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Ireland’s hopes of retaining the Six Nations crown they won in such glorious style last year may be slim, but they travel to Cardiff to face Wales on Saturday with a renewed spring in their step following a comprehensive dismantling of France last weekend
This year’s Six Nations has been a bit the anti-pasti course in an Italian restaurant for Irish rugby fans. Following the opening day defeat to England, the thinking is that it’s all very nice but, at the end of the day, a bit of a sideshow as we wait for the real business at hand. The fact that we are heading into the final weekend still in with a chance of retaining the title just doesn’t seem that important any more. First world problems and all that…..
You can be sure they have a very different opinion across the water in Wales. They can win their first Grand Slam in seven years if they beat Joe Schmidt’s side at the weekend. With a disciplined, water-tight defence, they are already on the best run in their 138-year test-playing history and will be looking to make it 14 wins on the trot on Saturday. There has been much talk about what Ireland might do in the World Cup this autumn, but what about Wales? They will be quietly confident, you can be sure.
It’s been a strange tournament. England looked like the form team early on following their comprehensive victories over Ireland and France in rounds one and two. Wales revealed that they were not without weakness, however, and we learned very little from their easy win over Italy at Twickenham on Saturday. They look good, but there will be nagging questions about their ability to cope with the type of pressure Wales put them under and that they will experience at the business end of the World Cup. They may well win Six Nations this year, but it will have a slightly hollow ring to it if they do.
Where does that leave Ireland? They showed something of a return to form in their 26-14 victory over France on Sunday, with two very late tries giving the scoreboard a gloss that the French barely deserved. Joe Schmidt’s side were disciplined, physical and patient throughout and dominated the game for close on 65 minutes. While it wasn’t a perfect performance, it was light years away from the stuttering displays we saw in Murrayfield and Rome. If we can play like this on Saturday, we’ll give Wales plenty to think about.
After some indifferent displays in the opening three rounds, it was good to see that a number of key players showing a marked return to form at the Aviva. The half-back pairing of Murray and Sexton looked much more like theirs old selves, while Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy, James Ryan and CJ Stander were superb up front as was Jack Conan when he came off the bench to replace Josh van der Flier.
In the backs Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki were excellent as were Jordan Larmour and Keith Earls. Overall, not a bad showing although Schmidt will have been disappointed to see them take their foot off the pedal somewhat in the second half. The line-out was much improved, although not perfect. We dominated the scrum early on, but a reshuffle on both sides saw France restore parity in the final 20 minutes or so. Is there a warning for us in that?
It might be a little premature to say that things are nearly back on track but, with the likes of Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner, Joey Carberry and Dan Leavy set to return along with a host of other proven performers, things are looking a lot better than they were at the beginning of February. That said, we may be feeling a little different next week if we get trounced in Cardiff – but should it really matter in the overall scheme of things? The main thing is to give big game time to as many players as possible and that objective has been achieved.
It would be nice to win in Cardiff on Saturday, that’s for sure. The way Warren Gatland has a go at Ireland at every opportunity sticks in the craw. The fact that the Welsh are really beginning to big themselves up doesn’t help either. It hasn’t been a vintage Six Nations by any stretch – and that’s not sour grapes talking. None of the sides have looked like they are the finished article heading towards the serious business of the World Cup. Wales asked questions that England couldn’t answer, but looked vulnerable themselves at times against both France and Scotland. Scotland are miles away from where they need to be. We know that Ireland have plenty to work on and, well, France and Italy’s struggles are plain for all to see.
So, if we don’t win on Saturday, it isn’t the end of the world – particularly if we deliver a decent performance. What would be harder to accept, however, would be a sound trouncing off the back of a lifeless display, but it’s hard to envisage that happening.
Famous last words? Wishful thinking perhaps? We shall see but, either way, there are bigger things on the horizon and it shouldn’t matter too much.
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