If Ireland suffer defeat when they host England on Saturday, they will record their first blank against Triple Crown opponents in 29 years, but such are the margins of the Six Nations, they could easily have been going for the championship this Saturday evening.
Had inside centre Robbie Henshaw not charged into the unchartered territory that is the maul, Ireland may have beaten Wales a week ago. “It is amazing the difference,” says the Ireland fly-half, Jonathan Sexton. “We get that pushover try. We were going to score that try whether Robbie does what he does or doesn’t. If we do that and I hold the conversion, it could be a very different story. We could be going for a championship and, all of a sudden, we’re really good.”
Sexton is clearly frustrated. Forced off twice during the 22-9 defeat by Wales – once for a head injury assessment and another for a trip to the sin-bin – saw the Irish game plan unravel without its commander-in-chief, although the stand-off has no qualms about the yellow card. “Technically, yeah, it is a yellow card by me,” he adds, though stresses the Welsh were doing a good job of trapping him in the ruck in the process.
But had Henshaw not fell afoul of referee Wayne Barnes, and had Rory Best’s try been awarded and converted by Sexton, then Ireland would’ve been leading into the closing stages and, perhaps, challenging England for the Six Nations title in Dublin this weekend. Instead, England clinched the title with a match to spare, and Ireland are now playing the part of pantomime villain, eager to stop their rivals from claiming the Grand Slam.
Should they do so, Ireland will also halt a world record winning run for the second time in five months. But rather than claim that Ireland, on their day, can be better than England and co-record holders New Zealand, Sexton instead expresses a desire to match the incredible levels that the two sides have reached over the last 18 months.
“They have equalled the All Blacks unbeaten record,” Sexton said of England. “That speaks for itself. This team has been together for six years now. They are going for back-to-back Grand Slams
“They have been through ups and downs and they are reaping the rewards of that from last season’s Grand Slam all the way through to now.
“I think we can say we can beat these teams. But, we haven’t come near to 18 wins in a row. That’s what we need to aspire to be like. We can worry about that after Saturday.
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
1/15 15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
The full-back flourished in bringing George North into the game as he repeatedly joined the back line to give Wales an extra man in attack. He tackled well, with a memorable stop on Rob Kearney halting an Irish attack in full flow. Has put himself back into the running for the Lions berth.
2/15 14. George North (Wales)
Back to his devastating best with two tries this week. His first was a brutal display of power as he carried both Simon Zebo and Keith Earls over the try line to score, while his second was the result of a great drive from the Welsh pack. A mazy run towards the end of the victory over Ireland triggered one last attack as his side searched in vain for the bonus point.
3/15 13. Jonathan Joseph (England)
A brilliant performance provided a timely reminder of what he is capable of. Three tries, each of differing styles, paved the way for England’s stunning 61-21 victory over Scotland. The first try saw Joseph display his pace and power, the second one came from dazzling footwork and the third saw him cut a lovely inside line to break cleanly from short range.
4/15 12. Owen Farrell (England)
After his horror show against Italy, Farrell was back to his best again to convert all but one of his kicks at goal – the one he missed was from his own half – and he was much smarter with his kicking to touch following the errors that littered his display a fortnight ago. Brought Joseph into the attack superbly, and finished the game at 10 once more.
5/15 11. Virimi Vakatawa (France)
A great week for the French wing as he scored a devastating try that put Italy out of the game and racked up more metres than anyone else this week, making an average of more than 10m per break. He beat eight defenders and made four clean breaks, and provided a display that proved just what a dangerous open-field runner he can be.
6/15 10. George Ford (England)
Ford was able to take the fight to Scotland with the pack providing him with front-foot ball to work with. The fly-half linked up superbly with Farrell outside him, and also brought his three-quarters into the game with devastating results.
7/15 9. Rhys Webb (Wales)
A strong performance from Webb saw him create the first try for North with a smart supporting run to take an offload from Scott Williams and release a beautiful wide pass for Halfpenny to run on to. He was alert in defence and got the better of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray in their battle for the Lions No 9 shirt.
