2017 may only be in its infancy but the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship has already reached its end with England claiming back to Back championships for the first time since 2001.
England, having won their previous four games, including a 61-21 dismantling of Vern Cotter’s Scotland a week prior, already had the championship wrapped up and headed to Dublin in expectant mood in an effort to achieve their first back-to-back Grand Slam triumph since 1992.
Ireland, though, had other ideas. Schmidt’s charges won 13-9 in a match that was as intense and absorbing as it was turgid and brutal. A first half Iain Henderson try followed by two penalties by the targeted but sublime Jonny Sexton was enough to thwart England’s malfunctioning chariot in their failed effort to eclipse the All Blacks 18 match winning run – England will have to settle for a mere share of that record, then.
Speaking after the game, Joe Schmidt said; “to get second in the table is something that was incredibly important to us”. Now, obviously Joe was referring to the fact that, prior to the England game, a 2nd place finish in the tournament was the highest place Ireland could finish having lost away to both Scotland and Wales, and finish second they did. However, after Ireland’s historic 40-29 Chicago victory over New Zealand as recently as November, much was expected from the men in green for the 2017 Six Nations and despite handing England their 5th defeat in a Dublin Six Nations Championship game in 6 meetings, Ireland ultimately didn’t deliver on their promise.
Ireland’s first half implosion in Murrayfield on the opening weekend of the championship meant that they couldn’t afford any further slip up if they were to engage England in a ‘winner takes all affair’ in Dublin on the closing week. However, their rudderless defeat to Wales put pay to any ambition the men in green had of claiming any silverware – all they had then was a burning desire to crush England’s Grand Slam dreams – and so they did, but they should have greater ambitions than to simply spoil the party.
Point being, Ireland have beaten England, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France to name but a few in the past 12 months yet have also managed to lose away to both Scotland and Wales in this year’s Six Nations Championship – sides ranked below Ireland in 5th and 6th place in World Rugby’s Rankings.
If Ireland are to realistically challenge for World Cups – being able to simply beat the best isn’t sufficient, they must also routinely beat those who they are expected to beat as failure to do so, will result in many a championships going the way of the 2017 Six Nations. Ireland may have halted England’s Grand Slam ambitions yet again, but England still won the trophy. Ireland need to do more than performing near their optimum when their backs are against the wall – they must be more consistent if they are to challenge the very best in the biggest tournaments.
Also, their listless attacking structure must be addressed. In Ireland’s three biggest games in this championship – home to France and England, away to Wales – they managed to score 3 tries – that’s not good enough. Ireland tend to attack very statically making it easier on teams with an excellent rush defence, like Wales. An evolution in attacking ideas will help Ireland in their quest to get to the next level.
Still, though, in beating England last Saturday, Ireland presented England and a select few of their arrogant associates with plenty to ponder indeed. Before the game England coach Eddie Jones said: “If we were to get beaten – and we won’t – is it a failure? We’re still Six Nations champions”. Confidence is one thing, arrogance is quite another. Similarly, ex England coach and 2003 World Cup winning Captain Martin Johnson stated before the match that, despite predicting a tough game that could go either way, he believed England could hammer Ireland under the right circumstances: “if they (Ireland) can’t play well then we (England) will beat you quite readily and if they play terribly then we will put sixty points on you like we did against Scotland”. Perhaps Jones and Johnson will take head of this result and lessen the blatant arrogance, perhaps not – it’s immaterial either way.
So, the 2017 Six Nations Championship ends with England as deserving victors for the second successive year. Ireland, despite an overall disappointing tournament in finishing second, ended it on a high by defeating England and putting their Grand Slam dreams up in smoke. Attention now turns to the Lions tour to New Zealand and whilst England should take their fair share of representatives on the team, many an Irishman will undoubtedly be heading to the Southern Hemisphere in June to renew their rivalry with the mighty All Blacks.