There’s a feeling out there, you sense, that this Irish team have bigger fish to fry this year than the Six Nations, namely the Holy Grail of winning a World Cup quarter-final; that a Championship title and even a Grand Slam, and with it retaining the world number one ranking, might even be too much baggage to carry on board the flight to France 2023.
What’s more, if another pool or quarter-final exit follows at the World Cup the anti-rugby lobby will have great fun in deriding any achievements in this year’s Six Nations (and last summer’s historic Test series win in New Zealand) in claiming that Ireland, typically, came up short when it really mattered.
Even when Ireland were seeking a first Triple Crown since 2018 last March on the final Saturday, and a first title since that Grand Slam year as well were England to beat France in Paris, the crowd seemed somewhat blasé about it all.
Whatever about being blasé about a Triple Crown, which admittedly is something of an historical relic dating back to the Home Nations (1883-1909 and 1932-1939) when it also constituted a Grand Slam, there’s scant reason for being so about a title or a Slam.
Winning a first ever series over the All Blacks in New Zealand is arguably a superior achievement to a Six Nations title, or even a Grand Slam. Yet for all the famous wins and progress in Andy Farrell’s tenure to date, in the Six Nations Ireland have finished third, third, third and second dating back to that 2018 Slam.
Lest it be forgotten too, Irish rugby isn’t exactly over-burdened with titles and Slams. While there has been a relatively bountiful harvest of four Six Nations titles in the last 14 years, overall Ireland’s tally of 14 outright titles is joint fourth with Scotland, behind England (29), Wales (28) and France (18). Ireland’s haul of three Grand Slams lags some way short of England (13), Wales (12) and France (10), while it is again level with Scotland.
Even since the advent of the Six Nations in 2000, Ireland’s four titles is again behind England (seven) and both France and Wales (six apiece), while the two Slams equal England but are again short of both France and Wales (four apiece).
Who are we to be blasé?
The potential prize this year is given added piquancy in that Ireland host England in the last game of the tournament on Saturday, March 18th (kick-off 5pm). Ireland have never sealed a Slam in Lansdowne Road, the previous three having been signed off in Belfast, Cardiff and London, and the last title to be completed in the ground was in 1985, all of 38 years ago.
In other words the vast majority of the 50,000 who are lucky enough to be in the Aviva Stadium come March 18th have never seen an Irish team lift the title in Dublin. Sod the World Cup for a minute, imagine the feel-good factor were Ireland to be crowned Six Nations champions after beating England on St Patrick’s weekend? And, touch wood, in Johnny Sexton’s last Championship game?
Of course, if Ireland do come up short of the title and, say, maintain their record of always finishing in the top half of the table for a 10th successive year, that hoary old chestnut about Ireland peaking too far out from a World Cup will be given an airing.
But let’s view this Six Nations in the boring prism of a World Cup. In 2019, after winning the Slam the previous year as well as recording a comeback series win in Australia and a four-match November clean sweep including the All Blacks, Joe Schmidt tried Robbie Henshaw in the 2019 Six Nations opener against England. Ireland lost and, arguably never quite rediscovered the same confidence and elan of 2018 again, all the way through to the World Cup. Thereafter maybe that team was damaged.
So judging by that example it may be better for Ireland to maintain last season’s momentum all the way through to the World Cup. And, after three defeats in a row against France, this Irish team needs a win over the hosts and reigning Grand Slam champions, all the more so should a World Cup knock-out meeting come to pass.
The IRFU’s recent independent survey of drinking preferences, wherein a disaffected 25% might emulate the vast swathes of true supporters who have given up on the experience, reads discouragingly like a licence for the awful Aviva experience to carry on regardless, with sad musical interludes merely an acknowledgment that the crowd have tuned out.
But if home Six Nations games against France and England, for which tickets are again like gold-dust, doesn’t lively up the place, then it’s time to give up.
Six Nations forecast – 1st: Ireland 2nd: France 3rd: England 4th: Wales 5th: Scotland 6th: Italy.
PS: Last Saturday’s new Energia All-Ireland Division 1A “classico” between Terenure College and Clontarf lived up to its billing. True to form, Clontarf’s high level of efficiency in all the basics of the game, be it scrum, line-out, maul and breakdown, gave Terenure a searching examination in all areas.
The champions bounced back from their defeat by an improving Cork Constitution a week before to repeat their win in last year’s final at the Aviva Stadium (where the estimated 6,000 attendance generated more atmosphere than at any of the three Six Nations games at the same venue) and so also gain revenge for the defeat by the exact same scoreline, 29-24, at Castle Avenue in round seven last November. It was Terenure’s first loss at Lakelands Park in 16 months previously, when beaten by the same opponents.
Terenure’s brilliant late try did secure a bonus point, and with six rounds remaining they still lead Clontarf by three points, with Con just behind the champions in what looks like a three-way scramble for home advantage in the two semi-finals. There’s a nine-point gap to Young Munster, a point ahead of Trinity and four clear of Ballynahinch in what looks to be a three-way fight for the final semi-final place.
Terenure still look best placed to gain a top two finish, and it would be no great surprise if they and Clontarf contest the final again.