The NatWest 6 Nations returned with a bang this weekend and following three enthralling matches, Ireland find themselves in the driving seat for the title.
France ended an almost year-long drought against Italy in Marseille in the Friday night fixture, their 34 – 17 victory finally stopping the winless rot that has seen them drop to tenth in the world rankings.
For Italy, their fifteenth straight Six Nations defeat sees them rooted to the foot of the table and recipients of the wooden spoon once more.
Further up the table, both Wales and Scotland had the chance to reignite their respective title challenge with clashes against Ireland and England.
Warren Gatland’s side made the trip across the Irish Sea to Dublin where is replenished squad locked horns with an injury-depleted Ireland. Having not beaten Wales in the Six Nations since 2014, the visitors were by no means the underdog.
In perfect Spring conditions, however, a confident and hungry Wales found themselves facing an Irish side full of intent and ambition. Despite some early wayward kick from the normally assured Jonathan Sexton, tries from Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki ensured the hosts took a slim 15 – 13 lead into the break, following a purple patch from the visitors that reaped a Gareth Davies try.
A frenetic second half saw further tries for both sides before Ireland sealed the win with a last minute Jacob Stockdale intercept try for a 37 – 27 win. The result ensures that Wales’ hopes of Championship glory are all but over, with merely a slim mathematical chance of success lingering.
For Ireland, their bonus point win affirmed their place at the top of the table with 14 points and gave Joe Schmidt’s side their tenth consecutive Test win.
Having watch Ireland rubber stamp their Championship credentials in the early game, England knew that a win in Edinburgh was needed to keep pace with their unbeaten neighbours.
The Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland should have been a formality for the visitors, on paper at least. Having not lost the fixture in a decade, Eddie Jones and his England side were hot favourites to keep their Grand Slam ambitions alive.
The Scotland they encountered, however, was nothing like the side that rolled over for a 61 – 21 loss at Twickenham last year. Instead, Gregor Townsend’s side were organised, motivated and indomitable in front of their home support.
Suffocating England’s immense talent and dynamism, the home side, led by a Man of the Match display from under-pressure Finn Russell, delivered the first big shock of the tournament. Their hard earned and well deserved 25 – 13 victory is their biggest margin over England since 1986, that being a 33 – 6 thumping of England.
Scotland’s win has revived their title hopes and sees them move into third place, on eight points, right behind England on nine.
So as the title hopefuls split from the also rans, what has a third round of fixtures done for the world ranking fortunes of the winners and losers from the weekend?
Italy’s defeat leaves them languishing in 14th place. Despite the adventurous efforts this year that has seen them score seven tries, their progress in attack is matched by their defensive prowess. Though there are some green shoots in the Italian system, it is still a bleak time for the Azzurri.
France also remain unchanged in tenth place, though their first victory in 12 months will likely give them the confidence ahead of the visit of England in two weeks time.
Wales drop one place to seventh following their defeat in Dublin while Ireland consolidate their third place and put nearly two full ranking points between themselves and Australia in fourth.
The biggest swing in the rankings comes thanks to Scotland’s victory over England at Murrayfield. The northern country jumps two places in the ranks from seventh to fifth, pushing both South Africa and Wales down one.
For England, their second defeat under Eddie Jones sees them lose ground in their hunt for New Zealand at the top of the rankings. Losing 1.49 ranking points, they are now almost five behind the All Blacks but must now forget about the chase and focus on the trip to Paris on March 10th.
Against a rapidly improving French outfit, a second defeat for England could see them come under huge pressure from Ireland in the rankings, should the Irish continue their winning streak against Scotland.
England’s defeat is also more significant than just their standing in the world rankings. As they strive to be the best Test side in the world, losing to Scotland exposes the uncomfortable reality that they are simply not yet at the level of New Zealand.
Mistakes going forward and an inability to adjust to Scotland’s intensity will certainly not make for enjoyable match reviews in the days ahead. That said, there is the quality within the squad to learn and improve, often things more readily done following a defeat rather than a victory.
So, perhaps a defeat is not all bad for England. Though they are now deep in the dogfight to catch Ireland and keep their hopes of a third consecutive Six Nations crown alive, they are bound to come back stronger from their defeat.
At the end of the day, the best sides always do.