Six Nations: Irish hopes high but France favourites to end long drought

By Sports Desk February 04, 2022

Eleven months on from playing the roles of party poopers against the same opponents, France will this weekend set out on a journey that Fabien Galthie and his men will hope ends with the Six Nations trophy being held aloft at the Stade de France on March 19.

Les Blues denied Wales Grand Slam glory with an enthralling 32-30 victory in Paris in the Dragons' final match of an otherwise perfect 2021 campaign, snatching the win through an injury-time Brice Dulin try, but they ultimately fell short by finishing four points adrift in second.

Now on their longest run without winning the championship since joining the Five Nations in 1947, with their most recent triumph coming in 2010, France will consider anything other than first place this time around a real disappointment.

But if that is to happen, then Galthie's side have a number of obstacles to navigate, not least beating defending champions Wales – now one shy of England's record of seven Six Nations crowns – in Cardiff in the fourth round of fixtures.

Wales have been Six Nations champions four times in the last 10 years, yet few are giving them much of a chance this time around after failing to push on in the second half of 2021.

Wayne Pivac's side are without inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones and do not exactly have history on their side, having won back-to-back championships just once – doing so in 2012 and 2013 – but the Dragons do at least play three of their five matches on home soil.

 

A fast start is imperative but a first-round trip to in-form Ireland presents the reigning champions with arguably their toughest assignment of the tournament. Champions in 2018, four barren years would feel like a lifetime should Ireland miss out again.

Andy Farrell's charges are certainly not lacking momentum thanks to a strong end to the last campaign. Eight wins in a row, including a famous triumph over New Zealand in November – only their third win in that fixture in 33 meetings – has them riding the crest of a wave.

A lack of playing time at club level for certain players could hamper Ireland in their opener, however, setting up an intriguing game to kick things off on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.

While it is clear what can be expected from France, Ireland and Wales, fellow heavyweights England enter this latest edition as something of an unknown quantity due to injury absentees, skipper Owen Farrell among them.

Tom Curry will have to step up and lead an inexperienced England side that contains seven players with 10 caps or fewer in their starting XV to face Scotland. It will make for a challenging six weeks from Eddie Jones' perspective, but one he will be relishing in his seventh Six Nations with the Red Rose.

 

England are one of two sides, along with Ireland, yet to collect the Wooden Spoon. That cannot be said of Italy, who have propped up the table in each of the last six years, that after finishing bottom only once in the previous four campaigns.

Another disappointing 2021 saw Italy lose all five matches as their losing run in the tournament stretched to 32 games, the longest such streak in either Five or Six Nations history.

Italy's place in future competitions continues to be debated, with a possible promotion and relegation system being touted by some, but for now the Azzurri will simply be focused on proving their doubters wrong by ending a long-running losing streak that stretches back to 2015.

While there are some promising signs at age-group level, it is hard to see past Italy claiming an unwanted 17th Wooden Spoon this time around, particularly with trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff to prepare for.

Exactly who Italy will battle it out for to avoid bottom spot is a tougher question to answer than predicting an overall winner, with Scotland one of those whose campaign could go either way.

Experienced but too inconsistent, Gregor Townsend's perennial dark horses need to find a way to string together a run of victories to remain in contention right until the end. 

The hallmarks of a great team were there 12 months ago when enjoying more possession (58 per cent) and territory (55 per cent) than any other side, as well as managing the best tackle success rate (91 per cent), but there are still a number of issues that need to be ironed out.

That is a running theme throughout, though, and all adds to the unpredictability and excitement.

With fans back inside grounds, scores to be settled and no shortage of subplots, it is easy to see why this year's Six Nations is the most anticipated in several years.

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  • Duhan van der Merwe insists personal glory comes second to Scotland ambitions Duhan van der Merwe insists personal glory comes second to Scotland ambitions

    Record-chasing Scotland wing Duhan van der Merwe is adamant he will not allow thoughts of personal glory to muddy his thinking when he runs out at Italy’s Stadio Olimpico.

