This must be a heady time to be an Irish fan with the wonderful success of all the provinces in Europe about to carry the national side on a huge wave of momentum into the Six Nations.
Some English clubs, however, will be relieved to see the back of Europe. There were five out of the seven Gallagher Premiership teams involved in dead rubbers this weekend which can be particularly tough games to get yourself up for mentally and physically. In saying that, I was proud and pleased to still see some great performances and both Tigers and Gloucester were in a whisker of pulling off wins. The Cherry & Whites indeed played a blinder with a team featuring many guys barely out of their teenage years. Away in France it was a brilliant effort and just a bit of game management in the final minutes was all that cost them.
Bath also put in a sterling effort over in France and came close to upsetting the odds. Toulouse needed to win but surely had in the back of their minds the fact that a bonus point win would have sent them over the sea for an away quarter against reigning champs Leinster. A coach’s conundrum that one. Hard as a rugby player to make sure you win a game but also make sure you do it without scoring 4 tries! Toulouse somehow managed it and with a sign of relief know that they now have a more winnable quarter final away against familiar foe Racing 92.
Saracens, yet again, have fought their way through to the quarter finals as the sole Premiership club. Their campaign has been a mix of some average to very good performances but throughout the pool games we must remember the coaches were clutching a lengthy injury list of star names.
Saturday up against Glasgow Warriors was not quite a stroll through Kensington Gardens with sandwiches for tea. In fact, it featured a dazzling three tries in the first 20 minutes from a fired-up Glasgow who seemed hell bent on not settling for 7th or 8th place in the seedings. The home side, once they weathered the first half wind and the Glasgow tactics, then slammed the door shut so after that first quarter Glasgow didn’t score another point. It shouldn’t be a surprise when you glance at the team sheets and see the quality of some of the returning players. Billy V is really getting into his somewhat considerable stride scoring a text book back of the scrum try and five weeks off for Maro Itoje has re-booted him. He was quite simply sensational on Saturday. Kruis also looks re-invigorated and Mako, whilst permanently looking knackered, carried and tackled relentlessly.
Alex Goode, who wears a cloak of invisibility as far as the England head coach is concerned, slotted seamlessly into the fly half position and passed with precision and skill but the back that stood out was the 13 Nick Tompkins. Seriously impressive leg drive for a young man who does not look the biggest and his all-round game was impressive. We all love watching sport for the unpredictability but I fear the repeat quarter final against Glasgow will probably not need concern the bookies too much.
For Eddie Jones running his eye over his pack of forwards, he will be pleased most of them have had an enforced rest or two in the build up to the Six Nations. That also means using the excuse that Ireland play better as they rest ‘all’ their stars before internationals may not wash as much as usual. Faz was probably one of the most overplayed along with Mako but Faz’s little thumb operation could be just the break the young man needs before the maelstrom of the Aviva. Hopefully Joe Launchbury is ok after his knock and is rested and fit as well - because the English pack could be just about to put a serious dent into the Ireland one.
The squad team announcement for the Six Nations was generally met with approval - if you look past the headlines about Jack Nowell playing openside flanker! The Nowell nonsense is just that. Like the best magician Eddie can catch your eye with one story to side track you from the others. The Exeter Chiefs man is not going to be packing down in the scrum anytime soon. What he may be doing, under licence from Eddie, is going into the rucks more and using his strength, low body position and agility to steal some ball.
Overall, I like the squad. For me I can see logic in going with Dan Robson over Care simply to enable Eddie to give Robson some game time and run the ruler over him. Even if Eddie only picks two scrum halves he knows he needs three tried and trusted scrummies up his sleeve for the world cup campaign and I suspect those will be Youngs, Care and Robson with Wigglesworth another back up option.
Danny Cipriani once again is omitted but if one of Eddie’s two 10’s goes down I feel the Glos fly half may well see the England coach’s number flash up on his mobile. It was good to see Dan Cole has muscled back into the squad and the way he has improved his carrying and work rate means he thoroughly deserves the recall. His absence has also allowed Eddie to uncover another set of props which means we suddenly look a picture of health in the prop department.
So, folks it all kicks off in under two weeks time and it is genuinely looking quite an open Six Nations with all sides, apart from our Italian friends, with a chance of claiming the title. Wales to me are the team not many are discussing but have been building an incredible squad plus have a smart and tactically astute head honcho in Gatland. Let’s not forgot also the revival of Edinburgh and the strength in depth Scotland have now got. Mouth-watering clashes await us
Ireland quite rightly has the favourites tag for their massive encounter with England next week in Dublin. However, the first game up is often a nervy one and neither side have been good starters in this competition. It may come down to whoever starts fastest and clicks quickest. As a proud Englishman I would dearly love that to be my country but who would begrudge those boys in green another shot at the Grand Slam.