Six Nations 2018: Ranking each country's performance so far
With two games in the books for the 2018 Six Nations it's time to assess each side's performances so far. Mick Cleary runs the rule over the contenders
With Johnny Sexton on the field anything and everything is possible. It is not just that the Ireland fly-half delivered the drop-goal from heaven after 41 phases against France, or had the vision and then the nerve to dink-kick to Keith Earls in the build-up to that match-winning score, it is also that Sexton, as with Owen Farrell, radiates belief, infusing his teammates with that self-same air of confidence.
Ireland stuttered in Paris yet came through, duly dispatching Italy with aplomb. Robbie Henshaw's injury is an issue but with Earls in such sprightly form and wunderkind, Jordan Larmour, showing from the bench that the hype is justified, then Ireland have plenty to offer across the back-line. Tadhg Furlong's early departure against Italy paved the way for an impressive performance from back-up tighthead, Andrew Porter.
Rory Best is the heartbeat of the pack with Devin Toner a real force in all phases. Ireland have Wales and Scotland to come at the Aviva Stadium where they have not lost a championship game under Joe Schmidt in five years .
A good side but not yet a great one, as their performances to date would indicate.
But England continue to win, their victory over Wales at Twickenham as impressive in its manner – gnarled, gritty, clever and varied in equal measure – as the seven try romp in Rome.
We should not begrudge England their global second-ranked status as if they are winning matches (24 from 25 under Jones, a record 15 consecutive championship victories at Twickenham) by luck or dodgy TMO calls. They are not.
They are potent – two tries apiece for wings, Anthony Watson and Jonny May – they are solid if not yet dominant in the scrum, and in Owen Farrell they have a commander-in-chief.
In many ways, England have had the perfect start, their attack sharpened at the Stadio Olimpico, their defence and resolve and togetherness tested against Wales. They have injured players returning and are in good shape and heading for a Grand Slam showdown with Ireland at Twickenham.
Defeat should not be a balm to any side yet Wales can take heart from the manner of their 12-6 loss at Twickenham for it showed that they do have strength-in-depth, that their forward pack has much to admire and that their high-standard of fitness really does exist.
And yet they did not manage to put England away even though they had chances. The All Blacks do not miss such opportunities. Their kicking game is also too wayward, their aerial game likewise. That is where the match at Twickenham was won and lost, not on the fine-line calls of a TMO or even the brilliance of Sam Underhill's cover tackle.
Leigh Halfpenny would have made a difference in the manner that Mike Brown did for England. The upside is that Wales' defence is in reasonable order, their discipline also with only two penalties conceded. Cory Hill has shown well at lock, Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi in the back-row, too. Wales still have much to offer in this championship.
Ah, the hope, the hope, it can kill you. Many Scotland fans will have returned from Cardiff after that opening day 34-7 thrashing in a familiar state of expectation-dashed deflation. A truer measure of the team's worth, though, was their gutsy win over France with Greig Laidlaw showing to young Scots such as fly-half, Finn Russell, that test rugby is not Sevens, that throwing the ball around willy-nilly has a place but not at the expense of good judgement.
Those who thought Laidlaw's days might be over have been forced to think again. Not only was he flawless from the kicking tee against France, 8/8, his authority helped bring the best out of those around him.
Grant Gilchrist is a presence in the second-row, Huw Jones in the centre, his lovely cutting angles a thing of real potency. It will take something to win the Calcutta Cup but at least, now, there is a smidgen of realistic hope rather than overblown hype.
Once again the whipping boys, once again the focal point of calls for relegation and promotion to be introduced to the Six Nations championship. Italy’s 56-19 defeat in Dublin was their 14th in succession in the tournament, equalling their worst run.
They have already conceded 15 tries and have been handed an itinerary from hell with two more away games to come in succession against France and Wales before a final home match against Scotland. Italy should not be cast adrift.
There is enough promise in the likes of full-back, Matteo Minozzi, third in the list of most metres (157) made in the opening two rounds, two places ahead of his teammate, Mattia Bellini. Sebastian Negri in the back-row has also made his mark while Sergio Parisse remains a peerless influence.
Italy came within a lung-busting try-saving tackle by Keith Earls on Bellini of getting a bonus point at the Aviva. They are a team of spirit if not yet of any achievement.
Police may have decided not to pursue players questioned over an alleged incident late on Sunday night in a city-centre bar, but the distraction of having their plane temporarily grounded at Edinburgh airport was unwanted.
Under the new management of Jacques Brunel, France have been attempting to repair their on-field reputations following the dismissal in December of head coach Guy Noves. There looked to be an upturn with an encouraging show against Ireland in Paris and there were glimpses, too, at Murrayfield.
Teddy Thomas has been electric on the wing with three tries, every bit as fast and as deadly as England's Jonny May, while La Rochelle centre Geoffrey Doumayrou has the potential to be one of the stars of the tournament. But, and it is a significant but, France still appear chaotic and uncertain. There is no discernible style, with their efforts admittedly hampered by injuries at half-back.