State of the Nation: Ireland banish World Cup ghosts but will rue ‘missed opportunities’ in Six Nations title defence

Jared Wright
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony lifts the Guinness Six Nations trophy after the match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony lifts the Guinness Six Nations trophy after the match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

Now that the dust has settled on another memorable Six Nations, we update you on the state of the participating nations, lastly we take a look at the champions, Andy Farrell’s Ireland.

Many will look back at this Ireland campaign as what could have been as one night at Twickenham cost Farrell’s side back-to-back Grand Slams but claiming successive Six Nations is certainly no easy task.

Overall, Ireland were the best team in the Championship and thoroughly deserved to defend their title. They are undoubtedly the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, and adding another Six Nations title to their tally underpins that point.

After rinsing France in their own backyard, they set the tone for their Championship and racked up 15 log points in three fixtures, which only added to their aura.

The fans and pundits were calling for a response following their disappointment at the Rugby World Cup and threw down the gauntlet emphatically. The World Cup hangover has comfortably subsided, but that night in Twickenham is a stark reminder that they are not a finished product.

Tournament summary

Heading into the opening game of the tournament, already dubbed a title decider, Farrell exclaimed that there were no World Cup ghosts to banish, and for the squad, that certainly looked to be true as they swept aside the French, usually a boogie team for the men in green.

More often than not in recent encounters, the French pack has got the edge in the forward battle, but on the opening night, that was not the case as young lock Joe McCarthy hammered into Les Bleus’ tight five, producing an epic Six Nations performance. He was backed up by a worldie from Tadhg Beirne and his fellow pack members following suit. The Irish pack were a well-oiled machine that set the platform for slaughtering, and they and their backs capitalised to seal a record win over Les Bleus in France.

Italy and Wales proved to be mere speed bumps for the green machine, and perhaps that contributed to what was to come in London in round four when they clashed with Steve Borthwick’s men in white.

Farrell’s side had its tails up and seemed on track to steamroll all adversaries en route to another clean sweep, but they faced a wounded animal that was written off and not given even half a chance of upsetting the status quo. But nobody gave Ben Earl and Marcus Smith the script, or maybe they just wanted one of their own as England stunned the Irish machine and proved that they are, in fact, human, perhaps a fact that many seemingly forgot since the World Cup.

But like any champion team, Farrell and his charges got back up, brushed themselves off and got back up for a title decider against another wounded animal, a Scottish outfit that a high-flying Italian side had just downed.

The permutations meant that Ireland went into the final round with one hand on the title, but that grip could slip with an uncharacteristic performance. The Scots did not make the final job easy for Peter O’Mahony and co, providing an enormous resistance, propping up a monumental defence wall that survived shot after shot.

But that ruthless edge in the Irish game shone through once again when serial try scorer Dan Sheehan pounced on a slip at the Scottish lineout to open the scoring and tighten the grip on the trophy. The floodgates did not open from there, and it was a bit of ingenuity from a tap and go that sealed the victory as Ronan Kelleher threw a blind pass to fellow front row powerhouse Andrew Porter, powered over the line as the Aviva Stadium roared to life, as the men in green claimed back-to-back titles on St.Patricks Day’s weekend.

State of the Nation: France were the ‘very worst cliché of’ themselves as defensive and emotional frailties cost them dearly

Standout players

Much of Ireland’s success centred around the performances in the tight five and at the breakdown, and a driving force in that was the brilliant Tadhg Beirne. The lock notched up his 50th appearance for Ireland during the tournament and continues to put in world-class performances that often go overlooked. A brilliant lineout jumper, jackler, tackler and carrier, there isn’t much on the rugby pitch that he can’t do to an incredibly high standard.

There are very few wingers in world rugby quite as complete of a player as James Lowe. He is a real triple threat – run, kick and pass – with ball in hand and displayed all of those attributes throughout the tournament. He is another player who is essential to the Irish style of play.

Jack Crowley to the manner born to replace Johnny Sexton as he guided Ireland around the pitch and to another Six Nations title. He never looked rattled, rushed or under the pump as he cooly took charge of the number ten jumper and played with confidence beyond his years and experience.

Crowley was certainly helped by the men on his inside and outside, with Jamison Gibson-Park and Bundee Aki providing the perfect foils and platform for the young number ten to thrive with. Gibson-Park gave him quick, precise and speedy service to give him time to make his decision, while Aki provided him with an easy-out option to crash it over the advantage line.

Statistic leaders

Crowley averaged just over 10 points per game during the Six Nations, scoring one try, converting seven penalties and 13 conversions for a respectable 52 points – the third-highest tally in the competition – and kicked at a 74% success rate. No other player converted more tries than the Irish pivot.

Hooker Dan Sheehan finished as the joint-top try scorer in the tournament alongside Duhan van der Merwe with five tries, and James Lowe completed the competition just one behind the aforementioned pair. Sheehan’s five tries is the outright most by any forward in an edition of the Six Nations since Italy joined in 2000. His six try involvements was the most overall in the tournament. Meanwhile, Jamison Gibson-Park finished with three try assists, the best tally that four other players managed.

Caelan Doris’ relentless work-rate is highlighted in his stats as he finished the tournament with the most carries by an Ireland player (56), most attacking ruck arrivals, defensive ruck arrivals (5), and cleanouts (29) – featuring in the top three overall in the first three stats and fourth in the last. He also topped the tackle count for Ireland with 56 in total, a tally far behind the tournament leader, Michele Lamaro (103), highlighting Ireland’s possesional dominance.

Tadhg Beirne was Ireland’s leading man at the lineouts, winning 16 on his side’s own throw and led the competition in steals with three, a tally only matched by Ollie Chessum.

State of the Nation: England in Six Nations ‘turning point’ after four years of decline

Success story

The easy answer is defending their title. It certainly seemed like it was business as usual for Farrell’s charges, but the coaching team tweaked and improved on the side that won the Grand Slam last year, even without some of the legends hanging up their boots. Farrell tried out the 6-2 bench split during the tournament, perhaps looking ahead to July.

There have been growing concerns around filling Sexton’s void in the team, and Peter O’Mahony was an easy choice for the captaincy armband, really, the Irish squad were always going to find a fitting leader to take on that responsibility. But filling his void in the number ten jersey was a far greater challenge and one that Jack Crowley has risen to. He made the most of his chances, cemented his role going forward and took a major leap in making the jersey his own for years to come.

Main regret

Short answer. Twickenham. England pitched up on the day and produced a tactically astute and emotionally driven performance to edge the Irish, denying them the chance to make history by becoming the first team in the Six Nations era to claim back-to-back Grand Slams.

Dubbing back-to-back titles as a consolation prize is frankly a disservice to what this team achieved, but they will rue their missed opportunity at history.

The only other regret Ireland may have is blooding in more new players into their set-up, but Farrell made it clear pre-tournament that an evolution was coming, not a revolution.


France v Ireland (won 17-38)
Ireland v Italy (won 36-0)
Ireland v Wales (Won 31-7)
England v Ireland (23-22)
Ireland v Scotland (17-13)

READ MORE: Juan Ignacio Brex reflects on the ‘amazing’ reaction to Italy’s Six Nations campaign and how the Azzurri ‘rekindled’ their passion