Six Nations: Five storylines to follow in the final round of the Championship as Ireland go for the Grand Slam
Ahead of the final round of the Six Nations Championship, we delve into the big talking points going into Super Saturday.
History beckons for Grand Slam-chasing Ireland
Andy Farrell’s men have utterly dominated in the 2023 Six Nations and look set to claim just the fourth Grand Slam in their history. If anything, they have surpassed expectations so far this year with no team getting to within a converted try of the Irish. France were the closest but ultimately Ireland were far too strong for the second best team in the world, winning with a 13-point margin.
Surely, then, England will prove to be no match for Farrell’s charges at the Aviva Stadium, fresh from a 53-10 battering they received at the hands of Les Bleus? Ireland will be huge, huge favourites going into this weekend’s final round. That in itself will bring more pressure, but there is nothing to suggest that they will wilt, especially with how well they dealt with the injury setbacks on Sunday.
However, these games can do funny things to teams. A good start from the visitors and doubt could creep in but, ultimately, they are the best in the world for a reason. Some have, at times, strangely doubted Ireland’s true standing in the game, despite a series triumph over New Zealand and a home victory over South Africa in November, but hopefully these last few weeks have gone some way to answering the critics.
England licking their wounds
How do you respond after that beating? For England, they will hope it is positively, otherwise Ireland could well put over 60 points on Steve Borthwick’s men. They simply have to compete better physically after being overwhelmed by Les Bleus at Twickenham last Saturday. The Red Rose were absolutely annihilated up front and the Irish obviously have the capabilities to do the same if Borthwick’s charges succumb so easily once again.
The Irish perhaps don’t have the sheer out-and-out power of the French, nor will they produce the sort of organised chaos which proved so troublesome for the English, but they still have the physicality and dexterity that can put the visitors’ rearguard into disarray. Despite decent defensive showings against Italy and Wales, coach Kevin Sinfield will be concerned at how easily their line breaks when challenged with a bit more deception and variety.
A defeat feels inevitable for the Red Rose but an improved performance would at least give their supporters something to hold on to. The fans have moved from expectation to hope and are now just desperate for this talented bunch of players to show something that resembles a good international side. If England prove that they can be competitive against Ireland then it will give Borthwick and his team a platform to work with ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
Damian Penaud closing on try-scoring record
The speedster has become one of their most important players, regularly showing off his poaching instincts and changing games with a moment of brilliance, and he is closing in on a French Five/Six Nations record. Penaud has already surpassed Vincent Clerc’s number of 11, reached after touching down twice against England on Saturday, and he now has Les Bleus’ legends in his sights.
Philippe Sella, Philippe Saint-Andre, Serge Blanco and Christian Darrouy now reside above him but a hat-trick against Wales – let’s be honest, that’s not out of the question – will see him overtake those greats and sit atop the French try-scoring charts. It is worth remembering that Penaud is still only 26 but has already notched 24 tries in 41 caps, with 12 of those coming in the Six Nations.
He is currently eighth on the overall standings, with only Philippe Bernat-Salles having a better tries-to-game ratio in the top 10. Providing he stays fit, Penaud will no doubt break France’s Five/Six Nations record and take over from Blanco (who has 38) in the main list. He is well on his way to becoming a French rugby legend.
Wales to go the same way as England?
On the subject of France, they will look to back up their incredible performance at Twickenham with a similarly dominant display against another equally forlorn team in Wales. It is difficult to follow up what was effectively perfection but it wouldn’t be a surprise should they notch a half century of points in Paris this weekend.
There was a certain amount of relief in the Welsh camp as they put their recent off-field issues behind them to defeat Italy. It was an improved display from Warren Gatland’s men but, against a French outfit who have re-found their form, it could only prove to be a brief respite. They simply don’t have the athleticism or power to compete with Les Bleus up front, while the hosts a have a ridiculous amount of threats behind the scrum.
Jonathan Danty’s return gave an added steel to the midfield in defence and on attack he provides a good focal point if France are needing front foot ball. It is therefore a big task for Wales’ rearguard, which has been one of their many issues in this Six Nations. Even Italy, who were without Ange Capuozzo and made a plethora of errors on Saturday, caused them plenty of problems. One fears another heavy loss for Gatland’s charges.
One last shot for Italy to deliver
It is clear that the Azzurri are trending in the right direction but ultimately Kieran Crowley’s side need results to prove that they are making tangible progress. Many thought that it would come against Wales but, under the weight of expectation, they crumbled and produced their worst display of the 2023 Championship.
There is genuine belief within Italian rugby that they can now genuinely compete with the best Europe has to offer, but with that comes the added disappointment should they not perform. However, on Super Saturday they go back to being underdogs, knowing that Scotland will be heavy favourites for the encounter at Murrayfield.
Capuozzo’s absence no doubt hit the Italians hard against Wales and they will also miss his attacking threat in the Scottish capital, but the hosts have injury problems of their own. Gregor Townsend will be without Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg for this clash, which perhaps leaves the door ajar for Italy. The lack of star playmaker Russell is a massive blow for the Scots and the visitors will look to take advantage of his absence.
READ MORE: Can you name the last Ireland team to complete the Grand Slam in 2018?
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