Unless England can find some form after two shocking defeats, it looks like a case of smiling Irish eyes and sore heads on Sunday morning at the end of another Six Nations campaign. In his latest column for Dai Sport, Geraint Powell, runs his eye over the three coaches who probably have had most influence on this season’s tournament with varying levels of success.
Even before this season’s Six Nations commenced, many were pointing towards the final day “Super Saturday” fixture at Twickenham between England and Ireland.
Would it be the title decider, with one or both teams going for the Grand Slam?
As it turns out Ireland, on St Patrick’s Day of all days, the day after steeplechasing’s Cheltenham Festival concludes with the premier Gold Cup race, will be heading to Twickenham seeking to convert their Six Nations title into a rare Grand Slam.
If the clean sweep is achieved, there are likely to be some very sore Irish heads around London on Sunday morning and especially amongst those that are also National Hunt racegoers.
This season’s Six Nations has really been a tale of three head coaches; Joe Schmidt, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones.
Scotland’s Calcutta Cup victory over England did no harm to the growing reputation of Gregor Townsend, and France have looked more competitive this season under Jacques Brunel, but the focus has definitely been on the three Antipodeans.
Although it would be a mistake to view it in such clear cut southern hemisphere terms. Waikato’s Warren Gatland has spent almost his entire coaching career in the northern hemisphere, whilst Manawatuan Joe Schmidt developed his reputation, following a stint as a Blues assistant coach in Auckland, as an assistant coach at Clermont and then as head coach with Leinster.
Schmidt has now secured three Six Nations titles in his six seasons in charge of Ireland. It may have taken cool heads and a long-range drop goal deep in injury time from Johnny Sexton to secure an opening away win in Paris, but Ireland have not looked back. Italy badly mauled, Wales and Scotland seen off in Dublin.
Schmidt has a reputation for meticulous preparation. Far from attempting to apply a more aerobic New Zealand style, his teams play to Irish rugby’s strengths. Ferociously streetwise at the breakdown, pushing the laws to breaking point and sometimes beyond, and utilising world-class half-backs in Sexton and Conor Murray.
Win or lose against England, in what will be a contest between Grand Slam momentum and pressure versus a determined effort to restore some English pride after a disappointing campaign by their standards, Schmidt will be pleased with both the results and his squad depth development.
Should Wales defeat France in Cardiff in the final match of the tournament, then Wales will have achieved what many predicted from the outset. Three home wins and two away defeats.
Sport involves narrow margins, and Wales could easily have won at Twickenham. A better defensive opening 15 minutes, a different TMO decision regarding Gareth Anscombe’s “try”, no technically superb try saving tackle from Sam Underhill on Scott Williams just to begin with.
Wales are currently somewhat behind Ireland at this stage of this World Cup cycle, perhaps inevitably so with Gatland’s Lions sabbatical, but there is another 18 months to the World Cup and that is the tournament that really matters nowadays.
But, when all said and done, Gatland will be pleased with the growing depth that he is applying to his squad. Prop remains a concern but in most positions real depth, if not of 1970s quality, not seen since the late-1980s is being added.
The competition for places in the backrow is starting to look fearsome. He has been able to select teams to play a more fluid style, albeit he has reverted to a more conservative selection for tomorrow with the aim of securing the runners-up spot.
A different more expansive style is emerging, but it is unlikely that Gatland will want to renounce the ability to win ugly should the need arise at the World Cup.
The coach who has suffered during this tournament has undoubtedly been Eddie Jones, with England struggling to beat Wales at home and falling to away defeats in Edinburgh and Paris.
It is not as if England have become a bad team overnight, although some lack of balance issues have clearly been exposed. Flankers that have basically been a lock playing at 6 and a 6 playing at 7 have not aided the cause at the breakdown. The injured Billy Vunipola has been badly missed. Owen Farrell, however, has remained a handful for opponents.
It is simply that England are not currently as good as some in the media have built them up to be, their long overdue match against New Zealand this November of increasing interest to neutrals.
This week’s leaking of some light hearted if ill-advised comments from Jones last year about the Welsh and Irish a reminder of the build them up and knock them down mentality in the London print media.
It is fair to say that Jones could do with the respite that an English performance denying Ireland a Grand Slam would provide, before England head off for their summer tour of South Africa.
But, irrespective of tomorrow’s results and with the title already secured, few would deny that Schmidt’s Ireland are worthy Six Nations champions in 2018.