8/15 1. Rob Evans (Wales)
A strong performance from the loosehead against an Irish scrum that until now had gotten the better of all its opponents. Carried multiple times, albeit with little success, but that took its toll on the Irish defence as it tired.
9/15 2. Guilhem Guirado (France)
The standout hooker this week as the French captain led by example, making an impressive 31 metres with the ball in hand and 11 tackles in defence, not to mention sealing a turnover in the process.
10/15 3. Rabah Slimani (France)
Joins his skipper in the front row after displacing Uini Atonio in the side and delivering much better performances. An impressive showing in the loose.
11/15 4. Joe Launchbury (England)
A candidate for player of the tournament. Launchbury has excelled on his return to the Test fold, and he once again led by example as he made a phenomenal 22 tackles against Scotland, as well as enjoying success with the ball in hand.
12/15 5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Return to form this week as he put his body on the line, making 18 tackles and 14 carries. He also disrupted the Irish lineout, stealing one throw on his own 5m line, but his best performance came in terms of his decision-making as he got all the big calls right.
13/15 6. Sam Warburton (Wales)
A brilliant performance in defence saw Warburton set the tone for Wales’s physical dominance over Ireland. He made more tackles than anyone else on the pitch in Cardiff, and he looks to be suited to not having the burden of the captaincy hanging over him.
14/15 7. Kevin Gourdon (France)
France have found their natural replacement for Thierry Dusautoir as Gourdon once again displayed his talents in the win over Italy. He carried well for more than 50 metres, and did his job in defence to slow down the Italian attack at the breakdown.
15/15 8. Nathan Hughes (England)
Scotland made the mistake of not double-marking him, and he ran riot as a result. The Wasps No 8 appeared to send out a message that the returning Billy Vunipola would not be taking his shirt easily, and made an impressive 74 metres from 11 carries.
“We’re playing against the second best team in the world and some would argue they could be the best. They haven’t played the All Blacks yet. We’re going to have to be at our best. I said we were going to have to be at our best against Wales because Wales had England pretty much beaten.”
But Sexton does see chinks in the armour, given how close England were pushed by both France and Wales. He glosses over the fact that the put 61 points past Scotland last weekend, but as impressive as the performance was, Ireland won’t be expecting the same to happen to them this weekend.
Instead, the Irish faithful, hopeful of a St Patrick’s Day party, are expecting an ultra-physical battle that will see the likes of Sean O’Brien and Henshaw trying to knock the English senseless – legally, of course. But, as images of Sexton will show you in the moments after the Wales defeat, the fly-half has also had to get through his fair share of defensive duties, and this season that has taken its toll on his body. He went into the start of Leinster’s season undercooked, needed time out before Christmas in order to get his body right, and just when things looked on course, he suffered a calf injury in January and aggravated it on the eve of the Six Nations to force him into missing the first two matches against Scotland and Italy. Suddenly, a nation holds its breathe every time Sexton hits the deck.
“I said it after the French game - that was really frustrating, the calf,” Sexton said. “The first was the shoulder and there was nothing I could have done about that at the end of last season . But probably because I was trying to get back quickly from that, and start the season well, and sometimes you neglect other parts of your rehab that you should’ve been concentrating on.
“So we took a block out of the season just before Christmas and worked really hard, trying to get my body in a really good place and felt it was really getting in good form, and then I got a knock against Montpellier and I put myself under pressure to play because I needed to get another game in before the Six Nations because it is a step up. I stupidly played with that niggle and that compounded it. That could have been avoided and so was really frustrating, I missed two games at the start of it that would have given me momentum into the Championship.
“[It’s a] Big regret, but look I feel like I’m in a good place, and time will tell. It just was a frustrating period and it was a strange period as well because from the start of the season when I came back from the shoulder, I probably done every single pitch session. It wasn’t like I was carrying myself, it was just a little niggle, and then another little niggle, and I was asking myself why, and got to the bottom of the problem with think , and that’s probably the positives that can come out of it.”
See off England this Saturday though, and Sexton will happily put his body on the line if it means stopping the English. “Is it a bad thing to say? It’s obvious that we want to beat them!”Reuse content