Before the Six Nations began in such startling fashion with England’s silencing of the Millennium Stadium, a Grand Slam for any side in this year’s tournament felt unlikely. Too many well-matched horses in one race, all with certain fixtures that could prove problematic.
Now at the halfway point Ireland and England have pulled away. France’s abysmal lack of structure and ambition rules them out as contenders, even after going nine rounds with Ireland a fortnight ago, while Wales recovered against Scotland after that opening loss, but still don’t look or feel like champions.
All the mockery directed at France under Marc Lièvremont now feels a little foolish, because at least in the midst of that circus there was still a sense of some progress, however scatter-brained it turned out to be.
Philippe Saint-André’s reign has been given patience, trusting that after Lièvremont there would be a concise plan, but that trust has now run out and all too late with a Rugby World Cup now months away. In Dublin there was no poise, no great intellect, the sole objective being to try and batter Ireland out of their way.
Sure, it was a brutal test physically for Joe Schmidt’s side, but it would have been criminal had they lost considering the drivel France produced up until the introduction of Morgan Parra.
The mission to rattle Jonathan Sexton was a washout, with French rugby’s best-paid Irishman, along with Conor Murray, taking les Bleus apart with Ireland’s accurate kicking game. Brain versus brawn, with only one winner.
Ireland’s ace in the hole is proving to be Schmidt’s tactical approaches to each individual side, which has made him one of the world’s top coaches. His life is made significantly easier by the fact that Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are adapting well to Test rugby, while Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are two of the best in the world when it comes to aerial supremacy. Having Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy fit again too comes at an ideal time, two more players
Wales meanwhile won through power at Murrayfield and the superiority of their kicking game, but there was an obvious failure to attack the open space on a number of opportunities that felt short-sighted.
Playing that way against another heavyweight side like France won’t work, while when Ireland visit Cardiff in Round 4 there will be an enormous emphasis on the kicking battle between the two sets of half-backs. Murray and Sexton look the better pairing in that regard than Webb and Biggar based on recent matches, while Schmidt will be hard at work devising a strategy to counter the Welsh defence effectively on a consistent basis. Ireland certainly won’t fear travelling to Cardiff, where their record is strong.
First though come England, who have shown both power and a desire to use the speed of their backline in equal measure.
Jonathan Joseph has been the breakout star of the tournament with his three tries in two games and rightly deserves all the praise sent his way. England’s success however has hinged on their ball carriers getting over the gain line – Billy Vunipola has worked tirelessly in that regard – with Ben Youngs and George Ford then thriving off any quick ball.
The number of darts from Youngs around the fringes increase the more England’s pack dominate, while Ford’s willingness to play flat up to the line continually fixes defences to make space for the runners around him – an invitation for the hard-working James Haskell and Chris Robshaw along with of course, his Bath team-mate Joseph.
England’s one problem might be Jonny May. The Gloucester flyer is a unique talent with his speed as he showed against the All Blacks last November, but little errors have racked up to put his place under threat from the more secure Jack Nowell.
I quite happily wrote England off for this year’s Six Nations prior to the start of the tournament based on their fixture list and injuries, but look at them now.
Those defensive lapses against Italy were in fact a blessing for Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff – coming at an unimportant time but allowing them to drill a message into the side ahead of three big games to come that could end with a first title under Lancaster’s reign. They showed resolve against Wales, a cutting-edge in attack against Italy.
England can certainly go to Dublin and win, something that seemed doubtful pre-tournament, just as Ireland can be expected to derail the chariot, go to Cardiff and triumph before finishing off away to Scotland.
All making next Sunday’s pivotal Test match into something very special, with the chance of a Slam suddenly realistic.