GIVEN how comprehensively Ireland were defeated by England in Twickenham last February it seems rather bizarre that Ireland can actually go into the final round of this year’s Six Nations championship as tournament leaders, should they secure a bonus point victory over Italy at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday.
Many of us may have had to remind ourselves of the state of play of the Six Nations table this week.
It seems a lifetime ago since Scotland blew the tournament wide open with their sensational 28-17 victory over a French side that looked destined for the title.
That March win in Murrayfield has left the door open for Andy Farrell’s side once more, and they simply have to take advantage this week against an Italian side that were nilled in two of their three games, while shipping a huge 94 points in those three contests.
England went into this year’s tournament as red hot favourites given their showing at the World Cup in Japan, but their opening day defeat to France blew that notion out of the water.
Then, after beating Wales in Cardiff, France looked en route to a Grand Slam decider against Ireland, but their Scottish slip up, where they failed to even secure a losing bonus point, means that a first French title triumph since 2010 is now virtually zero.
Given that England play their final game in Rome against Italy, and are likely to be a point behind Ireland going into the final weekend, means that the title could go down to points difference should Ireland secure victory in Paris on Saturday week.
All that can be dealt with in good time though, as unless Ireland do the business in Dublin this weekend that will be all academic.
The seven month break has brought obvious frustration, but it has also brought opportunities. At the outset of the competition, in early spring, there was real excitement about the back row partnership of CJ Stander and Caelan Doris at 6 and 8.
The Irish back row had clearly been too light in the ball carrying department and the emergence of Doris as a player who could remove some of the burden from the considerable shoulders of Stander was something that all Irish rugby fans were looking forward to seeing.
However, the newly crowned Irish Young Player of the Year lasted only five minutes, in the opener against Scotland, before succumbing to injury. Peter O’Mahony replaced him that day, and started at blindside against Wales and England too, but Doris is now fit again and should be restored to the side.
The form of Jonathan Sexton at outhalf was a serious worry back in the spring, but the Leinster No. 10 appears to have utilised the opportunity presented to him by lockdown to come back fit and refreshed. A reinvigorated Sexton would be key to any championship bid by Ireland over the next two weekends.
The other interesting aspect about this week’s team selection is the make-up of the Irish back three. Andrew Conway has finally been recognised as the best winger in the country, and he will occupy the No. 14 shirt, and despite some ropey form we can expect Jacob Stockdale to keep his spot on the left wing, especially when you consider that Keith Earls is injured and James Lowe is still a few weeks from being Irish qualified.
This game against Italy could prove the perfect tonic for Stockdale in terms of getting his mojo back at this level.
With Rob Kearney consigned to the history books, and Jordan Larmour and Will Addison both injured, that means that Munster’s Shane Daly is fighting it out with Leinster’s Hugo Keenan for the full back jersey this weekend.
For whichever gets the nod it will be a meteoric rise, as just six months ago neither would have been in the frame for national selection. The Kearney retirement has left a vacuum in the position, however, and the form of 23-year- old Daly and 24-year-old Keenan couldn’t have been better timed.
For a few years Italy looked like making a real breakthrough, being led by the likes of Sergio Parisse, but those days seem distant already. Their sole purpose appears to be as tournament whipping boys now. They can actually play some wonderful attacking rugby at times, but overall they do not have the quality at half back or the grunt of old up front to trouble the world’s top nations.
Therefore, anything other than a resounding Irish victory, with bonus point in the bag, will be deemed as a bad day at the office.