‘Roll on the World Cup’ — Ireland in bullish mood after Six Nations Grand Slam win
Ireland completed their fourth Six Nations Grand Slam with a 29-16 victory over England at a pulsating Aviva Stadium on Saturday, emphatically underlining their status as the world’s top-ranked team heading into September’s World Cup.
“Roll on the World Cup” was the message from Ireland captain Johnny Sexton on Saturday after his side completed a Six Nations Grand Slam in a campaign that showed just why they are the world’s top-ranked team.
Ireland were far from their confident and controlled best in the 29-16 victory over England but found a way, as they have been doing with increasing ease in a run of 10 straight wins and 22 in their last 24 games.
“I’ve just been saying to Johnny that there are bigger fish to fry than this. We’re on to the World Cup. We’re a good side that’s nowhere near reached its potential,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell told a news conference.
“Everyone’s going to get better in the summer and we get to spend a lot more time together, so we expect our side when we get to the first game of the World Cup to be a lot better than what we are now and that’s the reality of it.”
Ireland raised expectations ahead of the 2015 and 2019 World Cups with similar Six Nations success only for those bids to end in disappointment. Ireland are still the only top-tier side never to go beyond the quarterfinal stage.
‘Plenty more left in this team’
Sexton has previously praised Farrell’s approach of openly talking about building towards the 2023 tournament in France and said that like last July’s first series victory in New Zealand, the Grand Slam is another “very special” part of that journey.
“I just said in the dressing room that this is not the end, there’s plenty more left in this team,” Sexton said. “Roll on the World Cup, that’s what we need to focus on now.”
While Farrell was particularly pleased with how Ireland used more than 30 players in an injury-hit campaign and rarely missed a beat, he saved his highest praise for Sexton, Ireland’s 37-year-old talisman who plans to retire after the World Cup.
“It’s unbelievably filling that, in my opinion, the best player ever to play for Ireland is able to sign off with a Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day in front of his own crowd,” Farrell said.
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France on track
France surrendered their Six Nations title on Saturday but over the last four years they have rediscovered their brilliance and less than six months before hosting the World Cup Les Bleus know they have a credible shot at claiming the crown.
Since Fabien Galthié became head coach in 2020, France have won 80% of their tests and went on a 14-game winning streak that ended against Ireland to strike the right note of caution before the 8 September to 28 October finals.
They ended up second in the Six Nations standings a year after completing the Grand Slam, scoring 12 tries and 94 points in their last two games, including their memorable 53-10 record destruction of England at Twickenham.
“We started the tournament in unremarkable fashion,” said Galthié as he drew his conclusions on his fourth Six Nations in charge of France. “We did our best and we’ve improved over the course of the championship.”
Winger Ethan Dumortier added: “These last two games show how well we can perform when we’re at our best.”
Under Galthié, France also inflicted a 40-25 defeat on New Zealand — their first win against the All Blacks since 2009 — as the halfback pair of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack established themselves as the most formidable in the world.
Ntamack’s perfect link-up play with fullback and Toulouse teammate Thomas Ramos has also been at the core of France’s resurgence, while lock Thibaud Flament has become a key player among the forwards.
“We’re the best attack of the tournament,” said Galthié, whose team have not finished below second place in the Six Nations in four editions.
“In defence, we’ve adapted to new regulations [in the rucks]. I don’t know if we’re the team to beat [for the World Cup], but I certainly hope that the other teams fear us.”
He acknowledged, however, that France were far from perfect.
“We’ve done some fine-tuning and it paid off, but there is still room for improvement,” said Galthié. “In defence, we can do better, we can also improve on our play without the ball.”
Dupont said Les Bleus needed to be more consistent.
“Often we lead and because of our own mistakes we allow our opponents back into the game,” the scrumhalf said, after France beat Wales 41-28 on Saturday after leading 20-7 at the interval.
“We gave Wales a couple of soft tries, so we need to be more consistent and more rigorous for 80 minutes.”
The countdown to France’s opening World Cup game against New Zealand is on and, even if some tactical sessions are still necessary, their firepower and ability to score ridiculous tries out of nowhere will keep their rivals on their toes. DM
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Julien Pretot.)