Six Nations mid-term report: Joe Schmidt got some bad news this week in relation to Ireland's title chances
Read Brent Pope every week in The Herald.
While Ireland’s early Six Nations report card does not read exactly as Joe Schmidt may have wanted, or what most of us would have expected after beating Australia and New Zealand in the autumn, a morale-boosting bonus-point win against Italy will have at least restored some much-needed confidence in the Irish camp.
Schmidt’s side can still push on for something tangible in this competition in terms of a championship win.
England remain unbeaten at this stage, with two hard-fought wins against Wales and France under their belt, and both times they had to come from behind in the last 10 minutes to do it.
That was despite missing some key players and it show the new resolve and self-belief in Eddie Jones’ squad. It also shows that they are vulnerable.
Unfortunately, while England now go away and face two easier games in Italy and Scotland (despite the Scots’ win against Ireland), Schmidt’s team will have to do it the hard way with successive wins over France, Wales and then England to even have a chance, presuming of course that the English don’t trip up before arriving to the Aviva on the St Patrick’s weekend with a Grand Slam and record winning streak to play for against Ireland.
There was worse news for Schmidt this week on the early return of bruising England prop Mako Vunipola from injury, and worst still the possible return of brother Billy for the Irish match, although that is still very much dependent on both players’ fitness.
The Vunipola brothers were the fulcrum of most of England’s massive yard gains last year, and the huge Samoan-born brothers know how to use their considerable physiques to damaging effect.
Billy Vunipola’s replacement Nathan Hughes, while proving a great performer at club level, has not in my opinion made the desired impact that his size would have dictated.
Hughes’ running style has often appeared too straight up and down, and he has been too easily shackled. Even last week the smaller Welsh back row looked after him well.
With both Vunipolas potentially back in harness against Ireland – even off the bench – England are a different team.
First, France are Ireland’s next opponents and this week lost their flanker Loann Goujon, who did his bit with ball in hand last weekend, to injury.
However, that may just mean the return of Damien Chouly to the pack, who was so impressive against England.
France, despite their narrow win over Scotland in Stade de France, were still scrappy, and Schmidt will target a win in Ireland.
Under Guy Noves France are admirably trying to pay a quicker, off-loading game and there are signs that it is starting to pay dividends.
But it is still very much a work in progress and perhaps a style of play that they are simply not ready or structured for just yet.
It is a risky strategy by Noves, because the French players do not play this way at club level. Patterns take time to integrate, and in my opinion the ground work still has not been done.
Players, despite having good individual skill-sets, cannot just change the way they play overnight. If the 50/50 passes stick they will be dangerous, but it is also an area that Ireland will attack.
In Ireland all the provincial teams, led by Connacht’s free flowing style, are all trying to inject pace, skill and speed of play into their game, not only at national level under Schmidt, but also bringing it back to the provincial game as well.
France, while possessing plenty of talented players on paper, play the game one way one week for France and then go back to their clubs to a kicking, forward-orientated game.
An open game that seemed so natural to them in the 1980s and ’90s is unnatural to them now.
But a win against Scotland, their first decent scalp in a while, will have buoyed the French camp and combating France’s powerful scrum remains Ireland’s biggest test to date.
Wales, so drab against Italy, showed plenty of fight back in Cardiff before succumbing to a more powerful, committed English side.
The Welsh had a chance to win but their exit strategy was flawed, and while they do have the personnel and team spirit to test Ireland in Cardiff, a ground that Ireland traditionally finds a hard place to win, their failure to get a crucial bonus point in Rome may have them thinking that they might already be out of this championship race – even if they win all their remaining games.
I may be wrong here but as brave as Scotland are, and despite a huge improvement, I cannot see the Scots living with England’s physical pack in the traditional Calcutta Cup clash.
Therefore I still think that the Championship decider will come down to the last game in the Aviva.
By then, you just fear that England may just have taken the easier run-in and grabbed a cricket score against Italy in Twickenham just to make things more than a ‘winner takes all’ for Ireland.
Bonus points still look like they might decide this year’s winner.