Bearing in mind that my name doesn’t feature anywhere on the leaderboard of the Rugby Blog’s Betfair Betting League (there is a reason they give long odds on draws!) you are entitled to take a cynical view to all that follows…
Nevertheless, I have been putting some thought into the remaining weekends’ fixtures in this year’s Six Nations and concluded that the title will in fact be won and lost this weekend. Contentious, illogical and just plain nonsense actually but hear me out.
If Wales beat Ireland at Croke Park they will be unstoppable. In front of their home crowd against an irascible French side, playing for the Grand Slam they will take no prisoners and the noise from the Millenium Stadium’s rendition of Bread of Heaven will put the fear of God into whichever inexperienced and young side Lievremont chooses to select that week. As in 2005 against Ireland, the lure of the Grand Slam would bring out the best in the men from the valleys and they would definitely not stumble on the final hurdle.
However, winning in Dublin is easier said than done, doubly so with the Irish – a confidence side if ever there was one – playing with renewed vigour following their convincing victory over the Scots. In my opinion, it is too big an ‘if’ and the Welsh will come unstuck, Gatland’s honeymoon period finally coming to an end. What next?
Momentum is an over-used word in sport, and a bit of a cliché in rugby in particular. However, the World Cup proved what we knew already that when it comes to English rugby, building up a head of steam is what we do best and can inspire some outrageously unpredictable results. So let me predict some. England will triumph at Murrayfield. It will help their cause enormously (indeed it is essential) if they do so handsomely, which is very unusual in traditionally dour Calcutta Cup games when played north of the border. Following on from the unexpected win in Paris this will put England back in the running. Notwithstanding a likely Irish win as well on Saturday, they will return to HQ for the final showdown against Ireland with the snowball gathering speed and size to despatch the pesky leprechauns at a canter. So far so good.
France meanwhile, should have minimal problems dealing with Italy at home with Vincent Clerc running in 8 unconverted 2nd half tries in the process, and giving them the initiative in terms of points differential when they head to Cardiff. Henceforth, we English will require the Welsh to do us a favour despite not having the Slam in their grasp anymore, which is only fair after we let them pursue it in the first place by sportingly lying down and offering them 14 free points at Twickenham a month ago. They may not have to because France may simply shrug, mutter “bof” a few times and decide they can’t be arsed with this year’s competition anymore and wait for the clock to run down so they can get back to pouting and drinking champagne. But I hope not, as this would clearly allow Wales to run up a big score. Wales to come out on top in Cardiff – just.
So, there will be no Grand Slam this year, and like last year it will come down to a potentially very tight points difference. Four teams will be playing one another on the final weekend all with a shot at the overall crown. Manifestly, by around 7pm on the 15th it will be between two of those nations, with Wales and France having the dubious advantage/curse of knowing what winning margin is required for them to be victorious. Currently the points difference stands at Wales +61; Ireland +21; France +15; England +8. After this weekend I predict it to look more like Wales +51; Ireland +31; France +45; England +23 with all four teams poised on 6 points.
So, Ireland, England and France to win this weekend by not much, a fair bit and a lot respectively and England and Wales to be the only teams who complete four wins out of five overall. A swift and basic glance at the mathematics is all I am capable of and all that is necessary and leads inescapably to the conclusion that Wales are undeniably in pole position with their vastly healthier points difference. However, in an epiphany it has been revealed to me that in a final twist, they and France will play each other into a stalemate culminating in a 1 point Welsh victory (maybe a draw?!). From the back of the grid England will then be the team celebrating a less than satisfactory but pleasing return to the top of the Northern Hemisphere tree following a last play interception by Iain Balshaw clinching the last vital points.
To summarise, a Welsh win on Saturday means a Welsh Slam but the expected reverse in Dublin results in the English becoming champions. All fairly simple really: as long as Eddie O’Sullivan’s men come to answer their country’s call.
by Rob Douglas