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Ireland must not forget what made them No 1


France head coach Fabien Galthié. Photo: AFP/Getty

France head coach Fabien Galthié. Photo: AFP/Getty

AFP via Getty Images

France head coach Fabien Galthié. Photo: AFP/Getty

When we look back on the 2020 Six Nations, what are we going to remember? Sadly, inevitably, this tournament is going to be forever associated with the coronavirus outbreak. The last few weeks in particular have been bitty, frustrating, scary even, what with all the uncertainty and postponements.

The halting of yesterday's fixture between Wales and Scotland at the 11th hour was the right call. When the rest of the world is responding to the threat by cancelling events and, given the reaction from other sports, it would have looked out of step to be playing in front of 70,000 people in the centre of Cardiff.

At difficult times, sport has the capacity to provide distraction and pleasure. And when I look back over the past eight weeks, I think we have been spoilt on that front. There have been thrills and spills and moments of outstanding brilliance.

There have been tactical trends which have emerged post-World Cup. And I have loved it. We could not have had a more dramatic start than we got with England's defeat by a rampant France at the Stade de France. France were a joyous sight in that first half and the renaissance of Fabien Galthie's team has been one of the great stories of this championship.

It has been wonderful to see young players such as Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack grab their opportunities with such elan; even Anthony Bouthier, who is not a young player but is a new name. He was playing for Vannes in the second tier of French rugby 18 months ago.

It was even more pleasing to see how France have become so much more controlled, so mentally adept, at key moments in games. I have absolutely no doubt that newfound cussedness is linked to the arrival of the one and only Shaun Edwards.

That first game flagged up the fact that this was going to be a slightly different tournament. And the next one, with Scotland almost winning in Dublin, was another eyebrow-raiser.

Scotland's development has been another theme to this championship. Everyone thought it would be about their attack; that they would have to outscore their opponents. That has been their modus operandi for the past few years, which was why the loss of Finn Russell was such a bombshell. But instead it has been all about their defence. Gregor Townsend and his coaching team deserve great credit for creating such a strong team spirit.

Wales? They have played some outstanding rugby but also some mediocre rugby, as they have looked to incorporate Wayne Pivac's ideas. That try they scored from the kick-off in the second half against England was probably the try of the tournament. But they must not forget what made them so great under Warren Gatland; those patterns of keeping the ball at key moments. It is about hanging on to those elements, building on them, rather than reinventing themselves completely.

Ireland, likewise, must not forget what made them the No 1 team in the world under Joe Schmidt, while at the same time trying to throw off the shackles a little bit. They have had probably the most frustrating time of all, with two of their games postponed. Andy Farrell will be desperate to move on from that defeat at Twickenham, but there were signs for optimism, too, with the development of players such as Jordan Larmour and John Cooney.

Their summer tour to Australia - assuming it goes ahead - will be fascinating, as will England's to Japan.

Eddie Jones' team remain a work in progress. They entered this tournament with question marks over their front-row, their scrum-half options, and what their Plan B looked like if Plan A failed. I am not sure they have answered any of those questions definitively.

England are in good shape, though. The return of Manu Tuilagi for the Ireland and Wales games made such a difference. All of a sudden we again saw the team that physically overwhelmed everyone last year; that front-foot ball, the variety of ball-carriers. When you see guys such as Maro Itoje and Tom Curry, who is only 21, bossing the contact areas, you know they can be a special and dangerous team.

England will be favourites to finish the job come the autumn. The postponements will leave an asterisk over this tournament, no doubt. And with all of the final round of fixtures postponed, it is a much better set-up than it was in 2001, when foot and mouth disease forced the postponement of Ireland's fixtures against Wales, Scotland and England, which were played on successive weekends in October.

These are uncertain times, but I think we can all agree that the conclusion of the Six Nations will be something to which we all can look forward with genuine anticipation and excitement.