A James Ryan knock-on away from the perfect tournament. Five wins, each by a margin of 10 points or more, demonstrate just how dominant Andy Farrell’s side have been. Immediately after victory against England cemented their fourth grand slam – and first to be won in Dublin – they were looking towards the World Cup with confidence, embracing the expectation that has traditionally laid heavily. This is not a criticism but there is something brutally mechanical about Ireland. A system working with maximum efficiency, no wastage, with everything and everyone in unison. There is strength in depth, too – burnished on the five-game tour of New Zealand last summer – and, though their route is daunting, they have every right to head to the World Cup as favourites. But, while it is a truism, they will need a slice of luck with Johnny Sexton’s fitness if they are to become only the second side from the northern hemisphere to be crowned world champions.
They might have relinquished their title and though it would obviously have been preferable to defend it, one senses it suits them that the spotlight is on Ireland heading into the World Cup. A victory at Twickenham was the No 1 target of this campaign and they achieved it in devastating fashion – and, before taking the foot off the gas once the bonus point was secured, they were mesmeric against Wales. It is striking just how consistent Fabien Galthié has been in his team selection, mixed with a willingness to tinker tactically – in the first three rounds they did not kick nearly as far as they did last year, for example – which suggests their World Cup preparations are ticking along nicely. They have a monstrous pack, expertly steered around the park by the world’s best player, and a set of backs capable of taking the breath away. To think it was not so long ago that there were genuine concerns that France’s decline could become permanent, only four years since they were torn apart at Twickenham.
It was a promising campaign for them with steps forward clearly taken, not least in their ability to back up victory at Twickenham by beating an admittedly poor Wales side a week later. Subsequent defeats by France and Ireland will sting because, while the scoreboard does not necessarily suggest it, they were not that far away in either match. The second half against Ireland perhaps best demonstrates the gulf between Scotland and the genuine elite – Gregor Townsend’s side almost seemed to be knocked off their stride by the fact Ireland had a flanker throwing in at the lineout whereas it galvanised the world’s No 1‑ranked team. They like to do things at 100mph and it can be fantastic to watch but to make the next step they may need to learn when to slow things down a little. But Townsend has a settled side, a backline with delightful balance and a robust set of forwards, with which to take aim at South Africa and Ireland in a daunting World Cup pool.
Twelve months on from the Rugby Football Union’s astonishing claim it was “encouraged by the solid progress” of a second successive Six Nations campaign featuring just two wins and now we have a third to boot. Appointing Steve Borthwick late last year was a hospital pass – there is no doubting he would have preferred the job after the World Cup – and the decision to sack Eddie Jones at that stage of the four-year cycle, having indulged his World Cup preoccupation for so long, looks increasingly questionable. England are in no better shape than in December and it remains to be seen whether Borthwick can utilise the months before the World Cup in the way Jones showed he could. Granted, England played with courage and defiance in Dublin but has the bar really fallen so low for that to be something worth celebrating as opposed to the bare minimum every time they take the field? Freddie Steward’s sending off was terminal to their chances of victory but it should be remembered they were already behind at that point, shipping yet another try from a lineout strike move. Red card or not, two line‑breaks from their past two matches is just not good enough.
One could put together a lengthy montage with various angles of Warren Gatland looking miserable in the coaches’ box throughout the competition. He will have known he had his work cut out but the threat of strike action and the crisis into which the Welsh Rugby Union has been plunged has laid bare the size of the job. On the field Wales were little short of dire for large spells but they did save their best for last against France and Gatland will have benefited from making so many changes to his side throughout the competition as the World Cup approaches. He used to have a habit of experimenting in the autumn for the benefit of the Six Nations. Optimistic supporters must hope he will have similar joy at the World Cup after a Six Nations of experimentation. Though one senses he can turn Wales into a side that is hard to beat by September, the lack of any sort of attacking fluency must be a cause for concern.
The added dimension that a vibrant, dangerous Italy side brings to the championship is welcome and, though there were some frustrating near misses, the hope is that Italy continue to have the courage of their convictions in the coming years. They are a young side and the clarity of thought to execute with accuracy at crucial moments is a skill that takes the longest to hone. They can look forward to the World Cup with optimism in the knowledge that, though they are unlikely to upset either France or New Zealand, they can cause both sides problems. There have been more promising results in the under-20 championship, too, but the worry is that the excellent work done by Stephen Aboud in overhauling the age-grade system is being dismantled; and that while there is excitement around the fact that the current crop is yet to reach its peak, their predecessors do not have the support structures with which to continue Italy’s rise.