Wales, England & Ireland (Just) Still In Contention For Six Nations Title
March 5, 2019
As the 2019 Six Nations nears its end, here’s a look at how each team has managed so far and what they will be aiming for heading into the final two weeks of the tournament.
Warren Gatland’s team are sitting pretty atop of the Six Nations after beating England in Cardiff.
The Welsh opened the tournament with a comeback victory over France. The visitors were 16-0 down at halftime, however a French implosion which saw them give up two tries within the first 12 minutes of the second half brought the Welsh within two points of levelling. The Welsh briefly took the lead through the boot of Dan Biggar but would need a second George North try to seal the victory.
A scrappy win over Italy preceded their huge win over England which has now left the Welsh two wins away from their fourth title under Warren Gatland and a first Grand Slam in six years.
They will travel to Murrayfield this weekend, a place where Gatland has never lost, before returning to Cardiff for a potential grand slam decider against Ireland on the final day. Given England’s point differential and that they will likely record two more bonus point victories in their last two games, Wales will likely need to win the slam if they want to be certain of winning the title.
The English opened their Six Nations in imperious fashion, becoming the first Six Nation side to beat Ireland in Dublin in six years before putting six tries past a diabolical French team at Twickenham.
They had entered the Cardiff match as heavy favourites, being the only team amongst the three realistic contenders for the Six Nations to back up their wins with dominant performances. It seemed that their favourites tag was well placed as they led Wales 10-3 at halftime, and the English were able to hold on to their lead right up until the last 15 minutes of the match, but Wales came back and dominated the second half, and a Cory Hill try after 34 phases of play was fully deserved on the home team’s part. The introduction of Dan Biggar helped Wales further ram home their advantage as his wonderful crossfield kick created a second try and sealed a shock win for the Welsh.
The defeat to Wales means that of the last nine final round fixtures England have played in the Six Nations, they have lost five. That includes their spectacular collapse in last season’s championship and their defeat to Ireland in 2017 which denied Eddie Jones’s men back to back Grand Slams. Indeed, much to the disgust of his counterpart, Gatland questioned England’s ability to win big games in the post-match press conference. To an extent, the New Zealander has a point with England having suffered the ignominy of a number of famous collapses over the last few years, however their win in Dublin this season, as well as their series victory over Australia earlier in Jones tenure, suggests England are fully capable of putting elite teams to the sword, its simply a case of finding out how to do so consistently.
The English face Italy and Scotland in their final two matches and will be confident of recording bonus point wins over both in a bid to keep the pressure on Wales and take full advantage of any late slip-ups from Warren Gatland’s side.
Perhaps unbeknownst to the local media, it seemed inevitable that Ireland would come tumbling back to reality eventually after their stellar 2018 campaign. Nonetheless, few could have predicted the manner of that reality check nor the impact it would have on Joe Schmidt’s side. The New Zealander claimed in a recent press conference that Ireland still haven’t recovered their crush 12-point defeat to England on the opening day and suggested that their unconvincing wins against Scotland and Italy are his team trying too hard to get back to where they were a few months ago.
Nonetheless, Schmidt’s efforts to bring clam haven’t stopped the Irish media from slipping into panic with parallels already being made with past Rugby World Cup campaigns where Ireland entered the tournament full of confidence only to be crushed in a variety of different ways, generally at the hands of Argentina.
In fairness to Ireland, rekindling their 2018 form has been greatly hindered by a plethora of injuries both in the leadup to and during the tournament. Connor Murray is coming back into the international fold for the first time in nine months due to a neck injury. Johnny Sexton start to the year has been persistently interrupted by injury resulting in him playing just 181 minutes of rugby in 2019 following the Italy game. Rob Kearny has also only recently returned to the fore having made just two starts for Leinster before the tournament began. Adding to players coming back to fitness is a long list of injuries including Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, CJ Strander, Devin Toner, Kieran Marimon and Joey Carberry all of whom could return for Ireland’s next match.
