The NatWest 6 Nations came back with a bang this weekend and after a two-week hiatus fans were hungry for some exciting Test rugby. With round three in the bag, it is fair to say the egg-ball lovers were far from disappointed.
Ireland and England went into the weekend topping the table on nine points, their unbeaten status intact. As the dust settles, a new picture has emerged and it is fair to say that there are two enthralling rounds of rugby ahead of us.
Ireland continued their winning record on Saturday, securing a bonus point victory over Wales in Dublin; their first Six Nations win over their Celtic neighbours since 2014. The win leaves Ireland clear at the top of the standings with 14 points from a possible 15.
England’s fortunes in Edinburgh were far less positive as Eddie Jones’ squad encountered a Scotland side that was motivated, well-drilled and eager to wrestle the Calcutta Cup out of English fingers for the first time in a decade.
The 25-13 scoreline in favour of the hosts was the largest winning margin over England since 1986, a full 32 years ago.
Scotland’s win elevates them to third in the standings with eight points, just a single point behind England.
Wales have seen their title chances all but evaporate following their defeat in Dublin and they now join France and Italy in the lower half of the table, with little left to play for other than pride.
It is not yet impossible for either Wales or France to win but it would require Ireland, England and Scotland to collectively suffer cataclysmic collapse between now and the middle of next month.
The fact, however, that the top three protagonists still face fixtures that intertwine with each other, it is all but certain that the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations champions will come from the top three.
So just how can things play out for each of the three title contenders as the remaining Tests are anything but straightforward for the title hopefuls?
After three rounds, Ireland remain the only side on course for the grand slam. Should they win their final two Tests, they will secure the title they last won in 2015.
Next up is the visit of Scotland to the Aviva Stadium. A win for the home side will end Scotland’s title aspirations and set up a potential title decider against England at Twickenham, provided Eddie Jones’ side rebound against France in Paris in two weeks.
Should Ireland taste defeat to Scotland, as they did last year, it could well be a winner takes all in London in round five. A win for both Ireland and England in round four and it will take a bonus defeat for Schmidt’s side to let the title slip through their grasp.
That, or a minimum 25-point defeat to England. Therefore, victory for Ireland against Scotland and it will be one hand on the title.
Simply put, one more defeat and the unprecedented three in a row is dead and buried.
England make the trip to Paris on March 10 and with France having finally secured their first win in almost a year, head coach Jones will be hoping his side safely negotiate a rapidly improving France side.
Should England secure victory, the title will be decided between the defending champions and Ireland at Twickenham.
Lose either and it is game over for Jones and co.
The victory over England blew the title race wide open on Saturday, turning what was expected to be a two-horse race into a three-way battle full of enthralling final fixtures.
Should Scotland fall to Ireland in Dublin, it’s all over for Gregor Townsend’s men. Like England, it has to be two wins from two.
Victory at the Aviva Stadium and the northern country will head into round five against Italy in Rome with a massive chance of securing a first Six Nations crown.
While they will need England to lose to France and but then beat Ireland in round five, it is not beyond the realms of Six Nations probability.
As it stands, Ireland are in the driving seat and it is up to the rest to catch up. With fixtures against their two title challengers remaining, the Irish control their own destiny.
While the top three tussle for the title, both Wales and France still have a distant possibility of success. Two bonus point victories and the hope that those above suffer defeats as well as draws and, mathematically at least, there is still a sliver of hope.
However, with Wales and France to meet in round five, anything but a bonus point win for either side will end the hopes of both.
Such is the beauty of the Six Nations. Even with a massive five-point lead, the title remains far from certain for Ireland. Indeed, the trophy could yet go one of three ways, potentially even a fourth if the most unlikely of results are realised.
Round four kicks off on Saturday, March 10 as Ireland welcome Scotland, France host England and Italy travel to Wales. By Sunday, the title could be wrapped up for the Irish. Just as easily, we could be looking at a massive Championship-deciding final round on March 17.