    The 28-year-old moved within one of Stuart Hogg at the top of the Scots’ all-time try-scoring list after producing a magnificent, match-defining hat-trick in Saturday’s 30-21 Calcutta Cup victory over England at Murrayfield.

    Van Der Merwe went into this year’s Guinness Six Nations as Scotland’s sixth most prolific player, with 21 tries.

    However, his five championship touchdowns over the past month – two away to Wales plus his treble on Saturday – have taken him ahead of Chris Paterson, Tony Stanger, Ian Smith and his Edinburgh team-mate Darcy Graham into second place.

    One more score in dark blue will allow Van der Merwe to equal Hogg, who holds the record with 27 tries from his 100 caps.

    The South Africa-born wing, who has got to 26 in just 37 appearances for the national team, is well aware of the big opportunity beckoning him but he insisted he will not allow it to cloud his focus or his decision-making as the Scots prepare to conclude their campaign away to Italy and Ireland next month.

    “It’s something I targeted coming into the Six Nations, to see if I could do it (catch Hogg) in the Six Nations,” said Van der Merwe. “I knew it was a big task and there’s obviously still two games left… But the most important thing is the team, it’s not about myself.

    “If that means I have to chase box-kicks and not score tries or give the pass to someone else, then so be it. It’s all about the team and us getting the wins.

    “We want to start winning stuff as a team and the next two games are massive for us.”

    Asked if he had allowed himself to ponder the possibility of making history in the iconic Stadio Olimpico in Rome a week on Saturday, Van der Merwe said: “It’s probably in the back of my mind, but I wouldn’t say I’m going into the game just thinking about myself and thinking about how I can score as an individual.

    “For me, the team is always first. If that means I have to give the pass and not score myself, then I have to do it. If I don’t score but we get the win, I’ll be a happy man.”

    Van der Merwe became the first player to score a hat-trick for Scotland in a Calcutta Cup match on Saturday. Incredibly, he now boasts a record of having played four matches against England and won them all. In total, he has scored six tries against the Auld Enemy since his first appearance in the fixture in 2021.

    “I don’t know what it is, but I obviously love scoring against England so it’s pretty special,” said Van der Merwe. “It’s four wins out of four for me in this fixture. What an achievement that is, and it just shows you where this team is going.

    “It’s obviously very special to score a hat-trick for Scotland, even moreso against England, but the most important thing was for the team to get the win.

    “I obviously finished off a few opportunities but I’d say I made a few mistakes here and there. I wouldn’t say I was at my best but being a winger, I have to finish off the opportunities I get and luckily I was able to do that.”

    Van der Merwe first arrived in Scotland in the summer of 2017 when former England player and coach Richard Cockerill signed him for Edinburgh despite the fact he failed to pass a medical due to a long-running hip injury.

    Now in his second spell at Edinburgh after a stint at Worcester, the swashbuckling back is proud of the level he has been able to take his game to since he first moved to Scotland from Montpellier.

    “Richard must be kicking himself, thinking ‘I brought this guy over, now he’s scoring tries against England’,” laughed Van der Merwe.

    “I’ve been here (almost) seven years now and I guess when I look back, it’s all about hard work and dedication.

    “When I come in on the bus and see all our fans at the stadium, I always think about how I can give back because Scotland has done so much for me.

    “I guess the only way I can give back is with my performances. I absolutely love our fans and I love playing for Scotland.”

  • Andy Farrell says ‘top drawer’ defence fuelling Ireland’s Grand Slam charge Andy Farrell says ‘top drawer’ defence fuelling Ireland’s Grand Slam charge

    Andy Farrell feels a “top drawer” defence is fuelling Ireland’s pursuit of successive Grand Slam titles as he turns his attention to nullifying England’s new blitz approach.

    The reigning Guinness Six Nations champions limited Wales to a penalty try during Saturday’s 31-7 success in Dublin after nilling Italy 36-0 in round two on the back of beating France 38-17.

    Ireland, who have scored 15 tries across the three bonus-points wins, travel to Twickenham on March 9 seeking to keep their championship clean sweep quest on track before hosting Scotland on the final weekend.

