Gerry Thornley: Ireland could clinch the Six Nations title with a game to spare

Farrell’s side can secure the title for the second year running by beating England on Saturday week

Ireland head to Twickenham for their round four Six Nations clash with England in a fortnight seeking a championship record of 12 wins in a row, which would eclipse the English record set between 2015 and 2017.

More pertinently though, a fourth win out of four would set up a shot at historic back-to-back Grand Slams against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.

“It sets it up nicely because we’ve earned the right to get to that point,” said Andy Farrell in the wake of Ireland’s bonus-point 31-7 win over Wales on Saturday.

“But going to Twickenham, everyone knows how difficult a task that is. We will certainly be looking forward to that after the fallow week,” added Farrell, whose squad have an open training session against the Under-20s, who are seeking a third Grand Slam in a row, at the Aviva Stadium, on Thursday.


France’s title challenge all but ended on Sunday after they were held to a 13-all draw by Italy, for whom outhalf Paolo Garbisi hit the post with a hurried penalty in overtime after the ball somehow fell of its tee in Lille’s enclosed Stade Pierre-Mauroy.


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It would have been Italy’s first Six Nations win on French soil and first over Les Bleus in 15 meetings since 2013, but it is still a seriously wounding result for Fabien Galthié.

By contrast Ireland have already fulfilled their coach’s pre-championship target of taking their defence of the Six Nations to the final weekend regardless of their result in Twickenham in round four.

But they can secure the title for the second year running with a game to spare by beating England next Saturday week with a bonus point, although given their points differential of +81 compared to their nearest challengers Scotland, six points adrift on +6, a win of any hue would effectively ensure back-to-back titles.

There’s no doubt though, at this juncture, the Holy Grail for this team and their expectant supporters is becoming the first Irish side to achieve back-to-back Grand Slams, and just a fifth in total.

There’s also little doubt that, cast in the role of underdogs on the back of Saturday’s 30-21 loss to Scotland in Murrayfield, England will circle the wagons and come up with a restrictive kicking game akin to the one which frustrated Ireland last March in Dublin. A Twickenham full house will likely relish the visit of a highly fancied Ireland.

Farrell forewarned that this round four game will have a storyline of its own.

“We played against the same [Welsh] side that played at Twickenham, so you could say that Wales played better than they did at Twickenham but we still found a way. But it’s not just as simple as saying we need to be better to win at Twickenham. Of course, we always want to play better but the game is what it is, from minute one.

“For example, we’re winning the penalty count hands down at half-time and then all of a sudden within minutes of the second half, it has evened up,” added Farrell, regarding the 9-3 first-half penalty count in Ireland’s favour last Saturday which flipped to 9-4 for Wales after the break.

“That could happen in two weeks’ time – role reversal. The game takes its own shape but there’s parts of our game we obviously need to improve. That’s never, ever going to be any different but I suppose it won’t be for England either.”

The man given the role of coming up with a plan to stymie Ireland’s potent attack is the former Munster and Irish fullback Felix Jones, who has brought in a new, more aggressive blitz defence since being hired by Steve Borthwick.

“It’s certainly different,” admitted Farrell.

“It’s obviously something we know is the South African defence. I know that Felix will constantly try to put his stamp on implementing that. There’s always going to be teething problems at the start but they’ll go harder, there’s no doubt about that because that’s their philosophy.

“So, it’s something we’ve come up against before and we all know that our lads are coached by the coach that made it up in the first place,” he added whimsically, presumably in reference to himself.

“It’s exciting because Wales have a different defence. Italy are a different defence and France are as well, so that’s the best part of the game. Everyone’s got their own ideas we’ll look forward to trying to take that on.”

It remains to be seen whether Hugo Keenan and Garry Ringrose come back into the mix for the Twickenham clash, and as a result of which Farrell and his assistants will consider whether to stick with the 6-2 split on the bench which has worked so effectively against France and Wales.

“It’s what’s right for the team in question next week when you weigh up everyone’s fitness,” said Farrell. “And I don’t mean whether you’re fit or not, but game time, whether they’re showing up, that their fitness levels are improving, all that comes into the pot.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times