Ireland and France off the pitch: what we learned from the Six Nations

Ireland were crowned Grand Slam champions with a hard-fought victory over England in Dublin, closing out a captivating Guinness Six Nations.

Here, the PA news agency examines five things learned from the tournament.

the table does not lie

The final Six Nations table reflects the world rankings and provides an accurate picture of the balance of power in Europe. Ireland and France will lead the Northern Hemisphere charge at the World Cup this autumn, Scotland are a quality side but not equipped to beat the giants, England and Wales are in the throes of crisis and rapidly improving Italy just lack of composure at critical moments necessary to be truly competitive. As a spectacle, the 2023 Six Nations delivered splendidly with the second round collision between international rugby union Ireland and France at their thunderous best.

Ireland and France carry the flag

Europe has never been better positioned to produce a second World Cup winner after England’s 2003 crop, but big questions still hang over the top two contenders. Ireland showed against England that they possess the determination to match their tactical precision, but can they overcome a record of peaks leading up to the world final to the point that they have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals? And France carry psychological baggage too, as while they are worthy favourites, there remains a lingering doubt about their ability to cope with the pressure of performing at a World Cup on home soil fueled by their wobble against Scotland in the third round.

England in the doldrums

Steve Borthwick faces a big challenge (Adam Davy/PA)

Steve Borthwick’s men leapt off the canvas and stormed out against Ireland, showing the stamina they lacked in their record-breaking home loss to France a week earlier. An appetite for a fight was the minimum requirement in Dublin and they fought to a stop, repairing some of the damage done at Twickenham. But with no more competitive games until the World Cup, Borthwick faces the impossible task of addressing the myriad shortcomings left behind by the Eddie Jones era. On the plus side, the set piece has improved, but overall this Six Nations has exposed the depth of English rugby malaise.

Sexton steps into the Six Nations pantheon

Johnny Sexton to retire after the World Cup

Johnny Sexton will retire after the World Cup (Brian Lawless/PA)

As Johnny Sexton limped off apparently injured during the act of preventing Jamie George from scoring a try with typical disregard for self-introduction, the Aviva Stadium rose to a standing ovation for one of the all-time greats. It was only fitting that the 37-year-old fly-half would farewell to replace Ronan O’Gara as the Championship’s all-time leading points scorer and he remains Ireland’s most influential figure heading into the World Cup. Antoine Dupont confirmed his status as the sport’s foremost player by running rings around England and Wales in a dazzling finish, while Finn Russell amply illustrated his own genius, but this tournament belonged to Sexton.

red card division

Freddie Steward is sent off by Jaco Peyper

Freddie Steward is sent off by Jaco Peyper (Brian Lawless/PA)

It was a split-opinion decision to ring the alarm bells for the World Cup when Freddie Steward was sent off for bashing Hugo Keenan’s head with his elbow as he twisted to avoid contact. There was not an ounce of malice from one of England’s most affable characters, but when Jaco Peyper meticulously worked out the head contact protocols, it became clear that the South African referee had no choice but to show the red card. Cue howls of protest such as ‘the game went soft’ and ‘it was a rugby incident’, but Steward’s departure was inevitable given the zero-tolerance approach taken to head contact. For all that, the sport collectively hopes that a similar incident does not occur in the World Cup final when the consequences would be seismic.

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