IRELAND'S Six Nations title bid goes down to the wire on Saturday evening in Paris, with Andy Farrell’s side having the advantage of knowing exactly what they will need to do to claim the title at kick-off time.
We know that Ireland go into Saturday’s showdown with a points difference that is +23 better than England’s.
That may seem a sizeable margin but England’s last three Six Nations’ visits to the Stadio Olimpico have brought wins of 31, 31 and 41 points, so we can expect England to have surpassed Ireland’s point difference by the time the national anthems are echoing out around an empty Stade de France.
The only thing in Ireland’s favour in Rome is the fact Eddie Jones is missing Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Courtney Lawes, Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly, George Ford and Joe Marler, meaning England’s points chase will have to be achieved with a number of new faces in their ranks.
Ireland have only emerged victorious on three occasions in Paris in the professional era, and bizarrely all of these victories in 2000, 2014 and 2018 were by a two margin.
That fact tells us a couple things. Firstly, it is damn hard to beat France at the Stade de France, and secondly, when you do, you don’t tend to do it by much.
Therefore, if England put up a huge score in Rome, by 40 or so points, then history tells us that Ireland are incredibly unlikely to be able to chase down a points difference deficit.
It is also worth noting that Ireland have never scored four tries when winning in Paris. In fact, the only time that Ireland ever managed four tries in Paris was in 2006 when scoring four second-half tries in a doomed attempted comeback bid in 2006, as Ireland lost 43-31.
Therefore, to suggest that Ireland should go into the game targeting four tries would also appear folly, except that is exactly what they should do, assuming England have won well.
If that is the scenario that Andy Farrell’s side face then they need to take a leaf out of the Exeter Chiefs playbook and actively turn down kickable penalties in the pursuit of seven pointers.
Obviously this would be a high risk strategy, as if a side attempts this, and fails to put points on the board the wheels can come off very quickly. It can, though, prove extremely unsettling for defences.
Sometimes a defending side is happy to ship three points in the hope of getting back up the pitch and into an attacking position themselves, but if they find themselves camped well within their own 22, and giving away penalty after penalty then invariably it is they who crack. Obviously, this approach only works if the team attempting to do so has the upper hand, especially at collision time, and there really is no guarantee that Ireland will have the advantage over France in this regard.
It is difficult to assess the merits of France’s 38-21 win over Wales last weekend given that the Welsh have now lost four games on the trot, and therefore would appear to be well down the Six Nations pecking order at present.
Last Saturday the Welsh pack simply had no answer to the powerful French back-row trio of Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt and Francois Cros, who constantly punched over the gain line to provide momentum, backed up by the equally imposing French front five.
Scrum half Antoine Dupont and centre Virimi Vakatawa were in red hot form last weekend too and Ireland will have to limit the pair’s considerable influence if they are to have any hope of winning this weekend.
Openside Will Connors was man of the match on his debut against Italy and he could be key to curbing Vakatawa’s renowned offloading game. The Leinster man is one of the world’s best exponents at the chop tackle, where he effectively slides into each tackle, ensuring both himself and the player he is tackling hit the deck.
Vakatawa’s main weapon is his offload out of the tackle, but if he is brought to ground early then this skill will have been nullified. Therefore, do not be surprised to see Connors lining up in midfield in broken play to effectively mark the Fijian born centre.
Right now England would appear to be the side most likely to be collecting the Six Nations trophy on Saturday evening.
It would take a history-breaking win in Paris for Ireland to be crowned champions, which shows how unlikely it is, but Ireland must try and maximise the fact that they are the only side in the competition with their fate truly in their own hands this weekend.