Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: England's trip to Dublin and George North's return to form
Last Updated: 13/03/17 2:29pm
Stuart Barnes looks back on the weekend's Six Nations action with one eye on the upcoming Cheltenham Festival.
1. It's festival week in Cheltenham and I'd love to talk horses but I suppose we had better start with a small note of congratulations to England.
The Calcutta Cup remains in their hands, the Six Nations title too, and on Saturday they produced some of the best rugby we have seen from any England team this century - and I include the World Cup winning team.
The precision of their first-phase play was outstanding. Eddie Jones measures everything relative to New Zealand. Well, even the All Blacks, a dab hand themselves off the first phase, couldn't have been any better.
Some of the tries were as near as damned perfect. The Anthony Watson try, on close analysis, is one of the best first-phase tries I have ever seen. (Native River for the Gold Cup)
2. So much for praise. It'll all ring hollow if they don't prevail in Dublin next weekend. England are bound to lose at some stage between now and Japan but with the world-record sequence of tier-one Test victories equalled, England will be keen to post a record-breaking nineteenth win.
Is there a good time to lose? Not in a Grand Slam game. I give you a summer Test in Argentina when England will have the core of their team away with the Lions. (Moon Racer in the Champion Hurdle)
3. That's for the future, back to the present. What a beautiful performance that was from the England midfield.
George Ford's stock has fallen out of favour with much of the media as Finn Russell and all his devilment has risen, but for pure class and composure the Englishman has it over the Scot - good a player as Russell is.
Ford is making a strong case for the Lions, ahead of Dan Biggar and alongside Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell; the third fly-half but the first inside centre.
Farrell was fabulous again, the poor performance against Italy consigned to history's bins while Jonathan Joseph reminded us he can attack as well as defend. At the moment an awful lot of Englishmen are New Zealand-bound. (Limini to beat Vroum Vroum Mag)
"George North has looked disinterested for some time now, then he puts on the afterburners and plays like the superstar we know he has it in him to be."
4. What about Ireland? A few reputations were dented in Cardiff, what better way to bounce back than against England?
Joe Schmidt played it well in the post-match press conference in Cardiff when he focused on the importance of Ireland v England from a wholly Irish perspective.
True, of course, but Joe has been on the Emerald Isle long enough to know that victory against an England team seeking back-to-back Grand Slams and a world record would do wonders for the pubs and clubs around the entire country.
Lions selection makes it extra important. I'd say Rory Best needs a huge game after Wales undermined his lineout work on Friday. (My bumper race bet not to win as he is a non-runner... no name needed. One down before the first race.)
5. An important win for Wales. Rob Howley said it was all about the players but he'll have been feeling the heat. Wales were good - as they were against England - but they have to stop playing yo-yo and put up a pair of consistent performances.
France is a good place to start. Not a great team, the French, but good enough for Wales to take a great deal out of an away win in Paris. A win and Wales will be in credit, defeat and it's a bad tournament.
The same applies to France. The performances are improving but yet another bottom-half-of-the-table position will hardly be reason for my friends in the French press to eulogise. (I have backed a Nicky Henderson horse in The Triumph Hurdle. Unlike my Bumper bet he runs, but Charlie Parcs is on the drift... you never know. Hope does spring eternal in the Cotswolds.)
6. Oh ye of little faith - and I was beginning to lose it myself. George North has looked disinterested for some time now, then he puts on the afterburners and plays like the superstar we know he has it in him to be. That first try was a thriller.
A mention also for Rhys Webb, who was magnificent in defeat in Murrayfield and outplayed Conor Murray in Cardiff.
The Irishman remains my starter for the Tests with Webb off the bench. You can't change a team every week, otherwise we would have bombed Owen Farrell from the touring party post the Italy game. (Cause of Causes for the Cross Country on Wednesday, A sneaky JP McManus plot here.)
7. Scotland? John Barclay wasn't impressed with his team which I think does England a disservice. Scotland weren't world beaters because they beat Ireland and Wales in Edinburgh. Equally they are not useless because they were on the wrong end of a hiding against England.
A home win against Italy and a place in the top half of the table is a decent return considering the travails of recent years. (No Scottish horse to win at the Festival)
8. Another 40-point thumping for Italy and no ruck story to divert our attention from the fact they are the odd man out at this year's party.
Should they have to play-off against the winners of the second-tier tournament? Of course they should; not because they are Italy but because they are the worst team. If England finish last next season I'll argue the same point. (Let's Dance, the horse, not the Bowie song. A good thing on Thursday.)
9. Last week I was predicting doom and gloom for the Lions on the basis of the Highlanders v Crusaders game
One week on, the outlook is sunnier after a second-rate affair between the Blues and the Highlanders. If the Lions don't beat the Blues it'll be a long, hard tour. (Back Melon in the first race of the festival, in honour of the great Owen Finnegan.)
10. Take Italy out of the equation and the only away win this season was England's in Wales. This suggests one of two things.
Either England are the only team good enough to overcome home advantage - which is good news for their fans - or home advantage means so much in which case England might need a Jones-era best performance to win in Dublin. (A little each way on Paint The Clouds in the Foxhunter's. He flew up the hill last year and is a decent double figure price.)
Four days of fun and games at the races and then it's off to Dublin, where things are going to get serious.
PS Sometimes I win, usually I don't...