the more when that last fixture lands. Ultimately, it’s just a ridiculously exciting two weeks ahead, can’t wait.