Going into this years 6 Nations Championship Ireland were the top team in the northern hemisphere. 2018 brought a Grand Slam and concluded with a win over the All Blacks to secure their status as the biggest threat to the World Champions in Japan later this year. Much has changed in the past month, England look a lot more like England again and Wales have put their hand up as contenders.
BEAT AT OWN GAME
Ireland were out thought, out fought and maybe most surprisingly out kicked in their opener. England decided to play the Irish at their own game and they played it better. When Ireland take to the pitch we know what is coming but that doesn’t make things any easier in terms of finding a formula for victory against them. Game management, execution of game plan and squeaky clean discipline, the foundations upon which the success they have experienced under the stewardship of Joe Schmidt had been built, were all missing on the opening weekend. It may have just been a bad day at the office but Ireland have done little since to suggest they are anywhere near the levels they produced in 2018. A more clinical Scotland, a statement that has been used all too often in the last few years, could have made it consecutive defeats for the men in green. The lethargic nature of the victory over Italy doing little to raise Irish supporters worries.
HUNTER OR HUNTED?
It has so far been very unlike a Joe Schmidt managed side. The dip in form may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise. Ireland are a nation who thrive as the underdog, it is instilled in their culture even outside of sport. After the autumn victory over New Zealand they were strong suggestions that Ireland might be favourites for the World Cup, not that the bookmakers agree who still strongly favour the All Blacks. Favouritism brings new challenges, it takes getting used to. No longer the hunter, now the hunted, one gets the feeling that an Irish side heading into the World Cup without the highest of expectations might well be a more dangerous proposition.
TERRITORY OVER POSSESSION
England entered the championship on the back of a sobering 2018. Under Eddie Jones it had all been plain sailing until a run of six straight defeats left many to believe that England had peaked too soon in the World Cup cycle, even the role of the head coach was questioned. A stabilising Autumn series included a narrow defeat to New Zealand and victories over a depleted South Africa and a poor Australia side. The performance against Ireland came as a surprise. The balance of the side, which was lacking the previous year, appeared to be back. Surrendering possession for territory by playing more with the boot and backing the set piece and defensive structures to force errors. Against France the kicking game could almost have been labelled an offensive weapon due to the woeful efforts of the French to deal with kicks, much to the delight of Jonny May.
TIME FOR CHANGE?
Another win against Wales and England would have likely been grand slam winners heading into the World Cup. Despite a strong start the English started to run out of legs and, perhaps more worryingly, ideas. When the kicking game began to fail it was persisted with. Despite the rewards reaped in the first two games from the regular use of the kick it does take away from some of England’s strengths. In Manu Tuilagi they have the destructive ball carrier they were craving returning to full power at just the right time and in Elliott Daly a huge weapon with ball in hand. The reliance on Owen Farrell to be brilliant every week was also all too obvious. He was not his usual self and it showed in the performance of the whole side. It is by no need time to panic but England need to settle on a plan A that is good enough to beat the other top nations in the world if executed correctly. To win a World Cup there also needs to be an alternative to turn to. The concern is that maybe September may come too quickly for it all to come together.
SUCCESSES ON THE CONTINENT
During the Autumn Warren Gatland claimed his Welsh side had forgotten how to lose on the back of some hard fought victories. They managed to get that win against Australia which had been so elusive for so long. They were not given any real chance of winning the Six Nations, results had been excellent over the Summer and in the Autumn, but the performances weren’t given much credit. A win against France on opening night would probably have been expected but given the nature of the gift wrapped victory meant it was a bullet dodged. However, winning becomes a habit and winning when not playing well is the trait of a champion. Victory against Italy was probably a little below par, five points were likely the target from the match but only four were won and Wales returned from the continent with eight points from their opening two games.
MAKING A STATEMENT
In the build up to the England game it was evident that Gatland quietly fancied it. He came up with the game plan to foil England and their kicking game. Despite a slow start his players, in particular the back three, executed it to perfection. The biggest statement so far in World Cup year had been made, Wales have very much joined the party and must be considered able contenders. They now have much greater depth than in previous seasons but like England and Ireland there are those two or three players who are irreplaceable. Gatland now knows that he has a battle-hardened squad with a never say die attitude, this will provide him with comfort.
IS PRESSURE A PRIVILIGE OR HINDERANCE?
Where does all this leave us? It might appear that none of the three want the burden of pressure that success in the Six Nations might bring, should momentum be sacrificed in order to control expectation or should pressure be treated as a privilege? If Wales do not win the Grand Slam, due to the remaining fixtures and current state of the table, England will be strong favourites for the championship. It is very possible that England, Ireland and Wales will finish with four wins each and one victory each in fixtures between them. At present, perhaps by design, none can be called the undisputed number one from the northern hemisphere.
Have England found the definitive team and game plan yet? Can Ireland deal with the pressure of being one of the favourites? Are the Wales front five good enough to challenge at the latter stages of a World Cup? Which team will perform best at the World Cup is hard to answer at the minute but Eddie, Joe and Warren will all be quietly confident. Like a game of rock, paper, scissors that which beats one might be defeated by another hopefully the World Cup can provide definitive answers.
Written by Stefan Hamilton