The 2018 edition of the tournament is drawing to anti-climatic finale with Ireland already crowned champions
The end is nigh on another Six Nations tournament and you can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic about it all.
While for the men in green this is more than enough to whet the appetite on St Partick’s Day, for the other five nations and, more importantly, the rest of the watching world, there is very little to get excited about.
Is Ireland’s massive superiority and dominance to blame for this? No. We have to acknowledge that this edition of the Six Nations has been punctuated by under-performance.
Of the six sides taking part, four have undoubtedly been sub-par, Wales could be seen either way, and only Ireland can say they have performed anything like how they would want to – and that could have been a lot different had Johnny Sexton not slotted that opening-day last-play drop goal to down the French in Paris.
So where has it all gone wrong?
Let’s start easy. Italy are simply not good enough to compete. In terms of their domestic game, this season we have had our hopes raised by Treviso and Zebre and their performances in the Pro14 – they have a dozen wins between them this campaign.
Sadly, for coach Conor O’Shea, that has not translated onto the international stage and they continue to fall behind their northern hemisphere rivals. Whether or not they should be in the competition is up for debate, but certainly on the current showing they are not adding anything to it.
While Italy fight to develop and build for the future, France seem fixated on the past. Short-termism continues to blight Les Bleus with quick fixes employed to try and bring success – even to the point of re-employing Lionel Beauxis at fly half with injured Camille Lopez only able to watch on and wonder ‘what if.’
With such a wealth of riches at Jacques Brunel’s disposal, anything but challenging for the title should be seen as failure – but there’s now almost a sad acceptance they will be also-rans.
While the likes of Teddy Thomas pointed to brighter times in the early games, these have been few and far between, and even a win over England can only be seen as papering the cracks.
And then we have England. A side expected to win a Grand Slam, who could end up in fifth place should they lose to Ireland at Twickenham.
Considered the only true challengers to the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup prospects next September, England have spent the last two years riding on the crest of a wave. And have now been wiped out, spectacularly.
Underperforming individuals and units that have just not been competing have led to abject displays against Scotland and France. The once untouchable Maro Itoje looks distinctly average, the back-row lacks impact both with and without the ball, and a back-line that has spluttered to a near standstill.
They have been hit by two high profile injuries in Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola but any side with genuine World Cup aspirations cannot be impacted by a couple of absentees.
Denying Ireland a Grand Slam would put a little gloss on their campaign but will not hide the fact they have a number of passengers and need wholesale changes in the lead up to Japan 2019.
The wheels started to fall off the chariot at Murrayfield and while Scotland will always revel in beating their old enemy – it has been a case of the same old story for Gregor Townsend and his men.
When it has really come down to making a mark in the competition, Scotland have bottled it. The die was cast for them on the first afternoon of the Six Nations in Cardiff, when bereft of fight and intelligence they rolled over to a Wales side which couldn’t believe its luck.
While wins against France, England and probably Italy will put them firmly in the middle of the pack – you can’t help but think Scotland are currently a team with only one really decent performance in them, and until they can fix that and treat every game like England at home then they will be resigned to mediocrity for some time to come yet.
Wales started the campaign with relatively low expectation, with a catalogue of injuries to key players and a question mark over their new-found expansive playing style.
That was all blown out of the window in their opening day demolition job of Scotland, but then defeats at Twickenham and the Aviva brought things back down to earth.
The England game showed further signs of development, but in hindsight looks more like a huge missed opportunity, while they were schooled in forward play by Ireland.
In truth, there have been more positives than negatives for Warren Gatland, and despite him tipping Wales to win the competition before it started, you would think he would have quietly taken second place before a ball was kicked in anger.
Which leads us on to the champions. All credit to Joe Schmidt and his players apart from a pretty average display against France on the opening weekend, where they were fortunate to come away with the spoils. But since that narrow win in Paris, Schmidt’s men have dispatched their opposition with unerring efficiency.
Built on solid foundations their forwards typify all that is good in the northern hemisphere game – brilliant in the set piece, hard in the carry and brutal at the breakdown.
They have given halfback pairing Conor Murray and Sexton, the most comfortable of armchair rides. Add to this the emergence on the international scene of Dan Leavy, Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell we see a side performing well but also building for the future – these are exiting times in the Emerald Isle.
Sadly for Ireland, and especially if they don’t clinch the Grand Slam, this will not be a season they are remembered as the side that stood out, but rather it will be seen as a campaign of under-performance from the other nations who have been distinctly distant from their vintage.