Ireland to become back-to-back Six Nations Champions?

Ireland can become back-to-back Six Nations champions with a game in hand if they can beat England with a bonus point next Saturday. However, such is the high that Ireland are currently on, anything less than another Grand Slam will feel like a disappointment. But neither England or Scotland are to be underestimated, and England in Twickenham and with Marcus Smith back fit, could be an altogether different proposition to the error prone team that showed up in Murrayfield.

But first, let us review the prologue last weekend. All four provinces posted high scoring bonus point victories which is an achievement not to be sneezed at, even if the opposition were some relatively mediocre Welsh and Italian sides. It should also be remembered that all except Leinster were playing at home and have had some very patchy away form this season.

But what particularly pleased me was the manner of those victories. All played with an energy and attacking invention employing multiple runners running decoy lines, off-loading in the tackle, and feeling out the weaknesses in opposing defences. What we are seeing is the development of a distinctive Irish style of playing rugby which is pleasing to watch, never mind increasingly effective at getting the required results.

The provinces now lie first, fifth, sixth and seventh in the URC table – all within the play-off places -and all having a shot at achieving a home quarterfinal. It all speaks to a rugby community in relatively rude health and confident in its own skin. Players arriving in Ireland camp will do so in good spirits and having a good idea of what style of rugby they are being asked to play, having played in similar systems for their province.

Ulster supporters will read the above with a rueful smile having just sacked their manager after a series of, ahem, inconsistent performances. There are still rumours of financial restrictions and experienced players leaving but compared to the plight of the Welsh and some English clubs, things are not as bad as might have been feared. Play attractive, winning rugby, like last weekend, and the supporters will come flooding back.

So far, the players leaving the Irish system – like Marmion last year, and Carbery and Molony next season – are few and far between and are doing so at least in part because they have given up on their aspirations to play for Ireland.  Such are the standards being driven by the IRFU, that players deemed good enough to play for Ireland in times past can no longer make the grade, although Molony is leaving Leinster because, with the emergence of McCarthy and the arrival next season of Snyman, his chances of game time with Leinster were diminishing all the time.

Compare this to England and Wales, where there is a veritable exodus of top players to ply their trade in France and elsewhere. You could make up a fairly decent XV from England qualified exiles. For example:

  1. Henry Arundell (Racing 92); 14. Jack Nowell (La Rochelle),11. Christian Wade (Racing 92), Marcus Watson (Benetton); 13. Harry Potter (Western Force); 12. Joe Marchant (Stade Francais) ; 10. Joe Simmonds (Pau), Owen Farrell (Racing 92 next season);9. Dan Robson (Pau); 1. Kieran Brookes (Toulon); 2. Jack Singleton (Toulon); 3. Harry Williams (Montpellier), Hayden Thompson-Stringer (NSW Waratahs); 4. Joe Joyce (Connacht); 5. David Ribbans (Toulon) ; 6. Dave Ewers (Ulster), Lewis Ludlum (Toulon); 7. Jack Willis (Toulouse); 8. Sam Simmonds (Montpellier)

And many others are reported as considering similar moves. England, together with Australia and some other countries are reported as considering a move towards the IRFU central contracts system in a bid to stem the flow.

All that said, such is their depth of player pool, England can still field a fairly formidable team against Ireland. Their team will probably look something like this:

Joe Marler, Jamie George, Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, George Martin, Ollie Chessum, Sam Underhill, Ben Earl, Alex Mitchell, Marcus Smith, Manny Feyi-Waboso, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Tommy Freeman, George Furbank.

That is a very useful team, by any standard, but England’s problem is not a lack of quality players. It is the lack of a coherent playing philosophy that has undermined them of late. Having played an almost entirely negative “kick tennis” style of rugby at the world cup, they have started trying to play in a more expansive style – with disastrous results against Scotland who scored all their tries directly off England mistakes. They are also trying to implement a South African style “rush defence” under their new Irish defence coach Felix Jones. But such changes take time to bed in.

Contrast that with Ireland, who have transitioned relatively smoothly from the very prescriptive Joe Schmidt style of set piece rugby to a much more heads up improvised style under Stuart Lancaster at Leinster and Farrell and Mike Catt with Ireland. The point is that Ireland have a head start with most of the squad playing together regularly at Leinster, and the other provinces now adopting a similar style. It’s not only central contracts that are giving Ireland an advantage, but a coherent philosophy of how to play the game at every level. (It is rumoured that Mike Catt may become England attack coach after this season).

Ireland are also, by far, the most settled team in the Six Nations, and have relatively few injuries now that Ringrose and Keenan have apparently been declared fit. (I say apparently because Ireland often only report injuries after the selection process!). The Ireland squad is likely to look something like this:

  1. Porter, 2. Sheehan, 3. Furlong, 4. McCarthy, 5. Beirne, 6. O’Mahony (Capt.), 7. Van der Flier, 8. Doris, 9. Gibson Park, 10. Crowley, 11. Lowe, 12. Aki, 13. Henshaw, 14. Ringrose, 15. Keenan, 16. Kelleher, 17. Healy, 18. Jager/Bealham, 19. Ryan, 20. Baird, 21, Conan, 22, Murray, 23 Frawley.

