Ireland have been crowned Six Nations champions with a match to spare after England’s hopes of retaining the title ended when they lost the second game of the penultimate round, 22-16, to France in Paris.
Ireland’s earlier four-try, 28-8 win over Scotland in Dublin had left England needing a bonus-point victory in Paris to keep their title hopes alive. It is Ireland’s third title in five years under Joe Schmidt but Johnny Sexton said celebrations were “muted”. They will win the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown if they beat England on Saturday. “It’s a strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go,” said Irish fly-half Sexton.
“We know how difficult it will be (to win the Grand Slam). The shoe is on the other foot from last year when Ireland ended England’s Grand Slam hopes with victory in Dublin on the final day. If Ireland wins in London on St. Patrick’s Day they will secure the third Grand Slam in their history, following previous triumphs in 1948 and 2009. “It’s going to be a big game for us now,” said Ireland captain Rory Best. “Whenever you put yourself in the position to win everything in the Six Nations it becomes massive, but the key for us is approach it as we do every game. “We are going to have to save the best till last. That’s what it’s going to take to win everything next week.” Ireland began the day five points clear of England at the top of the Six Nations table.
Schmidt’s side knew a bonus-point victory in Dublin would require England to do the same in Paris to keep the title race alive – and the Irish secured the five points with ease. Winger Jacob Stockdale, the 21-year-old playing only his eighth game for Ireland, bagged two tries to take his overall international tally to 10, while further scores from Conor Murray and Sean Cronin handed ruthless Ireland a thumping win. Scotland did not manage to turn the ball over with the same success in Dublin; turnovers were the key to their victory over England in round 3. It was noticeable that Wayne Barnes, the referee against Scotland, “policed” the tackle area more keenly than Nigel Owens did in Edinburgh for the Scotland/England game. Owens gave the Scottish backrow more time over the ball than Barnes did; thus John Barkley and his backrow colleagues struggled to get quality ball for the exciting Scottish backline.
Ireland has swept to this year’s title on the back of some stand-out performances by the younger members of the squad. Jacob Stockdale’s habit of scoring intercept tries has developed into a trademark and the 21-year-old Ulster star has an incredible strike rate of 10 tries in just eight Test appearances after his double on Saturday. Former Ireland Under-20s captain James Ryan – another 21-year-old – was Ireland’s stand-out forward against Scotland – topping the charts with 15 carries, 13 tackles and three line-out wins.
Garry Ringrose, the 23-year-old who was making just his seventh appearance of the season for both Ireland and Leinster, produced an outstanding performance at outside centre, having become the third player to be forced into that position during this year’s championship. Dan Leavy, Andrew Porter and the injured trio of Josh van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell have also been influential throughout the championship.
Ireland very nearly fell at the first hurdle in this year’s tournament, but were saved by Johnny Sexton’s last-gasp drop-goal in Paris. The Irish fly-half landed a dramatic long-range effort in the 83rd minute to snatch victory over France on the opening weekend in February. Former British and Irish Lions centre Jeremy Guscott it would go down as “one of the great sporting moments in Six Nations’ history” if Ireland went on to win the Six Nations.
“It was a very special moment for the team,” Sexton said of his drop-goal. “We will look back on that five minutes [Ireland’s 41-phase move to set up Sexton] when we lift the trophy next week, hopefully with a Grand Slam and say it was a huge moment in our success.”
England travelled to the Stade de France hoping to avoid two successive defeats for the first time under head coach Eddie Jones. They had been comprehensively outplayed by a fired-up Scottish outfit at Murrayfield in the third round, and kicked off in Paris knowing only a bonus-point victory would be enough to deny Ireland the title. Before the match, Jones told BBC Sport his side had not discussed bonus points and permutations, and just needed to play well.
With the scores level at 9-9, the match was blown wide open when Anthony Watson’s high tackle on Benjamin Fall saw the England full-back yellow carded and a penalty try awarded. Jonny May’s late try gave them hope of an unlikely win, but France held out against a white-shirted onslaught at the death for only their second win in a year. The French defence was, similar to their game against Ireland, simply tremendous. They harried, hounded and enveloped the English players from the start to the finish of the game. Taking the Italians and the Irish victory in Paris out of the equation no team has won away from home this season. Winning on the road is becoming more difficult in the Six Nations.
Wales ran in five tries to hand Italy their 16th straight Six Nations defeat and jump up to second in the table. George North, one of 10 changes made by coach Warren Gatland, scored twice, while Hadleigh Parkes, Justin Tipuric and Cory Hill sealed a bonus-point win.
Matteo Minozzi scored an early try for Italy with Mattia Bellini adding a consolation late on. Wales will finish second behind champions Ireland if they defeat France with a bonus point next Saturday. It was a spirited performance from the “azzuri” and there was to be no repeat of the 2016 fixture in Cardiff when Wales celebrated a record Six Nations 67-14 victory.
The Italians have surprised everybody this season. They have tried to play a more expansive game than in recent championships. The Italians have scored 9 tries in the competition thus far, two more than Scotland and France, and that speaks volumes for Conar O’Shea’s influence. However, they have also conceded 23 tries, double Scotland at 11, and that is the problem. Any out of work defence coaches around?