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While Ireland have flown below the radar all season, that trajectory may just take them all the way to the RBS 6 Nations title.
They go into Saturday’s final round of matches trailing leaders France only on points difference and knowing that any slip by the far from all-powerful French in Cardiff will leave them ready to take the championship if they can beat England in the final match at Twickenham.
They have not, though, improved markedly like Scotland, gone into reverse like England, imploded like the Welsh or had their coach insult his supporters en masse like France. They have simply gone on being what they have been since the turn of the century, a pretty useful team.
A title in 2006 would in one sense live up to a reputation for unpredictability. This was supposed to happen last year, with the fixtures falling in their favour. Expectations this season were much lower.
Yet, contrary to image, Ireland are the most consistent of the six nations. Since the competition expanded they have won 24 of their 34 matches, the same as England and only one fewer than France. Their efforts have yet, though, to produce a title, where England have won three and France two. And since the 2003 World Cup they have lost only once, in Wales this time last year, in eight clashes with the other home unions.
Much about them is familiar and tested. They have by far the best locks and line-out. David Wallace vies with Scotland’s Ally Hogg as this year’s best open-side flanker while half-backs Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara know each other’s strengths and limits inside-out. And while Brian O’Driscoll is not yet back to the level at which he had anybody new to the game saying “who is that guy?” after five minutes, he remains a magnificent centre.
Renewal is represented by the evident quality of wing Andrew Trimble and hooker Jerry Flannery, who in a few months has gone from provincial reserve to best in Britain. Ireland have produced the competition’s one extended passage of exhilarating play, a second half in Paris whose only defect was that it followed an extraordinarily self-destructive first 50 minutes.
Since then they have shown the ability to control a game, shutting out both Wales and Scotland. This is not a vintage championship. A partial explanation is the long-recognised phenomenon of the post-Lions hangover, but that hardly explains the mediocrity of the French. It cannot be expected the competition will throw up a great team every year – England’s 2003 crop was the last. The hope in other years is that the good teams will play with the dash and style displayed by Wales last year.
This season the best team, if assessed by comparing the whole to the sum of the parts, has been Scotland, whose problem is that the sum of those parts is not terribly large. Their forte has been resolve, resource and intelligence rather than panache or élan. Years like this still have their compensations. They underline the “anyone can beat anyone” quality that has been essential to its enduring appeal. Ireland v England is historically one of the least equal contests, but the Irish success rate still tops 40 per cent.
If one suspects Ireland will not win the title it is not because of doubts over their ability to beat England, but the likelihood that a French victory over the disintegrating Welsh will leave them needing a win of epochal scale at Twickenham. But if they do do it, nobody can say it is undeserved.