The start of the 2018 Six Nations Championship in early February seems like a lifetime ago. A lot has happened in the last six weeks with the title already going to Ireland.
However, Joe Schmidt’s side can secure an impressive Grand Slam this weekend when they travel to take on pre-tournament favourites England.
With the big clash at Twickenham – which is also on St Patrick’s Day – just 24 hours away, Off the Pitch’s Sam reflects on what has been a successful campaign for Ireland but disappointing one for Eddie Jones’ men.
Before I start delving into the ins-and-outs of elite rugby, I thought I would share a couple of my own tales of this fantastic, but frankly brutal sport. I’ve always enjoyed watching the sport which has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. But I can safely say I will never, ever play the game again!
I made two competitive (school) appearances during my secondary school days and for 160 minutes I was absolutely terrified! The first had to be stopped prematurely as I attempted to jump over a tackle (never jump). And all I remember from the latter is being caught in the middle of a ‘maul’ for what seemed like a week! Needless to say, I hung my rugby boots up at 16 years of age, and decided to enjoy it from a spectator’s perspective!
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s move on to what has been another exciting Six Nations tournament. As mentioned, Jones’ squad went into the competition clear favourites having taken the crown the last two years, including the Grand Slam in 2016. But, after spoiling the dream of back-to-back 100% campaigns, Ireland were looking to upset England again!
Fast forward six weeks and Schmidt’s side have done just that, clinching the title last week after their victory against Scotland was followed up by England’s defeat against France in Paris.
— NatWest 6 Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 10, 2018
It’s fair to say the championship started off with a bang! Following Wales’ comprehensive win over Scotland in the opening game, Ireland faced a tricky match against an unfancied French side at the Stade De France.
A cagey affair was lit up in the 71st minute when French winger Teddy Thomas ripped through the visiting defence to score an amazing try. This put the Irish on the brink of an opening defeat until Johnny Sexton produced an incredible drop-goal in what was the last kick of the game to seal a dramatic win
With rugby fans still coming down off the high of that classic moment from Sexton, the competition moved into the second week. The biggest match-up of week two saw Wales take on England at Twickenham, with both having come off the back of bonus-point wins against Scotland and Italy respectively.
Much like France vs Ireland it was another cagey game that could have gone either way. There was a hugely controversial moment in the 24th minute when Gareth Anscombe’s try was wrongly disallowed by the TMO. Wales then looked certain to score on the hour mark, but a certain Sam Underhill came up with ‘that tackle’….
England eventually saw off Warren Gatland’s side with two tries from Jonny May completing a 12-6 victory.
Before the tournament, England had won 22 of 23 games since Eddie Jones took charge following the 2015 World Cup. Many could only see a Grand Slam showdown with Ireland on May 17, but then came the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield.
Against a much-improved and inspired Scotland team, who rallied following a poor display against Wales to beat France 32-26, Jones’ side were battered in what was a very open game.
Taking a 16-point lead into half-time, ‘Flower of Scotland’ was ringing out as jubilant fans saw their Scottish team secure a 25-13 victory over the Auld Enemy.
Cover your eyes England fans…
– Prior to that match Scotland hadn’t scored a try at home against England since 2004.
– England beat Scotland 62-21 at Twickenham in 2017.
– Scotland hadn’t beaten England since 2008.
It all meant the dreams of an unprecedented three Six Nations titles in a row for England was hanging by a thread as they stepped into the cauldron that is the Stade De France needing a bonus-point victory to keep their hopes alive.
With the scores locked at 9-9 Anthony Watson got sin-binned for a high tackle and, despite Jonny May’s late try, it wasn’t enough as they fell to successive defeats (16-22) and saw their hands slip off the trophy.
It was the first time England had suffered back-to-back Six Nations defeats for the first time since 2009. A third against the champions on Saturday will match an unwanted hat-trick last met 12 years ago.
In contrast, Ireland’s campaign has gone from strength to strength. Now all that’s standing in the way of a third Grand Slam (1948, 2009) is a very wounded English side.
Since Sexton’s dramatic last gasp kick against France, they thrashed Italy at the Aviva Stadium before moving on to a tough test against the Welsh, which had brought us many fascinating encounters in recent years.
This one proved to be no different either, with Ireland getting the better of an eight try clash – a victory made even better following events at Murrayfield a few hours later.
In The Bag
Ireland knew they had the chance to wrap up the title with a week to go and they subsequently piled the pressure on England – which they weren’t able to cope with – by securing a bonus-point 28-8 victory over Scotland.
Jacob Stockdale scored a brace to take his try tally to six for the tournament making him the first Irishman to achieve this feat in Six and Five Nations history.
In truth, it wasn’t just the results that were so impressive for Schmidt’s side, but the manner of the victories. They have scored four tries in three of their four games and their forward line has also caught the eye.
Their campaign was made on that moment of magic by Sexton on the opening night. It would now take a brave punter to bet against them on Paddy’s Day.
Can England stop them?
England will be desperate to repeat what Ireland did to them in 2017 and stop them achieving the Grand Slam in their own backyard.
Despite the stark contrast in both campaigns, history definitely plays in the favour of Jones’ side. Ireland have not won at Twickenham since 2010 and England have come out victorious six times in the last eight meetings.
Injury problems have been something that has plagued England’s tournament and unfortunately Saturday will be no different. Forward Nathan Hughes and lock Courtney Lawes have been ruled out for three months, making captain Dylan Hartley’s inclusion all the more important.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 15, 2018
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 15, 2018
The question is, will Rory Best emulate the great Brian O’Driscoll and captain his nation to a Grand Slam?
One thing is for sure, there’s going to be some party in Dublin on March 17 whatever the outcome.
England vs Ireland, March 17, 14:45 Kick-Off, Twickenham Stadium.