Tuesday 16 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Dublin finale has potential to be the Six Nations' Super Bowl

Eamonn Sweeney

Two years ago after the World Cup ended without a single team from the northern hemisphere making the semi-finals, there was general agreement that henceforth the Six Nations Championship was pretty much a beaten docket, a celebration of the second-rate, a consolation prize for the game's losers.

So how come the 2017 renewal looks to be the most exciting in years, one whose winners can make a fair case to be regarded as second only to the All Blacks and genuine contenders for the World Cup in two years' time? Well, for starters the general mood of doom and gloom in 2015 was a bit overdone.

Only an awful refereeing decision had prevented Scotland from turning over Australia, while Wales had been within five minutes of knocking out South Africa. The real gulf was between the All Blacks and everyone else, not between the two hemispheres.

Chicago notwithstanding, New Zealand still seem to be a bit ahead of the posse but both England and Ireland to a lesser extent currently have every right to regard themselves as among the game's elite. Eddie Jones' transformation of England has once more shown the power of the right managerial appointment. Bedraggled and underachieving at their own World Cup, England now look their best since the Woodward era having gone 12-0 under Jones.

Riding roughshod over the Six Nations opposition for a first Grand Slam since 2003 was impressive enough but since then England have taken things to an entirely different level, whitewashing Australia 3-0 in a series Down Under and beating both South Africa and Argentina 37-21 in the winter internationals. Jones must regret they didn't get a chance to test their mettle against the All Blacks.

Under normal circumstances, this awesome run of form would see England entering the Six Nations as unbackable favourites to win Grand Slam number two. It is, after all, a long time since a team from this part of the world put together such a run.

However, Ireland have also moved up a gear. A first ever win in South Africa, achieved while playing with 14 men, was significant but the defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago indicated a hitherto unsuspected upside to Ireland under Joe Schmidt. The impression of a team of immense and hitherto untapped potential was confirmed when an injury-battered side eked out a heroic win over Australia to round off the year.

If the argument can be made that the southern hemisphere teams are not firing on all cylinders in these winter games, it's nevertheless undeniable that England and Ireland are better than they have been in a long time. This means that the Six Nations could be a real Clash of the Titans with an absolutely mouth-watering finale between Ireland and England at the Aviva on March 18. Should both sides go into that one with four wins out of four and everything on the line, it could be the closest thing Six Nations rugby will ever get to a Super Bowl.

The potential spoilsports are Wales, who will no doubt already be targeting the home match against Ireland on March 10 as their big chance to insert themselves into the championship picture.

Having looked ragged enough for most of 2016, Wales finished on a high with good wins over South Africa and Argentina and as Ireland and England both learned to our cost in 2015, the men from the principality can be impossibly dogged when they get the bit between their teeth.

After several years of saying, 'you never know what you'll get from France', it appears that we do know what we'll get, which is unimpressive mid-table stuff, particularly away from home.

They seem more likely to fall back behind an improving Scotland than challenge England or Ireland at this stage.

Insert your preferred cliché about the gutsiness of the Italians here and then, like everyone else, dismiss them from serious consideration.

I'm biased, obviously, but it will be a terrible disappointment if the whole shebang doesn't conclude with a winner-take-all epic between two unbeaten and on-song teams in Dublin. England should be 16-0 by then and feeling pretty unstoppable.

That'll do just grand.

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