Grand Slam and then the world? The fun for Ireland may just be starting Six Nations 2023

Rit is indeed the Six Nations Championship that has everyone buzzing after just two rounds. If the organizers could turn back the clock, they might have preferred Ireland v France as the tournament’s grand final but, in some ways, a classic second round was a treat. In addition to elevating neutrals from their positions, it has also raised the bar qualitatively for everyone else.

Since it’s a Rugby World Cup year, it looks like the fun is just getting started. Especially if you’re Irish. If there was a more glorious Six (or Five) Nations performance from an Ireland team, it was hard to remember as they outplayed the French in Dublin on Saturday. Shamrock-and-roll is rugby’s modern soundtrack, with even bigger stadium concerts to come.

Much has already been written about the Irish schools’ well-stocked talent and artful player management that help Ireland turn up on big occasions and look half a yard better and fresher than their opposition. What is even more impressive is how visibly people improve. Hugo Keenan, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris could well be the best players in their positions in the world, while Finlay Bealham, Tom O’Toole, Ross Byrne and Craig Casey are beginning to underline their squad’s growing strength in depth.

Success, in other words, begets success. That’s why they seem to be missing out on a grand slam already. Beyond that? Well, their World Cup record is famously rubbish – they’ve never been past the quarter-finals – and half of the draw also includes France, South Africa, New Zealand and Scotland. Only two of these six teams can qualify for the semi-finals. Suddenly, though, this is possibly Ireland and another, which will give this autumn’s hosts even more pulse than last Saturday’s result.

Scotland's Blair Kinghorn dives for a try against Wales
Blair Kinghorn, diving against Wales, could consider himself unlucky not to start against France in Scotland’s next game. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA

The way to beat France has certainly been proven. With 46 minutes of playing time – the corresponding figure for the England-Italy match was 37 minutes – their big forwards were forced to play a game that did not suit them at all. Yes, Antoine Dupont is absolute class – that’s how good he was that tackle on McHansen? (in 2m50sec here) – but with three laps to go, he and some of his teammates are already in need of a breather. Scotland, unbeaten after two matches for the first time in the Six Nations era, can go to Paris next week at an opportune time.

The Scots, if not yet at Ireland’s level, also look like a team at the top. Duhan van der Merwe and Finn Russell have deservedly won the honours, but Sione Tuipulotu, Blair Kinghorn, Ben White, Matt Fagerson and George Turner have also made significant contributions. It has reached the point where Kinghorn will be mighty unlucky not to start in Paris, relegating last season’s captain Stuart Hogg to the bench.

But there is a broader question. As the level of Europe’s top teams rises, where does that leave those struggling to catch up? While Wales still have good individual players, they have so far been blown out of the water by the teams playing faster, smarter, more skilful rugby. No shame, but it’s already clear that even a consummate specialist like Warren Gatland has his work cut out for him.

And England? They have a new coaching staff but, in many ways, the familiar problems remain. Any reconstruction work always takes time, but what people are less willing to discuss is the deadline for the completion of this work. Steve Borthwick is perfectly justified in prioritizing small steps and incremental improvements, but the loud noise in the background is not going away. Unless the Rugby Football Union has already given up on winning this year’s Rugby World Cup, in which case there will have to be massive managerial resignations.

Well, yes, England’s mass worked better against an Italy that is nothing but. Yes, they have finally picked an inside center who can take the ball to the line and put them on the front foot. But the differences in cohesion, consistency, vision and tactical innovation compared to, say, Ireland, are clear. And to expect Borthwick and his lieutenants to bridge that gap in just over six months is unrealistic.

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Owen Farrell looks at England's match against Italy
Owen Farrell was preferred to Marcus Smith against Italy. Photo: Javier García/Shutterstock

The result is that England fans will have to be patient. Borthwick openly admits that it is impossible to solve everything at once. The best case scenario is that England’s scrum, maul and lineout will all be tighter and that a restrictive, suffocating gameplan will make them harder to beat. But the game moves quickly. Ireland, France and Scotland look comfortable in possession, all with influential fly-halves twirling the creative baton. England, having selected Owen Farrell over Marcus Smith, seem to have decided that, for now, their best option is to simply batten down the hatches.

In the short term, it’s a common sense approach. It stores problems in the long run. Even with a decent lead against Italy, it was telling that Borthwick felt unable to take off his captain, Farrell, and allow Smith to play with other centers at his elbow. Do people really see Farrell, who will be just 32, walking away from Test rugby after this World Cup and handing the keys to Smith for the next four years? There is a better chance that Vladimir Putin will host a pre-match picnic at West Car Park.

It’s not a dilemma that’s going to go away. But does this mean for Smith’s future Test career? Or England’s prospects at the 2027 men’s World Cup? England, Borthwick admits, are currently behind many of their big rivals. Getting back over the curve won’t be easy.

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