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Six Nations Hits The Final Furlong

Six Nations Hits The Final Furlong

In a week in which Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park commands much of the Irish sporting public’s focus, just who is the smart money on in the final furlong of the Six Nations?

In a week in which Cheltenham’s Prestbury Park commands much of the Irish sporting public’s focus, just who is the smart money on in the final furlong of the Six Nations?

Ireland, France and Grand Slam hopefuls Wales – who top the standings on 8 points, two ahead of the lead chasers – all still harbour hopes of lifting the 2005 Six Nations trophy on Saturday.

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Eddie O’Sullivan’s Irish – still reeling from that 26-19 Lansdowne Road loss to three-try France – will at least know exactly what they have to do come 3.30pm at the Millennium Stadium – beat Wales by at least 13 points.

Mike Ruddock’s Dragons – who demolished Scotland in the first half of their Sunday clash 38-3, only to concede three tries in the final half-hour of their eventual 46-22 victory at Murrayfield – are firm favourites however.

A first title since 1994 looks on the cards for our Celtic cousins, but with the Triple Crown and Grand Slam – an achievement not within their grasp for 27 years – also in the offing, the stakes could not be higher for the Welsh wonders.

A Welsh win, and simply all other results become redundant in terms of the title chase.

2004 winners France will be first off at 1.00pm on Saturday – taking on likely wooden spoonists Italy at the Stade de France.

With Bernard Laporte’s side odds-on to prosper against the Azzurri – a side which they have beaten 24 times, bar 1997’s 40-22 Test loss in Grenoble – only a big win will do for les Bleus.

Currently with the worst points difference of the top sides (+9), France will need to put 40+ points on Italy to have any hopes of retaining their title, with a reliance also on Ireland beating Wales by a relatively small margin.

The omens are in favour of Ireland on the scoring front – with France not having beaten Italy by 40+ points since 1967 (60-13). Last year, tries from flanker Imanol Harinordoquy (2) and substitute winger Pepito Elhorga saw France to a 25-0 win in Paris.

Assuming France do not rack up the requisite margin, then it becomes a straight showdown between Wales and the previously-unbeaten Irish.

The leaders boast a points difference of +62, with Ireland trailing on +37. A 13-point swing would be enough for O’Sullivan’s charges to claim an unlikely first Championship since 1985, and Ireland’s eleventh title in all.

Given that Ireland have finished the Six Nations season with four wins from five every year since 2001, a strong finish could be on the cards.

The lure of not just the Championship but the bounty of back-to-back Triple Crowns for the first time in 56 years should gee up Ireland considerably in the build-up to Saturday’s showdown.

So too should the fact that the Irish have celebrated eight wins and a draw on Championship visits to the Welsh capital since 1985.

2001’s three-try 36-6 romp at the Millennium Stadium – in which David Humphreys booted 19 points – certainly stands out.

Bad news for Irish supporters comes with the fact that the last two occasions English referee Chris White has officiated the men in green in the Championship, his appointment has coincided with disappointing losses – France 35 Ireland 17 (2004) and Scotland 32 Ireland 10 (2001).

Still, for the week that’s in it – it’s time to be positive – and be lucky.

* If, in the unlikely event that any two teams are tied at the top of the table on eight points and with the same points difference – then the winner of the trophy will be decided on tries scored over the course of the tournament.

Currently Wales lead on that front as well with 15 tries, Ireland have ten touch downs to their name, while France boast six.

If the teams still cannot be split on points difference or tries scored, then the trophy will be shared.

The last time the title was shared was back in 1988 – between Wales and France.