Ireland secured the Six Nations Championship after England failed to match their defeat of Scotland in ParisTwitter/IrishRugby

Oh dear, oh dear. This weekend saw England slump to a second consecutive for the first time under Eddie Jones, as Ireland secured the Six Nations trophy a week early, and Wales recorded a routine win over Italy. It was a weekend in which we learned a lot about each of the teams: Scotland are not the same side away from Murrayfield, Wales now have great strength in depth, and England need to make some major changes.

Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland

Congratulations, Ireland: the 2018 Six Nations Champions! They have won the tournament without, it seems, needing to get out of third gear. Their last-gasp victory in Paris was extraordinary but since then they have been ruthless, if not flashy. There have been moments of brilliance, but the overall impression has been one of organisation and structure, as opposed to All Black sorcery. They are exceedingly well-coached and, with Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton, have arguably the best half-back combination in the world.

In contrast to England, Ireland’s players look fit and fresh – the benefits of a central-contracting system showing – and their strength in depth has impressed. Despite losing two outside centres to injury, Garry Ringrose was still available to star against Scotland. They are excellent at the breakdown and are deserving of their newfound position of second in the World Rankings.

These general impressions were as true of their win over Scotland as in any game. An interception score sent them on their way, and ruthless execution inspired by their 9 and 10 saw them score four tries in total, including two for Jacob Stockdale. The Ulsterman is now level with the record for most tries in a Six Nations (six) and is part of a back-three which belies its age profile. Stockdale is tearing up records aged just 21, while veterans Keith Earls and man-of-the-match Rob Kearney seem to have found a new lease of life.

That said, Ireland do look beatable. Their defence in the wide channels is vulnerable, and Scotland opened them up on several occasions. Had things gone Scotland’s way as they did against England, it could have been a very different story. Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg butchered try-scoring opportunities they would convert nine times out of ten, while Peter Horne gifted Ireland their first try with the sort of pass that, in Edinburgh, earned the Scots five points.

France 22 – 16 England

Knowing they had to win with four tries to stay in the hunt for the title, the scene was set for a ruthless England performance to banish the ghosts of Murrayfield and re-assert their presence among the world’s best. Unfortunately, no one gave England the script.

They made the same mistakes as against Scotland – giving away too many penalties and being exposed at the breakdown – and suffered the same result. Last week, I identified the areas England needed to improve, and in few did they succeed. Owen Farrell continued to tackle too high, the kicking game was still not good enough, and George Ford again struggled to perform on the back-foot.

For their part, France were far from impressive. They defended admirably – though under little pressure – and occasionally put together some decent phases of play. A little more polish might have seen them run away with it in the second half but, in the end, they did their best to lose it.

After England kicked to the corner in the 80th minute, they had a lineout to steal the game. But, France came away with the ball and fly-half Lionel Beauxis kicked the ball into the stands for victory…or so he thought. The ball didn’t make touch, allowing England to win another penalty and kick to the corner again. It was only some outstanding try-line defence from Matthieu Bastareaud et al. which saved them.

England’s try-line defence, too, was good – particularly when scrambling – and succeeded in stopping the French from scoring, albeit on one occasion illegally, as Anthony Watson fell foul of the high-tackle laws, conceding a Penalty Try. Indeed, they also dominated at scrum and line-out, but failed to deliver in attack. They lacked forward power to gain momentum and, when space finally appeared, lacked the accuracy to take advantage. England were second best, to an average French side, and deserved to lose. French passion and aggression won the game.

However, as Eddie Jones identified afterwards, it was an important lesson for his side and was a clear demonstration that the game has changed. With the new ruck laws, defences are spreading further across the field, and it is more difficult to play around them. A more powerful, gain-line-busting game-plan is needed; and this could be the watershed moment.

England missed the leadership of Dylan Hartley in ParisDavid Iliff

Against Ireland, I expect Eddie to make wholesale changes. The starting team is likely to look much like the one which finished the game in Paris, with George Ford dropped. In the pack, injuries to Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will force his hand somewhat but, in any event, I would have expected James Haskell to start. His impact off the bench, as it was last year, was massive, bringing exactly the power and breakdown work England need. Exeter’s superb Don Armand has also been called up – at last – and, despite being inexperienced internationally, could come straight onto the bench.

Kyle Sinckler, too, should start at prop after Dan Cole was badly shown up for being little more than a scrummaging rock. I’d also switch Mako Vunipola, who looks tired, for Joe Marler and, if fit, bring back Dylan Hartley – they missed his leadership in Paris.

In the backs, I would start Richard Wigglesworth at nine to bring more control and pin-point kicking, freeing up Danny Care to do his thing off the bench. For what it’s worth, I would also have Elliot Daly at full-back with Watson on the wing, and would put Denny Solomona on the bench instead of Mike Brown, to add impact.

Make these changes, and I believe England will beat Ireland this weekend. 

My England 23 to beat Ireland: Marler, Hartley, Sinckler, Itoje, Launchbury, Haskell, Robshaw, Simmonds, Wigglesworth, May, Farrell, Te’o, Joseph, Watson, Daly, George, Vunipola, Cole, Kruis, Armand, Care, Ford, Solomona

Wales 38 – 14 Italy

In Cardiff, a much-changed Wales side put Italy away with relative ease. Two tries in the first six minutes gave them a 14-0 head-start and, though Italy came close to making it 14-14 soon after, Wales simply had too much. A 17-7 half-time score-line reflected the fight put up by the Italians, but the men in the blue failed to score again until the 76th minute, by which time it was already 38-7.

Wales were not quite as clinical as they might have been, and left a couple of tries out there, but generally impressed. Their handling is up there with the best, and there were outstanding performances from returning Lions George North, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric. Hadley Parkes and Gareth Anscombe continue to impress in the midfield, while 21-year-old Owen Watkin looks one to watch for the future at 13.

For Italy, though there have certainly been improvements, there are still too many basic errors and, if they are to be more competitive, they must re-discover their scrum power.

Spain 84 – 10 Germany

Away from the main event, in a fixture most would associate more with this summer’s World Cup than the one in 2019, Spain took one step closer to sealing qualification for Japan. A poor German side were dismantled easily in front of a crowd of over 15,000 in Madrid. If, as expected, they beat Belgium this weekend, the 2019 World Cup’s opening fixture will be Japan vs Spain – an incredible opportunity for the country so long associated with the round as opposed to oval ball.

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