Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
This is the best England side since 2003 but it would be fitting for Ireland to win Six Nations
Lancaster's lads are starting to improve at the rate South Africa have been, says Stuart Barnes
Last Updated: 10/03/14 10:49am
In the short term we head to the last weekend of action with three teams on six points. France and Ireland meet in Paris so, bar a draw, one of those sides will finish the championship with eight points whilst Italy look to have a forlorn task in checking the ever-more confident English team.
The likeliest short-term scenario is as follows: England wins and wins handsomely in Rome so with an already-markedly superior point record to France, this will eliminate France from contention for the crown. So as dangerous as assumptions are, let's make one: France could beat Ireland but not by enough to overhaul England's points difference.
That leaves England and Ireland as the contenders. This brings us to the second scenario. Ireland does not succumb to their poor Parisian record. History gives France a chance, current form does not. Joe Schmidt's team has an even greater advantage over England than the men in white have over France. An away win would deliver Ireland the title.
There is little doubt that the path to the title is more strewn with unforeseen pitfalls for Joe Schmidt's men than Stuart Lancaster's but France is playing some terrible rugby.
It is hard to see Madame Fortune coming to their aid as she did against England. It would be fitting for Ireland to finish on top because they and England are the best teams in this tournament by a distance.
France will point to their four wins should they overcome Ireland but the win would only disguise that Philippe Saint-Andre's team is travelling in a distinctly strange direction for the 2015 World Cup. The rest of the world, Ireland apart, should be hoping for a French win for two reasons. The first is to check Ireland's own impressive momentum under Schmidt, the second is to convince France they are getting their tactics right.
France is not and unless changes are made to their style, psyche, everything they are going to endure a similar World Cup in England to the one England endured in New Zealand. It is difficult to decide which has been the more impressive of the two sides. England did beat Ireland but it was desperately close and Twickenham played to England's advantage. Had they met in Dublin there is a strong chance Ireland would have headed towards Paris with a Grand Slam on the cards. It has been a fine debut Six Nations for Schmidt.
It has also been a mightily impressive effort from England. A first Triple Crown in 11 years is deserved for this is the best England team since the one that won that Grand Slam and Crown in 2003 and went onto become Europe's first and only World Champions.
They may well have gone down narrowly in Ireland but with the World Cup in England that is not an issue next year. Twickenham is at last becoming England's raucous 16th man. Home advantage will be an inspiration and not a burden next year.
They have the younger team and as some of the dazzling attacking game against Wales indicated the greater potential to develop as a team. Discipline and an outrageously immense display of goal-kicking from Leigh Halfpenny gave the scoreboard a flattering look for a well beaten Wales team who head France as the competition's third best team.
As for England, this is the first time since the Woodward team when I have watched them with a frisson of excitement. They are starting to improve at the rate South Africa has been in their last year. These two teams represent a serious challenge to the All Blacks.
When the draw for this competition was made I had a gentleman's wager on the host nation at 8-1. A pool win gives them a run at the final without the Big Two. Get to the final and hedge the bet. By full time against Wales I was thinking to let the bet run. For the first time in 11 years England truly has a team capable of winning the World Cup.
In many ways I hope they have to settle for second this season. Ireland and England are head and shoulders above the rest and it would be good for the game to see it thus reflected in the table. In addition Brian O'Driscoll plays what is officially his last international game of rugby, his own World record 142nd game.
Paris and a hat-trick was where the legend was born. It would be fitting to finish there for the man, the greatest European rugby player of professional times and one of the greatest rugby players it has been my pleasure to watch.
The whole Lions thing was a circus. He had no right to selection because of who he was. I actually was amongst the media who prior to the Sydney match would have picked him but only because I felt the Lions needed his experience and leadership, not because of who he is. I would like to see him win in Paris because it just feels right. As for England, I sense their time is coming.
After Italy they travel to New Zealand where a single Test win would prepare them for an important autumn series of fixtures.
The most likely Premiership final is between Northampton and Saracens which would mean George Ford would start a Test for the first time in Auckland. That is tough on Ford. Lancaster has developed a potent fifteen but now he has to work on his back up and New Zealand is a place where planning can come adrift.
Ford really should start in Rome. That is, no ways, any sort of criticism of Owen Farrell who delivered his most measured, mature display in an England shirt. He has made the shirt his but injuries do strike and Lancaster has to get Ford up to speed and fast with the World Cup looming.
Away from the gathering excitement in the Test match world, Exeter host Northampton in next Sunday's LV final in Exeter. The home venue is a boost for the Chiefs after they finally beat Bath for the first time in the professional era. The manner of their nervy win suggests they will start as underdogs against a Saints team leading the way in England.
Another fine weekend awaits us as I bid adieu and turn my thoughts to Cheltenham. Good luck to any of you good folks travelling to Gloucestershire. We all need it, friends.
Thanks, as ever, for your interest. May Madame Fortune sit upon all our shoulders, Stuart.
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Got a question for Stuart? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the feedback form below...
Hi Stuart - the development of Billy Twelvetrees' game must surely spell bad news for Manu Tuilagi? As a Leicester fan, I watched Billy develop at Leicester but it seems that he's really started to develop into an all-round player at Gloucester (no doubt to greater exposure to the international stage). For me his game is head-and-shoulders above Tuilagi, as shown by his kick for England's second try against Wales. Is there plenty more to come from him?
Dave Murray, Leicester
STUART REPLIES: Dave, I thought that England's midfield was as convincing as it has been in a long time with BT showing the range SL has patiently waited to see. Manu will not find it easy to break in with Burrell growing by the game but what about the possibility of England using his power from the wing? At last England are developing real options in many positions.
Hi Barnsey - no doubt the Six Nations will dominate the media this week but as an Exeter fan there is only one game that matters on the horizon - the LV= Cup final. How good a job do you reckon Rob Baxter is doing for us and do you reckon we've got a better-than-evens chance of beating Northampton? I quite fancy Luke Arscott to put in another show-stopping display... Any Cheltenham tips would be good, too...
Tommy Evans, Taunton
STUART REPLIES: Tommy, Congratulations to you and your team. Home advantage will count but it will need to. The Saints are England's best team and Exeter did not look to have championship winning nerve (the same applied to Bath) in a final ten minutes that suggested to me the Chiefs will start the game as odds against underdogs. Baxter is an excellent coach and I love his vision of the game but leaving the potential of Henry Slade on and the goal-kicking ability of Gareth Steenson on the bench was a bold and dare, I say it, extremely fortuitous decision. To beat the Saints one eye will have to be on the present as well as the future....only a little pragmatism. I remain a fan of Baxter and the excellent Ali Hepher.
Stuart, I'd be obliged for your thoughts on the ban handed out to Kieram Brookes. Is it too long? Too short? While one incident shouldn't sum up the game, I wondered whether you've seen any evidence of a wane in sportsmanship in the last 18 months? Perhaps it is due to innovations like ref cam and the high-wire cam, but I've felt that standards in terms of respect to referees have been slowing dripping away.
Yours, Patrick Gardner
STUART REPLIES: Patrick, I have not seen the incident yet and therefore cannot comment. As for a wane in sportsmanship... rugby remains better than many sports but when sport goes professional sportsmanship declines, across all sports, a sad fact and an indictment of this weary old world in which we live. One of the reason I love national hunt racing is the glorious exception to that rule provided by giants of men like Tony McCoy. Whoops, my mind is wandering...