    Head coach Farrell expects England to “go harder” as they get to grips with adopting an aggressive defensive strategy orchestrated by coach Felix Jones, who joined Steve Borthwick’s staff after helping South Africa retain the Rugby World Cup in the autumn.

    “It’s the South African defence and I know that Felix will constantly try and put his stamp on implementing that,” said Farrell.

    “There’s always going to be teething problems at the start but they’ll go harder because that’s their philosophy.

    “Our defence is top drawer, there’s no doubt about that.

    “It has been for quite some time now.

    “It was unbelievably fitting that we kept them (Wales) out because of the fight and want to be able to do that.

    “I thought our defensive shape wasn’t very nice at times but our intent certainly on the line said a lot about how much they love defending for one another.”

    Following two Twickenham defeats in the first year of the Farrell era, Ireland have beaten England four times in a row.

    Borthwick’s men were minutes away from reaching the World Cup final in October but have made an unconvincing start to the championship with narrow wins over Italy and Wales followed by Saturday’s 30-21 Calcutta Cup loss in Scotland.

    While Ireland will be favourites in south-west London, Farrell is aware matches can quickly change course after seeing Wales briefly gain the upper hand at the Aviva Stadium having trailed 17-0 at the break.

    “Going to Twickenham, everyone knows how difficult a task that is,” he said.

    “It’s not just as simple as saying we need to be better to win.

    “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 (against Wales) and then all of a sudden within minutes of the second half, it has evened up.

    “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.”

  • Paolo Garbisi says sorry for missing the late chance to make history for Italy Paolo Garbisi says sorry for missing the late chance to make history for Italy

    Paolo Garbisi apologised for missing the injury-time penalty that denied Italy a slice of Guinness Six Nations history in France.

    The scores were level at 13-13 when Garbisi stepped up from 38 metres, with Italy a successful kick away from their first Six Nations Championship away win against Les Bleus.

    There was added drama as the ball toppled off its tee and, with just a few seconds left on the shot clock after it had been replaced, Garbisi rushed his kick and struck the right-hand post.

    “I was thinking about trusting my process really, it’s part of my job to put the kick over,” said Toulon fly-half Garbisi.

    “I take full responsibility for that and I’m sorry for the team because I thought they were amazing.

    “Also for all the Italian supporters, that’s my bad, and I will work on it.”

    Italy had lost 45 of their previous 48 games against France with their only victory on French soil coming in 1997, three years before joining the Championship.

    The Azzurri had also won only once in 44 Championship attempts, away to Wales in 2022.

    Italy were forced to defend for long periods in the first half but only trailed 10-0 when France centre Jonathan Danty was dismissed for making head-to-head contact in tackling Ignacio Brex.

    Danty’s yellow card on the stroke of half-time was upgraded to red during the interval by the bunker review system.

    In the second half, Garbisi cut a 13-3 deficit with a penalty before his touchline conversion levelled matters after full-back Ange Capuozzo ended a fine Azzurri move.

    Garbisi said: “The performance was good overall. If you get to 13-13 in the last minute with France, I think you’ve done pretty well.

    “The extra man helped us in the second half. First half we spent too much time in our half, because with the possession we were not that great.

    “Second half with one more man we could attack more and find space, but it all comes down to the last kick really.”

    While Italy remain bottom of the table, level on three points with Wales but with an inferior points difference, France stay fourth, nine points behind runaway leaders Ireland.

    France’s underwhelming championship has seen them routed at home by Ireland and claiming a narrow victory over Scotland after a controversial decision not to award the hosts a try in the last action of the match.

    “We were probably overplaying a little bit at the end of the game and took one too many risks and gave a penalty away,” France defence coach Shaun Edwards told ITV.

    “Fortunately he missed the kick but we’re disappointed with the draw. We expected to beat Italy here.

    “We had all the ball in the first half, total domination of territory and possession.

    “The second half was almost the total opposite. To concede 13 points with 14 players is not too bad, but we’re disappointed we didn’t get the win.”

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