Collisions will again be the course for Farrell and Ireland to take
The fixture list at the start of this Six Nations paired the games against Italy and Scotland as the handy enough base camp for Ireland’s climb to challenge England.
That vista has shifted a bit. Park England’s penalty fetish for a moment and consider how the tournament has already been devalued by the shameful free-pass given to France over their fast and loose protocol on Covid. This would be the same France who hobbled the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages with their pious position on whom their lads would risk playing against and whom they wouldn’t. All that was missing from the French explanation of Fabien Galthié bursting the bubble to watch his young fella playing a match was that, like Dominic Cummings, it was mostly about going for a spin to check if he could see straight.
So, in keeping with straitened times we’ve been given a Championship that is less straightforward motoring and more twists and turns. Who better to illustrate this than champions in waiting, Wales?
It is reasonable to conclude that nobody is more surprised by their current lofty position than the Welsh themselves. Equally, nobody feels it is their rightful position more than the Welsh themselves. Pre-tournament we spoke with a man who once earned his corn in that set-up. His hopes for a Red Rising in this campaign were on a par with his expectations that Wales would be Corona free by the spring. Yet the Grand Slam virus has them genuinely excited about the transformation of Kiwi Wayne Pivac from Hangdog Harry to Harry Houdini.They are getting maximum value from the comic side. If they have used up the red cards given to opponents, and the free passes from referees and TMOs, where next can they look for assistance?
Wales are happy to take a day off divine intervention when they kick off Italy in Rome next weekend, but they would like a return to business as usual please for round five when they have to go to Paris. That should have been the Championship decider but for France jerking everyone around. Instead that will push back to the Friday night, March 26, barring further bubble bursting by the French.
So suddenly the prospect of Ireland gaining momentum from beating Italy and Scotland en route to Twickenham is as much about Scotland getting some juice from beating Ireland and Italy before them going to Paris. The Scots are very pissed off about the manner of the extra week off, courtesy of France, that they didn’t want.
This creates an interesting dynamic for Murrayfield next Sunday: home team wanting to take it out on someone; away team floating on air after emerging strong and unscathed from the Colosseum.
Back in Eddie O’Sullivan’s time running the show here his policy against Scotland and Wales was one and the same: beat them up. He looked at his forwards and theirs and could see only gaps in grunt and power. So why not exploit it?
There is a trace of that still in the Scotland fixture. In the Autumn Nations Cup meeting a few months ago Gregor Townsend’s team brought a bit of form to Dublin, but struggled once the stag-rutting stuff would kick off in their 22. Both tries for Keith Earls that day, along with Cian Healy’s touchdown, came from the close-in biff where the one thing the attack and defence had in common was knowing how it would end: a try for Ireland.
Townsend will have two concerns about next weekend’s game: the suspension to Adam Hastings means Jaco van der Walt will be back-up to Finn Russell, which is not ideal; and the difference in power between the back rows has not shifted in his favour. This is felt most when it comes to defending waves of wildebeest coming around the corner in your 22.
We moan about CJ Stander’s limited role – taking contact – when he has the ability to deliver more, but how Townsend would gladly settle for some of what the Ireland number eight has to offer. The coach may have one of the most effective poachers in the tournament in Hamish Watson but he is not built to stop big men on the hoof. It remains a point of weakness that Ireland will chase.
A super confident Ireland, apparently. There is something unsettling about the rush to gush after the win in Rome. The disparity in quality was unmissable, but that was the case too for France and England when Italy had stronger sides out in the first two rounds. Yet between Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton it sounded like they had gone into the Lion’s den with a bunch of novices and slapped the big cat around for 80 minutes. Bring on the next victim. Maybe it was a natural reaction. Maybe it was choreographed. Either way it was striking in its tone.
The way this tournament is unfolding first you have to hope the games go ahead next weekend as planned, and that we get contests unadulterated by mind-bending intervention from the match officials. Anything after that – like keeping the show on the road to the last stop – would, with respect to Wales, be a bonus. Fingers crossed.
Saturday: Italy v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 2.15; England v France, Twickenham, 4.45.
Sunday, March 14: Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, 2.15.
Saturday, March 20: Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield, 2.15; Ireland v England, Aviva, 4.45; France v Wales, Stade de France, 8.0.
Tbc, Friday, March 26: France v Scotland, Stade de France.