The bonus point win over Italy and England’s loss against Wales has put Ireland back in the title race, big wins against France and Wales are the only chance they have of retaining their title.
The cliched rugby adage of which “France will show up” couldn’t have been better demonstrated than their first three games this year’s championship. An opening day implosion to Wales, a humiliation at Twickenham and then an impressive win against Scotland. Their 44-8 defeat to England in match week two meant that Les Blues have won just four of their last 30 away matches, a run stretching back to 2013 with two of those coming against Italy, one against Argentina and the other against Scotland. On the flip side of their mediocrity, the French have decided the championship at home over the last few years even though they have rarely been a contender. Ireland’s late win in Paris and England’s defeat there last year won Ireland the title. In 2015, England won the Grand Slam in Paris and in 2014, it was France who stopped the English from snatching the title off Ireland on the final day. The previous year, Ireland won the title in Paris. All going well, Warren Gatland’s men will no doubt point to their win in Cardiff and their comeback in Paris as crucial victories on the way to the title.
It is quite startling how a team who have been so poor since 2011 can consistently have such a massive impact on this championship. Perhaps it speaks to the talent that still exists in French rugby, however with just five years from their own World Cup, Les Blues are a long way away from competing both for the Six Nations or the World title. Though their win against Scotland was impressive, their defeats to Wales and England are a much better reflection of where France are right now. The French were lackadaisical, poorly organized and continue to rely on individual talent, of which they have plenty, to crawl back into matches. They’ve performed better collectively at home, but even those showings have rarely been impressive and they often lack the game management to keep a lead at home.
Jacques Brunel face both Ireland and Italy away as they look to finish the tournament on a high and improve their dismal away record.
The last few years, in which club rugby in Scotland has taken a major leap, has seen an air of anticipation surrounding Scotland entering major tournaments like the Six Nations and the World Cup. After beating England for the first time 10 years last season and Scottish clubs doing well in Europe, many hoped that Scotland were finally ready to take the jump and properly challenge in the Six Nations. So far they have failed to do so, Glasgow Warrior’s scrum half, Ali Price, best summed up Scotland’s championship so far claiming they had “failed to fire a shot”.
In some ways, Scotland’s issues very much mirror France’s, particularly their away matches. They haven’t won in Paris since 1999, in Dublin since before 2000, in Cardiff since 2002 and are winless at Twickenham since 1983. This tragic away record comes during a period of the championships where away wins are becoming ever more important for teams looking to win the championship.
After defeats to Ireland and France in their first two games, Scotland will have to start firing if they are hoping to add their lone win against Italy this season. Away games to Wales and England to wrap up their 2019 campaign provide the Scots a chance to silence some doubters and build anticaption once more for next season.
As they have so often found themselves over the last two decades, Italy are at the very foot of the table after three games with defeats to Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Italians are winless in their last 20 Six Nation matches and Connor O’Shea is still searching for his first Six Nations wins at the head of the Azzuri. Questions were beginning to swirl around the Irishman’s job before the tournament began and, if Italy are looking solely at the results, O’Shea has done little to answer those questions so far.
Though results haven’t been as good, one can’t deny that in comparison to his predecessor, O’Shea’s version of Italy look a much more competitive side. They held Wales and Scotland close and, in a fairer world, should have beaten Ireland in their last match. From a structural point of view, Italy have been good under O’Shea, they’ve looked confident playing the ball through hands against Ireland and challenged the Irish from the lineout, no small feat regardless of what team Ireland are playing. What continues to kill Italy is that they are error-prone under the slightest pressure and they lack the stamina to challenge Tier One nations for a whole 80 minutes. O’Shea can’t control errors Italy make during a game and depth takes time to build.
Barring miracles against England and France, Italy will likely finish the tournament without a win, but Connor O’Shea’s process should be trusted, its only a matter time before it pays dividends.
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Author: Kristofer McCormack
Kristofer is a freelance sports writer who has written about football over the last year for Fansided, These Football Times and The Real Champs. He is also a passionate Irish rugby fan. You can find him on Twitter at @k_mc06