Crowley has settled in nicely and the transition from Sexton has been relatively seamless. Nash still has to prove he can be better than Hansen, and on this occasion, I have pencilled in Ringrose on the wing ahead of him. Once again Ulster lose out with Henderson and McCloskey just missing the cut. But there aren’t too many obvious weaknesses in the squad, with every player a candidate for Lions selection (except perhaps Healy, O’Mahony and Murray on grounds of age. The Lion’s tour is still 15 months away).

Ireland are 11-point favourites for the match, and this seems about right. Irish wins at Twickenham are rare enough, and usually just by a one score margin. We struggled to beat a 14-man England team last time out and they came within a whisker of beating South Africa and making the World Cup final. Scotland beat England in Murrayfield by feeding off England mistakes and scoring three extraordinary tries by Van Der Merve – possibly the best attacking winger in the world right now – and a great performance by Finn Russell, who seems to have cast off the flakiness which blighted his international career to date.

Good though Crowley and Lowe are, I don’t see them having a similar impact against England at Twickenham. If Ireland win, it will be more through a team effort, and particularly through the impact of such a strong bench. It’s not often that we can say that Ireland have the stronger bench. England may not be the most creative team in attack, but they know how to make life hard for Ireland particularly in line-out, scrum and maul. A lot will depend on the referee Nika Amashukeli’s interpretation of the scrum, with England’s front rows well versed in the dark arts and pushing the laws to their limits.

If Ireland can match England at the set piece, Ireland could win very convincingly indeed. But England are past masters at making a battle out of the set piece and if they can keep fifteen players on the pitch could give Ireland a very hard time – until the closing minutes, when I expect Ireland to break free.


 Addendum: Live Blog: Munster 45 Zebre 29 f/t

Munster are playing with a joyful abandon that would make any coach proud. What must the watching Van Grann make of it all? Two tries to the good on 12 minutes after brilliant tries by Quinn and Haley, with Snyman prominent throughout. In Fairness Zebre have come to play and score a good try of their own.

Ruadhan Quinn draws a yellow for an over-enthusiastic dive on the ball off his feet at a ruck and Zebre close the gap further. 12-10. Stavile says on his feet to win a good turnover penalty but some great running by Haley and Nankivell swings the momentum back to Munster and Snyman can’t be stopped close to the line. He simply reaches over would be tacklers to score. 19-10.

Is there nothing Haley can’t do – running well and kicking accurately? To think he has never made a Farrell Ireland squad – although he is only just come back from long term injury. More great Munster running and pressure yields the bonus point try for O’Brien. 26-10 on 35 minutes. A knock-on by the otherwise excellent Daly prevents Ahern scoring his customary left wing try. A typical Casey quick tap yields a fifth try for Frisch. How is Casey not at least second choice for Ireland? 33-10 h/t.

Apart from a missed touchline conversion, Butler hasn’t missed a trick and Carbery hasn’t been missed. Who needs Burns from Ulster? (Just as I say that, Butler gives a silly interception to a waiting Zebre player). Scannell manages to overthrow the tallest lock paring in URC history and is promptly substituted together with the rest of the front row. 50 mins.

Casey continues his virtuoso performance with a beautiful dink over the defence to create a try for Daly which is harshly disallowed for a knock-on despite Daly regathering the ball in the air having knocked it forward. Whatever happened to the “cricket catch” rule? Some of the Munster off-loading is a joy to watch. Snyman has shared his skills with the entire team.

A long Zebre line-out overthrow is intercepted by an alert Quinn in midfield who just had to fall over to score. 40-10. I know it’s Zebre, but Munster are beginning to play like Champions. A dodgy forward pass leads to a try for Zebre with O’Brien caught for pace on the wing. He is, after all, a centre by trade! 40-15.

A couple of poor passes and silly penalties allow Zebre briefly into the game. Although second best in every respect, they have fought on gamely and given the crowd good value for money. For the second time in the game, Munster are caught for pace and allow a kick through try after a wayward pass. Zebre could get a try bonus point yet. 40-22.

If you want to be nitpicky, some Munster players – Obrien, Butler, and Daly – have been caught for pace. Some of the passing has lacked accuracy and some of the off-loading has been ill-advised. Munster’s discipline slipped in the second half, but no one can begrudge Zebre their try bonus point try to make it 40-29. Munster finally put the match to bed with a Shane Daly try – 45-29. f/t

Casey had a great game, but my MOTM would be Nankivell who was indefatigable in attack and defence. Mike Haley got the actual gong, and it was great to see him back on top form. Munster need to work on their defence, but their attack is now back on Championship form. They look like they are really enjoying their rugby. Take a bow, attack coach, Mike Prendergast.

With Jager, Barron, Beirne, O’Mahony, Hodnett, O’Donogue, Murray, Crowley, Carbery, and Nash to come back in, Munster now have real depth and test class players for every position. I would be slightly worried at loosehead (without Kilcoyne) and Kleyn would always add value, but Munster are back to being a team that could, given a reasonably fair wind, retain the Championship.

If Munster can avoid further serious injuries, they are stronger than last year with Crowley, Casey, Ahern, Jager and Nankivell either new or much improved players from last year. But the big change is how Prendergast has them playing, with forwards and backs combining to pose a real threat to any defence. Still, lots to work on, but the improvement is palpable.

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