By Nicola Kenton

  • Ireland claim the 2018 Six Nations title after a bonus-point win over Scotland
  • Wales earn a bonus-point win against Italy to move up to second in the table
  • France get back-to-back home wins, after defeating England
The fourth round of the 2018 Six Nations saw Ireland secure the title convincingly with a bonus-point win over Scotland, as England faltered in France and Wales moved up to second in the table.

After another break in the Championship, the pressure was firmly on Ireland to put down the marker for the weekend. They came out on top against Scotland and secured their crucial bonus point, which meant that England had to match that result in France. However, Eddie Jones’s side could not earn the bonus-point win that was needed and instead England were defeated by France to seal Ireland’s 2018 title win. The final match of the weekend saw Wales run in a bonus-point win against Italy and move themselves up to second in the table.

 

Ireland aiming for Grand Slam

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A bonus-point victory against Scotland meant that Ireland secured the title with one round to go, however this was not confirmed until after England had lost. Throughout this tournament Ireland have played in many different ways. In that opening match against France, they had to play ugly to win and relied on the boot of Johnny Sexton to get them out of trouble and claim the win.

Since then, they have earned bonus-point wins in games against Italy, Wales and Scotland to reach an unassailable lead. They have played ruthlessly, shown their strength in depth by using their young players alongside some of the most experienced and been well-organised throughout. Their home form is relentless, combine that with their try-scoring ability and how they manage to dig themselves out of tricky situations and you have a team that have dominated this Championships.

Joe Schmidt and his men will now turn their attention to the potential Grand Slam. In their history, Ireland have only won two Grand Slams and the possibility of gaining their third would according to former Irish fly-half Tony Ward be “the greatest achievement in the history of Irish rugby”.

They earned that hard-fought victory in Paris and travel to England, where they will face a team hoping to overcome their disappointment and show everyone what they are made of.

 

Scotland sticking to their strategy

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It was another tale of an interception try costing Scotland, who lost 28-8 to Ireland at the Aviva stadium. In the first match of the tournament, a loose pass resulted in Gareth Davies scoring and contributing to a 34-7 defeat of the Scots; yet this time it was Jacob Stockdale who crossed the try line.

The away form of Gregor Townsend’s men has been a problem for many years and this has not improved this year with both of their victories coming at home against England and France. However their rugby has improved, even if they are currently unable to solve the problem of the away form. They created many chances during the match but couldn’t match the intensity of the Irish and ultimately could not make the best of their opportunities.

Winger Sean Maitland told the BBC after the match, “This is how we want to play. Obviously it sucks to lose but if we’re judging ourselves on the Wales game the effort wasn’t there, we didn’t work hard, we didn’t play for each other. This time we might have lost by 20 but the effort was there, the energy too. It’s just a few little tweaks we need to fix. The Six Nations is obviously a really tough competition and it never gets any easier – especially playing three away games against quality teams but we’re not far away. We’re working hard every week and it’s just the small things we need to fix. Hopefully we can sort that out come Italy.”

England costly at the breakdown again

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It was a disappointing 22-16 defeat in France for the 2016 and 2017 Champions. After Ireland’s bonus-point win, they had to match them and claim a bonus-point win themselves but the there was no talk of going for the bonus point. All the pre-match talk was purely about the win. A team with the ambition that Jones’s side have to become the number one team in the world, should surely want to aim for a third Six Nations title in a row and to do that they needed to secure a bonus point. But it did not go to plan.

Mistakes at the breakdown that emerged in the defeat against Scotland continued onto the pitch in France. The penalty count was the highest that it has been during this tournament, conceding 16 penalties and 11 turnovers. Losing the ball while having possession was the biggest mistake and it kept happening again and again.

There have been questions about the back row with key players such as Billy Vunipola missing due to injury and the use of second-row forwards such as Courtney Lawes at number six. Playing players out of position can sometimes work, but when the combination of Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and Lawes had been found out at the breakdown against Scotland, to continue with it against France was questionable. Don Armand has now been called up into the squad with injuries to Lawes and number eight Nathan Hughes and if England want to prevent Ireland from claiming the Grand Slam, they need to tidy up the breakdown.

 

What has happened to England’s attack?

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In the opening matches of the tournament, England scored tries very early on against Italy and Wales with Anthony Watson and Jonny May crossing the line but since then England have struggled in attack. They scored seven tries against Italy, two against Wales and have only managed one a piece against Scotland and France. England were pushed hard against Wales, they had to win ugly and followed through but when in Scotland, they couldn’t break through the defensive. The gaps that would usually appear were closed and England weren’t able to find a way through.

This continued against France. Jonny May found a way to the try line, after some great work by Elliot Daly late in the game but apart from that, there were few glimpses of the blistering attack shown early on. Head coach Jones has stuck with much of the same back line containing Owen Farrell, George Ford, May and Watson. In the opening fixture in Italy, many marvelled at the partnership between Ford and Farrell who created many chances but since then Ford has been largely unmemorable. There have been some changes throughout the tournament with Ben Te’o and Jonathan Joseph being rotated, alongside Daly’s return from injury but England need to find that spark in their attack, if they want any chance of beating Ireland at Twickenham.

 

Wales ring the changes

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For their match against Italy, Warren Gatland had made 10 changes to the side who lost against Ireland. Despite all the changes, Wales scored five tries including two for the returning George North and won 38-14 which moved them up to second in the table. North, who was the subject of some controversy last weekend with his club Northampton Saints, started for the first time this campaign and continued his record against Italy by scoring his eighth try in eight matches.

However, it was not a game without incident with two players being sin-binned. Back Liam Williams was shown his yellow card just before the break, when he was punished for a high-tackle on Matteo Minozzi. Just as Wales were about to have 15 players on the field once again, scrum-half Gareth Davies was sent to the bin for an intentional knock-on but the home side managed to keep the Azzuri at bay.

However, Gatland chose not to send Williams back onto the field after his period in the bin was over and instead Leigh Halfpenny came on, “It wasn’t the plan to only play him for 40 minutes but if there was another incident with a second yellow and red card, it’d have put us under pressure. He is an emotional player and that’s what brings the best out in him.”

The side now look ahead to their final match against France hoping to guarantee a second place finish.

The final round of matches sees all three matches take place on Saturday. First up is Scotland who travel to Italy, then England host Ireland before the final match sees Wales play at home against France.

 

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