Sport Six Nations

Saturday 20 September 2014

Four teams, two weeks, one championship

As the Six Nations enters final furlong, Ruaidhri O'Connor assesses the title credentials of the last teams standing

Ruadhri O'Connor

Published 01/03/2014 | 02:30

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Cian Healy, Ireland, celebrates after team-mate Chris Henry scores
Cian Healy, Ireland, celebrates after team-mate Chris Henry scores
England scrum half  Danny Care (centre) celebrates after scoring the first England try
England scrum half Danny Care (centre) celebrates after scoring the first England try
Brice Dulin (centre) of France
Brice Dulin (centre) of France

THREE games in, this season's Six Nations is shaping up as one to savour, with four teams sitting on four points ahead of the final fortnight.

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There will be no Grand Slam in 2014, but the strength of Ireland, England, Wales and an unpredictable France means that the next two weeks will be keenly fought and the title looks like going down to the wire this day fortnight.

The challengers are very different outfits, from the powerful Welsh to the nuanced Irish, the slow-paced French to the ultra-fit English, all styles are catered for and it has produced some stand-out games.

England's meeting with Wales at Twickenham will see the first of the contenders fall by the wayside, but, barring a disaster, there will be three teams on six points going into the final games and the likelihood is that Ireland and France will both have a great chance to win it when Steve Walsh gets things under way at the Stade de France in two weeks' time.

After the ferocious exchanges in Cardiff and London last weekend, this week gives them a chance to draw breath ahead of the run-in.

It's finely poised, but Ireland's significant points difference advantage gives them the edge. The Slam may be gone, but as defence coach Les Kiss said this week: "This is a tough Six Nations, this really is a good Six Nations." That means winning it would represent a real milestone and it is there to be taken.

1 – IRELAND (+42)

Form

The performance during the last-gasp defeat to New Zealand in November appears to have restored the players' confidence and each time they have taken the field since they have shown progress.

Scotland were dismantled comfortably, while the win over Wales represented a benchmark and, although it wasn't followed with a win, the more expansive game plan in Twickenham was close to beating a very good England side.

The coach

In Joe Schmidt, Ireland have the most innovative operator in the competition. A proven winner at club level, he has come oh-so-close to delivering a historic victory on two occasions and he'll already be planning for a rare win in Paris.

Still to come

The players won't admit it, but next Saturday's meeting with winless Italy is a chance to extend the lead at the top and should be approached like a Heineken Cup pool game when the bonus point is needed.

Ireland's record in France is appalling, but they drew on their last visit to St Denis and France are not the force of old.

Injury profile

Jonathan Sexton's thumb is a major concern and could keep the Racing Metro star out against Italy, with Peter O'Mahony's hamstring similarly a concern. Brian O'Driscoll's calf is another worry, but the return of Tommy Bowe and Donnacha Ryan could prove timely.

The task at hand

Win both remaining games and the championship should be theirs. Comprehensive wins for England over Wales and Italy could upset the apple cart, but as long as they down the Azzurri, Ireland will know where they stand come the final game.

2 – ENGLAND (+21)

Form

Their opening day defeat in Paris must still sting, considering the performances which have followed. If Ireland have Grand Slam regrets, then so must England, who started terribly, worked their way back into a winning position and then let it slip. they beat a poor Scotland side easily on a terrible Murrayfield surface and outmuscled Ireland last week. The strongest team in the tournament so far.

The coach

That Schmidt has identified the English as the best side out there is a major compliment to Stuart Lancaster, who has assembled a strong back-room team and changed the ethos around the red rose by making his team hard to hate. The former school teacher entrusts plenty of responsibility to his assistants and the players have responded.

Still to come

It all comes down to Twickenham on Saturday next when the meeting between England and Wales should match the intensity of last weekend's clash with Ireland. Add the revenge factor after last year's capitulation in Cardiff and they will have plenty to play for. A finish against Italy will allow Lancaster's side to put pressure on the others by building a score.

Injury profile

The loss of Billy Vunipola is significant, while Ireland failed to take full advantage of Dan Cole's absence last week. However, Manu Tuilagi's return to the fray for Leicester tomorrow couldn't come at a better time for England who are crying out for some quality in the centre.

The task at hand

Beat Wales and it all opens up for England who will fancy their chances in Rome on the final day.

They have the motivation to outduel Warren Gatland's men on home soil and Ireland provided them with a handy template.

3 – WALES (+6)

Form

Erratic as always, the Welsh don't do things by halves and have given three very different performances so far. Mediocre against Italy, terrible in Dublin and resurgent in the win over France, Gatland needs a repeat of the French demolition in Twickenham to have any chance of retaining the title.

The coach

The Lions supremo's lack of a plan 'B' has been exposed by Schmidt but, then again, plan 'A' worked pretty well against the French. With a number of undercooked players getting more game time, they are getting stronger for Gatland's power game.

Still to come

If Wales are to give themselves an opportunity of a historic three-in-a-row, then they must beat an in-form England in what will be a pressure cooker at Twickenham. With the experience of beating Lancaster's men over the past two years, it is achievable, but they'll need to show the stuff of champions.

Injury profile

Alun-Wyn Jones is back after missing the France game, while Jonathan Davies plays for the Scarlets today. Sam Warburton is looking strong three weeks after his Dublin no-show and the Welsh are looking far stronger than they did at the start of the tournament.

The task at hand

With England away and Scotland at home to come, Wales will be hoping that Ireland slip-up in Paris, that they can win both their games and that they can build their points advantage to make history.

4 – FRANCE (+1)

Form

Where do you start? Signs of magnificence, but huge slices of luck against England were followed by hard labour against Italy. Add in an absolute hammering by Wales and the French look disorganised, but dangerous.

The coach

Philippe Saint-Andre is under huge pressure after his sluggish team failed to fire in Wales. The coach's game plan is one-dimensional and slow and he is relying on his huge forwards to bully opponents and his back three to score tries. Refuses to show faith in Gael Fickou, while the decision to drop primary ball-carrier Louis Picamoles for disciplinary reasons appears self-defeating.

Still to come

Scotland away looks very winnable, but the Murrayfield surface may prevent Saint-Andre's side from building the score they need to close the gap on their rivals, particularly if England beat Wales. Despite Ireland's resurgence, the French are unlikely to fear Schmidt's side, having not lost to the men in green since 2000.

Injury profile

Wesley Fofana is a huge loss, while an injury to Yannick Nyanga is another blow to a back-row already without captain Thierry Dusatoir. Morgan Parra's suspension rules him out of the Scotland game, but not for Ireland. Many of the front-liners are in action for their clubs this week, something that will give Saint-Andre sleepless nights.

The task at hand

France need to score points in Scotland and beat Ireland well to win the title. Given their form, it is hard to see, but anything is possible given the quality of their players.

 

THE STORY SO FAR

28: Tries scored in the nine games to date.

6: France and Ireland lead the try-scoring charts, having crossed the line six times overall in their three games to date

2: Rob Kearney, Mike Brown, Yoann Huget, Alex Dunbar, Luther Burrell and Michele Campagnaro have scored two tries apiece and sit jointly on top of the charts.

38: Scotland are the least disciplined side in the championship to date, racking up 38 penalties. Ireland and England, with 25 concessions each, are the most disciplined.

14: Ireland's players have off-loaded out of the tackle far less than any other team, with 14 efforts in their three games to date. France lead the way with 52 offloads.

265: England's Mike Brown is the most potent runner in the tournament to date, carrying for 265m so far and beating 13 defenders.

33: Leigh Halfpenny is the Six Nations' leading scorer with 33 points – all from the boot.

Irish Independent

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