After the memorable climax to last season’s Championship with three potential champions vying on the final day, this year’s Six Nations Champions England, are already crowned after the penultimate weekend.
By Phil Rice
Joe Schmidt was in reflective mood after Saturday’s facile victory over a dismal Italy: “It’s been a bit depressing, to be honest,” he said referring to the four-game winless run Ireland had just ended, “I just question what we do and reflect on it and try to help players get better at what they do.”
He continued, “But it does give you confidence if you get a good result and especially if the performance is good as well.”
How good the performance was is difficult to evaluate given the ineptitude of the Italian resistance. Even the normally upbeat Sergio Parisse resigned himself to harassing the referee to reconsider his decisions for most of the second half.
Italian rugby has certainly reached it’s nadir and their future is not rosy.
It was good to see a team coached by Schmidt attempt to play a more offloading game and the result was a more fluid spectacle with greater continuity and several scintillating tries.
This weekend’s match would normally be a formality as two old foes battle it out for the minor places, however there is greater significance to the outcome on this occasion.
A third place finish would be respectable for Ireland, for Scotland it would be a giant stride forward after their recent travails.
There is little doubt that a full strength Irish team still ranks among the top three teams in the Northern Hemisphere but given the lengthy injury list the team has endured this campaign, a third place finish might even be considered a moderate success.
Scotland will come to the Aviva with their tails up looking for their third success on the trot, a significant improvement given their recent past.
Motivating Schmidt’s erstwhile coaching colleague at Clermont, Vern Cotter, has performed minor miracles to turn around the fortunes of a national team who finished last season with no wins and apparently a grim future.
Their cursed luck at failing to progress to the RWC semi-finals has been used as a motivating weapon to prove to the world they are no third rate side. On Sunday they outplayed France in every phase of the game, with their scrum causing real problems for the muchvaunted French front-row.
Ireland will be hoping that Mike Ross lasts the course as Nathan White looked far from comfortable on Saturday when he was introduced.
The tussle between Jack McGrath and WP Nel will be fascinating, as the two most impressive props of the tournament lock horns.
With Rob Kearney expected to be fit to play Schmidt will be faced with a difficult choice at fullback. Simon Zebo enjoyed the freedom afforded to him on Saturday and contributed significantly to Ireland’s expansive game.
However his positional play was more suspect, particularly for Italy’s first try.
Scotland’s back three are extremely quick and Stuart Hogg’s interventions from full-back will need to be curtailed and Schmidt may well be tempted to return to the reliability of Kearney.
There is no chance that Schmidt will underestimate Scotland.
“I’ve watched a fair bit of Scotland,” he said, “they are very, very good this season.
“We’re desperately keen not to let things slip away. A championship is five matches. We know the challenge that comes next Saturday.”
Not the words of a man who sees the game as a dead rubber.