Despite a remaining round of fixtures, the 2018 Six Nations title has already been won - with Ireland being crowned victors ahead of their final clash with England. A well deserved title for a team that has not only shown great desire and belief from the first match - as demonstrated by the dramaticism of their late push for victory against France - but also a team that has demonstrated a silky smooth attacking prowess matched with a solid sense of discipline.
Going in to the competition it was clear that the number one spot was going to be a contest between the Irish and English, despite strength from the other teams - with even Italy seemingly finding their feet on the internation rugby scene - there were two clear favourites. The clash at Twickenham on the final day of the competition - pitting the two favourites against eachother - was billed to be a decider, full of excitement with the reward of silverware… but it’s looking like quite an anti-climax, isn’t it?
Whilst both teams will have something to fight for, with Ireland aiming for the elusive Grand Slam, an acolade that has historically proved difficult for the Irish to achieve, and England aiming to restore some of their pride and keep their second place finish, no result will be capable of removing Ireland from the top-spot.
But how did we get here?
Expectations, Excuses and Exasperation
One hundred years after the conception of the phrase “England expects..” as a call for young men to join the forces during World War One, it’s now synonymous with the nation’s attitude towards sports. Be it football or rugby, the expectations placed on the England national squad are usually immense. After the first round of fixtures this year - a round where England managed to labour a victory against competition underdog Italy - people were already claiming that England would breeze past better opposition.
Expectations can be healthy, but the inevitable excuses when they fail to come to fruition are not. The England camp often has something akin to a siege mentality attached to it, an arrogance that leads to a genuine belief in some quarters that “England has a harder tournament than the other teams” - as though other nations view England fixtures as a “cup final”.
This is as unhealthy as it is false; and whilst certain fixtures are special - the concept of professional international sports teams reserving 100% effort for one match, with the seeming implication of other matches being akin to training matches, is clearly nonsense.
For instance, whilst the English fixtures against Ireland and Scotland have the added significance of additional silverware - the Millenium Trophy and Calcutta Cup respectively - it still boggles the mind that there seems to be the genuine belief in some quarters that in a closely-contested tournament of 5 matches certain teams would only care about one.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Six Nations is a very competitive tournament, and one where all competitors (with the exception of Italy) can be found in the top 10 ranking of international teams; with Ireland and England both being present in the top 3, and Scotland, Wales and France all being found in the lower end of this range.
These rankings only tell half the story though, and it’s worth remembering the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where despite entering the competition as the fourth best team in the world - complete with home advantage - England’s lacklustre performance saw them unable to progress beyond the group stages. That’s to say - they ended the competition in the exact same position as Italy.. hardly inspiring and worthy of the expectations.
The difference of attitude
It’s difficult to knock the Irish performances in the tournament this year, and it makes for some interesting observations when you contrast them against those of the England side. These differences were especially visible in the penultimate round of fixtures, where England were defeated in Paris and Ireland got the points necessary for the championship against Scotland.
Ireland demonstrated their intent within a few minutes of opening their fixture in Dublin, where an easy penalty came to the feet of Johnny Sexton - and despite the range and timing of the kick, Sexton opted to place the ball out of play for a line-out. Although the Irish were unable to fully take advantage of the territory gained by this play, it’s worth noting that their third try came from an identical situation at the beginning of the second half.
If the Irish were eager to dominate play, pushing for territory and refusing to settle for anything less than a bonus point, then in contrast the English were entirely tame. In a similar fashion to the early penalty that was awarded to Ireland, Owen Farrell found himself taking a kick at a similar time and place on the field. Yet despite the knowledge that nothing less than four tries was going to keep their championship dream alive, Farrell opted for the easy 3 points.
Ordinarily getting 3 points on the scoreboard would be difficult to argue against, but in a match that England needed to dominate and control - it seemed like a distinct lack of intent, as though they had a mindset of resignation - and were content to whimper out of the tournament whilst accepting their fate as a runner-up.
Subsequently England struggled, and only really showed any level of resolve late on in the match - specifically post-80 minutes where they dominated the French backline. This was most definitely a case of “too little, too late” though, where even a victory would’ve only been able to provide the safety of a second place finish at best.
If England appeared to have a psychological disadvantage to the French fixture - with a resigned and wounded demeanour - then this was most certainly compounded by a distinct lack of discipline on the pitch. For the second match running they lost a man to the sin bin during play, and during the course of the contest they managed to concede a staggering 16 penalties.
Restoring pride and moving on
In spite of English confidence pre-tournament, there’s a very real prospect of England not only missing out on the expected Championship (not too mention Grand Slam), but also finishing the competition with only 2 victories. With a freshly rejuvinated French side facing Wales, and Scotland sure to beat Italy - it’s not inconceivable that England’s nightmare could get worse, with a finish second from bottom.
If England want to regain any form of pride out of this year’s tournament it’s clear that they will have to bring a fresh attitude - as well as a sense of realistic humility - to their fixture at Twickenham against Ireland. Returning the blow of blocking a Grand Slam - in a similar fashion to Ireland’s own role last year - is currently England’s only option to take any positivity from what has otherwise been a very disappointing few weeks.
One could argue that in an ironic twist of fate, the nation who allegedly star in every other nation’s “Cup Final” will be facing their own one at Twickenham on the 18th March, and it’s sure to be a tough one if they haven’t learnt any lessons from their previous fixtures.