By David de Winter – Sports Editor
@davidjdewinter [email protected]_Sport
OK, let’s be honest, the 2016 Six Nations hasn’t been the most enthralling edition of the famous old tournament in recent memory. In fact, it’s been downright dull, demonstrating the huge gulf in class between the northern and southern hemispheres (embarrassingly apparent at the Rugby World Cup) that shows no sign of changing anytime soon. However, we’re reaching the climax of tournament with a few tasty showdowns at the weekend.
Whisper it quietly, but there is a growing sense that England are in with a decent shout of not only the title, but also a Grand Slam. Despite a relatively comfortable scoreline, they were slightly fortunate to beat an under-strength Ireland, especially when Josh Van der Flier’s try was controversially disallowed.
Nevertheless, for me, they have been the most impressive team in the tournament (hardly an accolade) and welcome a resolute but uninspired Wales side to Twickenham. The Welsh have become a notoriously physical outfit under Warren Gatland, so how the visitors deal with the battering ram that is Billy Vunipola will be key, as is the midfield battle between Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.
Scotland face France at Murrayfield with a renewed sense of optimism after they halted their disastrous losing Six Nations sequence with victory in Rome last time out. They defended admirably and, crucially, took their try-scoring opportunities. The Scots looked like the team that came within one minute of beating Australia in the Rugby World Cup, not the profligate group that had lost nine Six Nations fixtures on the trot. Greig Laidlaw was awesome against Italy – his astute game management was central to victory – and he will have to deliver a similar performance against the French.
Ah, Les Blues. When I think back all those years to my youth and the likes of Christophe Lamaison, Thomas Castaignede, Fabian Galthie et al slicing open defences with their deft handling and skill, and compare them to their contemporary counterparts, I want to weep. France have become staggeringly one-dimensional, devoid of any flair, except for the odd flash of brilliance from Gaël Fickou, Wesley Fofana or Teddy Thomas.
The stranglehold the Top 14 has over French rugby is perhaps a conversation for another day but surely something has to change. The decline of the national team in the last 5-6 years is alarming and their embarrassing exit at the Rugby World Cup should have brought about radical change within French rugby, but it seems little has changed. Saying that, they’ll probably blow Scotland away at the weekend. Just don’t expect much flowing rugby from Les Blues, much to my chagrin.
Ireland v Italy has effectively become a wooden-spoon play-off. The Irish have admittedly struggled with injury to important players, especially in midfield, but, in the absence of Sean O’Brien, van der Flier and CJ Stander have impressed at flanker. Had they been a bit more streetwise and been more clinical in front of the try line their results could have been very different. Nevertheless, at the Aviva Stadium and with a passionate home support behind them, I expect Ireland to be too strong for the Azzuri.
Speaking of which, Italy have had plenty of huff and puff but provided precious little quality, except for their totemic captain Sergio Parisse. The inspirational number 8 had a barnstorming match in defeat to Scotland, where his teammates seemed to expect him to do everything (which Parisse almost did). Italy have plenty of talent in their team (centre Michele Campagnaro is a slippery runner and scrum-half Edoardo Gori is busy around the ruck) but they are yet to harness that ability into a coherent team effort (they also need a consistent fly-half and an accurate place-kicker). Until this occurs, they will continue to languish in the lower echelons of the championship.