Six Nations title is still within Ireland’s grasp

Winning the title and being crowned European champions would not be too shabby

Joe Schmidt discusses team selection ahead of Italy clash.

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 12:00

It was a suitably grey and grim Sunday morning in London, but as Gordon D’Arcy forecast the sun would shine again and it duly did so – brilliantly, yesterday morning. Life goes on.

Defeats happen. But in the cold light of day, a first Six Nations title since 2009 and only a second championship since 1985 would be well worth savouring and a fitting way of sending you-know-who off into the sunset.

So the Irish front-liners will regroup in Belfast on Wednesday and Thursday with plenty still to play for. And after finishing runners-up on five occasions in the Six Nations (thrice on points’ difference), winning the title and being crowned European champions in a year when Ireland had to travel to London and Paris would not be too shabby.

Of course, a Grand Slam would certainly have been preferable given the mystique attached to the ultimate prize – not least in Ireland given just two to date. But winning a title would be eminently preferable to finishing second again. Recall too, how envious Irish rugby was of Wales retaining the title on the final Saturday last year, not to mention the joyous scenes of 1985 under Mick Doyle when Michael Kiernan’s drop goal clinched the title.

Pool rivals
Admittedly, Ireland also nailed a Triple Crown that day and won the title with seven points after a 15-all draw at home to France in a bruising encounter, and similarly, as Joe Schmidt intimated, Ireland would have been entitled to sacrifice a crown and take a shot at goal for the draw if Craig Joubert, or Romain Poite, had spotted Tom Wood playing the ball with his hand in the scrum.

Others will play better. Although his darts and work-rate were good, untypically Rory Best missed six tackles. Johnny Sexton has had better days with his decision-making and kicking, although even after the risky chip and risky restart at 10-3 and 10-6, Ireland still earned a relieving penalty and scrum pressure away from danger. We can’t blame everything on playing for Racing Metro but his absence again this week is not helpful, and compare and contrast with Stuart Lancaster discarding the Toulouse-bound Toby Flood.

Ireland could do with more X-factor, but Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls and Craig Gilroy are laid low and one can be sure Schmidt has forensically examined the form of Simon Zebo (and Tommy O’Donnell) for not picking them last week. Zebo needs to up his work rate and defence, but if he listens to Schmidt he will assuredly become the superstar he can be.

Italy stand in the way of a grand finale if not a Grand Slam in Paris as the proverbial banana skin and they will be distraught at the manner in which they lost their targeted fixture at home to Scotland. Ultimately though, winning in Paris is tough for any visiting side. Ireland know this better than anyone and England discovered this in round one.

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