Gerry Thornley: Top tier expands and leaves Italy behind

This year’s series is going to be more brutally physical and exacting than its predecessors

Italian players react after Ireland’s Craig Gilroy scored a try during the team’s Six Nations rugby  match  in Rome  at  weekend. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Italian players react after Ireland’s Craig Gilroy scored a try during the team’s Six Nations rugby match in Rome at weekend. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

 

Heaven forbid the English clubs are ever allowed have their way and the Six Nations is condensed into five consecutive weekends. At a stroke, their self-centred demands show their sense of care for players and their workloads is almost non-existent. It’s tough enough to play five of these internecine European cup ties at Test level over seven weeks. No regular, front-line starter could survive such ferocious intensity.

This coming weekend affords a welcome respite and time to take stock for the rest of us, so one can only imagine what it’s like for the players. Two rounds in, it seems that, if anything, the 2017 Six Nations is going to be more brutally physical and exacting than any of its predecessors.

In latter years, the old tournament has become somewhat two-tiered, with England, Ireland and Wales in the top tier and even once mighty France joining Scotland and Italy in the lower tier. For the last six seasons, not alone have England, Wales and Ireland garnered two titles apiece, in four of the last five campaigns they have filled the top three places. The exception was in 2013 when Ireland finished fifth and Scotland rose to third.

But if the 2017 Six Nations is looking in any way two-tiered, then it would appear that the big five have left poor Italy looking more on their own than ever before.

In this the form of the autumn has carried on into this season’s tournament. England came into this tournament as reigning Grand Slam champions and having completed a summer clean sweep in Australia and another one at home in November, rose to second in the world rankings.

World rankings

Although England have extended their winning run to 16 matches and thus closed to within two of equalling the mark set by the All Blacks last year, they have been hard-pushed to subdue France at home and, in particular, Wales in Cardiff on Saturday in a game that amounted to a full-on physical war. It would be cruel in the extreme to ask any of those players involved to tog out for another Six Nations match this coming weekend.

As evidenced by the way they nearly beat both the Wallabies and the All Blacks last November, France are clearly progressing under Guy Noves. They are as crammed with dynamic, ball-carrying athletes as ever, but are also offloading in the Toulouse manner and, as strikingly as anything, have improved their defensive line speed, defensive organisation and accuracy in the tackle.

Their scrum and maul remain powerful and Noves has seemingly solved their perennial half-back problem by settling on the livewire Bordeaux scrumhalf Baptiste Serin (with Maxime Machenaud a handy impact reserve) and the in-form Clermont outhalf Camille Lopez. They are also playing more for the shirt than ever seemed the case under Philippe Saint-André.

They look a better outfit than the team that ended the five-match winless run against Ireland under Saint-André with last year’s 10-9 success over Ireland in Paris.

Cut adrift

Vern Cotter

Meantime, the manner in which Ireland clinically recorded a bonus point before half-time in their nine try, 63-10 rout of Italy merely reaffirmed the impression from the previous Sunday that Wales missed a trick when coming inches short of an attacking bonus point in the same Stadio Olimpico.

Certainly the idea of hastily running off the Six Nations in five consecutive weekends would most probably consign Italy to five big beatings, for backing up on consecutive weekends has always been harder for them. So it is that they have never won a game on the second weekend.

However, even a two-week break appears to offer Conor O’Shea and his squad no kind of respite. Indeed, the advent of the bonus-point system looks set to work against them, with all opponents now eyeing up a four-try bonus point against them. Eddie Jones, in his own inimitably disrespectful way, has exclaimed: “We want to take them to the cleaners.”

The problem for Ireland, although they have climbed to second in the table and are within two points of England, is if the latter obtain bonus point wins in their next two home games against Italy and Scotland, that would mean they arrive in Dublin for the final weekend on 18 points.

Back-to-back wins

Still, Ireland’s confidence has been restored by the performance in Rome, which was much more in keeping with the standards set in November, and are in a healthy enough state, with Niall Scannell and James Tracy having been blooded seamlessly, and others becoming more acquainted with the uniqueness of the Six Nations.

The likelihood is that Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton (without him playing for Leinster this Friday) and Andrew Trimble will come back into the mix. Just as significantly, the lessons absorbed by that opener in Murrayfield will remain with the squad for the remainder of the tournament.

   gthornley@irishtimes.com 

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