England are in the driving seat as the RBS 6 Nations heads to a dramatic final weekend. Rugby World assesses where the title is likely to be heading…
You’re a cricket captain and you win the toss. The pitch and conditions are neutral, so do you bat first and set a target – or back yourself to chase a known score?
This weekend’s Six Nations combatants don’t get to choose, Wales (+12 points difference) kicking off first in Italy and looking to post a whopping victory to apply pressure on Ireland (+33) and England (+37). France can still come up on the rails to nick the title but if their current nervy-and-inhibited XV ends up becoming European champions then we might as well take the posts down and take up carpet bowls.
Wales once racked up 60 points in Treviso but since Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000, the best they’ve managed is a 30-point win in Mike Ruddock’s 2005 Grand Slam year. A 30-point win surely won’t be enough this weekend, but a 50-point win might be – and here’s the snag.
No one has ever won by 50 points in Italy, with Australia (49 points in 1988) and New Zealand (49 points in 2004) going closest. England won by 47 in 2000 but you only have to go back to last March, when the Red Rosers were again vying with Ireland for the title, to see how difficult it is to achieve a crushing margin.
England ran in seven tries but, throwing caution to the wind, conceded an interception try by Leonardo Sarto and, along with a couple of Orquera penalties, leaked 11 points. 52-11 was a gutsy effort but still not enough. Ireland had simply to beat France by any margin to take the title and they duly did.
So even though Italy produced the all-time worst Six Nations performance last Sunday, in a horror match of 37 handling errors, Wales have probably left themselves too much to do on Saturday.
Which leaves England (home to France) and Ireland (away to Scotland) to square up for the silverware. At stake is not only the brand-new championship trophy but the opportunity to go into the World Cup on a high. “With the World Cup looming it’s about making sure we get that winning habit at Twickenham,” says England captain Chris Robshaw. “It would give the guys that extra bit of confidence.”
History shows that reigning Five/Six Nations champions do well at the same year’s World Cup, with only Scotland (1999) and England (2011) not reaching at least the semi-finals.
Stuart Lancaster’s team has arguably produced only one outstanding half of rugby in this championship – in Cardiff on the opening day – but they’ve shown an adventure that is to be commended. For all their sloppiness against the Scots, they’ve still bagged 11 tries – more than double everyone else’s tally apart from (remarkably) Italy. At a time when the emphasis on the kick-chase risks alienating casual supporters, England’s ambition is to be applauded.
Best till last
Would that make them more worthy champions than Ireland, the team that beat them emphatically in Dublin? It’s difficult to criticise a side for playing to its strengths, and when you have kickers as accurate as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton in your ranks, why not take advantage.
You have to hope, though, that Joe Schmidt is holding something back, that the likes of Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald will get more runs with the ball come September. Twelve Irish line breaks across the championship, compared to 39 by England, hints at the methodical nature of their play. Bowe needs just one try to overtake Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson on the all-time Six Nations try list but has been stranded on 14 for three years.
Ireland’s current game is not conducive to racking up big scores. Against Tier One nations this season they average a ten-point win and were they to match that at Murrayfield, you’d have to back England – even against a stingy French defence – to gobble up the gap in the later kick-off. Win by 20 and Ireland would be favourites.
With only four tries to date, Ireland are on the cusp of a bittersweet record – they could register the fewest number of tries by a Six Nations-winning team, Wales (with nine two years ago) presently holding that dubious honour.
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That would be somehow fitting for a championship that has been far from vintage, yet perhaps all the excitement is being saved up for Saturday, the first four-way, final-day title fight the Six Nations has seen. Be sure not to miss it.
RBS 6 Nations, round 5 fixtures, Saturday:
Italy v Wales, 12.30pm; Scotland v Ireland, 2.30pm; England v France, 5pm.
All live on BBC