Jamie Heaslip: 'The standard of the Six Nations is getting better and better every year'
Published 15/03/2016 | 02:30
For all we know, this week could be the start of something special for Eddie Jones and England.
Victory at the Stade de France would complete the new champions' process of moving on from their disastrous World Cup with a first Grand Slam since 2003 and, given their age profile and depth of talent, they are going to be around for a long while yet.
This is the first time in the 17-season history of the Six Nations that the destination of the title has been decided a week before the end, meaning that a year on from the greatest day of that period, the tournament will conclude with a succession of what are effectively dead rubbers.
Ireland are hoping that beating Scotland to effectively break even with two wins and a draw will conclude a transitory campaign on a high and will be hopeful that their incredibly difficult run of fixtures for the remainder of 2016 will leave them in good stead to take their title back next year.
Taking a wretched Italy side out of the equation, the average margin of victory during this tournament has been six points which demonstrates that the Scots have forced their way into the group of contenders to expand the gang of four to a party of five.
Injuries and the ability to keep players fit have been a major factor in deciding the pecking order this year, with Jones enjoying a clean run of health with his squad throughout the competition.
Others have struggled, with Ireland perhaps the most affected by the loss of so many big players after the World Cup.
No one has a clean bill of health these days, but Joe Schmidt has spoken enviously of his rivals' ability to select consistently from the same group of players while building continuity.
As for the hierarchy, perhaps France have just been replaced by Scotland. They were blessed to beat Italy and should have lost to Ireland in their home games, while they were well beaten away to Wales and Scotland.
Their true place in the world may be established next weekend when the Slam-chasing English travel to Paris, a year on from absolutely hammering Les Bleus on the final day. Guy Noves may be making progress, but their performances can't have healed their World Cup wounds as well as England's.
The fact that none of the northern hemisphere teams made it past the last eight at that tournament was always going to frame analysis of a tournament that has fallen short of vintage.
"What you are seeing is the game constantly keeping itself in check. Granted, England have won it, but I think there hasn't been much in a lot of the games," is Ireland vice-captain Jamie Heaslip's take.
"No team has run away with the thing, I know England have the four out of four wins and are going for the Grand Slam, but not all those games have been easy for them.
"I think they got a bit of a shock there at the weekend with the comeback from Wales. France will definitely be licking their lips at the opportunity (to deny them).
"But in general, I think it just shows the level of opportunity, if you make a mistake you get punished. I think England are probably the most the most clinical side in the competition, it just highlights that. But I think the standard is getting better and better every year.
"The ball is staying in play more in the game; definitely this Six Nations was a lot faster with a lot more ball in play, I felt anyway. From the numbers it looks like there was a lot more high-speed metres, so it's a faster game."
Having drawn with Wales and come up just short away to England and France, it is a season of regrets for Joe Schmidt's side who relinquished their two-year hold on the title on Saturday.
And, while Heaslip is very much focused on process and performance, he believes the results are not far away.
"Guys have gotten the opportunity to wear the jersey and do it proud," he said. "But I think we've won this competition by the same margin that we've lost it by this year. It's very fine margins, and I think this just shows players those fine margins, that a lot of hard work has to be put in to put yourself in the situation where you might get that outcome.
"But that outcome is determined by that effort, and that body of work you put in. Not just in a day out, two days out, three days out, a week out, but the whole entire season, putting work in daily, so that you give yourself the opportunity to be in with a shout to win something.
For all that they are focused on Scotland, seeing Dylan Hartley lift the trophy after the Grand Slam that eluded them during their dominant two-year period should spur Schmidt's squad on as they go to South Africa this summer.
They have seen the improved England side at close quarters and, while they suffered an 11-point defeat, didn't feel like they were far away.
They're not the only ones. Wales did enough to rattle Jones' men last week, while Scotland had their moments on the opening weekend. France get the chance to apply some pressure this weekend.
Yet a Grand Slam could transform England's success and could put some distance between them and the rest.
"It is important for the psyche of the squad that they do the full job and win the Grand Slam. The confidence that prize will give them is incalculable." former hooker Brian Moore wrote in his Telegraph column yesterday.
When they were claiming the trophy on points difference the last two seasons, Ireland never felt that far away from the pack and even if the English make it a Slam, they don't appear to be too far ahead of the pack just yet.
Ireland squad - Forwards: F Bealham (Connacht), R Best (Ulster) capt, S Cronin (Leinster), U Dillane (Connacht), D Foley (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), J McGrath (Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster), J O'Donoghue (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), R Strauss (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), J van der Flier (Leinster), N White (Connacht)
Backs: A Conway (Munster), K Earls (Munster), C Gilroy (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), P Jackson (Ulster), I Madigan (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht), L Marshall (Ulster), S McCloskey (Ulster), F McFadden (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), J Payne (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton ( Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster), S Zebo (Munster)