And so, as many people predicted before the tournament, it will all come down to the Wales vs Ireland Six Nations match on 16 March.
The only difference is that most people (including us) thought that Ireland would be the team chasing the Grand Slam and Wales would be the ones that would be out to stop them at their fortress in Cardiff.
Instead, as events have turned out, it is Wales that is chasing the clean sweep and Ireland that is playing the role of spoiler. The Welsh Grand Slam chase will be their third under Warren Gatland, and the first in seven years.
The big spanner in the works was England.
Their upset of Ireland in the first round, 32-20 in Dublin, suddenly opened up the Grand Slam possibility for Eddie Jones. Especially as they followed up with a convincing 44-8 win over France at Twickenham.
But then they ran into the Welsh in Cardiff, and England’s chariot got derailed as Gatland’s men eked out a clever 21-13 win.
The Welsh, then, move serenely on.
Only Ireland can stop them.
So who will win?
From a neutral perspective, this hasn’t been a great tournament.
The two most anticipated matches, Ireland vs England and Wales vs England, were gripping contests but were not necessarily pretty. They were just good, enthralling battles.
The biggest games have lived up to the hype but it is obvious that teams are playing as if they have much bigger fish to fry – which of course is the case, with the Rugby World Cup barely six months away.
But knowing how to win tight games is one of the prerequisites of winning the Rugby World Cup.
And on that score, in the upcoming Wales vs Ireland Six Nations climax, Wales are right on schedule. As Gatland keeps saying, they seem to have forgotten how to lose, as shown in both the England match and the first match against France when they recovered from being 0-16 down at half-time to win 24-19.
As we earlier commented in the Wales vs England Six Nations match, the mark of a champion side is one that wins despite not playing well.
So will Wales extend their unbeaten run to 14 matches by beating Ireland? Wales again had a mixed match against Scotland last weekend. They were comfortable in the first half but almost came undone in the second as the Scots came home strong.
I think it is this mental strength that will see Wales home. It won’t be pretty though. And it won’t be easy: Ireland were the last team to beat Wales. And they won’t be giving up their Six Nations crown without an almighty fight.
And if Wales don’t, it’s a guarantee that England will not slip up against Scotland. Eddie Jones wants revenge for last year’s 25-13 defeat, and will get it.
Interestingly, bookmakers have England as favourites to win the Six Nations. Meaning they expect Wales to lose to Ireland this weekend.
- Wales (on 16 points) will win the Six Nations Championship with a Grand Slam if they beat Ireland.
- England (15 points) will win if Wales fail to beat Ireland and they beat Scotland.
- Ireland (14) will win if they beat Wales and England fail to beat Scotland.
NB: Winning the Grand Slam confers an extra three points. So while Wales and England could both end up on 20 competition points (Wales beat Ireland and England beat Scotland with a bonus point for scoring four tries), there is no possibility of a tie as the GrandSlam bonus points will kick in for Wales.
Scotland (6), France (6) and Italy (0) are out of the running.
All in the timing
Unlike the final rounds of most major sporting events, the final matches of the Six Nations are played one after another rather than at the same time.
Super Saturday this weekend will see Italy host France at 12.30pm, followed by Wales vs England at 2.45pm and then England vs Scotland at 5pm (in GMT time).
The reason, of course is to maximise the television audience. Three matches at the same time would have a much smaller viewing audience than three games back to back.
But what the staggered kick-offs also mean is that, sometimes, a team can catch a pre-match foreknowledge of an opponent who has played their round, and thus they will know exactly what they need to do to win.
This lesson was learnt, most famously, at the soccer World Cup. At the 1978 tournament in Argentina.
Brazil and Argentina, both playing in the Group B in the second round, were both vying for a place in the final. Brazil beat Poland 3-1 in their final match to finish with five points and a gold difference of plus five. Argentina played later and therefore knew how many goals they needed to beat Peru by.
In the final, Argentina won 6-0 and finished on five points and a plus-eight goal difference. Peru’s players later confessed that they had been bribed to let Argentina win by the required number of goals.
It would have made a big difference had the two games played at the same time.
In any case, Argentina went on to win the tournament, beating Netherlands 3-1 in the final, but the tournament has since been labelled the dirtiest World Cup of all time.
But it was worse in 1982.
In a first round group match, Algeria had upset heavily fancied West Germany 2-1, but then lost 2-0 to Austria. Algeria then beat Chile 3-2 in their final match. But this match was played one day before Germany vs Austria, which meant both teams knew exactly what was needed for both to qualify, at Algeria’s expense: a German win by at least one goal would do the job.
And that’s exactly how it turned out, with the Germans scoring early and the two teams then passing the ball around as if in a practice session.
The crowd howled and booed in derision. The match has since been known as the Disgrace of Gijon.
Because of those two incidents, the final games in all group matches at every soccer tournament since the 1986 World Cup are now played simultaneously, in order to prevent one team having an advantage over another. Or worse, to prevent the kind of collusion seen at those two World Cups.
Thankfully, at the Six Nations this weekend, everything is pretty straightforward. But it may not be the case next time.
A look back to 2009
This weekend’s big match scenario has played out before, most notably 10 years ago, when Ireland were chasing their first Grand Slam since 1948.
And they managed to do so but only by the skin of their teeth.
Ireland just needed to win, but Wales could have won the championship themselves had they beaten Ireland by more than 13 points. Had they won the game, they would have not only denied Ireland the Grand Slam, but would also have won the Triple Crown. As the video shows, they almost managed this is in the very last minute of the tournament but Stephen Jones’ 50-metre penalty kick fell just short.
We need to talk about relegation
Meanwhile, what to do about Italy?
After four games, the Italians have zero points. None. Not even a bonus point for losing by seven points or fewer. Worse, they have not won a Six Nations match since beating Scotland in the 2015 tournament: their 57-14 loss to England last weekend was their 21st consecutive defeat in the Six Nations.
Eddie Jones has suggested that relegation would be good, and this would be welcome news for the other European nations, especially Georgia and Romania, who have for years wanted entry into the exclusive Six Nations club.
Safe to say that the Georgians, who had a physical training session with the England team last week, are the best of the rest in Europe.
In the current Rugby Europe Championship, the Lelos have wrapped up the tournament and have done so with one round to go. Here are some highlights from the tournament:
This was the Georgians’ sixth title in a row and their 10th in 12 tournaments. Their final match away to Russia is likely to see them snatch another Grand Slam. This tournament is obviously too easy for them but it is hard to see where they go next.
Unfortunately for them, the last time they played Six Nations whipping boys Italy, the Italians showed who was boss with a 28-17 during the autumn international series last year.
It was probably Italy’s most important game since the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Perhaps a regular tournament in Europe featuring Georgia, Samoa, Fiji and USA might work. Why the latter three? Most of their players are based in Europe anyway while the ones playing closer to home could be flown over and billeted for the duration of the tournament.