London (AP) – Picture the scenario: Ireland vs. England for a Grand Slam decider in the final match of the Six Nations on St. Patrick’s weekend in Dublin.
The Irish going for a third title in four years. The English seeking a second straight title and a world-record 19th straight win.
There are six weeks, 14 matches, and likely a whole load of drama before that could happen, and it’s often dangerous to make too many long-range predictions ahead of the northern hemisphere’s annual rugby tournament .
The prospect is enticing, nevertheless.
And current form suggests it’s a distinct possibility.
England and Ireland have been the standout teams in the European game over the past year, emerging as genuine rivals for the superpowers of the southern hemisphere approaching the midway part of the Rugby World Cup cycle.
England are on a 14-match winning run, 13 of which have come under the stewardship of Eddie Jones since the 2015 Rugby World Cup, while Ireland beat New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa in a memorable second half of 2016.
No wonder all roads are leading to Dublin on March 18.
“I would think that England would still be favorites,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said, assessing the Six Nations contenders, “but I am sure our odds would have shortened as compared to last year because I think there has been some visible growth in the team.”
England start out as odds-on favorites with all British bookmakers, with Jones having injected self-belief and a street-wise edge to the team that was in crisis after elimination from the home World Cup at the pool stage. Injuries have hit the English going into the tournament — No. 8 Billy Vunipola and flanker Chris Robshaw have been ruled out of the whole thing, for example, and winger Anthony Watson will miss the first two rounds at least — but such is the titleholders’ strength in depth that it might not show.
Jones is promising a “daring” brand of rugby.
“It’s a big part of how we want to develop our game because we want to be a side that has the courage to play our sort of rugby from the very first game of the tournament,” the Australian said.
“Daring doesn’t mean flair. … Daring to me is having the mindset of going out to win the game, not relying on the opposition to make mistakes.”
After all, England totaled 159 points in successive wins over South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia in the autumn internationals, and averaged 35 points in their series sweep of the Wallabies Down Under in June.
Only Ireland’s players look close to the level of their English counterparts. And they won’t be short of confidence either, having ended New Zealand’s 18-match winning streak in Chicago in November.
The emergence of tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong has given the Irish strength in an area where they’ve previously been light, while the impressive form of Leinster and Munster in the European Champions Cup suggests Ireland are ready to hit the ground running against Scotland in the tournament opener on Saturday.
Hopes that the French might rise as potential title contenders on the back of an encouraging autumn series — they thrashed Samoa 52-8 and pushed Australia and New Zealand all the way in defeat — were hit by an Achilles tendon injury to Wesley Fofana that rules the dynamic center out completely. That could affect coach Guy Noves’ ambitions of France rediscovering their running game out wide.
The Welsh have a new captain in Alun Wyn Jones, as well as a temporary head coach in Rob Howley while Warren Gatland focuses on his role as British and Irish Lions coach. It is Italy’s first Six Nations under coach Conor O’Shea, whose reinvigorated side beat South Africa for the first time in November to boost hopes of avoiding the wooden spoon for the 12th time in 17 editions of the tournament, especially given their three home matches.
As for improving Scotland, Vern Cotter will look to end his coaching stint on a high before his return to club rugby with Montpellier. It is the most competitive Scottish team for some time, but early losses to Ireland and France might see doubts return to a team that often doesn’t live up to expectations.
Two other factors provide extra intrigue to this Six Nations.
For a one-season trial, bonus points will be on offer for teams either scoring four tries or more, or losing by fewer than seven points. Organizers hope this experiment, bringing the Six Nations in line with the scoring system in the Rugby Championship and most other leagues, will deliver more tries and place the emphasis on an attacking style of play. Jones, though, is among those thinking it will make little difference.
And then there is the carrot of the Lions tour to New Zealand in June. Gatland will be watching intently and there’ll be no better stage for players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to prove themselves.